Ryan Van Loan is a fantasy author who served six years as a sergeant in the United States Army Infantry (Pennsylvania National Guard), where he served on the front lines of Afghanistan.
Ryan has traveled around the world, wandering Caribbean island haunts, exploring the palaces and cathedrals of Europe, and hiking with elephants in the rainforests of Southeast Asia. His work has appeared in numerous places, including Tor.com and Fireside Magazine. His debut novel, The Sin in the Steel(Tor Books), Book One in the Fall of the Gods series, came out in Summer 2020. The sequel, The Justice in Revenge came out July 13, 2021, and the conclusion to the series, The Memory in the Blood drops in Summer 2022.
Arabella of Mars won the 2017 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, his story “Tk’Tk’Tk” won the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, his story “Nucleon” won the James White Award, and he has been shortlisted for awards including the Hugo, Nebula, Campbell, Sturgeon, and Locus. His stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, Realms of Fantasy, Tor.com, numerous anthologies and websites, and multiple Year’s Best anthologies, as well as his collection Space Magic from Wheatland Press, which won the Endeavour Award for the best SF or Fantasy book by a Pacific Northwest writer.
David is a contributor to George R. R. Martin’s bestselling shared-world series Wild Cards. He is also a member of Book View Cafe, a writer-owned publishing cooperative, and Oregon Science Fiction Conventions Inc., a non-profit organization that produces OryCon and other SF conventions. He has narrated podcasts for Escape Pod, PodCastle, and StarShipSofa and the audiobook of Space Magic, and his video production “Dr. Talon’s Letter to the Editor” was a finalist for the Parsec Award. In 2010 he spent two weeks at the Mars Desert Research Station, a simulated Mars base in the Utah desert.
David lives in a hundred-year-old bungalow in Portland, Oregon.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers, David.
Nice to be here.
Usually, at this point, I talk about how we’ve met each other at conventions or how we know each other through this or that, but I don’t think we’ve ever met anywhere.
No. At this point, I don’t recall how you crossed my bow. I’m always interested in podcasts. I’ve done interviews on a lot of podcasts and I also do podcasts narrations. I narrate my own stories and also sometimes those of other people.
Well, we’ll have to talk about that, too. But first…the other cliché on this podcast is I’m going to take you back into the mists of time, and find out how you got interested in…most of us start as readers, so perhaps that’s how you began—you probably did—how you got interested in science fiction and fantasy and how you got interested in writing: how you got started putting words on paper, which it still was probably when you started writin
It was, yes. So, my father was a science-fiction reader back in the ’30s, in the days of the pulps, so there was a lot of science fiction around the house, as a matter of fact. There are stories that my father told me as bedtime stories when I was a kid which I now recognize as being classics of the field, like Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement. And so, I was surrounded by science fiction. I always loved it, big fan. I counted myself fortunate when Star Trek premiered in 1966 that I lived in the Midwestern time zone because if I’d lived in the Eastern or Pacific Time zones, it would’ve been past my bedtime. So, I was a Star Trek fan from day one. And my early…the books that I remember were, there was Miss Pickerel Goes to Mars, Have Space, Will Travel, and Willy Lay’s The Runaway Robot was an early favorite.
So, I’ve been reading it since I was a kid and I know I started writing science fiction stories about as soon as I started writing it all. I actually have a science fiction novel in two volumes, which is to say two spiral-bound notebooks, that I wrote in fourth grade. And, you know, I picked it up and re-read it a while ago, and it’s not bad. It’s, you know, I mean it’s dated, but it’s not embarrassingly badly written. I mean, it’s juvenile. It’s juvenile, but I think the sentences are in the correct order, and, you know, there’s actually plot and character—not so much on the character, but definitely there is plot. Character has always been my weakness and plot my strong point, and that’s been the case since the beginning. So, I wrote a lot of stories in middle school and high school, and in college, I took a science fiction writing class, and people said, “Hey, this stuff is really good, you ought to submit it.” But when I got out of college, I started working as a technical writer, writing software documentation, and writing fiction was just too much like the day job. So, I didn’t write a lick of fiction for 20 years.
And then I changed careers. I moved from technical writing into software engineering because I was tired of cleaning up other people’s design messes and wanted to have a chance to build the software so it was usable from the beginning. So, once I started being a software engineer instead of a technical writer, I found that my fiction-writing energy had come back. And so, that was around ‘98. And so, I had a sabbatical from my job coming up in 2000, so I had told my wife, to her surprise, that I wanted to go to Clarion for my sabbatical. So, I went to Clarion West in 2000 and I started publishing almost immediately thereafter. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend being a technical writer for 20 years as a path to fiction writing, but what it did for me is, I was able to spend 20 years focusing on the craft of writing, writing nonfiction. with all of the…I mean, simple things like. not just the grammar and the punctuation, but the work habits: outlining, scheduling, my time, ergonomics, all of the things…I mean, writing is a really complicated business, and I was able to focus on everything except for the fiction craft parts of it for 20 years. So then, when I went to Clarion in 2000, Clarion West, I was able to add the fiction disciplines to the general writing disciplines I already had, which explains why I was able to hit the ground running so hard, I think. And certainly…I mean, you know, I went to Clarion West in 2000 and I was on the Campbell ballot in 2003. I don’t think most people can do that. Again, I wouldn’t recommend going to Clarion at age 38, 39, which is what I did, but, you know, everybody has their own path. There’s a…I’m a member of Book View Cafe, which is a writers’ co-operative.
Yeah. I’m familiar with that.
Yeah. And we produced a book called The Usual Path to Publication, which is, you know, the title is a joke. It’s a collection of essays where each of the 20 or so people in the book discusses their path to publication. And, of course, the joke is there is no useful path to publication. And I called mine, “How to Sell a Novel in Only 15 Years,” because everybody’s path to publication is different.
Yeah, I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library here in Saskatchewan, and one of the things that I…one reason for this podcast, and one reason I recommend all the want-to-be writers who come in to see me, and I’ve seen 40 or 50 individuals at this point, is by listening to these podcasts, you discover that there is no one right way to do this stuff, that everybody brings a different style and a different approach and gets into it in a different way. There are some similarities with you and what…I started in journalism and worked as a newspaper reporter for 10 years, and I was in communications for five years, and I was writing fiction at the same time and selling, you know, here and there, minor things. But I do believe that just the very act of sitting down and having to write thousands and thousands of words every week is quite invaluable. It’s like anything else. You have to exercise those muscles.
Yeah. When I was, like, a student, writing research papers, I hated outlining. And then, as a professional technical writer, outlining is absolutely an unavoidable part of the process. You have to do an outline before you can figure out how much time you need to budget to do the work. So, I was a really, really heavy outliner when I started, and I discovered in my personal path, and I think this is true of many other people, that I started out as a plotter and become more and more of a pantser as I become more experienced. And I’ve also noticed that pantsers actually realize the value of outlining and become rather more plotters as they become more experienced. So, I think the more experience you get, the plotter/pantser distinction becomes a lot fuzzier.
Now, this…your first few stories.,..”1992: the WorldCon that Wasn’t.” I’m just curious about the title. What was that about?
So, this was…it started out…so, as you mentioned, I co-edited a fanzine with my wife for 25 years or so. And so, this started out as an essay in the fanzine. So, the 1992 World Science Fiction Convention was held in Orlando. And it just so happened that there was a hurricane that basically just missed slamming into Orlando like a week before the convention. So, we wrote an essay, my wife and I collaborated, we wrote an essay, kind of an alternate-universe con report of what happened when we went to the convention, despite the fact that the convention center had been wiped out by a hurricane the week before, basically riffing on the idea that fans will get together and put on a convention under any circumstances.
And so…I was going to say that fans love stories about fandom.
Yes. Well, but the thing is, is that this was in a fannish publication. It was explicitly…basically it was an alternate-universe con report. So, a couple of years later, Mike Resnick, who has recently passed on, he did a lot of anthologies. He did a lot of alternate-universe anthologies, beginning with Alternate Presidents. And so, he decided that he was going to do a fan project called Alternate WorldCons. So, he opened the floor, and this was explicitly a fannish project, they did not pay professional rates, he was very clear about that up front, but he opened for contributions, and so I said, “Hey, I’ve got this essay. Would you be interested in it?” And he said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” So, you know, he paid me some something less than pro rates, like maybe a penny a word. And so, that on appeared in the second volume, Again, Alternate WorldCons. So it’s basically…it was based on something that almost happened, but that makes it an alternate-history thing and therefore was perfect for Again, Alternate WorldCons. So that was my first publication in a science-fiction market, although it was not my first professional publication.
But it was a few years after that when you really started publishing regularly.
And you focused on short stories to start with.
Why were you drawn to that first? I mean, that also varies some author to authors., Some leap right into novels and some seem to gravitate to the shorter forms.
I was…as…when Humphrey Bogart was asked in Casablanca why he had come to Casablanca, he said, “For the waters.” “Monsieur, we are in the middle of a desert.” And he said, “I was misinformed.” So, that’s why I wrote short stories, because I was misinformed. At the time, I thought that…like I said, my father was a reader during the pulps. So, I had a bunch of anthologies and magazines from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s that I grew up reading. And so, reading the essays in there, I got the impression that the way to make a career as a science-fiction writer is, you begin by making your name with short stories and then you do a fix-up novel and then you begin writing novels. That wasn’t even true then, and is even less true now, but nonetheless, that’s what I believed.
And also, when you go to Clarion West or Odyssey or any of several other workshops for beginning writers, they use short stories because it’s a much better pedagogical technique. When you write a short story, you can write the whole thing in a week, you can do beginning, middle, and plot, characters, setting, all the pieces in an easy-to-critique and easy-to-understand chunk. If you wanted to workshop a novel, you couldn’t possibly do that in six weeks. And the Taos Toolbox workshop that Walter John Williams does is focused on novels and does two weeks, but even in two weeks, all you can do is you can talk about novels and you can read excerpts, but you can’t write and critique a whole novel in two weeks. That’s physically impossible.
So, by going to Clarion West, I discovered that I enjoyed short fiction and I was good at it, so I kept writing short fiction for a long time. I find that most writers are either natural novelists or natural short-story people. And I found myself to be a natural short-story writer. I’d say that most people are natural novelists because most of what people read these days is novels and you are what you eat. You tend to write what you like to read. And so, most science fiction and fantasy these days is published and consumed in the form of novels.
Novels get a lot more attention. Novels get a lot more critical interest. If you just Google on, you know, “best science fiction of 2019,” you’ll probably find nine or 19 pages talking about nothing but novels for every one page you find that even mentions a short story. Novels are where the action is. And so, I did spend a long time in the short-story mines and I learned an awful lot, but I always felt that novels got more attention. It certainly is the case that even a mid-list novel gets more attention than even an award-winning short story. So, I always wanted to be a novelist, and I wrote…Arabella of Mars was the fourth novel I wrote, but the first one to sell.
What did you start with? What was the first one that didn’t sell?
So, the first novel I wrote had the working title of Epixemic, with an X, which was changed to Remembrance Day for submission. It takes place on an Earth where the aliens have come, and…my model was the British in India, that there were not very many of them and they didn’t conquer. They just came in and offered us a really good deal and took over. So, they had…they gave us a worldwide rapid-transportation system and cured disease and stuff like that. And all they wanted was to, you know, to make use of our raw materials and special craft. So, they really were dominating the planet, but only economically, not militarily. And so, this was a world where the aliens were…they were the elite. They were the classy ones. And basically, all of humanity was relegated to a subsidiary role. And most people were reasonably happy with it, but there were a few people who didn’t like it.
So my main character was somebody who fell in with a group of rebels— or terrorists, as they were described by people outside the group—who had managed to seize an alien biocomputer. And he was a computer hacker and he hacked it, and for reasons that he didn’t understand at the time, the hack resulted in a plague, an “epixemic,” an alien plague, and so all the aliens on Earth started coming down with this horrible disease that was spreading like wildfire. And the connection between the two wasn’t even clear at first. And to make things more complicated, he was the ex-lover of the daughter of the alien’s leader. Who was also, not coincidentally, the first person to fall to the virus.
So, I did something incredibly ambitious. I said, “Well, if Iain Banks can write a novel that bops back and backward and forward in time simultaneously, I can, too.” So, I didn’t have…in Iain Banks’s, I believe it’s Use of Weapons, you’ve got alternating points of view, one of them going forward in time, the other one backward, to a mutual conclusion. I didn’t do that, but I did have one of the two point-of-view threads begin, say, in January, and the other one began in September of the same year, and bopping back and forth between them. One of them is catching up to the other and they both finish up in December. So you’ve got, one thread is offering you previews and foreshadowing for what’s happening in the other thread. And the other thread is explaining what’s happening in later one. So, anyway, it was ridiculously complicated. And I believe I pulled it off, but nobody was willing to risk it for a first novel.
Also, there was polyamory and my main character slept with men, women, and aliens, and…and it was a first novel, you know? I think it was really good, but it didn’t sell. You know, I came close. I got an offer from a major publisher, but the editor…I did not get an offer from a major publisher. I got an editor who wanted to buy it, but he couldn’t convince his boss to put up the money. And one of the other publishers were interested. And so, the second novel was a similar thing. Again, I thought it worked. I learned from the first novel that I needed to be a little bit less ambitious. So, instead of having alternating points of view bopping back and forth in time and a complicated polyamorous bisexual alien fucking love story…I’m sorry, did I say that word?…I, in the second novel, I had only two points of view. And it was strictly going one direction in time. But I still had an underage lesbian romance at the heart of it. And that one also did not sell.
OK, OK, so, that one didn’t sell. And the third one was a was young adult, one point of view, strict chronological, and still had a possible lesbian love affair in there, but not inter-generational. And at the time I was finishing up book three, the rejections that I was getting on book two, people were telling me “Science fiction just isn’t selling these days.
I remember that.
I don’t know if it was actually true at the time, but was certainly the message that I was getting from both editors and agents. So, for my fourth project…so, after I finished that third book, the young-adult one, I did not even submit it. I set it aside because it was science fiction. And I said, “What can I write that’s fantasy enough to meet the needs of the market, but science fiction enough to satisfy my science fiction writer heart?” And so, of the huge pile of ideas that I have—because I don’t know about anybody else, but it certainly is a truism in this field that ideas are the easy part. I mean, you know, that thing about somebody will come up to you at a party and say, “Hey, I’ve got this great idea for a science fiction story. You know, I’ll give you the idea. You write it, we’ll split the profits.” And no, no, ideas or easy. Ideas are a dime a dozen.
So, I had this huge pile of science-fiction story ideas. And there was this one that involved an alternate Regency…or. at least. an alternate Enlightenment period, where the sky was full of air and the European powers had colonized Mars and Venus, which are, of course, inhabited. And so, I had this idea and I thought, “You know, this kind of feels like fantasy, with the flying sailing ships, but I’m going to I’m gonna approach it as science fiction.” And so, I wrote it, and…and this is one of those things where, when you mention, “Well, I’ve got I’ve got these three or four novel ideas,” this was the one that everybody pointed at and said, “Yeah. Yeah, that one sounds fascinating.”
And really, that’s, you know, the basic idea of Arabella, with the flying sailing ships and the girl who dresses as a boy and Martians and pirates and privateers, it’s got a lot of jazz to it. People really like the raw idea. And that helped propel me through the writing of it and it really helped sell it.
One thing that is really important when you are submitting a book to either an agent or an editor is, you’ve got to have your comps, your comparable titles. And for my first couple of novels, I said, “Well, it’s kind of like Larry Niven,” or “It’s kind of like Jack Vance.” You know, I was comparing myself to writers who were already 20 or 30 years out of date. But on this one, I could say it’s Patrick O’Brian in space. You know, that’s my comp title. I could also compare it with Mary Robinette Kowal’s Regency magic series. So, if you can realistically compare your book to things which are highly regarded, critical successes and current bestsellers, it dramatically increases the chances of success, versus saying, “Well, it’s kind of like this obscure thing that you might not have heard of or was 40 years ago.”
So, and that’s something that you’ve got to do…that has to be baked into the core of the book. It’s not something…you can’t come up with comp titles after it’s written. You have to understand as you’re beginning to write it, “I’m going for a C.J. Cherryh feel,” or, “It’s going to be like N.K. Jemisin,” or, “I want something like Captain Nemo.” You have to have your comp titles in mind from the very beginning, and it’s best if those comp titles are things that people will go, “Yeah. Cool. I love that. I want more of it.”
All right. Well, let’s get a synopsis of Arabella of Mars first for those who, for some inexplicable reason, have not read the book.
OK. So, Arabella of Mars takes place in 1813 in an alternate universe in which the sky is full of air and the European powers have colonized Mars and Venus. Arabella is a girl who was raised on a plantation on Mars, but her mother, fearing that she was turning into a wild colonial child, hauled her back to England. She hated it in England. Everything was too heavy, too wet, too warm, and the people were dull. She wanted excitement in her life. She had grown up basically completely on her own. She and her brother would run around in the desert with their Martian nanny and have all kinds of adventures. And in England, it was just balls and cards and horses and incredibly dull. So then, they get a letter discovering that Dad, who had remained back on Mars, had passed away of a fever. And Arabella discovers that her cousin is planning to travel to Mars and do in her brother so that he can inherit the family fortune. She is, for a variety of contrived reasons, the only person who is in a position to do anything about this. So, she disguises herself as a boy and signs on to a fast interplanetary freighter to attempt to beat her cousin to Mars so she can warn her brother and save the family fortune. Naturally, hijinx ensue. She winds up…there’s a mutiny, the ship is attacked by pirates, they land on Mars to discover there’s an alien rebellion in progress. Eventually, there’s a confrontation and Arabella does indeed get the boy, save the fortune, and calm the Martian rebellion.
It’s a heck of a lot of fun. Now, going back to the initial idea, you have a lot of ideas, but do you remember what kind of made you think of this in the first place? And is that typical of the way that your ideas come to you?
I say of ideas that ideas are like neutrinos. They come sleeting down in space by the billions, but you have to be dense enough to stop one. So if you just keep your eyes open, ideas are coming to you constantly. I was talking with somebody at Clarion, one of my fellow students. She said, you know, “Where do you get your ideas?” And there was a bird in the tree nearby, we were outdoors, and I said, “Well, you know, there’s a bird. You know, let’s talk about birds. You know, what if, what if, I don’t know, what if birds were spaceships? What if you could build a spaceship out of a bird brain? And I just sort of sketched out an idea right then. And that idea became “Tail of the Golden Eagle,” which was my first Hugo nominee.
So, in this particular case, I know exactly where the seed of Arabella was. It was 1987. It was Gene Wolfe’s book, Earth of the New Sun. Earth of the New Sun takes place in a far, far, far future, which is almost medieval. And at one point, our hero boards a ship to take him to another planet, and he’s given a necklace which holds the air around himself. And he discovers that when he goes out on deck, in order to talk to somebody else, you have to move up close to them so that your envelopes of air intersect, because there is no there is no sound in space. And he asks, “Why is this so?” And he is told, “Well, the philosophers believe that if there were sound in space, the roaring of the stars would define the universe.”
And that note about space is full of vacuum, because otherwise the roaring of the stars would deafen the universe, stuck with me for over 20 years. And I had this idea for…first it was gonna be a short story about, it was going to be an alternate 1700s where humanity discovers that the sky is indeed full of air, that the universe is full of air. And this was gonna be, I figured, “When would people discover this? When and how would people discover that the universe was full of air?” And I figured they’d probably do it, it would probably be, you know, Ben Franklin or Isaac Newton or something like that, and they would discover it by actually hearing that vibration, which, you know, people would have evolved to not hear it, but there would be this peculiar low-level hum that’s everywhere.
And so, I started out thinking about it as being the discovery of the phenomenon. But then I started thinking about, “What would people do after they discovered it?” So I had this idea about the flying sailing ships in the 1700s, I think probably because I started out with the idea of the Enlightenment? And then, as the plot evolved, it moved from the 1700s up to the Regency, because I do dearly love Patrick O’Brian, and so the Napoleonic wars in space. But I like having a young-adult main character, I like having a female main character, because life is harder for women, especially in the past of our cultures, and so, putting your main character in a situation that is difficult is a way to make their story more interesting. So, basically, making her female just made her life harder. And so, that’s how I came up with my main character and my setting. And then the rest of it kind of evolved through discussions with other writers and mostly just kind of pulling things out of my tail because, you know, that’s what fiction is, is pulling stuff out of your tail and putting it on the page.
There’s a Canadian writer…who’s been mentioned a few times by Canadian writers who actually studied with him…Candas Jane Dorsey had actually met him and I think worked with him a bit. Not a science fiction writer. His name is W.O. Mitchell, but he used to have a TV show which dramatized some of his fiction, and the name of the TV show was The Magic Lie, which I thought is a great expression to describe fiction. And I was glad you talked about ideas being everywhere, because when I do workshops and things, I did one not too long ago, in fact, and I was talking about this, and I said, “Well, look around the room. There are coat hangers over there. And I looked at the coat hangers and I asked questions and I came up with a story idea based on coat hangers. So, yeah, it’s just…again, it’s kind of that muscle that you exercise, I think.
Yeah, I do a workshop called “Idea to Story in an Hour” and I usually do start off with something like that.
Now, you had your idea. You had a character. Now, what does your planning process look like? How do you take that and turn it into your novel? You said you’re more of a pantser than an outliner now, but you also said you were an outliner, so what does it look like for you?
