Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Interview with Kevin Anderson – Interviews (SD #59)

ShadowDance: You've written in many established worlds – StarCraft, Star Wars, The X-Files, Dune etc. What constraints does such writing set and are there any perks in it that are not present when one writes in universes created by himself?

Kevin Anderson: When writing in an established universe the most important part is to be true to the characters, follow the rules established in the original movie or TV show, and make your work "feel" like another adventure in that world. Sometimes, the owners of the francise are very easy to work with and want to be creative with the author; other times, they are very restrictive. I have had good luck with most of my forays – in almost every instance, the owners (Lucasfilm, Chris Carter of the X-Files, Blizzard Entertainment for StarCraft, etc.) approached *me* to do the work, so they were already familiar with my writing. I find the job very enjoyable, and it really challenges my skills as a writer.

SD: How does the writing process go when you write under a contract for a book in another world, and when you write books in your own worlds? Which is faster/easier to write?

KA: There are more steps in the approval process when writing books in an established universe – I have to submit a detailed outline so that the owner can read and OK it before I start writing. For my own works – such as Saga of Seven Suns – I am the person who makes all the decisions. Neither is fast or easy to write, but each has its advantages and disadvantages. For Seven Suns, I could make everything up, but then I have an enormous amount of work to check facts and be consistent from one book to the next over the course of seven volumes. For something like Star Wars, there are a great many reference books, so I can get a specific answer – but then I have to follow it.

SD: Are you a big fan of any of the worlds for which you have written?

KA: Of course. Writing a novel is a very ambitious process requiring a lot of creative energy and enthusiasm. I could not devote my imagination, my time, or the hard work of writing a novel to something I didn’t love. I enjoyed Star Wars from its first release in theaters decades ago; I watched X-Files every week on TV even before Chris Carter contacted me; Dune has always been my favorite science fiction work of all time.

SD: The Dune prequels and sequels, written with Brian Herbert, have met with mixed feelings from readers and critics. How much did you intend for the new books to resemble Frank Herbert's original Dune series and what changes did you want to make?

KA: Well, that’s a somewhat unbalanced picture. Our Dune books have sold millions of copies in over a dozen languages worldwide, and there are maybe a hundred fans on the internet who have complained about them. We have received thousands of fan letters since the first book was published, and we receive 27 positive fan letters for every unfavorable letter. That’s about a 97% approval rating, and you’d be hard-pressed to find another series to match that. Our books have received the highest critical honors and have won or been nominated for many major awards.

Frank Herbert meant to write more Dune books, and unfortunately he did not survive to complete his work. Brian and I are not Frank Herbert, and we have never tried to copy his style or claim to be his equal. Frank Herbert is one of the greatest geniuses in the science fiction field and wrote the most incredible science fiction novel ever. However, Brian and I are telling more Dune stories, reawakening worldwide interest in the series, and filling the need. We have our own writing style, and we feel we have added a great deal to the Dune canon. We have introduced an entirely new audience to the books who had never before read Frank Herbert’s masterpieces.

SD: Which of the Dune books was hardest to write and why? For which did you have the least material from Frank Herbert to work with?

KA: Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune were the most difficult because – ironically, it might seem – we had Frank Herbert’s outline and his specific direction of where he envisioned the story going. Frank’s later books in the Dune series (Heretics and Chapterhouse) are very different in tone from the original novel, and many readers had difficulty with them. We had to reconcile those books with the other books in the series, follow Frank’s roadmap even in cases where we might have wanted to make the plot go differently, and tell a great story that *all* Dune fans would enjoy. It posed a lot of challenges.

We had the least direct material for the Butlerian Jihad trilogy, since that was "ancient history" in the Dune universe and we had only Frank Herbert’s general historical outline.

SD: In their attempts to actually start getting things done, many authors think up all sorts of rituals before sitting down to write. Do you have any such rituals?

KA: You’re assuming I ever *stop* writing! I like to start fresh in the morning. I exercise every day, shower, have coffee and breakfast, and then I get started as soon as I can, looking over my outlines of the chapters for the day, and then I write. I don’t have any special ritual, though.

