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Kameron Hurley: People Don’t Buy Books They Don’t Know About (Even Great Ones)

I get into perennial discussions with other authors about whether or not blog posts, or bookmarks, or reviews, or carrier pigeons, or flash mobs sell books. The cold reality is that any of these tactics, when done as a one-off, probably doesn’t sell more than a book or two, un­less the person convinced to buy a book during that breakdancing skit at SuperWowCon was a minor celebrity who ended up loving it and telling all their friends.

Ending up loving it is the key, there. If no­body loves the book, they aren’t going to talk about it.

But nobody can love a book they don’t know about.

So what happens after you write a good book?

You hope the market is ready for it.

And then what?

You get to work.

Sure, you might get lucky and have a big advance book, and your publisher does that amazing thing where they’re able to convince those key book buyers at the big chains to make massive orders, and you can just sit at home eating bonbons and updating Twitter. (OK, let’s be real: we all want our publishers to magically figure out how to do this, not so we can screw off, but so we can have more time to just… you know, write more books. That’s how a lot of us thought this business worked. Alas.)

The reality is that when the buyers aren’t convinced the market is ready for your book, your push is going to need to start from the ground up. You will be out here in the trenches with authors like me, firing up the marketing machine with every release, even if you some­times resent it. The truth is that there never really were ‘‘good old days’’ where an author didn’t promote their work. The advent of the ‘‘reading’’ was a purely promotional activity. If you’re from a tradi­tionally overlooked group that’s had a tougher time getting reviews and shelf space, promotion is especially vital. We’ve all seen the statistics on how often women and writers of color are reviewed in mainstream publications, compared to their white male counterparts.

Where I see a lot of authors falling down in this is that they’ll write a blog post, or make a book trailer, and call that it. When they do the book trailer and it doesn’t magically ‘‘make’’ their book a bestseller, they declare that book trailers and blog posts don’t sell books. And that’s true – your chances of connecting with readers who have big followings that can start the word-of-mouth machine going are incred­ibly low when you just throw a couple bookmarks on a table at Super­WowCon.

Placing all your book’s hopes on a book trailer is a heavy burden for one book trailer. Or one postcard. It’s hoping that just that one effort and nothing else will connect with the right people, who love the book and share it. Because the truth is, if you’re a low-advance mid-lister like me, not necessarily beloved by book buyers, your best shot is to try and reach as many readers as directly as possible, through as many different venues as you can in the weeks leading up to and directly adjacent to your book release.

No, the postcard won’t sell the book. But when they read a review on their favorite book blog, read a blog post from you on their favorite site, see a Facebook ad, listen to an interview with you on their favorite podcast and pick up a postcard at a con – all in the same week – all those touches reinforce one another. They say to somebody: ‘‘This is a project folks are investing in and talking about. This is a project worth taking a look at.’’

So let’s pretend a couple of amazing things, first: you wrote an excel­lent book (the talent part). The market is ready for it (the gamble part). Now what?

I tend to point folks toward author Saundra Mitchell’s simple, in­expensive and practical marketing plan (). It gives you the bare minimum to get started, and encourages a mixed approach: personal postcards, ARCs, giveaways, website, appearances, signings. Wash and repeat. Easy.

What if there’s stuff in that plan you don’t like? Well, find something else you do like.

One of the greatest things I’ve learned in this part of the business is to only do the things I enjoy. Author Tobias Buckell advised me on this one early. If you don’t like read­ings, don’t do them. Signings? Scrub them out. Focus on what you enjoy. For me, that’s meant a lot of guest blogging, giveaways, postcards, some convention appearances, and free swag of the postcard and sampler variety. I also get a kick out of making book trailers, and have learned how to update my own website, which is a constantly evolving entity.

Jeff VanderMeer offers another great re­source for writers struggling to balance writ­ing and the business of promotion, called Booklife. I’ve been using strategies from that book about dividing writing, networking, and promotion time since my first novel came out, and it’s been a great sanity-saver.

I suspect that what makes marketing talk among writers such a con­tentious activity is that one can do none of these things and have a massive bestseller, or do all of it and sell 600 copies. Why is that? Well, remember what I started out this conversation with: first, write a good book. Second, the market has to be ready for what your good book has to say. If those things aren’t in place, there will be less return. But will you still get some return? Yes.

At the end of the day, I sleep better knowing that when a book goes off into the wild – the way I’m about to send off The Mirror Empire, my new epic fantasy – that I’ve done all I could to help it out into the big bad world. My marketing work – blog tours, convention appear­ances, interviews, and the like – takes up six weeks of my writing time.

Isn’t six weeks of my life worth it, for a book I’ve been working on for ten years?

Writing is a largely solitary business, and what makes many of us perfectly suited for writing makes us terrible at promotion. Today’s noisy world, though, will often require us to push out into areas where we’ve not been as traditionally comfortable. Many were raised to speak softly, to not talk about themselves, to believe that if you did anything of worth, it would be spoken about without you raising a hand.

In the sea of books and films and games and other entertainment op­tions we have today, we must look for ways to cut through the noise in the hopes of getting our work into the right hands.

It’s a magical thing, when readers get caught up in a book so com­pletely they press it on all their friends, they cosplay as their favorite characters, they dabble in imagining their own, and completely fan-out when they meet their favorite creators. They – and me! – are super passionate about books, and love to speak about the ones that connect with us.

Yet I can’t read and share what I don’t know about… and neither can our readers.


Ian McDonald: On Xenoforming

Ian Neil McDonald was born March 31, 1960 in Manchester England. He moved to Northern Ireland at age five and has lived there ever since. He attended Bangor Grammar School and worked as head of development for a TV production company.

McDonald began publishing SF with ‘‘The Island of the Dead’’ (1982), and his stories soon began to appear regularly in Asimov’s, Interzone, and other magazines. His novels include Locus Award-winning debut Desolation Road (1988) and related book Ares Express (2001); Out on Blue Six (1989); Philip K. Dick Award-winning King of Morning, Queen of Day (1991); Hearts, Hands and Voices (1992; as The Broken Land in the US); Necroville (1994; as Terminal Cafe in the US); The Chaga series: Chaga (1995; as Evolution’s Shore in the US), Kirinya (1998), and Sturgeon Award winning novella Tendeléo’s Story (2000); Sacrifice of Fools (1996); BSFA Award winner and Clarke and Hugo Award finalist River of Gods (2004); Hugo and Nebula Award finalist and BSFA winner Brasyl (2007); and Hugo and Clarke Award nominee and BSFA and Campbell Memorial Award winner The Dervish House (2010). He began his YA Everness series with Planesrunner (2010), and it continues with Be My Enemy (2013) and Empress of the Sun (2014). Adult novels Hopeland and Luna (first in a duology) are forthcoming.

Notable short fiction includes Nebula Award nominee ‘‘Unfinished Portrait of the King of Pain by Van Gogh’’ (1988); BSFA Award winner ‘‘Innocents’’ (1993); Hugo Award finalists ‘‘The Little Goddess’’ (2005), ‘‘The Tear’’ (2008), and ‘‘Vishnu at the Cat Circus’’ (2009); and Hugo Award winner ‘‘The Djinn’s Wife’’ (2006). Some of his short fiction is collected in Empire Dreams (1988), Speaking in Tongues (1992), and Cyberadad Days (2009), a British Fantasy Award finalist and recipient of a Philip K. Dick Award special citation. He wrote graphic novel Kling Klang Klatch (1992, illustrated by David Lyttleton).

McDonald lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland with his partner, Enid Crowe.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘For the Everness books, I came up with the image of an airship that can travel between parallel universes, which is probably something every writer’s thought of at some point, and I just followed it through. It was a nice break to do something different. Steampunk without steam. Teslapunk. Steampunk without the messed-around Victorian values. Real Victorians would be completely alien! I didn’t want to get stuck doing the same SF books over and over, successful though they may be. I didn’t want to keep writing books about the developing economy of the year – India, Brazil. I could feel myself getting trapped in that.

