[Editor’s Introduction: Walt Boyes, Editor, the Grantville Gazette and Editor in Chief, Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire Press, emailed this letter of comment on February 17. I did not realize it was intended for publication until I saw his comment on Eric Flint’s Facebook page. Here it is:]
Walt Boyes: I regret that Jason Sanford says he is being harassed. Nobody should do that, under any provocation.
However, one thing I believe that Jason Sanford did wrong is to lump all the conferences on Baen’s Bar together.
As Eric Flint noted, the conferences he oversees (oversaw) are heavily moderated (I am one of them, though not a Bar Moderator) and we do not allow the kinds of behavior that Mr. Sanford reports. I don’t go to Politics or Blazes because I know what’s there. Do not want to do that.
But since Mr. Sanford decided to throw the baby out with the bath water, Science Fiction has (at least temporarily,I hope) lost a very important resource. The1632Tech and 1632Slush conferences and the UniverseSlush conferences have provided a great resource to beginning (or otherwise) writers. We have been doing this for over 20 years. We critique and workshop beginning writers’ work, and at the end of the process, often buy the stories for the Grantville Gazette (www.Grantvillegazette.com). These stories can be in the 1632Universe, or just really good science fiction or fantasy, because we kept the Baen’s Universe crit group going, and we publish one or two stories from there every issue.
These conferences have produced millions of published words, paid at SFWA professional rates (currently $0.08/word) and at least one Nebula nominated author (Kari English). Over 150 authors have made their first professional sale through those conferences. Several have become NYT and Amazon Best Sellers.
There is no politics in these conferences. There is no violence or discussion of violence other than as it relates to the 1632 series.
So, because Mr Sanford didn’t do all the research that an investigative reporter should (I too am a member of SPJ and have done investigative reporting for decades), our writers who were working on their stories, as they have done for 20 years, are now out in the cold. We have even, at least temporarily, lost the archives of the conferences, which are irreplaceable. Instead of editing the 94th issue of the Gazette, I am now trying to save the conferences we have used to create it.
I am not saying that Mr. Sanford did the right thing, or the wrong thing. But actions have consequences, and what he has done has challenged the careers of many beginning writers, because he didn’t ask anybody who knew anything what was going on.
Walt Boyes, Editor, the Grantville Gazette; Editor in Chief, Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire Press
The HD/SF traces the history of the words it covers, with illustrative quotations showing how and when the word was used. In some cases, the quotations also capture the fannish humor of the times. Consider “fugghead” (click for larger image) —
The HD/SF is an offshoot of a project begun by the Oxford English Dictionary and is being run with OED approval, though it is no longer formally affiliated with it. The site is edited by Jesse Sheidlower. (The OED’s project previously yielded the 2008 Hugo-winner Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction edited by Jeff Prucher.)
Sheidlower is an adjunct assistant professor in the Writing program at Columbia University, the Past President of the American Dialect Society, and formerly was an editor for Random House Dictionaries and the Oxford English Dictionary;
Here are selections from the Brandon Sanderson Interview conducted by Dave Doering at World Fantasy Con 2020 on Saturday, October 31.
Brandon Sanderson’s first published novel, Elantris, came out from Tor in 2005. Tor also published six books in his Mistborn series, and the first three in the planned ten-volume series The Stormlight Archive. Five books in his middle-grade Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians series were released by Starscape. Brandon was chosen to complete Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Since then his work has included the Reckoners trilogy, and the Skyward series. He also hosts the Hugo Award-winning Writing Excuses podcast with Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells, and others.
Dave Doering is the founder of Life, the Universe, and Everything, a conference held annually in Utah. He also started the Leading Edge magazine at BYU. He works as a business and technical writer.
DAVE: As we start our session today, Brandon, I wanted to borrow the approach from inside the Actor’s Studio and ask some general questions that I find fun:
What is your favorite word?
BRANDON: My favorite word changes. The word I overuse is maladroitly. Fans picked up on this early. Now my pet word is probably “miasma” or “inchoate”. I really love the word inchoate. But my editors tell me that’s a “once a book” word.
DAVE: What turns you on?
BRANDON: Writing a new story.
DAVE: What turns you off?
BRANDON: Fish sticks. I really hate fish sticks.
DAVE: What’s your favorite curse word?
BRANDON: I don’t really curse, so I don’t really have any. However, when I was working on Mystborn, my 14-year-old sister went through it and crossed out all the curse words. (I was using “damn” and “hell”.) I didn’t consider those curse words but she was “ARR!”
She wrote in replacement suggestions for me to use. One was where I called a character a “damn fool”. She suggested i call him a “bone-doggey-head” instead. So that’s my favorite curse word since then. My 14-year-old sister suggestion: “Bone doggey head”. (That did not end up in the final manuscript, by the way.)
DAVE: What career would you follow now if you weren’t a writer?
BRANDON: If I weren’t a writer, I would hope I would have found some type of creative field to work in. Because doing something new each day and filling an empty page, making order from the chaos, is very, very excting and engaging to me.
Most realistically? I would have ended up as a professor. Because I do like academia. I do like teaching. If the writing hadn’t taken off that would have been one of the few careers open to me in what I was doing.
The thing is: I doubt if I would been able to make it because being in academia and gaining a tenure-track position today, particularly in the Arts, is really hard. There’s a lot of competition for those few places. What I am writing is Popular Fiction, and I don’t think I could have gotten off at any institution with a tenure-track position. I’d probably be some type of adjunct and live hand-to-mouth.
DAVE: In the next hundred years or so, when you leave this world, what do you hope that Robert Jordan will say to you at the great AfterCon? (And hoepfully not, “Well, Brandon, how DOES the Stormlight Saga end?!”)
BRANDON: I am hoping he says, “Good job!” “Good job but not as good as I could have done but you didn’t embarrass me kid!”
DAVE: What’s the latest on your movies and TV series?
BRANDON: Good question. About three years ago, I sold a lot of things in Hollywood. This was kind of to a group I was hoping would be able to get them made. And as has always happened with me, nothing really ended up happening. I have gotten most of those rights back and I’m kind of sitting on them, trying to decide what I want to do.
There is nothing that is particularly close right now. I still have some of my things sold in Hollywood, but I’m starting to sit on the mall and just trying to assess what it is I want to do.
Hollywood’s an interesting place. I’ll tell you my favorite Hollywood story. Right when I was brand new, I sold my Middle Grade EvilLibrarian series. My agent came and said, “Hey, somebody wants to buy this in Hollywood.” I’m like, What?? I didn’t know that anyone would be interested. This was before the first book had come out.
But Lemony Snicket was big at that point so I guess they were looking for things like that. So DreamWorks Animation optioned this in my second or third year that I had gone pro. They paid like $35,000 which at that point was what I was living on. (I was not making a ton for my books.) So that was really an unexpected bonus. I was perfectly happy to sell those rights and I still think of it as a great experience because, well, that’s what I lived on.
What they did was take several different properties and be working on them–kind of with competing teams within DreamWorks Animation. They would bring them to Jeffrey Katzenberg and the heads of the studio. The teams would do these pitches, and Katzenberg would say yes or no, greenlight or no. It was not unusual that it took them two to three years to get everything ready. So they did all this.
They flew me out to DreamWorks. I got to go tour and see the storyboards they’re coming up with and all these things. Eventually our big day came where they took the screenplay and storyboard, all this stuff, in to pitch to Katzenberg. I was waiting with bated breath at my phone. Eventually the phone call came in. I picked it up and the first words out of his mouth were “Great news Brandon!”. I’m like, oh, they liked the pitch. They said yes, Katzenberg said this is probably the best screenplay he’s ever read. I’m like, wow.
Jeffrey Katzenberg has been in the business a long, long, long time. So my story is one of the best screenplays he ever read. Then I said, “I guess we’re greenlit then.” He says “Actually, no. He passed on the project. It’s dead in the water. We’re not renewing the option.”
I’m like, wait, what, what, how?? How is this good news? He loved the screenplay. If he loved the screenplay, why is he not making the movie?
They explained that he thought it felt like it was more of a live action than an animated one. So even though he really loved it and everything, they were passing. This is just kind of what happens.
I’ve found in Hollywood, nobody wants to give you bad news. Nobody really takes a lot of time to inform the author of what’s going on. You hear well, well down the line ” Great news. It’s dead” quite a bit. That’s what educated me about what happens in Hollywood.
DAVE: So at what moment, Brandon, did you realize that you wanted to be a writer?
BRANDON: It was later than a lot of people. A lot of my friends were writing when they were two years old. With me, I became a writer when I was in my late teens. What happened is I had had a great teacher.
