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An hour-long conversation with Canadian science fiction author Derek Künsken, author of The Quantum Magician (Solaris) and its upcoming sequel, The Quantum Garden (due out in October 2019), as well as the webcomic (with artist Wendy Muldon) Briarworld, and numerous short stories, which have appeared in places like Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a number of year’s-best anthologies, and podcasts.
Derek Künsken left molecular biology to work with street kids in Honduras and upon his return to Canada found his way into the Canadian Foreign Service. After working in embassies in Colombia and Cuba he settled and Gatineau, Quebec, where he writes science fiction and fantasy and raises his son. Derek’s short fiction has appeared in places like Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and a number of year’s-best anthologies, as well as in foreign magazines in translation, and many have been reprinted in podcasts, available for free. His first novel, The Quantum Magician, came out in 2018 from Solaris. Its sequel, The Quantum Garden, will be in stores everywhere in October 2019. He also writes a fun “jetpack planetary-romance webcomic” with Argentinean artist Wendy Muldon, called Briarworld, which updates every Tuesday on Webtoons.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers, Derek.
Thanks so much.
We’ve kind of known each other, mainly because of Can-Con in Ottawa, which I’ve been to the last three years or something like that, so that’s usually when I see you.
Yeah. You make quite a trek across the country to get here.
Well, I got invited to be Guest of Honour that one year, and then I liked it so much I’ve been going back ever since. So, we’re going to talk primarily about The Quantum Magician, and how that all came about, which…I have to confess I haven’t quite finished it but I’m well into it and enjoying it very much.
The butler did it.
So, when I give you a chance to synopsize it later, I always say don’t give any spoilers, and this time it’s for me, too. But first, let’s go back into the mists of time and find out, how did you first become interested in science fiction and fantasy and…reading it, presumably, we all start as readers, and then from there, how did you begin writing it?
So, I didn’t start as a reader. My sort of creative primordial soup was Saturday-morning cartoons. I watched the Super Friends, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Spiderman, Batman, Space Ghost, and stuff like that. And I was a kid when Star Wars came out and my parents brought me to see it in the drive-in, and there was Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers, and I think all of that together I had in in my brain right when I was ten years old and my mother gave me my first comic books and I became a voracious reader of comic books. And then you know how in comics they always have those little asterisks where, like, they’ll refer to a story and say, you know, “Go back to this issue.” In one, John Carter, Warlord of Mars, they had an asterisk and it wasn’t a comic book they were referring to but The Princess of Mars, and I’m like, “What on earth is this?” So, I went to a second-hand store and found my first novel that I bought on purpose, and was reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, and from then on, you know, picking up a wider and wider selection of stuff. So, I didn’t come to sci-fi by reading right away but I knew I wanted to be a writer as soon as I could write, although I don’t know why.
Well, what were some of the other books that you gravitated to after you started with Edgar Rice Burroughs?
So, I was a really…I’m not a well-read writer. I would pick one writer and read most of their stuff until I couldn’t stand it. And so, I read a lot of Edgar Rice Burroughs, which is terrible training for a writer because it was pulp. I read a lot of comic books until end of university. Katherine Kurtz was really good. I liked her Deryni series, and I found that because of a class they’d made in Dragon Magazine back when I was playing D&D as a teen. I discovered Asimov in high school and also Tolkien, and then when I got to university, there was a second-hand bookstore nearby, and I discovered Robert Holdstock and a few other writers. I started to try and really broaden my reading, though, in my early thirties, after I’d failed so often to write anything that anybody would want to buy. And I started picking…I just went through all the Hugo and Nebula lists and just tried to see what I could find in second-hand shops and, you know, I just started reading a lot more.
I never read Edgar Rice Burroughs, I admit. But Katherine Kurtz was one that I did pick up as well. I’m obviously older than you because you saw Star Wars as a child, and I saw it as a college student so there’s roughly that gap in there. But I also played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons in university. I often say that I supposedly majored in journalism but really I majored in Dungeons and Dragons and minored in journalism, based on the amount of hours I put into it. And I do hear that a lot from authors. A lot of authors have played D&D.
Yes. Yes. Because, you know, it’s either that or have friends, right, back in the ’80s?
Now, I admit that when I did it I actually preferred to be the dungeonmaster and I realized one reason I quit playing it very much was I ran out of people to play with, because I moved away from university, but also I realized that a lot of the muscles I was using and creating my Dungeons and Dragons world were the ones I could be using in creating fictional worlds.
That’s really cool. Yeah, I can’t say I had the same experience, in part just because the D&D community I was with split up, you know, when I was still in high school, so…yeah.
Well, my roommate was the one that introduced me to it, and he’d started playing when D&D came in three paperback, badly printed pamphlets, basically.
For $10 each. I still have those original books somewhere, at least two of them.
Oh, my goodness.
They’re probably worth, like, $30. So, anyway, enough about Dungeons and Dragons. So, did you just begin to start trying to write in college or along that timeframe?