So, yeah, at the time I wrote Arabella I was a pretty strict outliner. So, my writing process is, I always have two files, or in Scrivener, I have one file outside of the manuscript. And so, I have my notes file and I have my draft file. And so, I start off in the notes file and my notes file, I only ever add onto the end of it. So it’s a combination of writing journal and process notes. So, I start off, every writing session, I sit down and I write the date and where I am. And then I start typing in the notes file about, “OK, so here’s where we are and here’s what I’m gonna do next.” And so, for the first, maybe, you know, for the first hour or two on a short story or for the first weeks or months on a novel, I’ll just type in the notes file and I’ll think, “OK, well, this is what I want to do, and this is some ideas for the story and the setting.” And I may go off and do some research and copy and paste stuff out of Web pages into the notes file I may write a couple of paragraphs about the character and where they’re coming from. The notes file is full of lots of “maybe” and “what if” and “oh, well, then if I, then I could.” And so, I just talk on paper. I just talk it out. And then every once in a while I’ll stop and I’ll write a bullet list of, OK, this is the outline so far. And I will actually, like, copy and paste bullet lists down further into the notes file so that I can refer back to previous versions. So, generally, the notes file is as big or bigger than the actual project.
And eventually, at some point, I actually start drafting in the other file. And so, the notes file will contain my notes about, “What did I write today and where do I think this is going next and what are the problems I need to keep an eye out for in the future and how many words did I write today?” And sometimes my notes file just says, you know, “Writing at so-and-so coffeeshop with so-and-so, did 1,500 words on X.” You know, sometimes it’s just that. And sometimes my entry for a notes file will be pages and pages and pages and pages of. “Oh God, I’ve written myself into a corner, what can I do now?”
So, I find that my process is generally, I will outline the whole book before I begin writing. And then I have to stop about halfway through and re-outline the second half based on what I’ve learned about the characters and situation in the first half, because the second half that I had in mind is no longer viable, or I discover…many, many times I discovered that my outline, I outline the first half in considerable detail and then the second half is then is something along the lines of, “And then hijinx ensue and everybody comes out happy.” So, I have to…so, not only because I didn’t think it through in detail, but also because what I had in mind isn’t going to work anymore, based on where I’ve gone up until this point, so I stop and re-outline at the halfway point, and then again at like the three-quarter point, I stop and re-outline the back quarter of the book.
Yes, that sounds very familiar to me, too, because I do something similar. In fact, I just did it for…not that long ago for the one I’m working on now, which is my next DAW novel. I had to replot to the end because it just wasn’t going to work the way I originally thought it was going to work.
Yep, yep. I find that I’m…my particular process is, I can’t begin writing until I have an ending in mind. I may not wind up with that ending, but I have to have an ending in mind or I can’t start moving.
Now, you mentioned a little bit about your writing, the actual physical act of writing. You write in coffee shops some. Is that typical? Do you write out of your home or your home office or how does it work for you?
I have a comfortable writing chair in my living room, but I do find that it’s much easier for me to write if I can get away from my home environment with all of its chores and distractions. And so, I find that writing with one or two other people in a coffee shop is the most motivating, because when you’ve got somebody on the other side of the table typing diligently away, you don’t pay attention to the fact that they may just be, you know, they may just be on Facebook. You…they give the impression of productivity and therefore, that compels me to be productive. Also, there’s something about the noise of a coffee shop that is very…it helps people to focus. And I’m far from the only person to have discovered that. And, of course, there’s coffee.
So, interestingly, I did, when I first started…and I don’t write full time. I am retired from the day job. But people say, “Oh, you retired to write full time?” No, I’m not spending any more time writing than I did before, but I don’t have a day job. So, when I first retired and started thinking about putting more attention to my writing, I considered renting space in a co-working space. And basically the choice was, I could rent a co-working space for, like, $300 a month with free coffee, or I could pay for the coffee at, you know, like three bucks a shot, and get free working space. So it was just, it was just cheaper to work in a coffee shop than a co-working space. I’d love to be able to have regular co-working partners. I know people who are software engineers and people…a lot of cartoonists. In Portland, we have this amazing studio called Periscope, which is a co-working space for cartoonists and comics illustrators, and I’d love to have that sort of working environment, but it just…I just can’t justify the expense.
I like to work in coffee shops, too, but here’s another question about working in that kind of a space. Do you find that you occasionally are overhearing conversations that interfere with your writing? Because that’s what happens to me and then I have to put on headphones and listen to music.
I used to write to music and I found that I just sort of stopped doing that. I guess I don’t find those conversations too distracting. The one thing that will be distracting is if there’s music at the coffee shop and the music has words.
And if that starts happening, then I have to go someplace else. But the conversations don’t impinge too badly.
Once you have a draft…well, first of all, are you a fast writer? A slow writer? How do you typify yourself?
I am an extremely slow writer. I have been working…with the exception of the third Arabella book, which because of various life factors, I had to finish in six months. I’ve never written a novel in less than two years, and my current project, which again, due to various life circumstances, I’ve been working on for over two years now, I could easily see it extending out to three. And I’m trying to be kind to myself. I have a real tendency to beat myself up for not being more productive. But I’m trying to be kind to myself and let the process flow as it does.
So, once you do have a draft, what’s your revision process before it gets submitted anywhere? Do you have beta readers? Do you do it all yourself? How does that work for you?
After I finish a draft, I generally will go through and do a revision based on what I’ve learned about the book during the process of it. I generally…my first drafts come out extremely consistent because I’m really good at keeping details clear in my head and so I don’t have to go back and revise to make sure that my heroine’s eyes didn’t change color or anything like that.
Clothes are what get me. What people are wearing.
Yeah. But I have a really strong sense of where everything is in the room. I don’t have difficulty with blocking. I never have people across the room and then find themselves back at the door. So, the problems that I have are larger problems, like, the character isn’t sympathetic enough or there’s not enough tension. And I wish there was like a knob on the outside of a story that you could just turn, you know, make the character more sympathetic or what have you. So. Okay. But anyway, so, by the time I get to the end of it, in my notes file, I have a whole bunch of notes of things I want to take care of in the first revision. And so, I go through and I do a revision pass on my own. Then, if possible, I have workshopped a couple of novels using a process where you get together with a bunch of other novelist friends, you rent a beach house for a long weekend, and you trade off critiques. A technique which has worked really well in the past is, you get, say, a dozen people together, and everybody has a completed novel, and you have to have a draft done by a certain date, maybe two months before. And so, then you share. You put your novels up on a shared drive so that everybody can access them. Everybody reads everybody else’s synopsis and first 50 pages. And then, two people read your complete novel and you read two complete novels. And the person who’s organizing the thing has to figure out who does which. It’s a little bit complicated, but I’d never done that part myself. And then you go and you spend a weekend at a beach house with, you know, cooking together and eating together, and exchanging critiques during the day, and just talking shop and chewing the fat for the rest of the time. So, in this way you get at a bunch of people looking at your premise and opening, which is really important. And then, a couple of people look at the whole thing. And likewise, you learn an awful lot from critiquing other people’s work. So, this is the best way that I have found to get feedback on a novel.
I also, for my first two novels I was working with a critique group that met regularly in person. And so, I was writing a chapter for every meeting. And I promised them that if I did not have a chapter for them, I would buy everyone drinks. And I never had to do that. So, it was very motivating for me to keep drafting, and I was getting feedback on the thing as it went along. Now, I remember Dean Wesley Smith telling me that nobody’s ever written a good novel that way, but he said this right after he’d praised my novel, which was written that way. So he said, “Well, I suppose there’s an exception to everything.” But, so, I do like to get feedback. I don’t have…sadly, at the moment, I do not have a writing group. I do not have trusted beta readers. The people that I was working with, many of them have stopped being productive for a variety of reasons. And those that have been productive are too busy with their writing careers to take time to critique other people’s stuff. So, putting together a good writing group is important and it’s also difficult.
Yeah, I’ve never had one, living in small-town Saskatchewan growing up. There was a writing group, but it was elderly women who wrote stories about the Depression, so…
Yeah. We have to two writers’ organizations here in Portland. We’ve got Willamette Writers and the Oregon Writers Colony, and they’re both very good. But the majority of people in them are retired people, mostly women who are writing their memoirs. We do have quite a few fiction writers and quite a few screenwriters and playwrights, but the numerical majority of members of these writers’ organizations are people writing memoir.
I did find a good…this is, you know…as I said, I’m pretty much your age. I’m a couple of years older than you. And there used to be a group called the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop, which was a by-mail critique thing, because we didn’t have e-mail yet, and it worked well, and I found a couple of really great critiquers who went on to have careers of their own. And that was nice, but critiquing by mail is a very slow process. So it just didn’t work once, you know, you started trying to get books turned around in any kind of reasonable amount of time.
Yeah. So, here’s something that I say. I’ve led a lot of critique sessions at science-fiction workshops. I started out attending them and gradually shifted over into leading them. And what I say about critiquing in groups is that the benefit to a writer of critiquing in groups is that you take the time to read a work with a critical eye. And this is a draft, so everybody involved agrees that this is not finished, perfect work. It’s not like a literature class, where you’re reading something that has already been published and has probably received a lot of critical acclaim. You’re reading something which is definitely rough, definitely a draft. And so, you’re looking for ways that it can be improved. So, you look at it with a critical eye, and then you get together and you share your opinions in a circle with other people who have also read that same work with a critical eye. And from listening to the other reactions to a piece that you have just read with that critical eye, you can hear, for example, “Other people found that this thing here was a problem, and I didn’t even notice that,” or, “I thought that this was a problem and other people didn’t.” And so, by hearing what other people thought of the same story that you just critiqued, you can improve your own critical faculties. You can figure out, “What am I missing that other people are spotting?”, or vice versa. And so that, I think is one…I mean, in addition to the critique that you receive and the things that you learn from reading other people’s drafts, you also learn from other people’s critiques. And so, that’s something that you cannot duplicate by mail. You could duplicate it with, like, you know, like a group video chat. I have not tried doing critique by group video chat, but I can imagine that it would work as well.
So once you have your polished draft, and it goes into your editor, what kind of editorial feedback to you typically get? You’re with Tor, so…
Yes. The first book had been through many rounds of critique, and so the editorial letter was quite short. The second book, I did get a rather extensive editorial letter. And the third book, both because it was written so fast and because of critiques…I mean, not critiques, reviews, that I’d read of the second book. I got a really…okay, so this is a Tor book, and it got a really scathing review on Tor.com, the second Arabella book. And that really set me back on my heels. And I made substantial changes to the third book to address the problems that this reviewer found with the second book. And I really wish she had reviewed the third book so I could find out what she thought of the changes, but she did not. So, whether the third book is better on those issues of colonialism and racism than the second book was, I haven’t received a lot of feedback indicating whether or not it did a good job. Because books, you know, books in a series are like children. You know, you look at somebody’s photo album and there’ll be, you know, a dozen photos of the first child and a couple of photos of the second child and the third child is, “Oh, wait, here they are at seven.”
That was me.
Yeah. Books in a series are the same. The first book gets a lot more critical attention. Like, I mean, look at the number of reviews of the three books on Amazon or Goodreads and you’ll plainly see…like, the first book has, I don’t know how many reviews, certainly well over 50, the second more like a couple dozen and the third, maybe a dozen. You know that…readers and publishers like series because it answers the question of, “I enjoyed this. Give me something that’s just like this, only different.” But, in general, only the people that read the first book will read the second…only some of the people that read the first book will read the second…and only some of the people that read the second book will read the third. So, the number of readers always goes down over the length of the series. Even, you know, even George R.R. Martin is not getting as many sales of the last book in his series, even though it’s a huge national bestseller, as he did for the first book, because every book in the series acts as an ad for the first book. So, a successful series, as it goes on, every new book that comes out at the end is going to cause more people to start at the beginning. But many of those people who start will not, will read either just the first book or just the first couple and not go on. So, there’s this big descending curve of readership over the course of a series, even the really successful ones.
Yeah, when I wrote my first trilogy, as E.C. Blake, it was under a pseudonym , and the first book…by far, my most popular book, but as the trilogy went along, I certainly noticed that, that each book had fewer readers, which is disturbing in a way. That’s just the way it works.
It is just the way it works. There’s a death spiral that can occur, where…it’s called ordering to the net. When, back in the days when brick-and-mortar booksellers were the top of the food chain, they would, you know, if they ordered 20,000 copies of some book and only sold 15,000 of them, then they would only order 15,000 copies of book two and they’d probably only sell 12,000 copies of that. So they would only order 12,000 copies of Book 3, which meant it was almost physically impossible to increase sales from one book to the next. So, you know, so there’s ordering to the net, it can turn into a death spiral where you don’t where you no longer have the opportunity of selling more because they just aren’t in the stores.
Did you know that Arabella was going to be…you say Ah-rabella, don’t you? How do you...
I say Ah-rabella. I believe that I am pronouncing the name of my main character incorrectly. So, I will not…I will never, ever correct anybody else’s pronunciation. I think I’m wrong, but I’m not…and people say, “Well, that’s the way you pronounce it, it must be correct.” No, not necessarily. I mean, I had a story that was set in China. And I had all these Chinese words in it, which I had looked up. But when I went to read it, when I went to do the audiobook of it, I discovered that I had no idea how to pronounce those words that I put on the page.
Funny story, I asked a friend of mine who does speak Mandarin how these words were pronounced, and he e-mailed me back saying, of this one particular word, was pronounced with the like the a in can, not the a in can’t. And I went, “What?” But I forgot he was a Brit. So it’s can and cahn’t, but anyway…so, just because I wrote something doesn’t mean I know how to pronounce it. And a lot of people have trouble with the name of the story “Tk’ Tk’ Tk’,” and that’s just how I say it. I just say tick, tick, tick. So you got it fine.
So anyway, so Arabella, I wrote it as a standalone, but during that novel-critique weekend, I was talking with my writer friends and everybody says, “You know, if you go to a publisher, if a publisher comes back to you with an offer, they’re gonna say, you know, ‘What else do you have in mind?” And if you can say, ‘Well, I’ve got two more books planned in this series,’ they’ll offer you a three-book contract.” And so, we…I just basically sat around with some friends in the evening and we BS-ed out a second and a third book. So, I wrote it as a standalone, but when…by the time I came to present it to the publishers, I had a one-page outline for a book two and a one-paragraph sketch of a book three in my hip pocket. So, when the publisher did indeed come back and say, “We like this, what else do you have?” I could say, “Well, here’s a sketch for book two and a sketch for book three. And so I got a three-book contract.”
All right. Well, we’re getting within about 10 minutes of when I need to cut this short…well, not that short, it’s still an hour. So, I want to ask my big philosophical question, which is, “Why do you do this? Why do you write? Why do you write science fiction? And why do you think any of us do?”
Why do I write? I write because I enjoy making things. And this is something that that I really enjoyed about software engineering is basically, you know, I wiggle my fingers and stuff to appear, stuff that actually does a job. In this case, the job is entertaining people. But I enjoy the process of creating. I enjoy the, “Ooh, what happens next?” thing. Storytelling is a basic human thing. And I happened to find myself with this skill set. I think some of it’s innate and some of it’s trained. And I definitely have some innate skills, and I’ve also done a lot of, I’ve taken a lot of workshops., I’ve taken a lot of courses, I’ve chewed the fat many a late hour talking about how do we do this thing on. And so, I’ve built up a pretty good skill set and I enjoy exercising that skill set.
And, you know, and the ego boost when somebody says, “Ooh, I read that book, I loved it,” is just, you know, that’s one of the best things in life, is when somebody says, “Hey, I saw that thing you did, it was great.” So really…I mean, people write for all sorts of reasons. They write for money. They write for fame. They write for critical acclaim. I really do write for the reviews and the awards. That is the thing that I am hoping to achieve. And why does anybody do it? Everybody’s got their own reasons. And if you’re going to pursue a career in writing, you really have to understand what you want out of it and how you’re going to prioritize the things that you do in order to align your particular skills with your goals. You’ve got to understand what your goals are before you can determine how to achieve success. You know, if I had, like, if I had twice as many readers and was making less money, I would go, “Great trade-off!” I would happily do that.
I know other people that are trying to, you know, trying to put food on the table. They wouldn’t take that. They would say, I would much rather sell a thousand copies with 50-percent royalty than…sorry, they’d say I’d rather sell 500 copies with a 50 percent royalty than 2,000 copies at a 25-percent royalty. Even though the money might be the same, that means that…if you self-publish, you get more money per copy. But most self-publishers can’t sell, can’t move as many copies as a traditional publisher with all of their marketing resources can. So, I would much rather have a smaller slice of a bigger pie, even if I get less money out of the deal, because you get more exposure, more visibility, more readers and more critical attention. If my book appears in brick-and-mortar bookstores, in libraries, and, you know, gets reviewed, you know, these are all things that are more available to me as a traditionally published writer. And they matter to me. It really matters to me to find my book in the library. And that to me is worth giving up a big chunk of the royalties. For a self-published writer, they would rather have a bigger chunk of the royalties of each book, which means that they make more money, even if they put fewer copies in front of people’s eyeballs. So, you have to understand what’s important to you and then choose your tactics based on achieving your goals.
And why science fiction?
I always say, “What’s the point of reading a book where it’s limited to things that could happen in the real world?”
That’s what I say, too!
I mean, oh, okay, yeah, yeah. So I’m reading How the West was Won or Gone with the Wind, you know. And Gone with the Wind, you know, nothing really interesting is going to happen. No Martians will descend. There are no ghosts. I think fiction’s all made up, and you should have the ability to make up whatever you want. And so, I really do find stories with the element of the fantastic to be a lot more interesting than stories that are limited to what could actually happen.
Yes. When people ask me, “Why do you write science fiction?” I say, “Why wouldn’t I?”
You know, it’s just more interesting to me. All right. Well, what are you working on now?
I am working on what I describe as a space-opera caper picture. It’s a cross between Leverage and Firefly in the universe of The Expanse. A group of…a criminal gang, basically, they had what they thought was going to be the job that would set them up for their lifetimes. It didn’t go well. Several gang members were killed and they split up. Ten years later, the son of the leader of the gang shows up and says, “Dad’s in jail. I’m putting the gang back together to break him out.” And it turns out to be more complicated than that.
Sounds fun. Is there a release date on that or is that still some way off in the future?
No, it’s some ways off in the future. I’m at…let’s see., I think I just crossed 78,000 words or thereabouts, shooting for 100,000. But that’s on first draft. So, it’s gonna be a while before it’s even ready to submit, never mind having a publication date. And, as I said, I’m trying to be kind to myself and not beat myself up for not being as productive.
And anybody that wants to follow you and find out what you’re up to, where can they find you online?
My Web site is daviddlevine.com. You can find me on Twitter as DavidDLevine. You can find me on Facebook as David.D.Levine. But I use that David D. Levine identifier…I’m also on Instagram as David D. Levine. I use my middle initial because the name David Levine is quite common. There’s a New Yorkercaricaturist, David Levine. There’s an Indy car driver named David Levine. Lots and lots and lots and lots of dentists and lawyers named David Levine. So I just I, you know, I never had a hope of getting my unadorned name to be near anywhere near visible on Google. But if you Google on David D Levine, you should follow me.
I’ve been pretty lucky with Edward Willett. There’s a professional golfer, I think, and there’s a guy who plays the cello. He played on the theme music for Northern Exposure with a group called Chance, and his name is Ed Willett. But if you Google Edward Willett, I get like most of the first two pages of hits. So that’s pretty good.
All right. Well, thanks so much for the conversation. That was great. Thank you very much. I’m glad you were a guest on The Worldshapers.
Candas Jane Dorsey is the internationally known, award-winning author of novels Black Wine (originally Tor 1997, 1998, re-released Five Rivers 2013) and Paradigm of Earth (2001, 2002, Tor); upcoming mystery series The Adventures of Isabel, What’s the Matter with Mary Jane? and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2020-2022 ECW); upcoming YA novel The Story of My Life, Ongoing, by C.J.Cobb; short story collections Machine Sex and Other Stories (1988), Dark Earth Dreams (1994), Vanilla and Other Stories (2000) and ICE & Other Stories (2018); four poetry books; several anthologies edited/co-edited, and numerous published stories, poems, reviews, and critical essays.
Candas was editor/publisher for fourteen years of the literary press The Books Collective, including River Books and Tesseract Books. She teaches writing to adults and youth, professional communications at MacEwan University, and speaks widely on SF and other topics. She was founding president of SF Canada, and has been president of the Writers Guild of Alberta.
She has received a variety of awards and honours for her books and short fiction. In 2005 she was awarded the Province of Alberta Centennial Gold Medal for her artistic achievement and community work, and in 2017 the WGA Golden Pen Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Literary Arts. She was inducted into the City of Edmonton Arts and Cultural Hall of Fame in 2019.
Other awards include the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame (2018), YWCA Woman of the Year Arts and Culture (1988), and an Edmonton Arts Achievement Award (1988). She is also a community activist, advocate, and leader who has won two human rights awards and served on many community boards and committees for working for neighbourhoods, heritage, social planning, and human rights advocacy.
Welcome to The Worldshapers.
We have known each other for…I always start these podcasts by trying to make a connection, but in our case, we’ve known each other for quite a long time at this point, haven’t we?
I believe so. I believe we could measure that in numbers of decades.
