Interview with author Shane Lindemoen

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author Shane Lindemoen today. Shane is a newer science fiction writer from Minnesota. He started with short literary fiction, earning honorable mention in the 2005 Lorian Hemingway competition with his story “Mount Airy,” and a Glimmer Train nod in 2011 for “Lucretius.” His debut novel ARTIFACT (Boxfire Press, 2013) won the National Independent Publisher Award (Gold, 2014). Shane has had a varied professional life, working as a private investigator, a shoe salesman, and as an Editor of National Affairs for the ezine Secret Laboratory (Maple Hills Press, 2011). He’s also an inactive, licensed Peace Officer for the state of Minnesota, and very nearly finished with his MA in Behavioral Systems Analytics. You can typically find Shane at http://www.shanelindemoen.org trying his darndest to transform his thoughts into tradeable monies.Profile

Shane, what is your writing process? Do you outline heavily or just jump right in, for instance?

SHANE LINDEMOEN: My process is an unmitigated, undifferentiated mess. My workstation is enclosed by a mountain of reference books that I call upon at any given time; my browser has thirty bookmarks open at once, always Wikipedia, always a thesaurus, always Google. My writing has this tendency to take on the language and feel of whoever I’m reading at the moment. Which is beneficial in some ways, but harmful in others: there are many books I can’t read while in the midst of writing something. I once spent two weeks obsessively reading every single Chuck Palahniuk book in existence, and when I sat down to write it was the most horrendous block of text every typed into a word processor.

I have learned to use this weird dynamic to my benefit: if a scene calls for suspense, for example, I’ll use time reading John Little, Stephen King, Joe Hill, Ronald Malfi, or John Everson, which puts me in the right mindset to write suspense. If I have an action scene, I’ll read Matthew Woodring Stover. If it’s time to paint exposition or do some world-building, I’ll read Dan Simmons, Larry Niven, Ian M. Banks, Tolkien. Alex Garland, Amy Hempel, or Cormac McCarthy if I want to say something profound and thoughtful. There’s a whole pantheon of heroes I invoke at any given time when I write. This is why I hesitate reading stuff by new authors, especially when I’m in the throes of writing a new yarn, because if I read something that’s written poorly, I’ll begin to write poorly.

As for the outline. I take that pretty seriously. Before I even drop ink on a draft, I’ll spend time drawing out on paper the various plot threads and where they intersect on the broader timeline. I’ll mark the beginning, the big events, and the end – and while I may not know exactly how things will unfold between those events, I try to make something happen every 1500 words to raise the stakes, create more peril, reveal small amounts of plot, and move things forward. I don’t spend much time on characterization, because I feel the characters flesh themselves out through interacting with each other and responding to things I throw at them. Some say it’s beneficial to have personality types in place before hand, but I get the feel of a character as I go. I simply tag them with something that readers will identify – I give them an image to anchor a voice to, and I try remaining consistent to the way each character responds to things.

VENTRELLA: How much of writing is innate? In other words, do you believe there are just some people who are born storytellers but simply need to learn technique? Or can anyone become a good writer?

LINDEMOEN: I subscribe to the belief that we’re all red-blooded, anatomically-lateral humans capable of accomplishing the same things. Our species hasn’t drifted too far from itself in something like 200,000 years, and yes, there are dimensions of difference specific to us, and yes, many do have certain predeterminations, but excluding functionally demonstrable certainties (disability, mental illness) there is nothing one human can do that another can’t. Writing is a skill – it can be learned, it can be honed, and it can be perfected like any other.

VENTRELLA: Writers are told to “write what you know.” What does this mean to you?

LINDEMOEN: I think it means to either stick to your expertise, or write what you’ve experienced. I think they say this because the yield is more authentic that way. How I’ve interpreted this is simply to know what I’m talking about in terms of research. If I’m writing a space adventure, for example, I’m going to want to know actual spacecraft design and engineering. I’ll learn about antimatter and ion propulsion and how to theoretically create artificial gravity. The goal is to sell the idea of authenticity, and swindle my readers into thinking that I know what I’m talking about. Nothing kicks readers out of perceived immersion more than illogical crap that doesn’t make sense on real terms.

VENTRELLA: Science Fiction doesn’t seem to be selling as much as fantasy these days, including urban fantasy and all the varieties. Why do you think that is?

LINDEMOEN: Reading science fiction is more work. I think it’s a genre that requires its readers to be active observers and engage with the theoretical aspects of it. In other words, reading fantasy is like a ride; reading science fiction is like a homework assignment.

A lot of science in science fiction is actually, functionally possible, which appeals more to the scientific-thinking person – someone who expects a certain amount of reality in what they’re reading. A reader of fantasy doesn’t feel compelled to analyze and measure things against functionally demonstrable laws of nature, because the expectation is that everything – from the nature of the characters, to the nature of the universe itself – is fair game and intended to be taken at face value, no matter how fantastic or absurd. This might sound like I’m making fun of fantasy or something, but that’s not my intention. Fantasy is just a different delivery system of narrative and truth, which I think appeals more to the largest bell of the readership curve. Readers won’t suddenly debate internally about the natural selection of dragons and griffens and trolls, because it isn’t possible in real terms. Readers can accept each thing for what it is and enjoy the ride as passive observers. An interstellar warp drive is possible. Suspended animation is possible. Colonizing other planets is possible. And because of this realness of things, readers of science fiction come into a story with certain expectations.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about ARTIFACT! Jacket

LINDEMOEN: ARTIFACT is my debut novel, which recently won the 2014 Independent Publishers Book Award for best science fiction. It’s about an ancient alien machine recovered from beneath the surface of Mars by interplanetary miners. When scientists bring it to Earth for study, a physicist activates something inside of it that causes him to inexplicably teleport back and forth between different points in the same timeline. As the separate moments begin to focus on some sort of singularity, the physicist must use what little time he’s given in each place to piece together exactly what happened the moment he invoked the artifact, before it rips reality apart. I’ve been comparing it to equal parts Matrix, Inception, Dark City, Stargate, and Night of the Living dead. I’m not going to lie… it’s pretty out there.

VENTRELLA: What projects are you working on now? What can we expect next from you?

LINDEMOEN: I’m currently working on another science fiction yarn tentatively titled VAGABOND. I haven’t tried soliciting it to publishers or agencies yet, so we could be talking about a slushpile candidate, but it really depends on whether or not I can sucker anyone into buying it. Here’s the setup:

The last evidence of the Endeavor spacecraft became immortalized in a single image captured by the Pinnacle telescope: A teardrop silhouette falling into the shadow of Saturn’s largest moon, moments before losing contact with Earth. The mission and its crew vanished, never to be heard of again. It was considered the last great human push into the fringes of deep space.

Years of silence, speculation, and uncertainty intervened – an uncertainty that stifled any hopes of interstellar travel – and without warning, the IDSI administration received a signal from an outpost in deep space matching the Endeavor’s distress beacon.

Commander Susan Fenroe of the International Deep Space Initiative – a veteran astronaut assigned to her last six-month rotation aboard the science station and galactic telescope, Pinnacle – is beseeched by Command to select a crew of eight, and once again tempt the final darkness. Her mission: travel to the source of the distress beacon, and ascertain the fate of her long lost contemporaries. And when her ship comes in violent contact with something close to where her predecessors disappeared, Fenroe and her crew quickly learn that they must surrender faith to each other and their training if they hope to make it back alive. Because what they find in that distant outpost of human curiosity and ambition is a force of nature that could bring about the end of all things.

A dark fantasy mixed with equal parts survival-horror and hardline science fiction, VAGABOND is one woman’s odyssey into the last of all unknowns. A poignant contemplation of being lost, of shapes moving in the dark, and of the light that keeps them there.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing?

LINDEMOEN: I think it’s great. I think it fills an important void in the market. But there’s almost no way other than word-of-mouth for the consumer to sift through the innumerable quantities of crap out there. Many serious self-published authors have the odds stacked against them, because they must somehow find a way to set themselves apart, and there’s really no validation of quality at the onset other than the author’s word. But like in anything, good stuff will always claw itself out of the lesser muck. I know of at least two people who’ve made livable money going the self-pub route after they couldn’t land any traditional contracts.

One author – Adam Nicolai – decided to publish one of his fantasy yarns (CHILDREN OF A BROKEN SKY) exclusively on his own, because he had faith in its success and wanted a larger cut of the profits. Of course, almost every self-pubbed author claims that self-pubbing is a choice, but in his case I actually believe it – Adam is an excellent writer, and his novels are good enough that it’s conceivable publishers would consider picking them up. And then there’s Andy Weir, author of the phenomenally amazing science fiction novel THE MARTIAN, who’s probably going to win the Hugo and the Nebula next year. He couldn’t sell TM at first, and decided to self-publish it. When it sold a couple thousand copies on Kindle, it was quickly picked up by Crown, and hit the New York Times Bestseller list shortly after that. So, yeah – self-pubbing is a good platform for the fierce amateur, but it’s also a thankless, unglorified, disrespected, cut-throat place in which only the serious, learned, passionate, and skilled authors will survive.

VENTRELLA: What sort of advice would you give an un-agented author with a manuscript?

LINDEMOEN: I didn’t have an agent when I made my first professional sale. But I can tell you theoretically what the process should look like. I know that you’re to solicit agencies first, before you try finding a publisher. And if none bite, you have five options. You can 1.) spend the next year refining and perfecting your manuscript, and approach agencies again with a better product, or 2.), start immediately contacting publishers directly. The reason you hit up agencies first is because they won’t normally take you if you’ve been rejected by every single publisher in existence. And most advance-paying publishers don’t accept unsolicited, albeit unagented manuscripts. But say you’ve been rejected by agencies a couple of times, and your manuscript has been refined to the extent that neither you nor your cohorts can find a single reason why it hasn’t been picked up. Well, you really have nothing to lose by pawing the mail slots of various publishing houses. Your manuscript is dead – might as well flame out on the off chance it gets picked up. And if it doesn’t, option 3.) Self-publish. Option 4.) Toss your manuscript in the garbage and start a new one. Option 5.) Enroll in creative writing classes and learn how to write better.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got?

LINDEMOEN:A few sage words from one of my favorite authors, Matthew Woodring Stover:

“ ‘Unreliable narrator’ is a tautology. Belief in the reliable narrator is an act of faith intellectually equivalent to belief in the inerrancy of the Bible.”

And:

“If your writing is not a vehicle for truth, it’s just fucking product. Pink slime. Chicken paste.”

One more:

“The next time someone advises you, as an aspiring author, to ‘Show, Don’t Tell,’ advise this person in turn to read BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS, and then invite him on my behalf to shut the fuck up for the rest of his life.”

Last one, from Neil Gaiman:

“Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.”

Thanks for inviting to your site! If anyone needs me, I can usually be found in two places: http://www.shanelindemoen.org, or http://www.facebook.com/shanelindem. Thanks again!

Interview with NY Times Bestseller Steven Brust

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Steven Brust today. BrustSteven is best known for his novels about the assassin Vlad Taltos, and has written many short stories in shared universes (including Emma Bull’s and Will Shetterly’s “Liavek,” Robert Asprin’s “Thieves’ World,” Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” and Terri Windling’s “Borderland” series.

I read JHEREG back when it was released, and enjoyed it tremendously. Did you ever have in mind writing a series, or did that happen on its own?

STEVEN BRUST: Yeah, here’s what happened. I wrote that one as a stand-alone, peppering it with foreshadowing and flashbacks because I like that stuff. Then I wrote TO REIGN IN HELL, which was a very hard book for me to write. When it was finally done, I was thinking that I just wanted to relax and write something fun and easy, and it seemed obvious that I could just go back to Vlad, because I knew so much of his backstory from having played him in a table-top role-playing game. So I did, and just sort of dashed off a book called “Duel.” But when the marketing department at Ace got it, they said, roughly, “But his first book did really well, and it had a funny one-word title. Can’t he find another funny one-world title?” Well, YENDI was pretty obvious, so I renamed it.

Then, after writing BROKEDOWN PALACE, various things hit me about fantasy tropes, and I wanted to examine them. It seemed like Vlad’s world would be the perfect place to do that, and TECKLA was the perfect title for the book. By then I was writing a series, and I knew the major events of Vlad’s life, but I don’t remember if I admitted to myself that it was a series until I did TALTOS. I’m pretty good at lying to myself.