Oh, no. I wrote my first book in Grade 4. I just, I don’t know why. My father had a typewriter and there was something pretty…so, I had written…so, I went to French Immersion, because I am in Ontario, and that means you didn’t learn any English until about Grade 2 and even then it was only an hour. So, by the time I was in Grade 3 I could put together…I could write English sentences, and pretty early I started already trying to write stories–I remember doing it at that age–and then when I was in Grade 4, my dad’s typewriter was there, and there was something really, really magical about it not being in my awful handwriting, and being on the page and looking so official, and that typewriter really motivated me, and then my dad got me a better electric one in Grade 7 and I wrote a, you know, many more things then, but just piddling-around sort of stuff. And then in Grade 8 I wrote another book. But, I mean, these are all childish attempts, right? But they point at some of the urges and the needs that are in us that we know how to express now but we didn’t know how to express then. By the time I was fifteen, though, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be associated with kid stuff anymore and the novel I started at fifteen was very much intended to be a novel that would be sold to adults, that would be put out by a publisher and everything else.
Did you finish it?
Oh, yeah. It took me…by the time I got to eighteen years old I realized that the roots of the book were, like, the beginning of it, were not strong enough to sustain it and so I just kind of restarted. Which is not a bad thing to do. And so, from eighteen to twenty-five I got two university degrees and then also finished the novel and sent it off while I was still in grad school. And that got rejection from Tor, but I was pretty motivated that…you know, there were lines in the margins and little notes like, “Oh, this sounds cool,” sort of thing from whichever reader had gotten it. And so it was cool to have had my turn at bat but by the time I got the rejection back after a year, I looked at it and I saw, “Well, you know, I can do way better now and I can see all sorts of flaws and so I put it aside.”
Did you share your writing with anybody during all that time?
I took one creative writing course in university but as you can imagine in university it’s more lit-focused and I was writing sci-fi. I had friends I could share stuff with, and they were good friends that, you know, they would read through a 100,000-word novel, but they weren’t writers. And so…I really think there’s something you need in a critiquing group, like it has to be writers, it has to be somebody who can say, “You know, I see the technique you’re using here. This technique is not the appropriate one because I’ve tried it and, you know, this is another technique you may want to try to get this effect.” So, yeah, I didn’t have a writers’ community if that’s what you’re asking. In fact, I didn’t have a writers’ community until I was about thirty-five, thirty-six.
Well, it was that but also…like, I wrote, I started writing fairly lengthy stuff about Grade 8, 9, and wrote three novels in high school and all that. And I did share them with my classmates, and the reason I ask it is because it’s often…you find out at least that you’re telling stories that people enjoy even if maybe the techniques not really there, but you you’re kind of getting those stories out there. I was wondering if that was your experience.
Yeah, no. Well,. the thing is I didn’t share I think…I don’t know why. But why did you start writing? Like, did you consciously, like were you self-aware that I am a writer therefore I am writing? Or did you just start to do it the way a beaver builds a dam, which is a bit the way I feel I started?
I was a huge reader and I decided that I wanted to tell a story, too, and most of them didn’t go anywhere to begin with but then I wrote a complete short story when I was eleven years old with a friend, something to do on a rainy day. And my junior-high English teacher, Tony Tunbridge…it was science fiction, it was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot”…and he took it seriously. and that kind of spurred me on to try to write more and more and write better things and somewhere along in there I realized that that was what I really wanted to do. So, I always ask writers about that. And you also mentioned the creative writing class…you’re my twenty-fifth author. I’ve interviewed on the podcast. And a few of them have taken formal creative writing and most of them say that their formal creative writing wasn’t much help to them as a science fiction and fantasy writer. It sounds like you fall into that ballpark, too.
Actually, to be fair, I think I took…it was a second-year course at the University of Guelph. It made me read things I wouldn’t have normally read. It made me critique things that I wouldn’t have normally critiqued. And it exposed me to Strunk and White, for example, and all of his rules of writing, and then even some of the ways the prof talked about what you’re trying to do with fiction was useful, and so I think there are a lot of things that translated over, most especially the techniques, but even just the, you know, trying to read CanLit. It wasn’t for me, it wasn’t my cup of tea, but I could appreciate some of what they were doing and it’s, you know…I think I read Dune in university and then, you know, I tried to reread it ten or fifteen years later and I found there was a huge difference in what I could appreciate out of it, in part because some of the technique and the way he wrote, and I attribute that to just that sort of Launchpad of what I got from that course. Not all bad.
I was going to say, I suppose nothing is entirely wasted, even if you’re in a course that doesn’t really fit right into what you’re doing. You always pick up something from it if you’re if you’re open to it.
Now what you were studying was science, was it? You said you got two degrees.
Yeah, I did a degree in biology at Guelph and then I did a master’s in biology at McMaster, and so…Guelph was a plant-genetics sort of school, and so I did genetics and molecular biology, and I really loved it, and that still provides a lot of the sort of foundational stuff for when I’m making aliens and things. And then, for my master’s degree I worked in a cancer lab building genetically engineered viruses to see, you know, if these would be good vectors to carry immunotherapy into tumours. So, that was also a really interesting experience, which exposed me a lot to, you know, the viral world as well, which is really cool genetically.
And genetics certainly plays an important role in your novel, too, which we’ll talk about shortly.
But then, you didn’t stick with that.
How did you end up working with street kids in Honduras?