Yeah, it’s getting there, for sure. And. of course, I’ve also been plugging When Words Collide, which is where I asked you to be on the podcast this year, because it’s a great writing convention that I’ve found several of my guests on over the last couple of years…or at…and I do like to tell people about it because I think it is really always a fun weekend for me, anyway. And I hope for you.
Well, it’s always nice to go somewhere where you’re recognized for doing the thing you think of as primary. You know, we do so many things to make a living, but they’re not all things that we want to be remembered for the annals of history, you might say. Whereas, when you go to When Words Collide, it’s about writers and being writers and it’s like your primary environment. You get to submerge yourself in talking to people about books. I think it’s marvelous.
And I should mention for anyone who is interested that whenwordscollide.org is the Web site if you want to check it out. Not “when worlds collide,” whenwordscollide.org.
So, we’re gonna talk about your collection of short stories, Ice & Other Stories, which came out last November, and that’s a little different ’cause we normally talk about novels on here, but that’s good because short fiction is, you know, it’s own thing, which I think maybe I should talk about more on The Worldshapers. But before we do that, I would like to take you back, back into the mists of time, which is becoming a cliche on here, because I say that to everyone, to find out how you became interested in writing in general, but also how you became interested in writing stories of the fantastic, and a little bit about where you grew up and all that sort of thing.
OK, well, I’m one of those rare people who was born and grew up in the place that I still live, which is Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. And I’ve never really left for any period of time, although I’ve traveled a lot. I was the youngest in a family of three children, and it was a reading-and-doing-things family. My father had a day job, but he was…what he really was as a musician. My mother was a kind of self-taught historian who turned that into an entire career after I was in high school and was also very much a secret visual artist—you know, she never did much with it, but she loved it. And in her later years, she decided that she was just going to do it. So, it was kind of an interesting group of individuals. My brother is a professional musician and is also a visual artist. And my sister was a kind of a philosopher, really. But she had a day job editing for Hansard and she also did, you know, she sang in the choir, she made things with primitive Japanese woodworking tools just to see if she could, and that sort of thing. So…and, of course, we were all great readers.
So, one of the problems I had as a kid when I came along, I was nine years after my sister and eight years after my brother, they had taken up a number of the art forms, and I was acutely conscious of the competition factor. And so, I think without really…I mean, I already loved reading and I was reading and writing above my grade level, so it was fun to show off, to write things. But I really began to realize that I loved it, and it was also a field where I could just go to town without worrying about an older sibling competing. So I kind of dug into that in my school years, but by high school, I really was kind of committed to it and started to really take it quite seriously. And I have a sideline in visual art, which I did then and then kind of stopped doing for a number of years, and just in the last ten or twelve years, I’ve started doing visual art again and selling paintings. So, that’s more of what my students these days call a “side hustle,” and the writing is always the thing.
So, I’ve been a writer and an editor. I’ve also run a book-publishing company with a group of other people that included for a while Tesseract Books, the Canadian science fiction and fantasy press, which we bought from Beach Holme Publishing, and we later sold to Edge Publishing, and we ran that for about nine years. And I’ve also run an arts newspaper and I teach writing, to various continuing education…like the University of Alberta, and the local school board has something called Metro Continuing Education…and I also teach in communication studies at MacEwan University for the last few years.
And somewhere in there I also got an MFA. I thought it might be a good credential to have. And by then it was kind of interesting because I had more books published than about half of my professors, and of that, half of those minded and half of them didn’t. So, it was kind of a fun experience to dip my toe into academe and discover the politics thereof, but I enjoyed it for the most part. And that’s where I wrote for young adults for the first time, took a children’s and young adults’ writing course from Glen Huser, and realized that I actually had a voice in my head for that. So, that book, if I actually sign my contract and send it back and work out a few technical issues, that book should be coming out next year or the year after.
Well, we’ll certainly talk about that a little later on, too. When you were starting out writing as a young person, did you share your writing with…you know, you said you liked to show off a little bit…were you sharing your writing with classmates and that sort of thing? I always ask that because I think it’s important to get that audience feedback when you’re starting out and realize that you can tell stories that people might like. That’s certainly what I did and kind of what made me think, you know, maybe I really can do this.
.Well, mostly I shared them with the teachers. I had…I had only a very few classmates that I had good friendships with, and high school got a little better, but I was one of those kids who was alone by circumstance rather than by choice in school. I was sick a lot. I was away a lot. And when I was there, I was often ridiculed and called the teacher’s pet because I actually read the books and did the assignments and so on. But I did…it’s kind of interesting. I have been teaching this course for Metro Continuing Education called Introduction to Creative Writing, and a couple of years ago, they moved the classroom that they used, because they use school classrooms at night, right? They moved it to the place where I went to high school, and I realized when I went in there that that had been fifty years ago. This was quite a shock to my system because I don’t really tend to think of myself as old enough to have had, you know, a span of fifty years of sort of higher consciousness, you know, as opposed to, you know, vague memories from long ago. But indeed, I am.
And so, there I was in the school, which, although it had been renovated in terms of paint job and new doors and new lockers, visually is very much the same, and it’s the school where..well, OK, to start that sentence in a different place, I started school when I was four. I think my mother was sort of glad to get me out of the house because I was a very talkative, questioning kid, and probably quite tiring. But anyway…and she also recognized I could already read and was interested in stuff…and so she talked the school into taking me a little bit early because I was supposed to be five. So, when I got to high school, I was a little younger and a little..and a lot…less cool than the popular kids. But high school is a place that had things like the newspaper club and the debating club and the Reach for the Top team and places where my particular kind of weirdness was actually valued for a change. So that was quite nice. But also, I had a Grade 10 English teacher who was awesome, just awesome. She was herself an artist. I found later she was a talented violinist. She’d had her first recital when she was very young and it was, you know, a big sensation around town.
And I think this is in part because, sadly, I just last week attended her funeral service. She was 91 when she died. And…so she was 40 when she was teaching me, and she just had…she had a warmth and an interest in her students that meant that she actually recognized me as having potential or having something to do, and she showed an unfailing interest in my writing, and then she took a little bundle of my writing and she sent it off to Mel Hurtig, who at that point was running his bookstore in Edmonton. He later, of course, became a publisher and published a bunch of Canadian, amazing Canadian classics, like, so many of the works of Inuit writers in the 1970s. He published Mini Aodla Freeman’s Life Among the Qallunaat, and he published People from Our Side…and he published a number of books of the artists up there and their memoirs. He also published The Canadian Encyclopedia. But in those days, he still ran his bookstore. And if you’ve ever been to Audreys in Edmonton, he sold his bookstore to two women named Audrey, who worked for him, and that’s why Audreys, which is Edmonton’s only general independent bookstore at the moment, that’s why they have no apostrophe in their name, because it means the two Audreys. But that was later.
So, there I went…and she sent me downtown to talk to him in his bookstore. He had this big bookstore and then there was a little raised, like, three-steps-up section at the back where his office was. And there I went. Grade 10 self, so I’m like, fourteen, fifteen years old, and I’m shy and nervous. And this just wonderfully kind and intelligent man greets me and talks to me a little bit about writing and books, and then he sent me over to the university to a professor of children’s literature named Alison White, who welcomed me and gave me some books and read my poems and talked to me about them. And I…by then it was summer, and I got the excitement of going sort of all by myself on the bus, which was kind of a big deal for me because I didn’t go out much in that way, over to the university and into one of the historic buildings there where her office was and have this, you know, exciting moment of recognition.
And I have to say that it changed and possibly even saved my life and my sense of self to actually be seen at that point. And I don’t know about you, but those years of sort of thirteen to seventeen are not my favorite years in memory. They really aren’t. They were the time of maximum…well, not to be euphemistic, maximum misery. So, you know, she certainly changed my life and she may have saved it in a kind of metaphysical way because she really gave me to understand that at some point down the road, life would be different and interesting and I might have something to say to the world. So it was…I was thinking about all this week because, of course, it was a bit of a shock to realize that that was fifty years ago and that she had just died and I had met her since then and been able to express my appreciation, thank goodness. But then I went to this service and there was her daughter, who was her only child, and who looked very much like she looked when I knew her first. And so it was kind of an interesting conversation. And I think I was the only person there who was from her teaching life. And, I just, you know, I saw it in the paper. But so I was…I sort of brought all this up from memory and talked to them about her, her sister, and her daughter and her nephew were there, and they invited me to sit at their table. It was a Ukrainian funeral, so there was this absolutely delicious meal, lunch, sit-down lunch afterwards of the Alberta Ukrainian fare, which is, you know, cabbage rolls and meat and chicken and so on. And so it was this hearty and wonderful lunch. And then, just being able to tell her family something about what she was like for us, for her students. So, that was cool.
A lot of writers have somebody like that in their past, I think, that one person that maybe made them realize that maybe this was, you know, there was some value there and what they were doing and maybe they had some talent in that area.
Yes. And I’ve come to think…and I teach a lot of introductory writing courses, and I generally teach pretty much the same thing each time, but that’s because I think there are a few basics that people need to know and then they just need to get out there and write. But I sort of…iI think about what is the nature of a writer in general. And I think that writers are a peculiar combination of nervousness and ego. I was in theater when I was in school, I took drama classes, I went to…the local flagship theater is called The Citadel, I went to drama classes there…I crewed shows. I was gonna be in technical theater. When I realized I couldn’t act very well, I went into technical theater. And there were some opportunities that now I kick myself. I mean, I could have been a stage designer by now and had a completely different life, because Phil Silver, the stage designer at the time, who later went on to Stratford and other heights, invited me to be his model maker, which is a bit like saying you can apprentice with me. And I was young and kind of stupid and I decided I was going to, you know, go back to university and save the world. I don’t know what I decided. That was a long time ago, too. But I didn’t do it.
So, I was in theater and I began to realize that the talents that…I loved improv, but I was not good at preparing a role and losing myself in the role. And I realized that the thing that was wrong with that was the losing myself. And I had this conversation with a guy called Edward Atienza, who was a tenor…he came to Edmonton to do the Lord High Executioner in The Mikado when my partner was the…sidekick…you know, I can never remember their names…Ko-Ko and Poo-Bah.
Ko-Ko is the main character. He’s the Lord High Executioner. And there’s Poo-Bah and there’s Pish-Tush, I played Pish-Tush, that’s how I know.
Yeah. OK. Well, you guys could get together, have a little reunion, and, you know, put your arms over each other’s shoulders and sway back and forth and sing Mikado songs. But, anyway, so there was Edward Atienza, and we were at the sort of first-night party, and I happened to get seated next to him. And I don’t know how we started trading biographies, you know, that, you know, try to find common ground. But, for some reason, I made this mention of having been involved in theater, but realizing it wasn’t…performing was not…I wasn’t temperamentally suited to any other performing except improv. And he said. “That’s really interesting,” because when he was in university, he had wanted to be a writer. Like, in all his teenage years. And he’d gone…and he was British…so he’d gone to university to prepare for this and realized what he was there, that he couldn’t stand the kind of vulnerability that you have as a writer. He couldn’t put himself out there. Even in fiction, you have a kind of vulnerability when you write it. And that just didn’t suit him. And so he moved over into performing, because he could take his creative impulses and clothe them in inhabiting a role.
And so, there were these two people who had basically gone opposite directions, had kind of crisscrossed over in order to find the thing that suited their temperament. Because even when I was a kid, even when I was a very unhappy little kid, I was not…I was quite confident that I would grow up and I would have a life and it would be an interesting life and it would be full of writing. And I find that kind of interesting, that I never really doubted that part. I doubted my ability to write well, I had all the usual angst and worry that young writers have. But I also had some peculiar kind of confidence or ego that kind of saw me through that early part.
Well, I think a lot of the challenge of writing is, like you said, you have to have some sort of ego there that makes you keep doing it and doing it and doing it and thinking that, you know, somebody eventually is going to recognize what you’re doing.
Yeah, and that you’re writing a thing that’s important to be written. You’re not wasting your time and so on. Right? So, yeah, so it kind of interests me, you know, and I try to…I had some really encouraging writing teachers and I had some that basically believed that the way you went about it was extreme tough love and that you would just…and that they would just…well, there was in particular, he would discourage anyone, you know, “You’re wasting your time, don’t do this,” kind of thing. And what I discovered is that the encouraging kind of teacher is not going to bring people into the field who or bad at it because the field will just cull them out. What they will do is bring people into the field who need encouragement—and the word courage is in that word encouragement—who need the courage of their own conviction to get into their career. So, the kind of tough-love writing teacher only is only good for the egoist or the stubborn people or the people whose kind of social fight-or-flight response is to fight back. But there are a lot of writers who are quiet and who don’t want to have a public fight, but they want to write. And so I think, when I’m teaching, I try to indicate to people that, you know, the world of writing and of readers and of publishing is going to narrow you down into the people who are going to get accepted, and so, you know, obviously for them a part of their career is to just get better at doing that thing until they get good enough to pass the bar. But I don’t sort of sit them down and say, “You should really open a 7-Eleven,” because you can’t decide for other people how they’re going to carry out that drive and whether they’re going to…whether they’re going to fix all other technical errors because they are so driven, like some writers that I have known, that I have taught, who you would have thought would be, would never get anywhere because they had so many technical errors, but they fixed them all because they loved, loved writing.
Well, and I’ve done quite a bit of writing teaching as well, and do try to be on the encouraging side myself. I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, so it’s very much people coming in at all different levels of ability. And sometimes I see stuff and I think, “There’s just no way.” But I tell them what I think could make it better and try to be encouraging because, you know, you never know.
Oh, you know, I don’t hold back. You know, if I see somebody with a lot of technical errors, I will say to them, “You must fix these. Because otherwise you will have a miserable time being rejected.” But, you know, once they know they have to fix them, there’s no reason why they can’t. You know? I mean, I know it sounds kind of like, I don’t know what it sounds like, but basically I have seen people coming up into my writing classes for the past few years who have been taught by the whole-language or process-learning approach, and they really don’t know their own written language and they’re terribly disadvantaged, but they have the same desire to do the work and to tell the stories as the other writers have had. And so, I’ve often had to say, “Hey, it’s not your fault. It’s how you were taught. But you will have to learn this,” and many of them do, because they understand that it’s a tool, it’s their technology, the language is their technology, and they need to use it to do what they want to do.
And you know, I find that pretty, pretty…encouraging, I guess, because I knew all this stuff very early and I was also taught…I was schooled at a time where you were drilled in all the rules of grammar. So, when I sit down to write, I am extraordinarily lucky that my sentences come out as proper sentences, right? So, I can start kind of down the road. If I didn’t have that, though, I still would probably have the impulse to write, I would just have to do more work. So, you know, even people who come to the task with technical skills that need improving, I have seen them…I mean, it’s not just sort of a greeting card here, I have seen them improve and become published writers, and I’ve seen others who had great skills, but they didn’t have kind of the fire. They didn’t want to do the extra work to do a second draft. And their extremely promising stories didn’t even go as far as the other ones. So, this at this point, after having taught since 1983 different writing classes and started, and sent…many of my classes, I send them off to be writing groups…I’ve decided you can’t predict which horse is going to finish the race. You just can’t. So, you give everyone the same skills and encouragement and then tell them it’s a tough business. And so you have…
Sorry. Just give me a second…okay, let’s try that sentence again. I tell them it’s a tough business and that they have to meet a quality standard, but…and that they’re going to have to learn a lot of that on their own…and I think it’s a much better way to prepare them for the writing world than to try and be mean to them.
You may hear my little dog in the background.
He won’t be the first animal noises in the background. John Scalzi had cats going on in the background and somebody else did, too. So it’s not uncommon. And Peter V. Brett had somebody doing construction work outside his window, so…so, you studied English and drama in university and also social work. Were you…when did you start writing for publication, or attempting to be published? When did you break in?
I started writing seriously in high school and in the first couple of years of university, and my mother actually talked me into staying at university after the first year rather than going walkabout, as so many students did in the ’70s, because W. O. Mitchell was coming to teach writing at the university. And so, I did stay in my second year and took classes from Doug Barbour, who you know through his work in the science fiction field, and that’s who introduced me to Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel Delany…in a big way. I mean, my father had been a big science fiction reader and I think I’d read Le Guin before, but some of the others I hadn’t…Alfred Bester, Joanna Russ, all these amazing writers…he had done his thesis on. And this is 1971, so, you know, people listening to your podcast will realize how long ago, how ancient I am. I’m not that old, but I feel it sometimes.
In any case, so I went back. I studied with Mitchell, who was a wonderful teacher. He was nurturing but demanding in a really wonderful way. And he never forgot anything or anyone. So, I would meet him years later and he would say, “Kid, you didn’t quit. You didn’t quit.” And that was his big thing. “Never quit. Just keep writing. Keep doing it.” And I remember one time I asked for a letter of reference for a grant I was applying for and I remember him saying, “I don’t know, my letter might be the kiss of death, kid, because, you know, I’m just not, you know, they don’t…I don’t think they’d like me that much.” And I’m saying, “I don’t know, you know. Big name.” In any case, I think I got the grant. So I think he wasn’t the kiss of death, but he was a lovely guy, and so…
Doug Barbour was editing White Pelican in those days and he’d gotten Samuel Delaney, for instance, to write for White Pelican. I think I still have that somewhere, that issue. And he and some other people got together and started NeWest Press. George Melnyk had started the NeWest Review and the NeWest Institute, which were to study Western Canadian culture. And I went to the first NeWest Forum on the Arts. It was out at Rudy Wiebe’s Strawberry Creek Lodge when the lodge wasn’t…it was just barely completed, it didn’t have carpets, or, you know, all the amenities, but there was. And we looked at, you know, questions…I mean, this was is in the 1970s and we’re talking about indigeneity. And somebody had made a film about spring burning for ecological reasons in First Nations before settlement and just all sorts of very cool stuff.
So, they decided to start a press. So they got a little board together and they started NeWest Press, which is of course, still in existence. And the very first book they did was called Getting Here…Getting There?…no, Getting Here. And it was a book of Edmonton writers, all of whom were women, as I recall. It’s way up too high on the shelf to reach to verify this for sure. But I know that…yeah. I’m pretty sure it was all women writers and that was part of the point. And Doug edited or co-edited it. And that was…I had had some other things published in things like the university newspaper, and so on, but that was sort of the first time a story was anthologized. And it was a science fiction story of sorts, a kind of slipstream science fiction story, which was called, “You’ll Remember Mercury.” Which was a line from someone’s poem, who had written a kind of very creepy, almost horror-like poem, where the astronauts come to Mercury and they get changed and transformed in ways that they perhaps didn’t intend, and the last line was, “Oh, yes, you’ll remember Mercury.” So I’d written this story, which was, quite, I guess, a little surreal, but it took all the science-fiction tropes and it had them in there. You know, the faster-than-light travel, the spaceship captain, the et cetera, et cetera. And eventually…what it was was, in essence, was a space ship full of sort of outcasts, including First Nations people and so on, who were making a gesture against what we today call colonialism, I guess. And who have the spaceship and who ceremonially dive into the heart of the sun. And, you know, I mean, I was twenty, right? And so that was my first kind of breakout.
And I had a lot of stories published in literary magazines. All of them were science fiction and fantasy, really. Or slipstream or kind of surrealism or whatever they were. There wasn’t much in the way of realism, but I just thought of myself as a writer, you know, not particularly as a genre writer. I didn’t have any trouble with those markets, either. Like, you know, there’s a certain kind of town and gown kind of thing, of, you know, the literary world looks down on us, but I have been…I had no hesitation in submitting to those markets, and getting published, places like A Room of One’s Own and Prairie Fire and various magazines that no longer exist, Blue Buffalo, and so on.
And I also had no hesitation in applying for literary grants. I just thought, “Well, I’m a writer. That’s what they’re here for.” And I would apply and by and large, I would get them. I think, you know, the odds of getting a literary grant is somewhere between one and six and one in ten and probably more by now. But I figured that was pretty good odds for spending an afternoon on an application. And so, I would say that I probably got over half of those that I applied for, and was fairly philosophical about the ones I didn’t. I definitely urge, you know, if listeners are Canadian writers, almost all the provinces and the Canada Council have these grant programs and many cities do, as well. I live in Edmonton, and the Edmonton Arts Council has grant programs, and I would really urge people to apply and not be weird and reverse-snobby about how those are for literary writers and they will discriminate. They’re all decided by juries. The juries differ from time to time. So one jury may love your work. The other jury may put you a little bit below the red line. You have to think of it as buying a lottery ticket, in essence. You apply, and then you forget about it. And if a nice letter comes in the mail down the road, yay, you won the lottery. If it doesn’t, then, OK, you hadn’t counted on it anyway.
And, you know, I don’t think artists have a right to…I mean, I think we’re very lucky to have a grant system, but I have to recognize that historically, the state, as it were, and private patrons who had a lot of money were the reasons why the arts even got made. You think about the Renaissance and all those huge paintings of Saint Sebastian taking on the arrows that are now in the Louvre, they were all in private castles and artists went from castle to castle, making their daily bread by painting or they wrote a long poem and they dedicated it to the guy who was going to pay for it, right? And I don’t think…I think government is the best patronage system there is, because it’s objective. So, I really strongly feel that developing writers should look at all the options, and they shouldn’t think of themselves as being…especially developing speculative writers or developing genre writers, they shouldn’t think of themselves as being the little match girl outside the outside the house while the party goes on inside. We’re all part of the same thing.