‘‘There’s the whole Northern Ireland thing, living in a marginal country, which doesn’t seem that science fictional – I’m drawn to other marginal places. When I write about a place, I always go there. (I’m doing a book about the moon, which is problematic. You should see the flyer miles I get with that.) I try to be honest about my experience of the place, though one can lob grenades of appropriation around and back again. If I haven’t gone there, and I haven’t seen stuff and noticed little details, and put some money into the economy as well, I don’t feel I can write about it with any kind of degree of honesty, for myself. Of course I get things wrong – but I can write about what happens at the bottom of my street and get things wrong, too.

‘‘Colonialism is a kind of reverse terraforming in a sense – the southern hemisphere being terraformed into somebody else’s terra. Xenoforming, that’s the word. There was a display in our local museum and it was a little diorama of the seabed in the Permian epoch. That was truly bizarre – it looked like an alien world. What if that alien world was part of our world? What if the alien invasion wasn’t UFOs arriving over the White House, but foreigners arriving in the southern hemisphere at Kilimanjaro?”

*

‘‘My next books are Luna parts one and two, a duology set on a moon base – Game of Domes. In the Luna books, I’m still writing about developing economies, it’s just that this one happens to be on the moon, about 2089. It was basically Gary K. Wolfe who was responsible for it. On an ancient Coode Street podcast about invigorating stale subgenres in science fiction, he said he’d love to see a new take on the moonbase story. I don’t know why, but I’ve always loved moon stories. John Varley did one, Steel Beach. I thought about it, and Enid, my partner, was watching TV, the new version of Dallas. It wasn’t very good, but the old version was great. My book is Dallas on the moon, so it’s got five big industrial family corps on the moon, called the five dragons, and it’s about their intrigues and battles. It’s also developing in parallel as a TV project with a company I’ve worked with before. There’s a gap in the market for an SF series that doesn’t look like science fiction, if you know what I mean.

‘‘There are a couple of kickers that keep the story running along. On the moon there’s no criminal law, there’s only contract law. Everything is negotiable in some form or another. You can be married to three different people at the same time with three different contracts; they don’t have to live with you. Every part of life is negotiated. There’s also a ticking clock: if you’re on the moon for more than two years, your bone structure and musculature will degenerate to the point to where it’s not safe to go back to Earth again, so everyone who goes there to work has to decide, ‘Do I stay or do I go?’ And there’s corporate intrigue, with a family matriarch getting old but not ready to pass, because there will be a power vacuum. There are battling brothers, basically the Thor/Loki relationship, with the charismatic older brother and the clever younger one. It’s a lot of fun to do. I watched the hell out of The Godfather several times, parts one and two. It’s the same structure, really. There’s been a first look at the world of Luna already: Jonathan published a story ‘The Fifth Dragon’ in his Reach for Infinity anthology, which is part of this world.”

*

‘‘The kids’ books series gives me a chance to play off the leash a bit. Though I enjoy the discipline of more realistic science fiction, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. It’s the little domestic bits I enjoy writing. The bits where you run around blowing things up I find a bit boring to write. I’ve had inquiries about adapting Planesrunner for television. It is aimed at the Dr. Who audience quite deliberately. The series has the go-anywhere machine, which is what the Tardis is, but I also wanted a crew like you have in Star Trek. That sounds awfully cynical. But it’s fun to do. I giggle when I write bits. It’s ‘parallel universe of the week,’ but there is a plot in the background.”

*

‘‘The other upcoming book I have is a project that’s been rolling around for about 15 years now, called Hopeland. This is the science fictional equivalent of the kind of thing Neil Gaiman does with fantasy. That’s the nearest I can describe it. He roots his work very firmly in this world, and does little bits of weird in the everyday. Or like Graham Joyce, the kind of thing he does. We almost sold it as a mainstream novel – it could pass as one. I’ve been writing about very big societies, and now I’m writing about very small societies. The lunar societies have maybe three, four million people. It’s not a very big world. Hopeland is even smaller. It takes place inside a family. The premise is that back in the 1920s this guy invented a new kind of family structure that isn’t the nuclear family. It’s the family you never need to leave or never have to leave, the constellation family, which constantly adds new members. The idea is, it’s a social unit that will last for 10,000 years. Simon Spanton, my editor at Gollancz, loved it. I sent him about six chapters, and he said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me about this three years ago? What’s your agent been doing? It’s great!’

‘‘Things brew, and if I don’t do something about them they’ll disappear. Hopeland came out of a magazine article I saw in 2000, so it’s been in there about 14 years, just waiting for me to have the courage to do something about it.”


Ann Leckie: Silhouettes

Ann Leckie was born March 2, 1966 in Toledo OH and grew up in St. Louis MO. She attended Washington University, graduating with a degree in music. She has ‘‘worked as a waitress, a receptionist, a rodman on a land-surveying crew, and a recording engineer.’’

Leckie attended Clarion West in 2005, where she wrote first published SF story ‘‘Hesperia and Glory’’ (2006). Over a dozen stories have appeared since, including two in collaboration with Rachel Swirsky.

Her debut novel Ancillary Justice is one of the most honored books in the field: it is a current Hugo Award finalist, won the Nebula Award, Clarke, BSFA, and Golden Tentacle awards, and was nominated for Tiptree, Campbell Memorial, Dick, and Compton Crook awards. The novel begins the Imperial Radch series, with Ancillary Sword forthcoming this fall and Ancillary Mercy planned to conclude the trilogy.

Leckie founded online magazine GigaNotoSaurus in 2010 and edited it until stepping down in 2014. She was an assistant editor at podcast magazine Podcastle until earlier this year, and served as vice president of SFWA from 2012-13.
She lives in St. Louis with her husband and two children.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘My parents were not interested in science fiction. They always thought I would grow out of it, and I didn’t. So they were like, ‘We’ll make sure she reads some good stuff,’ so they’d give me random books for Christmas, birthdays, or whatever. (Like Stanislaw Lem – that was when I first read him.) They were biochemists who worked at the Washington University Medical School, in different labs. They were big mystery readers, and they felt like science fiction wasn’t about human relationships, it was just about rocket ships and laser guns, and maybe some technical stuff. It’s Sturgeon’s Law: ‘99% of everything is crap.’ (You could say the same thing about mysteries, although I never actually said that to them.) My mom always felt I was going to be a writer someday, so when it became clear I was going to write SF, she told me, ‘OK, I totally support you.’ That was really nice. Everybody should have such parents!”

*

‘‘I joined two Internet critique groups, Critters and the Online Writing Workshop. I did my first NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month– in 2002, then again in 2003, and I took the novel to Critters. It’s free, anybody can join, and every week a packet of stories comes out and you have to critique a certain number to get points, and when you have enough points you can put your own story in for critique. It’s mostly short fiction, but they have a way to do novels – it’s called a ‘request for dedicated readers,’ and people sign on to just read your novel and it counts for X number of short story critique credits.

‘‘Some readers told me to go to Clarion, and I thought, ‘I wonder if I can swing it.’ I submitted the second and third short SF stories I ever wrote to both Clarions, got into both, and decided to go to Clarion West. Octavia E. Butler was there (that was the year before she died). Andy Duncan, L. Timmel Duchamp, Gordon Van Gelder, Connie Willis, and Michael Swanwick also taught us. There were a great bunch of people in my class, and I had a really wonderful experience. Before, I was like, ‘I think I’m going to try to write.’ I came home, and I was a writer!”

*

‘‘At first, I was just playing with the universe for fun. I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if there were a society that genuinely didn’t care about gender?’ During Clarion West, I wrote a story set in that universe, and I used ‘he’ for everybody. I was totally unhappy with that. Why is male the default? Let’s make female the default! Of course, there are problems with that – serious problems. Using ‘she’ for everybody doesn’t genuinely give the impression of a society where gender doesn’t matter. (But it worked.)

