Interview with Lawrence M. Schoen

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am honored to be interviewing Hugo-nominated author Lawrence M. Schoen. Lawrence holds a PhD in cognitive psychology and spent ten years as a college professor. He’s also one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Klingon language. A few years back he started Paper Golem, a speculative fiction small press aimed at serving the niche of up-and-coming new authors as well as providing a market for novellas. In 2007 he was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer and in 2010 received a Hugo nomination for best short story. He’s the author Guest of Honor at Lunacon next weekend (March 18-20, 2011), where he’ll have a book launch for his second novel, BUFFALITO CONTINGENCY. (I’m just a regular guest, but I am on at least one panel with him!).

Lawrence, Do you enjoy conventions and do you advise authors to attend them?

LAWRENCE M. SCHOEN: I love conventions! Most of my friends are either authors or fans (or both) and they’re scattered all over. Conventions are often my only opportunity to see them and catch up. It’s become trite to talk about how writing is such a solitary experience and how only other authors can really relate to the tribulations of the life, but the reason it’s trite is because there’s so much truth in it. It’s incredibly comforting to settle in with other writers and listen as they share their own joys and complaints and be reminded that it’s actually a kind of club.

Back in my psychology days, I attended research conferences for much the same set of reasons. One of my graduate professors, a brilliant scholar named Thaddeus Cowan — the only person I know to have invented a new impossible figure! — told me that that when it comes to conferences and conventions you’re looking for three things: 1) meet up with an old friend, 2) make a new friend, and 3) come away with a fresh idea. If you do any two, it’s a good event, and if you manage all three, it’s great. Most conventions I’ve been to, I’ve been lucky enough to hit all three, over and over again.

Having said that, I don’t think every author should attend conventions. Conventions aren’t a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. I’m an extravert, a big guy with a loud voice. Having been a professor for ten years, I’m very comfortable standing in front of a room full of people and telling everyone what I think about something, at length. I’m completely at home in that kind of setting, but I know people who can’t abide crowds, let alone being trapped in a room with a bunch of loud people with big egos. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be an either/or kind of thing. I think you can be very successful as a writer without stepping into the spotlight and bloviating. A shyer author can attend a convention, hang out in the background and chat quietly with other authors and fans, attend functions and make connections. There’s plenty of room for variety, and even people like me get tired and calm down eventually and welcome a quiet conversation before the day’s out.

VENTRELLA: You are known in large part for your promotion and publication of Klingon translations of Shakespeare and other works. What led you to the interest in the language?

SCHOEN: I’ve always been fascinated with languages. I’m not necessarily particularly talented at them — it’s not like I have a great ear for languages, or learn them quickly, I just enjoy them. My academic expertise is in psycholinguistics. I stumbled into Klingon with the right set of skills at the beginning of the internet explosion. So I was in the right place at the right time. Traditionally, the two things that hinder any language, natural or constructed, are 1) time, and 2) distance. I became immersed in Klingon at the precise moment when these factors ceased to be an issue, when the technology and expertise allowed real time communication with people almost anywhere in the world, something that other constructed languages hadn’t previously enjoyed. It was like being on a linguistic rollercoaster, and the ride’s been going nonstop for twenty years!

VENTRELLA: You also established a small press company called “Paper Golem” a few years ago. What led you to that decision?

SCHOEN: I’m extraordinarily lucky. I have a good job that pays me a decent wage for part time work. That leaves me free to do things like write. A few years ago some members of Codex (an online community of writers) were kicking around ideas for generating more group identity, and I offered to edit a reprint anthology for them. When I looked at the numbers, I realized it wasn’t that much more time and money to set myself up to do additional books as it was to do just that one book. Basically, I was in a position to commit an act of “paying it forward” and that’s how Paper Golem came about. It’s not intended to make a lot of money. The goals of the press are much more modest. I’m very happy to have a book break even, and anything extra gets folded into the next project. We’ve put out four books to date, with another one due in May. And the last book, ALEMBICAL 2, has an original novella that’s up for a Nebula Award. As you can imagine I’m feeling pretty chuffed about that.

VENTRELLA: What works have you released through Paper Golem that have impressed you?

SCHOEN: We have two “series” that we do. First, I’m committed to providing a venue for novellas, because there aren’t a lot of places where you can sell a story that’s in the 20K – 40K word range, particularly if you’re not a Big Name Author. That’s what ALEMBICAL is for. Second, I like the idea of doing single author collections for writers who are producing incredible stories but haven’t yet written and sold a novel. These are authors who deserve to be read, who deserve to have their work gathered in one place so that potential readers can find them and be delighted. Our first single author collection was for Cat Rambo, and it’s absolutely beautiful. The next one, which I’m finishing up even now, is by Eric James Stone, and contains a novelette that’s also just been nominated for a Nebula Award. It’s incredibly satisfying to work with such talented authors who are going to transform this field as they progress through their careers.

VENTRELLA: Has Paper Golem been the success you hoped?

SCHOEN: Absolutely, particularly because (and this may be the same mindset that originally set me on the road of being an academician) I don’t measure success in terms of how much money is produced. Paper Golem is bringing quality fiction to print, and if you love reading good science fiction and fantasy then there really isn’t a higher mark to hit.

