Signals From The Edge Interview PJ Manney

Our time and place in the cosmos is filled with unprecedented change and technological advancement, that much is for certain. But what else is changing beneath our very eyes?

In this interview with PJ Manney, professional futurist and author of the Philip K. Dick Award nominated Phoenix Horizon trilogy, we discuss the New Mythos and how that seeks to change the way we think about storytelling.

IP: One of the most intriguing things I’ve seen you write and talk about is The New Mythos. Can you explain for our readers what exactly the New Mythos is?

PM: The New Mythos refers to how in various periods throughout human history, we have reassessed our relationship to each other, our community, and whatever governing body we’re in, as well as our relationship with the cosmos. And this often happens at a turn in technology.

So, the first one that I often talk about is the Axial Age, where in the first millennia BCE, there was a huge shift in mythology, religion, and spiritual guidance because we had to learn how to live with each other. We’d been living in nomadic groups, and suddenly we were coming together in cities and we were getting specific jobs.

There were a lot of us that we didn’t know, and we were exceeding what they called Dunbar’s Number. And we had to learn how to live together. The rules that religions gave us were, at that point, quite practical rules of social engagement.

The next period was the Enlightenment, which also included the Industrial Revolution and the Scientific Method.

This was a whole new way of how people related to themselves, to each other, to their society, and to how they saw themselves on a planet and in the cosmos. We came up with a bunch of new rules and in the stories we told about them, myths evolved, and those myths are still with us today.

Interestingly, we didn’t necessarily lose the Axial Age myths, they just got laid over with a whole new mythos that applied to the Enlightenment.

What I see in this period is a huge shift of paradigm—a species-changing shift—in our relationship with new technology, chiefly the Internet, who we are, and how we communicate.

I don’t know if people are familiar with the idea of Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere, where we’re creating a global rate of instantaneous communication that has never existed before. And we need new myths for this; we need new stories because the old stories aren’t hacking it.

In fact, the old stories are actually detrimental to our development as individuals, as societies, and as a species.

IP: In what kind of ways are older stories detrimental to our development?

PM: Well, a lot of these stories just aren’t practical anymore or are downright offensive. In old myths, people with power and money were seen as better than everyone else, and that we should just hand over our leadership to them by virtue of their power or money.

That went all the way from religion, through the divine right of kings, through sadly to our present era, with Donald Trump and Elon Musk.

We create our assumptions of who should lead based on things that may not be wisdom. These are not people who are wise; these are just people who have power, and that’s a big difference.

Another example is who gets to speak within a society? In the old societies, it was free white men of adult age.

What we’re discovering is, ironically, some of the greatest information we can get comes from marginalized communities. That’s everybody, from children to elders, from every race, religion, and gender. Inclusivity is an incredibly important value in the future and our old myths never covered that.

IP: How can writers start to think about stories in a new way and apply the idea of the New Mythos to their work?

PM: Well, I’m writing a book on the New Mythos, and I just taught my first class about it the other day at the Rambo Academy. I’ve been working with some really interesting philosophical ideas that can help us to understand the New Mythos. They’re very big and very gnarly, but when you deconstruct them, you start to realize, “well, yeah, that’s actually what our world is really about”.

So instead of thinking of utopias or dystopias–which is an extremely binary and limiting way of considering what kind of society to incorporate into your world building—try to come up with positive futures or a roadmap to what might be a way to live.

I teach about heterotopia, which is Michel Foucault’s idea of society. If utopia means “no place” and dystopia means “bad place,” then heterotopia means “the other place,” or “the different place”. And that’s actually the place where change happens.

Utopia’s induced hope reflects the idea that change is hard, which is why a lot of our dystopias end badly.

In terms of storytelling, a heterotopia is a way to free yourself from that binary thinking of “where I have to put my story” and then put your story someplace else. This allows you the freedom to come up with new ways of thinking.

That’s just one example. I work with everything from Timothy Morton’s ideas of hyperobjects and hyposubjects, to really just helping people deconstruct their assumptions.

That’s the biggest thing. We’re all swimming in the cultures we were raised in, and my goal is to help people deconstruct their assumptions about what a story is.

I also talk about Western story structure and the hero’s journey.

The hero’s journey isn’t really cutting it anymore because it’s all about a circular story that returns to the status quo. The hero might change, but why does society get to stay the same?

Superman goes out and slaps Hitler or stops the asteroid or saves Metropolis. But he comes back and, minus a building or two, has restored Metropolis to its status quo. That’s not cutting it because that’s not reality, and it doesn’t inspire people to make their own change.

I prefer the heroine’s journey. Gail Carriger has a wonderful book and class where she looks at the ancient heroine’s journey, which is really a story of someone being thrown out, gathering their new-found family, working together, and making a better place. This is a far more constructive story to tell and is more applicable in our time.

I encourage people to look at other cultures’ story structures, and learn from them. I don’t want you to appropriate them, but I want you to start breaking down the notion that this three-act structure Hollywood has imposed on us is the way to write a story.

IP: That’s very interesting. As a writer myself, I’ve always kind of struggled with the idea of breaking up the traditional hero’s journey.

So, you mentioned how the Internet and similar technologies are articles of big paradigm shifts. With all of these kinds of things happening in our world right now, like the Metaverse, NFTs, and cryptocurrency that are changing the ideas of finance and art, what’s your broad outlook on the future?

PM: As a futurist I look at multiple scenarios and ask the question “What are the possibilities based on the choices that get made?” Because that’s really what this is all about; it’s about choices. And I think people don’t look far enough down the path of their choices.

It’s very easy to look at something like NFTs and see the good things about them. As a creator myself, I see the desire for creators to get their stuff out there and not have the intermediary of distribution channels. Like, I get that having come from Hollywood and worked in publishing; I get that more than anybody.

There’s also the dark side of NFTs, and we’re already seeing this. It’s really like the Wild West with all the scams, the pump and dump schemes, and all the ways that the naive can be taken advantage of.

Same with the blockchain. The old belief was that the blockchain was immutable, it could not be corrupted. It wouldn’t be worth anyone’s time to try to break the blockchain. And now we know that’s just not true.

I was warning about this in my books and people were like, “you’re so negative,” to which I’d say, “look, here’s the article about it!”

I’m not a techno-pessimist or a techno-optimist; I’m a techno-realist in my science fiction. I see the good and the bad of all of these technologies, where they have very powerful, great ideas behind them, but there are bad actors in the world.

And those bad actors are going to find the loophole, the crack in the façade, and they’re going to exploit it. Exploitation has become something that’s actually being honored in our new society, which I find appalling. There’s a sense that everybody who creates something is the man and everybody who can exploit it, steal it, or hurt other people with it is somehow a good guy.

I think that upside down ethical quandary we found ourselves in is a really good indication of why we needed a New Mythos!

IP: It’s a kind of paradigm shift in itself, isn’t it?

I read somewhere that you actually threw out the draft for your book (CON)SCIENCE after Trump was elected. Can you talk a bit more about your approach to rewriting that book?

PM: I started this series back in the mid-2000s, and it was originally designed as a television series. But it didn’t get any interest from our production company, so I took it back in 2006 or 2007 and said, “you know what? I want to write a novel”, which I’d never done.