‘‘The way you can’t deal with somebody without putting them into that gender pigeonhole is so strong! When you take a baby to the supermarket, everybody wants to lean over and coo at your baby, because babies are adorable. But sometimes, people lean over to coo at the baby and they stop, because they don’t know how to coo if they don’t know what gender the baby is. That blew my mind, when I had babies. They’d assume that my daughter was a boy, or my son was a girl, and I wouldn’t say anything, but at some point the truth would come out, and they’d go ‘Oh, I’m so sorry!’, like they ran over my dog or something. The baby doesn’t care, and how can you tell? There’s no reason to gender a baby.

‘‘My concept of non-binary genders was very rudimentary, but that’s where I started. I learned a lot about gender as I was working on the book. ‘It’ has that not-a-person feel to it. Gender-neutral pronouns feel awkward and blunt, because we’re not used to them, so I think it’s important to do that. At the same time, you don’t get that kind of visceral impact currently. Some people have asked, ‘These other characters – what gender are they?’ I’d say, ‘Well, first of all, it doesn’t matter. But second, in my very first iteration of the book I was using he or she for everybody, but by the time I was done with the first draft, the genders had just kind of slipped around.’ Originally I wrote the novel just using ‘he’ and ‘she,’ but was not getting the effect I wanted. (It creates too many expectations. In a plot where your main character is a woman and a guy shows up – ‘Oh, here we go. That’s the romantic interest.’) In the final version of Ancillary Justice, the first chapter is completely unreliable about gender.

“I’ve seen some folks complain that they can’t visualize any of the characters. Part of that is because I don’t generally do heavy-duty physical description anyway. You start out with an ‘I,’ and it’s almost like Schrödinger’s cat. When I read a first-person story and the gender isn’t marked really soon, I settle on one or the other, because I live in this culture and I speak this language. But I think I prefer a blank silhouette to an overly described one.”

*

‘‘I don’t know what’s coming up after the trilogy. I’ll figure something out. I have an entire fantasy universe where most of my short fiction is set (because I couldn’t sell the short science fiction I wrote). I love world-building – love it a lot. I don’t mind reading quick, sketchy world-building, but I need that really heavy foundation to build the characters and hook everything together. Theoretically, I could do a novel in that fantasy world if I needed to.”


K.W. Jeter: Rockin’ in the Steampunk World

Kevin Wayne Jeter was born March 26, 1950 in Los Angeles. He attended California State University of Fullerton with classmates Tim Powers and James P. Blaylock, where he also met his wife Geri, and graduated with a degree in sociology. During the ’70s he became friends with his literary hero, Philip K. Dick. Since then he has led ‘‘the ramshackle writer life,’’ residing up and down the West Coast until moving to Ecuador a few years ago.

His first published novel was Seeklight (1976), followed by Dreamfields (1976), Morlock Night (1979), and Soul Eater (1983). The first novel he actually wrote, Dr. Adder, appeared in 1984, followed by sequels The Glass Hammer (1984), Dr. Adder in Death’s Arms (1987), and Alligator Alley (1989, co-written with Ferret). With Infernal Devices (1987) Jeter became a pioneer of the steampunk subgenre – a term Jeter coined in a letter to this very magazine that same year. Farewell Horizontal (1989), Madlands (1991), and Noir (1998) are SF thrillers, but he turned increasingly to horror with titles like Mantis (1987), Dark Seeker (1987), In the Land of the Dead (1989), The Night Man (1990), and Wolf Flow (1992). He wrote four-volume comic Mister E (1991), and wrote many novelizations in the ’90s, including Star Wars and Star Trek volumes, plus three novel sequels to the film Bladerunner, based on Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

After a hiatus of some years, Jeter has recently returned to the field with Fiendish Schemes (2013) from Tor, a sequel to Infernal Devices. He began self-publishing the Kim Oh thriller series with Real Dangerous Girl (2013), with four volumes out so far.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘Fiendish Schemes is the long-delayed (as they tell me) sequel to Infernal Devices, so I’m picking up the steampunk thread that so many others have done fabulous things with. I jumped back into that pool and am having a fine old time.

‘‘When I wrote Morlock Night I hadn’t traveled to England. Before I wrote Infernal Devices, I managed to get to London and I could see all the things I got wrong, of course, but gratifyingly there were at least a few things I got right. In terms of influence, I’ve always been a stodgy old person (even when I was young) and so I read a lot of Victorian literature. Not just the obvious stuff, Dickens and that sort of thing, but the more obscure people, like George Gissing. He was a literary writer, a friend of H. G. Wells. He’s just about the grimmest writer you could ever imagine. There are a bunch of his books I’m glad I read, but would never read again because they’re so depressing. There were also great Victorian thriller writers like Harrison Ainsworth, probably best known for his novel Rookwood. He was the Stephen King of his day in terms of writing pulse-pounding thrillers. I always recommend people read Harrison Ainsworth. I’m also a one-man anti-defamation league for Lord Bulwer-Lytton. A lot of people make fun of Bulwer-Lytton, but he was actually a good writer, except for his poetry, which is dreadful. His novels are quite good. I think he’s unfairly ridiculed, so I’m constantly recommending him. Of course, people just assume that means I’m as crazy as he was.”

*

‘‘The characters in Infernal Devices use a machine that gives them fragmentary glimpses of what will happen in the future; that’s something I return to in Fiendish Schemes, only now I have a lot more hindsight about what the future turned out to be, from the perspective of the Victorians. Infernal Devices was designed to be a lighthearted comedy, with a sad-sack central character who gets swept up in events. Fiendish Schemes turned out a little deeper and darker because of that additional hindsight I have now about what the future became. What I didn’t have a clear picture of when I wrote Infernal Devices so many years ago, but other writers have picked up on since, was the ability to use this crazy anarchic ahistorical approach that steampunk has become, and do some really interesting things with it. In a lot of ways, I’m influenced by the younger steampunk writers who came along after me and by what they’ve accomplished, taking this crazy notion and doing anarchic things with it. That’s been exciting.”

*

‘‘Being down in Ecuador, traveling is a little more involved for us. We were either going to go to Worldcon in San Antonio or to Brighton for World Fantasy Con. We decided, because we wanted to see all of our British friends, that we’d come to World Fantasy. Then I read a lot of people’s blog posts and things, friends of mine, when they came home from San Antonio. Of course they had a great time, but people were saying, ‘Gosh, it seems like everybody was so old.’ I said, ‘Go to a steampunk convention, because that skews way younger.’ A lot of the wildness makes some dismiss it as just people running around with goggles on their top hats and corsets on the outside of their dresses. But it’s also this anarchic approach to history. In steampunk, historical accuracy doesn’t matter. There’s a bunch of stuff happening in South America too, in Bogota, and in Brazil it’s huge.”

*

‘‘I’m making an effort not to shackle myself to steampunk. I’ve got a bunch of stuff sitting out with my agent and my editors now, which will be a continuation of the noir crime thriller orientation I had in books like Madlands, Farewell Horizontal, and some of my horror novels. I’m trying to keep the bifurcation going with the steampunk projects here and the crazy noir there. I’ve got a thriller series of short novels, as e-books, revolving around a young woman named Kim Oh. There are four of them so far. They’re not SF, they’re pretty larky. At one point I called them ‘absurdist comedies of violence.’ She does kill people, and she becomes quite good at it. A big part of the story is a Bildungsroman about her educating herself as a killer. She approaches it as a young businesswoman. Those are fun to write, and we’re still seeing what the ultimate home for them will be. Right now they’re solely available online, but we’re talking to some publishers.”

