AUTHOR Q & A
Q — Where do you get ideas for your books and stories?
A — Ideas are hardly an endangered species; the ideosphere is virtually infinite. During my professional career I’ve written a vast assortment of nonfiction, mostly as part of assignments: somebody else’s assignments. With fiction I get to write whatever I want. What floats my boat is teasing an engaging — to me — story out of whatever ideas sail in from the ideosphere. Poking at them, dancing with them, romancing them. But characters change everything. As more than one famous writer has said, as soon as you have a character or two, stuff will start to happen and they’ll take you where they want to go. Which is cool: I’ve learned a lot from my characters.
Because I write organically without plot outlines, things I could have never imagined in outline-think have impaled themselves on my keyboard. There are lots of writers who plot first, but for me, plot outlines suck the joy and synergy I love about dancing with the moment. Outlines remind me of diagramming sentences. I hated diagramming sentences in school; I was always good in English classes, but diagramming sentences was too much like math. I didn’t like math much, either…which was why I changed my undergrad major from engineering to psychology.
I adjust plot weaknesses during rewriting. John Irving once said that “…as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting.” For me, that’s a lowball figure. Some writers detest rewriting, but I like it. For one thing, it means I actually made it through a first draft of something. And I tend to plug in lots of stuff during rewrites that never occurred to me in the first draft. For example, the whole “luck” theme in The Luck of Madonna 13 only arrived in the second draft.
Q — Your novels are science fiction. Have you written any other types of fiction?
A — Well, some reviewers said The Luck of Madonna 13 is science fiction. Others called it fantasy…and at least one other said it was something called slipstream. I’m not a big fan of boxes, but I suspect that the urge to categorize is built into our DNA.
Actually, I never intended to write science fiction. I read a lot of it when I was younger, but later, not so much. When my first novel happened along, I already had three thrillers underway. Two of them I’d like to finish someday. But there’s something hugely appealing to me about the freedom of writing imaginative fiction: you get to just make stuff up. It has to work, of course: be internally consistent or smarter readers get pissed. But explaining is fun for me, which is why I put a ludicrous amount of effort in worldbuilding and backstory, like the future history and all the sidestories that were on the old Last Nevergate website and are now in The Chronicler’s Compendium.
As an amateur futurist, another thing I like about speculative fiction is that you get to explore real trends and patterns in an imaginative way…and say “what-if” a lot.
Q — Is there any place interested readers can find your other fiction?
A — Absolutely. When Fr Michael Gulligan was my volunteer webmaster some years ago, he amused himself by creating the Orphans Eleven Literary Orphanage. He populated it with some tales that never had a proper place to rest their heads. When I built the new website I kept seven of them...along with Fr Gulligan’s introductions.
Q — Specifically, where did The Luck of Madonna 13 come from?
A — I blame it all on my youngest daughter. Her mother and I had been divorced for a few years and they had moved to New Mexico. I was still in California, so I couldn’t see my daughter very often, which was tough since I’d been a stay-at-home dad for some years and we’d been very close. For her 16th birthday I sent her the first installment of a story featuring a protagonist exactly her own age…and not dissimilar to her in other ways. I also set it in a future New Mexico. I ended up emailing her 18 installments over five months: an entire novel, as it turns out. Naturally, what began as a simple story got complicated. By the third rewrite — the one that became the Chronicler’s Edition — it was pretty twisty. But it got published and people said nice things about it. When I rewrote it in 2012 for the new edition I cleaned it up quite a bit, being a much tougher self-editor now than I was in the first edition.
Q — The Luck of Madonna 13 has footnotes, which are rare in novels. Has that been a problem?
A — I can give you an unequivocal “yes” and “no.” While footnotes are rare in fiction, many excellent (and bestselling) novels do have them, so I’m hardly unique in using them. One marvelously footnoted novel that springs to mind is Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke’s fantastic alternate history that won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Lots of Jack Vance novels have footnotes, as well as works by Argentine literary giant, Jorge Luis Borges. In fact, there’s a very long list of footnoted novels by very well-thought-of writers.
On the other hand, a lot of otherwise intelligent readers absolutely detest footnotes. They’d wring their little hard-to-read necks or stab them or shotgun them if they could. Some people feel so strongly about footnotes that they belong to the Society for the Abolition of Footnotes in Novels. Unfortunately, the young editorial woman who singlehandly knocked the Chronicler’s Edition out of the running for another award was of that opinion. Evidently a creative writing teacher told her unequivocally that fictional content in footnotes must be integrated into the narrative: no place for footnotes in a novel. And teachers know best, of course. Always. That’s where my footnotes became a problem for me. Evidently this young woman wasn’t mollified by my heartfelt “Apology for Footnotes” in the Chronicler’s Edition [if you don’t have your very own copy of the Chronicler’s Edition, I put a copy of that footnote blurb at the bottom of this page].
Q — Who is your favorite author?
A — Color me failed on this one. The longer I live, the more authors I fall in love with. I’ve always idolized the late Jack Vance, a Hugo and Nebula award winner who had imagination and style all his own…and who once wrote me an encouraging word. Susanna Clarke, of course, whose courtly and mannered literary voice reminds me of Mr Vance in places. Currently, I’m madly in love with the work of Margaret Atwood, who not only has a shamelessly delicious imagination, but writing chops that ought to be against the law. I wish I knew which angel she sold her soul to. Plus, Atwood seriously gives a damn about our species and where it’s going, too. James Lee Burke has long penned criminally beautiful prose about flawed good people and seriously evil people. Roger Zelazny was another scifi hero who wrote out-of-the-box, genre-defying stuff and is much missed. My youngest daughter got her name from his illustrious Amber series. I’m also a big fan of thoughtful scifi writers like William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Ursula LeGuin and Vonda McIntyre. And then there’s Neil Gaiman, another one-of-a-kind. When I’m in the mood for sheer poetic outrageousness, I find Tom Robbins is hard to beat, although John Barth’s stuff gives him a run for his money. I could go on, but I won’t. Of course when I’m in the mood for something brainy, wise, droll and outrageously singular, I re-read Thodkin’s Spear, penned by my very own brother, Scott Ellison. Like Atwood, Brother Scott also gives a metadamn about our species. I could go on, but I won’t. •
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