Well, let’s move on to your current collection of short stories. Your first book was a collection of short stories, Machine Sex and Other Stories, and now you have Ice & Other Stories, which also starts with “Machine Sex.” So…I know you can’t really synopsize a collection of short stories, but tell us about the book.
Well, the book started as all the stories that had been in something, but not in a book. So there were thirteen or 14 stories. And every couple of years I’d get a story published. I’m a very slow writer. And sometimes that was because of life and reasons and sometimes it’s just because it takes me a while to develop a story. So I had these stories and I went through a period where my mother was aging and she was in a nursing home and I had some health issues, and it wasn’t the best time for getting things out into the world. But I had this collection. So, every now and then I would think about, “Where should I send it?” And it’s hard to get short-story collections published. It’s not easy to sell them, so only certain publishers want to do them.
So, I did…Ursula Plug did a book of short stories with PS Publishing in England, Pete and Mickey Crowther run it, and they do these beautiful hardcovers and they do a limited, a signed, limited edition, and so on. And she asked me to write the forward for it. So then I was in touch with these people and they seemed…and then I went to the London WorldCon and there were all their books, and they were just beautiful. They were beautiful. There wasn’t a small-literary-press-deathwish cover among them. They were all just beautiful and beautifully produced and a lot of hardcovers. And they were really sincere people. And I still can’t figure out their business model, because they do these beautiful books in small editions. They bind them beautifully. The signed editions are still well within a collector’s or regular collector’s budget. And they ship their author’s copies to me without charging for shipping, so I’m kind of amazed at their business model. But…so I got in touch with them and I sent them a manuscript, and…Nick Gevers is the short-fiction editor that works with them, and he lives in South Africa. And nothing really happened to this book for a while. And so finally, when I was in a little better state, I sort of sent a reminder saying, “Oh, yeah, I sent you guys a book,” and he sent me back a message and, interestingly, my mother had just died, which is why…and I was sort of getting back into having more time in my life. And so, he sent back a letter, and his mother had also been in care and dying at a similar elderly age, in their nineties. And so he said, “I haven’t read your manuscript yet, but I will,” and within a week I had a publication offer.
So, that started out one of the new years very well. And then we worked on what stories from previous books might be known to people that we should put into a retrospective, because this is 30 years of stories. They wanted a new story, and that took me a while, I must say. But so, then what would be kind of the first one? So we decided to put “Machine Sex”—”(Learning About) Machine Sex” is its real name—put that into it as the first story, because that’s the story of mine that has been most anthologized. And we’ve put in “Sleeping in a Box,” which won what was then the Casper Award and is now the Aurora Award, and there were a couple of others that I felt kind of still had…still should be seen there, and we ended up with, I think it’s twenty-one stories now, if I’m not mistaken. For a while, it was seventeen, and then it increased again.
And, basically, they cover thirty years, and so when I was writing the notes for it, I started writing the notes with a little bit of an eye toward the history. So, if you read the notes, you get a little bit of the secret history of Canadian SF. I talk in there about the SF Canada workshop in 1986 in Peterborough. And Michael Skeet was there. I was there, John Park…trying to remember if Karl Schroeder…anyway, I have all the names in the book. And there were eight people there and their various spouses. Ursula Pflug was there, Wendy Pearson was there, who’s now mainly an academic, but she was writing fiction in those days. She’s at Western, University of Western Ontario, I think it is. And her partner, Susan Knabe, who is also an academic in the field now. Ursula was there with her baby and her husband, who’s a filmmaker, and Michael was there, and Lorna Toolis, of course, the librarian at the Merrill Collection for all those years was there when she could be, she had to work. And Judy Merrill ran it.
So, that was then. And things have changed considerably over the time, and so each…we decided to arrange the stories in chronological order by publication and just talk, I would talk about what was going on at the time in the notes. So, it’s been actually, I think, an interesting exercise. Like, if people really want to start thinking about how the network fit together, who was helping whom, who was talking to whom, in the field, they will find some good information in the back pages there. And also, they’ll find all these, thirty years of short fiction. And the last story is actually a brand-new story. Probably, it has some…I mean, I know that some of my stories were more intense than others, and there’s some that I particularly love.
The one that I wrote for Ursula Plug’s anthology, and Colleen Anderson’s anthology, Playground of Lost Toys, is one that I’m particularly proud of. It’s really an example of me as a slow writer, though, because I started writing that story when Nalo Hopkinson put out a call for her anthology called Mojo Conjure Stories, which were stories about, in essence, everyday magic, and people doing folkloric magic. And it always bugs me that writers in the fantasy field will swipe the folklore of other people and turn it into their plot devices and they won’t look necessarily to their own heritage, because, you know, Wendigo is cool, so I’m gonna write a story about Wendigo, kind of thing. And some of those stories you need to be given. And if you’re given them, if you do the work, if you go to the people who own them and you ask, then that’s a different matter. But just to say, oh, I think it’s really interesting that, you know, Voudon says this or, you know, Candomblé is based on this and I’ll just use it in my story. You have…you’re walking a fine line between colonialism or, you know, imperialism of some kind, and true homage.
And so, I just thought I would look at what’s the kind of magic that my people would do. You know, I’m a third- or fourth-generation settler on the prairies from a sort of Scots-English background, almost completely that. I have a few random…I have a probably a random Mennonite several, a couple of hundred years ago, and so on. But it’s mostly Scots and English. So, I’m thinking, “What’s the heritage I have?” And so I started thinking about my relatives and the kinds of things that prairie people do, like make flapper pie and eat Kraft dinners and put together jigsaw puzzles and wear L’eggs pantyhose and work at the dollar store, and so on. And I crafted those into a story about, what would the everyday magic be for those people? So, it’s around putting together jigsaw puzzles makes magic. And it ended up being a lovely story, but it was also, like, many years after Mojo Conjure Stories was gone and published and so on. And it just never made it, So, when Playground of Lost Toys came along. I figured, “Jigsaw puzzles equal toys. Hey!” And I finished the last little bits of it and sent it in, and I’m very pleased with it. It’s the kind of story that I can only read it and it makes me sniff with a little bit of emotion, and so, I like that.
Well, a lot about what I talk about on the podcast is, you know, the process of creating stories. And one of the great things about the story notes at the end of the book is that you do tell where these stories came from. But I don’t know that I see a particular theme as to how ideas come to you. It looks, like many of us, all sorts of things can spark a story idea in you. Is that fair to say?
Yes. And stories sort of start at different points, too. Like, I have had stories, and one of my novels, that started from a dream I had. And the novel became a novel because it took that long to make the elements of the dream into a story that made sense in anything other than an emotional arc, right? So…one of the things you need to know about me is I started writing short and started writing longer and longer pieces. So, it’s like that Eastern European proverb about, “How do you lift an ox? You start the day it’s born and you lift it every day.”
So, I wasn’t a natural novel writer. And, in general, my process is to start with a thing…and maybe you could think of it as, I don’t know if you save wrapping paper, but sometimes in my family we did, and there’d be this big tangle of ribbon and you’d pull the end of the ribbon and you’d just keep pulling it out and untangling it from all the stuff that isn’t that piece of ribbon. And so, I would assemble little pieces and move them around and it’s only later in my career have I written this…and I did it on purpose to see if I could…written a book where I started with, sort of the beginning, the first scene, and went in order to the end. And that’s the first mystery… I’ve just sold this series of three mysteries to ECW Press. Two of them are written, and I’m supposed to be writing the third one, probably right this minute, when you think about it.
But the first one came from, sort of an assignment I gave myself to just start at the beginning and write to the end. And I probably also did that when I was working with Nora Abercrombie on the three-day novel that we won. But I had, at least I had someone there to help me. Yeah, that was Hardwired Angel. And I think I’ve actually empowered certain of my students by saying, you know, you don’t have to write an order and you don’t have to write fast. It’s true that the industry demands a book a year from some kinds of writers and you can get into that rhythm once, you know, once you have the experience, but everybody is their own kind of writer, and you just have to learn what kind you are. Which is not like…I say to them, it’s not an excuse to be lazy, it’s not an excuse to say, “Well, I’m not going to do that because it’s too much work and I’m not that kind of writer anyway,” you know? No, that’s not what I’m saying. But if you’re like me and you hate to know the ending…like, I truly find that if I have an entire outline planned out before I start, my impetus to write goes down to ten percent of what it was, if that, because I just, I write to find out what happens.
And other people love the outlining, and they put up their little index cards and stuff, and then they write for a while, and of course then the characters take over and create chaos within the story. And so, you know, there’s a moment when I have to get organized, but it’s usually when I’ve got quite a bit of stuff written and I have to think about what comes next in a more organized way. But quite often my instinct for story will drive me down a certain road when I’m not even sure I should be including that in the book, and it’ll turn out to be the right thing.
What is your actual…like, do you write in a keyboard, Do you write longhand? How do you like to work?
Well, that depends on what I’m writing. I pretty much always write poems longhand. And I do have a notebook beside my bed that I will occasionally write a scene down in. But, over the years…I was an early adopter of computers. I was actually an early adopter of typewriters, because my godfather gave me his 1922 Underwood when he got a modern typewriter in the 1960s, and I learned to type quite early. And I understood that if I typed it right, I would never have to type it again, and that was kind of powerful. When computers came out, I was freelance writing and I pretended that it was all about my business, and that it was a business decision. But what it really was, was, “Oh, my gosh, I get to do this where if I do it right, I will never have to retype another manuscript, and I can do this cutting and pasting stuff and I can do this alteration stuff,” it was tremendously exciting. And so, my first computer was this twenty-six-pound KayPro, which was considered portable in those days, made by an oscilloscope company…
I remember those!
Yeah. Ten-inch screen, and the first one had 63K of memory, and then you put a floppy disk in it to save your files, and the floppy disks were 5 1/4 inch. And then, they got a hard drive. It was ten whole megabytes. I thought I would never need another storage device in my life. It was so exciting. Anyway, so I was an early adopter. So, I got trained pretty early to type stuff. So, for the prose, I generally tend to type, but if something strikes me, if I have a good idea while I’m just about to go to sleep, I will grab the notebook and write it and then transcribe it later. But I know people who still write, like, their first draft in fountain pen, and…in one of the courses I teach, I have to talk about this, but, there is actually science to say that writing on a keyboard, if you’re taking notes, gives you less retention than writing.
Yeah, I saw that.
But I don’t know what that means if you’re generating it. I do know that if I were a better typist, there are all sorts of cool techniques that people that I know have done to make their first drafts were better. And one of them is a woman I knew who turned off her monitor for the first draft. But she was a good enough typist that what was there made sense when she turned them back on. Whereas I’m a terrible typist and I’m always correcting. And I look at, you know, I look at the screen and the keyboard all the time, I never learned any of the typing techniques. The attitude to typing that they had then was that it led to a stenographic career, so girls didn’t take typing. And I was very careful not to cross that line, but I kind of regretted it, because I wanted to write. But my sister taught me, who had taken typing, taught me to type on my Underwood when I was just a little kid. But I had such weak…like, I had tiny hands. And you have to lift the carriage return, or the capital key, the Shift key, was a literal shift, and you had to push it down, and it was very heavy. So as a result, I never learned to type with the right fingers.
But it doesn’t really matter. I think that the computer has been so helpful for so many because it’s a lot like writing by hand. You can write things that aren’t in order. You can go back and forth. You can cut and paste. You can add things. You can move lots of texts. You can copy things. You can keep…I mean, people who write with Scrivener can keep files on all their characters and all their settings and all their research in the same place. I mean, it’s just…it’s quite marvelous. And I think it actually helps the creative process have that kind of freedom from linearity.
What does your revision process look like? Is it all kind of a unit, where you just work away at it and it takes shape and then it’s done? Or do you ever go back and start at the beginning and do a complete rewrite, or how does that work for you?
I am not a complete-rewrite person. I hate to talk about this because I don’t think it’s common. But the thing that I write down, by the time I write it down, is very close to the end thing. So my revision consists of fiddling around a little bit. Like, I hardly ever…I have hardly ever in my whole career taken a scene and just axed it and written a whole new scene. But I might put something aside. That doesn’t seem to fit. More often than not…like, I have very little of that had-to-try-this detritus lying around in my hard drive. It’s…to talk about my own process, I actually want to talk about my partner, Timothy Anderson’s, process, because he can be quite infuriating to sit across the room from while he’s writing and I’m writing, because he has everything in his head and he types it out. Like, he doesn’t…and it’s not conscious, he’s not walking around saying, “Oh, this character needs to do this,” but somehow there’s this story build-up that goes on in his head that’s way more conscious than it is in mine. And when he has some time, he sits down from across…and he can type fast, so he can write four to twelve thousand words in a day, if that’s all he’s doing, because he just types. It’s absolutely infuriating. It’s just so infuriating. Because I go type, type, type. Silence, silence, silence. Type, type. Silence. Type a bit. Silence. But when I put the thing on paper, it’s as if part of my mind is doing the same as his. It’s putting the story together, but it’s not doing it in my conscious sight.
So, when I type, what I’ve had to learn is to just trust, to type what’s there, what’s coming out, and see where it fits later. And especially with novels. I remember…your listeners might or might not know that the novel I’m best known for is called Black Wine, and it’s a rather complicated fantasy novel in which a number of braided stories turn out to all be related in the end. And when I first started writing it, it was…I thought it was gonna be a longish short story that was sort of a quest: young woman goes off looking for her mother who went away when she was a child, all in a fantasy landscape. And it was Marie Jakober, when I was telling her about it, who said, “Oh, Candas, this sounds like a novel.” And I was thinking, “Oh, no, oh, please, no.” But yeah, it was a novel. So I started typing.
And one day, I had gone to my friend’s, David Greer’s, house on Pender Island for a writing retreat, he had a lovely little cabin there, and I’m typing on my KayPro, and all of a sudden, the sentence I type, like, the first sentence I typed that day is, “There is a madwoman in a cage in the courtyard.” Now, this just came out of nowhere, nowhere, and luckily. I was smart enough not to say to myself, “Oh, this has nothing to do with what you’re writing. Don’t type any further.” And so, I just kept typing, and suddenly there was this young woman with amnesia who was sort of like a waif figure, and she was bringing this woman food, and they were talking in this language that the waif hadn’t realized she knew until she heard the woman speaking it…because amnesia, right? And I’m thinking, “What is this?” But something in me said, “This is part of your story.” And that ended up being the first scene in the book.
Once I had written all these pieces of book, I then arranged them in a bunch of orders, and some of the orders worked and some of the orders didn’t, and that ended up the first scene. And how I got smart enough to just keep typing, I have no idea. But I’ve always been really grateful for it, because many years later that novel emerged and that was the beginning of it. And then we discover later how it all fits with quest-girl and her mother and all the other people in the book, and it all kind of fits together, but you don’t really find out till about page 100, and even then, speaking of the revision process, David Hartwell bought that novel for Tor Books. That was funny, too, because he was buying a story of mine and one of the forwards to the Tesseracts Anthologies for his book Northern Stars, which was a Canadian science fiction anthology he co-edited with Glenn Grant and…I think it was Northern Stars, which was the first one…anyway…when my voice gets fades away, there’s because I’m looking up at my shelf of books to see if I can see the spine of it…but in any case, so he has me on the phone and I said, “Oh, David, you know, I’ve had this novel sitting on my desk for like a year now and I don’t know who to send it to. Could you give me some some some hints, some suggestions about who you think might want it?” And there’s this silence at the other end of the phone. And then this exasperated voice says, “Well, send it to me.” And I thought, “Oh, yeah, right, you’re the, you know, one of the most influential editors at the most influential publishing house, but I never thought of that.” And, indeed, he bought it. And what he…the only real change he made was, he said, “People have to wait till about page 150 or 175 to find out what’s going on for sure. They’re not going to wait that long. You have to move one of these scenes up a little earlier in the book.” So I moved it up to about page 100 and then he said, “That’s good.” And so, really his editing consisted of, “Move these things around a little.”
He was more active with the second book, because he would say things like, “These scenes are too long, you’ve got to fix them.” And I then figured out why and fixed them. But the first book, there was almost, almost nothing was changed. It was just moved a bit. And on the level of the sentences, some sentences were sanded until they had smoother edges. Including that very first sentence.
We’ve done an hour here, so I want to wrap things up. But I have to wrap it up with the big philosophical question that I ask everyone. And you spend a lot of time thinking about writing and you teach writing. And so the big question is simply, why? Why do you write and why do you think any of us write. And, specifically, why do we write stories of the fantastic? Why do we tell stories?
Well, when I’m being flippant, I say I write because there’s only two things I do well, and the other one is illegal to sell. But, no, I think…well, I know that it’s a human imperative to tell stories and to make sense of our environment through storytelling and through arranging things into a story. There’s even research…this woman whose name I forget at the moment, who pioneered a lot of research into nursing practice using narrative inquiry, which in itself is storytelling, right? It’s “ask the nurses to tell the stories of their practice.” And she actually did a study where she particularly interviewed bad nurses and asked them the same thing she asked the nurses in her general studies. And the main finding she had was that bad nurses could not make narrative out of their experience. They could not tell the story of their nursing practice.
And this, of course, makes me think of, in my social-work years and child-care work years, makes me think of the dysfunctional families, who would have secrets and lies but they don’t have stories that they pass on. They don’t have, they don’t know when the kids were born or when they moved here from Ontario or when so-and-so started school or whether they won an award or whatever. Whereas, certainly in my family, those memories were dearly, dearly kept and re-told as story. So, I think all humans try to make sense of their situation. And you think about someone who was raised in a dysfunctional family and they go to therapy. What’s the first thing they tell them to do? They tell him to tell his story. They tell them to, the first thing they do is to tell them to tell the story of their own lives. So they try and put together a coherent narrative out of their memories and what happened to them and their lives. That’s a kind of storytelling, too, right? It’s a kind of making order out of the universe. And I think those of us who…well, I don’t know if I can generalize, but certainly, when I look at the body of my work, it’s all about justice and injustice. It’s about hope and transformation because of things…
Particularly, when I was twenty years old, I got a job as a child-care worker for four years with teenage girls. And at that point, I was still complaining about my family of origin and how mean they were or whatever. Well, no, they weren’t. They were brilliant. I mean, there may have been some dysfunction in our family, as there is in every family. But I saw things that were horrifying and tragic and just left me with enough anger to basically fuel all the stories for life, and to some degree, I’m still telling those stories. And I thought about John Gardner’s book On Moral Fiction and how he talks about moral fiction is a fiction that kind of seeks justice. And fantasy novels are considered one of the kinds. The quest novel or the good-versus-evil novel, mystery novels, and romance. So he talks very specifically about the genres, and the reason that they’re so popular is because they restore order in the universe and in that way they are not religiously moral, but they are moral in the sense of a universal order, an ethical way of living, whatever.
So, I think we tell stories to create order and restore order and give people hope that there are solutions and answers and that there are people like them and that there are things they can do in the world. They don’t have to be inert. They can be agents of their own change and other people’s change. And I think, at the base level, that’s why I tell stories. The challenge is not to tell lectures, because I could give, as I am doing now, a little rant on why that’s important, or I could tell a story. But if I try to tell a story and all it is is a rant, it’s not a successful story. So, you have to put real people in a situation where their lives and love and emotional well-being and physical well-being depend on the resolution of these issues, and that then becomes an allegory for other people who read it to say, “I can submerge myself in this and I can see parallels to my own life and I can learn new things.
I do urge people…the last thing I’ll say is, I urge people to have a look, in our field, to have a look at John Clute and his fellow editors..it was John Klute and John Grant for one, and John Clute and Peter Nichols for another…the Encyclopedia of Fantasy and the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. And there is a definition of fantasy in there that has something that I say to all my writing classes. It talks about the progression of a story from an initial wrongness through a state of thinning, where the world or the person’s reality is kind of thinned and hollowed out. And then comes a moment…and this is a beautiful sentence that I love, and I might as well finish with this, “A moment where the protagonist gazes upon the shriveled heart of the thinned world and knows what to do.” And that revelation is followed by a metamorphosis or a set of actions that lead to what Klute calls the eucatastrophe, like, the good, the resolution of the story, basically. And that leads to a return, a healing, a return of just governance, all the things that we recognize in fantasy.
But in my mind, you can put any type of fiction on that loom and look at that journey, and I often say to my students that modern literary fiction, especially what is sometimes called the MFA short story, is trapped in thinning every bit as much as a horror story is, right? So, literary fiction is still on it, too, and it fits in with his taxonomy. So if people want to know more about that, they just should look at the encyclopedia. It’s online. They can just look for the definition of fantasy and read the whole thing.
But I think that’s why people tell stories. Certainly why I do. And for a while, I was thinking it was also the only thing I knew really how to do and how to earn money doing. And that was when I started doing the visual art, because it was wordless and I could paint things and just feel the sense of creating for the sake of creating. And that created for me…that gave me a return to the way I had felt when I was first writing, and then I was able to kind of renew my own writing. So that’s that’s where I’m at now. And I’m actually quite happily writing away on this new book and I have another book waiting and another editor. So, if things work out, I’ll have this little cluster of about five books coming. Well, counting Ice, that’ll be six, coming out within a few years after a very long period of not publishing much.
And that was actually my next question. You mentioned the young adult book as one thing that was potentially coming up. And what are the other things that you’re working on right now?