*

‘‘It ties back to the Victorian novelists like Mrs. Gaskell and Mrs. Humphrey Ward. They were concerned about the corrosive effect of the modern world on both men and women, worried that men would become harder and crueler because they wouldn’t have the civilizing effect of women anymore. The great instance of this that many people talk about is the British crusade against slavery that came out of a group of people usually referred to as the Clapham Common group. Everybody knows the names of William Wilberforce and the other men, they were leaders in the Baptist and Methodist churches. Nobody knows the names of their wives. But if you read the correspondence of Wilberforce and the other great anti-slavery crusaders, they were constantly referring to the influence of their wives. They were doing this abolitionist work because their wives said that it was how they would achieve personal salvation, by undertaking this great crusade against this terrible evil. There’s really moving correspondence that still survives between some of the Clapham Common group and their wives, where they say it was all because of the women: ‘People are giving me the credit, but it was all because of you. You made me a better man through your wise feminine influences. Because of you I have a chance at heaven.’ It’s absolutely true.”


Jeff VanderMeer: South of Reality

Jeffrey Scott VanderMeer was born July 7, 1968 in Belfont PA, and grew up in the Fiji Islands (where his parents worked for the Peace Corps), Ithaca NY, and Gainesville FL, where he attended the University of Florida for three years. He went to Clarion in 1992.

VanderMeer’s first story of genre interest was ‘‘So the Dead Walk Slowly’’, appearing when he was in college in 1989. His first book was self-published collection The Book of Frog (1989), and other collections include The Book of Lost Places (1996), Secret Life (2004), Secret Lives (2006), The Surgeon’s Tale and Other Stories (2007, with Cat Rambo), World Fantasy Award finalist The Third Bear (2010). His novelette The Situation (2009) was a Shirley Jackson Award nominee, and was adapted as a web comic with a script by VanderMeer and art by Eric Orchard. Some of his poetry was collected in Lyric of the Highway Mariner (1991) and The Day Dali Died: Poetry and Clash Fiction (2003).

VanderMeer’s pioneering New Weird series, Ambergris, began with Sturgeon Memorial Award-winning novella Dradin, in Love (1996) and continued with World Fantasy Award winner ‘‘The Transformation of Martin Lake’’ (1998), novellas ‘‘The Strange Case of X’’ (1999) and ‘‘The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris by Duncan Shriek’’ (1999), all collected in City of Saints and Madmen: The Book of Ambergris (2001; updated with new stories in 2002). Other works in that world include Shriek: An Afterword (2006) and World Fantasy and Nebula Award nominee Finch (2009). He also published World Fantasy and Bram Stoker Award nominee Veniss Underground (2003), and a tie-in Predator novel in 2008. His newest fiction project, the Southern Reach trilogy, has garnered impressive commercial and critical attention, including publication in 16 countries and a movie deal from Paramount Pictures. The Southern Reach trilogy began with Annihilation (2014) and continues with Authority (2014) and the forthcoming Acceptance.

VanderMeer has been a prolific editor since the 1980s, when he founded The Ministry of Whimsy Press while still in high school, and in 1989 began publishing ’zine Jabberwocky, which ran for two issues. He co-edited three volumes of the Leviathan anthology series, including the Dick Award nominated and World Fantasy Award-winning third volume (2002, with Forrest Aguirre). He edited anthologies Album Zutique (2003), and Hugo Award finalists The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases (2003, with Mark Roberts), and Monstrous Creatures: Explorations of Fantasy Through Essays, Articles and Reviews (2011).

With wife Ann VanderMeer (née Kennedy, married 2002), he worked on the Best American Fantasy anthologies, which published volumes in 2007, 2008, and 2010. They have co-edited numerous anthologies and non-fiction books, including Fast Ships, Black Sails (2008), The New Weird (2008), World Fantasy Award finalist Steampunk (2008), Last Drink Bird Head (2008), Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded (2010), World Fantasy Award nominee The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (2011), World Fantasy Award winner The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories (2011), Odd? (2011), The Time Traveler’s Almanac (2014), and feminist SF anthology Sisters of the Revolution, forthcoming. They co-wrote humorous volume The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals (2010), and together run e-book publisher Cheeky Frawg Books and website Weird Fiction Review . They were nominated for a World Fantasy Award in the Special Award, Professional category in 2013.

VanderMeer’s non-fiction includes essay collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat & Other Nonfiction (2002), Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st-Century Writer (2009), and The Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Imaginary Airships, Corsets and Goggles, Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature (2011, with S.J. Chambers), and sequel The Steampunk User’s Manual, with Desirina Boskovich, forthcoming. His latest book of non-fiction is BSFA Award winner and Hugo Award finalist Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction (2013). He has taught at Clarion and regularly teaches at the teen workshop Shared Worlds.

The VanderMeers live in Tallahassee FL.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘Ideas creep in from all over the place, but for the Southern Reach there was a central dream that I had (which is the same way that almost all of my books have come about): I was dreaming of walking down a tunnel and seeing living words on the wall, and then eventually I realized I was going to see whatever was writing them… and I woke up. I remember distinctly that some part of my brain was saying, ‘If you see it, you’re never going to write the books.’ So I went back to sleep, and then in the morning I had pretty much the whole story in my head.

‘‘I had wanted to write about north Florida, and what came out of that desire through the dream is an idea about an expedition into an area that’s been cut off from the rest of civilization for 30 years, at the point of the first book, Annihilation. A secret government agency, the Southern Reach, has been sending expeditions into this ‘Area X’ to try to figure out what’s going on in there, but pretty much every expedition has come apart at the seams, and they haven’t found out what’s happening.

‘‘The setting of the Southern Reach trilogy is basically the 14-mile hiking trail that I do out at St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. Somebody I told the plot of Annihilation to said there were much stranger things going on at St. Marks than I knew, and my novel was not very proactive in that department at all! The expedition in my book gets charged by a wild boar: that actually happened to me out there. So did seeing dolphins in the freshwater canals. All these things make the setting of the series very personal to me, and meant that I didn’t really have to think much about it, so that allowed me to relax into the situation.

‘‘The fact that Annihilation is set in the real world makes a big difference. A reader who might not pick up a literary fantasy set in an imaginary world is more likely to pick up something about a strange expedition in our world. It’s still basically the real world (as becomes more clear in the second book), but I think the main thing is, from the genre looking out, it may not look like as much of a shift in what I write as it does from outside the genre looking in. If you’re writing imaginary-world fantasy on a more literary (or even experimental) side, you’re in this position where you have to get readers from both mainstream and genre, but you’re not drawing from the core of either.”

*

‘‘The trilogy is basically three complete, self-contained stories about three different characters. Obviously, Annihilation will leave people who want everything answered wanting to read Book Two, but there are also readers and reviewers who have been perfectly satisfied with it as a standalone novel. The second book, Authority, allowed me to delve a bit into the small-town South and places like that, without ever naming them, and get their flavor. I’ve been chuckling over a couple of (very positive) reviews of Authority where they say, ‘How the hell can I possibly explain this?’ I think, ‘Have you ever worked for a government agency?’ That bureaucratic element draws on personal experience, since I once had to go to every branch of a particular agency, and those are usually in the most remote areas you can think of. I had a crap-load of adventures throughout my day-job phase, and that stuff eventually came out in these novels. The third book, Acceptance, is divided equally between the Southern Reach and Area X, and has four different viewpoint characters. You find out more about the biologist, and I promise that readers will get answers – the ones they deserve and the ones they’re looking for.

‘‘The other thing that I keep coming up against in my fiction is how people react to something that is inexplicable. We’re living on an alien planet to begin with, because we don’t even know this world that we are, in effect, colonizing, and subjecting to our will all the time. I really, truly believe that in order to survive as a species (and this is a very science-fictional theory), we need to be able to imagine the world without us in it. This isn’t to say I think the world should be without us in it, but that we have to get beyond the idea that everything is here either to serve us, or that we’re here to be a steward for it. That tends to be the major default position in books that are not really about nature but include nature. They can Disneyify everything to the point where it becomes dangerous, because that view of nature bleeds into their positions on various issues in the real world in ways that are detrimental to trying to find solutions.”