It was in Middle School –the eighth grade. My teacher’s name was Miss Raider [?], by the way. True story. My English teacher got me reading fantasy novels. Before that, I was not a big reader. She had picked up on the fact that I was reading below my grade level. She convinced me to try reading a book. It was by Barbara Hambly–Dragonsbane. I fell in love with books. I actually remember going to the school library and flipping through the things in the card catalog. (All the books in the school library were alphabetized in the card catalog. You could look up books by author or by title. (Okay, this was a long time ago.)
I read Dragonsbane and I just loved it. I’m like, Is there anything else like this?? Well, if there’s anything else like this, maybe it’ll have dragon in the title. So I went to the card catalog and I found Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey next to it. And I’m like, Well, I guess I’ll try this one. I dove headfirst into reading all the fantasy books I could get my hands on.
Over the next couple of years, I really fell in love with reading this genre. I started to think “maybe this is what I want to do”. It was because these stories just made me feel powerful emotions. I’m not a guy that generally is very emotional. Even as a high school student, I was not very emotional. But these stories really said something to me. And I wanted to learn how writers did that. How they made me feel like I was in this other place and experiencing all these things. So I started my first book, probably when I was 16, or 17. (I never finished that one.) I started another one after a year of college at 19. That one I did finish. And I just kept going. I wrote 13 before I eventually sold one.
DAVE: Well, congratulations. Did that take you, what?, about three weeks of writing?
BRANDON: Ha, ha! You assume I am a very fast writer. But I am really not a very fast writer. People misunderstand this, I’m just very consistent.
I write around 2000 words a day. But I only get to work four days a week these days because I have to spend one of my days on things like publicity and interviews. Working on other projects for the blog and things like that. So four days a week I write around 8000 words–about eight to ten thousand a week. I may be slightly faster than average. But I’m not horribly fast. I’m just I just keep doing it. And I I tend to enjoy it. So that’s what happens:
I just do that really consistently. That’s the secret to my success.
DAVE: That’s interesting. I’ve heard stories of you getting on the plane in Los Angeles and arriving in Australia with a completed novel.
BRANDON: Yeah, people love to tell those stories. I’ll tell you part of why those stories started up. Early in my career after I started publishing, it’s very common to turn in a book and a publisher would sit on it for two years or so to get all the editing done.
For instance, my first book I turned in the first draft in April of 2003. It came out like May or June of 2005, right? That was a very common. That’s a very common release schedule in traditional publishing. When I started to take off, my book sales starting to go up, my publisher started to say, “Wait, why are we sitting on this Brandon Sanderson book? Why not publish it now? So it’ll affect our bottom line now? And it’ll look really good to all, you know, the investors and the higher ups?”
Suddenly, all these books that I had been sitting on, like, I’d have three books waiting for publication, they started publishing them just several months apart from one another. So there was a period in my career when it looked like I was writing 300,000 word novels every three months because they suddenly were publishing everything really quick. We kind of got to the end of those. From then on my schedule’s been about a book a year.
So from that I got quite the reputation for being very fast. But most of that was my publishers rearranging of schedules in order to have Brandon Sanderson books coming out sooner.
DAVE: I’m curious about your early life in Nebraska. What did you carry away from Nebraska that has influenced you as a writer?
BRANDON: It’s hard to say honestly. I can point to Utah a little bit more since I moved out here in college. I went with a friend of mine who is a photographer down in southern Utah. A lot of people can pick out the southern Utah influence on things like the Stormlight Archive, which takes place in some chasms that feel very much like Little Wildhorse from Southern Utah, but I did I grew up my I I went to high school I was I didn’t move to Utah till I went to college.
I spent all of my my younger years in Nebraska. It was a really nice place to grow up. I had great teachers. I had good friends. Everyone’s really nice in the Midwest.
I still miss some of the Nebraska stuff. My favorite fast food found only in Nebraska is runza [a dough bread pocket with a filling consisting of beef, cabbage or sauerkraut, onions, and seasonings]. I do miss that.
I don’t miss the weather. Nebraska’s weather is not something to crow about. Let’s just say it’s hot and muggy in the summers and it’s cold and blizzarding full of snow in the winters. I much prefer it out here [in Utah] for that. You know, I always like Nebraska, if it had at least mild winters and mild summers. You should have to have that trade off. You have these terrible winters? Shouldn’t you have to be able to have mild summers, but nope.
The biggest lasting influence that I had really great literacy professionals and teachers all through high school and college who are just really good at helping encourage learning in students. I thank them and I have sent them some books, because I really do owe a lot to those teachers.
DAVE: You spent two years in Korea. How has that experience impacted your writing?
BRANDON: That’s a really good question. For those who don’t know, I was serving a mission with my church. I lived in Korea, learned the language and things there for two years. Number One, the linguistics had a big effect on me. I’d studied French all through high school, but there’s nothing like going and living and having to immerse and learn the language to actually teach you.
I remember going to France when I was in my junior year of high school. I was thinking “Man, I’ll be able to speak speak to everyone.” My French was so terrible, I couldn’t. I could barely ask people to pass the baguette. It was just awful.
Living in Korea, I didn’t have that choice. I was there for two years, not for two weeks (like I had been in France). Really getting into another language and learning to speak it, particularly one that has some grammar that’s very different from English, was super handy for me. Just kind of changing the way I looked at the world, learning another culture and living in another country. One that just has different social mores and things was really handy for me when I wanted to look at developing fantasy cultures. Not that I base them on Korean or Korea but the ideas, it’s like first hand experience of how different cultures can be.
It was instrumental in helping me when I researched to make a new culture. I think I have a much stronger foundation for understanding some of these elements than I would have had if I hadn’t lived in another country for two years. There is a lot from my studies, (I went on to have a Korean minor in college), that does end up in my books specifically from Korea.
DAVE: How has your faith then impacted you as a writer?
BRANDON: Many know I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. (I spent those two years in Korea as a missionary.) My faith makes me want to treat people’s belief systems with respect. (Nothing bothers me more than finding a book where there’s somebody that is like me, only to find that they exist to be proven wrong by the narrative.)
I kind of made the decision that because I’m so interested in all this, I’ve got to be really careful that I’m presenting other people’s belief systems or other people’s humanism, as well as I would want myself and the way I think depicted in stories, it is fascinating to me the various ways that people interact with Deity, or with with religion.
I explore the world through writing. My goal is not to go in and try to teach anything specific. My goal is to go in and to really explore who a character is, and what they believe, and why. Why they believe what they do.
DAVE: How did you make the transition then to become a writer?
BRANDON: My mother had convinced me to go to college as a chemistry major. Now my mother’s a very smart woman. She graduated top of her class in Accounting. In that era, she was the only woman in most of her accounting classes.
But she thinks like an accountant, and becoming a novelist was not necessarily a thing that seemed to add up to her on her balance sheets. She’s like, you know, if you want to be a writer, you should go become a doctor. Doctors have lots of free time, they always going golfing. So you could write books instead. So I went, and I was a chemistry major my freshman year at college. I did not enjoy it. They were there to do exactly what they did to me to ask: “Are you really sure this is what you want to do? Because this is what your days will be full of, if you major in this. So whoever designed those classes did exactly the right thing. They said, “Hey, chemistry in college is not chemistry in high school. Chemists become a chemist as a job.”
A doctor is what my mom wanted me to be but you know, there’s a whole lot of things involved in this that you got to be okay with. I washed out of that real quick and said, “No, my true love is writing, why am I here? Why am I spending all this time on these classes? I need to be a novelist.”
Korea was two years where I got to leave all that behind. Kiind of focus on something else for a while and really think about who I am, what I wanted to be, where I wanted to be. It was really great for that because it had me working pretty hard. That’s what life is like on the mission. We tend to get up early. That was a good regimentation for me. (I tend to have a bit of an artistic personality, which means that I could sleep in and maybe never get to my work.)
I came home from that and said, “You know what? I’m just gonna apply this to becoming a writer. I’m young, I’m stupid, everyone says it’s going to be a bad career choice. But I might as well do it when I’m young. I know that I’m pretty far behind a lot of other people who want to be writers, because I didn’t start until I was in my late teens. So I’m just going to work harder than them.” That’s why I started writing those books. That’s why I wrote so many, as I said. I got to give this a shot. So the next 10 years or so were just me working a graveyard shift at a hotel, writing books, and trying to figure out how to become a novelist.
DAVE: Why did you choose fantasy over science fiction? Your early science is very engaging and very compelling. So why Fantasy?