I think the reason I got into genetics…it’s not a crapshoot. I actually loved biology and molecular biology but the only reason I knew about it was from The Uncanny X-Men comic books, because Moira McTaggart and Professor X were both geneticists and it just sounded like a cool thing and so, when I got into high school I, you know, I twigged right away when we were learning genetics in high school, and so, I’ve…the only job I knew you could do with genetics was to be a prof. And so, I decided to head for grad school and, you know, be on the researcher sort of career path.
But as soon as I got into grad school I saw, you know, the kind of quality of life that professors have and the sort of uncertainty they have and how much, you know, almost independent of how smart you are is your success, which is based on luck of, did you pick the right field, did you pick the right time, did you pick the right set of experiments, did you pick the right gene? And I thought, “Wow, it’s just so unstable.”
And the other thing is, it’s…I worked in a big lab so there are always people around. but in the end you’re all working on your own experiments and it felt a bit lonely in the work part. Like, it wasn’t like I was working with others. And I found that there were sort of emotional muscles that weren’t being flexed in that work. And so, about midway through my master’s I decided I didn’t want to be a professor anymore and I did want to do something a little more people-focused.
And, yeah, after grad school I wanted to work with street kids, and I had a cousin who was already working with children who worked in the street in Honduras. And so, she set me up with an NGO in a different city who gave me room and board and I worked with, you know, kids who were, you know, drug-addicted, living in the streets, being abused, some here in prostitution. And it was a sort of first-contact job where, you know, you had to make some kind of emotional contact, some trust contact, quite quickly to try and see if, after a while, they might take themselves out of the situation of vulnerability and at least come to the centre, where they could get food and clothing, medical attention, where they wouldn’t be preyed upon by, you know, people, and, you know, eventually, if it’s possible, see if they could be reunited with their families, and in some cases they were, you know, the families were the reasons they were on the street, but in other cases it was just, you know, seduced out by different factors and stuff. So, I did that for about ten or twelve months. And, yeah, it was a life-changing experience.
Does that still inform your writing, those experiences?
I don’t know what it does. I subscribe a bit to this sort of Tolkeining thing, which is, you know, you absorb a lot of stuff and you don’t exactly follow any individual leaf that’s falling down in your brain. It’s just…there’s a mulch at the bottom and out of that mulch grows stuff. I’ve tried to write stories about street kids and I’ve had a couple that worked, but far more often I feel pretty strong imposter syndrome, even to be somebody trying to write about that topic and so, you know, like, I just don’t feel I know enough or understand enough of their lives to do it authentically, and so I kind of shy away from it.
But then after that you ended up in the Canadian Foreign Service.
Yes. Because in the late ’90s the only people who were hiring was the Foreign Service. And if you had a master’s degree and foreign experience and bilingual, you know, you could apply. And so, I did, and managed to score high enough that I got picked, and about a year later they shipped me off to Colombia for three years, where I worked on their special refugee program that they had there, which was really cool. And then, you know, after three years I was cross-posted to Havana, where I was working basically in what you could call anti-people smuggling, where, you know, I would work with airlines and the Ministry of the Interior of Cuba to, you know, just pass around information to try and stop people from using false passports and fake visas and imposters, how do you detect them, and stuff like that. And, you know, both of those places were very, very interesting but it was…it’s hard on a marriage, because your wife can’t necessarily work in a country like that, where the income and the language are so different. But also, I knew that artistically I was far away from other writers and I needed to be closer to other writers who were writing in English, whom…I needed to be able to interact with them. So, we decided to come back to Canada, and I’ve been in Gatineau now since.
Yeah. Sorry, since, yeah.
I was waiting for a year there.
And I thought, “Oh, you still there?”
Since, period. Okay. You need that…have you ever seen the visual punctuation thing that Victor Borge used to do? If you don’t, you should look it up.
There’s little sound effects like comma is a “gzzzzk!”, and there’s all these…sometimes I think I’d be useful in radio and podcast things like.
Oh, that’s funny.
So, you were writing through all that time? You were still…
Yes. Yeah, I was, and…
When did you shell sell your first short story?
I sold my first short story in 2006. It was in 2006…one of the issues of 2006’s On Spec, and…so. I would’ve been thirty-five at that time, and so that would’ve been just when I had gotten back to Canada.
And a lot of short stories since.
Yes. Yes. Well, in part…my second short story sale was to Asimov’s, which is, you know, one of the top markets and I thought, “Well, I made it now. Oh, now I can go back to my novels,” of which I had two failed ones, and so I decided to write a third novel because now that I’d made it, you know, in terms of competence, of course my novel would sell, and so I wrote a third novel and then, you know, that didn’t work. But so, basically I had a period of…the last ten years has been write a bunch of short stories, write a novel, write a bunch of short stories, write a novel, and the short stories mostly got sold, everything after 2011 is pretty much sold, but the novels…I ended up having five in the end that were, you know, just not there, and so I think I was learning skills on the short story side maybe faster than on the novel side or…I don’t know. It’s hard to pick apart your own failures, but it’s…yeah.
One question I have because I read it in the bio and then I thought that sounds a little odd. They’ve been “reprinted in podcasts?” What does that mean. Are they audio, then?