VENTRELLA: You plan on ending the series with a 19th book. jhereg Was this the original plan, or have you decided that the time is right?

BRUST: That was the plan from at least the time I finished TALTOS, and maybe earlier; I don’t remember for sure.

VENTRELLA: Were the books based on a role-playing game? It has that feel with resurrections, especially, which is something you normally don’t see in most fantasy novels.

BRUST: Yes, a game created by Robert Sloan. Such things as the relationship between Kiera and Sethra, and between Aliera and Morrolan, and between Vlad and Kragar (to pick just a few examples) go back to the game.

VENTRELLA: You have specifically tried to vary your writing styles and points of view in the novels, which give them different feels – why did you decide to do this?

BRUST: Discovering the relationship between the story and how the story is told is one of the joys of writing. I just flat out love playing with that stuff; I get excited as hell when I realize that the best way to tell a given story would be something I haven’t tried yet.

VENTRELLA: THE PHOENIX GUARDS especially reads like a lost Musketeer novel. I assume that was by specific design? Did you go back and change things to make it read more like Dumas?

BRUST: Go back and change things? Oh, no; that was there from the beginning, from the first page of the first draft. That was the whole reason I wrote it. It was so much fun!

VENTRELLA: You certainly have not shied away from politics, both in your books and on Facbook and other social media. Do you believe this has affected your sales (in either direction)?

BRUST: No idea.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on the current state of the political situation in America? 9780765328892 Optimistic or not?

BRUST: Very optimistic–in the world, you can see signs of people fighting back everywhere you look. In this country, it is taking longer, but even here you can see it. The initial success of Occupy Wall Street is as much of an indication of people’s outrage as it’s ultimate failure is of it’s lack of program; and the overwhelming public support of Snowden is a very healthy sign.

VENTRELLA: Do you think there is a place for a third party in America?

BRUST: I don’t know. I’d like to start with a second party and see what happens after that.

VENTRELLA: Back to books: Amazon is reporting that e-books are now outselling traditional publications. What effect will this have on the publishing industry? For beginning authors is this a good thing or a bad thing?

BRUST: No clue. I know nothing about the industry, and I work very hard to keep it that way; it just interferes with my work.

VENTRELLA: Your “Cool stuff” theory of literature explains a lot, actually, and boils down what many “how to write” articles fail to address. Or is the advice basically “Write what you like”?

BRUST: Write what you like to read. Write something you wish someone else had written because you want to read it. The Cool Stuff Theory of Literature was an offshoot of something Gene Wolfe originally said.

VENTRELLA: Is writing a skill that can be learned or are the best writers born, not made?

BRUST: I firmly believe it is a skill that can be learned.pglg

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read?

BRUST: These days, I’m mostly reading non-fiction, especially history.

VENTRELLA: New authors can make huge mistakes. What big mistake bugs you the most, and how can writers avoid making it?

BRUST: Mostly they over-explain. Write for people as smart as you are. If you’d figure it out, and if you’d enjoy the process of figuring it out, chances are the reader will too.

VENTRELLA: Do you attend science fiction conventions? If so, do you find these useful?

BRUST: Yes, I do. I don’t know if they’re useful, but they sure are fun.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now?

BRUST: A sequel to THE INCREMENTALISTS with Skyler White.

Interview with Hugo and Nebula award-winning author and editor Gardner Dozois

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I am pleased to be interviewing author and editor Gardner Dozois, winner of multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards, and probably best known for being the editor of ASIMOV’S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE for over 20 years! gardner-dozois

Gardner, you’re well known as THE modern editor of science fiction – no one comes close (especially when you consider the number of awards you’ve earned). What do you have that others don’t?

GARDNER DOZOIS: Many editors are sensitive, highly intelligent, high-strung people, and they tend to burn out relatively quickly. Me, I’m a stolid peasant type who actually likes eating meat and potatoes every day. Where others burn out from reading science fiction all day long, get sick of it, I actually like reading science fiction, and am not sensitive or intelligent enough to get tired of reading it.

VENTRELLA: What, in your mind, makes a good editor?

DOZOIS: It’s similar to the answer to the question above. You have to like what you’re doing. You have to have passion for it. When you read a really good story, you have to have the ability to be excited by it AS a reader, to become engrossed in the reading of it rather than just coolly evaluating it professionally. If you lose that, you’re lost. My strategy as an editor has always been simple: I’m a reader with fairly average tastes myself, and so I figure that if I like a story, as a reader, then many other readers will probably like it too. This is the philosophy I had when I was editing ASIMOV’S, and its what’s guided me through all the years of editing THE YEAR’S BEST SCIENCE FICTION, which is now up to its THIRTIETH ANNUAL COLLECTION — so it must work.

It seems to me that editing requires an eye for balance – you don’t want too many stories with the same theme in a collection, but you also don’t want to stray too far and alienate readers by being too eclectic. 9781250029133How do you balance the extremes? What guidelines do you use?

You do have to have balance, and this was as true of an issue of ASIMOV’S as it is for an edition of The Year’s Best Science Fiction. You can’t publish nothing but near-future dystopias, or nothing but grim, depressing stories. I always put a lot of effort into trying to balance the mood of the stories in anything I was working on. You have to try to balance the TYPES of stories, too — some hard science fiction, some soft, some offplanet stuff, some near future, some far future, and with both ASIMOV’S and THE BEST OF THE YEAR volumes I put a lot of effort in to working out the story order so that you don’t get a lot of the same kind of stories in a row. You also have to pay some consideration to sources. You can’t use only stories from one source, and even too many of them, no matter how good a job you think that source is doing. When I edited ASIMOV’S, I used to get a lot of grief from reviewers for using too many ASIMOV’S stories, so I had to be careful not to overdo it.

Sadly, this is largely a waste of time. Most readers ignore the carefully arranged order and either read the stories by the authors they like best first, or start with the shortest stories first, or the longest ones. I know it’s a waste of time, but I can’t help doing it anyway.

VENTRELLA: How do you handle similarly themed stories with the “best of the year” collections? After all, it’s not like you can set one of them aside for the next edition…

DOZOIS: I use the one I like best, although in close cases, determining which one that is often involves reading them again, and again, and again. In the final stages of assembling the Best, I think of it as arranging a steel-cage match between two similar stories; let them fight it out, and the strongest story wins. greatdays-674x1024With a magazine, like ASIMOV’s, you have a little more flexibility –if you have two similar kinds of story and you like both of them, you can always duck one of them into inventory and use it later on, in another issue.

VENTRELLA: How do you find short stories for your “best of” collections?

DOZOIS: You just have to keep your eyes open. I make a good-faith attempt to read every SF story in the English language I can find. Realistically, I know that I must miss a lot, especially these days, with all the proliferating internet markets, but I do the best I can.

VENTRELLA: Do you ever consider self-published works for these collections?

DOZOIS: Yes. Although finding them in order to consider them in the first place is the problem. Many single-author short story collections have unpublished stories in them, and you have to keep an eye out for that as well.

VENTRELLA: You have concentrated your career almost entirely on short fiction. What is it about short stories that attracts you more than novel-length works?

DOZOIS: The brutal efficiency. A short story delivers one hard punch, fulfills one purpose, and then stops. You can’t sprawl in a short story the way you can in a novel. A short story that sprawls doesn’t work at all.

VENTRELLA: Do you regret not writing more fiction and thus being known more for your editing?

DOZOIS: Yes, I regret it. I backed into editing more or less by accident, although my first reaction to reading a story I really liked was always to show it to as many people as possible, which has always suited me for the work. Strangers_Dozois1 In an ideal world, though, I would be a Big Name SF Writer, which is what I set out to be, and be remembered for my writing rather than for my editing. As it is, my writing is already largely forgotten, and will be forgotten completely fifteen minutes after I’m dead. You play the hand you’re given, though.

VENTRELLA: Do you ever stop and consider how much you have influenced the field – how, thanks to you, certain writers have been discovered and moved on to influence others?

DOZOIS: I think it’s possible to exaggerate the contribution of an editor. It’s the writers who did all the work; if a story is good it’s because of all the blood and sweat they put into it. My function is just being smart enough to recognize the good work when it comes along. (Occasionally, an editor can spot something that needs fixing in a story that the author can’t recognize on his own, and help the author to find a way to fix it — but there all the heavy lifting is being done by the author too.)

VENTRELLA: Who are you most proud of “discovering”?

DOZOIS: There are a fair number of them. George R.R. Martin, Connie Willis, Joe Haldeman, Allen Steele, David Marusek, Mary Rosenblum, Kage Baker.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about your newest anthology with George R.R. Martin!

DOZOIS: I’ve just finished and delivered an anthology with George called OLD VENUS. Next out will be an anthology with him called DANGEROUS WOMEN, which will be published in December. Also out soon will be OLD MARS. Sometime in the future, probably 2014, my anthology with him called ROGUES will come out, and also OLD VENUS.

VENTRELLA: Magazine circulation is dropping everywhere; what do you see for the future?

DOZOIS: Most magazines will probably become electronic online-only magazines, as many already have, although the existing print magazines, like ASIMOV’S, ANALOG, and F&SF are doing a bit better these days by selling subscriptions for electronic formats online. 076533206X.01._SCLZZZZZZZ_SL300_I always said that if anything could save the print magazines, it would be the internet, and this may turn out to be true.

VENTRELLA: There are fewer and fewer anthologies being printed these days as well, and many writers are uploading their short stories rather than going the traditional route. Is this good for fiction overall?

DOZOIS: This is completely untrue. There are a lot more anthologies being published these days, from an proliferating number of small-press publishers, as downloadable files, as Kickstarter projects. There are more of them every year, enough so that it’s become harder to keep up with them all.

VENTRELLA: My worry is this: in the past, with magazines and anthologies, there was a gatekeeper (the editor) who, with a good reputation, guaranteed quality. Now I have no idea most of the time if the work I might download has even been edited, much less subject to any sort of review. What can a reader do to find good fiction?

DOZOIS: This is a bit self-serving, but your best bet is to buy one of the Best of the Year anthologies, which serve as a sampler of the work of many different authors, whose work you can then follow up on if you like it. If you don’t like my book, get Jonathan Strahan’s, or Rich Horton’s, or one of a number of others.

VENTRELLA: There still is a stigma attached to books that are either not available in a hard copy or only available as a POD. Do you see that changing in the future?

DOZOIS: Yes, that will change. Is already changing rapidly, in fact.

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Interview with Robert Brockway

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Robert Brockway today. Robert Brockway is a Senior Editor and columnist for Cracked.com. brockwayHe is the author of two books, the cyberpunk novel RX: A TALE OF ELECTRONEGATIVITY, and the comedic non-fiction essay collection EVERYTHING IS GOING TO KILL EVERYBODY: THE TERRIYINGLY REAL WAYS THE WORLD WANTS YOU DEAD. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife Meagan and their two dogs, Detectives Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh. He has been known, on occasion, to have a beard.

Tell us about your novel RX: A TALE OF ELECTRONEGATIVITY!

ROBERT BROCKWAY: RX is a cyberpunk novel about Red, a bio-hacker, chemical beta tester and specialty drug dealer in a futuristic mega-scraper city called the Four Posts. Pharmaceuticals aren’t just tolerated in the Four Posts, they’re practically a necessity. Everybody medicates constantly, to the point that Rx Feeds – nano-assembling custom drug stations – are piped into every household. The hot new drug of choice is Presence, a powerful hallucinogenic gas that simulates time travel, but with none of the consequences. Want to shoot a T. Rex? Fist fight King Henry II? Bring a battle-mech to the Civil War? Dose up on Presence and go for it. Your timeline won’t change in the slightest. Red’s best paying side-job is beta-testing new strains of Presence – hey, somebody has to go back and make sure the dose is taking customers to the right time and place. But he’s just woken up with a hell of a headache and no memory of the last twelve hours, only to find he’s violated his Non-disclosure Agreement – a crime punishable by death in the Four Posts. Now with a pair of incredibly brutal bounty hunters on his trail, Red has to clear his name and figure out what the strange prototype drug is doing to his mind before it literally tears him apart.