SD: Do you have a specific place where it's easiest for you to write? And what writing tool do you use generally – you've said you often "write" into a dictaphone. Does that change the manner in which you compose/express the sentences/scenes in your head?

KA: I am a storyteller, and I love to talk about my characters, the settings, the plot twists and adventures. To me, the words come naturally when I speak them aloud, because I have trained myself to "talk" the sentences in my head, rather than type them, as most people do. I live in a very beautiful area in the Rocky Mountains, and I enjoy getting my exercise, hiking along trails, and dictating my chapters (which a typist then transcribes). I find that far superior to sitting in a chair and typing all day.

SD: You mostly write series. Has, at any point, a world in which you've written a lot of books gone "stale" for you? What would you do if that happened? Would you keep writing?

KA: Fortunately, even when I work on a long-standing series (7 books in the Saga of Seven Suns, 11 books so far in Dune, 54 total projects for Star Wars), I also have other stories in the works. This allows me to keep it fresh by switching from one book to another, letting me "recharge my batteries" in one universe while I am finishing a novel set in another. If I ever found my energy waning for a particular series, and I wanted to keep writing there, I would concentrate on other projects for a while to give that part of my brain a rest, and then tackle it with renewed enthusiasm.

SD: To what extent the opinion of readers/critics about a part of a series of yours has influenced the writing of the next part?

KA: You have to separate the real fans from the ones who just have an axe to grind and are going to complain, no matter what. The fans who say "I’ve hated every single book in this series, and I hate the new one even more!" are just making themselves look foolish and you can’t take them seriously.

I just finished traveling for 27 days to do talks and signings for Paul of Dune, meeting fans in 19 different cities around the US. I make many appearances at libraries, bookstores, and science fiction conventions, so I have a chance to talk with an overwhelming number of fans. I listen to their impressions, the things they are most excited about, the things they don’t like. By the time a novel is published, however, I have usually already completed the next book in the series, but I always listen to their comments and factor it into my plans for upcoming work.

SD: Which of your books do you consider the most successful and which one made you feel like you were at the peak of your abilities?

KA: I think that would have to be the Saga of Seven Suns – since it is one continuous story, it really counts as a single "book." I worked more than seven years on my life on this series, and I think it’s my masterpiece. I have never before conceived of such a vast, interconnected epic, and I do believe it turned out as well as I could have hoped.

SD: Your Saga of the Seven Suns series has been compared to some epic fantasy series. Why do you think is that and did you intend to create such impressions in the readers?

KA: That was definitely my intention. I have seen the very popular continuing fantasy epics of Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, Terry Brooks (I don’t know if they are successful in Bulgaria, but they’re extremely popular in the US), and I wanted to do the same thing in science fiction, which is my favorite genre. In its format, Seven Suns is indeed like a fantasy, with different planets instead of different kingdoms, alien races instead of elves or dwarves, and it has the sweeping politics, battles, mythology, and a cast of characters like a fantasy novel.

SD: Saga of the Seven Suns is mostly described as a "space opera" kind of SF, which isn't a very widespread trend nowadays. Do you try to consciously challenge the conventions of the space opera in some way in your books and are you aware of them and the history of this "sub-genre" as you write, or you just write what you like?

KA: Space opera is enjoying a greatly renewed popularity in the US and UK, and my Saga of Seven Suns are bestsellers there, particularly in Australia and New Zealand. I think by modeling the giant story after a huge fantasy epic – which readers love – I have attracted an audience that might be turned off by the rather dense and indecipherable SF that some authors write.

This series is like my love letter to the genre, incorporating all the wonderful things I enjoy in science fiction – galactic empires, alien races, exotic planets, strange artifacts, sinister robots, space battles, and interesting ideas.

SD: How interested are you in the science part when writing "Science" Fiction novels?

KA: My university degree is in physics and astronomy, so I have a scientific background. However, I am most interested in telling stories set against a background of a vast and imaginative universe. I’m not writing a technical paper.

SD: What do you think of writing workshops?