Yeah, yeah. So, for example, Escape Pod, Pod Castle, and Pseudo Pod are three big markets and I have three stories in there that have all been published elsewhere. And, yeah, I kind of consider podcast to be reprint markets because I always go for the print first.
The other thing I wanted to ask, because you are bilingual, have you…do you write in French at all, or do you just write in English?
Yeah. I didn’t do a lot of homework on French grammar when I was a kid except when my mother made me. So, no. I…my reading is good. My writing is fine, but fine is not what you need for fiction, you need something, you know, much more expansive.
Do you do quite a bit of reading in French?
No, no almost none. I’m impatient. So, what happens is, I find that reading in French is slow enough that I get bored of it. And then I stop. It’s only if I have to, or if I think I should a little bit, like eating vegetables, I’ll read in French to make sure I’m staying current, because with the government I do have an obligation to keep my French at a certain level and luckily my oral French is quite good and I enjoy speaking French quite a bit, and I treat reading and writing in French as, you know, “I should eat my vegetables,” sort of thing, and also go to the gym.
So, you’re still with the Foreign Service or some other government…?
So, I left the foreign service and became a policy guy for about nine years and then I took a leave from work because we were driving with my son somewhere once and, you know, those conversations where, you know, “I’ll tell you when you’re eighteen” sort of thing.
And he was quiet after that for a little while and then, you know, a minute after I’d said that, he said, “That’s in eight years,” and I nearly had a heart attack because then I realized, “Wait a second, he’s ten,” and, you know, I go to work and I only see him a couple of hours a day because of the work hours and everything else. And in three years he’s not going to want to be with me anymore because he’s gonna be a teenager and he’s gonna be, you know, chasing after girls and stuff. So, I took a leave from work to be with my son more. And that’s been absolutely fantastic. We spent four summers so far together, I think. And, I pick him up from school at three, I drop him off at school at eight, and it’s fantastic. And then, when he’s at school, that’s when I write. And so, it’s been a very nice balance. But I eventually have to head back to work, ’cause my leave…it’s an unpaid leave. You can only live for so long on unpaid leave.
Yeah, well let’s move on and talk about your first novel which has now been published, The Quantum Magician. First, before we talk about how it came about, synopsize it without spoiling anything.
Well, I got to my agent by saying, “It’s Ocean’s Eleven meets Guardians of the Galaxy.” And then she sold it to the publisher by saying it was Ocean’s Eleven in space.
Spaaace, yeah. No, it’s…there is…like, it’s a space-opera book. There are a set of…one of the tropes of space opera that I really enjoy is that. you know. there are lost civilizations that have gone extinct and what they’ve left is behind this technology that we know nothing about. And so, there’s this wormhole network left behind by these forerunners and the nations in space that control those are these big patron nations, and they have client nations who are allowed access to them but, you know, under conditions and for service and stuff. So, there is one of these client nations that comes to a con man called Belisarius and they say, “You know, we have some stuff we want to move across this wormhole but they’re not going to let us through. We’d like you, as a con man, to help us move our stuff across this wormhole.” And that’s the beginning of the story. And the fun stuff with a con plot structure is, you know, you’ve got certain things that are really, really fun for the audience, like finding the allies and, you know, going through the training and then figuring out where things are gonna go wrong and how they have to improvise and stuff like that. So, it was a very fun book to write.
Well I’m glad you expressed it as Ocean’s Eleven because I was going to say it seems a lot like an Ocean’s Eleven or that kind of caper story. So obviously that was a deliberate thing.
Yeah. Well, also the sting. I enjoy heist movies a lot. And to be honest, as well, I wanted to go with a plot structure that I understood pretty well, whose beats I understood pretty well, because I had five failed novels. I sort of was lacking the confidence to embark on a sixth unless I had a bit of a boost, so to speak. It’s not training wheels, it’s a boost. And so, I went with a plot structure that I think I understood. And I think it also worked because some of the worldbuilding is weird enough that for the audience, as well, having a structure they’re more familiar with allows me to put a lot of stuff on it that is unfamiliar and a little weird.
So, did you choose the structure and then thought about a way to make a space-opera version of that, or was the impetus something different. How did…where did you get your idea? What was the seed for this?
So, I did…so, one of the…I subscribe to the theory of John Truby, who is this Hollywood script doctor. And he says, when you’re writing a screenplay, write down all of the things you’ve seen in other screenplays that you think are fascinating, ideas you’d love to play with, and then just see which ones could go together and what you get. And so, one of the ideas I had was a con structure like The Sting or Ocean’s Eleven. I also wanted to use some of the aliens I’d created in some of my other stories, like the Homo eridanus, the mongrels in the story. I wanted to create a few others. I knew I wanted to make a quantum man because I had read a story by Stephen Baxter where he had somebody who could perceive things in the quantum world, but the way he did it is not the way I would do it, and that’s often the way I get inspired, I look at what other people have done and I said, “Is that the way I would do it?”, and then as soon as I say “No,” you know, that sends me off on a tangent of my own creativity. It’s just looking at what questions other writers have asked. And I think I wanted to do something about…do I really think that access to space is going to be as equitable as we think. Because there’s all this talk about. you know. well there’s so many resources in space and so on. But. you know. we haven’t gotten there yet and I’m sure there’s gonna be choke points. And so, for me, the wormholes were the stand and choke points for everything else, and that’s why there are only four big patron nations and everybody else who is in space, you know, is under the thumb of one of those patron nations.