VENTRELLA: What sort of research did you do before writing this?

BROCKWAY: Too much. I’m kind of a link hoarder, and though the general framework of Rx is obviously science fiction, much of what appears in it was inspired by real stuff. The Four Posts were inspired by Ponte City, a huge single-skyscraper project in South Africa that, for a time, was considered the most dangerous place in the world. The drugs in Rx (well, excluding the Gas) are more stable, more potent versions of real pharmaceutical developments – drugs that eliminate fear, inspire trust, add IQ points. All real stuff.

VENTRELLA: Why couldn’t you go with your original title?

BROCKWAY: I’m assuming you’re referring to the original title of “Time Fuckers: Fuckers of Time.” RXAre the reasons not self-evident? I was never going with that title. It’s awful. I give myself terrible working titles until the book is finished to keep myself from taking it too seriously, and to stop from worrying about things when it’s not time to worry about them yet.

VENTRELLA: You’ve actually done an annotated version of the book, with footnotes and asides and references listed. Why did you decide to do this?

BROCKWAY: Well, it was all that research and link hoarding. I heavily fictionalized the info in Rx, so I wouldn’t blame anybody for not believing a word of it is remotely possible. But I wanted to show people that the real world has always been, is now, and is about to be much, much crazier than they would ever suspect.

VENTRELLA: How did you publish this?

BROCKWAY: I published Rx as a serial eBook in three installments. I did this partly because I liked serial novels, partly because I was curious how it would do, and partly because I didn’t have a reliable network of Beta-readers. The plan was to self-publish these little episodes and incorporate reader feedback along the way. Then I would take a huge editorial pass on the collected version, and release that as a finished book. Toward that end, I ran free giveaways of the first episode, then included review incentives where any (positive or negative, so long as it’s helpful) review would earn you a free copy of the next episode. In that fashion, you could get the whole series for free, just by leaving reviews on each episode.

VENTRELLA: What is your background and why did you decide to write?

BROCKWAY: I’m not sure how to answer that: I decided to write because I’ve always been writing. I don’t know how not to do it. My background is happening right now, I’m pretty sure. I have in no way ‘made it’ or become some sort of name. I’m still practicing, learning from my myriad mistakes, and trying to get better. I hope I’ll always think of myself like that.

VENTRELLA: Amazon is reporting that e-books are now outselling traditional publications. For beginning authors is this a good thing or a bad thing?

BROCKWAY: I think it’s a great thing! I prefer physical books myself, though I’m definitely a hybrid reader these days. It’s most beneficial to beginning (I’d prefer the term ‘Indie’ as many aren’t really starting out, so much as just now getting seen) authors because, for the most part, your self-published books are just as viable as traditionally published works in these new marketplaces. I see indie books all the time, just browsing around on Amazon or Indiebound. I’m not even looking for them. But if your book hooks me with a good cover, killer title or compelling synopsis – you’ve just made a sale to a person who would otherwise never have even heard of your work. As much as we bemoan the death of book stores (and they shouldn’t die, I love them), we tend to overlook the upside: There’s one less middleman to filter out your work.

VENTRELLA: Hard science fiction seems to be taking a back seat to high fantasy, steampunk, urban fantasy, and other genres these days. Why do you think that is?

BROCKWAY: I think it’s just because we’re segmenting our descriptions of the genre. We used to call all of that stuff ‘science fiction.’ Is my book ‘hard science fiction’? Everything_BrockwaySome people have said so – derogatively, I might add – as though that limits its appeal. Others call it ‘cyberpunk’ – also derogatively (man, I’m sensing a pattern here). If we applied that pattern retroactively then 1984 would be ‘technological dystopian’ and FOUNDATION would be ‘dynastical space opera.’ It’s not: We’re all sci-fi. We’re all brothers and sisters in nerdishness here.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake made by authors who write SF?

BROCKWAY: Ambition. That’s my biggest mistake, anyway, and I don’t really feel comfortable pointing out the mistakes of authors who are likely far better than me right now. I don’t know if I fully pulled off Rx – it was a hell of a lot to try for as a debut novel. I further complicated matters with an experimental release schedule. I needed to write it, of course, to learn those lessons and improve as a writer — and I think a lot of readers still got some enjoyment out of it. But that will always be the sci-fi writer’s simultaneous curse and blessing: Ambition.

VENTRELLA: Is writing a skill that can be learned or are the best writers born, not made?

BROCKWAY: Both. Natural talent happens in every field. Some people are naturally talented cabinet makers or heating repairmen. You can never fake that, but it doesn’t mean you’re excluded. I’ll never be as effortlessly good as, say, Italo Calvino. But if I work at it, I can still be pretty good someday. For example, Stephen King doesn’t think of himself as naturally talented. I’d actually agree with him. But he works at his craft, constantly, and in the end he’s going to be more influential than a hundred thousand other, naturally talented writers who phoned it in, thought they were above improvement, or never even tried.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read?

BROCKWAY: Anybody. Terrible answer, I know, but it’s all I’ve got these days: I’m finding so many more books thanks to recommendation algorithms or sites like Goodreads that my favorite authors are constantly shifting and evolving. Over the past few months, I’ve been most impressed with Patrick Rothfuss’ work, and I’ve got a working writer’s crush on Chuck Wendig. I don’t know how he’s so prolific while maintaining that kind of quality, but it’s something I respect and strive for.

VENTRELLA: I’ve always enjoyed the articles you’ve written for Cracked with advice for authors. (Examples: here, here, and here) How have these been received?

BROCKWAY: Mixed. People who don’t write don’t give a damn and feel compelled to tell me so in increasingly obscene ways. People who do write usually thank me. They do decent traffic with high engagement, to borrow some soulless marketing terminology.

VENTRELLA: New authors can make huge mistakes. What big mistake bugs you the most, and how can writers avoid making it?

BROCKWAY: They don’t edit. If you don’t obsessively, freakishly edit your story, then I promise you that you have made huge, gaping unforgivable mistakes, and everybody but you is going to notice and point and laugh. I edit everything. For example, I edited my responses to this interview. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have noticed that I used the word ‘obsessively’ three times in the span of two sentences. You would have laughed at me, and I would have had no choice but to kill myself to preserve my family’s honor.

VENTRELLA: Do you attend science fiction conventions?

BROCKWAY: I have attended one convention in my life. Comickaze, in Los Angeles, and I did so because I was ordered to by my employer. It was interesting and fun, but a bit awkward, and probably not representative of the larger scene. I’m kind of a hermit.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now?

BROCKWAY: I don’t know how to categorize it, really: It’s a novel with elements of mystery, science fiction, horror and magical realism. It’s about a group of punk rockers in New York in the late ‘70s, and a group of aspiring actresses in Los Angeles in the present day. Both are tied together through a mysterious set of disappearances, usually accompanied by a strange caustic sludge, and the impossible sighting of angels.

It’s called “Punks Versus Math”.

I told you I have terrible working titles.

Interview with Hugo and Nebula award-winning author Robert J. Sawyer

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing one of my favorite writers, Robert J. Sawyer! Mr. Sawyer has won 51 awards for his fiction, including the Hugo and the Nebula, and the top science-fiction awards in Canada, China, France, Japan, and Spain, plus an Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada. 220px-Robert_j_sawyer_in_2005The ABC TV series “Flashforward” was based on his novel of the same name. His physical home is in Toronto, and his online home is here!

The big news is that your 22nd novel RED PLANET BLUES has just been released. It’s a detective novel set on Mars done in the noir style, first person and everything. What made you want to write this?

ROBERT J. SAWYER: It’s become increasingly hard to tell traditional detective stories set in the present day. Everyone knows about CSI-style forensics: it’s almost impossible for a killer not to leave behind fingerprints or DNA. And our public and private spaces are increasingly covered by surveillance cameras; there’s almost no room left —- on Earth anyway —- for the traditional whodunit. But RED PLANET BLUES is set on a lawless frontier Mars -— where the security cameras have been smashed —- and it involves a technology that lets people transfer their consciousnesses into gorgeous android bodies, which don’t have fingerprints and don’t shed DNA. But who is actually inside any given body is anyone’s guess, letting me tell a good-old fashioned mystery … out on the final frontier.

VENTRELLA: From the opening chapters, it almost feels as a mixture of various pulp fiction styles. Was that the desire?

SAWYER: Absolutely. “Pulp” shouldn’t be thought of as a dirty word. Two of the most successful commercial fiction genres today are science fiction and mystery, and both have their roots in pulp magazines of the 1920s through 1950s. It seemed natural to bring those two genres together in that particular voice.

VENTRELLA: Was it difficult trying to capture that style of writing?

SAWYER: It was, but it was also very rewarding. Untitled-2 I immersed myself in noir mystery fiction to get the voice right, and Raymond Chandler, one of the fathers of that genre, wrote a very helpful essay entitled “The Simple Art of Murder” in 1950, which he gives lots of advice on how to write that form.

VENTRELLA: In some ways, a good science fiction novel is like a good mystery, although usually the “mystery” involves scientific discovery, doesn’t it?

SAWYER: Yes, indeed. I’ve always felt that science fiction has much more in common with mystery than with fantasy, anyway. Science fiction, after all, is about things that plausibly might happen; fantasy is about things that never could happen —- in that sense, they’re antithetical genres. But science fiction and mystery both prize rational thought, and both ask the reader to carefully pick up the clues the author has salted into the text —- in mystery, of course, to solve the crime, and in science fiction to puzzle out the unfamiliar backdrop against which the story is being told.

VENTRELLA: How did you approach writing a more traditional mystery? Did it require more outlining and preparation, for instance?

SAWYER: Absolutely. Mystery is a very complex narrative form – every piece has to fit together, and in the end it all has to go snick-snick-snick at it falls into place. That requires a lot of planning.

VENTRELLA: This seems like it was a fun novel to write. What novel gave you the most writing pleasure?

SAWYER: I think I enjoyed writing CALCULATING GOD the most; it was an absolute joy to write, in part because it was in a way an alternative version of my own life: I’d originally hoped to become a dinosaur specialist at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, just like Tom Jericho, the main character in that novel.calculating-god-tp

VENTRELLA: Looking back, do you have a favorite novel (or series)?

SAWYER: My favorite series of mine is the WWW trilogy of WAKE, WATCH, and WONDER, about the World Wide Web gaining consciousness. I loved the range of characters I got to write: blind teenage math genius Caitlin Decter, her autistic father Malcolm Decter, the chimpanzee-bonobo hybrid Hobo, and Webmind itself, the vast world-spanning intelligence.

VENTRELLA: Which of your characters was the hardest for you to create?

SAWYER: Alex Lomax, the protagonist of RED PLANET BLUES because he’s so unlike me. He’s violent, coarse, hard-drinking, uneducated, and a loner; I’m a pacifist, I try to be kind, I don’t drink, I went to university, and I’m gregarious. But for RED PLANET BLUES to work as hardboiled detective fiction, Alex had to have the traits I gave him.

VENTRELLA: What book has surprised you the most upon completion?

SAWYER: TRIGGERS, which has just come out in paperback in North America after a successful run in hardcover. It was unlike any book I’d ever written before -– an out-and-out page-turner thriller. I found it very challenging, but ultimately very rewarding, to write.

VENTRELLA: A common theme in your books involves science versus religion. How do you try to approach that issue without possibly alienating certain readers (or does that come into play at all)?

SAWYER: As a writer, your job isn’t to be blandly acceptable to everyone; it’s to be the favorite author of a narrow segment of the reading public. If I wasn’t alienating some people, I wouldn’t be doing my job. My editor at Tor, David G. Hartwell, used to say to me sometimes, “You know you’re going to lose some readers if you keep that bit in,” and I’d say, “Yes, I understand that,” and we’d both nod and move on. triggers-by-robert-j-sawyer I’m interested in being provocative and in getting people to think about things they perhaps haven’t pondered for years.

VENTRELLA: Here in the US, it seems that religion has trumped science much more than in Canada or Europe, especially in our political fights over creationism in the schools, abortion, and gay rights. Do you think we will ever evolve past religious belief, or will we still be believing a thousand years from now?