*

‘‘Although the books feature conspiracies, I’m not a conspiracy theorist at all. I actually think conspiracy theorists muddy the water regarding the true complexity of situations. Especially now, with social media and some news outlets starting to do joke stories, you don’t just have misinformation or biased points of view; you literally have ‘spam history’ out there! Individuals have to sort through everything and try to figure out what is closest to some kind of baseline reality or truth.”

*

‘‘The next book I’m doing is The Steampunk User’s Manual, with my coauthor Desirina Boskovich, out from Abrams in October. It’s kind of pushing the edge on retrofuturism – not really like The Steampunk Bible at all. It’s like a craft book that’s also for people who never wanted to do a goddamned craft in their lives, but would like to see how an impossible craft project can be done. You could build a giant steam-powered penguin after reading this book (if you had the resources); chances are, you won’t. Maybe it’s a little cynical to assume that many people just buy craft books to look at the pictures, but I thought, ‘Everyone is doing these craft books wrong. Some of it should be stuff no one could ever make.’

‘‘I am also working on a novel called The Book Murderer, which I’m having a lot of fun writing – though I don’t know if I will survive its publication, because (in altered form) it’s pretty much every horror story I’ve ever heard of or experienced in the publishing industry over the last 30 years. It’s about this guy who has the idea that he’s going to destroy every book in the world. He knows it’s impossible, but if he were to destroy just a certain number of books he’ll feel like he’s made his mark. He plays headgames with writers on the Internet, and he becomes an assistant to a writer on a book tour so he can learn what the enemy is up to.”


Cory Doctorow: Security in Numbers

Edward Snowden wasn’t the first person to leak information about US mass surveillance. The mass surveillance story has been unfolding since an AT&T technician called Mark Klein blew the whistle on the NSA in 2006, but the Snowden story is the first one that’s caught and held the public’s interest for more than a brief moment. I wish I knew why that was. I suspect that if you knew what made the Snowden leaks news for a year and more, you could use that knowledge to run the most successful political campaign of the century or found a global religion.

I know that, for me, the story has an incredibly compelling one-two, lurching rhythm. First, we learn about some new way in which the NSA and its allies have been invading our privacy on a breathtaking scale, say, by putting whole countries under surveillance. Then we learn about a new way in which the spies have sabotaged the security of some vital class of computers or networks. Ka-pow! Not only are you being spied upon in ways that make Orwell look like an optimist, but whatever tool you thought you could trust with your digital life has been compromised and has been abetting the surveillance. One-two.

 

But there’s good news in the Snowden story, and its longevity. The wider public seems to finally give a damn about security and privacy, topics that have been hopelessly esoteric and nerdy until this moment. It makes a huge difference in all kinds of policy questions. Back when AT&T and T-Mobile were considering their merger, the digital policy people I knew talked about how the new megacompany would be an irresistible target for spies, with a bird’s-eye view of who you were, where you were, who you knew, and what you did with them, but this argument got almost zero play on the wider stage. Back then, talking about how cops and spies might view a telcoms merger as a surveillance opportunity made you sound like a swivel-eyed paranoid loon. Today – post-Snowden – it makes you sound like someone who’s been paying attention.

At last, people who aren’t computer experts are starting to worry about the security of computers. It’s a glorious day, seriously. Finally, there’s a group of people who aren’t computer experts who want to use security tools like GPG (for scrambling e-mail) and TOR (for adding privacy to your network use) and OTR (for having private chats) and even TAILS. (Boot up a computer with this operating system and be sure that it’s not running any spyware, that your communications are private, and that whatever you do will be scrubbed when you turn the computer off again.)

That’s outstanding news. If normal people are using this stuff, it’ll start to get user-interfaces that are comprehensible to normal people – interfaces that don’t assume a high degree of technical knowledge. There’s a certain view that the reason these tools tend to be complex is that security is Just Hard, which may be so, but it didn’t help that everyone who knew enough to care about technological privacy measures was also someone who understood technology well enough to get past a clunky interface.

If you’re just getting to this stuff, welcome. Seriously. We need everyone to be worried about this stuff, and not just because it will help us get governments to put a leash on the spies. More important is the fact that security isn’t an individual matter.

A really good way to understand this is to think about e-mail. Like many long-time Internet users, I was suspicious of Google’s Gmail and decided that I’d much rather host my own e-mail server, and download all my incoming mail my laptop, which is with me most of the time (I also have a backup or two, in case I lose my laptop), but over time, lots of other people started using Gmail, including a large slice of the people I correspond with. And they don’t host their own e-mail. They don’t pull their mail off the server and move it to a computer that’s with them at all times. They use Gmail, like a normal person, and that means that a huge slice of that ‘‘private’’ e-mail I send and receive is sitting on Google’s servers, which are pretty well maintained, but are also available for mass surveillance through NSA programs like Prism.

Effectively, that means that I’m a Gmail user too, even though I pay to host and maintain my own mail server. This is a point that was well made by Benjamin Mako Hill in an essay in May, at mako.cc/copyrighteous/google-has-most-of-my-e-mail-because-it-has-all-of-yours, which introduced some research he’d done, mining the e-mail in his In and Out boxes to see how much of it had transited Google’s servers – it turns out that about two-thirds of the mail he sends ends up in Google’s (and therefore, potentially, the NSA’s) hands.

For me to be secure against a raid on Google’s servers, I have to convince you to take action. Ideally, we’d all host our own mail – and hell, we’d even reform the weird, old Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 that lets the cops do a warrantless request for any file that’s more than six months old. But even though that day is a long way off, there’s still things we can do today to protect our privacy, if we do them together.

Take GPG, the e-mail privacy tool I mentioned a few paragraphs back. If we both use GPG to encrypt our e-mail, the NSA can’t read our e-mail anymore, even if it’s on Gmail’s servers. They can still see that we’re talking to each other, who else is CC’ed, where we are when we send the e-mail (tracing our IP addresses), and so forth, but the actual payload is secure. For modern messaging, well, if we just throw away technologies that are proprietary (and should thus be presumed to have something wrong with them – if no one is allowed to see how they work, there’s a pretty good chance the company that made them is kidding itself about how secure they are), technologies that are known to be insecure, and technologies that are known to be compromised (like Skype, which is the electronic equivalent of wearing a CCTV that feeds directly to the NSA), then we’re left with stuff like OTR, which actually works. With OTR, there’s not even subject lines, CCs, and IP addresses to data-mine.

The fact that security can’t be an individual matter isn’t surprising when you think about it. Road-safety is collective, too: it doesn’t matter how defensively you drive, if everyone else is a lunatic. So is health security: as the anti-vaccination movement has shown us, without herd immunity, we’re all at risk. Even society itself can be thought of as a collective security exercise: through legitimate laws made by legitimate governments, we set out the rules, the administrative systems, and the punishments by which we’ll all be secure.

For example, the Framers of the US Constitution tacked on a whole Bill of Rights full of security measures that would keep people safe from their governments. There are ideas like the Fourth Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

These set out an unambiguous way in which we – the people – collectively opt to keep ourselves secure from abuses of authority. Now that the word about electronic security and privacy has started to get around, maybe we can get the NSA to start obeying the law.


Eileen Gunn: Other Lands

Eileen Katherine Gunn was born June 23, 1945 in Dorchester MA and grew up south of Boston. She attended Emmanuel College, a Catholic college, earning a BA (1967) in History with a minor in English, began working as an advertising copywriter, then moved to California to pursue fiction writing. In 1976 she attended Clarion, and afterward wrote while supporting herself by working in advertising. She was an early employee at Microsoft, where she worked as director of advertising and sales promotion in the mid-’80s, finally quitting because she couldn’t concentrate on writing while working 100+ hour weeks. In 1988 she joined the board of directors of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and in 2001 began editing online magazine The Infinite Matrix, which ran until 2008.