Well, there’s a series of three mystery novels that are kind of nameless, slightly hard-bitten detective. But what she is, is a bisexual, downsized social worker with a cat who’s called Bunnywit, that he’s only called Bunnywit because she used to call him Fuckwit, but then when her cousin, the born-again Christian, came to visit, she was insulted by the cat having an obscenity in its name, so she had to learn to call it Bunnywit. And she’s been unemployed for a year, and things are getting to…she’s gotten down to her last box of fish sticks when someone offers her a job that’s related to a crime has been committed, and she sort of becomes an unwilling, unwillingly involved in the crime. And it goes on from there. So. the first one is called The Adventures of Isabel, and all the chapter headings were taken from the Ogden Nash poem. The second one is called What’s The Matter With Mary Jane? and all the headings are taken from the AA Milne poem. And the third one is called, that I’m working on right now, not sure if it’s called, The Man Who Wasn’t There, or He Wasn’t There Again Today. But it’s that little poem about, “As I was going up the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today. Oh, how I wish he’d go away.” And so, they’re a bit of a series. Things happen as do happen in mystery series. And they’re also a little bit stylistically different with each one, which is part of the fun.
And then, so there’s the YA, which is called The Story of My Life Ongoing, and it’s narrated, sort of…it’s epistolary, and it has an intersex teen who is going through some stuff. But it’s not about being intersex, it’s about the stuff, and another teen that they meet that’s also going through stuff. So, we’ll see how that goes. And I wrote it quite a long time ago, so my struggle is I have to update it for the modern, much more aware era, thirteen years later. So there’s the three mystery novels, there’s that, then there’s the great looming serious novel that I worked on for years, which is now sitting with an editor who, as usual, is taking some time. I probably should send him a message saying, “Er, um, excuse me?”
I should mention, too, that Wayne Arthurson, the Edmonton nystery writer, decided that he’d like to try being an agent, and he took on my mystery novels and he was the one that placed it. So it was his first deal as an agent and my first deal with an agent. So it was a tremendously exciting moment. And I also joke that I never thought I would actually get to say the words “three-book deal” about my own books, because I’m not usually that kind of a writer. I’m usually a slow one-at-a-time writer. But this was a bit different, and then…I never mention the advances because I read all these stories in the American media, but about six-figure advances. And I say, “Well, I got a six-figure advance, but it had a decimal point in it.”
Yeah, I’ve gotten those.
And I’m actually happy with that because, frankly, you want to earn your advance out. You don’t want to be paid a huge amount of money. And then what if the book doesn’t sell enough to earn out? Then you have a bad reputation in the industry, whether it’s fair or not. And I don’t think it’s fair. So I’d rather have a small advance and then a success.
For readers who want to keep up with what you’re doing, can they find you online and where can they find you?
Oh, that’s something that’s a work in progress because I’ve actually…I had a Web site and I was just about to populate it when WordPress updated and broke it and I never got back to it. So my project for the winter, in order to avoid writing, is I thought I would try to get my website back in order and start a bit of a blog and I don’t know if what I will do is blog about things of interest, little rants, or whether I would make it specific to the process of writing and try and accumulate enough of that material for a book or what? And we’ll see. So you can find me in a search, but it’s not going to give you an up-to-date Web site. It’s going to give you a site that the Writers Union put up years ago and a Wikipedia entry that’s out of date and a little bit wrong, not a lot wrong, but just a teeny bit. They don’t allow you to edit your own.
And so I’m sort of there. I’m visible. But you can find out how to order my book, though, because it, most of the orders that PS Publishing does are mail orders. And so, just look up PS Publishing and Ice & Other Stories. And it is really a pretty book. So you will like…I say this to all your listeners…you will like it. I know you will.
Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers, Candace. It’s been a great chat.
OK. Well, thank you for letting me go on and on. I really enjoyed it. And I’m looking forward to hearing it and the others that you’re talking about, because you told me you have some great people coming up, and so, it’s always good to follow.
As a professional puppeteer and voice actor, Mary Robinette has performed for Lazy Town, the Center for Puppetry Arts, and Jim Henson Pictures, and founded Other Hand Productions. Her designs have garnered two Unima-USA Citations of Excellence, the highest award an American puppeteer can achieve, and she records fiction for authors such as Seanan McGuire, John Scalzi, and Cory Doctorow. Mary Robinette lives in Nashville with her husband, Rob, and over a dozen manual typewriters.
Welcome to The Worldshapers, Mary Robinette.
Thank you so much for having me.
I’m glad to have you. I have to confess, I haven’t quite finished Calculating Stars. I was working on it, so I’m about, I don’t know, three quarters of the way through. But you won’t give any spoilers anyway, because I’m going to get you to synopsize here in a little bit for people who haven’t read it.
But I’m enjoying it very much. And not least because I’m married to an engineer…
…who identifies with some of the situations in the story.
Yes. Yes. I’ve found that the people in STEM have a strong connection to certain aspects, especially women in STEM.
Well, before we get to that, I’ll take you back into—I always say this, it’s becoming a cliché on the podcast—I will take you back into the mists of time, to find out how you, first of all, became interested in writing, and specifically writing science fiction. How you got started, in other words, and maybe a little bit about, you know, where you grew up and all that kind of stuff.
So, I grew up in North Carolina. My dad worked for IBM and he used to take me to visit him at work sometimes. They had the…it was in the days when the computers were still ginormous rooms and we didn’t yet have personal computers. There were gerbil tubes connecting the buildings. The first programming that I did was my name with punch cards. And so that was…it felt very science fictional. It felt very much like what you’d see on the Jetsons and things like that. And then we also would watch…like, I got connected to Doctor Who, you know, Tom Baker was my doctor. And we listened to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the radio. So there is not a point in my life where I remember discovering science fiction, it was something that was just always present. Like, the earliest books that I read that I have concrete memories of are things like Enchantress from the Stars.
I remember that one.
Yeah, so good. And you know, of course, other things like A Wrinkle in Time, and all of these books, which were just shelved as books. But I gravitated to the ones that had a fantastic element. When I started writing, which I did pretty young, my mom sent me to a writing workshop camp. I was basically writing the things that I was reading, and since I was reading science fiction and fantasy, it seemed only natural that that’s what I was also writing. My friends also were into that.
So, some of the earliest stuff that I was writing was actually…we had this, we called it “The Note.” It was a notebook. And we would pass it to each other between classes and write a co-operative story and then pass it to the next person who would pick it up and continue on. So, it was very much a part of my life, but I was also one of those kids who wanted to do everything, so…
I was an art major—I went to school to be an art major—and I performed with a puppet company, a puppet troupe, in high school, and then my junior year of college left to do an internship at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia, intending to go back…and never did, and then had a twenty-five-year career in puppetry. But the first ten of that, more or less, somewhere in there, I stopped writing because I was getting my creative jollies from puppetry. So for me, it’s all varying forms of storytelling.
You’re the first one I’ve talked to who’s done puppetry. I’ve talked to several authors, myself included, who have a theatrical background. And I always like to ask if that theatrical side, and I mean, puppetry is a form of theatre, it’s a little different than moving actors around on stage, but you’re still moving, you know, things in relationship to each other and characters interacting with each other. Have you found that your puppetry has helped you with your writing?
Yes, absolutely. It absolutely has. First of all, because puppeteers are actors and we are doing theatre. It’s just that the…rather than putting on a costume, we have an external manifestation. But we are still acting. We…the derogatory term that we have for poor people who do not do puppetry are “meat puppets,” or “meat actors.” Meat actors is what we usually go with, or a “fleshy” as opposed to a “plushy.”.
I’m going to remember that.
Yeah. But it is very much acting. I think of it as the Ginger Rogers of theatre. I have to do everything that you’d have to do, backwards in high heels. So, there’s multiple advantages to it, one of which is that, because I am working an inanimate object, my job as a puppeteer requires me to take the body language that we do naturally, that we often don’t even think about, we just do it, break it apart into its semantic components, and then reconstruct it in an inanimate object in a form that is human-readable.
That is essentially what I am doing as a writer, as well. I have to understand the basic components, semantic pieces of body language, and here I am, the tool that I’m using to reconstruct them, are words on a page. But the basic building blocks or components are the same. For instance, if someone is curious about something, they’ll do what we call an aggressive motion, which is a movement towards. If there’s something they don’t want to engage with, they’ll do a regressive motion. And while it’s very easy to do that with a puppet—and as an actor, you’ll do it without even thinking about it, very naturally—on the page, it also plays out the same way. There’s a very big difference between, “‘What did you say?” She leaned across the table,” and, “‘What did you say?’ She pushed back from the table.” One of those is the aggressive motion, one is the regressive, but it tells you a great deal about the character’s reaction without having to use a Tom-Swifty dialogue tag to denote tone.
That’s very interesting. I hadn’t thought of it in that way, but yeah, I can…in a way, our characters are puppets, and we are making them come alive, something that is actually not alive. We are trying to communicate that to the reader.
Yeah. With theater, with writing, regardless of which form you’re using, I think that a lot of what we’re trying to do is to create an emotional response in our audience’s brain, whether they are reading or viewing. But the things that we have emotional responses to, those actually remain fairly consistent from medium to medium. It’s just the mechanical technique that you use to convey it. And that’s one of the things that I’m trained in as a puppeteer, that there are principles that make a puppet look alive, but the mechanics differ when you move from one style to another. Like, the mechanical movement that I will do with my arm for a regressive motion if I’m doing something that’s very much like a Muppet is completely different than the mechanical motion that I’m doing, also with my arms, but holding a marionette control. It’s mechanically very different. But the thing that I’m trying to create for the audience, that illusion, is still the same illusion. It’s still that regressive motion, or it’s still the sense of muscle, where I’m using a compress/expand to mimic the moment when you bend your knees to jump. All of those things are still there. It’s still trying to create that same effect for the audience. And I feel that way when I move to writing, it’s like I’m still trying to create that effect, it’s just I have a different mechanical tool now.
And when did you then move back into writing after your twenty-five years of puppetry? What brought that about?
Well, I moved back probably about fifteen years into the puppetry career because I had a severe puppet injury. And again, people don’t think about puppetry as being particularly dangerous, but I was doing Little Shop of Horrors and working an eighty-pound puppet, and we had something go a tiny bit wrong onstage. We’d done it three months without any injuries, and just a little bit wrong and the puppet sheared to the side. Someone hit it on stage at a time that I had it up off the ground. No one should have touched it. And I tried to control it, and something in my wrist went pfft! I essentially popped the ligament. It was…for various reasons, it was complicated and I wound up in a cast for a year, and then did another year of physical therapy after that to regain range of motion.
During that time, kind of simultaneously with that, my brother had moved to China with his kids, working for the State Department, and I wanted to stay connected to the kids, but they are not really going to…it was before Skype was really a thing, so I started writing a serial for them, and remembered that I really enjoyed writing. In hindsight, I understand that what happened was…the reason I had stopped for a long time was because I was getting my creative jollies from the puppetry and that it uses, puppet design and construction uses, exactly the same parts of my brain as writing. It’s all worldbuilding, character creation, problem-solving. So when I could no longer do that, I had to take a substantial break from it, it gave me the energy to apply that in another form, one that I hadn’t visited for a while.
I often say that…it’s not quite the same thing, but it’s similar. I was a huge Dungeons and Dragons player in university and one reason I quit playing was because I looked at the stack of maps and, you know, characters and monsters and stuff that I had built up for my world in Dungeons and Dragons and said, “You know, that’s exactly the energy I should be putting into writing my fiction.” And I hardly ever played again after that.
It was the same thing. You’re using the same muscles, but it’s, if you use them all in one way, it’s harder sometimes to use it the other way.
Yeah, I used to play D&D with a group when I was in high school as well. Although, you know, in high school I would do anything to avoid doing homework. So, I would just write and play D&D. But now I will only do a one-off for exactly those reasons, because the, you know, the narrative is so seductive and interesting and fun. And I as I get older I have less and less energy.
And I think I’m ten years older than you, so I definitely identify. So, when did you break in? And how?
So, my first sale was 2005—I think that’s correct—to a small press magazine called The First Line. And I love this small press. They…the theory is that the first line of anything is so important. But if you hand the same first line to Mark Twain, you know, if you hand him, “Call me Ishmael,” he will not write Moby Dick. He will write something totally different. So, the first line gives you a first line, and then every story in that issue begins with the same first line, and they’re all wildly different. So, my first couple of sales were to them, and then I started selling to other markets, as well.
And you started with short fiction.
And did quite well at short fiction, looking at the awards and so forth. What did that…were you surprised by the level of acceptance and appreciation that your fiction begin to garner?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I should say that what I actually started writing were novels, but I had been told that if you wanted to break in, you needed to write short fiction, which it turns out is not true. Jim C. Hines did a survey, and it turns out that debut authors, when you ask them, “How did you break in?”, whether with short fiction first or just straight to novel sales, that it was actually 50/50. But I like short fiction quite a bit. And I think that it was very good for me because it allowed me to experiment with a lot of different things without having to commit so many words. So it’s like doing a bunch of, using the D&D metaphor again, it’s like doing a one-off campaign versus something that’s a multi-session campaign. So, doing a one-off, it was very easy to say, “Oh, this time I’m going to I’m going to focus on character and try to hone my character skills,” or, “This time I’m going to focus on description.” But I was also…I was surprised at how quickly I was able to start making sales, but also in hindsight, it’s not surprising, because by that point I had spent fifteen years coming to understand narrative and audience. And so much of what I know from theater translates over. Some of it doesn’t, but so much of it does. So. in hindsight, I had a leg up when I came back to prose.
So when did the novels start coming along, then?
So, as I said, I had started with novels. So the thing, the serial, that I wrote for my niece and nephew was…it turned into a novel very quickly, which was actually the thing that made me go, “Huh.” Because I had started doing it just kind of for kicks. And then I got a little bit into it and thought, “I think I have something here. How do you write a novel?” and started trying to sort that out. And in the process of that, at some point, not long after I started doing this, I discovered NaNoWriMo and decided that this was a great thing, and I was very excited about it. And I did my first one and it was a murder mystery—and let me tell you that doing a murder mystery without outlining is questionable as a choice. And then the second one that I did was Shades of Milk and Honey, which was my first novel, first published novel. So…there was another novel I call Novel Zero. That was the novel that I wrote in high school through college and then finished on my second or third year on tour. But Shades of Milk and Honey was the, I guess the third…the second novel that I completed after I got serious about it.
But yeah, I did NaNoWriMo. And we, you know, I shopped that…I had shopped the thing that I wrote for my niece and nephew, but it has first-novel problems that I am not invested enough in the book now to go back and fix.
Did your niece and nephew enjoy it?
Well, that’s the main thing.
Well, of course, your novel that just won the Hugo Award and the Nebula and Locus, Calculating Stars, we’ll move on to talk about that as an example of your overall creative process. And you know… I know it’s a cliché, and I know writers hate to be asked it…the question is, “Where did the idea come from?” But, on a bigger scale, how do you generally generate ideas for stories? How does that work for you?
Sure. So, the funny thing is, actually, the...Calculating Stars began with a…
You know what? I skipped over one very important thing. You should give a quick description of Calculating Stars for people who haven’t read it…
…before we start talking about it.
OK. Calculating Stars is set in 1952. It’s Apollo-era science fiction, it’s women-centered. I slam an asteroid into Washington, D.C., and kick off the space program fast and early and with international cooperation. My main character, Elma York, is a mathematician and a pilot and she is working with her husband, who was the lead engineer, rocket designer, for the NACA—which was a real organization, it was NASA’s precursor—and becomes the lead engineer for the International Aerospace Coalition. And she realizes that the asteroid has caused a runaway greenhouse effect. So, we’re actually looking at an extinction event, which gives impetus to get people off the planet. As a side note, I will just let people know, the science…you know how you see those disaster films and there’s an asteroid coming at the Earth and they divert it into the ocean.
It would be a bad idea.
It turns out that’s a really bad idea, because when you have an asteroid come through, it tears a hole in the atmosphere. And then you get something called ejecta, which ejects part of the planet up into the upper atmosphere. And then, if it’s rocks, it’ll fall back down. If it’s water, what happens is the water vapor gets locked in the upper atmosphere. It doesn’t precipitate out, and you can trigger a runaway greenhouse effect. There is some speculation that this might be what happened to Venus. So, anyway…
I was just going to say, my feeling when that initially comes up and she does the math and realizes that’s what going to happen is, it felt very much like a Titanic: The Musical, which I’ve been in, and Titanic, the actual thing, which is that the engineer went down, took one look at what had happened and said, “This ship is going down,” even though there were still, you know, two or three hours of floating around and people not believing it.
It was inevitable at that point. And I had that same feeling when I got to that point in the book.
Yeah, that was a…like, when I started looking at it, and I will also say that I’m very cautious in this book to not tell you exactly how big the asteroid is, because the science on that is super complicated. And I decided that rather than being wrong about it, I was like, “Well, I know that this is how it works, and it is big enough to trigger these conditions. But I don’t know how big that is because I don’t have access to a university supercomputer modeling system to come up with something that’s exactly right.” And even there, it would still be…there’s still opportunity for error.
So, anyway, so that’s what the book is about. It’s basically getting into space in the 1950s. And it’s the push towards the moon. The idea came because I had written a novelette called “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” which I wrote for an anthology called Rip-Off! It was an audio anthology. And the premise of Rip-Off! was actually very much like the First Line magazine, which was that the first line is so important. But instead of us all having the same first line, we each got to pick a first line, a famous classic first line, and then write a different story. And I picked the opening line of The Wizard of Oz, and wrote something that was…I wanted a Bradberry homage, something that reminded me of The Martian Chronicles, and that created the story of Elma York and her husband, Nathaniel, who were both in “Lady Astronaut of Mars,” older, Elma is in her 60s, Nathaniel is older than she is, he’s in his 70s, and the decisions that they have to make. And the backstory for this piece of fiction was this asteroid strike.
And the more I started thinking about it, the more I was like, “You know, it would be really interesting to know what she was doing when that happened.” And I had written a couple of other short pieces in this universe before I really decided to unpack it into a novel. It’s…I jokingly call it my punch-card-punk universe because they’re much…the computing is a little bit behind where the real timeline went.
I love the fact that the computers are having to check the work of the IBM machine.
Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, that was true.
Yeah, I read that.
Yeah. Yeah, that was really…they were not completely reliable. And we lost…oh was it the, one of the Voyagers? the name’s just gone out of my head…but we lost an early rocket because they had…the computers, who were women, had written the code, had written, you know, this is the plan, and then they had given it to the Air Force and they had keyed it into the punch-cards to load it onto the, you know, onto the rocket, and had transposed something. And so the rocket wound up crashing. So, it’s a really interesting era in computing, in rocketry. And I just got more and more…like, I’ve always been interested in space, but the longer I work in this universe and become versed in the early space program and the contemporary space program, the more interested I am in what we’re doing and how it affects people.
It’s…I find it very interesting because, of course, they’re doing all this, they’re heading to the moon and everything, but it’s ten years earlier than it actually happened, and the technology is that much more primitive, and yet it could have been done then. And it’s very much in that golden age of science fiction era, you know, with Heinlein and rockets being built by teenagers in the backyard, practically.
Yes! Well, and when you start, like, when you really start looking at the early history of spacecraft, of spaceflight…I recommend Breaking the Chains of Gravity by Amy Shira Teitel,, which is a history of pre-NASA spaceflight, the history of spaceflight up until NASA exists, basically. And the early days were actually teenagers and rockets in Germany, there was this whole Rocketry Club. That’s where Wernher von Braun came from, the V-2 is a descendant of that. And it was, you know, it was kids who were like, “I’d love to go to the moon. Can I build this thing?”
Now, you’ve talked about a couple of stories which started with first lines that came from elsewhere. When you’re not starting with the first line…
Where do story ideas tend to come to you from?
It’s random. The thing people always say is the idea is not the hard part. The challenge is turning it into a story. So, I will approach it in a couple of different ways, depending on the situation. Sometimes I will sit down, I’ll just free-write something, and then I will sort of do a diagnostic look at it to see where I’m going and what I need to do to continue this in a satisfying way. Other times, you know, if I’m writing for an anthology or I have an idea that I’m having trouble getting traction on, then I will do something that’s much more mechanical, where I will start breaking this story apart in different permutations to see where the idea could come from.
There’s an organizational theory called the MICE quotient, which holds that every story is basically made up of four components: milieu, which is setting, characters, inquiries, questions that you have, and events. Sorry, milieu, inquiry, character, event. And you can tell pretty much every story, you can reshape and refocus it, depending on which of those you want to be the driver. Most stories have more than one element in them. And so, what I will sometimes do if I’m having trouble kind of getting traction on a story is that I’ll start with what I call the gee-whiz idea, which is, you know, any story prompt you want to throw at me, and then, if I don’t have an immediate hit on it, then I start interrogating it to see, you know, what are the things that could go wrong with the environment, what are the things that, you know, how could I trap someone someplace around this idea? Because a milieu story is about trying to exit, a journey story.
What questions might they have or not be able to answer? Is my character angsting about something or is there something angsty that could be around this, which gives you a character story? Or is there something about this that disrupts the status quo, which is an event? And so, I’ll dig into those. And what I’m looking for is very Marie Kondo. I’m looking for that, you know, that moment like, “Oooh!”, whatever sparks joy. And then that’s the thing that I’ll chase.
And if nothing sparks joy, then there’s not a story there.