SAWYER: I think if we don’t evolve past fundamentalist religious belief, we won’t be here a thousand years from now; it’s fundamentalism that will lead to the wide-scale terrorism at home and abroad. As technology advances, and more and more destructive power is in the hands of individuals, someone will destroy us all, unless we as a species grow up. I tried to portray what that grown-up society might be like in my Hugo Award-winning HOMINIDS and its sequels.

VENTRELLA: Memory – or maybe “consciousness” – seems to be another thread common in your books. Who we are and what we perceive. Do you find that subject comes up subconsciously in your work or do you generally plan stories around that particular theme?

SAWYER: I’ve said that science fiction is the genre of intriguing juxtapositions, and that being a science-fiction writer is the best job for a science generalists – someone who likes to be involved with multiple disciplines. Well, there’s no more multidisciplinary area than consciousness studies, in which neuroscientists, computer scientists, cognitive theorists, quantum physicists, and philosophers all come together and spark off each other. Inner space is far more interesting to me than outer space, and so that’s what I write about.

VENTRELLA: I just finished FLASH FORWARD and noted how it ended with an idea that you later used for ROLLBACK. Had you considered making ROLLBACK a sequel originally, or did you just want to write about immortality in a similar way? fLASHfORWARD

SAWYER: I don’t like sequels. FLASHFORWARD and ROLLBACK both involve radical life prolongation because those are inevitable technologies; it’s going to happen, and if you’re writing about the future you have to acknowledge that. But the two books are unrelated to each other.

VENTRELLA: You’ve written about immortality in various ways in more than one novel. Is this because you’d like to be immortal? Is there something special about the topic that interests you?

SAWYER: What interests me about it is not dying. Sure, I’d like to live a very long time – I’m 52, and haven’t read 1% of the books I’d like to, I haven’t seen even a quarter of this planet (and I travel a lot), there is, rounded to the nearest percent, 100% of the human race I haven’t yet met. More: we still are trying to work out fundamental problems in social interaction, social justice, and international relations -– we’ve been struggling with them for thousands of years. Maybe that’s because, in all those millennia, no problem has ever been worked on for more than a few decades by any one person. We need the time to dig in and solve the really big conundrums; nature’s natural lifespan doesn’t provide enough time -– but science will.

VENTRELLA: How much input did you have in the “Flash Forward” TV series?

SAWYER: Lots. I met with David Goyer and Brannon Braga before I did the deal to let them adapt my book, and we discussed every change they wanted to make. I was consultant on every episode, spent a lot of time on the set and in the writers’ room in Los Angeles, and wrote the 19th episode, “Course Correction.”

VENTRELLA: Do you feel that the action bits they added were necessary for a TV audience and an on-going series? Did they distract too much from the story?

SAWYER: Sure, they were necessary for the TV audience. That’s why we added them. A novel can be cerebral -– people talking about ideas, or thinking about them without doing or saying anything -– but TV is a visual medium: things have to be happening constantly on screen or viewers turn away. As for distraction from the story, not at all: we had more story beats, more continuing characters, and a more involved plot, than just about any other show on the air at that time.

VENTRELLA: You’ve certainly had other works optioned before. Is there anything in the pipeline we can look forward to?

SAWYER: It looks like the movie version of THE TERMINAL EXPERIMENT is finally going to happen, and I’ve just been commissioned to write a screenplay adaptation of TRIGGERS for a feature film, and I have high hopes of that being made, too.9780765345004_p0_v1_s260x420

VENTRELLA: What is it about science fiction that attracts you?

SAWYER: The variety: I can write hardboiled detective fiction (RED PLANET BLUES), courtroom drama (ILLEGAL ALIEN), romance (ROLLBACK), thriller (TRIGGERS), allegory (FAR-SEER), and more, all without leaving the genre. Science fiction is the least-restrictive genre to be working in.

VENTRELLA: Science fiction doesn’t seem to sell as much as before; do you think we’ve just become so used to our gadgets and modern technology that reading about spaceships doesn’t hold the wonder it did when we were kids? (I’m about your age, by the way…)

SAWYER: No, I think it’s something you alluded to earlier: if you don’t teach the core truths about science –- cosmology, evolutionary biology, and so forth -– people lose interest in what the Canadian poet Archibald Lampman called “the wide awe and wonder of the night.” Yes, there’s not much science fiction about spaceships, but that never was what science fiction was all about. But it is about science, and a culture that devalues or distrusts science isn’t one that’s going to embrace a literature that’s built on it.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read?

SAWYER: Most of my reading is nonfiction -– Robert Wright, Steven Pinker, Ray Kurzweil, and so on. But within the science-fiction genre, I love the works of Julie E. Czerneda, Jack McDevitt, and Robert Charles Wilson.

Interview with Hugo and Nebula Award Winning Author David Gerrold

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am honored to be interviewing Nebula and Hugo award winning author David Gerrold. David-GerroldDavid Gerrold is the author of over 50 books, several hundred articles and columns, and over a dozen television episodes. TV credits include episodes of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Twilight Zone, Land Of The Lost, Logan’s Run, and many others. Novels include WHEN HARLIE WAS ONE, THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF, the “War Against the Chtorr” septology, The “Star Wolf” trilogy, The “Dingilliad” young adult trilogy, and more. The autobiographical tale of his son’s adoption, THE MARTIAN CHILD won the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novelette of the Year and was the basis for the 2007 movie starring John Cusack, Amanda Peet, and Joan Cusack. His web page is here.

David, you’re probably best known for your first sale, the Star Trek “The Trouble with Tribbles” classic episode (which you’re probably tired of talking about). It’s kind of a Cinderella story for writers, in that your sale would never happen these days. Or would it?

DAVID GERROLD: I think it would be a lot harder for a new writer to break into a prime-time show the way I did. Back then, most shows were written by freelancers. Today, most shows are written by staff writers, and there are less episodes in a season, so there just aren’t as many opportunities. And it’s a lot harder for an unknown writer to get his outline in front of a producer, let alone have it pass the “Is this good enough to take a chance?” test.

Back then, it was a lot easier for a writer to establish a reputation. Guys like Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch and Charles Beaumont and George Clayton Johnson were well-known as go-to guys for a good script. Today, because shows are mostly staff-written, it’s a lot harder for a TV writer to establish a reputation outside of his specific show, until he becomes a producer.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written for one my favorite shows (Babylon 5), as well as scripts for Logan’s Run, Twilight Zone, and other TV series. star trekHow much control do you have over these scripts? In other words, do they get edited greatly by Hollywood types or are the end results usually what you wanted?

GERROLD: It depends on the producer. Joe Straczynski (Babylon 5) is one of the very best. He knows what a good script looks like and he respects writers who bring their passion to the story. He trusts writers. He doesn’t rewrite scripts unnecessarily.

Other producers (unnamed) can’t drink their coffee without first peeing in it to improve the flavor. Every writer has horror stories.

VENTRELLA: Your novel THE MARTIAN CHILD has to be one of your biggest successes, and that must be very satisfying to you given the biographical aspects of the story. Do you think the personal nature of the story hindered you in any way?

GERROLD: Actually, I think the personal nature of the story was enormously liberating. I didn’t have to make stuff up. It was already there. And because the focus of the story was about the relationship between myself and my son, I had an enormous wealth of material to draw upon. The story was about how much I love my son. Whether he’s a Martian or anything else, he’s my Martian. That’s the point.

I think the success of the story has to be that every parent who read the story or saw the movie recognized the experience of falling in love with their own child. I think it’s the best love story I’ve ever lived.

VENTRELLA: Were you happy with the resulting film–both as a film and given the changes that were made to the main character?

GERROLD: Where the movie stayed true to the love story, I enjoyed it enormously. I felt that there were things added to the movie that were unnecessary—-like all that business with sun block and weight belts.martian child I wanted one sequence from the book included, which I felt would have illustrated the core of the entire relationship-—that’s the “pickled mongoose” sequence, where Dennis learns how to tell jokes. I think it would have been a better movie with that included.

VENTRELLA: Money considerations aside, do you prefer books to scripts?

GERROLD: Scripts make more money, but disappear faster. Books are harder work. They’re a much more personal creation. I view books as a special kind of love affair with one reader at a time.

VENTRELLA: Through Land of The Lost and the Star Trek animated series, you worked with a number of great science fiction writers. Do you see that sort of thing in television today?

GERROLD: There was a moment when a producer (unnamed) who should have known better, said, “Don’t hire science fiction writers. They think they know more about my show than I do.” And based on the evidence, most SF writers do know more about science fiction than most TV producers.

On the other hand, there are brilliantly written shows like Dr. Who that demonstrate that an intelligent writer-producer can push the envelope over and over again.

VENTRELLA: You were originally involved in the first season of Next Generation but left as the lawyers took over … Has TV (and the movies) turned away from the people who know science fiction best to instead rely upon standard television scriptwriters too much? If so, are there exceptions?

GERROLD: See above. The exception is Dr. Who.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on all the various Star Trek incarnations? Which is your favorite? (Not counting the episode where you had a cameo…)

GERROLD: A lot of good people have worked on a lot of different incarnations of Star Trek. But my favorite is still the original series, the episodes produced by Gene Roddenberry and Gene L. Coon—when Star Trek was about exploring a very big, very unknown universe. Book1-AMatterForMen-DavidGerroldIt was about challenging our heroes with the question, “How does this universe work? What is our place in it? What does it mean to be a human being?” Those stories were humane, subversive, disturbing, thoughtful, and ultimately caused a whole generation to think outside the boundaries of what we had previously believed to be possible. To me, that’s what Star Trek should be—a humanistic challenge, not just a franchise for selling toys and tickets.

VENTRELLA: Did you ever have a project you really wanted to do that fell through? Do you have any new ones you’re trying to get done?

GERROLD: The Star Wolf TV series. I think that would have been a wonderful show to work on.

And yes, I have some new projects I’m working on.

VENTRELLA: Most authors agree that they write for themselves, not others. Do you agree with that assessment? Is that a good idea for a starting writer?

GERROLD: I write for myself. I let others pay for the privilege of reading over my shoulder.

VENTRELLA: I remember reading your novel THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF when it first came out, and I still recall much of its plot–probably because I love a good time travel story. More importantly, the fun of the book was not the adventure, but the possibilities and consequences of time travel and world changing. Why did you decide to go in that direction instead of a straight-ahead adventure?

GERROLD: Because that’s where the story wanted to go.

VENTRELLA: Did you ever consider doing a sequel? Someone else gets the belt?

GERROLD: A sequel would be anti-climactic. There’s nothing else to say. (Well…that’s not quite true, but I’m not going to give it away here.)

VENTRELLA: Some established authors these days have begun placing their out-of-print catalogue in e-book format and selling it on the web, avoiding a publisher completely.the-man-who-folded-himself-7 Have you considered such a thing? Why or why not?

GERROLD: It costs money to print a book and distribute it. It doesn’t cost anything to make it available as an ebook, and the income goes directly to the writer. Having your back-list available to the audience is good business. I’ve got several stories available on Amazon.

VENTRELLA: I’ve been given advice, as a small time writer, to avoid politics on Facebook and my blog. I’ve ignored that advice. I note that you also post your political views from time to time, as well as visiting a political bulletin board. Do you think this has hurt your sales in any fashion, or do you not care?

GERROLD: Larry Kramer said it, “Silence equals death.” Martin Neimoller said it, “First they came for the communists,and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

I think that it’s important to speak up. Not speaking up is surrender. And the status quo is always the enemy. But if you’re going to speak up, do your research first. I believe that the evidence is the strongest argument.

But there’s an even larger context that I would advise. Be pro-, not anti-.  If you’re going to speak up, then speak up for people, speak out against injustice, speak up for making a difference, speak out against hate-mongering. If you identify a class of people and vilify them, you’re making enemies. But if you identify a category of people who have a just cause and speak out for them, you’re showing your compassion for others.

I think that if we remain silent, our silence is interpreted as agreement. Nope. I’d rather be unpopular for speaking out than accepted for the lie of silence.

VENTRELLA: Speaking of politics, one of the biggest issues for me is the anti-science position many take these days–arguing against climate change and evolution for political or religious reasons instead of scientific ones.13806 As someone who relies on science for your fiction, what’s your opinion on this? What should we do?