The series has always been about the rise of fascism and my fears of authoritarianism in the United States and around the world. I was already seeing signs because I grew up during Reagan and knew what I was looking at. So, none of this was really a surprise to me.

And so, I started writing these books thinking that when I got to (CON)SCIENCE, that I made the same mistake everybody else made: I thought I had four more years. As a futurist, I thought Hillary would get elected, she’d anger a lot of people, and she’d have a one term presidency. Then after that, we’d end up with some kind of authoritarian leader.

Obviously, that didn’t happen.

I was flying on election day and that night when I got home, I opened my phone and saw the news. I just broke down weeping. I was stunned, and I knew I had to throw my out my draft because my book would come out during his term.

This was 2018, and it also coincided with why the New Mythos was created. I was at Northwestcon on a panel called “Science Fiction in the Age of President Trump” with Nisi Shawl, Gordon Van Gelder, and Elsa Sunjenson—just an incredible group of people.

I literally had an actual epiphany while sitting on this panel and I just started speaking in tongues! You know, it just comes through your head and out your mouth. It was this realization that we had to start telling these stories that were fundamentally different than the stories we’ve been telling.

And that’s actually how I rewrote (CON)SCIENCE. I was leading into it with identity and I didn’t even notice that I was destroying the hero’s journey and identity as much as I was. (CON)SCIENCE goes full-on heroine’s journey. So, I have this evolution through the series about the faults or the hero’s journey, and it gets very meta.

Like, they’re talking about narrative in the narrative because it’s also talking about propaganda and how to convince people that what’s going on is bad. I discovered I was going in a whole new direction and realized it wasn’t just me; I was watching this in other writers as well.

The thing about the New Mythos is that I didn’t invent it and I’m not the only one doing it. You’ve got writers like Nisi Shaw, Kim Stanley Robinson, Cat Rambo, and a host of people who are already thinking in these terms and they’re all dancing around the edges of it.

And I just want to bring it together so that it’s not just all of us grappling with it by ourselves in the privacy of our little rooms. We are a group of writers—writing about the future, because that’s what we do—who can grapple with the stories that now need to be told.

IP: That’s awesome. I mean, it’s not awesome that you had to throw out your draft and start over to have this kind of epiphany. But I assume it was like a weight lifted off your shoulders when you had the realization of what you had to do.

PM: Not only was it a weight off my shoulders, it actually spun my goals into a whole new direction.

Because now I don’t only write science fiction, I am professional futurist and consultant, too. I got to talk at the United Nations Association a couple of weeks ago about women in technology, specifically in AI, and I started to bring the New Mythos into that conversation. And they were all like, “yes!”

So, it’s not just about us as writers. It’s about us as human beings in the world, and starting to tell the story of whatever it is we do. But in the context of, again, this diversity, inclusivity, and seeing us in the human story in a new way.

IP: You mentioned that you were teaching a class about the New Mythos. Is there a way that people can enroll for the class?

PM: They can ask Cat Rambo for me to teach it again! Or ask any of the writing groups. I’m friends with the people at Writing the Other, and Clarion West knows who I am. Any place where science fiction and fantasy writers meet, I’m happy to teach there.

If you’re on Facebook, there is a Facebook group about the New Mythos. Because of Facebook’s new rules about groups, you won’t find it by searching for it because it’s private right now. It’s about 350 writers, academics, and other creatives. We’ve got a number of a fine artists, designers and people who work in landscape design. I mean, it’s people in all kinds of fields who are looking at these ideas and thinking, “this really applies to me.”

I’m PJ Manny on Facebook, so if you message me and say, “look, I’m really interest in the New Mythos,” I can add you to the group. It’s a really safe place for a lot of people to discuss stuff that can be very advanced and they’re not excited to make this a public group.

So, if you’re a writer and you really want to learn about this stuff, I’m not the only person teaching it. This entire group has incredible things to say and their own experiences and perspectives. Just ask me.

IP: I’ll definitely shoot you a message because that sounds like a great group!

Well, to wrap it up, is there anything else you’d like the audience at Signals from the Edge to know?

PM: Just keep reading; read my stuff, read everybody’s stuff. I think there’s so much great, new science fiction out there that’s going down a lot of really fresh paths.

With my own work, I kind of played a trick on everybody. In the first book, you think you’re reading a mainstream, political techno-thriller with science fiction elements. But, in fact, I’m taking you by the hand and walking you through to a whole evolution. By the time you get to (CON)SCIENCE, it is so hardcore science fiction, with brains, memory, the death of empires, and politics.

And, I think just be open to new kinds of writing because that’s what’s going to happen with the New Mythos. We’re going to find people taking big chances in their writing, and it would be really nice if the audience was out there to support it.

Thanks to PJ for doing this interview, I learned a lot, and I hope you do too. If you’d like to learn more about PJ’s work in both science fiction and as a futurist, check out her website!

Interview with Cat Rambo and Jennifer Brozek Part 2

This is the second part of our exclusive interview with Cat Rambo and Jennifer Brozek, editors of the new anthology, The Reinvented Heart.

To read the first part of this interview, where we discuss both The Reinvented Heart and the second anthology, The Reinvented Detective, click here.

And if you’ve already read the first part, here’s where we left off…

IP: Here I have a few questions that get into the SFF conversation as a whole.

You’ve both been a part of the SFF community for many years, in multiple different capacities. How would you say the science-fiction and fantasy scene has changed since you first got involved with it?

JB: I think the scene has opened up drastically. For me, this is one of the most interesting times to be an SFF author. You have the opportunity to choose how you want to be published, where you want to be published, whether that’s self-pub, boutique press, small press, or the big five. Being a hybrid author is probably the most economically viable, because not everyone can be a Seanan McGuire or a Diana Gabaldon.

Plus, you’re able to choose your own voice and medium. It can be written work, it can be YouTube videos, you can choose serialized versus full-length, you can do a series of novels, you can do micro-text novels.

I have friends who do all of the above. You can teach, edit, write, or do a combination of all three.

CR: I agree with all of that, and also that sci-fi has become more international. With the Internet connecting us more I’ve read a lot more African, Chinese, and all sorts of different kinds of fiction from beyond American borders.

Clarkesworld is one of the magazines that’s really good about bringing in stuff from translation, and I know Neil has worked very hard at that.

But another thing that’s changed is that there are more psychic resources for writers outside the mainstream. You know there are occasions in our industry where I’ve felt that there’s been a sort of psychic toll that has to be paid. Think of it like “oh, here’s another elderly science fiction writer inviting me to sit in his lap” and I’m just supposed to laugh it off.

It’s kind of political here, I’m sorry, but I think younger writers don’t tolerate that as much as they used to, and I salute them for that.

JB: I think the problems that have always been around in every industry are starting to come to light. I used to be a QA engineer for 13 years, and the problems in that industry cross over into this one too.

Some of the predators are getting smarter, and they’re playing the “I’m woke, or I’m an ally” card.

You know, just thinking about how we’re still having women in gaming panels shows us that we have a long way to go. And it’s taking longer than a lot of people want.

CR: Yeah, that’s very true.

JB: It’s not a perfect transition. Just today I read something about the Harry Potter series involving Kreacher. It was about how people were so accepting of how Harry was literally a slave owner.