VENTRELLA: What does a small press offer than the larger publishing houses cannot?

SCHOEN: The ability to take chances. The opportunity to work with authors as a labor of love without having to justify it to the accountant. There are tradeoffs, of course. Would I love to publish a best seller? Sure. More sales would mean more money to do more books, but it would also mean reaching more people and introducing them to authors they might not have otherwise found. Don’t get me wrong, I love big presses, and I love what they do. But small presses serve a different niche. Small presses are all about the long tail, the specialized market. For Paper Golem that’s novella-length fiction and newer authors, and seriously, that’s not all that specialized. Somewhere I’m sure there’s a small press that is specialized to serve the reading desires of people who want nothing but humorous SF stories about talking, vampire cats solving computer crime in space. Hmm… I wonder if anyone has a novella about that…

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

SCHOEN: Lately I’ve become more and more upset about the economics and how that drives what publishing does. I’ve seen author friends who are working on series get dropped by their publishers because while the series is profitable, it’s not as profitable as hoped, so the author has to change publishers, and in effect end their series (the big exception to this being Carrie Vaugh) because what new publisher would want to pick up a series with book #5 when the rights to books #1 through #4 are tied up elsewhere? I understand that publishing is a business, and it would be criminally naive to imagine otherwise, but I don’t read because doing so puts money in some editor’s pocket or employs a proof reader or marketing department; I read because I enjoy what a given author creates.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read for pleasure?

SCHOEN: I read anything by Walter Jon Williams, Karl Schroeder, Daniel Abraham, China Mieville. I go on binges where I’ll read everything I can get by a particular author that I’ve stumbled over or rediscovered in my library, and I’ll keep tearing through all of that author’s work for a while until I’m sated and have to come up for air. Last year I devoured books by the late Kage Baker. Right now I’m in the middle of Michael Chabon.

VENTRELLA: How has your background as a psychologist influenced your work?

SCHOEN: I trained as a researcher, and so everything comes back to a question. Everything gets turned into a testable hypothesis. Why does the character do X. What happens if the bad guy is thwarted by removing Y from his path. What are the systematic variables that can affect the outcome? This kind of worldview permeates not just my fiction, but also my daily wife. It drives my wife nuts!

VENTRELLA: How did you come up with the concept of The Amazing Conroy?

SCHOEN: Some years back I was enrolled in the two week workshop that James Gunn offers out of the University of Kansas. It was the last night; we were done. Everyone had gathered and in a celebratory mood, and this line of dialogue just popped into my head and right out of my mouth without any control. It was “Put down the buffalo dog and step away from the bar!”

As soon as I said the room went quiet and everyone was staring at me. I had no idea what it meant or where it had come from, but I vowed to one day write a story with that line. It took years, but then, one day, I found myself writing “Buffalo Dogs.” At the time, I had no idea it was going to lead to another quarter million words and a branded identity.

VENTRELLA: There seems to be a theme in much of speculative fiction about super-humans – the “chosen one” who has special powers no one else has who is the subject of a prophecy to save the world blah blah blah. Of course, that’s an old theme going back forever. The main characters in my books are just normal guys who do their best, make mistakes, yet win in the end, and you have the same attitude in your work. So why do these kinds of characters appeal to you?

SCHOEN: I blame Thornton Wilder. I had to read a lot of his stuff back in high school, and he spent a fair amount of time championing the “every man.” Ordinary people finding themselves in extraordinary circumstances are much easier for a reader to relate to than someone who is superhuman in extraordinary circumstances. Most of us are never going to be James Bond, but we very well could be the guy who lives in the apartment next door to him (of course it’s not his real apartment, just one he keeps as a cover). I like protagonists who aren’t jaded by the chaos and adventure of their lives, but rather are dragged into it by surprise, kicking all the way.

VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?

SCHOEN: The answer to that is constantly changing, because I’m constantly changing as a writer. I’m very happy with the new novel, and I think it represents a new high point in my ability to craft a complex story and tell an entertaining tale. There’s a short story I wrote a while back that came out in January of last year and that I secretly (well, not so secretly now) harbor an unlikely hope that it will make the Hugo ballot. It’s called “The Wrestler and the Spearfisher” and it’s one of my infrequent jaunts into Fantasy.

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

SCHOEN: I’m constantly changing how I work, trying new things. Nowadays, I’m trying to get better at blocking out the scenes in a story or novel before I do too much of the writing. I’m somewhat transitioning from being a seat-of-the-pants writer (what some like to call a “discovery writer”) to an outliner, but I suspect I’m going to stop far short of the end. I’m enjoying knowing more about a work before I sit down to write it though. It’s very different from the way I used to work. But will it last? We’ll just have to see.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting author that you wish someone had given you? What is the biggest mistake you see aspiring authors make?

SCHOEN: Problems in Perspective. There are always going to be bigger fish, and if you constantly compare your attainments to them, you’re always going to make yourself miserable. Keep a perspective on things and don’t view this business as a zero-sum game. Instead, if you have to be competitive, compete with yourself. Are you further along now than you were at this time last year? Is your prose improving? Are your plots more involved? Work on improving yourself, rather than trying to be as good as someone else. You’ll get there sooner, and you’ll be happier along the way.

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