GERROLD: The answer to hate speech is more speech, honest speech, accurate speech, thoughtful speech, humane speech, rational speech, compassionate speech, forgiving speech, loving speech.

The answer to stupid speech is evidence, rationality, accuracy. And occasionally, a healthy bit of ridicule.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read for pleasure?

GERROLD: Terry Pratchett, John Varley, Spider Robinson, George R.R. Martin, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Laura Joh Rowland, Frederik Pohl, and about a thousand others who are stored on my Kindle and who I have not yet gotten to.

VENTRELLA: Fantasy has grown tremendously in popularity over the past twenty or thirty years and now outsells science fiction. Why do you think this is? What is it about fantasy that appeals to readers that they can’t get from science fiction?

GERROLD: Science fiction is harder to write. There’s so much new science happening every day that it’s impossible to keep up.

Fantasy doesn’t have the same restrictions, but writing a great fantasy might be even harder than writing good science fiction. I think George R.R. Martin proves that.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting author that you wish someone had given you?

GERROLD: Quit.

If you’re going to be discouraged, be discouraged now and save yourself all that time and frustration.

But if being told to quit just pisses you off, then maybe you have the determination to keep going no matter how frustrated you get.9780812576085

VENTRELLA: Given your career, you’ve met a number of other talented and/or famous people. Who did you most enjoy meeting?

GERROLD: Robert A. Heinlein, of course. Theodore Sturgeon. Arthur C. Clarke. Spider Robinson. Anne McCaffrey, Frederik Pohl, Randall Garrett, Robert Silverberg, Harry Harrison, but especially Harlan Ellison who has been a lifelong friend.

Outside of the writing community, the entire cast of the original Star Trek series, especially William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, De Kelley, and Nichelle Nichols.

Beyond that, Robin Williams, Virginia Madsen, Candice Bergen, Pat Tallman, Brent Spiner, Jonathan Frakes, Levar Burton, Chase Masterson…I could go on for hours.

Oh yes, and one particular former Mouseketeer I had a kind of crush on once.

VENTRELLA: With a time machine and a universal translator, who would you invite to your ultimate dinner party?

GERROLD: Suetonius, Voltaire, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Kurt Vonnegut, and Gore Vidal.

Interview with Actress and Author Claudia Christian

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA:  I am tremendously pleased to be interviewing Claudia Christian today.  As you probably already know, Ms. Christian is an actress best known for playing Ivanova on one of my favorite TV shows of all time, Babylon 5! claudia_christian_24147 She’s done much more than that, of course, and her more detailed bio and filmography can be found here.  Today, however, we’re here to discuss her new book!

 Ms. Christian, I’ve just finished your new book BABYLON CONFIDENTIAL. This does not read like a typical Hollywood tell-all, but instead as a very personal diary of sorts.  Do you feel you accomplished what you set out to do?

CLAUDIA CHRISTIAN:  I wanted to spread the word about The Sinclair Method and save lives, so far I have accomplished both!

VENTRELLA:  You’re very forthcoming about your alcohol addiction and quite candid about other parts of your life.  Did you ever say “Nah, I’m not going to talk about that”?

CHRISTIAN:  No, I did not. I don’t believe that you can expect people to buy into something unless you are 100% honest.  besides, there is so much shame attached to addiction that I wanted other addicts to see the worst that I have been through so they could not only relate but also forgive themselves.

 VENTRELLA:  The title seems both a tribute to Babylon 5 but also the BABYLON HOLLYWOOD books that I used to read years ago.  How did you choose the title?

CHRISTIAN:  Morgan and I threw around titles for awhile then submitted them to the publisher, this one won.

 VENTRELLA:  The last few chapters of the book are almost a guide for those in a similar situation.  Have you heard from readers who were inspired by your tale to change their lives?

CHRISTIAN:  I have indeed! I have dozens of people on TSM and have helped support them, guide them and am thrilled to say that they have a nearly 100% success rate!

VENTRELLA:  The book reads like a rollercoaster – disappointment followed by great times followed by tragedy … Was there ever an attempt to sugarcoat something?BABYLON CONFIDENTIAL 

CHRISTIAN:  I’m not one to sugar coat things though I did lighten a few experiences to save face for other people. No need to be cruel in a book. I tried to be honest, period.

VENTRELLA:  Was writing the book painful or cathartic?

CHRISTIAN:  Both!

VENTRELLA: How did the writing cooperation work with Morgan Buchanan?

CHRISTIAN:  Fantastic … thank God for Skype!

VENTRELLA:  Are you happy with the reception the book has received  (Reviews, sales, comments, etc.)?

CHRISTIAN:  I am indeed though I wish more mainstream media would pick up on TSM.

VENTRELLA:  I first became aware of your work through Babylon 5, one of the best science fiction shows on TV.  Ivanova was everything we wanted in a strong leader, and many of us were tremendously disappointed when she didn’t appear in the final season (where she should have been captain!)  Anyway, sorry, let me get on with this;  I could gush about how well written, acted, and directed that series was for this entire interview.

At one point in the book, you make the comment that writer/producer J.  Michael Straczynski (who you call “Joe!”)  felt that if an actor was giving him trouble, he could always write a way to get rid of him – and in fact, that happened a few times.  Is that what happened to Marcus Cole (who played Jason Carter)?  ( I hope not, because that death was a great scene and deserved to be there!)

CHRISTIAN:  I cannot comment on things that JMS did simply because I am not in his mind…W22 114

VENTRELLA:  More importantly, do you think that happened to you?  You did not date him as he apparently wanted … I know the 5th season was not close to that incident, but do you think that he might have fought more for your return otherwise?

CHRISTIAN:  I had another job and we could not work out the schedule. It’s in the book very clearly stated how it went down.

VENTRELLA:  There were a few follow-up B5 films and sequels after the 5th season.  Have you ever been asked to be in any of them?

CHRISTIAN:  No … I only did the two TNT Babylon 5 films after the series ended and those were both fun.

VENTRELLA:  What is your one favorite scene or episode from B5?  (I have a prediction but I want to see what you think…)

CHRISTIAN: Death incarnate!

VENTRELLA:  Thought so.  (Here’s a link for those of you who are unaware).

You’ve done voice-overs in commercials, Disney’s “Atlantis” and video games such as Skyrim.  How does this kind of work compare to being in front of a camera?

CHRISTIAN: You don’t have to look good when you record!

VENTRELLA: Why do you think “Atlantis” wasn’t a bigger hit for Disney?

CHRISTIAN: Too dark and old school for these little kids nowadays … they like pink and frosting… :)helga

VENTRELLA:  And what is it about the name “Sinclair”?  There was Captain Sinclair in “Babylon 5″, and then your character in “Atlantis” was named Helga Sinclair, and then you were finally able to break your addiction with The Sinclair Method.  Coincidence?

CHRISTIAN: Who knows?! Conspiracy theorists arise!

VENTRELLA:  In BABYLON CONFIDENTIAL You spoke of some terrible experiences with crazed fans at conventions and the like.  (I do a lot of conventions and sadly, there are indeed people like that who attend, although the vast majority are wonderful people.)  Do the good experiences outweigh the bad enough to make attending the conventions worthwhile?

CHRISTIAN: Of course the good outweigh the bad …I love the fans.

VENTRELLA:  You also wrote a small book called MY LIFE WITH GEEKS AND FREAKS which does not seem to be available any more.  What was that about?

CHRISTIAN:  My experiences at conventions. It was a love letter to the fans, really.

VENTRELLA: Will that become available again?

CHRISTIAN: I think so.my-life-with-geeks-freaks-claudia-christian-paperback-cover-art

VENTRELLA:  Did your publisher purposely use “Star Trek” font for the book cover as a kind of inside joke?

CHRISTIAN:  Probably…

VENTRELLA:  When I read about the avant garde film “Tale of Two Sisters” I thought it might be so-bad-it’s-good worth renting, but after reading the reviews on IMDB, all of which pan it completely, I’ve changed my mind.  That must have been a very interesting experience.  Do you feel that was the worst film you’ve been in or is there something else out there you dislike more?

CHRISTIAN:  Thinking a film is bad is subjective; some people like that film … I have no idea what the worst film I have ever done is but I’m sure no two people would agree on that.

VENTRELLA:  I had never heard of the British TV show “Starhyke” until reading your book and now I want to see it!  It’s apparently never been released on DVD in America although I was able to find some clips on YouTube.  That looks like it was a lot of fun.  Why wasn’t there a second season?

CHRISTIAN:  Lack of funds.

VENTRELLA:  Then there’s “Taboo.”  Tell me about that!  How did that come about?

CHRISTIAN: I love making music…..taboo

VENTRELLA: Do you plan on  doing any more music?

CHRISTIAN:  Not really, too busy with other projects and I am not a very good singer; I just did it for the fun of it.

VENTRELLA:  You mention your huge personal library.  What do you like to read?  Who are your favorite authors?

CHRISTIAN: I love historical fiction and biographies. I love CJ Sansom, Peter Ackroyd, Bernard Cornwall, Neil Gamain, Edward Rutherfurd, etc. etc.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever read any of the Babylon 5 books?  Do you ever go “Ivanova would never do that!”?

CHRISTIAN:  No I have not, I’m not a sci fi fan.

VENTRELLA: What other projects are you working on?  When will we see (or hear) you next?

CHRISTIAN:  Tor is releasing “Wolf’s Empire” in 2014 ,another book by Christian-Buchanan

I am also still working on promoting TSM and will be doing so for the rest of my life, it’s my raison d’etre.

Interview with Author Melinda Snodgrass

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am very pleased to be interviewing Melinda Snodgrass! Melinda Snodgrass studied opera at the Conservatory of Vienna in Austria, graduated from U.N.M. with a degree in history, and went on to Law School. She practiced for three years, and discovered that while she loved the law she hated lawyers — so she began writing science fiction novels.

In 1988 she accepted a job on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and began her Hollywood career where she has worked on staff on numerous shows, written pilots and feature films. Her novels THE EDGE OF REASON, and THE EDGE OF RUIN are currently available from Tor books. She has delivered the first two novels in a new Urban Fantasy series featuring blood-sucking lawyers, THIS CASE IS GONNA KILL ME, and BOX OFFICE POISON, and has a story in the latest Wild Card book, FORT FREAK. She is currently adapting Wild Cards as a motion picture for Universal Pictures. Her passion (aside from writing) is riding her Lusitano stallion Vento da Broga.

Let’s start by talking about the law. It seems that many writers of speculative fiction are also lawyers (myself included). What is it about the law that makes people want to escape so much?

MELINDA SNODGRASS: I went into law thinking it was all about truth and justice. It isn’t. It’s about process, and after three years in law school I realized that was okay too. Law = civilization, and our job as attorneys is to reach some level of basic fairness. I also think that much of law is contracts, and family law. The big Constitutional cases rarely turn up in an average law office, and that was what really interested me. I am great admirer of the Constitution. It is a beautiful document that was designed to grown, stretch and change, and aside from one disastrous episode (prohibition) it has always been interpreted to expand rights. That’s it’s genius.

VENTRELLA: Absolutely agree. It’s why I like being a criminal defense attorney — I do get to argue the Constitution from time to time.

You’ve used your legal experience well in your work, and especially in the excellent Star Trek: Next Generation episode “The Measure of Man.” How did you decide upon that plotline and theme? (Reading Dred Scott?)

SNODGRASS: Yes, it was the Dred Scott decision. It worked perfectly to set up a conflict between Data and Star Fleet command. I also had a navy pilot buddy who gave me the most powerful point of all. He told me that when a ship is at sea, and you can’t utilize JAG officers then the Captain always defends and the first officer prosecutes. To pit Ricker and Picard was just too perfect.

VENTRELLA: Did the story change much between your script and what we saw on screen? If so, what changes did you like and/or dislike?

SNODGRASS: There were virtually no changes. The only thing that happened was a number of scenes got cut because the script ran very long. Now all of those deleted scenes have been restored to the new Blue Ray DVD release that is going to happen in December so folks will be able to compare the “as aired” version with the extended version. There are a couple of scenes I’m really glad are back in.