CR: Oh yeah, and Dobby too. And Hermione was mocked for standing up for the house elves! I can get quite indignant about this.

JB: As much as we want to get better, we all still have a lot of blind spots. But it’s being shown more often, called out more often. It’s very uncomfortable, but you have to be uncomfortable to change.

I loved that whole series whenever it came out, but the more you dig into it and all your other old favorites, the more you’re like “Oh, my God.”

CR: Yeah, there are a lot of problems. Jo Walton talks about the suck fairy. She says don’t go back to childhood classics lest you find the suck fairy has visited them.

IP: I was thinking about that the other day because I was watching The Wheel of Time on Amazon. And I was thinking about when I read the first couple of books, and as a high schooler, there’s a lot of stuff that I didn’t really pick up on.

Thinking about it now, I’m like, “Wow, that’s really old and outdated.”

CR: Well, it’s interesting to me how much gender attitudes have shifted in the last decade. I mean, when I was growing up, the word “trans” wasn’t something that anybody said.

And that’s one of the things I think is really interesting and lovely about our times is that people are aware of non-binary, ace, and all the different relationships that fall outside of the Dick and Jane model. That’s very much what The Reinvented Heart is about.

That’s one of the things science fiction does so well is social reflection, and I think that’s really cool. In the anthology, we have a non-binary story, and we have another story where the character has anxiety about meeting up with the other person in real life.

So, the character goes to the hotel and they knock on the door, but the other person never opens the door because they’re feeling so anxious. At the end of the story, the character gets an email from the other person apologizing, saying, you know “I transgressed, I tried to push you past your boundaries and that wasn’t cool.” And that’s such a different ending than that story has been told with in the past.

One of the modes that drives me particularly crazy with gender stuff, is the cliché that if guys are willing to just keep after her, standing out in the rain with a boombox, that she’ll come around. And that’s present in narratives about women, too, but not in the same way.

It’s one of the things that science fiction does well, is deconstructing that narrative and rewriting it in a more meaningful, respectful way.

IP: Gotcha, I 100% agree with you. I guess then as a follow up to that question, where do you think the SFF community is headed in the near future? Or what do you hope happens in the community in the future?

CR: I would hope that we address a couple of marginalizations that haven’t particularly been addressed before.

And those are disability, neurodiversity, and economic circumstance.

People forget that there is a significant portion of the population that doesn’t have Internet access, isn’t accessing Twitter and all that. I’d love to see science fiction keep pushing to make that a part of the conversation.

JB: This goes along with economics, but I’d like to see more non-American authors have a clear way of getting their stuff in front of American audiences. I lived outside the US during my childhood because my father was in the military, so I learned a lot about other cultures, and that informed me growing up. The world of storytelling is so vast and amazing, I’d like to see some of that reflected in science fiction.  

I saw recently there was a Kickstarter for an RPG about if America had never been colonized, and just seeing that made me want to explore that idea more.

For example, Black Panther, the Marvel movie. The themes that they brought in for that particular movie were so different from what I’d seen before. The mindset is more about what do we owe each other and society instead of what can I do. It’s I vs. we.

I had a conversation last year with Maurice Broaddus, and we were talking about magic. I said that magic should cost you something, because that’s my point of view. And he said that magic should never cost you. You should never be punished for being who you are.

CR: Oh, yeah, that’s good.

JB: That’s one of those points of view that I’m still wrapping my head around.

IP: I think a lot of that goes back to the fact that America is a very capitalist society, and that pervades a lot of our ideas. For a magician, if using magic takes a physical toll on you or something, it’s a transactional relationship. You’re giving your energy for magic, and that’s a capitalist thing.

I guess it goes back to what Cat said about seeing more SFF stuff from a different economic sphere. What would our science fiction look like if our society’s ideals weren’t capitalist, but instead were socialist, or something else?

CR: That’s something I see a lot of writers grappling with today. Our mutual friend, PJ Manney, worked with a Facebook group called The New Mythos, where they were explicitly trying to talk about how to create new stories. How do you create these new narratives?

I just did a story that’s coming out next April where I tried to challenge the way I thought the story would traditionally go, and make it go in a different direction.

And that’s all from our chat with Cat Rambo and Jennifer Brozek. If you’d like to check out The Reinvented Heart anthology, you can purchase an ebook or preorder the hardcover on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Be sure to check out Cat’s website and Jennifer’s website to keep up to date on their new and upcoming projects!

Thanks to both of them for joining us here at Signals from the Edge!

The Reinvented Anthologies: Conversation with Cat Rambo & Jennifer Brozek

SFF legends Cat Rambo and Jennifer Brozek have been hard at work on The Reinvented Heart, an anthology about sci-fi relationships.

We met up with them to discuss the new anthology, which is already out as an ebook, and will be released in hardcover May 31st, 2022.

Here’s what they had to say:

Isaac Payne: So I only have a couple of questions, and then we can open it up to a conversation afterwards. I guess starting out I want to ask about the The Reinvented Heart anthology. It’s been making some waves out there on the SFF frequencies, and I’m just curious about how you decided to break up the Anthology into three distinct sections. I’m familiar with only a few other anthos that do this, so what was the inspiration behind that idea?

Cat Rambo: I actually talked to Jane Yolan in an interview I did with her about that. You may have noticed the three sections are each prefaced by Jane. And in fact, she read them all on the interview, which was really cute.

Basically, we approached Jane and asked if she’d write something for us, and she said, how about poems? My response was, “sure, you’re Jane Yolan!” and I want something from you.

So, she sent in three poems and I said to Jen, you know, poetry is cheap, right? We’re paying by the line, and it’s not like a 5,000-word story.

We ended up organizing the book according to the three poems, breaking it into three sections—Hearts, Hands, and Mind.

And then as part of The Reinvented Detective, which is the anthology that’s coming out next year, we asked Jane to write us three poems again, this time about themes around detectives.

But the funny thing is that I just did this interview with Jane and she hadn’t known what we’d done with her poems until she got the PDF, and she was just delighted! No one had ever done anything like that with her poems before.

IP: That’s cool! You mentioned The Reinvented Detective which is coming up here next year. Is there anything that you’re going to change about this anthology based on what you learned from The Reinvented Heart?

Jennifer Brozek: Well, since we’re just now going through the hold stories and the on-spec stories, I think it might be a little bit too soon to answer that.

But based on the stories we’re getting, we might spread out the anthology to make it about more than just crime and justice.

We might organize it based on groups of stories, like Art Nouveau or the Old Classic. We got a lot of Poirot and Sherlock Holmes stories, as well as some pastiches.

I’m thinking that when we see all the stories, we’re going to end up breaking them out into groups rather than themes, but that may change.

We haven’t seen all the stories yet!

IP: Just out of curiosity, how many submissions did you receive for The Reinvented Heart? I edited the Triangulation: Extinction anthology and I’m always curious about the numbers for other anthologies.

CR: I want to say around 230?

JB: No, it was closer to 260, and that’s just slush. We had the on-spec stories too, so in total it’s more like 300.

IP: Gotcha, that’s pretty good, all things considered!

JB: Yeah. The Reinvented Heart is my 21st anthology, and The Reinvented Detective is my 22nd.

When I did 99 Tiny Terrors, I got 600 submissions in a month! Or when I do a closed anthology, like The Secret Guide to Fighting Elder Gods, I cherry-pick every author.