BRANDON: Why did I choose fantasy? When I first started writing, I did try a bunch of different genres. I had had good advice, which I think still is good advice, to try to write broadly, and do a lot of different things early in your practicing career. To really see if you can settle on what it is that you love to do. I’ve had many friends who thought they were one type of writer and then found their voice and in different genre entirely.
I wrote my first five books. Two of them were epic fantasies. They were basically the same book with a sequel, right? I just decided it’s long enough. I’ll end it now. Even though it wasn’t the ending. This happens to a lot of first time novels. I’d write the sequel and then I wrote a comedy, kind of a Bob Asprin’s-style comedy. I wrote a cyberpunk. I wrote a space opera. I just like doing that big survey, surveying the different genres. I did settle on fantasy as the thing I wanted to do.
There are a couple reasons for this. Number one, it was my first love as a reader. It is the thing that if I were going to pick a book, just off the show randomly, chances are good that you would find it is an epic fantasy book. That’s just the number of books that I owned of that genre were much more so what I really, really loved. It was an exciting time to be a fantasy fan, right? Because epic fantasy in particular can be argued as a little newer than science fiction. I feel like a lot of the innovations that were happening during the Silver Age of science fiction were happening in fantasy when I was a young man reading the genre in the 70s. When we started to see things like Sword of Shannara, it’s when we saw Dungeons and Dragons, it’s when we saw Star Wars. (We won’t get into the Star Wars “is it fantasy or science fiction?” argument here. But there are definitely fantastical things in that.)
I felt like as a reader, I was seeing new things all the time. There was more space in the fantasy genre to innovate than there was in science fiction. It’s part of what made me really excited. What I really like are and my first love are, these epic fantasy stories told in worlds that feel like science fiction worlds, that have the use of science fiction, some good old fashioned science fiction, world building, and extrapolation. They have these magic systems that stand with one foot in the fantastic and one foot in the scientific.
The books I’m writing are the handshake between the two sides. That is what I love, that is where I found my voice. That made me really excited to be writing these stories. I still enjoy science fiction quite a bit, I have written my fair share of it. But one of the things is I don’t feel like I read widely enough in science fiction, to really be leading a conversation. Anything I write in science fiction is not leading the conversation. Certainly, I hope that I’m doing things that are fun, interesting, exciting, and innovating. But I just cannot lead that discussion.
I can lead a discussion on where fantasy is going, right? I can be one of the people on the forefront of exploring what the genre can do. Because I have the background and the current reading knowledge to really add to that conversation in a way I just can’t in Science Fiction.
DAVE: Your ability to carry on this conversation with readers is on a global basis. I remember vividly your story of doing a book signing in the Middle East where maybe differently dressed fans stood in line to get you to sign your books. Different culture, but the same love of your works. How does an American fantasy writer have this appeal worldwide?
BRANDON: I think that stories have an appeal worldwide. One of the great powers of storytelling is it brings us together. It helps us see inside the mind of someone very different from ourselves. And that is, that is what you know, that’s why a lot of us writes why I writes why I read. I want to get inside this other person’s head, I want to see the the world that they create, and they want to, you know, be part of their life in a small way. And that’s why I think one of the reasons we love books.
DAVE: How do you balance your writing with your family life?
BRANDON: You know, this is something I don’t think we talk enough about in the genre, or in the business of writing, I should say. It’s not impossible to have a regular life as a novelist. You don’t leave your work at work when you’re a novelist. I have a friend who likes to quip it’s great being self employed, you only have to work half days, and you get to decide which 12 hours that is. That is really an astute comment. Because you could write, as an author, 16 hours a day. You could write more than 16 hours a day, as the story sometimes will not leave you alone. This is part of what is exciting about the genre.
But it’s also very dangerous side about the business. It’s very dangerous because it is easy to ignore the other things in your life when you are a writer. I do think that there’s a much higher chance of authors having problems with substance abuse and some of these things, and self-medication, certain mental health issues and things like that among novelists. I can totally see why.
To illustrate an example of this. I remember when I was newly married. I went out with some author friends and my wife. I thought we had this wonderful dinner where we are talking all about the stories we’re working on. After dinner, I said to my wife, “Wasn’t that a wonderful dinner?” She says, “Well, you didn’t look at me once during dinner, I felt like I was invisible.”
This is very common among writers–to treat the people around them like they’re invisible. This is a big danger, I think. It was something that I had to realize I was doing. When I got into the storytelling mode, which happened a lot and still happens a lot, everything else faded. People felt ignored, justifiably, because they were getting ignored. I had to set up some strict boundaries in my life.
I recommend that, that writers or creative professionals or anyone who has a job that is very difficult to leave at work. Have some conversations with their loved ones about this. And what we kind of talked about is I realized I needed to, from a certain part of the day, I needed to wall that off from writing. I had to be like, I can’t write from from 5:30pm until 9:30, at night. That time can’t be used for writing, I had to take it off the table. I’ll spend time with my family if my family’s around. I had to just turn this into a firewall of time that is for family and not for anything else. By putting that firm structure in place, it’s actually been really good for my writing.
The thing we don’t acknowledge is: it’s really easy to burn out. In this business, it’s really easy to let those 16-hour days pile on top of one another. To the point that you get sick and tired and physically ill and start hating the thing that you once loved. It’s not good for us that we do this. By walling off a section has really been good for centering my life and for making sure that I turned into a slow and steady writer and not a mad, serious writer. Doing writing all the time. If my family’s not home, I can’t write during that time. It’s important for me that that not be writing time. I could read, I can do other things. But I cannot work on a book.
It’s really, really important we have these conversations. My wife said, “you know, one of the things I’ve noticed that you need is when you’re writing, you need to be left completely alone. This is very common for writers that a small interruption, when you’re in the zone, can mean big ramifications for how much you’re able to get done during that time. We need to be distraction-free.” She kind of became the guardian of my time. “I’m gonna make sure that Brandon is not interrupted during the times when he needs to be writing. And Brandon’s going to make sure that the times that he doesn’t need to be writing, that this time is for family and it is actually family time.”
It’s been really, really healthy.
For me, I usually only write five to eight hours a day. I do two four-hour sessions. Usually I’m getting up at around 12 or 1. I’m working till about five. I then get ready, take a shower, and spend 5:30 to 9:30 with my family. Around 10 o’clock, I go back to work till about 2am. As long as I’m hitting my word count goals at about 2, I’m free to go do something else. Play a video game, read a book, whatever. Usually by then, two four-hour sessions, I’m feeling mostly that my mind has been plumbed. There is nothing left to do.
If I’m really into something, I’ll take those two hours and I’ll keep going. So I have those two hours wiggle room that I can add more time if I want to in the day. Sometimes, I’ll add on a Saturday if I’m behind on a deadline. But it’s been really healthy for me. And what I find is, you know, people think that I’m a really fast writer, but by having this structure in my life, I don’t burn out. I’m very consistent, and I am able to keep doing this thing that I really truly love without having a lot of the side effects that could be dangerous and destructive.
DAVE: When do you find time in that brief 8-hour workday to do editing?
BRANDON: If I am editing a book, it is the main thing that I am doing. If I am not creating 2000 new words each day, I am in revision mode. In terms of words a day, it depends on how difficulat the draft is I am working on. A final polish is a bit easier than, for instance, the Alpha Read draft where I am making major changes based on editorial feedback on the book.
I can revise or edit between 8000 and 15000 words a day in the 8-hour workday if I am not doing significant changes. 15000 is when I am making small tweeks as I go along in polishing and things like that.
DAVE: Let’s look at some general questions from the audience. Who’s your favorite character in your works?
BRANDON: I will borrow from Robert Jordan on this one. He always answered this question this way (or at least when I have heard him answer this in several interviews): “Whomever I am writing at the moment!”
I really like that answer, so I am going to steal it, because it is true. Whatever you are writing at the moment, whichever character you are writing at the moment, you need to see the world as they see it. You need to see it and be excited about writing about them. I try to make sure that is the case.
DAVE: Who do you turn to for input on worldbuilding? How do you avoid being distracted by all their input?
BRANDON: I turn to my writing group first. They are a group of friends and collegues that I have been sharing my work with since the early 90s. They know me as well as anyone does. They are very good at not pulling punches. That’s my initial group.
As for becoming distracted–it’s Discipline. I give myself a certain amount of time to write the book I am working on right now and focus on it. This rather than spreading my attention around on all the potential thiings I could be doing.
That focus was very important for me to learn. It’s part of what held me back early on from getting published. I did not have that focus early in my career. I was not willing to dedicate the time to polishing an individual work. Enough so that it was publishable. I would always move on to the next thing.