VENTRELLA: Let’s discuss writing for television. How did you get your break there?

SNODGRASS: I owe it all to George R.R. Martin. He had gone out to Hollywood to write for first the New Twilight Zone, and then for Beauty and the Beast. He called me, and said “Hey, I think you’d be pretty good at this screenwriting thing. It works to all of your strengths – strong plotting, powerful characters, and good dialog, and if you write a spec script I will show it to my agent.” I picked Star Trek because I had loved original Trek as a kid, and I didn’t want to put George on the spot if I wrote a crappy B&B script.

VENTRELLA: How does writing for television compare to writing a short story or novel?

SNODGRASS: Different mediums and you always have to keep that in mind. A short story or a novel can stand if it’s got enough atmosphere and is evocative even if it’s light on plot. That just won’t work in a screenplay. Also interior dialog can work in prose, and it has to be changed to actual dialog to work on screen. You have to be able to see it and hear – film is a visual medium.

VENTRELLA: While there are plenty of science fiction shows on TV these days, there really aren’t any traditional space-faring shows like Star Trek or Babylon 5 or Firefly any more (except perhaps for Dr. Who). In fact, even in literature, there seems to be less and less. Why do you think that is?

SNODGRASS: Expense is the primary reason. Special effects cost a lot of money. I also think there is the fear of comparison to Star Trek, and that it can’t be made different or interesting. I don’t agree that space dying out in literature. I think we are seeing a renaissance of space opera. For awhile writers did seem to think space based stories were too juvenile, but with the success of books like LEVIATHAN WAKES, and the whole collection of British space opera writers I think it’s a booming field. I, for one, am very happy about that. It’s what I like to read, and my next big project is a space opera series.

VENTRELLA: How did you get your first “big break” in publishing?

SNODGRASS: I had written my first novel in the Federal-court-judge-rides-circuit-in-outer-space series, but I couldn’t get any traction. David Hartwell offered me a chance to write a Star Trek novel, and I did. He also counseled me to write only one. I have followed that advice to the letter. The Star Trek novel was THE TEARS OF THE SINGERS.

VENTRELLA: I remember reading that years ago and really enjoying it!

Aspiring authors often seem to think that writing a book is easy and your first one is sure to be a huge hit. What writing experience did you have prior to publication?

SNODGRASS: As I said before I had trouble getting traction with my S.F. books until TEARS. But I’ve been very lucky. I broke in right at the big boom in romance. I had quit the law firm, and I needed to pay the mortgage so I wrote six romance novels under pseudonyms while I also worked on my CIRCUIT novel. The romances sold, had the advantage of teaching me how to write to deadline, and finish a book (something people have trouble with), and they paid my bills.

VENTRELLA: You certainly have not shied away from politics and religion as themes. In fact, your Edge novels deal with that theme. What spurred you to write that series?

SNODGRASS: It was New Year’s Even 1999. I was sitting with Steve Gould, and Laura Mixon, Walter Jon Williams, and several other friends in the bar at El Pinto in Albuquerque. We were drinking margaritas and watching the celebrations around the world as we entered the twenty-first century. We being science fiction writers were bitching that it was actually going to be the twenty-first century, but then a new bitch occurred to me, and I asked the group, “Where is my Moon base and my air car? Why are at the dawn of the 21st century, and people put more credence in guardian angels and healing crystals and tarot cards then they do in science?” Then I thought, maybe there’s an outside force driving us to be ignorant and hateful. That was the start of the idea.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also discussed religion and politics on your blog and Facebook. Now, as a starting writer, I’ve been advised to avoid these subjects, but I ignored that advice. Do you think writers should avoid these issues for fear of alienating potential readers?

SNODGRASS: I think people should write stories that interest them. Stories they would like to read. Of course there are going to be readers who won’t like those stories, but that’s life. Some people like chocolate ice cream and others like vanilla. You can’t produce something that makes everybody happy so you may as well write what makes you happy. Writing is hard, you shouldn’t write something if you don’t enjoy it.

VENTRELLA: To relate back to an earlier question, do you think the current anti-science nature of the religious right has had an effect on hard science in literature?

SNODGRASS: I don’t think it’s affected us in the science fiction field. I think we just ignore the gibberish about evolution not being true, or the Earth being 6000 years old. Most of us love science fiction because we love science and the wonder of discovery.

VENTRELLA: Many people would also know you from the Wild Card series with George R.R. Martin. How did that association begin?

SNODGRASS: George and I were in a role playing group with a lot of other writers – Walter Jon Williams, Victor Milan, John Jos. Miller. Vic had given George Superworld for Christmas and we were playing the game obsessively with George as our game master. One day we had played until 2 or 3 in the morning, George had stayed over at my house, and he wandered out for breakfast and said, “there has to be some way to turn this obsession into money.” That’s when we started to discuss it as a shared world anthology. We cooked it up in my dining room over pancakes and bacon and lots of coffee. I came up with the aliens and the virus because George didn’t want the usual stupid superhero origin story – “struck by lightning while standing in a toxic waste dump”.

VENTRELLA: What do you think makes the Wild Card series so popular?

SNODGRASS: The characters and their interactions. The real world problems they face. Steve Leigh wrote an absolutely heartbreaking story for FORT FREAK about a long time character who is three people fused into one body dealing with the onset of Alzheimer’s in one of the members. It literally brought me to tears. You’re not going to see something like that in most comic books.

VENTRELLA: Who are your favorite authors?

SNODGRASS: God, that’s a really hard question. Outside of the field I often reread John le Carre and Georgette Heyer. In the field I have so many writers I love that it’s hard to narrow it down. Heinlein juveniles. Clifford Simak’s WAY STATION, new young writers like James S.A. Corey and Ian Tregillis. George doesn’t need a plug from me. Most of the world knows his genius and abilities. And I tend to reread The Lord of Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien over and over. I like mysteries very much – Dorothy Sayers, Elizabeth George, Michael Connelly. I could fill pages so I’ll stop with that.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now?

SNODGRASS: I am writing the Wild Card movie for Universal pictures. I have sent a big hunk of the third Edge book to my agent. I’m writing up the proposal and chapters for my space opera series, I have another urban fantasy book due at Tor that I’m writing under a pseudonym, Phillipa Bornikova. George and I are trying to put the next Wild Card book – LOWBALL to bed. I’m really busy. Sometimes I want to take a nap.

VENTRELLA: And finally, since this is a blog for aspiring authors, what advice do you think needs to be said that hasn’t been emphasized enough?

Write what you love. Treat it like a job. And don’t break your promises to your readers/viewers. Give them the ending that you promised in the opening chapter.

Interview with author Ryk E. Spoor

MICHEAL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author Ryk E. Spoor today!

Ryk, like many genre writers (including myself), you read science fiction from a young age and then got into gaming. What is it about role-playing games that encourages people to become writers?

RYK SPOOR: Well, on both sides of the game – GM or player – the game itself is telling a story. It may be a very simple story, especially for beginning players or people just in it for a beer-and-pretzels amusement, but a story about how these people go out, confront problems, solve the problems, and achieve their goals. So pretty much by its very nature, RPGs make you into a storyteller … which certainly encourages you to start writing down the stories that affected you most. It’s all downhill from there.

On the GM’s side, of course, it’s even more so. You’re the person who constructs, or at the least controls and directs, the entire world. You know what the villains are doing and why, you have to figure out how they deal with things when your players do something you don’t expect (and they always do something you don’t expect), and so on. That’s pretty much what a writer does – invent a world and tell us the stories in that world. For some writers, there’s even the equivalent of those annoying plot-busting PCs; some writers find their characters taking off on their own.

So honestly, I think the fact is that the very essence of a well-run RPG is storytelling, and anyone who does that a lot will have stories they want to tell.

VENTRELLA: On a previous blog post, I wrote how important it is to make connections if you want to get ahead in the world, with publishing being no exception. Your story is a bit unusual in that regard. How did you go from being a fan/troll to a published author?

SPOOR: Heh. The short version is that I insulted the right person at the right time. I could give you the long, long version, but since this is a written (and presumably to be webbed) interview, let me just point you here; the key part starts with the sentence, “Then one day, I got into an online argument with Eric Flint”, which is a little less than halfway down that page.

VENTRELLA: Had you ever submitted any stories for publication before that?

SPOOR: I actually had submitted a short story when I was 11 to a magazine (I no longer know even which one). It was some years later that I started submitting the Jason Wood stories that eventually became DIGITAL KNIGHT. All of the rejections for those stories read the same way: “This was a great story, everyone in the office loved it, but it’s way too long for magazine publication.” Of course, as individual stories, the Jason Wood stories are also far too short to be novels; they’re novelette or novella length works, which has for years been pretty much the worst length to try to publish.

The three stories which formed the core of DIGITAL KNIGHT – “Gone in a Flash”, “Photo Finish”, and “Viewed in a Harsh Light” – were eventually collected by me and put up for electronic purchase as “Morgantown: The Jason Wood Files” at hyperbooks.com; this was long before the e-book explosion happened, of course, since they were up for several years before Baen ended up publishing me.

VENTRELLA: Who were your favorite authors when you were growing up and what was it about them that appealed to you?

SPOOR: There were a lot of them. When I was very young, the most influential was L. Frank Baum, author of the Oz books. I loved Oz – the world, the people, and the subtly macabre and more complex-than-I-appreciated universe. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books were very strong influences because they were a glimpse into what it was like to grow up in a world that was this one …yet not the one I knew.

My dad had quite an SF library that I went through as I got older, but it was my 6th grade teacher, Mr. Dickinson, who introduced me to E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series by lending me a battered, somewhat cigarette-scorched copy of Second-Stage Lensmen. Doc became my single biggest influence for years; he defined “sensawunda” to me, and I in fact wrote GRAND CENTRAL ARENA specifically as a salute to him.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? Do you outline heavily, for instance?

SPOOR: Depends on the book, to a great extent. I have to outline when I’m working with a co-author, like Eric Flint; we discuss the general idea, then I work up an outline, he kicks holes in it, I fix it, we agree on the outline, and then I go to work.

For my own work, it still depends somewhat on which books. In DIGITAL KNIGHT, all of Jason’s major adventures were “outlined” in a single concept: the “trick” or “twist” that he uses to take down the supernatural opponent du jour. Knowing that, the only other thing I had to do was figure out who my main character was; the rest started writing itself.

For PHOENIX RISING, I’d plotted the basic outline of Kyri’s adventures out partly during my gaming time, as Kyri was originally an RPG character. But a lot of her adventures simply fell out of the fact that I know the world so well that by now I can just write it.

With GRAND CENTRAL ARENA I had to first construct the universe; some of that I discussed in my appearance in John Scalzi’s The Big Idea; I actually did write out an outline for it, so I could pitch it to Baen, but once I had the outline I started writing. In many ways the finished product doesn’t look all that much like the outline.

But if I know what I’m writing, my process is basically just to sit down, put on my earphones, and write. I average about 1200 words per hour once I get moving, and I don’t rewrite or edit for the most part; I can’t see flaws in my own writing unless I wait something like five years, so I depend on my beta-readers and my editors to tell me when I’ve screwed up.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about PHOENIX RISING.

SPOOR: Oh, I could talk about that all day. PHOENIX RISING is the first volume in the Balanced Sword trilogy, although since I don’t yet have a contract for the other two volumes I have done my best to give it some kind of closure on its own. The basic story focuses on Kyri Vantage, who loses first her parents and then, later, her brother to unknown forces despite what everyone had thought were strong protections against evil; when she discovers just who and what was behind this, she is forced to become a living representative of a desperate, weakened god in order to bring justice to her home and eventually, she hopes, discover and destroy the true source of this evil; the events, of course, have a far greater impact and importance than Kyri recognizes at first. Other threads in the book follow the other two main characters, Tobimar Silverun and Poplock Duckweed, as they first meet each other and then eventually catch up with Kyri at a crucial moment.

This is a terribly important book to me. I wrote the first draft of Kyri’s story in 1992, and I’ve wanted to tell her story ever since; more, this is the first appearance of my fantasy world of Zarathan, which I created back in 1978 and have been building ever since. Zarathan was mentioned, very briefly, in DIGITAL KNIGHT, but there was no real vision of what it WAS in that book.

