Thursday, May 29, 2008

Interview with Robert Wilson - Interviews (SD #55)

Robert Wilson is a newcomer to the Bulgarian SF market with his books The Chronoliths and Spin, but he has instantly gained a wide readership in our country. ShadowDance sought him out and treated him to a long and rich interview, where Mr. Wilson shares details about his forthcoming books, writing in general, and of course, time paradoxes.


Shadowdance: Your Bulgarian readers haven't yet had the pleasure to enjoy Axis, the sequel to Spin. Can you tell them what can they expect?

Robert Wilson: Spin was meant to be read as a stand-alone novel, not the first third of a trilogy. But Axis and the as-yet unwritten Vortex follow humanity's interaction with the so-called Hypotheticals to its conclusion. Axis, as the title might suggest, is a pivotal book -- it introduces new characters and opens a door into the farther future. Vortex (which I mean to begin setting down on paper this month) concludes the sequence and twines together the fates of both humanity and the galactic "entity" that has transformed it.

I want these three to be very different books, not installations in a seamless narrative. Axis takes place over a shorter span of time than Spin and adopts a different narrative strategy (which I think surprised and unsettled some readers). Vortex will return to the large scale of Spin, though from a very different angle.

SD: Spin and Axis are parts of a trilogy. Do you intend to wrap up all storylines, or leave some of them open?

RW: I don't know about wrapping up all the storylines, but I do hope to answer some of the big questions posed in the first book.

SD: Have you ever included yourself as a character in your own books? If yes, which one?

RW: In the literal sense, no, never. But every writer invests some of himself, good or bad, in his characters. I guess my closest approach to a self-portrait is Adam Hazzard in the forthcoming novel Julian Comstock: A Story of the 22nd Century. He functions in a kind of cloud of naivite, idealism, irony, and dumb luck, which pretty much defines my life and career to date.

SD: Do you think that the settled and secure life that most contemporary writers live weakens their ability to write dynamic stories? Is it necessary for a person to have lived through a real adventure, to be able to describe one convincingly?

RW: Interesting question. A few points come to mind:

1) The life of most writers I know is hardly "settled and secure," though I admit that the writers I know are North Americans living in a fairly secure environment compared to, say, Rwandans, Tibetans, or Haitians.

2) What constitutes an "adventure?" Does every writer have to be Jack London or Earnest Hemingway? Is that really a desirable outcome?

3) Young writers are generally advised to "write what you know." If you haven't worked on a shrimp boat, don't write as if you have. If you must have the shrimp boat, do some research, talk to a shrimper.

SF and fantasy render the whole question problematic, though. If you're writing about the fate of a planet, you're obliged not to confine your point of view to, say, suburban Los Angeles. The experience you bring to the story must be, in some sense, vicarious. You have to do your homework.

4) Fear, anger, dread of mortality, love, ecstasy: all these emotions are part of the common human heritage, however experienced or expressed. All of us are entitled to talk about them with a certain authority. If we couldn't partake of the pain and joy of human beings not ourselves, we wouldn't be fully human. And imagining yourself into the skin of another person is what literature is all about.

SD: When you start writing a story, do you try to avoid certain cliches and tropes, or you don't concern yourself with that as long as the story works?

RW: Every writer works within a tradition and has to come to some understanding with the literature as it exists. We speak to our antecedents as well as to a contemporary audience. Cliches and "tropes" can be ignored, used, bent, deconstructed, reconstructed.

Most of the "tropes" of science fiction were already present in the work of H.G. Wells, for instance. You don't write a time travel story without Wells hovering over your shoulder. I suspect one of the errors young SF writers make is to reiterate what they love about the genre without questioning it. You shouldn't just write science fiction, you should interrogate it.

SD: What are your strengths and weaknesses as a writer? What is it about the act of writing that gives you greatest pleasure?

RW: I hesitate to catalogue my own strengths and weaknesses. Maybe my strength is that I'm painfully aware of weaknesses.

The greatest pleasure in writing is in the creation of a finished narrative, a Whole and Complete Work -- at least for those few hours or days before you begin to agonize over the flaws in it.

SD: The social element seems very important in your works. What is more important to you - the fates of the main characters, or the global changes in society, that are the topics of books like Spin and The Chronoliths?

RW: They're inextricably combined. As I've said before, the apocalypse isn't the apocalypse if it's experienced solely by Captain Future. I'm fascinated by the place where the human perspective intersects the imperatives of time, evolution, mortality. Very interesting territory. Not divisible into "character" and "setting," in the conventional sense.

SD: What is it that attracts you to time paradoxes?

RW: Am I attracted to time paradoxes? Admittedly, that's at the heart of The Chronoliths -- the idea of time travel as an out-of-control feedback loop, operating in the medium of human expectations. I think it emphasizes the way the (human, cultural) future is shaped by our fears and hopes and expectations.

SD: Has there been a point when you doubted whether you should continue writing?

RW: Has there been a point when I didn't? Ten years passed between my first short-story sale and my second. The doubt is perennial. If I persisted, it was only out of a dumb, almost autistic stubborness. I made a modest success of it, though I wonder how many people in the same position never do -- and whether there are alternate worlds where I'm still working clerical jobs and writing amateur fiction on weekends.

SD: Have you been strongly influenced by another author? If yes, who?

RW: Too many to name, and the names change on a regular basis.

SD: What do you think of writing workshops?

RW: They seem to work well for some people. I always avoided workshops, myself. Not out of snobbishness but a sense of my own vulnerability. I didn't want to share my work until I felt it was at least defensible.

SD: How important do you think science is in Science Fiction?

RW: That's a question every sf writer has to answer for himself. I think my own work displays a respect for science, though no one would call it scientifically rigorous. I think what we're dealing with in SF isn't "science" so much as the the scientific worldview -- the vision of the universe bequeathed to us by Darwin, Lyell, Einstein, Hawkings. Where is humanity in that cosmos, and what does it mean to us? That's a literary question worth addressing, and sf has developed some remarkable tools for addressing it.

SD: Could you share an advice you think important for aspiring authors (apart from "work hard and don't give up")?

RW: Learn to surf your own doubts and ambitions. Trust neither. Writing is a slippery business.

SD: If you could choose, which one of your books do you think should be published in Bulgaria next?

RW: Well, I've taken a break from the Spin sequence to write a long book called Julian Comstock, set in a resource-depleted 22nd Century. (It borrows the history of the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate, grafting that narrative onto a post-collapse North America.) I think it's my best work, and I'd love to see it translated. The English version is due out April 2009.

SD: Do you wish to share something with your Bulgarian readers?

RW: Gratitude for the positive reception they've given my work.