So, once you had your sort of general idea, what does your…and this applies to all your writing…what does your outlining and planning process look like? Are you a staunch outliner?
Yeah. Yeah. Because I’ve had a lot of failed stories where I think the ending didn’t land. And so, for me, I have to know the ending, because at least, when I outline the ending, what I can do then is I can start interrogating it and say, well, is this ending surprising? Is this ending satisfying? If it isn’t surprising, are there ways that I can come up with a different ending or are there ways that I can misdirect it so that it is surprising and stuff like that. So, I do outline, and my creative process also involves a fair bit of worldbuilding, because for me the setting is really important because I am a sense-of-wonder junkie, and so, a lot of what I get really excited about is the, you know, “We’re on asteroids,” or, “Oh, look, they, you know, engineered these people and look at how weird they are,” and stuff like that. And so, those are all the elements I put in. But also understanding, in this one novel, that I was using a particular structure that had audience expectations with it that I could play with as well was part of that, too, was part of my calculus.
Well, with all that worldbuilding…and there was, you know, little asides on the history of playing cards and things like that…what does your research process look like?
So, on this one…I did a science fact article for Analog Magazine on this book, because it also got serialized in Analog.
Right, I was going to ask you about that. Yeah.
And I found…they wanted me to do the science in The Quantum Magician, and I found that, you know, maybe one quarter of the science was physics or chemistry and then three quarters was biology, and I hadn’t realized that when I was writing it, it just…that’s the way it came out. And I think because I was trying to look at the different ways that genetic engineering of our children can go wrong, that really means you’re going to spend a lot of time on the biology and the unintended consequences. And so, for me, because I did two degrees in biology there’s a lot less stuff I really need to look up.
And I think in science fiction, as well, you often have two questions. One is, “Is it possible?” and the other is, “How would you do it?” And in…as far as engineering. you know. of genes and stuff goes. it’s all possible. I mean, you know, everything from a goldfish to a human to a whale to whatever you can imagine, all sorts of things that could be alive. And really it’s just a different combination of genes and so, anything you want to make, you don’t really have to worry too much and explain too much. So, the research was a lot lighter on that side. I had to research more on the physics, I think. And the cards, in fact.
There were a few other things like that, you know, little historical notes and some of the naming and things like that. It seems you’d done a little digging around. Do you ever get lost in your in your research where you go down a rabbit path just because it’s so interesting?
I think…I don’t know if I do it as much as other writers do because. you know. I’m friends with a lot of writers and we’ll be talking on Twitter and then somebody will come back up and say. “I just spent two hours down a rabbit hole,” and I’m like, “Whoa I’m so glad I don’t, you know, do that.” I generally go for what I want and then pick it up because I’m always conscious of time that could be writing or I could be doing something else, and so when I’m writing I try and stay on writing as much as possible. That being said, I’m also human, and so, when I find something interesting or when it just isn’t working for me that day, yeah, I’ll end up researching a little more than maybe I plan to.
So, in addition to the researching you did ahead of time before you started writing, you do find things along the way that you have to do a bit of research on as well I presume?
Yeah, it’s…I outline to the point that the metaphor where they say it’s like taking a drive. you know that if you’re driving from Ottawa to Toronto you know you’re going to pass Kingston and Brockville and Belleville and Trenton and Coburg.
Well, I wouldn’t know that, but those who live in Ontario would know that…and Quebec.
So, you’re going to pass all those places and you know those are landmarks. But in between, you know, it’s almost…the discovery is the in-between stuff for me, and the imagining…like, when I get to a new city like Belleville or something then I say, “OK, what does it look like in Belleville,” or, like, I know where I’m going to go there. But, so, I outline lightly enough that research happens, you know, on the spot as well as ahead of time.
How long would your outline be?
Probably fifteen to twenty pages single-spaced. I just do it in bullet form, and so a scene could take one sentence, which means that when I get to actually writing it, you know, I’m going to have to do some thinking, or it could be I’ve got snippets of conversation and other stuff and little details that I’ve already got in mind and that will all be one bullet that maybe lasts a whole half page or something. So, when I get to that it will be far easier to write and just that mishmash of different things, roughly put in order, is how I write, even though I don’t necessarily always write in order.
Do you find yourself departing from your outline as you write?
Uh, yeah. Yeah.
Have you ever had to replot to the end? I’ve had to do that. That’s what I ask.
Yeah. No, I…once I’ve got the end and I’ve done my interrogation of the end, I tend to stick to that because having the end and knowing the denouement, the sort of emotional feel of the denouement, is what gives me the confidence to proceed. And I’m self-aware enough as a writer, that if I don’t have that confidence I won’t be able to write, that I know that I have to preserve that confidence. I do spend a lot of time trying to figure out what makes me tick as a writer, what motivates me. As you’ve probably seen on Twitter, having challenges with other people, like, “Hey, let’s do forty-five minutes right now,” that keeps me relatively honest and productive, and also counting the words helps, but also knowing my ending is a big thing for me too.