So, the number of submissions really depends on how much it pays and how many people feel they have a chance to get into the anthology. For 99 Tiny Terrors, a lot of new people were willing to send in their stories because it’s flash.

CR: Yeah, flash is fun. Fun and fast.

JB: But when I was working with Apex Magazine as a slush reader, I’d have to read five stories a day just to keep up!

IP: Yeah, for Triangulation: Extinction I think we had around 600 different submissions. That was over the span of four months, but when the submission window closed, I was still doing a lot of reading!

CR: Yeah. Well, I read completely differently than Jenn.

Jenn is very kind of slow and steady, reading five stories a day. Whereas what I will do is take a weekend to—and excuse my language—just f***ing slam through, sometimes at the rate of a hundred or so stories a day.

And I’m reading fast—fast and furious. But I’m making authors really have to prove themselves to me in the first half page or so.

IP: I guess it’s kind of hard as a writer when you don’t know whether or not you’ll be going through that gauntlet.

JB: When I teach and talk about being an editor, I tell everybody to write your stories like you’re going to be read by a slush reader who’s having a terrible day and all they have to do is get through your story so they can go home.

All your story has to do is turn a slush reader’s terrible day into something magical.

CR: Ah, that’s a nice one, that’s good. You know, one of the talking points of the book is that despite having set the word count at 5,000, there’s a novelette in there! I had solicited Justina Robeson for a story, and she kept mailing back saying that it was getting longer and longer.

And finally, we said, sure, send it in. And both Jenn and I read it and knew we had to put it in the anthology because it was so good!

IP: That’s great, it’s always nice to be surprised like that. So, what’s up next for The Reinvented series? After The Reinvented Detective, of course.

CR: We’re still arguing about that, haha. But we’re absolutely going to continue the series; we’d like to do one a year. I really want to do The Reinvented Coin, so my feeling is that if I’m patient and give Jenn her way for the next few, I’ll get to do that one.

JB: I like that one, but I’m interested in doing The Reinvented Fable. Like if you do a version of Little Red Riding Hood, but in the future, in space. We can do a contrast between old and new fables.

But I do like the idea of The Reinvented Coin, or Cat came up with a good one, The Reinvented Alice.

CR: Yeah, The Reinvented Alice or The Reinvented Oz.

JB: It’s Oz but all science fiction, where you pick a pastiche based on the original series.

IP: I do like those ideas. What does The Reinvented Coin entail?

CR: Economics, trade, bartering. 

JB: Anything that fits under that broad category, really. You could be selling memories of loved ones, for example.

CR: But only one story about NFTs, tops.

IP: Have you read the book This Eden by Ed O’Loughlin? It’s like a science fiction noir, espionage story, but at the end the main villain is a cryptocurrency.

CR: Oh, I love that, I’ll have to find that book!

IP: That’s just what The Reinvented Coin reminded me of haha. So, here I have a few questions that get into the SFF conversation as a whole.

Watch out for the rest of our interview with Cat Rambo and Jennifer Brozek, where we talk about the SFF community as a whole, and the changes coming down the line for the genre.

If you liked this interview, consider checking out some of our other author interviews, linked below.

Interview with Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, Author of O2 Arena

“O2 Arena”, a novelette by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, was published in Galaxy’s Edge Magazine in 2021 and is a finalist for the British Science Fiction Award.

We got a chance to talk with Oghenechovwe about “O2 Arena”, his ambitions as a writer and editor, as well as what he has planned for the future!

If you would like to read “O2 Arena”, you can do so here. Please also consider nominating it for the Nebula and Hugo Awards!

IP: The world of “O2 Arena” takes place in 2030, not so far off from our own time and place. Is this grim future a warning or a prediction for the next 10 years?

ODE: It’s both a warning and a prediction. “O2 Arena” is not exactly a wild sci fi story. There’s no terraforming on Mars, the elements in “O2 Arena” are things we live with daily.

There are people dying of all these illnesses because of capitalism and a lack of a system that cares for the people’s health. Instead, companies focus on how much money they can take from the African continent. There’s capitalism on toxic levels, and neo-colonizing loan firms that are offering money to the continent at rates that are exploitative.

70% of what’s in “O2 Arena” are already happening and 20% is on the same trajectory if we do nothing. The remaining 10% is a little out of the way, the hope that things can get better.

So “O2 Arena” is both a warning and a prediction of what will happen if we don’t move from current path. The underground O2 arena is where you have to fight for your right to breathe, taking that right from someone else. That’s the endgame of toxic capitalism.

It’s a very close reality that could actualize itself if we don’t do anything about it. 

IP: I know that you’ve been working on a lot of projects as an editor, including the upcoming anthology Africa Risen. For you, how is being an editor different than being a writer, and which do you prefer doing more?

ODE: They serve different purposes, but I’ll say that writing is definitely my first love. I always wanted to be a writer and tell stories. It just so happens that editing is a part of writing that you cannot escape, especially when you come from certain demographics. When you come from an underrepresented group, writing without editing is like trying to have a child without a partner.

There’s not enough representation for black people, especially for Africans on the continent, that it becomes a necessity to embark on projects like editing and publishing. Editing is like an appendage. Both are like the seed and the flower, or flower and the branch; they depend on each other.

Like I said, writing is my first love, but editing is just as important to me. My writing might not have survived without my editing. For example, my biggest writing project, my novella Ife-Iyoku, Tale of Imadeyunuagbon, I had to publish it myself in an anthology that I co-edited.

IP: Did you start out as a writer and move into editing, or have those two things always lived together?

ODE: I definitely started out as a writer, but my writing was coming along really slowly. Editing was a way to fast-track that.

My first collaboration was the Dominion anthology, and Zelda Knight reached out to me asking if I wanted to contribute a piece or be a co-editor. I said I wanted to do both, because I saw the advantage of having both a writing credit and an editing credit.

From there, I leapt into many different projects in writing, editing, and publishing. Like I said, they all go together like seed and flower.

IP: Your work has gained a lot of attention, what with the Otherwise Award, BSFA, and others. For you as a writer, what was your biggest achievement?

ODE: People talk about achieving their dreams, but I think for me, the biggest flex is that a lot of the things I’ve done, I never dared to dream of. They aren’t things that I thought were feasible, or even possible.

You dream about getting a good job, buying a nice car and a house. You don’t dream about winning a Nebula award, you know?

But I guess for me, my biggest achievement is to be on the same platform with some of the people whose work I grew up reading. While other kids were out playing football, I was reading.

I’m not crazy about Michael Jackson or Halle Berry; I’m crazy about Patrick Rothfuss, GRRM, Brandon Sanderson. Those are people that I’ve gotten to be on the platform with, and I’ve gotten to interact with them on a personal level. I’ve been able to share my views on art, writing, editing, and craft with them and take part in an intellectual conversation with them.

I was on a panel with Patrick Rothfuss, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s the most impressive thing I’ve achieved. Rothfuss was one of the most important authors at a point in my life, and I spent a long time living off his writing—reading and dreaming.

And these people were so far away. They’re far away for the average American, so you can imagine how far away they are for somebody in Nigeria. For me, it was like meeting Michael Jackson.