Gunn’s first story, ‘‘What Are Friends For?’’, appeared in 1978. Never a prolific author, Gunn produced only a handful of stories over the next decades, including two Hugo nominees, ‘‘Stable Strategies for Middle Management’’ (1989; also included in The Norton Book of Science Fiction) and ‘‘Computer Friendly’’ (1990). Collection Stable Strategies and Others (2004) gathered most of her prior output, along with several new stories, including Nebula Award finalist ‘‘Nirvana High’’ (with Leslie What) and winner ‘‘Coming to Terms’’; the collection itself was a finalist for World Fantasy and Philip K. Dick Awards, and was shortlisted for a Tiptree award. New collection Questionable Practices (2014) includes stories written in the past decade, plus two unpublished stories and collaborations with Rudy Rucker and Michael Swanwick. Her essay on science fiction and the future appears in the May, 2014 issue of Smithsonian magazine.

Gunn lives in Seattle with typographer and book designer John D. Berry, her partner of 35 years.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘Just to be absolutely clear about it, science fiction does not predict the future. Science fiction may address the future, some stories may be set in the future, but it’s not about the future, although sometimes it’s about creating the future. When I interviewed William Gibson a couple months ago, I whined, ‘Why do people want SF writers to predict the future?’ I thought Gibson’s answer, which was edited out of the final article, was particularly informative: he said (and I quote): ‘I take it for granted, both as a reader and a writer of SF, that one aspect of the potential pleasure of the text may be pretending to believe the future as presented is a likely outcome.’

‘‘But the usefulness of science fiction is not that it predicts the future, and to come up to a writer afterwards and say, ‘You got that wrong’ is dumb – although, of course, everyone is happy to think they got it ‘right.’

‘‘What science fiction does, especially in those works that deal with the future, is help people understand that things change and that you can live through it. Change is all around us. Probably things change faster now than they did four or five hundred years ago, particularly in some parts of the world. As Gibson said decades ago, The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.’ And it’s uneven in interesting ways: there are people in some parts of the world for whom change is slow, and life is much the same as it was when they were born. But because they don’t have the old technology, the dead weight of the infrastructure (telephone wires, say), they can leapfrog ahead of us.

‘‘Writers don’t use science fiction to understand what’s going to happen. They use it to examine what’s happening now – and yet everyone’s reality of that is a bit different. We don’t live in ‘‘a science fiction age,’’ as the puffery goes: we live in the present. It’s always the present where we live.”

*

‘‘All fiction has value, whether it’s science fiction or not. It helps people deal with their lives in the present, helps them understand their own emotions and the emotions of people around them. All fiction can take you to other lands, and introduce you to people whose lives and struggles and opinions you can’t even imagine until you read their stories. It’s not just science fiction that does this. But science fiction editors have certain goals, and the audience has certain expectations, of what kind of imaginings they’re going to read, and hard SF offers a special –- even peculiar – view of the universe and how it works.”

*

“The novel I’m working on is based on an idea Michael Swanwick sent me in the mail. (We’re not collaborating: he just said, ‘Write this!’)

‘‘It’s set in the 19th century in the US and Canada, and involves chattel slavery and gender relationships. What do those two things have in common and how do they differ?

‘‘In writing this, I am working well outside my comfort zone: there are so many things to overlook or get wrong, in terms of historical and cultural detail and of complex interpersonal relationships. But there’s a lot of historical source material out there, and a huge body of work by black writers –- history, memoir, and fiction – that explores the complex social aspects of being enslaved and recovering from it.

‘‘I’ve written about 35,000 words of the novel, and the two protagonists in it, one white and one black, are coming forth and talking. (But not yet to one another.) I think the characters you write are always reflections of yourself and of how you see other people, whether through reading or social interaction. You don’t write other people any more than you predict the future. These characters who come out of your head may do stuff that surprises you, but it’s all stuff from inside you. So in some ways, writing outside your own culture is impossible, as it’s inextricable from how you see the world. But it’s worth doing, if you, as a writer, can get past the fact that you’re a historical artifact, rather than a vehicle for creating the Truth.”


Kameron Hurley:
Busting Down the Romantic Myth of Writing Fiction,
and Mitigating Author Burnout

One of the most interesting parts of working toward being a career novelist is watching how many of your peers stay in the game. My first real brush with the death of the dream was after I attended Clarion in 2001. By the end of the workshop, we already had several folks who’d come into it with the expectation that they were ready to be career novelists, but who decided that no, actually, this slog wasn’t for them at all.

You might think that meant Clarion was a waste of time for them, but let’s put it this way: imagine how valuable it’d be to realize you didn’t really want to pursue a career, hobby, or passion that hogged all your time and headspace. Imagine having the freedom to put that energy somewhere else. For those folks, just knowing that writing novels for a living wasn’t at all what they thought they wanted was just as valuable as having the workshop experience validate their initial choice.

We’re raised on romantic writer myths. We learn this gig is all about toiling alone in a cabin in the woods, drinking and smoking too much, battling depression and insomnia and squeezing words onto the page like blood from a stone. It’s a solitary, transformative act. I see media perpetuate this myth quite a lot – there are obsessions over the writing ‘‘process’’ and writing ‘‘quirks,’’ trying to get every author to dish on how drinking a bottle of aloe juice while doing jumping jacks on top of a car is the only way they can kickstart their creativity in the morning.

Throughout my teens, I endured writing workshop after writing workshop where people talked about their passion for writing. It was a compulsion, a need, something they could not stop. That was all very well and good, I thought, but people are driven to compulsively drink alcohol, too. I was more interested in learning how to get better at writing than defending the passionate, unknowable mysticism of how the sausage got made.

What I’ve found over the years is that there are various checkpoints along the writing path that lead to a writer dropping out of the game – low sales, bad business experiences, health and personal issues, financial issues – but most of all, what leads people to quit is general burnout. It’s burnout on the whole thing: the rigorous deadlines, the disillusionment with publishing, the failed expectations, bad reviews, and constant criticism and self-doubt.

Sometime during the extensive rewriting of my fourth published novel, writing fiction ceased to be fun for me. Not just ‘‘not always fun,’’ but really, 24/7 not fun. It had become pure, unadulterated grind. I’m used to writing for a living – I’m in marketing and advertising, writing all the spam e-mail that clutters up your inbox and the junk mail you toss into the trash. I had no expectation that I’d be in love with writing those all the time. I expected to be burned out on writing marketing copy all the time. But not fiction. Because… romance?

The fantasy I sell with spam e-mail – easy money, an escape from 9-5 living, attractiveness to your preferred type of human (in four easy payments!), and insurance against impending apocalyptic disasters – isn’t something I have to be romantically passionate about to do well. I also came at it with the expectation that it wasn’t something I did all by myself in some mystical way. I worked with a team of folks – creative director, designer, production manager, account manager, marketing managers, product managers – to make great work. It wasn’t just me chugging back cocktails at midnight in the office like an episode of Mad Men, coming up with something brilliant. It was a process. It was work. And when the work got too suffocating, there were always my colleagues to commiserate with.

Strangely enough, it wasn’t until I transitioned from being a hobbyist writer to a book-a-year writer that I realized the different expectations I had for my fiction writing, compared to my marketing writing, were actually toxic to my career. I expected that writing fiction would always be fun – it was my passion, the one thing I’d always done. When it wasn’t fun anymore, I’d just stop, right? The ‘‘I’ll write when it’s fun’’ mantra is why my first published book took four or five years to write.