Certainly I had enough focus to finish the first draft, but not enough to finish the book. I find I need about five good drafts to make a book publishable and that I am proud of. If I don’t get four or five drafts it’s not going to be there.
Paul A. Moscarella has been an English, ESL, Special Education and science teacher for over 20 years both in NYC and Hamilton, Ontario. The author lives in Southern Ontario, Canada with his wife and son. Machinia, by Pandamonium Publishing House, is Paul’s debut novel.
By Paul A. Moscarella:Machinia centers around robot rule as an inevitability. With machines increasingly reinforcing various parts of our lives, defining some arbitrary point where we limit their integration is no longer clear. Big corporate money is fueling the robot revolution, and we are all being swept up in their eventual assumption of power. Machinia does not depict the robot rule as something to fear, at least not overtly. Theirs is the governance of the superior, of the benevolent, so long as they have cooperation with the humans who coexist with them.
To give a little background, I began developing the story premise for Machinia as a high school student back in 1985. My English teacher asked us to create a short story about future dystopian societies. I knew then that whatever world I created would have to include the presence of robots in a dominant role. In the story I submitted, a robot and a human are engaged in a high-stakes standoff. The human is on trial for treason against the machine state. The robot is his lawyer. I received an “A+” and an encouragement to develop the story further.
Returning to the premise in 1991, I decided to build a novel around the original story that followed two trajectories: the decline of human influence and the subsequent rise of robots. I did not want to create some trite “war with robots” scenario. The robots of Machinia did not conquer the human world with weapons and aggression. Rather, they were given the keys to the kingdom and eventually took over. This robot power grab was a whimsical thought when I started Machinia in the 90’s. Looking at the future from the lens of 2020 I see that the handoff is well underway.
Machinia’s leader is the central data node of the robot world, a grand master machine called the Universal. Its influence is so entrenched that it plots the direction of the robot society with near perfect accuracy. Data is the key to its success, and the more it collects the greater its power becomes. Put simply, data is the greatest resource in the robot world.
With the numerous social media platforms today, we are all part of big data, feeding a vast machine consciousness with every nuance of our lives. These platforms are employing sophisticated AI algorithms used to analyze and predict our online activity and intentionally manipulate our choices. To connect this to Machinia, we are seeing the Universal in its infancy, scattered, unformed but growing to eventually emerge as a single supreme entity.
In Machinia, corporations have ceased to exist as have all forms of mercantile enterprise. There is no money, and human labor is relegated to producing ideas. The robots run the entire show, utilizing and refining the human intellectual output that offers the greatest benefit. Enter Damon Maxwell, an observer from our time and potential disruptor to theirs. Being that the Universal does nothing without a purpose Damon’s presence is not a benign event. Nothing moves in Machinia without having been calculated and predicted.
Two human civilizations exist in the future Earth of Machinia. One group lives in the robot-governed super cities that are distributed throughout the Earth; the rest survive in the ruined human-led Outlands. The humans in the Outlands pose a great threat to the machine empire and the Universal is determined to vanquish them. Damon is neither a citizen of Machinia nor a member of the Outland tribes. He is a unique product of another time and must navigate his way while being influenced by both the Universal and terrorist agents of the Outlands. It is in the choices he makes that the destiny of Machinia is decided. Whether these choices are his or part of some grand manipulation by the Universal leaves him unsettled and insecure.
Cybersecurity officer Damon Maxwell wakes from cryogenic sleep expecting to be ten years into his future but instead finds himself in the robot ruled empire of Machinia, 2156! Welcomed by Machinia’s omnipotent leader, the Universal, Damon learns that his extraordinary journey is part of a complex plan by the Universal to bait Machinia’s deadly enemy, the Underground into action. But the Universal’s brilliant robot aide, Nepcar, fears his leader’s dangerous scheme and pairs Damon with the beautiful and mysterious Cynthia Lhan hoping their union can prevent a catastrophe. Yet, even as the Universal’s plans fall into place an enigmatic figure appears in Damon’s life that even the mighty Universal is powerless to control. Will Damon ultimately be the destroyer of the robot race or its saviour?
WALTER JON WILLIAMS is the winner of two Nebulas and a five-time Hugo nominee. His most recent books are The Sundering, The Praxis, This Is Not a Game, and Quillifer. In 2006, Williams founded the Taos Toolbox, a two-week writer’s workshop for fantasy and science fiction writers. He was the guest of honor of the 2017 Worldcon in Helsinki. Williams lives near Albuquerque, New Mexico, with his wife, Kathleen Hedges.
File 770 reviewed his latest book, Fleet Elementshere.
MIKE GLYER: Fleet Elements is the latest novel in your Dread Empire’s Fall series. (Which I confess to thinking of as the Praxis series.) You once told an interviewer, “As for the Shaa, for now they’re all dead, but I reserve the right to alter reality at any point.” They’re still dead in Fleet Elements, yet you’ve managed to shed new light on them and turn their history into a mystery that might be important to solve. Other authors – Larry Niven, for one – talk about having to be careful that new stories that don’t violate some already-established part of their series’ universe. How do you overcome that challenge?
WALTER JON WILLIAMS: I keep copious notes, I try to re-read the books before starting a new one, and I have complex plot outlines on legal pads, with different colors for different characters, and lots of arrows and diagrams. Then I just cross my fingers and hope I don’t make a mistake.
(By the way, I call it the Praxis series, too.)
MG: A series balances the familiar with change and growth. What’s your strategy for character development?
WALTER JON WILLIAMS: Character development is a consequence of trauma, so I try to keep my characters as traumatized as possible.
MG: The demise of the Shaa, of course, is the event that kicks off the Praxis series. Until then, the various sentient races of the Empire enjoyed a kind of equality in their subordination to the Shaa. When one of them tried to move into the power vacuum, humans were still aligned with the other nonhumans. But in the latest arc they’re on their own. Although milestone space operas from the Lensman Series to Starship Troopers to Ender’s Game set up genocidal conflicts between humans and aliens, that hasn’t been characteristic of your series before now. Are you going there, or will the end game somehow weave all these species together again?
WALTER JON WILLIAMS: I don’t really want to offer spoilers on whether the human race is exterminated by the end of the series. That’s giving away a little much.
At the end of the current series there will be an adjustment to the political system, which may well set up more conflict farther down the line. Plus I also guarantee more character-developing trauma for my characters.
MG: On one level the science fiction genre is a conversation, where writers see what’s gone before and say “I’d love to tell more stories like that” or “No, can’t you see how wrong that extrapolation is?” Who are some of the authors who inspired your interest in writing a space opera series like this, for either of those reasons?
WALTER JON WILLIAMS: This is going to sound odd, but my inspirations for the Praxis books include Herodotus, Polybius, Livy, Cassius Dio, Edward Gibbon, and Thomas Babington Macauley, all historians writing on an epic (and at present unfashionable) scale. From them I learned how to tell a vast, complex story against a background of Deep History.
I might as well add HG Wells to that list, not only for the inevitable influence of his scientific romances, but for his concept of history.
MG: You have penned several different series – in fact, after reading The Accidental War I not only sought out the rest of the Praxis books, I proceeded to read most or all the books in four other series. And I see readers commenting on my blog about their hopes that you’ll do another Metropolitan book, another Quillifer, another Dagmar Shaw. Will you keep the Praxis series going beyond this latest arc? What are you working on now?
WALTER JON WILLIAMS: The Praxis series was originally intended to run 9-12 books (depending on when I got bored), so there will be more if the publisher so desires. The Metropolitan series was cut short when my editor was fired and his entire science fiction line canceled, and I’ve been hoping to find an editor willing to reprint the originals and complete the series with a third book. (And yes, I know I could self-publish the third book, and I will if I have to.)
The Quillifer series was planned for six books, though I’ve contracted only for three. So if your readers want more of those, they should buy the hell out of the books now in the stores.
All this said, I have the urge to write some singletons, so once I finish with my current contracts I’m going to write a stand-alone or two.
MG: What are your sources of “inspiration” beyond just the literary? Someone once asked the composer Hoagy Carmichael where his inspiration came from, and his answer was “When the check arrives.” At this point in a successful career do you have more freedom to choose what to work on?
WALTER JON WILLIAMS: While I’m not rich, I’m financially secure, and I don’t have to write anything I don’t want to.
And while I like having money, money has nothing to do with why I write. If all I wanted was money, I’d run a hedge fund or something. Except for a very few lucky people, a career in the arts is a perilous balancing act between inspiration and the need to pay the rent.
I have the wonderful privilege of creating something new every day. That other people might want to read what I write is a bonus, but I’d still be writing even if I had no audience.
And as for inspiration, usually it comes from other writers. When I was ten years old, reading great writers made me want to write something great. That hasn’t changed at all.