IP: What happens next? You’ve achieved these things you never imagined were possible, so what’s next for you?

ODE: Well, now I’ve started dreaming, and I have some ambitions. I want to reinvent pop culture and center it around Black and African narratives. The world has suppressed Blackness and African-ness for a long time, while still using its resources to build and boost its own cultures.

I want to give us our rightful place in art and history. There was slavery, colonization, and we know that a lot of the resources from the continent have built things around the world. Our art is still hanging in museums in Germany and Britain. It’s only fair that we have a place in the current pop and entertainment structures.

African artists should have a place and a chance to benefit off the systems that were built using their blood and the resources of their ancestors.

That’s my dream.

IP: That’s very inspiring, I certainly hope it comes true. Speaking of the futures, what kind of projects are you working on currently?

ODE: I’m working on everything. I’m writing a novel. I’m pitching a novella and a novella series. I have editing projects currently underway. Africa Risen is coming out later this year, I have an editing project I’m working on with the editor of Galaxy’s Edge.

I have several awards, ceremonies, and events planned for this year. Plus, I have a publishing imprint in the works.

Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki’s novelette “O2 Arena” was nominated for the Nebula Awards this year. It is the first novelette by an African writer—diaspora or continental—to be nominated for the award. It’s also eligible for the Hugo Award for Best Novelette. 

“O2 Arena” is also Galaxy’s Edge’s first nomination for a Nebula award in this category. 

To learn more about Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki’s writing and editing projects, please visit his website!

A big thanks goes out to Oghenechovwe for sitting down for this chat!

Galaxy’s Edge Interviews John Scalzi

In 2022’s first issue of Galaxy’s Edge, we’ve seen stories from new and old writers alike, book reviews by Robert Chwedyk, and, of course, an interview from Jean Marie Ward.

In this issue, she chats with John Scalzi, best-selling sci fi author and former president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

From Rock Stars to Redshirts and Kaiju

At any moment in time, the number of cultural figures immediately recognizable by a single name can be numbered on a single hand. For over ten years, John Scalzi has been one of those rare few. His last name alone not only conjures images of fast-paced, witty, pop culture–infused science fiction, but also the attitudes and opinions that have made his long-running blog, Whatever, a must-read for fans and detractors alike. Despite over 15 best-selling books, numerous published novellas and short stories, produced scripts, and Hugo Awards, he retains the work ethic and crusading spirit of the journalist he used to be—and on occasion still is. His unprecedented three consecutive terms as president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America focused on making SFWA a better advocate for writers in the marketplace. In the years since, he has continued to promote the genre and its writers. Catching up with Scalzi as he prepared for the March release of Kaiju Preservation Society, Galaxy’s Edge quizzed him about how to grow a writing career out of pop culture, a philosophy degree, and a lot of low-hanging fruit.

Galaxy’s Edge: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? Was it before or after you wanted to become a rock star?

John Scalzi: I think everybody wants to be a rock star from a very early age. I think the very first time I thought of being a rock star was in 1977 when, as an eight-year-old, I thought I had a more than passing resemblance to Shaun Cassidy. As it turns out, that resemblance no longer exists. Shaun Cassidy still has much more hair.

I figured out I wanted to be a writer was when I was 14, when I did an assignment for a class in high school. It was English composition class taught by John Hayes. He had everybody in the three sections that he taught do a story about a gift and the consequences of that gift. As someone who read a lot of science fiction and horror and mystery and stuff like that, my first thought was to write a sort of supernatural tale about a black cat that was cursed.

I couldn’t make it work. So, at the last—literally the last—minute, I stayed up all night to write a lightly fictionalized tale about my friends, Peter and Jennifer, who had started dating. The story was that their gift to each other was the love they had for each other. I typed it up overnight in a panic, turned it in, and I was the only person in those three sections that got an “A” on the thing. And I had, as we call in the industry, an epiphany, which was like: “Holy crap, I threw this together at the last minute and still somehow did better than everybody else. Also, everything else in school is really hard. So, I’m gonna be a writer, because this is easy, and everything else is hard.”

Now the irony is that writing became hard, because there’s a difference between what you can do in an English composition class when you’re a freshman and what you can actually publish and make a living out of. But by that point, it was too late. I was too far down the rabbit hole, and I was not qualified to do anything else.

So that’s when I became a writer. I would still not mind being a rock star, but I don’t think it’s gonna work out. There’s not much of a market for a 52-year-old rookie rock star. I’ll just have to content myself with collecting more guitars than any one person really needs.

Galaxy’s Edge: How did “Writing is easy!” translate into taking a philosophy major in college?

John Scalzi: The thing about it was… (And again, this helps establish the trend of I will do anything as long as it furthers my own laziness.) I was going into college to be a writer. I went immediately to the school newspaper and started writing there. As I tell people, regardless of what degree I would have ended up with, I majored in newspaper. But while I was writing for the newspaper, I still had to take classes, or they wouldn’t let me stay in school. Strange how that works out. So, I started taking the classes that looked interesting to me, and they ended up being philosophy courses.

At the end of my third year, I went to talk to my advisor, and my advisor said, “Look, if you were planning to get an English degree because you’re a writer, I regret to tell you, you haven’t taken enough English courses. It would take you five years. But if you took a philosophy degree, you could pretty much graduate now.”

And I’m like: “Well, I guess I’m a philosopher.” So, I kind of fell into it.

Having said that, a philosophy degree ends up being very useful for a writer, not in any practical sense, but in the overarching sense of learning how to think, learning how to reason, learning how to research, learning how to find things out for yourself, and also examining the consequences of what people do and how they do them. Now, additionally, my concentration within the philosophy degree (which is basically the equivalent of the minor) is in language arts. So, my full degree is philosophy with a concentration in philosophy of language.

Learning how people use language not only to communicate, but also to obfuscate, or to explain or to avoid or just how people make language work comes, oddly enough, in handy when one is a writer and one is trying to develop characters and have them use language in particularly interesting ways. So, for me, the philosophy degree, on one hand, has been completely useless. I only have a bachelor’s in it, not a master’s or a doctorate. But on the other hand, it has been extraordinarily useful to me in the sense of the things I learned in philosophy, I use every day, not only when I write fiction, but nonfiction as well.

Galaxy’s Edge: One of my college humanities courses was taught by a philosophy professor. His said you could tell a lot about a nation by the structure and the content of their language.

John Scalzi: That’s entirely possible. I think it’s certainly true that the way that language is being used today and how we communicate with each other has made a huge difference in the politics of the day. So much of our discourse right now is about making rhetorical points, not necessarily to the advantage of political unity or political cohesiveness. And it’s not unintentional. Of course, we are also talking about the fact that social media is often used to manipulate public opinion, not only just in the matter of people talking to each other, but by specific actors using rhetoric in a way that gets other people to share it and shapes the conversation for good or for ill. I think it’s very important that we understand how rhetoric is used, how discourse matters, how the language that we use in describing others dictates how we feel.

I’m a liberal who lives in a county that went 81 percent for Trump. I have a lot of very liberal friends who are like: “Oh, my God, how can you live there? These are awful people.” It’s difficult to say, “Well, their politics are awful from my point of view, but 90 percent of the time when I’m dealing with my neighbors, politics is not the thing that comes up.”