KA: I had a workshop of professional writers when I was beginning my career and I received a lot of great critiques. I still use a close group of test readers to make comments on every one of my manuscripts, because I benefit from a fresh set of eyes. You need to be careful, though, to surround yourself with a group of other people who are serious about writing. I have seen workshops where the other members just talk and never get around to finishing anything. Those sorts of workshops are a waste of your time.

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

KA: Work hard and don’t give up – that really and truly is the most important part. Becoming a professional author is very much equivalent to becoming a professional athlete in a major sports team. You have to practice and practice and never stop trying to get better, and as you improve, you will see other areas to work on.

SD: What is your stand on the question of fanfics? Do you think it is a flattering practice, or you tend to dislike?

KA: The fans who write fanfic are obviously dedicated to a particular series. If they didn’t love it, why put all their energy into creating new works? However, there are copyright issues involved, and they can’t try to publish those works professionally. I wrote Star Trek fanfic when I was much younger and I learned a lot from the practice. But then I extended that to writing my own original material, which is how I became a successful writer.

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

KA: Only my thanks to them. I know that very few American novels are translated and published in Bulgaria, and I have been very lucky that so many of my titles have been picked up by Bulgarian readers. I hope you keep reading, and enjoying – and I hope I can one day visit your country.

Interview with Patrick Rotfuss – Interviews (SD #59)

ShadowDance: What do you think of the recent "new wave" of Fantasy, heralded by names like Scott Lynch, R. Scott Bakker, Stephen Erikson, Hal Duncan, Susanna Clarke, Naomi Novik, Brandon Sanderson, Joe Abercrombie and yourself? Do you think the genre is finally moving away from the cliches most people associate it with?

Patrick Rothfuss: I think the readers are eager to read good stories that aren't just rehashes of the same old thing. The publishers are realizing this, and so we're seeing more books that depart from some of the classic fantasy tropes.

SD: Does blogging and visiting fansites influence your creative abilities or your habits?

PR: Not really. I've written a satirical humor column for the local paper for the last ten years, so for me blogging is pretty much just doing the same thing, except now I put it online so my fans can read it.

SD: You've mentioned before that you are a "science geek". Have you ever thought about writing Science Fiction after you finish The Kingkiller Chronicle?

PR: Some people have referred to my story as "Science Fantasy" because I strive for realism, and one of my magic systems has a very logical framework that's based on thermodynamics.

That said, Science fiction doesn't really call to me that much. Most of the ideas I have for future stories are one type of fantasy or another. Fantasy is where my heart lies.

SD: Which period of SF's history do you consider the most successful and important – the Golden Age (the 40's & 50's), the New Wave, the 80's cyberpunk, contemporary fiction? Or any other?

PR: I don't know about most successful or important, but I have a real fondness for cyberpunk if it's done well.

SD: Do you think Fantasy has evolved enough to be divided into such periods?

PR: It's not a lack of evolution that keeps fantasy from being divided into periods like that. The only reason that works so well for science fiction is because that genre tends to linked very closely to the technology of the day. So what's believable and interesting to the reading public tends to change from decade to decade. Fantasy has more freedom that that.

SD: The Name of the Wind has done extremely well sales-wise. Why then do you think you had such a hard time finding a publisher for the book?

PR: The book had a lot of things working against it. I was an unknown author, and the book was really long. That means that it's more work for an editor to read, and more expensive for a publisher to produce.

But the main reason I think I had a hard time finding a publisher was that I didn't really know how to write a good query letter. I'm not very good at pitching the book. 9 times out of ten the book was rejected by someone who hadn't read anything but a query letter.

SD: Have you ever imagined a future movie adaptation of The Name of the Wind?

PR: Of course. I think all writers do, even if it's just a daydream.

SD: Do you think it is even possible for the book to be adapted for the big screen?

PR: Possible, but tricky. In this first book there aren't any swordfights, goblin armies, or big impressive magics. Those things obviously aren't necessary for a good story, but to date, most fantasy movies have been big-budget action-adventure extravaganzas. That sort of treatment won't work for my story. My story is interesting for reasons other than special effects, so those are where the focus would need to be.