MG: How has your career changed today changed from when you were younger? What do you like or dislike about the changes?
WALTER JON WILLIAMS: I have more security now , a lifetime of experience, and a large backlist available to readers. When I was younger I had a lot more energy, and a lot less cynicism.
The thing I most dislike is people assuming they know all there is to know about me. After all, I’m over fifty, right? I must have nothing interesting left to say.
I would like to submit that these people are wrong.
MG: What is one life lesson or writing skill you’re glad to have a chance to pass on through the Taos Toolbox?
WALTER JON WILLIAMS: What I tell my students is that they should be writing because they love it. Any other reason— money, fame, ticking off something on your bucket list— is inadequate, and will lead to disappointments.
You can’t control what shape your career will take— it could be killed by a single failure on the part of someone in production (which has happened to me). You can’t predict the readers’ reaction to your work. Odds are good that you’ll have multiple careers under multiple names, as the early careers founder (which happened to me)— but if you love the work, you’ll learn your lessons, become a better writer, and carry on.
Which also happened to me. Love of the work carried me through, and if you don’t do it for love, there’s no damn reason to do it at all.
Neil Clarke has updated the Semiprozine Directory for the benefit of Hugo voters who want to know what’s eligible in the Best Semiprozine category.
He tells File 770 —
I can’t say that there’s been much activity. Not shocking considering the year we’ve had.
We had a few magazines that didn’t publish new issues in 2020 (possible they could return) and some new ones that just missed meeting the four issue minimum requirement, but are on-track for eligibility in 2021. Over the course of the year, there were a few new additions, but I believe that most of them were previously eligible and we just didn’t know about them.
No one has moved from semipro to professional in 2020. Similarly, no one has taken themselves out of the running for the award this year.
As usual, if there are any publications that would like to be added to the list, they should feel free to contact me.
53 publications that are currently eligible for the Hugo Award for Best Semiprozine;
Other semiprozines that are ineligible for the 2021 Hugos because they did not publish an issue in 2020;
Other zines that are ineligible for nomination as semiprozines because they are professional publications or fanzines (answering specific reader inquiries – not intended as an exhaustive list).
This is not an official list, but a tool that Clarke has excellent sources for keeping current. He invites any editor or publisher of a qualified semiprozine who wants their zine added to contact him at neil(@)clarkesworldmagazine.com
Michelle Sagara lives in Toronto with her long-suffering husband and her two children, and to her regret has no dogs. Reading is one of her life-long passions, and she is sometimes paid for her opinions about what she’s read by the venerable Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. No matter how many bookshelves she buys, there is Never Enough Shelf space. Ever.
By Michella Sagara: I’d like to talk a little bit about an aspect of The Emperor’s Wolves.
So, as is often the case, I’ll start with what might appear to be a digression. When writing a fantasy novel—or an SF novel that is not set in the near present—the question of worldbuilding always arises. Reading—for me—requires a willing suspension of disbelief. The world that is built to support the story has to feel real enough that the suspension of disbelief is not taxed to the breaking point. This doesn’t mean that the world will necessarily stand greater scrutiny and infinite nit-picking; it doesn’t mean that the writer has to be able to answer every single question that a reader might think to ask.
Every writer works differently; everyone processes information and assigns importance to it in their own way. There is overlap, but sometimes it’s the outer edges that define the approach. And I’m going to talk a bit about mine.
When I wrote Hunter’s Oath, the worldbuilding was detail oriented, in that it revolved and evolved around the hunters. But in the creation of the society, one of my driving forces was: I want to have a nobility that is actually respected; I want people to view them in a specific way. What would that require? How would such respect remain constant? The Sacred Hunt came out of that desire.
When I moved to the Empire, in the same world, what I wanted was a more modern sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Since the fantasy world has Kings, how can the rulership be constant? Power centralized in the hands of a very few is too easy to abuse, and a good king can give rise almost immediately to a bad one. People’s character is heavily rooted in their sense cultural sense of ‘normal’. How do I create a society in which a modern sense of right and wrong – and when I say modern I mean almost twenty-five years ago – is the norm in a totally different world?
When I approached the Cast series, it was less heavily world-built. What I wanted was a narrower focus that would be more accessible—something I was not perhaps great at when I first started writing. I wanted to focus on the viewpoint of a single character, who is over-focused on her job and not terribly aware of the struts of the politics that underlay it. Kaylin is therefore the equivalent of a police officer.
The glimpses of the intelligence behind the laws that govern the Empire is definitely not hers. But it definitely does exist.
In The Emperor’s Wolves, the main character is not Kaylin Neya. It’s Severn Handred. He, too, started his working life in the Halls of Law. He didn’t start it in the same department that Kaylin did.
In the Halls of Law, it’s the Wolves that most directly obey the Emperor’s orders. The Emperor, a Dragon, is therefore more involved with the Wolves than with any other branch of the Halls of Law.
Although the Hawks, Swords and Wolves occupy the same Halls of Law, much less is known about the Wolves. Sometimes called the Emperor’s assassins, their orders are handed down from the Emperor. But the man who has been, since their inception, in charge of recruiting and training doesn’t understand either the need for their existence or their purpose. He’s Barrani, and just as immortal as the Emperor—but not as powerful.
The Barrani understand power and its exercise; assassination is almost a game in the long, slow attempt to gain that power. Power is the only safety. Without it, you are forever at the mercy of others who are more powerful. This is the way the world works; it’s the way the world has always worked.
It is not the way the Emperor wants the world to work.
The thought exercise for the background of these novels is this: you have several different races, some of whom are immortal, most of whom are not. They are densest in the capital city, Elantra, because much of the power has been concentrated in the geographical area in which the greatest threat lies: the heart of the city is also a wilderness of wild, ancient, magic, and the city itself a method of containing that magic so that it can’t destroy the rest of the world.
You want to rule this Empire. You want to do so without turning the various people who will become your citizens into piles of blended ash. You want to create a country that’s a container for citizens who would otherwise be that ash, possibly worse. You know that none of them pose an immediate threat, and while life is unpredictable, you are fairly confident that that won’t change any time in the foreseeable future. You know very, very few of these citizens in person; mortals age and die so quickly.
It is your Empire. It is the most important thing in your life. It is the cause to which you have devoted your eternity. You aren’t foolish enough to believe that you will never die—but you wish what remains of the Empire to continue in some fashion long after you have.
How do you build toward that future? What laws beyond Do Not Piss Off the Emperor should exist? What laws will allow the citizens of your Empire to mostly live in peace? Those laws are of little consequence to you personally. How can you enforce those laws across tens of thousands of people you will never meet or personally interact with?
What steps can you take to inhibit the enforcers of the law from becoming a law and a power unto themselves? Accepting that human nature—or any other nature—is what it is, how do you prevent the darker elements of that nature from becoming the only elements that count?
Elantra, imperfect, is the Emperor’s answer.
ABOUT THE EMPEROR’S WOLVES (THE WOLVES OF ELANTRA BOOK 1)
Multiple races carefully navigate the City of Elantra under the Dragon Emperor’s wing. His Imperial Wolves are executioners, the smallest group to serve in the Halls of Law. The populace calls them assassins.
Every wolf candidate must consent to a full examination by the Tha’alani, one of the most feared and distrusted races in Elantra for their ability to read minds. Most candidates don’t finish their job interviews.
Severn Handred, the newest potential recruit, is determined to face and pass this final test—even if by doing so he’s exposing secrets he has never shared.
When an interrogation uncovers the connections to a two-decade-old series of murders of the Tha’alani, the Wolves are commanded to hunt. Severn’s first job will be joining the chase. From the High Halls to the Tha’alani quarter, from the Oracles to the Emperor, secrets are uncovered, tensions are raised and justice just might be done…if Severn can survive.
By Mark L. Blackman On the night of Wednesday, November 18, the Fantastic Fiction at KGB Reading Series, hosted by Ellen Datlow and Matthew Kressel, presented authors William Gibson and Cat Rambo in YouTube livestreamed readings. This was the Series’ ninth virtual event. (Its longtime venue, the KGB Bar in Manhattan’s East Village, had shut down due to the pandemic, but the Soviet era-themed dive bar has sporadically reopened with limited capacity, and its fans are invited to help it out with donations.) The current setup, Kressel noted, offers the advantage of allowing readings from writers not living in or visiting New York; both readers were “in” from the West Coast (Rambo lives in Seattle and Gibson Vancouver). It has also enabled a larger audience than could have fit into the bar (at one point, 120 people were watching).