Now, there are lots of ways that that can be broken down. You can’t just ignore what they are voting for. You can’t just say, “Oh, they’re good neighbors,” and leave it at that. And there’s some truth to that, but it’s also a matter of 90 percent of what I have to do with my neighbors on a daily basis isn’t about politics.

The question is, isn’t there more that connects us than separates us? How do we build our discourse and our rhetoric so that becomes the case, so that we can learn to cooperate where we can cooperate? And where we can’t cooperate, how do we learn to make that an issue that is very focused, as opposed to just a general No, we can no longer get along with these folks? It’s a very difficult, particular moment that we’re in, and we’ll just see where it goes in the next several years.

Galaxy’s Edge: Your first paying jobs were all nonfiction gigs. How did your experiences writing nonfiction contribute to your fiction?

John Scalzi: In a number of ways. The most practical thing is I learned to hit deadlines. Mostly. That is really important for me as a fiction writer, because whether or not we want to admit it, most of the people who write fiction are commercial writers. You want to be reliable and able to say, “I’m going to do this, and I’m gonna hit this deadline.” That sort of stuff is really important. If your publisher realizes they can trust you to produce a book each year, every year, and have it be of reasonable quality, then all of a sudden you are more likely to get a three-book deal or a four-book deal, or in my case, it was a ridiculous 13-book deal because they’re like, “Yeah, we can trust that Scalzi’s gonna have something for us every year.”

So, deadlines were a huge thing, but also the idea that writing was a gig. Writing was a job. Writing was a thing that you did day in and day out, and you didn’t wait for the news. Because if I was as a newspaperman waiting for the news before I wrote my reviews and before I wrote my feature pieces for my newspaper column, the copy editor would have come over and strangled me. Because news, schmooze, you have a three p.m. deadline. Hit it. I think that that is really useful, particularly if you are a commercial writer and you want to be seen as reliable. So, having writing demystified, having it just be a job, having it be something where everything needed to be in by three p.m. every day, or your stuff didn’t show up, and then your editor had to talk to you—all of these things were really important.

But I also think that it [contributed] a bit of character in terms of what my prose is like. I am not a particularly ornate prose writer. If you look at my prose and then you find out that the first ten years of my writing life was as a working journalist, all of a sudden, it’s like: “Wow. That makes sense.” Because the prose does not generally call attention to itself in a way that [the prose of] someone who has gone through fiction writing and everything else first necessarily does. This isn’t a complaint. This isn’t me saying what I do is better. Some of my favorite writers have prose that is so beautiful that it almost doesn’t matter about the story they’re telling, because each sentence is its own reward. My sentences are not the reward. Generally speaking, the story is the reward. It’s just a different type of writing, but it is a type of writing that suits me as a person and as a reader in many ways. So as far as it goes, I’m happy that I had that experience writing nonfiction.

The final thing that was really useful—and piggybacking on the thing about philosophy teaching you how to write and how to research—is when you are writing nonfiction and writing as a freelancer, you are basically writing whatever you can get, because that’s how you pay your bills. You learn very quickly how to research, how to find things, how to communicate those ideas quickly and simply, as much as you can. I had a lot of experience as a freelance writer and as a journalist becoming sort of an instant expert on things, or if not an expert—because now I can hear all the actual experts clearing their throats—then at least someone able to learn enough to communicate the precis of a concept to people who know even less about it than I do. That becomes very useful, particularly in science fiction, when you have all these really weird concepts that you need to get across to people who are encountering them for the first time in your prose.

Now we can say that science fiction readers are used to super cool concepts and will take a flyer. But I don’t write just for the dyed-in-the-wool science fiction readers. I also write for people who want a good story but don’t necessarily know that they like science fiction, or who have always said, “Oh, there’s so much I have to take on board. I don’t know that I can read science fiction.” I want to be someone who makes science fiction that you can give to your dad, or you can give to your grandma, or you can give to your kid. That being the case, the idea of explaining abstruse stuff in a way that we’re like, “And now you have enough, let’s go on with the story,” comes really in handy. So, I’m super grateful that my first few years were as a journalist and then as a freelancer, because I think it’s made all the difference in terms of both how I write and, when I got lucky enough to be successful, being able to maintain that success.

Galaxy’s Edge: You read a lot of mystery in science fiction before flipping the coin that had you trying your hand at writing science fiction. In other interviews, you’ve talked a lot about the SF writers who influenced you, but who are your heroes in the mystery canon? (I have a bet with myself on that.)

John Scalzi: Well, now I need to know who it is you’re thinking of.

Galaxy’s Edge: Dashiell Hammett.

John Scalzi: That’s not a bad guess at all, because it’s not only him, but the second order of people and the people who were influenced by him. Particularly, I’m thinking of Carl Hiaasen. The big three for me, in terms of being really enjoyable, were Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen and Gregory Mcdonald, who wrote the Fletch books—and the Fletch books, in particular. I think if you look at the way I use dialogue and the way Gregory Mcdonald used dialogue in the Fletch books, you will see a lot of similarities. Not necessarily the same words, not necessarily the same tone, but having so much of the story told through people talking is something I definitely got from him. I mean, with the Fletch novels, it was such a prominent part of the books that it was on the covers. The cover treatment for the Fletch books originally was snippets of dialogue, which nobody ever did. Nobody ever made that a selling point of their books, and yet Gregory Mcdonald absolutely did.

[The thing about] Carl Hiaasen, for me, was the absurdity, being able to put absurdity in his books and still have it grounded into the real world, because he wrote all his books in Florida, where everything was possible no matter how ridiculous. With Elmore Leonard, a lot of it was tone. I think that that happens with folks like Hammett, as well. The thing about Hammett and Elmore Leonard is the way they so economically communicated where they were, where you were, what the characters were like, what they were doing, and what the world was like. The world-building that mystery writers do so quickly and in such shorthand is a portable skill. It’s not only something you can use in mystery. You can use it in science fiction and other genres, as well. I find it becomes super handy in science fiction. When I want to make people very quickly aware of where we are, what we’re doing, all that sort of stuff, I fall back on the mystery writers that I love more than I fall back on the science fiction writers.

One of the things I would say—and this is not necessarily fair, and it’s not necessarily true now—but back in the golden age of these genres, science fiction writers had more of a monopoly on ideas that were really cool, and mystery writers had a better grip on human relationships. I think that’s a gross oversimplification, and I don’t think that that’s true now. Science fiction has expanded what it does and who does it and how they do it. But that shorthand of establishing characters was very much more of one genre than the other. That’s why when I started writing science fiction, I was like: “Well, I can use more in my toolbox to write science fiction than just what is in science fiction.”

And it wasn’t just mystery. It was journalism. It was also humor. There’s as much Nora Ephron in my writing as there is Robert Heinlein. I think that’s really important to say: Science fiction and fantasy writers can get influences from anywhere. It’s important to be well-read—not only within your genre, which is a thing that science fiction writers have always done, but outside of it as well.

Galaxy’s Edge: Much of your science fiction seems to be a deliberate engagement with classic SF novels and media properties—Old Man’s War, Redshirts, Fuzzy Nation…. What’s at work here? Is this marketing savvy or something more thematic?

John Scalzi: Absolutely pure cynical marketing. I’ve gone to where the kids are.