Now the other aspect, obviously, of the story is, you’ve got your world and you’ve got your plot, but there have to be characters in there. So, how do you find the characters you need and how do you flesh them out?
A lot of stealing. So, you know, the Belisarius character is, you know, every character is a stand in for you. But in the end…
Yes. Every character is Ed Willett! No, the Belisarius character, I think, is the sort of straight man of the whole thing, right? He’s got his own thing to go through, but essentially he’s the everyman of the future that we’re gonna follow through, even though obviously he’s very special. The Iekanjika character, the major, is a military person, and I wanted her to have a chip on his shoulder and I wanted her to have her own grudges she wants to solve and so, that comes through. The puppet, Gates-15, he was really interesting to do because I had to think, “Okay, if you’ve got somebody who’s chemically addicted to the smell of somebody else and that is hardwired to the centre that produces religious awe in your brain, what kind of culture would you have around that?”, and so, the puppet characters in the story were very, very informed by their biology and the history of captivity and then the history of being captors now in the story. The Marie character was a mix of, you know, somebody I know mixed with that Muppet who likes to blow things up, and then Stills is another character with a different kind of chip on his shoulder and a different way of taking the sort of not being the first-class citizen, and what does he do with it and what do his people do with it, and, you know, what kind of cultural baggage do they take on to make…to sort of defend themselves against the world where power. of course. is important.
Well, it certainly is a fascinating cast of characters. And for anybody who hasn’t read it yet, just hearing your description of the puppets, for example, will make you think, “Wow, there’s some interesting stuff going on in that book.” So, what does your actual writing process look like? Do you sit and work in your office same time every day, you said you write in your sons at school, so…?
Yeah. So, The Quantum Magician I actually wrote on my last year while I was still at work, and basically what I did there was I would show up at a coffee shop every day at 7:00, I would write from 7:00 till 8:00, and hopefully get somewhere between 500 and 600 words, and then I would be at work by 8 a.m. and that would often be the only writing I would be able to get for the day. And if I had a weekend where I was free, then I would obviously try and add more, but really it’s about regularity for me. Now, I, while I’m not at work, I can obviously spend more time, you know, if I have a three-hour session I can get, you know, a good 1,500 words done, sometimes 2,000, and, yeah. There’s enough other stuff, as you know as a writer, there’s promotion, there’s other projects you’re working on, there’s, you know, a bit of writer hustle you have to do, so… I sometimes let those things slide and I don’t, I’m not happy about that, so I try and keep myself to a word limit per day and then after that I just do all those other projects.
And you work directly on the computer or do you…are you one of these amazing people that writes longhand?
I tried that once for my fourth novel. Because I didn’t have enough writing time, what I would do is, I would write on the bus longhand, in both directions if I had a seat, and I think on the way to work and on the way back I would be able to get about 350 words a day. But then I found that the time it took to type it in was about as much as it would take to write it in the first place. So, I’m not sure I save myself time, but, I don’t know, it’s sort of a piece of reclaiming time that would otherwise have just been wasted in the bus.
I cannot write longhand anymore. I can barely do anything anymore.
My writing is deteriorating, the penmanship is.
Yeah, and mine was never good to begin with, so…
All right, so you have a completed draft. How long did that take you in the case of The Quantum Magician, to have your first draft done?
I think I started it in September and I probably finished it in June, and near the end I was hurrying a bit because just in the May of that year I had been at the Nebulas conference of 2015, where I met the person who was going to be my agent, and I had said to her, “Well, I can send you The Quantum Magician at the end of September,” and I was saying this in May and then being very optimistic about what I could get done. So, I had a bit of fire under me to try and get it done on time.
Deadlines can be very useful that way.
Yes, they sharpen the mind!
So, do you…did you do a complete draft. do you do a rolling revision as you go, do you revise it all when you get to the end, how does that work for you?
So, in 2005, it was the first time I did NaNoWriMo–successfully–and I got the book by Baty, the guy who invented NaNoWriMo, and he said…you know. it’s basically a field manual for. like. how to write a lot in a short period of time. And one of the keys he said is, “Don’t look back, ever.” Like, draft with one mind, edit with another? And I find that that’s true for me, it works for the way my personality works, because again it’s a confidence thing. If I look back and see bad writing there, I think it’ll sap my confidence for writing the rest of what’s going on. And the other thing is, if I spend…like, looking back over what I’ve got can be a procrastination tool for me just to just not draft. So, for me it’s better to just write the whole thing and then just do a whole ugly first read when I’ve got it done, and boy, can that be a painful process!
Well, Rob Sawyer, who was the first person I interviewed on the podcast, calls his first draft “the vomit draft” that’s, you just get it out then you feel better and then you go back and clean it up.
I wouldn’t disagree.
That’s kind of the way I work, too. I get it down, and then I go back and do the revision. So, what do you find you’re having to work on when you go back to revise and polish?