As the evening’s livestream began, Gibson and Rambo schmoozed with Datlow and Kressel about everything from what they were drinking (hydration is important) to the scary Michelin Man, Gene Wolfe’s role at Pringle’s (the logo character is probably based on him), Oreos, and the previous week’s tornado in New York.
The first reader, Cat Rambo, is the author of over 200 stories, among them the novelette Carpe Glitter, which received a Nebula Award earlier this year, and four novels, including the upcoming space opera, You Sexy Thing. She is a past President of SFWA, and, as it happens, was in that position when Gibson was named a Grand Master. She opened with a selection from Carpe Glitter – “seize the glitter.” A woman is cleaning out the home of her eccentric late grandmother (“Carpe glitter” is something the old lady used to say), a former stage magician and a hoarder. It is an inheritance that she chose (to her mother’s disappointment) over cash, excavating and treasure-hunting (a friend has referred to it as “urban archeology”) through rancid furs, piles of multiple copies of magazines with her old notices and her doll collection.
She then read a flash story (“one of my favorite forms”) that ran on Daily Science Fiction, “I Decline.” An old man turns down government-offered technology that can preserve – and even edit out – his memories. (The spoiler is in the title.)
A short break followed.
William Gibson is best known as the creator (or, at minimum, co-creator) of an entire subgenre of speculative fiction, Cyberpunk. He is the author of the award-winning Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Virtual Light, Idoku, Spook Country, and other novels, most recently Agency, a sequel to The Peripheral.
He offered “a blended reading,” selections from the latter two novels, both of which center around “The Jackpot,” a multicausal, slow, androgenic process over 40 years rather than a solitary apocalyptic event, described by one character as “seriously bad shit.” Climate change and too much carbon results in droughts and water shortages, and pandemics that lead ultimately to the death of 80% of everyone (in other words, as we’ve heard too often on the news this year, “a perfect storm”). There is nanotechnology and cheaper energy sources, but the world is run by hereditary oligarchs. The protagonist is reached by a posse from the 22nd century who tell her about it. From Chapter 79 of The Peripheral, “The Jackpot,” he turned to Chapter 75 of Agency, “Jackpot.” The novel is set in an alternate continuum in which Hillary Clinton won in 2016, but that, he said, “doesn’t have the effect it might have, doesn’t prevent the Jackpot from happening.” Here too the protagonist is contacted by people from the future. Gibson is currently working on Jackpot, the conclusion of the trilogy.
Datlow described both selections as “greatly depressing reads, but optimistic” somehow. The Peripheral, was published in 2014 and Agency, appeared in early 2020, effectively pre-Covid-19. Trump’s election caused him to rewrite large parts of Agency, but the Coronavirus hasn’t derailed it. Both novels refer to “the pandemics,” plural.
Datlow asked how the writers are faring during the Pandemic. Rambo is staying productive with co-writing sessions, while Gibson has been “doing domestic stuff,” and “watching and reacting, and taking the measure of the fuckedness quotient and applying some of it to Jackpot #3.”
A Q&A with the audience ensued. Asked what classic sf stands up or stands out, Rambo replied that she’d been reading a number of ’70s short stories, particularly from women writers. Gibson cited J.G. Ballard and Brunner (who “got it astonishingly right,” notably Stand on Zanzibar), and we can feel like we’re in 1984. How do they decide the genders of their protagonists? Rambo said that if she didn’t know, she would return to her “D&D roots” and roll dice. Gibson noted that he had male and female protagonists in the same book; there are maybe four female protagonists in Jackpot. When he started out, he consulted Joanna Russ’s circle about handling women characters. Females, he opined, “better comprehend their world.”
What about the current milieu do they find surprising? Rambo finds social media both “horrifying and fascinating.” The only social media Gibson does is Twitter (Rambo also is on Twitter). In a digression, he observed (to laughter) that one thing that we don’t see in zombie apocalyptic fiction in books, movies and tv is people calling zombies a hoax. Kressel likened our polarized world to China Miéville’s The City and the City, with people “literally living in two realities,” pretending the others don’t exist. What are Rambo and Gibson finding to be optimistic about? Rambo likes “the informal nature of things,” and hopes that sf conventions have “a strong virtual component going forward.”
Would Gibson ever write in anyone else’s world? No, he has “never understood the impulse to write fan fiction.” What are their research methods? Gibson “Google[s] blindly,” and Rambo also relies on Google or “a good university library.” She is currently reading Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October, and Gibson recommended M. John Harrison’s latest.
After a brief and reluctant cameo by her cat Jack, Datlow concluded by announcing upcoming readers:
December 16: Priya Sharma and Justin Key
January 20, 2021: Lauren Beukes and Usman T. Malik
February 17: Kathleen Jennings and Shveta Thakrar
All dates are the third Wednesday of the month (“come rain or shine or Covid”).
Chris Panatier lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, daughter, and a fluctuating herd of animals resembling dogs (one is almost certainly a goat). He writes short stories and novels, “plays” the drums, and draws album covers for metal bands.
By Chris Panatier: A number of readers have remarked that my debut sci-fi/dystopian novel, The Phlebotomist, has a realistic feel and that many of the events depicted in its pages “could really happen today.” These points may actually undersell the parallels between our current reality and the world of the book. In fact—and this is the subject of a conversation I’ve had with other writers already — we need to up our game if we’re going to present a dystopian vision of the future. The year 2020 has sped up the clock, blurring the line between reality and dystopia such that there is a real possibility that “dystopian” ceases to be a separate genre. They’ll just call it “contemporary fiction.”
Like other authors who want their future stories to be plausible, I extrapolated the present to the future, doing my best to gauge where our trajectory might have us in another forty-seven years. But some elements of the story I didn’t have to extrapolate to at all; they exist today. I just cranked them up a bit. The following are a few examples from the book that were direct extrapolations from our present world.
The concept of media control is hardwired into the DNA of dystopian storytelling, and so my including it was hardly revelatory. However, the timing of this story makes it feel particularly chilling. In The Phlebotomist, all media is controlled by the State. The “state” is ambiguous, as from our main character’s point of view, it is indistinguishable from the blood contractor she works for, a massive conglomerate called Patriot. If you want to watch television, you tune to “the Channel”, which is run by Patriot. The most popular show is called “The Patriot Report”. News is beamed to your ‘touchstone’ (a handheld device provided by Patriot) in the form of “PatrioCasts” which advise of current blood demands, price changes, and any news deemed fit to transmit. By controlling media, the government both manipulates the truth and prevents organized dissent.
The seedlings of state-run media have already sprouted in the United States. Other countries have been there for decades. America has a handful of very powerful media companies and groups that have made it their mission to broadcast “news” that is aligned with government positions or simply to damage the value of facts. The popularity, volume, and intensity of these dispatches threaten to wash other voices out. A fire hose versus a squirt gun. In the world of The Phlebotomist, the fire hose has won out.
Next, there’s the food. In the geographically ambiguous world of The Phlebotomist, there is a mandatory blood draw called “The Harvest.” Those who can manage to give more, earn cash selling extra. Price is dictated by blood type and society has become segregated according to it. But even those who can earn more money because of favorable genetics are relatively poor, and there are a paltry few jobs. Rather than subsidize people’s income in order to allow them to buy necessities, the government, through Patriot, provides food directly with bi-monthly distributions of something called “The Box.” The Box is a literal box containing little more than cheap staples to provide basic nourishment—just enough, really, to keep people alive. If a recipient misses the Harvest, they are removed from The Box program and must fend for themselves.
This idea sounds extreme, I know, but hear me out: I stole it from Donald Trump. Just google the “American Harvest Box”. This was an idea the President of the United States proposed in 2018, and it was a perfect way for me to capture how authoritarian regimes dehumanize their poorer citizenry. Fortunately, Trump’s idea was roundly rejected by just about all stakeholders and hasn’t become part of the American story. Yet.
Lastly, polarization. Today, we stand squarely in the muck of a post-truth world, where people have a hard time discerning what is true and what is false, and where swaths of the citizenry are told that certain groups are coming for their jobs, their homes, their families, and their way of life. This intentional division of the population serves two purposes: one is to make it easier to push a narrative without the necessity of facts to support it; the second is to weaken the citizenry by dividing it. In The Phlebotomist, where the economy is founded upon blood, the government foments paranoia about bloodborne illnesses, making neighbors suspicious, thus pitting one against the other. People spy on their fellow citizens while the state encroaches.
I believe that what makes dystopia attractive to readers is that tinge of fear it transmits; that what the pages contain could happen in real life. And to keep that fear on simmer without boiling over and evaporating, a dystopian vision has to be plausibly tied to our current world. How well does that future vision relate to what we already know? What I did for The Phlebotomist was to take the present and simply nudge it to the brink. My goal was to write believable, (fun!), dystopian adventure.