Enter deadlines, and you kind of have to throw that foolish idea out the window. Deadlines required that I come up with words even when they weren’t there (especially when they weren’t there), even when it wasn’t fun. So my second book took just 16 months, and the third 14 months. I rewrote my fourth from scratch in nine months, and I’ll have written my fifth in 11 months, if all goes as expected.

It’s hard to have a joyful, fun-making experience 100% of the time when you’re working at that pace and holding down a day job. I enjoy the writing I do for my day job, too, but I’ve learned to recognize over the years that there are two types of writing there: big, fun, challenging campaigns where I get to solve clients’ problems, and boring, nonsense, paint-by-numbers crap that pays the bills.

I’ve learned to expect it. I take the joy when I can.

Yet when I started to lose my joy in fiction this year, I wondered if there was something wrong with me. I feared burnout. I wondered, just as those folks must have at Clarion, if this was really the right thing to be doing in my spare time.

What I had to come to grips with is that writing novels wasn’t a magical merry-go-round of nonstop fun. More often than not, just like any other job, it was a mix of joy and grind, incompetence and compassion. What set me up for the burnout was the mythology we’ve created about the transcendent power of the written word, about writing for ‘‘passion’’ and about how loving what you do somehow means it’s no longer ‘‘work.’’

The most dangerous lie we tell ourselves is that writing novels shouldn’t feel like a job. It encourages younger and newer writers to work for little or no pay. It convinces those with a book or two under their belt that there’s something wrong with them when the writing is no longer fun all the time. Worst of all, when we hit bumps along the road, we’re convinced we’re the only ones to feel this type of burnout, and that there’s something wrong with us because of it.

One of the most powerful things I ever did for my career, and my continued sanity, was to get to know other writers facing the same challenges. Social networks like Twitter and Facebook, supplemented with the occasional convention, have connected me with incredible people willing to share their own fraught publishing journeys. What stunned me more than anything else is how each of us thought our experiences were entirely unique, when it turned out we shared many of the same fears and frustrations.

What will keep me writing far longer than I expected is not, necessarily, my passion, my talent, or the romantic story of how stringing together words will help me transcend the mortal plane. No, the deeper I get into the publishing game, the more I realize that what will keep me going when everything crumbles around me is the incredible support, advice, and commiseration I’ve gotten from other writers. It’s that camaraderie we should be celebrating, and talking more about, instead of doubling down on the myth of the lone wolf writer who conquers the world with pen in one hand and whiskey bottle in the other.

I may often run around my house with pens and whiskey bottles, but writers are not sustained by whiskey and romantic myths alone.

We’re sustained by one another, and our fantastically true stories of the oftentimes funny – and sobering – reality of our chosen profession.


Joe Abercrombie: Fiction on the Edge

Joseph Edward Abercrombie was born on New Year’s Eve 1974 in Lancaster England and lived there until going to the University of Manchester, where he studied psychology. He moved to London and worked in television until taking up prose writing in his mid-twenties.

Though he sometimes publishes short fiction, Abercrombie is best known for his gritty, complex ‘‘grimdark’’ epic fantasy novels. His debut The Blade Itself (2006) was shortlisted for the Compton Crook Award for best first novel, and launched The First Law trilogy, which continued with Before They Are Hanged (2007) and Legend Award finalist Last Argument of Kings (2008). His next books were standalones set in the same world: revenge fantasy Best Served Cold (2009), war novel The Heroes (2011), and fantasy western Red Country (2012); all three were British Fantasy Award finalists and Legend Award finalists.

He recently embarked on a new young-adult fantasy series, set in a new Viking-inspired fictional universe. The first volume, Half a King, is out in July.

Abercrombie was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2008. He lives in Bath with his wife and their three children.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘I thought I’d have a go at writing again, just out of curiosity, around 2001. I was straightaway much more interested in what came out. It seemed to have a different tone to it, and a voice of its own that it hadn’t had before. I was excited to experiment. A whole load of things were very serendipitous. It seemed to me I was doing something strange and unusual in writing something quite gritty, violent, and morally ambiguous. Just before that, someone bought me Game of Thrones and said, ‘You used to read this fantasy stuff, didn’t you? You should give this a go.’ I said, ‘Oh, God. I know exactly what’s going to happen. The noble guy will save the kingdom and then blah, blah, blah.’ So that book was surprising, and I saw expressed in it a lot of things I felt were missing from commercial fantasy, from epic fantasy. It demonstrated that you could do something recognizable as epic fantasy but still be dark and challenging and gritty. Game of Thrones was a big inspiration, making me think this might work. At the same time I wasn’t that familiar with the landscape of what was going on in the field as a whole. When I finished The Blade Itself and started thinking about trying to sell it, I felt it was too dark, too strange, too mixed in its tone. But actually fantasy had been moving in that direction for some time without me realizing it.”

*

‘‘I wrote The First Law trilogy, which is my Lord of the Rings, you might say. When you set out to write something that big as your first project, inadvisably – it was planned always to be a trilogy, roughly that shape – you never look past finishing that. The idea of finishing one book seems inconceivable, and you’ve still got two more to write, so you never look past the end. As I was writing the third one, my editor Gillian said, ‘So what’s your next one?’ I was like, ‘Oh, Jesus.’ It suddenly occurred to me that I might have to write 30 more books. What was left? I’d done torture, swords, axes, maces, spears. I’d mined that world. I thought I’d do some single books and I started thinking about films that I liked, and I thought I’d combine the fantasy thing with some more filmic ideas.

‘‘I thought about Point Blank, the Lee Marvin film. I like that a lot because it has this twist in the plot, and it’s a weird, interesting gangster revenge thriller. So I thought, that’s one plot line, and it became Best Served Cold. Then A Bridge Too Far was another. Fantasy’s always fascinated by war, but it’s often a very unrealistic, heroic faux version of warfare. It doesn’t show both sides. These war films that cover a single battle often cover both sides, and sort of analyse how warfare works and how these little twists of fate ripple out and have profound consequences. That was The Heroes. And Red Country was my attempt to do a western within a fantasy setting.”

*

‘‘All my previous novels were interlinked, but the YA series beginning with Half a King is in a totally different world. I wrote six books all in one world and felt I needed to try something different in order to keep the batteries charged. Also, although it’s great to have this wealth of backstory and characters that are established that you can reach for to fill slots in the book, it also becomes a burden as well, because there are all these old stories and relationships. You put two characters together and suddenly think, ‘Oh, well, they’ve met before. They met in that other book, didn’t they?’ There’s kind of a weight to drag with that stuff and I wanted to try something quick, very focused, very fast. I was interested in writing something for younger readers, as my kids are getting older. My children are seven, four, and two. I felt like it would be nice to have something to share with them. Doing stuff that’s very gritty and very adult, that was what felt natural at the time, but it’s not the only way to go. I’m not massively familiar with YA, so I wasn’t aiming to write a book that was in that category necessarily. I was just aiming to write a book of mine that might appeal to young adults.

‘‘I’ve written the first one in the series, and I’m halfway through the second one. It’s much shorter than some of the things I’ve written. It’s got a single young-adult point of view, which is a different thing for me. I’ve tended to have old, experienced, used-up characters. It’s set in a slightly Viking-influenced world, and it follows a character called Prince Yarvi, who was born with a crippled hand, so he can’t hold a shield or tie a knot or draw a bow, or do any of the things that are expected of a man in his society. He ends up training for a minister’s position, a sort of advisor and healer and diplomat, which is traditionally more a woman’s role. Then his brother and father are killed, and he’s thrust into becoming king himself. He doesn’t necessarily have the tools to make it happen, and has to use what he has, which are the tools he’s learned in order to be a minister, rather than a warrior. He has some hardships to negotiate, let’s put it that way – I won’t spoil anything.