I don’t think I’m a natural storyteller, which means that I’ve had to learn story structure over time and that, like I said, is one of the reasons why I leaned a little more on to the heist structure for this novel, because I didn’t want my story structure to be the thing that holds me back. And so, yeah, structure and pacing are things that I still feel I have a lot of work to do on, characterization…I mean, it’s almost everything. There’s nothing you can’t name that isn’t bad in a first draft, except the worldbuilding in my case, I think the world building’s good, and I’m happy with that usually and don’t change much. But, yeah, the structure and pacing is often the thing that kicks me, and luckily I have a critique group and an agent who can then say, “Well, you know, this person sort of vanished at this point,” or, “I don’t understand why this person did this,” or…you know, those are all helpful things that point out your flaws. But I think everybody has the same flaws and nobody ever really outgrows them.
You mentioned the critique group before, and you just mentioned it again. How many people is that that sees your work in progress and make suggestions?
So, I’m a member of the East Block Irregulars–it’s an Ottawa sci-fi critique group that was formed by Matt Moore and I in late 2007–and they have been instrumental in my development as a writer And, I think…so. what we do is. you know. everybody commits to reading all short fiction that is sent; novels are on the basis of negotiation. And so, I think five people, maybe, or six in the group had read The Quantum Magician and gave me comments, and then I had a couple of other people from outside the group who also gave me comments. And then, in the end, then I went through four more drafts with my agent.
And then she sold it!
And then she sold it, to not one but two editors. It was great.
And that’s at Solaris?
Yeah, yeah, Solaris in the UK. They’re under Rebellion. They’re a nice mid-sized publisher and…I had never heard of them when I got the offer, and so I looked them up and they said they’re a mid-list publisher, and I thought, “Wow, I thought those sort of had gone the way of the dinosaur!” But, no, it’s wonderful, because the expectations are you’ll perform as a mid-list writer, which are far more manageable to meet. And if you go beyond that then, you know, everyone is happy.
And so, there would have been another editorial pass once you got to an editor at the publishing house.
Well, yes. The edits were relatively light at Solaris, but then, when we sold it to Analog, Trevor Quachri, the editor there, said, “Could we see a little more of the big bad?” And so, I said to the editor at Solaris, you know, “This is the comment. Do you agree with it?” And he said, “Sure, go for it.” And so, I ended up writing an extra 6,000 words of, you know, the sort of cop figure who is after the whole group. And I’m really, really happy that we got that comment, and so, going through Analog meant that it had two sets of proofs, two sets of structural edits, and it helped to polish it a lot more.
So, the serialization comes out before the book is released? I’ve never had anything serialized so I don’t really know how it works.
Yeah. I think the deal is the last instalment of the serialization has to come out six months before the first book drops. So, the timing is important. But I’m very happy that it got serialized because it got to a bunch of readers who would not have otherwise seen it.
Well, and the Analog readers are the true sort of hard-science-fiction space-opera types generally.
Yeah. They do love their science.
So, how did how did they respond. Because you would have had response from the Analog readers before it ever appeared as a book, presumably.
So, I’ve seen some reviews by Analog readers on Goodreads and those seem very positive and I think there were a couple of people who wrote in, like, fan comments and stuff and I would have others that came on Twitter. It was all very positive. I feel that it’s a hard-SF space opera, and when it’s read by people who are looking for hard-SF space opera, it does well. You know for people a little outside that Venn Diagram circle, you know, their mileage may vary, but…
But you’ve had some good response to the book as well and some really good attention within the field, haven’t you?
Yeah, yeah. It got onto the Locus recommended reading list, Barnes and Noble picked it as one of their 2018 books to watch, their favourites. I think it got long-listed at the BSFA, as well, the British Science Fiction Award. But, I mean, where I’ve been happiest is the foreign sales, because China really liked it and they’ve been helping promote it there and they’ve been very, very supportive, and it’s coming out in French in 2020. And then, there are two other deals that are pending right now. These things take a long time to negotiate. So, I don’t know when I’ll be able to announce, but I’m pretty happy with the way things are going in that sense, that there’s enough editors around that are interested in this.
Well, and there’s a sequel coming.
There is, there is.
Is that what you’re working on now?
No, no, I wrote that one basically as soon as my agent had this other one going. I started the second one right away because I had heard from experience, from, you know common friends of ours, that, you know, if you get a two-book deal or something, sometimes they may want the second book in a hurry. And I didn’t want to be in a position where being rushed would lead to blocking, and so I started to get ahead of that process a bit. And I think I had finished much of the second already by the time we inked the deal on the first.
So, was it a two-book deal?
Yeah, yeah, it was right away.
If, if, you know, it does well, would there be possibilities of more books in the series, or a trilogy, or what?
So, with Solaris I gave them two books. They liked them both. I then offered them a third, which is a novel set 250 years before the events in The Quantum Magician, and set in the same universe, and they bought that as well. And now I’ve got the sequel to The Quantum Garden, which I am in the process of writing right now and hopefully they’ll be interested in that. But so far the sales on The Quantum Magician seem to be good. Which is, which is heartening.
Yeah. That’s always heartening.
Yeah, yeah it is. Yeah, I wasn’t sure how the first royalty statement was gonna go, but I got it for, just covering the first two months of the book, and it was very promising.
Well, that’s good,.