I just hope it remains fiction.
ABOUT THE PHLEBOTOMIST
In a near future where citizens are subject to the mandatory blood draw, government phlebotomist Willa Wallace witnesses an event that makes her question her whole world…
To recover from a cataclysmic war, the Harvest was instituted to pass blood to those affected by radiation. But this charitable act has led to a society segregated entirely by blood type. Government blood contractor, Patriot, rewards your generous gift based on the compatibility of your donation, meaning that whoever can give the most, gets the most in return.
While working as a reaper taking collections for the Harvest, Willa chances upon an idea to resurrect an obsolete technique that could rebalance the city. But in her quest to set things into motion, she uncovers a horrifying secret that cuts to the heart of everything.
Kathrin Hutson has been writing Dark Fantasy, SFF, and LGBTQ Speculative Fiction since 2000. She is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the Horror Writers Association. Kathrin lives in Vermont with her husband, their young daughter, and their two dogs, Sadie and Brucewillis.
Sleepwater Static, Book Two in the LGBTQ Dystopian SF Blue Helix Series by Kathrin Hutson was released May 26 by Exquisite Darkness Press.
Wyoming’s Sleepwater chapter is on the run, hunted for their ability to spin a beat. With little time to mourn the members they’ve lost, Bernadette Manney takes the group to the one place she swore she’d never see again: the cabin in Hollywood, South Carolina. It’s remote enough to lay low and catch a break, but not for long.
Their beats are condemned as mutations, radical terrorist tactics, and felonies punishable both by and outside the law. Bernadette thought Sleepwater would be safe here, but returning to her Southern roots unleashes more demons than she left behind.
MIKE GLYER: In your Blue Helix series, the condemned mutation that confers special abilities — the beat – almost floats in a colloidal suspension where it comes in contact with the profoundly human stories that you want in the foreground. Instead of a big comic book bang, we see how individuals or families relate and conflict, only with more tools that may or may not help them. The genre elements tend to be pushed to the margins while focus is on the human relationships, romances, family histories and conflicts. What what was it specifically that attracted you to science fiction and fantasy as a setting?
KATHRIN HUTSON: I’ve always been more attracted to science fiction and fantasy as genres in general, and I think that came mostly from my desire as a kid, adolescent, and young adult to escape what was happening around me in my real life. Today, I choose to write in these genre for a few reasons. First, story always comes first. For me, the story is more exciting when I can work with these genre elements (even if they’re pushed to the margins) in order to create that sort of surrealist escapism while still keeping it grounded in what we as readers are all able to identify with – fleshed-out characters and profoundly human stories.
Second, these genres are just so dang fun. With fantasy especially, I get to work with worlds to change them and shape them in whatever way I see fit. As long as it fits the overall story too, of course. With the Blue Helix series, which is all I’ve written in the science fiction genre so far (dystopian and very “light” on the science part), I had to do a lot more research to create this world and these characters than I really have ever done for any of my other work, all of which is fantasy. But I did choose dystopian science fiction very specifically for the Blue Helix series because of what I wanted to say within the broader context of this “condemned mutation” found in my main characters and supporting characters. Originally with Sleepwater Beat, Book 1, I wanted to create an only slightly different world from our reality — a parallel universe, if you will. I believed it was really important to be able to show these parallels between worlds in order to highlight the disparities between marginalized communities and “the majority”. So I looked at these marginalized groups – the LGBTQ community, BIPOC, drug addicts, addiction survivors, victims of emotional and physical abuse, the homeless, the disenfranchised, those struggling with mental illness, disabled peoples, and anyone living on the fringes of society — and used this fictionally marginalized group in the books who have this special-ability mutation to open a window into the injustices, double-standards, and outright ridiculousness of bigotry and discrimination in all its forms. As it turned out, this parallel universe I created and fully intended to be farther in the future (2031 in the Blue Helix series) ended up having so many eerie similarities to what the world and specifically the United States has been experiencing as each book was published. They’ve been called timely and prescient, though I think I ended up giving “the future” too much credit for being farther away than it turned out to be.
MIKE GLYER: These books maintain a wonderful dynamic between characters on the run and rich sense of the location they’re presently in. I saw an author say he starts his stories from a sense of place—where do you start?
KATHRIN HUTSON: I start my stories from a sense of character and really getting inside their heads first. I think this is a lot easier for me to do than starting from a physical location or a sense of place because my “record” for the longest amount of time lived in one house in the last twenty years is two and a half years… and that was just recently reached in my last house in Vermont (my family moved to Colorado this past July, so now I’m starting over). One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned personally through always moving around for most of my life is that I can still be myself and carry everything I am and want to be with me, no matter where I end up. I hope that my characters provide that same feeling of “self” throughout my stories, even when these characters are fleeing across the country from persecution and holing up wherever they can find a roof over their heads for the night. Sometimes even just a car roof. But then when I have the characters down (and they don’t change who they are at the core, even with a different setting – unless it’s part of the story, of course), I get to play with bringing the setting to life almost as much as the people inhabiting it. I’ve lived in four different states in the last eight years – Colorado, South Carolina, California, and Vermont, in that order – and have gotten a decent sense of what each place feels like, what kind of people are found there, and how a physical location can play less or more or just as much of a role in the characters’ experiences as the people around them or the plot itself. But always, characters come first. And the fun lies in choosing how they do or don’t interact with the space around them when it changes.
MIKE GLYER: In The Blue Helix series, the special gifts the characters have in common bring them together because they are persecuted. Would that thing be enough reason to organize together if they were free to express their gifts?
KATHRIN HUTSON: This is a fantastic question. My immediate reaction was actually to think, “Well, it’s common ground. Common interests. Of course we’re drawn to other people like us.” But is that really the reason for gathering with like-minded individuals when we aren’t facing danger, persecution, and hatred simply for personal traits, beliefs, orientation, skin color, age (you name it) that we have no control over whatsoever?
I think there are two different reasons for these characters with “the beat”, who later joined to form the organization Sleepwater, to come together as they do in these series. Before their ability was weaponized, demonized, and relegated to something the rest of the world was told over and over again to fear and hate, yes. Beat-spinners gathered together to listen to each other’s individual abilities and form a sense of community around what made them different. Even when the rest of the world wouldn’t understand or had no idea of what they could do. There’s always a chance that “being different” will give others who fall under “normal” (like there’s even such a thing as “normal” anyway) a reason to taunt, make fun of, villainize, or otherwise act out against us. Take the overused (and sometimes still very real) trope in any YA entertainment media where high school is involved. We have “the nerds”, and even though “the nerds” get picked on by “the jocks” (or insert whichever high school clique you like) for being who they are, they still come together to play videogames, trade comic books, play chess, etc. because that’s a part of who they are. And they enjoy those parts of themselves (to be clear, I’ve done all of those things but play chess. I did, however, play D&D in high school, so there’s that). And in this hypothetical high-school setting, being “a nerd” isn’t necessarily a life-threatening “label” to carry. Sure, it makes things more difficult sometimes. I’m fortunate enough to have been “a nerd” in high school and still didn’t experience any bullying because of it, so I can say that seeking out like-minded individuals with similar interests and abilities in a relatively safe environment does absolutely exist.
On the other hand, when the danger and the discrimination become so wildly disproportionate to whatever makes us “different”, then yes. There is more of a reason to band together – for support, encouragement, hope, and to remind ourselves that we’re not alone in our struggles, even when it feels like we’re being persecuted for who we are on a core, raw human level. I wish more people had the opportunity to experience community in the former arena, i.e. within safe spaces and because we are drawn to people like us, even during good times. That’s part of the reason I wrote this series in the first place.
MIKE GLYER: Who was your favorite character to write?
KATHRIN HUTSON: I love this question, because the answer surprised me so much. While each of the characters in the Blue Helix series were phenomenally fun to write (and gave me more insight into myself and my understanding of the nearly infinite scope of individual human experiences), the character I enjoyed writing the most was Donna. And when I set out to write Sleepwater Static, Book 2, I had no idea that I would be writing her as much as I did. Honestly, I expected her to remain a mentioned side-character in the pen-pal letters between the main character Bernadette and her best friend Janet. But then I realized I needed to put Bernadette and her boyfriend Darrell into a room with Janet and Donna to explore some more ideas of interpersonal relationships I was playing with, and it happened more than once.