Yeah. I mean, there is a story there, but sometimes you have to scratch at it a little bit harder. There’s…you can…I mean, I really think you can tell a story about anything. And you can make it compelling. Like, the first novel, the first thing that I won a Hugo for, is a story called “For Want of a Nail.” And that story, the gee-whiz idea, literally, I mean, seriously, this is what’s…you know, when I came up with this, because this was one that I had to write at a workshop on a deadliney kind of thing, I was, I just, I did the whole mechanical thing to jumpstart me into it. But the gee-whiz idea was trouble plugging in a cable. Proprietary cable. That was, that was it, it was like when you don’t have the right cable…
A situation we’ve all been in.
Yeah. That was the gee-whiz idea. And what I wound up writing, which completely is about not being able to find the right proprietary cable, is a story about a family on a generation ship, and the AI, which they use to record their history from generation to generation, gets dropped. There’s a cable in a housing that’s damaged, so it can no longer store in long-term memory, it can only keep things for a couple of hours and then it’s going to have to start ditching memories, and there’s trouble finding this cable. And the process of finding it and getting it uncovers that the AI has been masking for a couple of different people who have Alzheimer’s, and it’s been covering for them because it can whisper in their ear. And so it’s…the story unpacks into something else. But the story seed is “can’t find the right proprietary cable.” Which is not a particularly compelling story seed. That’s where I’m like, “Ideas are everywhere. It’s just…you just have to scratch up for a little while, sometimes.
It’s something I say when I do school presentations about writing. You know, I can look around a school room and have twenty different story ideas just from what they’ve got stuck on the walls…
…or on their desks or whatever So now, going back to Calculating Stars, once you have your story idea, what does your planning process look like for a novel. Are you a detailed outliner, or how does that work for you? And there must’ve been a lot of research involved in this one too, I would think.
It varies. So this one, I had a pretty good…I had a pretty solid outline for this one. And my general approach is that I’ll come up with kind of a what I call a thumbnail sketch, which is left over from my art days, which gives me sort of the basic compositional structure. And then I unpack that into a synopsis, which is like, you know, doing a rough sketch on the page. And then from there, I’ll unpack the synopsis into an outline, which is kind of my armature. And at each of those stages, things get adjusted and moved around as I come to understand the story a little bit more and what I want to get out of it. And I see opportunities, usually opportunities to make things worse for my characters.
And then…at each phase, I’m also doing research, and it gets more specific the deeper into the process I get. So, with this one, I did fairly broad research on the early space program. I also, when I’m doing something that’s historical, always assume that there were women and people of color there in real life and that they’ve been written out of the narrative. So, one of the things that I actively do is go looking for them. And usually, those stories are significantly more interesting than the ones we’ve always heard, partly because we haven’t heard them. They’re newer stories. Like, when I was working on this was before Hidden Figures came out, so the involvement of women of color in the space industry was something that I became aware of and it was really cool and not something that I had heard of. And some the women…like, you know, Katherine Johnson, who basically wrote…that is how we knew how to get to the moon, because of the programs that she wrote, the math she did, the equations, excuse me. So I look for those and that helps me kind of shape the story.
And then I get more specific in the research. So, like, with these novels, my main character is a pilot. So she needs…so I need to know how rockets are flown. But she’s not an engineer, so I don’t need to know how they’re built. Or rather, I need to know just enough so that when something goes wrong, I can handle it. And this is why I kind of wait until I get an outline, because what I generally find is the stuff that I need to know is related to the things that my character directly interacts with. So, as I get more specific, I get a better idea about which things my character is going to need to interact with, which allows me to then hone my research.
For these particular books, there is so much math and science in there that I don’t have, and the level of understanding that I need to have in order to put sometimes a detail that is like three words long, but if it’s the wrong three words, it’s very apparent to anyone in the industry. Sometimes, it’s a ton of research to do that. So, I hired a science consultant and then I also found a number of people who were willing to…you know, subject-matter experts who are just willing to participate and help me. So I had, you know, I had literal rocket scientists for my science consultants. And then I had a couple of astronauts who were willing to read along and helped me with things. So, when I got, you know, when I would be writing, I would hit a thing, it was a really specific crunchy detail in a scene, but also kind of a grace note, right? It’s not something in spreading the plot, but it’s letting you know that my character is competent. It’s setting the stage. It’s that kind of thing. And so I would play what I call Astronaut Mad Libs. I would write it, and it would be something like, “As she jobbed the job,” or “’Jargon,’” the captain said, as he jargonned the jargon,” and then send it over to the astronauts, and I would say, “Could you just fill in the blanks? Could you just play Mad Libs?” So, technically, parts of these books are written by astronauts.
I was thinking as I was reading it that it’s a lot scarier and harder work actually to write an alternate history, especially that recent an alternate history, than writing a far-future handwavium sort of science, because there are so many opportunities for you to mess up something that people actually know.
Yeah. Yeah. It’s really fascinating. There are a couple of times where I am tempted to just, like, throw some random acronyms on the page, and, you know, just keep going. “That’s a thing.” But what I run into with my own brain is that I know how many people learn their science from fiction and if I have the opportunity to put the right science down on the page, then I will. If…and most of the time, the constraints of getting the science right cause me to have a better story. If I can’t get the science right, then I go vague, or don’t build a plot point around it. Which is why with, as I mentioned before, the asteroid, I know that a water strike, and particularly a shallow water strike, can cause the runaway greenhouse effect. But I didn’t…it was not important to the book to have the size of the asteroid be defined. It’s not a plot point.
We knew what it did. That’s all that matters, really.
That’s right. So again, it’s what she interacts with. So, I did just enough. There I hand-waved the math…let me rephrase it. The math, she’s…there’s a point where she’s trying to figure out how big it is, and she’s…so what she does is, she needs to figure out what it would take to heat up the Chesapeake Bay to the point that it got heated up. So I have them do the math for that, for heating up the Chesapeake Bay. And I had Steven Granade, my science consultant, I’m like, “What is…I found this formula for figuring out what it would take to heat something up a body of water like this, but I don’t do this math. Please help me.” And he did that and walked me through the steps that he had to go through to do the math. And then I took that and used sections of it as my character was kind of working through the problem. So I would have them hum a little bit and just talk out loud, so you just get these pieces of the equation, which…
Yeah, I remember that.
Yeah. So it really makes it look like I know what I’m doing.
It’s all an illusion.
I basically am treating math like a magic system. I established that my character can do magic using numbers. And then later when I say things like, “Elma did the equations,” you believe that she can do those equations.
Without having to specify what those equations were.
That’s correct. Because I was just like, oh, this is…this is a lot.
So, what did your actual writing process look like? I notice you say in your bio that you have a lot of manual typewriters. Do you write on a manual typewriter, or is that just something you’d like to collect?
We like to collect them. I will sometimes do short fiction on manual typewriters. But we just collect them. I predominantly write on my computer, either in Scrivener or…these days, my favorite thing is 4 the Words, 4thewords.com, which is a roleplaying game that…in which the metric for defeating monsters and going on quests is the number of words you write and the time in which you write them.
It’s really good.
I should check that out, for sure.
It’s embarrassingly effective. I will write to earn a pair of wings with a dedication that I will not write for a paycheck. So it’s embarrassing how well it works, but it does.
That might be something I could use to motivate me, I admit.
There are quests. You have an avatar. There are little tiny pets that you can get. Yeah, it’s really good.
Hm. Do you work mostly, then, in a home office, or do you like to go out to other places, get away from the house, or what’s your…
All of the above. Since so much of my writing was done, early writing was done, in transit, I’m very comfortable writing kind of wherever I am. Sometimes I will go to a coffee shop because I just need to get out of the house because I’ve been there for so long. Sometimes I write at home in a chair, sometimes I write at a desk. I’m staying with friends right now and I’ve been writing…they have a solarium, so I’ve been sitting out there on a couch and their cat comes and sits with me. So it varies. The only things that are really super consistent are that if there is a conversation, a single conversation near me in which I can distinguish dialogue, I have difficulty concentrating, and I can’t write to music with lyrics. Or, actually, not just lyrics, I cannot write with the human voice. So even if it’s in another language, it will…there’s a part of my brain that’s trying to figure out what they’re saying.
It’s interesting, because I’m exactly the same way. In a coffee shop, I can write if it’s white noise, but otherwise…I have to put on headphones if somebody starts talking close enough to me to follow their conversation. Yeah. And I can’t listen to lyrics, either. I listen to classical or instrumental jazz. And it’s just background noise is just to block out the other noise.
Yeah. The thing that I figured out…so, I just finished writing Relentless Moon, which is Book Three in the Lady Astronaut series, or universe, and while I was in the process of writing it, I had had a flight in which I saw Captain Marvel and the soundtrack for that is so good and empowering and completely stuck in my head, but it’s full of all of these lyrics. So I assembled a Spotify list, which are instrumental versions. It’s an instrumental Captain Marvel playlist and it’s great. And I am now like, “Ah.” This is…because it’s all this really driving music and this is something that I will consider for future projects as well.
Something I didn’t ask you, but this is a good place to ask you because we’re getting to the point now…you’ve got a manuscript. What do you do next in the revision process? Do you have beta…well, you talked about some of the people who read it along the way, like astronauts and so forth.
But, do you have more traditional beta readers? And when you were starting out, were there writing groups and support groups like that that helped you along the way?
Yeah, I started with a writing group very, very early. And I…we recently moved to Nashville and I don’t have one in Nashville, and I miss having a writing group. But what I do with my beta readers is…this is very much influenced by the fact that I come from theater, in that I perform better for an audience. So, the only times I have gotten the stereotypical writer anxiety was the one novel where I decided not to use beta readers until I’d write the thing and then start showing it to people. And I got, I don’t know, ten chapters in and was having “this is a terrible book” reactions. And the thing that I do is, I use…so I’ll write, as I said, in Scrivener, and then I use Google Drive, Google Docs, and I’ll upload a chapter. And I have a list of beta readers who will read it. And I ask them to tell me just four basic things: awesome (so I don’t accidentally fix things); when they get bored, when their attention flags; when they’re confused; and when they don’t believe things. Then, I also tell them, like, stream-of-consciousness thoughts are great, and I enjoy those, but not to give me any kind of line notes at all, because all I’m interested in is whether or not the scene plays.
So, I think of it as inviting someone to a rehearsal. It’s like, it’s not even to a dress rehearsal stage, maybe, but I’ve just, you know, I’ve got the show up on its feet, I want to see if this plays. And then I’ll…just based on what they’re confused about, and that helps me kind of…so, I’m kind of doing a rolling revision as I go. I stay two chapters ahead of them. So, like, if I post Chapter One, that means I have finished writing Chapter Three. Then when I finish…and I should say that I usually talk through the outline with someone, like my writers’ group or with my agent or editor, so I’m pretty structurally solid by the time I start actually writing. And then this kind of rolling revision process means that I wind up with a fairly clean draft, though there’s usually things where I’ll have a retcon…and I just tell the readers, if I have a major retcon that I need to go back and do, I’ll just tell them like, you know, “In a previous scene, the evacuation is going to take place using a repelling line instead of the inflatable slide,” and then I just keep writing as if I’ve already made that change.
Then, when you have got that final draft, you do another revision just on your own?
And what do you look for in that pass?
I look for the same things that I ask my readers to look for. So, a lot of times I think a thing that writers will forget is that they have been thoroughly trained as readers for their entire life and that we can still have an emotional response to something, even if we know exactly what’s going to happen. There’s a piece of media that you’ve seen that you love, that, you know, you can probably recite lines from and you’ve seen multiple times. You know, like The Princess Bride. “Anybody got a peanut?” So, the fact that you know where something is going doesn’t stop you from having these emotional responses and this cathartic satisfaction.
So, with my fiction, if I am not having reader responses, like if I find myself getting bored with something, it’s probably boring. It probably means that it’s not going to stand up to a reread. And, you know, as a writer, if people want to reread my stuff, that’s real good. So, I try to do a read through in which I am thinking about my own emotional responses to things. Usually when I finish it there’s some big-picture stuff that I know I need to do and I’ll do that. But then, like, when I have something, that’s pretty clean, I’ll do a reread and look for the problems. Look for the things where I get a little bored. You know, like, “Look, you just started skimming there. Maybe you should do something with that.” The number of times that I’m reading something that I’ve written, I’m like, “What does that even mean?” So, I’ll fix everything that I can identify. And these days, unless I have done a really major structural change, after that, I will send it off to my agent or editor. Before I was agented and had books that were for sale, or books that had been sold, I would run it through a different set of beta readers and see how it played for them, to see whether or not I had accidentally introduced a problem. If I’ve done a really big structural change, I will often run it through beta readers before turning it in, through another set of iterators, but not always. It depends.
And what does your agent and/or editor, what sorts of things do they most often flag for you to take another look at? If anything?
It depends on the book. A lot of times it’s a pacing issue. Sometimes they’ll flag that there’s a character opportunity that I missed, motivation is not clear, and those are the things where it’s most likely to have been in my head and to not hit the page. So, it’s usually something to do with the characters, in either the main character’s or a secondary character’s internal life. And those are usually pretty easy adjustments to make. But that’s for me the things that I’m usually getting flagged with. Sometimes it’s something else that’s more…fundamental, a large change. But since I have them involved from the outline phase, it’s usually pretty sound by the time we get in there.
Have you had the same editor for multiple books or have you worked with different editors?
So, the first…until Relentless Moon, it has all been Liz Gorinsky for the novels, and now Relentless Moon is Beth Meacham. I’m still with Tor, but Liz left and now has her own company, Erewhon, and is doing quite well. But it was an interesting process. switching editors. I’ve been edited, of course, by a lot of different short-fiction editors, but figuring out what the rhythms were and our communication style and things like that, it’s an interesting shift. And they flag different things. Each good, but it’s an interesting, interesting change.
My main publisher is DAW, I’m on my tenth novel with him and of course, that’s Sheila Gilbert, so I’m very, very familiar with Sheila’s style of editing. So, whenever I work with anybody else, it’s like, “Well, that’s different.”
Yeah. Right. Yeah.
’Cause it is kind of a…it’s not exactly a marriage, but it’s some sort of long-term relationship, anyway.
Yeah. Yeah, it really is. I mean it’s…in a lot of ways you’re business partners, because you’re building a product together. It sounds really crass, but it is a thing that is happening. Or, you know, theater, it’s…you’re putting on a show together now.
Now, you are…I would suspect…pleased with your response that the book has gotten.
Yeah. Yeah. No, that’s been very nice. I mean, the…I’ll tell you that the awards are…I mean, it’s been amazing. And I…like, the whole hitting all three was…staggering, I would say. But the thing that has been really…I’m not sure…this is a…it’s a tricky thing to talk about because it was an unexpected thing…the discussions of anxiety and mental illness in the book. There are a lot of people for whom that hits very hard and that deal with anxiety and feel like they have never seen themselves on the page before. And so, the emails, the fan mail that I get with these books, is of a different sort than I’ve gotten with the other things I’ve written. And it is really humbling. Like, I am…again, you know, again, it’s a theater thing, and it’s a fiction thing, too, but there’s a thing that I create. And then there’s the thing that the audience sees. And a puppet…you know, a puppet is an inanimate object, right? My job is to pick it up and move it. But the thing we say in puppet theater is that the difference between playing with dolls and putting on a puppet show is the audience. Because the audience has to invest part of their belief in the character in order for it to come alive. It doesn’t matter how skilled I am at manipulating it. If there’s not someone there to watch it and invest part of themselves, it’s still just a figure. And so, the puppet exists in this liminal space between the performer and the audience. And I feel like books are very much the same way. Like, I wrote a book that satisfied me and that I intended to have an emotional impact on my readers. But I did not set out to write a book that was going to speak directly to people with anxiety. Like, that was…the goal was to tell a story about getting to the moon. That was the goal. And I wrote a character that I loved and I connected with, but this thing that has happened, that exists in this liminal space between my book and the reader, is something that the reader is responsible for. Like, each reader who picks it up is bringing part of themselves to it. And so, it’s this humbling thing where I am involved in this act of discovery for these readers. And what I’m doing is that I am…I’ve given them a tool, but the discovery is generated by them.
Yeah, I often like to say that writing is, we think of it as a solo thing that we do on our own, but it is in fact a completely collaborative art form, because, it does not exist until it exists in the head of somebody who reads it. And every reader is going to craft, really, a different story out of the story that you created. It’s actually a different story for every individual that reads it in some way or other.
Yeah, yeah. I mean, certainly, I also get the people who have clearly never realized that there are people in their lives who have anxiety. “Why is Elma so whiny? She can fly a plane, but she can’t talk in front of a group of people. I don’t believe that.” I’m like, “Oh, yeah, yeah. Anyone who has anxiety, they’re the best people to have with you in a crisis, because they’re like, what, stress hormones? That’s Tuesday.”
And I would think that you’ve had some good response…I haven’t…okay, I mentioned to you before we started the show that my wife is an engineer and has long been involved in the efforts to get more women involved in engineering. And there’s an effort in Canada right now called 30 by 30, which is to try to increase the percentage of women in the profession to thirty percent by 2030. And her mother was a doctor who graduated from medical school in 1947 when there were not a lot of other women in her class with her at the University of Toronto. So I would think that there would be a segment of the population whom that part really speaks to as well.
Yeah, yeah, that’s really true. A lot of people in STEM, women in particular, contact me to tell me that it’s like, “Oh, yeah, my story was Elma’s.” But what’s horrifying, is, it’s really easy to read the book and go, “But that was the 1950s.” And the number of women who have had that experience in the 21st century, of being the only woman in their math class…the fact that there’s a campaign to get thirty percent women, that’s still not a lot.
And I will say, I think at the University of Toronto, where my daughter, she’s not in engineering, but she just started this year, and I was there for their…when the engineers were having their big thing that they do the first day, there are all these people in yellow shirts and hard hats running around. And I was watching them go by. And it was, it looked pretty much 50/50. And I think they’re pretty darn close at the University of Toronto and the engineering program right now. So…
So, I’m going to challenge you on that, when you say that it looks 50/50, to find out. Because there is a thing that happens, and this is real, this is like well-documented, that when there are thirty percent women in a room, or on a bookshelf, that it is perceived as being predominantly women, even though it’s not.
Well, in this case, I asked my wife and she believes that it is close…closer than 30 percent in the high 40s maybe. So, you know, pretty close. OK. I confess I haven’t looked at up myself, but I think the University of Toronto at least is certainly working hard…
…to make that happen. So I also wanted to touch, before I get to my big philosophical question here—we’re just about out of time, but I want to get those in…but I did just want to ask you about the audiobook narration. That’s another form of theater.
And I’ve…I do some of that myself. I’m currently narrating my own books, but I’ve done a couple of other people’s, too. How did that come about?
I like to say it’s like puppetry, but without the pain. You know, I have this long career doing character voices and talking to myself because usually there’s two performers and you have to do the entire cast, so often you are in dialogue with yourself. So, I had that skill set and my minor in college was theater and speech, specifically doing radio performance. So, honestly, I like, I auditioned and audiobooks are just like trying to do any other form of, you know, any form of writing, where there’s submission guidelines and you go and you read the submission guidelines and then you follow those instructions and you turn in a tape. And then sometimes they’ll have you do what is essentially a callback, where they’ll say, “Yeah, we’re thinking about you for this audiobook. Here’s a page. Please read that page to us.” And then you see what happens. I got lucky. I did a couple of different things, but then started doing the Seanan Maguire series. I was just in the booth this morning to record the fixes on book thirteen in the series. So it’s nice to have a little bit of job security there. She keeps writing these.
But I have to ask, because, having done it…it’s an enormously time-consuming thing, recording books. Does that…how do you balance out writing your own stuff and recording the other stuff. You just have time for it? Because I find it’s a huge…you know, it just takes so much time.
Well, I don’t do self-producing. So I have an engineer, which means that I only have to do the recording part.
And true, I do my own engineering.
Yeah. And that’s the part that I’m just like, no. if I had to do that, yeah, then the balancing of those two things would be, I think, well-nigh impossible. But balancing just narrating and writing is not bad. Usually it’s, you know, six to eight hours a day of the narration, depending on the book and who I’m recording for. And then I’ll get in an hour or so of writing before or after, depending again on the book and where I am. Sometimes, I’m doing it…like, editing and narration. I will often do my edits on my lunch break or something. So it’s…I don’t find it any different than balancing writing with any other day job. And I don’t do it often. Like…I mean, I’ve done seventy-some books, but I’m not recording every day.
I could be if I did, if I were willing to do, home records or self-records. But I…most of my career has been trying to turn down the gigs I don’t want to do. And it’s not something I’m interested in doing. So I don’t, even though that means I have less audiobook work. And then there’s also books that I don’t want to record. There was a series that I was recording for a company and the books were very rapey and I recorded the second one and said, “I can’t, I can’t record these. I’m so sorry. I know that you don’t want to change narrators mid-series, but I just, I don’t want to be involved with these books.” I was already using a pseudonym for them and…which, like, they don’t…I don’t do a lot of. But I’m like, I don’t need to do these books and I don’t want to. So I don’t. Which makes it significantly easier to balance.
Yeah. Well, it’s you, when you’re reading something out loud it’s…yeah, if you’re not comfortable with the narrative, it would be very difficult, I would think, to…
I mean…yeah, I can do it. Like, I can turn in a good performance. It’s compelling and all of that. But I’m just like, “But I don’t want to participate in that.”
I’m just gonna back up for a minute. I was listening, but I was also checking the enrollment at the University of Toronto, and they’re at…I did overestimate. They are apparently at about thirty-five percent women at this point.