No. The answer is kind of complex. I wrote Redshirts in part because I’m a fan of Star Trek, and I really wanted to. It was a world that I liked, and a world that I was exposed to, and a world that I wanted to honor. At the same time, I was well aware that nobody had actually written a book about redshirts, and it was inexplicable to me that nobody had. The reason was because everybody in science fiction was so familiar with redshirts as a concept and redshirts as a five-minute joke, that they never thought to…I don’t want to say they never thought of it as more, but nobody had taken that extra step and written that novel. And I was like: “Really? This is super low-hanging fruit, this big ripe fruit almost to the ground. It’s so low-hanging, and nobody has plucked this particular fruit.” I think everybody just looked at it and went: “That’s too low-hanging.” And I’m like: “No, I’m gonna take this fruit, and I’m gonna make a pie.”

When you look at a lot of stuff that I write, a lot of it echoes a lot of media. Old Man’s War is very clearly, and acknowledged as such, a riff on Starship Troopers and that tradition of science fiction. Redshirts is obviously Star Trek. Kaiju Preservation Society, which is coming out in March, is clearly riffing off not only people’s knowledge of Godzilla and all the Japanese movies but all the second-order movies like Pacific Rim as well, and everybody gets the joke. Again, part of that is just me. I’m writing a kaiju book because I wanted to read a kaiju book. But also, I am not unaware that when I go into Tor and I say, “Hey, I have this book, and it’s called Kaiju Preservation Society,” that the marketing people go Bzing! because they know that everybody will get it. That is not a difficult concept to sell to booksellers or to readers.

The same thing happened with Redshirts. I told my editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, “Hey, I’m writing a book.” And he’s like: “Great. What’s it called?” I said, “It’s called “Redshirts.” And he’s like: “Ah!” He immediately got it. He went to the marketing people and said, “Scalzi’s writing a new book.” “What’s the book called?” “It’s called Redshirts.” And they went, “Ah!” Then the marketing people went to the booksellers and said, “Hey, booksellers, Scalzi’s got a new book out. It’s called Redshirts.” And all the booksellers were like: “Ah!” They were all so excited.

The only person who wasn’t 100 percent with the brief right at the beginning was the guy who did the cover, Peter Lutjen, who is fantastic. He did all these amazing cover art treatments that were so clever and were so awesome, and we all looked at them and said, “Why isn’t there a red shirt?” To be clear, Pete Lutjen is the best. He’s just the best. He’s done so many good covers for everything including Redshirts, but you could just hear him going: “It’s too on the nose.” And we were like: “No, make it a red shirt, because then you can see it all the way across the bookstore.”

So, it’s a combination. I am a pop culture guy. I don’t pretend that I am not a pop culture guy, but more to that point, I also have no problem acknowledging that I’m a pop culture guy. But also, pop culture is a great place for someone who writes like me and who has goals like mine. Why did I write Redshirts? Because I wanted to and once I did, I was like: “I am not gonna deny this is gonna be something that everybody gets.” And everybody did get it.

Now, not everybody liked it. Redshirts is the book that has the largest number of one-star reviews and five-star reviews. There’s almost nothing in the middle. You either love it or you hate it. I find that I’m often polarizing that way. Either people are totally in for the John Scalzi experience, or they’re like, “Why Scalzi? Why? What is it with him? Why…” And they make strangling motions and stuff like that. I totally get it. I mean, I don’t think that I’m that polarizing in the actual text of what I write, but I am polarizing in how I write it. I am additionally polarizing because I’m a very outspoken person on the internet, but that’s mostly an aside.

Learn about bestselling author John Scalzi’s writing process, his experiences as a scriptwriter for TV and streaming services, and the origin of his new novel, Kaiju Preservation Society, in the next issue of Galaxy’s Edge!

In the meantime, check out some of our other great interviews!

Signals Interviews Bradley P. Beaulieu, Author of Absynthe

Signals From the Edge recently had a chance to sit down with Bradley P. Beaulieu, AKA Brendan Bellecourt. His newest book, Absynthe just came out in December, and we talked about what went into the worldbuilding for that book, as well as his writing process for some of his other works.

Absynthe is a sci-fi, decopunk/alternate history book based in the American roaring twenties. It follows Liam Mulcahey, a war vet, as he’s thrust into a new world of mind-bending illusions and world-ending conspiracies.

Isaac Payne: So, Brad, you just finished up writing The Song of Shattered Sands not too long ago, how big of a shift was it to go from writing a sprawling desert fantasy to a sci-fi concept novel?

Bradley Beaulieu: In some ways, it wasn’t a huge shift because I’ve been writing sci fi and fantasy in short form for many years. I’ve always been interested in science fiction and fantasy, as well as dark fantasy.

Plus, my writing style is such that I let story ideas percolate for years before I start writing them. Absynthe, which came out after Shattered Sands, is a decopunk novel set in the roaring twenties, in an alternate history version of Chicago.

I actually had a finished draft of Absynthe ready a few years ago, but my publisher and I decided to see The Song of Shattered Sands through before releasing a new book.

That timeline gave me extra time to work on the story, the world, and the characters, so as the Shattered Sands was starting to wind down, I began paying more attention to Abysnthe.

In this case, it was a pretty easy transition. I usually don’t have spur of the moment ideas that I immediately start writing. Instead, I tend to start a Scrivener document, create a Pinterest board with images that speak to me, and begin to explore the characters and the plot. All of this takes me quite a long time.  

I’d say from inception to really starting to write in earnest, the process takes me a minimum of two years, sometimes three.

author interview bradley p beaulieu absynthe

IP:  You mentioned working on the worldbuilding for Absynthe: especially in the early chapters, I noticed a lot of details about clothing, cars, buildings, etc. How much research did you do about the time period to get these details just right?

BB: I didn’t do exhaustive research on the history of the time period because I was changing it up quite a bit.

I ran a podcast at one point, and I spoke with Mark Hodder, author of The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack and other stories set in a Victorian, steampunk era. He likes writing in real-world history because for him, it’s easy. He didn’t have to explain why something happened because they just did, it’s part of our history. 

I’m the exact opposite. History interests me, but I’m not a huge history buff, so I like altering things. I make up rules, magic, types of characters, and worlds on the cusp of change.

With Absynthe, I spent more time on architecture, clothing, and music. I paid particular attention to absinthe since I was trying to portray a vibe around the liquor and the cocktails made from it. There’s a mystique that’s built up around absinthe lot of misconceptions about its effects.  

There’s a lot more to it than just the liquor; it’s about the ritualistic making of the drinks, the ingredients, the lore, and that kind of thing, and I wanted to make sure I captured that in the story.

I also paid attention to the vehicles in Absynthe. I’m a car buff, to a certain degree, because my dad was always fixing up old cars and we used to go to old car shows. There’s a nationally-recognized car show in Iola, Wisconsin that we used to go to and they had a lot old cars from the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, that really interest me.

For example, in Absynthe, there’s a Phaeton, which is based on long-nosed sedans, particularly the Auburn, which had chrome pipes coming out of the engine compartment. So that was fun, getting to write about such a cool looking car.  

With worldbuilding, I pick my battles and delve deeply in certain areas, but I don’t do a ton of broad research.