Well, I’m gonna ask you the big philosophical questions.
Why do you write and why do you think any of us write? And particularly, why do you. and why do you think any of us, write this kind of stuff? Science fiction and fantasy.
Yeah. So, you want good answers?
Whatever answer you feel that you would like to give me.
So, when we had first discussed doing this podcast and we had talked a bit about what might come up, I was thinking on this question. I was like. “All I have is facetious answers.” I mean, do we write because we’re broken? Are we writing because one of our dials is turned too high? Is it that we’re all people that just have the transmit function on and we’re just hoping that somebody is receiving somewhere? I think the third one might be the right one for me, in that, it’s not that I have a particular message I’m trying to send. It’s not that I want to influence anybody in any way. It’s just a need. My thumb is on the transmit button and I’m just hoping that somebody is out there listening.
And, it’s interesting, because when people, you know, podcasts come up and interviews come up and people start to say things about, you know, “I really like these themes in your Quantum Magician of, you know, decolonization and, you know, a lot of what you did with the unintended consequences of genetic engineering and what that means to us now,” and all that, and people are getting messages that I’m not necessarily consciously aware of putting in, but now that I look back I realize, “Well, yeah, I mean, those things are in there and they are there on purpose,” but I was putting them in there because I thought it would be the right thing for the story not, again, because I was sending a message, but I…
Why do we write? I’m not sure. And like Harlan Ellison said, I think, if you could, if you can persuade somebody to stop writing you really should, because it’s not like we’re making a whole lot of money or that, you know, people are throwing sports cars at us or stuff like that, it’s, you know, we do this because we want to and if we can afford to make a living at it, you know, we’re already, that’s one of the highest things we can get out of it.
Because, you know, the idea about the message and things not being in there, that’s an opportunity for me to tell a story I like to tell. I’ve probably told it before in the podcast, but you mentioned discovering Asimov, and it was in one of his autobiographical books, probably Opus 100, his 100th book where he was attending a class in a New York university, some university in New York, and the professor was teaching his classic short story “Nightfall,” and he sat at the back and he listened, and when it was over he went up to the professor and he said, “Well, you know that was a very interesting class, but I’m Isaac Asimov and I wrote that story and I didn’t put any of that stuff in there.” And the professor said, “Well, I’m very happy to meet you, but just because you wrote it, what makes you think you know what’s in there?”
That’s a good point. And I think that…over the last few years I’ve come to subscribe to the idea, too, that in the end, all you do is you write a story, and it is a transmission, and the act of interpretation by the reader is the final story. And that means there’s many, many final stories. And, yeah. Because once you put it out it’s got a life of its own.
Well, I like that too. It’s something I often say, that although writing is a solitary act, reading is a collaborative act, I guess. Or the creation of stories is a collaborative act because the writer creates something, but the ultimate story is different for every person who reads it because of their own background. And I’m also a playwright, in fact I just had a play that was up this last week here in Regina.
It’s…that’s much, much more collaborative. But there, you actually see actors taking your words and interpreting them and bringing these characters to life that maybe, you know, they’re completely different from the little actors in my head who are moving around on the set in my head when I was writing the story. And it’s also the same thing that happens with writing anything, writing science fiction and fantasy, that readers are like the actors in the play and they’re bringing the characters to life and they’re bringing the story to life in a way that you may not have imagined when you put it into words.
And not only that, I mean, there’s so many people who will interpret things with different backgrounds that you couldn’t have imagined, and their interpretations come out to be, you know, more complex, more interesting, just because they’re seeing dimensions that, you know, I didn’t. And it’s fascinating.
So, you’ve already said what you’re working on next. I guess we will just sort of bring this to a close by telling people how they can find you online should they so desire.
Yeah, I’m a Twitter user, so I’m just @DerekKunsken, that’s just my name, on Twitter, and I have a website, too, which is just my name, as well, dot com, and I blog every couple of weeks at BlackGate.com, and otherwise you know my stuff is in bookstores everywhere, and I’d be happy to hear from any listeners who want to reach out.
We should also mention the webcomic.
Oh, yeah, yeah.
Just tell me a little bit about that and where people can find that.
So, WebToons is this gigantic, gigantic South Korean company platform where people who make a comic can post the equivalent of two to three comic book pages per week, and you get readers or, you know, if people like your stuff, and…there’s monetization in in different ways and that’s not necessarily what myself and the artist are going for first and foremost, but, no I’ve been experimenting with doing a comic book in this format so people can read it, and it’s a female jetpack planetary-romance adventure, a bit pulpy, but at the same time I wanted to do something fun and romantic and cute at the same time. And, yeah, it’s up that WebToons and it’s free to read, and if you just look for Briarworld at WebToons you can find it there, and Briarworld has its own Twitter, which is just @BriarWorld and it’s fun. It’s…a mercenary has to go rescue a prince in a weird Mungoesque planet.
Well, I’ll have to go check it out. Well, thanks very much for being on The Worldshapers, Derek.
This has been wonderful!
And I suspect I’ll be seeing you at Can-Con this year in Ottawa?
I hope so, I hope so.
All right. Well thanks a lot.
All right. See you, Ed.
’Bye for now.