Yep. Thank you for checking. And that was what I, sorry, that was what I guessed.
I had heard a higher number than that, but clearly that was incorrect. So, just to finish up here, with the sort of the big philosophical question, and you sort of touched on this already, with the sort of reaction and, you know, talking about the collaboration with readers. But, the first question is, “Why do you do this? Why do you tell stories?”, and then the second question is, “And what do you hope to accomplish by telling stories?” So, why do you write, and specifically, why do you write science fiction? Why do you write this crazy stuff?
So I write, and I write, I guess, science fiction, because…for the same reasons that I do puppetry. It is the theater of the possible. It allows me to take the natural world, tip it on its side, and look at the interconnective tissue, which helps me understand the real world more. The reason I write instead of just doing daydreams is so that I can share those things with other people. It’s also, I think…I mean, I am a storyteller and it’s something that gives me satisfaction. I like the give and take. I like that conversation with the reader. So, really, I guess, ultimately, I write because it’s fun. I enjoy it. As I said, I am working to turn down gigs I don’t want to do, so ultimately and selfishly, I write because I enjoy it.
But the goal with each book is to provoke an emotional response in the reader and usually to have them share the same emotional journey that I have had when I’ve been thinking about a character. But each book is different. Each short story is different. Like, the specifics of what that emotional response is vary. With the Lady Astronaut books, a lot of what I am thinking about kind of consciously are ways in which to demonstrate a different path. Because we do learn so much from fiction. We use it as a means of cathartic experimentation, trying on different selves. And…as a reader, I mean, not as a writer. We do that as writers, too, but as readers, that’s what…we’re trying on these different lives and these thought experiments. And sometimes the thing we want to try on is just escaping the stuff that’s going on around us. Sometimes it is purely just for fun, which I think is also a valuable and important thing. But it is…each book we pick up, we pick up for a reason, to have this journey of some sort. And so I am, as a writer, wanting to create the experience that I have as a reader.
Something that…I always say that the reason I write is because I want to give to other people the experience I had as a reader.
You know, and create something that people will enjoy as much as I’ve enjoyed the stuff that I’ve read.
I think that’s a common thread. And what are you working on now?
I am doing the final edits for Relentless Moon. It was actually due day before yesterday, but I’m…one of my astronauts got back to me with notes at 10:30 the night before it was due, which is…fortunately, my editor was like, “Wait, you got astronaut notes? You get some extra days.” So I am actually rewriting a scene based on those notes right now. That is literally what I was doing right before this interview and what I’m going to do immediately when we’re done. And then, once I turn that in, I get to start working on a book that is not in the Lady Astronaut universe that I’m very excited about. It’s the next book that’s gonna come out from Tor. So, Relentless Moon comes out in 2020. The book after that is called The Spare Man, and it is a locked-room murder mystery on an interplanetary cruise ship. And it’s basically The Thin Man in space. It’s, you know, retired detective and a socialite and sparkling witty banter, but on a cruise ship going from the moon to Mars.
That sounds like fun.
It’s…I have written the first three chapters of it and the outline. I’m so excited to be writing this book. I cannot tell you. It is frolicking.
And where can people find you online?
The easiest way is to go to my Web site, maryrobinettekowal.com. And you can check out the Web site, but actually, signing up for my newsletter is probably the best thing, because I’ll tell you when I’m teaching classes, when I’m going to be traveling, and I will sometimes put out calls for beta readers and invite people to read my stuff while I’m working on it.
And are you active on Twitter?
Yes. @MaryRobinette, and on Instagram @MaryRobinetteKowal. Generally speaking, if you type in my name, Mary Robinette, I will pop up.
Yes, I think you’re the only one I’ve ever heard of.
So, funny thing, I actually met another Mary Robinette. But it was her last name. And that was very funny. But it’s…and Joe Biden’s middle name is also Robinette. But there’s not a lot of us.
I did not know that about Joe Biden, so that says…you learn something new every day. I knew it was Joe R. Biden, but I know that was his middle name.
Yeah, my double take on Inauguration Day was pretty epic.
Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers.
James Alan Gardner got his bachelor’s and master’s in math with a thesis on black holes, then immediately began writing science fiction instead. He has published ten novels and numerous short stories, including finalists for the Nebula and Hugo and winners for the Aurora, the Asimov’s Readers’ Choice Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. His most recent novels are All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, first book in the Dark vs. Spark series, and They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded, the second book, both from Tor. In his spare time, he plays a lot of tabletop roleplaying games and has recently begun writing material for Onyx Path’s Scion line. In his other spare time, he teaches kung fu to six-year-olds.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers, James.
Thanks, Edward. Glad to be here.
I guess we’ve kind of known each other for a long time, but we don’t encounter each other very often. But we did see each other at When Worlds Collide, which is something…When Words Collide. It always comes out as When Worlds Collide.
Yeah, yeah. It’s a great idea and a great title. And it was a great con this year.
Was that the first time you’d been?
It’s close to me, so I’m there most years. It gets plugged a lot on The Worldshapers, ’cause I’ve asked a number of writers to be on after I saw them at When Words Collide.
Well, if I can make it next year, I certainly will. I had a great time there.
And I guess this is a good place to mention to those interested that the website for that is WhenWordsCollide.org. It does fill up every year, so if you’re interested in going, it wouldn’t hurt to to sign up for next year, right now. But enough about that, let’s talk about you! I always start by taking guests back into the mists of time, and for you and me, it’s roughly the same amount of mists, to find out, first of all, when you became interested in writing, and when you became interested in writing science fiction. I’ve seen from other interviews that you started writing pretty early.
Yes. I still have some of the things that I wrote when I was, like, five. They are hiding in my parents’ house and I hope they will never see the light of day. The first thing…I can remember writing what would be called fanfic these days, which was in my time based on The Man from U.N.C.L.E.—which tells how old I was—and me and my friends were spies: the standard thing that one writes when one is…I guess I was twele at the time…and I kept writing some of that for a while.
I wrote several plays when I was in high school, but I really got serious in my first year of university. I was in co-op at the University of Waterloo, and there the co-op program is sort of four months in school, then four months in work placement, and I was working for IBM in Toronto, where I knew no one, and didn’t have a whole lot of money. But writing was cheap. So, for four months on my work term in Toronto, I amused myself by writing science fiction. And none of that was saleable, but bit by bit, I got better.
Well, I think it’s come up a few times on here with different authors, the famous saying…I always attribute it to Stephen King, that you had to write half a million words of unpublishable stuff before you wrote anything publishable, but then somebody recently who’d met Ray Bradbury said that he used to say 800,000 words.
Yeah, yeah. A whole bunch of junk before you get down to the good stuff underneath.
Yeah, that’s what it boils down to. So, you got your bachelor’s and master’s in math, but you never actually used that? You went straight into writing? Or what happened after you graduated?
I went…for two years after I got my master’s, I tried to write something significant. I was working on a novel…and I still like the idea for the novel, I might…every now and then, I think, “Is it time to write that? Maybe. Probably not yet.” But for two years I tried to make a living writing while tutoring calculus. That was my income. And at the same time, I was also writing for a musical comedy review at the university, and someone who was associated with that show put me in contact with a group in the computer science department who wanted someone to write computer manuals for them. So, I got a job half-time writing computer manuals, and that kept me in money for long enough for me to start selling stories and things.
Well, it’s interesting, because when I decided to be a full-time writer, one of the things that got me going was there was a market for, you know, general computer books at the time. So, people ask me what my first book is, and I always say, well, my first book was actually Using Microsoft publisher for Windows 95. And my second book was the sequel, Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 97.
Ah! I have a few Unix books out there that I, you know, they’re on the shelf, but I’m not proud of them.
Well, I was never that technical, but at the time there was actually a market at the level of, “To open a file, click FILE>OPEN.” That’s the kind of level I was writing at. And I was interested, too, that you wrote plays and this musical comedy revue…
…because that’s another side of what I do. I’m an actor and singer and performer, and I’ve done…I’ve written plays, as well. And I like to ask the writers who have done that sort of thing, if you find your theater background helps in the writing of fiction. For me, it feels that it does. But I’m always interested to see if others have the same experience.
Oh, yes, immensely. So, I did…first of all, this onstage musical comedy thing, and then a group of us who helped write for that started writing straight-up plays and radio dramas. And sometime in there, I got into improv and took a number of improv classes. And all those things go together into…theater gives you immediate feedback on whether your writing works or not, by the amount you cringe when you hear your lines being said. You learn a bit on fool-proofing dialogue. And certainly, improv gives you some good practice in structuring scenes and figuring out how actions go together to make plot.
I often feel that, having directed plays and stuff like that, I feel like I have a very solid image in my head at all times of where characters are in relationship to each other in the space in which the scene is happening, and when I tutor younger or beginning writers—and I’m writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library right now—I’ve done quite a bit of that—and one thing I often find is, it’s like a gray fog in which everything is happening.
And I’m not entirely certain where everybody is in relationship to each other. You get an image of them in one place and the next thing you know, they’re looking out the window, but they never left the fireplace in your head.
I think theater helps with that.
Yeah. Certainly, just plain old scene choreography helps. Theatre contributes to that a lot. As you say, who’s where and what’s actually there. The idea of what is in the room besides the characters is hugely useful when you’re trying to figure out what the characters do in response to some problem. There’s almost always something in the room that they can use, if you’ve envisioned the room well enough to actually have stuff there.
And if you plant it in the right place and in the story so it doesn’t materialize out of thin air.
Yes. Well, you know, whenever you write a story, every scene has to take place someplace. Every time someone goes into a room, you pretty much have to describe the room and you want to describe interesting things in the room, and just that description, first of all, trying to come up with something that is interesting and not the same old, same old, will give you material to use later on in the scene.
What you said about fool-proofing dialogue is actually something that Orson Scott Card said when I interviewed him for The Worldshapers, and he’s done a lot of theatre, and he actually had a role in your breaking in, didn’t he? Because he was at Clarion West when you were there?
Yes. He was the first teacher in my year at Clarion West. He gave me really good feedback on a story that he liked a great deal, and that was actually my first published story. He put in a good word for me with the editor of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and so when I sent that story to the editor, it sold, and that was my first pro SF sale.
Before you went to Clarion, had you taken any other formal writing training?
Yeah. Between…the summer of when I got my bachelor’s, I went to Banff, the Banff Centre for Fine Arts, and took a writing course there. W.O. Mitchell was the grandfather of it all, but it was…Alice Munro was there, so, you know, hanging out with some pretty impressive people, and got a lot of good feedback on my writing and how to set about writing stories.
So, I ask science fiction fantasy writers about their formal training…now clearly, at Clarion, science fiction and fantasy is what people are writing, but usually in other writing programs it is not, and there’s sometimes a…
Sometimes it’s not a comfortable fit with what the program is about. Did you find that, or did it or did you find it helpful that it wasn’t science-fiction focused?
Yeah, I don’t think I wrote a great deal of science-fiction content while I was at Banff. It was mostly…the method, what W.O. Mitchell called “Mitchell’s messy method,” was just sitting down and seeing what spontaneously arose as you were at the typewriter. And at that point, I was writing a lot of memoir-type things, as opposed to actual fiction, and finding what inside of me wanted to be written was very useful for that. The real trick after that is figuring out how to shape that material into actual stories. And once I got started with that, kind of marrying my own memories with science fiction was kind of fun and useful.
Was Mitchell there when you were there?
The reason I ask is because W.O. Mitchell is famously from Weyburn, Saskatchewan, which is where I grew up, and I got to meet him once when he came doing a reading for his book, Roses Are Difficult Here, I think is what it was, when I was at the newspaper down there. He was an interesting guy.
Yeah, he’s a fun guy, and, of course, a great raconteur, or was, so he was great to have in classes. And we all had, I think, a fifteen-minute session with all of the writers in residence. It was, you know, in some sense similar to Clarion, in that the writers were brought in for, I think, four or five days, and each of the students had a chance to show the writers their stuff and get some feedback on it.
The other thing I like to mention about Mitchell is that, when I did see him in Weyburn, there was a woman there named Sadie Bowerman, who was the first white baby to be born in Weyburn, she was still alive then. And she’d been his schoolteacher, and she got after him—she must have been in her eighties by then—she got after him for using bad language. So, writers can relate. You never know who’s going to pop up out of your past.
That’s right. I have a few English teachers who have caught up with me over the years and, you know, kind of patted me on the back. And again, some of them have chided me for using bad language.
The other thing I want to mention about Weyburn, Saskatchewan, is that Guy Gavriel Kay was born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, so Weyburn is a very important place in the tapestry of…well, much more for him than me, I wasn’t born there, but I grew up there.
A hotbed of literature.
Yeah, exactly. Well, you started with short fiction. Did you write that exclusively for a while, or did you immediately try to write novels, or how did that work for you?
Well, I think I wrote a novel…back when I was in high school, I got pneumonia the year after…sorry, the summer after…I graduated, and was basically locked in the house for the entire summer and spent some time writing a novel-like thing. I wouldn’t call it a novel, but it was a long piece of fiction. So…gee, I forget about doing that. I always think that my writing started when I was in university co-op, but no, that summer where I had nothing else to do. But that was kind of an amusement more than a, “Yes, I’m going to be a writer.”
Still, part of your half a million words that you had to…
That’s right. Yeah. Never gonna rewrite that one. That was self-indulgent, as only high-school students can be.
Yeah. So, when did your first novel come along?
My…so, I wrote it…I wrote several novels before I actually published something. So, I was in Clarion in ’89 and was writing short stories and started a novel sometime after that. And I think there were two novels that didn’t go anywhere—and thank heavens they never saw the light of day—before I wrote Expendable, which was published in ’97.
And so now we’re up to how many novels?
Ten, eleven. I guess it’s eleven now.
Are you still writing a lot of short fiction?
Off and on. I can write novels for two or three hours a day, at least the first early drafts of novels, and that gives…so I write in the morning, and in the afternoon, I want to write something different. So, I sometimes write short fiction. Sometimes I write the gaming material that you mentioned in my biography. Sometimes I do freelance editing jobs for various people. So, afternoons I have several hours when I do something besides the novel in progress, and short stories are one of the things I do then.
Okay, well, that’s kind of getting us into the process part of this of the podcast, which is what I’m going to focus on next. So, let’s move on to that. So, we’re gonna focus on All Those Explosions were Someone Else’s Fault, just as an example of your creative process, and see how that ties in with the way you write everything, but before we do that…I have not finished the book; very much enjoying it, it’s a lot of fun…
So, perhaps you can give a synopsis for those who have not read it, without giving away anything that I haven’t read yet.
Ok. Well, the setup is that in the early 1980s, vampires, werewolves, demons, et cetera, come out of the closet and basically say, “Why have we been keeping ourselves secret? We have a saleable asset here. You want to be one of us, pay us $10 million and we’ll make you a vampire or a werewolf or a demon.” And within twenty years, all the movers and shakers, or the wealthy, influential people, are basically darklings. So…and then in the year 2000, suddenly superheroes start appearing. And so you’ve got this world where the rich one percent are essentially monsters and the ninety-nine percent are protected by the people who were stupid enough to touch the glowing meteor or fall in the vat of weird chemicals, or were just, you know, born as mutants. And so, the background setup is the dark one percent versus the super ninety-nine percent, or the supers who represent the ninety-nine percent, who protect them.
And then the story follows four science students at the University of Waterloo who get into a weird lab accident and gain superpowers and become involved in the shenanigans that were responsible for the lab accident. And a supervillain is part of it all, and a cabal of darklings who are up to no good, and the whole thing takes place in something like nine hours on the night of the winter solstice.
And it’s a humorous novel.
Yes, it is. It’s done for laughs. It could…the setup could get very dire with horrible people running the world, but I like playing it for laughs, and the four characters who get superpowers are all funny in their various ways. The first book is about Kim, who is a geology student who…queer—non-binary, anyway…who has a wry view of the world. The second centers on Jules, who is a wonderful, incautious, brash person, and the plan is for four novels, one on each of the superheroes, having them go through their big life change. I think that a novel should be about a huge moment in a character’s life, and each of the four heroes…I mean, “Hey, you’ve just become super. What does that do to you?” And for each of them, it kind of brings to the fore something that they haven’t dealt with, baggage that they haven’t dealt with. And they’re each going to be forced to confront this stuff that they’ve been ignoring for much of their life and deal with their issues one way or another.
So, what was the seed for this and how does that tie into the way that stories appear for you, in general? I’m trying to avoid saying “Where do you get your ideas?”, but that’s basically the question.
You know, I don’t…the seed was the idea of the superheroes-versus-darkling type things, and the one percent versus the ninety-nine percent, which was relevant at the time I started writing this. You know, it was…the Occupy movement had been taking place. I mean, that’s where I get the one percent versus the ninety-nine percent. And it was a time when the politics of the whole thing was kind of in your face.
And I had also done a lot of roleplaying in various contexts. So, if people are familiar with the White Wolf games, which later became Onyx Path, or were…Onyx Path started writing for the same game lines…you could be a vampire or a werewolf or some other type of creature of the night. And that was one set of roleplaying that I had done, but I’d also done a lot of superhero roleplaying.
And putting them together, as far as I know, had never been done before, but was a really cool idea. As soon as I had the idea, I Googled like mad to see if there was anything like this out there, and there wasn’t. Urban fantasy was big at that point. Superhero fiction was just starting to become more prevalent. One of the things that interests me is that superhero comics have been around for eighty years, but superheroes in prose fiction really hadn’t been done a lot before, say, fifteen years ago? There were a few novelizations of superhero movies, but until…fan fiction for sure and the Marvel superhero movies came out…there hadn’t been a lot of superheroes in prose fiction, but that kind of opened up and now there’s a whole ton of it.
Well, it is an interesting juxtaposition. Certainly, I’ve never encountered the two things put together like that, so it’s very interesting.
Yeah, I hadn’t seen it before. I still haven’t seen it. So, it’s kind of fun to be able to play with that without too much competition.
Now, that’s how this came about. Is that fairly typical of your story generation. Is it basically just ideas bubble up and bounce into each other?
I think I go back to what I said about stories being about some huge pivotal moment in a character’s life. So, whatever the seed for a story is, the next thing I want to know is what character is going to experience the setup and what sort of transition are they going to go through. So, often I think of some dramatic situation, some sort of ticking bomb that is going to cause trouble in some setting. But then immediately I say, “OK, well, what character is going to face this problem and what is it going to put them in?” When I was…you told me ahead of time that we were going to be talking about All Those Explosions, and I went back through my notes, and…on the book as I was developing it…and it’s constantly, “What problem is this going to cause for the characters and what sort of transitions are they going to go through because of it?”
Well, and that’s the very next question. What does your planning process look like once you had this idea? It sounds like the characters come perhaps even before you have the plot worked out?
Absolutely. So, it’s useful to have some sort of background problem that is going to force the characters to act—a ticking bomb, so that even if the characters are, you know, lost, or I’m lost because I don’t know what happens next, there’s going to be some pressure to deal with the situation. But I think a novel is about an overt exterior situation, but it also has to be about a character facing some sort of crisis in their life, so constantly, when I develop things, I’m thinking, “OK, what is this going to put the character through? What is the next thing? How are the screws going to tighten on the character?” Not just in terms of the urgency of the external situation, but the development of the internal situation, too.
So, how do you find those characters? How do you decide what your characters are going to be? I mean, Kim is, in her own words, I believe, a “short, queer Asian kid.”
Which, you know, is not you. So…
How did you decide?
Really…so, the first time I…the first draft…Kim was Asian, but not queer. And, she…the situation…so, for people who haven’t read the book, one of the first things she does is, she comes across an old flame of hers, someone she knew in high school. Really, her first serious boyfriend, who has become a darkling, who was always a rich kid who knew he was going to be a darkling as soon as he was old enough to be transformed. And that relationship went bad, and basically, the…Kim was a bland character who didn’t have a whole lot of personality. And one thing I often do when I’m trying to get a handle on characters, especially when trying to get a handle on personality, is sit down and improv stuff in their tone of voice—just sit at the typewriter…or the computer, of course, these days…and write a diatribe from them as fast as I can and see what just pops out. So, this is Mitchell’s messy method again, just sitting down and blast it out and see what pops out. And Kim’s queerness came from that. I was blasting away, basically a monologue, and it just completely took me by surprise when she started talking about, “No, I’m not as binary as you think,” sort of thing.
And there were several days there when I thought, “Oh, shit. Am I going to actually write a non-binary character?”, you know, a straight middle-aged white guy writing a queer young university-age Asian. Did I have the nerve to do that, and how much homework would I have to do in order to not be that guy writing someone who I had no right to write? But that’s what was…that was the voice that came to me, and eventually I said, “Yeah, OK, I’ve got to go with this.”
Well, she is a very interesting voice.
Yeah. Yeah. And once I had that handle on the character, a whole lot of things came out and the character came alive, and some of the situations that were dead on the page in the first draft took on a whole different character and really much more interesting resonance than they had been in the first draft.
Did you do something similar with your other main characters?
Yeah. So, Nicholas had the same process. I did, you know, a soliloquy from his point of view, and not so much with the other three superheroes, because I knew their books were going to be coming along later. When I did the Jules book, which is They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded, the sequel to All Those Explosions, I did do soliloquies from her point of view. And for the future books, I will be doing the same thing. It’s just a really useful way to unlock what inhibitions have been keeping…holding me back from doing, going as far as I need to for a character.