‘‘They’re going to come out within a year: July, January, July. They’re short. I did the classic thing of saying to my agent, ‘I think I’ll have these finished by July. Then I’ll have all this time on my hands to get the next thing planned, because the books will be coming out yearly.’ As soon as we got into the meeting, he said, ‘How do you feel about publishing these every six months?’ I think that’s a healthy thing if you can do it, especially for a younger readership who haven’t got the patience to wait.

*

‘‘There’s no right way to do anything, particularly. There’s a way that feels right to you as a writer with a certain story. I never feel like anything I do is a manifesto of how it should be done. It’s healthy that we’ve got a bit more edge, a bit more range, in epic fantasy now. There’s no shortage of stuff that’s quite traditional if that’s your bag. I’m always surprised by people saying, ‘Fantasy’s so dark and horrible now. It’s really upsetting.’ I believe Tolkien’s still on the shelf if that’s what you’re after. You get people who complain about one thing or another. People complain about the cynicism of this kind of fantasy, who find it unrealistic. You get people who complain about the swearing. I had a guy e-mail me the other day and say that he was reading The Heroes and he was really enjoying it, but then he had to burn it. He was concerned his book group would see what he was reading and be upset by it, and he wanted me to know there are still people who can’t tolerate blatant sin. The great thing about book burnings is, they still have to buy the books. You get people who are upset because they feel they’ve been tricked, because they thought they were getting a story in which you had redemption, where these nasty things would come good, because that’s what they’ve got in similar stories. When they don’t get that, they feel they’ve had the rug pulled out from under them. Because you ‘pretended’ to be a fantasy story, and they know how those stories go, and you surprised them, and that’s upsetting. You gave them a can of Coke and it actually had piss in it – that’s their reaction. Some people don’t want to be surprised. I do want to be surprised!”


George Saunders: Irrational Skills

George Saunders was born December 2, 1958 in Amarillo TX and grew up outside Chicago, attending high school in Oak Forest IL. He earned a BS in geophysical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines in Golden CO in 1981, working in Sumatra as a field geophysicist for a year and a half before returning home and working various jobs, including as a doorman, roofer, clerk, and slaughterhouse worker. In 1996 he began attending Syracuse University, where he met future wife Paula Redick; their first daughter was born in 1988, and their second in 1990. He graduated with a MFA in 1988, and worked as a technical writer for a pharmaceutical firm and then an environmental engineering firm from 1989-96. In 1997 he joined the faculty at Syracuse as a creative writing teacher, where he still teaches today.

Saunders is a bestselling and critically renowned literary author who often writes work of SF interest, frequently for satirical ends. His first work of SF interest was ‘‘Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz’’ in The New Yorker (1992), and other notable short works include World Fantasy Award winner ‘‘CommComm’’ (2005) and Stoker Award finalists ‘‘The Red Bow’’ (2003) and ‘‘Home’’ (2011). Many of his stories take place in dystopian near-future milieus, and some of his short work is collected in PEN/Hemingway Award finalist CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), Pastoralia (2000), Story Prize finalist In Persuasion Nation (2005), and Tenth of December (2013). The latter won the first Folio Prize as well as the 2013 Story Prize. Other books include fantasy novella The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip (2000) and satire The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (2005). In addition to fiction, he is known for his travel writing. Some of his non-fiction work is collected in The Brain-Dead Megaphone (2007).

Saunders has received numerous awards and honors, notably a MacArthur Fellowship (or ‘‘genius grant’’) in 2006, a Guggenheim Fellowship that same year, and an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2009. He lives in the Catskills with his wife.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘Tenth of December has gotten a lot of attention, but I just get to work. That’s how I deal with it. I started something new before the book came out; it’s so hard, and it’s just the right project – it’s challenging me on all fronts. That’s the best thing. It’s like an antidote. When I go out on the road and get an elated feeling, an agitation almost, it’s pleasant, but it’s like a sugar buzz. I like going back to my room, and there’s that stack of paper, and it’s like, ‘I’m over here, and I still suck.’ That is kind of grounding. I’m teaching now, so I’m reading Gogol and Tolstoy, and thinking, ‘Shit, I haven’t done anything yet.’ Turn that stuff off and get back to work. It’s good to enjoy the windfall, but it’s like a beautiful butterfly that comes along and lands on your head, and that’s cool. But if you mistake it for a hat, you’ll be disappointed – it’s not going to be there forever. Just let it go.

‘‘This hard project might actually be a fiasco, I’m not sure yet. I started something like it about 15 years ago in a play format. It didn’t work, so I put it away and I’ve been thinking about it and making notes. I’ve actually been working on two other projects that I now see are just practice versions of this one. In a way it’s been 15 years, but in terms of actually writing this one, I started a little over a year ago. It’s good to keep trying to grow.”

*

‘‘My goal when I’m writing is to connect with you, the reader, in an intimate way that you can’t dodge out of, and then move you, because we’re talking about something really important in a really direct way. That’s the overt mission. The way I see this divide between genre and literature is, whatever I have to bring the table to move you, I want to be free to do it. As a child of the ’60s and ’70s, I like pop culture and great literature both. I’m not of the generation that felt a real distinction between low and high culture anyway. I want to move the reader by any means necessary. If at a particular point that means going into the supernatural, and it’s the story saying, ‘I need you to do this,’ great. If the story needs to take place in a future time where certain things are allowed that don’t exist now, great. In that way I think there’s no difference between the genres. If someone consciously said, ‘I want to straddle that divide,’ it might be too apparent. But if that approach arises out of the needs of the story, then it seems just cool. I think sometimes of musicians I like. There are some musicians who define themselves as a heavy metal musician or a polka king or whatever. But others, like Regina Spektor, sometimes she’s a classical pianist and sometimes she’s a rock and roll singer. I feel like the song is telling her which approach to take. That’s how I think about genre now.”

*

‘‘What we want in art is to have something go in a way we don’t expect, that isn’t random, that builds on what we expected, and goes beyond. There’s something delicious about that. There’s no purpose in it, except the thrill. Secondary things can happen in the story that are instructive, but I think the first thing is, tell a story that’s thrilling. That’s what I tell my students. When you start teaching in the academy, you mostly start by focusing on the ancillary benefits, the thematic and political stuff. But what they’re really training to do is to be that tiny percentage of the population that can actually thrill you with a narrative. That’s almost like being a musician or an athlete. It’s an irrational or a super-irrational skill set.”

*

‘‘I was never a good engineer, either. I did it because I was floundering in high school and these two high school teachers that I loved basically intervened on my behalf and got me into college, with a phone call. It was engineering school. I felt like I’d been thrown a lifeline and I didn’t want to let go, so I struggled my way through engineering school. I liked it, and got medium good at it by the time I was done, and then used that degree to go overseas and work in Asia, which was a huge thing for me. But within that time I’d have these little moments where I’d read a novel and I could just feel my brain lighting up in ways that it didn’t with engineering. Plus, I was good at reading and writing. If I had an English class, it was so easy, so thrilling, whereas engineering was a slog. Those were hints that a smarter person would have noticed earlier.”

*

‘‘Real life is full of what we would call science fiction. The primary science fiction moment is a juxtaposition of things we have pronounced real and unreal. In actual life that happens every minute. The iPhone is a great example. If Ben Franklin had picked one of them up, it would have been a great sci-fi movie. The reasons we read sci-fi or genre and the reasons we read literary fiction are the same – to be reminded afresh of how crazy each moment of life is. Prose can do that, and one of the ways it does that is by allowing these weird juxtapositions. In my way of thinking, say you’ve got a story that’s told in realism that excludes sci-fi, and then suddenly into that moment you drop something that we recognize is overtly sci-fi. If you let those two things sit there, an intelligent reader will go, ‘Yeah, that’s how it is.’ I don’t read sci-fi actively, but I think you get it all the time so beautifully – turn on the TV and you get wonderful fun.”



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