PHOENIX RISING is also quite complicated; there are threads of plot seen which are part of other stories – for instance, one character who plays a significant role for a part of the book is actually a main character in the projected Spirit Warriors trilogy, and there’s another couple of characters we see a few times who are major players in my other projected trilogy Godswar; basically the problems sweeping the world in PHOENIX RISING are so huge and complex that no one group of heroes can deal with them all; you need at least three separate groups. For the reader, I hope such things give them the feeling of a larger, more real universe, one in which there are a million stories outside of the story we’re following.

Zarathan itself is my main fantasy RPG world (to refer back to your earlier question), and I’ve been running games in it for well over 30 years now, building it, rebuilding it, and coming to a deeper understanding of the universe every day.

VENTRELLA: If I am not mistaken, you have created a universe with both fantasy and science fiction elements for your stories. How have you made the twain meet?

SPOOR: Essentially, the rule to me is that normal physics holds sway unless something changes those rules explicitly. Magic does so, some psionic capabilities do, but that means that science works just fine; it’s just a subset of the laws of nature rather than the whole thing.

It’s really not hard to combine them; as Dave Hargrave, writer of the Arduin Grimoire series of RPG supplements, put it, where’s the alien with the ray gun going to stand out more: on the streets of our cities, or in the fantasy RPG city with the fireball-flinging wizard, magic-sword wielding barbarian, and the dragon flying overhead?

The only trick, so to speak, is to have clear rules as to how the various powers behave and interact. Technology, psionics, and magic all have various advantages and disadvantages in my universe and play off each other in various ways and situations.

Really powerful magic, though, is restricted to Zarathan itself, at least until after a certain event happens, but while I’ve written one story set after that event, overall that’ll be a while before I get there.

VENTRELLA: There seems to be a trend away from science fiction, toward fantasy, steampunk, and “urban fantasy” these days. To what do you attribute that change?

SPOOR: There’s several factors. The “low-hanging fruit” in SF was all taken years ago, and general knowledge of the way science works – and doesn’t work – disseminated more and more through the population, making some of the old-school approaches no longer viable. You can’t have your characters just tinker up a spacedrive in the basement and cruise around the solar system in a homemade rocket and expect anyone to take you seriously any more.

The big news in science has also gotten, on average, a lot less immediately accessible. This is part of the overall progression of knowledge; back in the late 1800s to very early 1900s, it was still possible for one person to be “A Scientist” – someone who was an expert in more than one of the general disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology, etc. Nowadays, it’s hard to be an expert in a splinter branch of any of them. Back then, the average (reading) layman could probably grasp in general terms most, if not all, of the key problems and ideas being explored by scientists of the day; today, many of the concepts, especially in physics, require that you understand some very esoteric concepts before you even grasp the question, let alone the answer.

Fantasy is not easier to write, really, but it’s easier to make graspable because the complexity of the rules governing the world aren’t going to be more complex than the writer wants them to be. Plus, in most cases, the fantasies assume they take place on Earth or a very Earthlike world, so the reader is expected to “fill in” lots of detail all by him or herself. From a writer’s point of view, it’s also safer. No one’s going to go to Tolkien or Brooks, or me, for that matter, and tell us that our magical worlds don’t work the way we think they do. But writers of hard SF? Yeah, we’ll have people telling us when we get it wrong. Stridently, in some cases. The fact is that even if you do a lot of research, you’ll have to stop the research somewhere and get to writing … and it’s an ironclad guarantee that you stopped just before getting to some key fact that a particular group of fans consider critical.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t have similar screwups in fantasy, but those are all going to be the kind of screwups you can get in ANY story: failure of internal consistency.

I also think it’s a change in optimism that happened over the last several decades. During the late 1800s through the 1950s, science was romantic, awesome, and wondrous. It was going to solve all our problems. We were going to create new species of plants that would grow food anywhere, make space colonies on the moon and turn Mars into a second Earth. We were going to analyze the workings of the brain and abolish mental illness; we were going to cure cancer and solve the mysteries of the universe.

But science doesn’t actually work that way, and as it ran into the fact that some problems are very resistant to solution (commercial fusion and true artificial intelligence, still 20 years away and have been all my life!), the general public began to also see some of the consequences of misuse of technology (pollution, etc.) and associate this WITH technology. The shiny glow of hope faded and the chrome-plated future got tarnished. But shining worlds of high fantasy can’t be rendered hopeless by the same process … and one can also, of course, apply the same overlay of grimness and edginess to fantasy as one can to SF, so the net result is much more fantasy and less clear SF.

(of course, we’ll note that this assumes that there’s a clear division between SF and fantasy, which isn’t the case)

VENTRELLA: Creating new worlds is fun but also difficult in that there is the need to explain the world without massive info dumps. How do you do it?

SPOOR: I’m not sure I’ve mastered it yet. Sometimes I feel like I do nothing in the beginning of a new book but try to dump the info into the readers’ head.

The main techniques that I use are the tried-and-true methods of either (A) having the characters discuss key information as part of a normal conversation – usually with one character who has some reason not to know the key info, so they’re not “As you know, Bob …” type discussions, or (B) having the information emerge from the events of the story.

This latter technique is one that is best used for pieces of information which will actually become vital sometime later in the story – Jane’s doing X, which happens to cause Y to happen, leading her to realize (along with the reader) that Z is one of the characteristics of the world. Twenty chapters later, Jane realizes that applying Z will get her out of the situation she’s in. This allows the reader to follow along and maybe guess what Jane’s going to do with this new-found knowledge. I did this in Grand Central Arena to plant all the clues for how Ariane would be able to defeat Amas-Garao in the final Challenge.

VENTRELLA: I’ve recently realized that all my stories have the everyday person who is stuck in a situation and must overcome great odds through bravery and intellect – the reluctant hero who has no extraordinary skills. Have you find any connecting threads for your protagonists?

SPOOR: I like my heroes Heroic and my villans Villanous, for the most part. I don’t usually have reluctant heroes, although inexperienced and sometimes clueless heroes, that’s fine. As I tend to write my stories (just as I run my RPGs) at a high power level, they all tend to be at the least very highly competent and at the most quite superhuman in order to survive the threats they’re up against.

All of my characters – heroes and villains – tend to be smart. That doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes or misjudge things, but that they try not to do obviously stupid actions. The really smart ones often think many steps ahead. I want to see smart heroes VS smart villains

Most of my characters tend to be fairly modest, often underestimating their own abilities. The few arrogant ones (like A.J. Baker) usually get smacked down fairly regularly.

High Melodrama is my preference in writing, and most of my characters share that preference in their behavior. I have to rein in that tendency when writing hard SF like Boundary, of course.

VENTRELLA: How do you get inside the minds of your characters to make sure they all don’t talk and act alike?

SPOOR: Heh. Sometimes I don’t think they do. I actually don’t have a … technique per se. I just get to know who they are and then I know what they’d say, and how they’d say it. I couldn’t tell you why, but I know when something is right and when it isn’t, so I write it the way that sounds right.

VENTRELLA: Ryk, we met while on a panel together at Albacon some years ago. How important is it to attend conventions to promote yourself?

SPOOR: I honestly can’t say; I can’t afford to go to many at all, so if it’s important, I’m in deep doo-doo. Aside from Albacon, I used to go to Genericon; other than that I was at I-Con once, the World Fantasy Convention when it was up in Saratoga, and Worldcon when it was in Boston, but I haven’t done much promoting. I’m terrible at promoting, actually. I hate it; I’d rather spend my time writing, unless the promotion’s something fun and flashy in and of itself.

VENTRELLA: What bugs you most about the publishing industry and what would you change about it if you could?

SPOOR: I’ve had generally good experiences with publishing, so I have minimal criticisms, aside from saying that the publishers who are clinging to DRM are gonna shoot themselves in the foot. About the only thing that’s annoying is long delays in reaction times, but alas, there’s so much slush and so hard to get people to read it, so there’s not likely to be much change there.

I think publishers need to look at reaching out to the self-publishing industry and offering professional services such as editing in an organized sense. This might be one thing that can keep them alive in the changing landscape of publication.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read for pleasure?

There’s so many names. The old classics like RAH, Heinlein, etc., still work. Terry Brooks usually gives a good entertaining read. My preference is for worlds that are overall brighter than this one, or whose heroes at least shine brightly, so a lot of current writers tend to skirt the edge of that threshold, like Harry Connolly and Charles Stross.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of manga, especially Naruto and Fullmetal Alchemist – some of the best stories I’ve ever read, actually.

Out of genre, some of my favorite comfort reads are Nero Wolfe novels or the adventure classics like Scaramouche, the Count of Monte-Cristo, Scarlet Pimpernel, etc.

Honestly, however, I’ve had a lot less time to read since I became an author. I probably read more stuff to my kids than I do to myself.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting author that you wish someone had given you?

Heh. I never learned from advice, so I’m terrible at giving it. Only two things, really; they’re pieces of advice someone did tell me eventually, but not when I started writing:

1) Never make it easy on your characters.

2) Don’t let anyone tell you there’s one particular way to write; “There are nine-and-sixty ways to compose tribal lays, and every single one of them is right.” That said, writing takes work, it’s not magic.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you see aspiring authors make?

SPOOR: Again, two, I think.

1) Thinking they have some precious, original idea that someone will steal. No, you don’t. Any idea you have, someone else already had. Probably five or ten someones. And they did it at least twenty years and maybe as many as two thousand years before you think they could possibly have done it. No one’s trying to steal your ideas. Especially other writers; we have more ideas already than we know what to do with.

2) Not reading. Especially in the genre. This would partially alleviate #1, because you’d be seeing all the other ideas. Unfortunately, a lot of new authors appear to be coming in mostly from non-print media. You really should read quite a bit of the older stuff, then the newer stuff, before you try to drop into the business, otherwise you’ll think you’re onto a new twist on an idea when it’s actually a twist we’ve seen a hundred times. I averaged a book a day from the time I was 7 or so until I was probably in my mid to late 20s. I don’t expect everyone to hit that level, but reading a bunch of the foundational classics of the genre is awfully important to ground you in this business.

VENTRELLA: What question do you wish interviewers would ask you that they never do?

SPOOR: “Would you like this check for a million dollars?”

Honestly, while all interviews skip over one question or another, all of them together seem to have hit all the questions I’d expect someone to ask. Maybe, in a few years or ten, I’ll have had enough interviews to notice something missing!

Ryk and me on a panel together at Albacon 2010

Interview with Bram Stoker Award-winning author John Shirley

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I am pleased to be interviewing John Shirley.

John Shirley is the author of numerous novels, story collections, screenplays (“THE CROW”), teleplays and articles. A futurologist and social critic, John was a featured speaker at TED-x in Brussels in 2011. His novels include EVERYTHING IS BROKEN, The “A Song Called Youth” cyberpunk trilogy (omnibus released in 2012), BLEAK HISTORY, DEMONS, CITY COME A-WALKIN’ and THE OTHER END. His short story collection BLACK BUTTERFLIES won the Bram Stoker Award, and was chosen by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the best books of the year. His new story collection is IN EXTREMIS: THE MOST EXTREME SHORT STORIES OF JOHN SHIRLEY. His stories have been included in three Year’s Best anthologies. He is also a songwriter (eg, for Blue Oyster Cult), and a singer. Black October records will soon be releasing a compilation of selected songs, BROKEN MIRROR GLASS: Recordings by John Shirley, 1978-2011. The authorized website is here.

John, since this is an election year, let’s start off with politics. You’ve certainly not shied away from politics, on your blog and on Facebook. Do you worry that this may alienate potential readers?

JOHN SHIRLEY: For me, I can’t worry about that and be a self respecting person.

VENTRELLA: Your novels EVERYTHING IS BROKEN and THE OTHER END are all about politics. What inspired you to write them?

SHIRLEY: I wouldn’t agree they’re all about politics. EVERYTHING IS BROKEN, however, is a political allegory as well as being a noir novel, a coming of age novel, a disaster novel (as opposed to a disastrous novel!), a suspense novel, and it’s set a bit in the future. So it’s got science fiction going on too. The trick of course is for all this to blend seamlessly. But good recipes can have a number of strong ingredients.

