Excerpts from the interview:
“As each book comes out, I'm supposedly an expert on that particular topic -- Mars, Antarctica, Nepal, Buddhism, climate change. I'm interested in all those things, but fundamentally as a novelist. You have to find new stories in subjects that are comfortable and interesting to you. Sometimes I'm attracted to storylines that seem to contain implications everyone will have to deal with. Not always.
“I have always believed that science fiction is the best way to express modern American life, because everything is changing so fast and because we're in a gigantic techno-surround that we can never escape. Essentially, we are living inside a science fiction novel -- one of those giant collaborative monstrosities -- and that's what history is now. On the other hand, if you live inside a science fiction novel, what does the science fiction novel (per se) do? Thinking of the future becomes more and more difficult. The future really is unpredictable, yet if you're writing science fiction seriously you still have to try at least to build a plausible scenario. Even that's getting hard.”
“My climate change novels are pretty personal, because they're about America right now, so I decided to base a lot of it on what I've known and seen myself. I hadn't really done that since The Gold Coast and Pacific Edge. When I started the series in 2001, I wanted to take on Washington DC -- I admit I had the long knives out -- to stick the place for the things that oppressed me when I lived there. But in writing the novel, I found parts of it I had enjoyed, and managed to reinvent my relationship to the place. Seeing the whole city with a writer's eye, years later, memory retains what's important at the most basic emotional level of symbols and feelings. Writing about Washington DC, I began to like it more from that distance in time and space. Also, as the setting for a novel it seemed to work like a charm. Then I thought there were strands of my own life now that I could feed into it -- things like playing frisbee golf in a park where there are homeless people. I don't necessarily think that's the best way to go about writing novels (it's certainly not the only way), but if you're going to write a lot of novels, it's a good thing to try every once in a while!
“My book is about global warming and what we can do about it. It's a mix of science fiction and present-day realism that all together is called Science in the Capital. You call it my climate manifesto, and if I have a manifesto for global warming action, I put it in there because I thought it would help make the novel stronger, not because I think I've got the final word on climate change. I tried to take what we all know already and put it into a story of what will happen next -- that's really just the standard work of making science fiction novels. So any manifesto within it is something the characters are doing: a kind of 'mission architecture,' as they describe it, a list of things that need to be done in order to combat global warming and achieve a decarbonization of civilization.”
“I have always been fascinated by history, as almost all science fiction writers are. For a long time, I've been saying science fiction itself is a historical genre: every text has within it (implicitly or explicitly) a history that runs back to now. To make a quick distinction between science fiction and fantasy -- at least a first cut -- science fiction is set in the future with a history that runs back to now, and fantasy dispenses with that connection and takes place in some historical bubble space of its own. I said that in Foundation 20 years ago, in an essay on Cecelia Holland, where I tried to explain why she was similar to a science fiction writer. I'm a big admirer and student of her novels. She's really one of our greatest novelists.
“I've sold a book about the birth of science called The Galileans. It will have a science fiction element, but a strongly historical narrative as well. I researched the subject when I was writing The Years of Rice and Salt, which includes an alternative scientific revolution. Having done that, I thought, 'Well, what actually happened is fascinating.' So this new book is constellated about the figure of Galileo. Because he was famously put on trial by the Pope, he's still a good way to discuss the relationship between science and religion, and how those two can be reconciled (or not). I enjoyed the historical writing I did for The Years of Rice and Salt, so I'm going back into that mode.”
“There is something very congenial in Buddhism, especially compared with the nasty old monotheisms that are currently tearing the world apart. You notice there aren't any Buddhist fundamentalists. In fact, the Dalai Lama has said that where science and Buddhism come into conflict, Buddhism has to change. You don't hear many other religious leaders talking like that.
“In my daily life, there are simple Zen rubrics that I find helpful, like 'Chop wood, carry water' (or, 'Run five miles, write five pages'). I like the daily stuff, gardening, washing the dishes, getting the kids off in the morning -- all these things have a certain kind of Zen ritual to them. Daily habits can be turned into a kind of worship of the day, and in that sense Zen is very useful.”