Donna is a sharp-witted, charismatic, well-educated, affluent, biracial lesbian living in Vincent, Alabama in the 1980s who also happened to have this beat-spinning ability herself. She is Janet’s partner through most of the book, and she later becomes the spearhead of a revolutionary movement/rebellion by a group of people with this same “mutant ability” even before the rest of the world knew what Sleepwater and people like them could do. She was so much fun to write precisely because she is so complex, and not always in a good way. I wanted to write her in as a character (including that full description above) that I found lacking in speculative fiction when it comes to BIPOC characters, especially in the South and especially in the ’80s. And while Donna knows how to play a room to her full advantage, how to win people over with her gorgeous smile and her go-get-’em attitude, how to organize and stoke the fires of inspiration and action in others, she’s one of the most insecure characters in this series. She’s manipulative, sensitive, emotionally abusive toward Janet at times, and terrifyingly territorial. Nothing stops her, and she’ll do whatever it takes to circumvent any obstacle standing between her and what she wants, even if it happens to be her own partner. I didn’t intend to use writing Donna and Janet’s relationship as a way to juxtapose a “seemingly normal” relationship that’s actually quite dysfunctional with a purely healthy, loving, respectful relationship we see between Bernadette and Darrell. But as I kept writing, that’s what it became. And it served another purpose “layer” of showing how impossible and senseless it really is to “judge a book by its cover” – or, in this case, to judge a person by physical, economic, financial, and intellectual status. I also really love writing sharp-edged characters you can’t help but admire and appreciate even after seeing glimpses of their “masochistic side”, and Donna most definitely fits that bill.
MIKE GLYER: Have you ever received any pushback from editors or readers when you’ve included marginalized characters in your stories?
KATHRIN HUTSON: This was one of the things that I was actually quite nervous about experiencing when I wrote both Sleepwater Beat and Sleepwater Static. Fortunately, I haven’t gotten any blowback whatsoever. In some ways, that still throws me for a loop, and I’m always expecting that feedback to come down the line at one point or another (I’ll chalk it up to knowing I have to have that “thick author skin”, and if I’m expecting it, it’s not that heavy of a blow when it happens). But so far, the worst feedback I’ve received from anyone — and it was a reader — was “some people may like reading about the seedier sides of other people” but the story “wasn’t happy enough”. That garnered me a two-star review for Sleepwater Beat, which I was actually thrilled to receive. I did not in any way set out to write this series with the intention of making it a happy-go-lucky sci-fi read with action and intrigue thrown in for fun. That’s just not what I write. And even though it was a two-star review, it still solidified in my mind the belief that I’m writing exactly what I want to write with this series. Not everyone is going to enjoy it. Not everyone wants to read fiction about “the darker underbelly of society” that just isn’t “happy enough”. And that’s okay. The people who do want to read it, like myself, appreciate it for what it is.
I was especially nervous about the potential for negative feedback when I wrote Sleepwater Static, because in addition to touching on the marginalized communities I explored and shed light on in Sleepwater Beat, Book 2 in this series also focuses a lot on racism, racial discrimination and injustice, interracial relationships and families, and the difficulties BIPOC face on an every day basis. The closest I felt I could respectfully get to touching on these issues, as a white woman who’s been the target of other forms of discrimination but not those based on skin color, was to write from the perspective of a main character who: is a white woman; has been the target of discrimination but not discrimination based on the color of her skin; is in a healthy romantic relationship with a black man in the South and has a child with him; and finds herself willing to do whatever she can to protect the people she loves, even if she happens to take it too far and make mistakes she deeply regrets along the way. My editor was such a huge part of reaffirming for me that I hit the points in Sleepwater Static delicately and respectfully. The other instrumental resource in ensuring I didn’t perpetuate harmful stereotypes, cross the boundaries into acceptable representation, or get things flat-out wrong was using a sensitivity reader. Fortunately, this sensitivity reader agreed with my editor, and I didn’t have to make any changes to the manuscript. I suppose I didn’t have to agonize over doing this “the right way” for as long as I did while writing this book, either, but it was a valuable experience nonetheless.
I recently was a guest on the Sci-Fi Saturday Night podcast with The Dome and Cam to talk about Sleepwater Static, and they told me something after the show that was so invaluable for me to hear and that I think is a pretty important nugget for any writer wanting to tackle bigger issues within a work of speculative fiction. In a nutshell, they told me that the difference between writing on a large scale like this to the same effect of standing up on a soap box with a megaphone — spouting “political or social stances” — and writing in a way that is clear, versatile, and accessible to everyone, without becoming didactic or overblown, is whether or not we as writers are tackling these issues and writing our stories from a place of anger and fear. That was a hugely enlightening moment for me. I’ve written so many of my own personal life experiences into the Blue Helix series — some of them remarkably traumatic at one point in time — after I’d already found a place within myself where that rage and that fear could be removed. Not completely ignored or erased, because I’m well aware of the fact that the causes of that rage and fear (and the work I’ve done in my own life to move past them) will always be a part of who I am. But they are detached from my writing process, and it allows me to create stories like these that don’t feel didactic or like I’m trying to “sell” readers on any particular stance. Because I’m not. This is the one of the things, in my opinion, that may be a reason why I haven’t received a lot of pushback from editors or readers of the Blue Helix series since Sleepwater Beat released in November of 2018. I just want to offer readers a chance to look at the world around them from a different perspective, maybe even to realize that they’re not alone in how they think or feel or what they’ve gone through, and in doing that, I always prioritize the quality of my craft – good story, robust characters, real moments — first.
MIKE GLYER: Corporate villains, family betrayal, chemical addiction, racism, and sexual self-discovery, aren’t just issues explored in your books, they’re decision points a character may pay the price for with their lives. In one of your bios you talk about “Happily Never Afters.” What are the keys to writing stories like this that appeal to readers who probably grew up conditioned to Disney-style resolutions?
KATHRIN HUTSON: Answering this question as so many layers I could probably keep peeling back forever. But the first thing that comes to mind is that I’m already well aware of the fact that we as writers can’t possibly appeal to everyone. Fiction would become quite bland indeed if that were the endgame. But I think that appealing to these readers who probably grew up conditioned to Disney-style resolutions is made possible through what I believe is the cornerstone of every good story, which is that human connection. Despite race, age, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, education level, religion, belief system, any and all demographics I could list here, we all have something in common. We are all living, breathing, feeling human beings who hold personal values and care about something. Appealing to this shared human experience through fiction, I believe, is the best way to reach so many more people who would otherwise not have been open to reading about these things in the first place, or maybe even reading dark fiction as an overarching genre.
As an example, I met with a book club last year in Vermont who’d all read Sleepwater Beat beforehand. When this group came together to talk with me about the books (and it really turned into an hour-and-a-half-long discussion of them mostly describing their experiences and thoughts when reading, which was phenomenal), I was blown away by the demographics represented just in this small group — BIPOC, men, woman, straight cis-gendered men, LGBTQ people, parents, people without children, and the age rage went from 25 to 76. Each and every one of these book-club members had something to say about different parts in the book that spoke to them, touched on their own experiences, made them think differently, made them feel like they were seen and recognized, and helped them tap into the gratitude they carried for what they had in their own lives. And this was possible, I’d like to say, because of the fact that I do choose to put human relationships and “profound human stories” into the foreground of my work, especially with the Blue Helix series. We all have different experiences, and many of us break away from what we’re “conditioned” to believe, feel, think, understand simply through interactions with other humans and their experiences. I’m lucky enough to say that after everything I’ve been through in my life (and there’s plenty more of it to come), I’ve found my own version of a “happy ending”. And I think that by writing Happily Never Afters, at the very least, I may help others come to understand that reaching theirs is actually possible and not just relegated to fairytale resolutions.
MIKE GLYER: Finally, would you like to tell us about any other new or upcoming releases you have?
KATHRIN HUTSON: This may sound like a complete 180 after answering that last question, but my next upcoming release is the first in a Dark Urban Fantasy series called Accessory to Magic. Book 1 is The Witching Vault, which will be available on December 10th, 2020. I’m trying something a little bit different with this series, going for a “lighter” approach to fiction more for entertainment purposes than the complex levels of picking apart “the human struggle” found in the Blue Helix series. But, of course, the Accessory to Magic series still has my dark spin on it and quite a bit of my own experiences peppered throughout: An apprentice witch with a criminal past inherits a magical bank that can think for itself – and the clientele are almost as dangerous as what’s inside their safety deposit boxes.
I’m excited to see how my darkness-loving readers will react to something a little more on the fun-escapist side with a heck of a lot more snark. And, of course, I’m also working on Book 3 in the Blue Helix series, which will release in Spring of 2021. So readers have about eight months to prepare for that one, and it’s shaping up to be the series wildest ride yet.