EVERYTHING IS BROKEN is a kind of LORD OF THE FLIES for the 21st century, perhaps. Its political center has to do with the value of community, of government itself (at its best); it shows what happens to a small coastal community, hit by a disaster, when its been stripped of its resources, its preparation, by Libertarians and Tea Party types and Privatizers. And it has ticked off some of those people. But there’s always plenty of support from the other side of the fence. It’s doing rather well. Lots of people are concerned about throwing the baby away with the bathwater—a sense of community being the baby in this case.

THE OTHER END was inspired by a desire to take the apocalypse away from the Christian right and give it to progressive people, if they want it. Why should the Christian Right define Judgment Day? And what would you do if you could create your own Judgement Day? And yes there are political overtones to much of it…It’s a fantasy about a Judgment Day that doesn’t come, exactly, from anyone’s usual idea of God…and that looks for real, social justice.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best reaction you’ve received from these political books?

SHIRLEY: Recommendations. Good reviews. Eg, “That staple of cautionary science fiction, the near future, becomes especially ‘near’ in this disaster novel from one of fantastic fiction’s most hard-hitting talents–EVERYTHING IS BROKEN emerges as a violent, vivid, viscerally upsetting and wholly unflinching nightmare of a novel, which profoundly illustrates the very point of having a civilization in the first place, and the risks we undertake by dismantling infrastructure in the name of short term savings. It’s not just a compelling read, but an important one–GRADE A.”—SciFi Magazine

VENTRELLA: Are you optimistic about the future or do you worry that the crazies on the right will cause more harm before things change?

SHIRLEY: If you mean the near future, the great worry, for me, is the Citizen’s United decision by SCOTUS, empowering billionaires and giant corporations and amoral people like the Koch Brothers to freely propagandize, to distort the President’s record, to spread the falsehood that Reaganomics, Tea Party economics, and so on, actually works to improve the economy. Actual economists dispute that fallacy. But people are buying into it. And as the Super PACs unleash more and more propaganda, politicians become more afraid of taking a stand, afraid of someone mounting a super PAC against them—and Congress becomes even more dominated by money, at the expense of ethics. If you mean the farther future—at this link is a transcript of the speech I gave to TEDx in Brussels last November, on why I’m “optimistic because everything will be terrible.”

VENTRELLA: Some of the threat of the tea partiers and their like is their anti-science position. What do you think causes that mindset?

SHIRLEY: They feel more comfortable with ignorance. It’s a sort of numb buffer around them so they don’t have to face life as it is. But also they’re being manipulated. Big Oil is opposed to accepting science on global warming, and they manipulate these people to mistrust science.

VENTRELLA: Have politics always influenced your writing? In other words, do you find yourself visiting political themes in your work?

SHIRLEY: A fair amount—and if it’s not that, I’m reaching for something meaningful, in some respect. Existential meaning matters too. Spiritual meaning. Philosophical meaning. And the human condition. I admire writers who dramatize the realities of the human condition. But it’s great when someone can combine some controlled degree of didacticism with entertainment—sometimes they have a major social impact. I’m thinking of the novel UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, the works of Charles Dickens, Upton Sinclair, and Steinbeck. Kurt Vonnegut novel’s, too, affected people deeply, he had a lot of social resonance; so did the novel CATCH-22 by Heller.

VENTRELLA: What themes have you found yourself revisiting, even if subconsciously?

SHIRLEY: The struggle with addiction—in the past, I had to carry on a bare knuckle fight with it. Fortunately I won. . .My observation that people suppress their empathy, their compassion, all too easily; that they barricade themselves away from it. That dehumanization is sadly all too human…And issues of the necessary balance between too much government and too little. I’m not in favor of too much; but on a planet with 7 billion people, we cannot have too little. Environmental issues also crop up in my work—my novel DEMONS combines most of those concerns in one work of allegorical horror.

VENTRELLA: Do you think that science fiction and fantasy help to provide a better media in which to make points about current issues?

SHIRLEY: They’re ideally suited for it. Look at 1984, or BRAVE NEW WORLD, or Atwood’s anti-fascist science fiction, or Vonnegut’s social statements in SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE. Philip K. Dick warned about mind controlling media and new tech that might be misused that way, in a lot of his books. Then there was John Brunner’s work, like THE SHEEP LOOK UP. You can model different kinds of societies, dystopian and utopian and everything between, in science fiction, like creating a literary computer model.

VENTRELLA: You’ve done so many different genres—what leads you to try so many new things? Does the story come first or the setting?

SHIRLEY: Sometimes it’s the marketplace, but it’s also a creative restlessness. I don’t like to be pigeonholed. It’s also freshening, energizing, to move onto another genre. It’s like traveling in a country you haven’t been to before—it’s stimulating.

VENTRELLA: You’re quite prolific: What keeps you going?

SHIRLEY: Partly necessity—I don’t have a day job. I do have quite a lot to say, a lot of stories to tell. I simply feel better when I’m productive, too. It’s what I am; I’m a writer to the bones. I’m not good at much else. Can’t fix a car.

VENTRELLA: You’ve done quite a few novelizations and tie-ins, such as BATMAN: DEAD WHITE, PREDATOR: FOREVER MIDNIGHT and DOOM. What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing already in someone else’s world?

SHIRLEY: I did those things mostly for money—the most successful one was the Bioshock novel, BIOSHOCK: RAPTURE–but it’s also because they’re in arenas I enjoy. I do love Batman, was glad to play in that sandbox. They gave me a fair amount of latitude and it varies from editor to editor. The Bioshock game people were very hands on and that was difficult. One disadvantage is, one might have to revise more than one is really being paid for. But I always manage—in some cases, the project changes while you’re writing it. They’ve sent you a movie script, but at the last moment it was changed; you were supposed to write about this game but the second one just came out and they want you to do that too … And I prefer to adapt rather than argue.

In the case of Bioshock I knew the videogame world I was writing about pretty well and had enjoyed it so that helped. I enjoyed the Predator films and it was fun to write that book but one issue that comes up is, some fans are very possessive about the franchise they love. Some fans of the Predator comic book thought I ought to have followed its internal rules, its canon—but I didn’t read the comics, wasn’t required to. I just started with the movies and launched from there. I never contradict the underlying source material I’m using…but I do get to be creative within it, and that can be a bit of a buzz.

VENTRELLA: You’ve written scripts for movies and television–have you been pleased with the results?

SHIRLEY: It’s mixed. I wrote “The Crow,” with David Schow—couldn’t be pleased when Brandon Lee was killed in the course of the production. There are always issues of struggling with producer notes, and so on. As for television, it’s very much committee writing, and it’s hard for someone like me to learn that…but I did learn. I just wrote a recent television pilot, which we’re now shopping around, but I can’t talk about it except the name: Intruder Town.

VENTRELLA: Which do you think has been most successful?

SHIRLEY: I’ve had more television scripts that came out close to what I wanted, than in movies. The most recent movie I wrote was a low budget horror film. I was not happy about it. Can’t say more about that.

The Deep Space Nine episode I wrote came out nicely, thanks to Ira Behr, the producer. But it can be very frustrating and one can’t be too identified with the writing. You have to separate yourself from it more than if you’re writing a novel or a short story. . .

VENTRELLA: How much changed between your script and what is seen on the screen?

SHIRLEY: It’s the exception if there aren’t a lot of changes. There are always exceptions—Woody Allen’s films are auteur work, he’s the director, producer, writer, they naturally come out close to what he envisioned. Clint Eastwood, I think, once he has a good script, stays with it—eg the script for Unforgiven. But mostly it’s like your script has to run across no man’s land, with bullets flying…it’s lucky to get across it intact.

VENTRELLA: Do you find novels easier to write than short stories?

SHIRLEY: Short stories are finished faster of course, but that aside, there are things one can do in novels one can’t do in short stories. As long as you have a really strong sense of pacing, and don’t drop all the balls you’re juggling, you can get into more facets of character, more ideas, than in a short story. A short story is like a knock out punch; a novel is a whole long fight with many rounds and lots of footwork.

VENTRELLA: Which is your favorite?

SHIRLEY: Apples and oranges really…

VENTRELLA: Who is your favorite character?

SHIRLEY: From my work? Maybe Rickenharp from A SONG CALLED YOUTH—the cyberpunk trilogy is out now, as an omnibus, freshened up, updated, re edited, from Prime Books, and Rickenharp is perhaps the realest character…because he’s most like me. I’ve been a rock singer, he’s the leader of a rock band, I’m a lyricist and so is he (I wrote his lyrics, sometimes quoted briefly in the novels). He has drug issues and other issues—so do I. There’s a “street minister” character in my horror novel Wetbones I identify with a lot too, as he’s found a spiritual way out of addiction…

VENTRELLA: What would you ask that character if you could meet him or her?

SHIRLEY: Rickenharp? I’d ask him if he’d go to the recording studio with me, play some guitar, write some songs. And I’d ask him if he was self sacrificial—or self destructive.

VENTRELLA: And what do you think he or she would answer?

SHIRLEY: He’d say how much you pay me to the first question and laugh and say two sides of the same coin for the second.

VENTRELLA: Writers who are trying to make a name get hammered with lots of advice: The importance of a strong opening, admonitions about “writing what you know,” warnings to have “tension on every page” – what advice do you think is commonly given that really should be ignored?

SHIRLEY: Almost any of it can be ignored (apart from advice to be grammatic and literate and write in good sentences) if it’s irrelevant to what you’re doing. I have had to learn to write “more sympathetic” likable characters, but there are also times when I don’t need them to be sympathetic or likable. Ultimately one writes what works. Probably most people would have advised Anne Rice not to write a vampire character so sympathetically, in Interview with the Vampire, before it was published—but they’d be wrong! The book worked like gangbusters, breaking a rule. If you have the talent, the voice, the insight, make your own rules. If you’re not sure, follow the rules.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you see starting writers make?

SHIRLEY: Nowadays it’s thinking they don’t need to be well read, they don’t need to know the difference between you’re and your, they don’t need to read outside their favorite genres—any half way decent writer had better read widely.

VENTRELLA: I’ve been surprised to find many writers who are also musicians (myself included) – why do you suppose that is?

SHIRLEY: I don’t know for sure. Jack Vance plays banjo. You really never know…But you know there’s a musicality in good sentences; there are good sentences in music…it’s all art, too…

I was always in rock bands. Like Sado-Nation—you can see me on youtube if you search for Sado-Nation with John Shirley there, performing with them in 1979 when I was quite young. So it’s always been a second track for me; and there are a lot of musical references in my books, and I listen to loud music, often, when writing and no it doesn’t distract me.

VENTRELLA: Who do you listen to? Who are your favorites?

SHIRLEY: I’m an old time Blue Oyster Cult guy, and in the late 90s I started writing lyrics for them (other lyricists for them include Patti Smith and Michael Moorcock), have written 18 songs they’ve recorded so I’m pretty partial to those. Mostly those are on their albums Heaven Forbid and Curse of the Hidden Mirror. I was in punk bands, and was a big fan of the Sex Pistols and the Clash and the Ramones. I am also a fan of psychedelic music, like Jimi Hendrix, Blue Cheer, or Roky Erickson. I like the Stones, the Beatles. Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart. I’m a big Iggy and the Stooges guy too. Outside of rock I get into John Coltrane, certain classical composers like Stravinsky.

VENTRELLA: How did your collaboration with Blue Oyster Cult come about?

SHIRLEY: Mutual friends knew they were looking for a lyricist. Plus my first novel was named after one of their songs, TRANSMANIACON, and they were aware of it.

VENTRELLA: With a time machine and a universal translator, who would you invite to your ultimate dinner party?

SHIRLEY: CS Lewis, Tolkien, because I love the way those guys talk, Ambrose Bierce because I admire him and I want to ask what the hell happened to him, Edgar Allan Poe, same thing, Cyrano De Bergerac, Yeshua of Nazareth (a Gnostic teacher now called “Jesus”), Gotama Buddha, GI Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Mark Twain, Marcus Aurelius, Pythagoras…

And I would sit Wyatt Earp right next to me…I’m pretty into the Wild West and have written a novel about Earp, that I am going to send out when I get around to revising it…

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