SD: You've said your strongest side is "brevity". Which is your weakest one then?

PR: Plotting, probably. I've come to the realization that I don't think of plot the same way as most other writers. I don't understand the stereotypical Hollywood three-act structure that everyone else seems to familiar with.

Then again, I'm pretty happy not knowing. I think that's another thing that helps make my stories different.

SD: What do you think of writing workshops?

PR: They can be useful, depending on who is involved, but they really aren't necessary. The most important thing about learning how to write is writing, and thinking critically about writing. Everything else is just a matter of personal preference.

SD: Do you feel that active communication with other authors is productive for your writing, and do you think there is a place for solitary geniuses nowadays?

PR: I enjoy talking with other authors, but I don't know if it really helps my writing. So yeah, solitary genius is still in.

Talking with other writers *certainly* has helped my understanding of the publishing world though. It's been invaluable for that.

SD: If you could write any other famous SFF book, written in recent years, which one would it be and what would you have changed in it?

PR: I never really think, "I wish I could have written that book." Because I know that it would just be impossible. Sometimes I think, "I wish I could write a book as good as this." That happened just recently with Terry Pratchett's Nation.

SD: What do you think about the fanfics flooding the internet? Do you consider them a mockery of an author's work, or a way for a person to express their love for a certain book?

PR: I think they come from a loving place. No matter how an author feels about it, you have to admit that fanfic comes from people loving your characters and the world you've created. People rarely write fanfic about books they hate….

SD: Would you be flattered or insulted to find a fanfic based on your own works?

PR: There have already been a few. I've been flattered. I think it's cool.

Then again, the ones I read were pretty well done. They weren't like Star Trek/Name of the Wind crossover slashfic or anything like that. I might feel differently in that case.

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?

PR: No. Not at all. It's an understandable thing for people to think, but when you really stop to consider, it's just ridiculous. Does that mean people have to be able to do magic to write about it? Do you need to live in 1943 to write about WWII? Do you need to be a serial killer in order to write a story about one?

No, of course not. That goes against the whole nature of speculative fiction. Speculative fiction writers ask, "What if…." Then we make up answers and turn them into stories.

SD: You've said your favorite SF story is Firefly. Why is that?

PR: What's not to like? You've got everything you could ever want in a story right there.

SD: Are you familiar with all of Joss Whedon's work?

PR: Oh hell yes.

SD: What do you think of his other TV series or comic books?

PR: Brilliant across the board.

SD: And most importantly – where can one find THAT T-shirt?!!!

PR: They sell them over at one of my favorite web comics: PVP. It's a reference to this strip.

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

PR: Practice your signature now. If you don't, you'll end up with a lame signature like mine, and everyone will make fun of you when you sign autographs.

SD: Thank you very much for this interview, Mr. Rotfuss!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Interview with Stephen Baxter - Interviews (SD #58)

Stephen Baxter
is one of the most acclaimed names in British science fiction, and a man deeply immersed in the traditions and history of both the science and the fiction. He's vice president of the the H.G. Wells society in England (he also wrote a sequel to the legendary Wells' novel The Time Machine). He's been a close friend to the late Arthur Clarke (with whom he co-authored the Time Odyssey series) and is one of the increasingly dwindling in number writers of so-called "hard" science fiction. Mr. Baxter teaches physics and mathematics and often participates in British and international scientific projects as a consultant. He kindly agreed to do this interview for his Bulgarian readers who've recently had the possibility to enjoy many of his works.

ShadowDance: Your books are especially valuable for their scientific background. Where do your ideas come from ­– unsolved questions, posed in modern science, for which you seek answers; or mankind's imagination on which you can elaborate thanks to your knowledge of science?

Stephen Baxter: I have a background in science myself. I've always been interested most in hard sf, which draws ideas from science. I try to keep up with new developments, and I get involved in science-based projects too. I have worked on study projects with the British Interplanetary Society and am on an advisory committee regarding the search for aliens. So my ideas come from interesting stuff in all this mix, especially the fringe questions: what is the far future of the universe; why don't we see aliens all around us?