Once you’ve developed the character, you have an idea for the setup, how much of an outline or planning do you do? Is it a very detailed? Are you a pantser or a plotter?
I’m mostly a pantser, but especially because I’m writing superhero things, I want there to be some great set pieces. So, I plan for interesting places where big superhero action can take place. So, in All Those Explosions, there are several big superhero-vs.-monster action things, and I figured out where they were going to take place and sort of some context for why they were happening, and an overarching plot for them.
So, in All Those Explosions…well, Waterloo has a number of tourist attractions and I want, over the course of the series, to destroy them all. So, in the first book, I trash the Waterloo market, which is the St. Jacob’s Market, which is a big farmer’s market. In the second one, I trash a popular club, the Transylvania Club, which is just, you know, a name like that is asking to be associated with monsters. And the third one, Waterloo has a clay and glass gallery, the National Clay and Glass Gallery.
I mean, I got to have a fight there. And Clay and Glass is right next to the Perimeter Institute, which is an institute of theoretical physics, a kind of a world-class physics research center. So, trashing both the Clay and Glass and Perimeter is kind of a gimme. And I don’t know what I’m going to trash for the final book, but we’ll see.
There is some fun to that. The last book in my young adult series, The Shards of Excalibur, the final big climactic battle takes place at a provincial park called Cannington Manor. I do a pretty good job on it, too.
Yeah, I mean, if you’re going to take a place…if you’re going to have your story take place in a real location, then let’s make use of the location. And especially with, you know, if you’re going to have superheroes, there is going to be a large set of smoking rubble.
And I still remember the Jim Butcher, I don’t remember which book it was, in the Dresden Files, where Sue the Tyrannosaurus comes to life.
Yeah, a super thing. I just loved that episode. Yeah, I don’t remember which book it was, but…
So, you talked a little bit about your actual writing process, you know, three hours in the morning and work on other things in the afternoon. Do you just work at home, are you a go-out-to-a-coffee-shop guy? I gather you type and don’t do it longhand or anything like that…
Oh, I do some things in longhand. If a particular scene is not working out well, I go longhand and I write it out. I’m working right now on a haunted-house novel, and this morning I spent writing really the first scene of a particular character, because I really wanted to slow down and cover the bases and really get the character’s voice down on the page. So, when I want to…writing fast is useful, but writing slow is also useful.
Well, then, speaking of that, are you a fast writer or a slow writer when you average the two things together?
I’m not superfast. I can I usually do about a thousand words a day. So, you know, some people do a lot more than that, several thousand words a day, and I’ve done that, but usually, a thousand is good. And that’s for my morning stuff. In the afternoon. I would do maybe the same amount again, depending on whether I’m writing new stuff or revising old stuff.
When you get to the end, you have a draft, have you done sort of rolling revisions, so it’s pretty clean at that point, or do you go back and do a complete rewrite, or how does that work for you?
I do some rolling revisions, but usually I have to go back and do several more drafts. So, as I say, I’m mostly a pantser for the first draft, which means that there’s rough-around-the-edges stuff. So, the haunted-house novel, which is the one I’m thinking of, the rough draft ending was really, “Yeah, OK, I’m gonna keep writing it, but I doubt that I’m going to keep any of it.” The second draft is pretty good. I like the action of the ending, except that the precipitating incident…so, there’s something that makes all hell break loose, and I like the hell that breaks loose, but I’m not so crazy about what actually kicks things off. So, I’m going to at least have to rewrite that again, which will probably necessitate a few other changes. So, I’m refining things as I go along and I hope it’s no more than three drafts, but…that’s about typical for what I’m doing.
You’ve been published by various publishers, which means you’ve worked with a lot of different editors. What typically comes back to you from editors to work on? If anything.
I don’t get a whole lot of structural stuff. It’s mostly cosmetic or, you know, “I didn’t understand this,” or, “This chapter is slow,” or something like that. So, I don’t get…once or twice. I’ve had people, an editor, say, “No, this ending just doesn’t work.” But mostly it’s, “I didn’t understand their motivation for doing this,” or, you know, “Polish up this section again.” So, I’m pretty lucky, in that I want a story to be as clean as possible before I send it to my agent. And she makes a few comments, but not many, and then she sends it off. So, I like things being pretty good to go before I send them out, which means I have to spend a fair length of time…I don’t send out anything that I don’t think is pretty good already.
Now, you do some editing for other people. Do you find that working on other people’s manuscripts helps you when it comes time to look at your own?
Oh, sure. It’s much easier to see problems when other people have them, but I know I have the same thing, so…and, you know, we all have words that we overuse—“really,” “quite,” “very,” all that. And as I’m reading somebody else’s stuff…I have a list of these words that I overuse, and reading somebody else’s stuff, I, you know. “Oh, yeah. There’s one of mine that I should pay attention to, too.”
Speaking of which, brilliant little thing from Brandon Sanderson that I recently heard about in their Writing Excuses podcast is to, you know, you have your list of words that you overuse or, you know…”suddenly,” there’s another one that is real easy to use too much of…just do a global replace on the word with brackets around it, square brackets, and that makes it stand out. So, when you’re reading the book, reading the manuscript, you see these things and you could say, “Do I really need that?” It really draws your attention to the words that you overuse and gets you…makes you think about them again. I really love that technique and I use it now.
Oh, yeah. That’s a good one. I think I’ll have to adopt that, too.
Yeah. Yeah. It just draws your attention to something. Sometimes “very” is a perfectly good word to use, and a lot of times the prose is stronger by crossing it out, by deleting it.
I find that my characters tend to use animal noises too much in dialogue, they growl things and snarl things and…
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That’s a good point.
I do avoid hissed dialogue because it always bothers me when somebody hisses something that has no sibilance in it.
Generally speaking, I only let myself use “said,” “told,” “replied,” “shouted,” “whispered,” maybe a “muttered” or two…oh, and “asked.” But I do try to avoid the animal noises and so on.
Yeah, I’m aware of it, but that doesn’t mean I catch it all the time. The other thing is…you’ve probably had this experience, too…the best way to find things that you overlooked is to read your work out loud in front of an audience after it’s been published.
Yeah. Yeah. Zadie Smith has a quote, something to the effect of, “The best time to rewrite your stuff is two years after it’s been published and ten minutes before you read it at a literary festival.”
That’s about right. Well, we’ve got about ten minutes left, so I want to get to the big philosophical questions.
It’s really one question with multiple parts. Why do you write? Why do you write this stuff? And why do you think any of us do? That’s really three questions. But it’s kind of one.
Oh, well, just like almost every other writer I write because I can’t not write. These days I get up in the morning and write, and I write to understand what’s in my head and to…because I like writing stories.
Why do I write something in particular? Because something about the idea has got its claws in me, and the only way to get free of it is to write it and write it well. So, this…again, the haunted-house story that I’m thinking of was an idea I had probably two and a half years ago. And I had no idea why I wanted to write a haunted-house story, and it’s taken me two years to crystallize what I want to say in the book and why I’m writing it.
I think…writers, as you know, sit alone for hours at a time. And what we write today will not be seen in the world for a long, long time. It’s, you know…it takes me at least a year to write a novel, often more, and after it’s written, it’ll take at least another year before it gets out for anyone to…before it gets published…and so you really have to be obsessed and in the moment to write. There has to be some sort of reward or compulsion to write, because you don’t get the fame and fortune, if ever…
I’m still waiting for that.
Yeah. Yeah. Well, in some sense, we all write to impress someone. Paul Simon said, when someone asked him why he wrote songs, “I write songs to impress girls.” And, you know, there is that aspect…
I went into theater to kiss girls.
Yeah. Yeah. And I certainly started writing to, you know, let’s impress women. But it’s a long time before that happens. I mean, a long time between sitting down to write the sentences today and before anyone is impressed by it. And I am not, you know, making a gazillion dollars or having a gazillion readers. I’d love to. So, you just kind of get the rewards, and every now and then you have a character suddenly come to life, like Kim revealing that she’s queer, and the idea that you…every once in a while, you feel as if you are telling a truth that is out there, as opposed to stuff that you’re just pulling out of your head. And it’s really cool when that happens.
The podcast is called The Worldshapers. Probably a bit grand to talk about shaping the world through fiction, but what do you hope your writing does for the readers who read it? Because you can certainly influence individuals as they read your stories.
Yeah. Well, for All Those Explosions, I wanted to make people laugh, and…
Works for me!
Good, thank you! And to have the fun that I find in superheroes. I started reading superhero comics when I was just a kid. I talked about this at When Words Collide, that my great uncle would buy me one comic book a week when I was seven years old and I bought comic books and I bought superhero comic books. And I do not know anymore any of the people that I knew when I was seven, other than my immediate family, and I still know Batman, I still know Spider-Man, I still know all of those characters that I knew back then. I keep up with them. I don’t know the people anymore, but I know the characters. And so, to be able to write superheroes…not, alas, Marvel and DC superheroes, although, if anybody from Marvel or DC are listening, I’m there, hire me!…but to be able to write superheroes and just have fun with them…I hoped that I could pass on the delight that I get from superheroes to other people, too, and to share in the joy.
And for other books, it’s almost always the same, that I get delight from various types of stories. And so, I want to be part of that conversation, be part of the fun or the delight or the concern or the thrills or the horrors or whatever. It’s such a delight to be a writer and to be part of the conversation.
That’s actually what I always say, that I started writing because I loved the stories that I was experiencing so much, I wanted to be able to create stories that other people would enjoy as much as I enjoyed the ones I’ve been reading. So, that’s probably a very common thing with writers.
Look at fanfic! I think many people get their starts in fanfic, if not actual…these days, you can actually put it in front of the public, but even if you don’t, you write your little stories and show it to your friends and so on. And that’s because whatever you’re doing fanfic of touched something in you and you want to be in that world, you want to have a piece of it, too.
You mentioned what you’re working on, the haunted-house novel, anything else that you’re working on right now?
I’m doing a re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty where nobody is stupid. It’s kind of fun to write a fairy tale with sensible people. There’s a lot of re-imagined fairy tales these days. Naomi Novik immediately comes to mind, but other people have been doing it, too. And it’s fun to write fairy tales which have that feel of depth, mythological depth, folkloric depth, but bring a modern sensibility to them that…there are just some strange things that happen in very tales that are hard to believe, and trying to justify them—or not!—Is fun.
And where can people find you online?
I am…most of my stuff is on Twitter @jamesagard. I do Twitter every day. I also have jamesalangardner.com, which I blog at occasionally. Those are the best places. I do have a Facebook page, which I almost never do anything with, so…
Well, I think that’s about the end of our time. Thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers!
It was great talking to you, Edward. Thanks for having me.
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?”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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…
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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…
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 Canopy, Echoes 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.
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!
L. E. 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.
An hour-long talk with bestselling, award-winning science fiction author John Scalzi about how and why he writes, focusing on his latest novel, The Collapsing Empire.
John Scalzi was born in California in 1969 and currently lives in Bradford, OH. He studied philosophy at the University of Chicago, which is where he began his freelance writing career. He wrote film reviews and was a newspaper columnist for a few years, and in 1996 was hired by AOL as its in-house writer and editor. He wrote his first novel, Agent to the Stars, in 1997 and published it free on his website in 1999. His first published novel, Old Man’s War, also appeared first on his blog (serialized a chapter a day) in 2002. Tor Books purchased it, publishing it commercially in 2005, and it went on to win the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Since then, John has won numerous awards, including the Hugo, the Locus, the Audie, the Seiun and the Kurd Lasswitz, plus the 2016 Governor’s Award for the Arts in Ohio. His work regularly appears on the New York Times bestseller list for fiction.
He also remains involved in the film and gaming worlds: he’s the creative consultant for the Stargate Universe television series, the writer for the video game Midnight Star, by Industrial Toys, and executive producer for Old Man’s War and The Collapsing Empire, both currently in development for television. He served as president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America from 2010 to 2013. He’s married and has a daughter and “several pets.”
First, we establish that your genial host was literally the first person John met in science fiction and fantasy besides his editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden: we were on a panel together at the 2003 Toronto WorldCon on the topic (if we remember right) of other ways to make money writing besides writing fiction.
John traces his interest in science fiction back to childhood reading, specifically mentioning Robert A. Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky as one of the first SF books he remembers.
He notes that when, in his twenties, he decided to write a novel, “just to find out if I could,” he had to decide between two genres he was equally comfortable with, science fiction and mystery, and literally flipped a coin: heads SF, tails mystery. “It’s a weird sort of inflection point.” If it had come up tails, he wonders how different his life would have been, because “so many of the people that I know and like are in science fiction.”
He adds that SF is capacious enough you can write whatever you want, and he’s gone on to write a couple of what are essentially science-fiction mystery novels, Lock In and Head On.
John says he first realized he could do interesting things with words when, in sixth grade, a teacher asked him to write a letter to the news department of a local station because he wanted to get publicity for something he was doing and thought a letter from a student would get more attention than he would. He told John, “I want you to do this because you are good with words.”
In his ninth-grade English composition class, tasked to write a short story on the theme of gifts, he trashed what he’d first attempted and ended up, late on the last night, typing up a lightly fictionalized true-life story about his friends getting together: the gift they gave was their love for each other. (“Awww…”)
When that story, which he had slammed together at the last moment, was the only one in three sections of the class to get an A, he realized writing was something he could do well and relatively easily, whereas everything else–math, history, whatever–was difficult. And so, at the age of fourteen, he decided, “That’s it, I’m going to be a writer,” largely driven by the principle of least effort for maximum return. “The disappointing thing for me later was to find writing isn’t in fact easy, that you do in fact have to work at it, by then it was too late.”
He adds, “I have no other skills. The only other thing I would be good at would be Wal-Mart greeter.”
He kind of fell into his philosophy degree (he was undecided, but discovered he’d taken enough philosophy courses to graduate sooner than if he’d gone for, say an English degree), and agrees it doesn’t have a lot of real-world utility, but feels it has had value in his work. He says philosophy teaches you how to learn, and how to think more deeply about things, useful in writing science fiction.
He adds, “We like to call science fiction the literature of ideas, but I think really what it is is the literature of consequences. It’s not so much about the aliens arriving or robots coming, but the consequence of those arrivals that we write about in science fiction.”
Fun fact: Saul Bellow was briefly John’s thesis advisor.
John says coming up with ideas for novels aren’t the hard part; the hard part is distinguishing the good from the terrible. If he has an idea, he doesn’t write it down. If he remembers it the next day he thinks about it some more. If he remembers it in a month, even more. “It’s a vicious process because I’m absent-minded and forget a lot of things. For something to stay in my brain, it has to interest me.”
What interested him and led to The Collapsing Empire was the importance of ocean currents and the jets stream to European colonialism between 1400-1800. If those currents had altered, making it far more difficult or important for Europeans to sail to other continents, he wondered, “What would have happened to European colonialism, and consequently the rest of thew world?”
He gives a synopsis of The Collapsing Empire, which is about an interdependent network of worlds that rely on a natural phenomenon called the Flow, which permits interstellar travel. The Interdependency (as it’s called) finds itself in serious trouble as the Flow begins to collapse, cutting worlds off from the rest of humanity. “When humans are confronted with natural things that actually don’t care about human’s plans one way or the other, how do they dal with that?” He notes that has parallels in both the past and the present.
John begins building characters from archetypes. He knew he needed someone at the very top (the emperox, Cardenia), someone at eye-level (the scientist, Marce, a.k.a. “exposition guy”), and a “wild card” (Kiva). Once he knew he needed those types of characters, then he began to develop their personalities.
“I’m a huge fan of all the characters, which is nice because I had to write them.”
He notes writing Kiva in particular was “a heck of a lot of fun,” although you have to be careful or characters like that can take over the book. “Characters like Kiva are the spice, rather than necessarily the main dish.”
I noted that his approach to developing characters seemed filmic–starting with archetypes, working down–and asked if his long interest in and observation of film ties into the way he plots and writes.
John said, “Absolutely.” He notes Old Man’s War very clearly has a three-act cinematic structure, because that was a storytelling grammar he was used to not only from watching films but from analyzing them during more than a decade of writing film criticism. “In many ways my storytelling school was not really novels, it was film.” He also notes that his novels are “dialogue-heavy,” something else that comes from film.
He doesn’t anticipate writing any of the scripts for the Old Man’s War and The Collapsing Empire TV adaptations, since he doesn’t have any concrete experience in the field. However, he notes his experience as a reviewer, and hence familiarity with other screen adaptations, has made it easier for him to talk to producer–unlike some authors, he understands that the filmic version of a story and the novel version are very different, and changes have to be made to make the former work as well as the latter.
Adaptations shouldn’t be slavish, he says, but should be “intelligent,” leveraging “the strengths of the film medium to tell the story in a way that lives in that particular medium.”
He has written a screenplay adaptation of his novella The Dispatcher as an exercise and has received positive feedback on it, and does hope o write a script or screenplay in the future.
There is a brief aside about the alien lifeforms making mewing noises in the background.
Asked if he rewrites, John says, no, not in the sense of finishing a draft and then rewriting it from the beginning: he does “rolling rewrites,” so when he gets to the end, he’s done.
Two reasons: as a former journalist, “where you have write a couple of thousand words every few days and it’s all due at 3 p.m. and you have to write clean copy,” he learned to organize his thoughts as he wrote.
As well, he says, he thinks the revision process is dictated by the instruments people use. Those who write, or first wrote, by hand or typewriter, tend to do drafts. He’s only ever written on a computer, hence the rolling (or “fractal”) drafts. “By the time I get to the end, so much of what would have been first drafts or second drafts has already been subsumed in the writing process.”
He does a lot of research, but the Internet makes that “super easy.” He adds, however, that, “You have to be intelligent about it.”
Asked to comment on the concept of “worldshaping,” versus “worldbuilding,” he says that when writers create worlds what they are really doing is taking what they already know, introducing new highly speculative (and hopefully interesting elements), and then mashing them together to find out what comes out the other end. , mashing them together, finding out what comes out the other end.
” I would say I think both terms are equally applicable. I think the issue here might be degree than kind.”
He notes that, not only is it very difficult to create a completely new world, it would be a very hard book to sell, because there would be no hook there for the reader…and that’s important, because science fiction and fantasy writers are working “more or less in service to a commercial genre.” Writers have to think not only about what they want, but what editors and readers want.
“There’a reason why McDonald’s is hugely popular and molecular gastronomy is basically a niche project,” he says. “The number of people who want a hamburger is larger than those who want to question the nature of the food on their plate, and whether it is food or not.”
He points out that Old Man’s War is “Starship Troopers with old people,” a Heinlein juvenile with senior citizens. That was intentional, he says. He wanted to write a book that would sell, so he looked at what was popular at the time, which was military science fiction. So he decided, “I’m going to write a military science fiction book on my terms. I’m going to give people what they want, and then I’m going to give myself what I want, and then we’re going to see what works out.
Asked why he writes–or anyone writes–he says that self-expression is obviously the desire for all writers, but after that “things get varied very quickly.”
” I never once wrote in a journal,” John says, even though people gave him journals as he was growing up, thinking he was the kind of kid who would keep one. But, he says, “I already knew what I was thinking. I didn’t need to write it down.”
Instead, he says, he only started writing when he had an audience. “For me, writing has always been an extroverted act, not just for myself, but primarily for other people to read.” The gratification it provides comes from the ability to make people feel things through the power of words: to persuade, and argue.
John says a lot of people start writing because they love the act itself, but for him, that’s a small component. He notes that he plays guitar just because he enjoys it, and takes photos for the same reason. But, he says, “Writing for me has always been about making a connection with other people, and not just making a connection…but influencing them in a particular way, making them laugh, making them cry, making them get angry when I feel angry.”
He says his writing has had an impact on the real world. Some things in his stories–like the enhanced artificial blood in Old Man’s War–has piqued the interest of real-life scientists. SF offers something few other genres do, he notes, in that people sometimes read about something in SF and think, “This is cool, I want this in the universe,”–and then they go out and build it.
His biggest impact has been through a couple of non-fiction pieces, he says. His essay “Being Poor,” written in response to people wondering why those affected by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans didn’t just pack up and leave, “went everywhere.” It appeared in newspapers, it’s been put in textbooks, and it’s taught in classes. “That’s an example fo something I’ve seen go far and wide and have influence on the discussion.”
Another was an essay comparing life to a videogame, and arguing that in that metaphorical videogame, straight white men play at the “lowest difficulty setting.” It doesn’t mean they can’t still lose, it doesn’t mean the game is hard, but it isn’t as hard for them as for some others. He says that piece was an attempt “to explain privilege to people who hate the world privilege.”
He says that piece has also gone everywhere, and he hears people using that metaphor whom he’s quite certain have no idea that it originated with him. “it’s come into the common parlance when discussing privilege and intersectionality.”
John says it’s harder to say if anything he’s doing in SF will have any significant influence. “I don’t think you get to figure it out until you’ve been doing it for twenty or thirty years.” And, he adds, “If you’re sitting there saying, what abut my legacy, you won’t be focusing on what you’re doing now, which is writing stuff that is interesting and entertaining and makes people think today…you sit there and write the best work you can. If it gets remembered, that’s great, if it doesn’t, that’s fine, because right in the moment you are doing what you’re supposed to do, which is make people laugh, or cry, or think, or be entertained, and that in and of itself is a laudable goal.”