SD: In your works you describe different epochs of humanity's lifespan – ranging from the far future, to the current times and then to our past and evolution. Which of these periods was the hardest to write about? What ignited your interest in humanity's ancient past? It's a somewhat unusual topic among sci-fi writers.

SB: I became interested in our past when I learned how recently the other hominids died out - Neanderthals maybe 30,000 years ago, maybe some species like those in Indonesia more recently. So we evolved in a landscape full of other kinds of hominids. Now they're all gone and we're alone – which is unusual; there are many species of dolphin, whale, etc. I have developed an idea that we long for the Other - God, or the alien – because we're lonely, and we don't know why. So it's valid stuff to write about in science fiction.

SD: One of your most acclaimed books is The Time Ships, written as a sequel to the famous H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. What inspired you to write this novel – the challenge to stand up to Wells' work, your love for the original book or maybe simply liking time-travel stories? The critics and the fans consider the experiment very successful. Do you?

SB: It was a love of the original book, which ended on a cliffhanger when the traveller went off into time for the second time. What happened to him? And also at the time I wanted to write a big history-changing novel, and thought that Wells's story could be a good starting point. Since then I've learned much more about Wells, and am now in fact a Vice President of the H.G. Wells Society. So yes, it was a successful experiment.

SD: Sadly, Sir Arthur Clarke, one of the greatest names in the genre, left us this spring. You've had the chance to work with him on the Time Odyssey series that were recently also published in Bulgaria. What was the feeling for you, working with him? Did you learn something valuable, did you maybe manage to teach something?

SB: I first met Sir Arthur C. Clarke in 1992, when my first novel Raft was nominated for the Clarke Award, for the best novel published in the UK. My publishers sent Arthur copies of my next few novels, and Arthur was particularly taken by The Time Ships (1995), my sequel to Well's The Time Machine. In a way this was our first meeting of minds. He responded with a kind blurb, and with correspondence: he sent me a copy of the H.G. Wells Society's magazine, and even a little collectors' postcard of Wells himself. That was how my name entered the frame a couple of years later when Arthur was looking for a new collaborator for the book which became The Light of Other Days (2000). Starting from a fairly open-ended outline by Arthur, we kicked around ideas and outlines for some months before getting down to work, corresponding by email and phone. Collaborating on a book, he would call, full of ideas, when it was convenient for him in Sri Lanka, sometimes at five in the morning UK time: "This is Arthur, over and out!" It was a joy and a privilege to work with a man who had such a profound influence on my life.

SD: Which period of sci-fi's history do you consider the most successful and important – the Golden Age (the 40's & 50's), the New Wave, the 80's cyberpunk, contemporary fiction? Or any other?

SB: I think possibly the end of the nineteenth century was extremely important. Writers like Verne, Wells and Lasswitz set out the basics of modern science fiction. The American pulp movement was important, but began with reprints of Verne and Wells. But in terms of success I think today's writers are producing work as good as it's ever been. Just in Britain we have fantastic writers like Ian McDonald and Paul McAuley producing work that couldn't have been written 20 years ago. So maybe today is the best.

SD: Are you familiar with the works of East European sci-fi authors, such as Lem or the brothers Strugatski? What is your opinion about them?

SB: Lem, yes. As a kid I loved such pieces as the Prix the Pilot stories. And later I was profoundly moved by Solaris, the novel. I've always thought there should be more translation between the languages. But then, a lack of translation means that different cultures have grown up in different regions. East European / Russian fiction seems to have a deeper, mystic feel than some American works.
SD: Do you wish to share something with your Bulgarian readers?

SB: I believe my Manifold series is available in Bulgaria. This series is about one of the deepest questions we face, I think: the Fermi Paradox. If aliens exist, some of them should have spread across the galaxy, and we should see them. Why don't we? Maybe we're alone, maybe they're hiding, maybe it's a dangerous universe where you can't travel. I think with new radio astronomy techniques and the new planet-finding telescopes we will soon have much more information about life in the universe, and may have an answer to the question by, say, the end of this century.

Thank you!