I have an example of not wanting to stick too closely to real history:

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was kind of the spark that lit the flame of WWI, and in an early draft of Absynthe, I twisted it so that event was the start of the war. But the politics didn’t match up how I needed them to, so I ended up tossing the idea and working up a new flare point that led to the war. I ended up keeping some of the broad European politics as a base to explain why the war started, why it was fought on American soil, and why the alliances were altered from how they actually happened in WWI.

Once you start changing things, it raises a lot of questions, especially for people who know a lot about the era, so you have to be really careful.

IP: You talked about your writing process a little bit already, but are you the type of writer who outlines everything, or do you start with a few scenes and see where the story takes you?

BB: I teach writing here and there, and the way I describe myself is that I’m halfway between pantsing and plotting.My background is in IT software programming, and in those disciplines, you have to be very organized and structured.

I thought that process would transfer naturally to writing, but that just wasn’t the case. I found that I couldn’t envision what was going to happen without getting into the world. Yet, by the same token, I couldn’t start writing without some idea of where I was headed.

What I tend to do is start my Scrivener doc, my Pinterest board, and let it germinate for a few years.

Then, when I finally start writing, I make a loose, high-level outline. In the beginning, I had 2-3 turning points and the finale, but I have since adopted Dan Wells’ 7-point story structure. Originally, he took the idea from an RPG handbook, but has adapted it for writing novels.

There are some details about when the protagonist takes up the call, twists that come into play, and when the character moves from action to reaction. It’s just a more detailed way of looking at a story.

I’ll come up with those high-level plot points even if I’m not sure what incarnation those points will take, or how the characters will get there. It doesn’t matter at that point, because I know I can steer things to get to there, and that’s part of the fun of writing anyway. Steering the characters, seeing their emotions and development is all part of the enjoyment.

After I have the high points, I’ll plot out in detail as far as I can, which is usually between 4 and 6 chapters. As George R. R. Martin would say, you can see the lights in the fog, which in this case, are the high points.

I call it inch-worming my way through the plot. I’ll write as far as I feel comfortable and then when motivations seem unclear or I’m having a hard time seeing the way forward, I’ll plot out the next few chapters and keep writing until I’ve reached the end of a sloppy first draft.

I call this the “zeroth” draft, borrowed from a fellow writer, Robert Levy. It just means the story isn’t ready for consumption by anybody, so I’ll go through it one more time to fix all the things I know are broken to get a true first draft.

IP: If you had to pick one tip for new writers, what would it be?

BB: A lot of the common advice is to read widely and write every day, and that’s good advice.

However, one tip I would have given myself when I started writing is to be bolder.

When I started writing, I was hewing to the stories that inspired me to write—stories by writers like Glen Cook, Tolkien, Robin Hobb, Roger Zelazny, and Guy Gavriel Kay. While not intentional, I was regurgitating their ideas and ways of writing.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was writing in a very safe way, and I wish I’d just pushed myself harder and in different directions. That will not only help you come up with really cool story ideas, it will help you learn from your mistakes. Mistakes and failed stories will teach you a lot more about the craft than successes will. And having writers and readers around you can help to identify your weaknesses and speed that process up.  

A general writing tip is advice I’ll break into two parts. First, seek out advice, but be ready to evaluate the advice you receive. Don’t always take what people say for granted. They might not have the best advice for your story. Don’t be afraid to say to yourself that it’s good advice in some circumstances, but not for your story.  

On the other hand, don’t discount advice simply because it stings. Negative advice is easy to discount because writing is such a personal thing.  

Your instinctive reaction might be “screw that, my story’s good”, but try to evaluate the advice given as neutrally as you can. Give it honest consideration. Don’t be afraid to write an exploratory draft. You might not always use the advice as given, but you might find other, better ways to fix the underlying issue.

IP: I read on your blog a while ago that you have a new fantasy series in the works, The Precipice Sequence. Can you tell us a little bit more about what to expect with your new series?

BB: Everything I’ve written in fantasy in novel length at this point has been non-traditional European fantasy. I’ve shied away from dragons, even though I was influenced early on by the Dragonlance series and Tolkien, I didn’t want step into that arena unless I had something interesting to say.

I like to hang my hat on worldbuilding. Some of my favorite stories to write—and read—are steeped in worldbuilding, where things have been culminating for a long time. Characters knock a couple of pebbles loose and eventually the story starts to rumble down the mountainside and eventually crash.

I’m hugely affected by climate change and what’s going on in our own world, and I’m invested in trying to fix those things. I know it’s been affecting my writing, and I don’t mind. And so, with The Precipice Sequence, I think I’ve found a way to combine all these elements in an interesting way.

In the story, a large empire has conquered a rather important valley, and has taken to hunting the umbral dragons that live there. In this world, there are two kinds of dragons: scintillant and umbral, both of which feed off of diametrically opposed suns, the bright sun and dark sun. These suns give different kinds of magic, and a lot of the flora and fauna of this Amazon-like valley are tied to the suns.

So, a lot of the story has to do with the scintillant dragons the empire uses as weapons, and the umbral dragons that are quickly being hunted to extinction.

The two main characters, Rylan and Lorelei, are a half-blooded thief and an imperial inquisitor, respectively. Eventually, Rylan and Lorelei meet when a plot against one of the mountain cities comes to light, and that’s when the mountainside starts to rumble and threatens to crash.

IP: That sounds awesome. Is there a release date for the first book?

BB: Tentatively, we’re saying spring of 2023. I’m about 40k words into so far, and it will probably end up being around 140k. Not a doorstopper, but pretty big.

A big thank you goes out to Brad for sitting down for this chat! You can read more about his work on his website, as well as purchase Absynthe, The Song of Shattered Sands, and his other books.

Chatting with Sebastien de Castell, Author of Way of the Argosi

Here at Signals from the Edge we spend an inordinate amount of time talking about sci fi subgenres and the best science fiction shows on TV. But, sometimes it’s important to branch out and explore other speculative fiction.

That’s why we met up with Sebastien de Castell, the renowned fantasy author of Traitor’s Blade to discuss his latest novel, Way of the Argosi.

author interview Traitor's Blade

Isaac Payne: How did you get started writing?

Sebastien de Castell: I’m one of those terribly disingenuous writers who barely wrote a thing in their youth and yet always wanted to see a book on a shelf with my name on it. But I didn’t start writing seriously until I was about twenty-seven. I was making my living playing in a rock & roll band, performing songs like “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “Mustang Sally” three times a week. We weren’t making a lot of money; we were surviving. The band started falling apart, I was feeling creatively stifled, so I did what I always do in those situations: I went to the library.

Libraries are like cathedrals to me. There’s no particular god to pray to, but you can always find wisdom there and a path forward. In my case, I found this cardboard box of twelve book tapes by Ralph McInerny, who was quite a renowned mystery author. The cassette tapes were part of a course called Let’s Write a Mystery. It was really bizarre; he speaks like a 1960s science professor while he’s writing a mystery novel alongside you, and yet, somehow, it worked.

I’m one of those people who struggles to follow through on things they start, but Ralph’s patient, plodding voice kept me going. Within a few months I’d written a mystery novel called Skeletons in the Cloister. It was terrible.

But writing that novel was revolutionary for me. It changed the way my brain worked. People seldom talk about the benefits of writing a novel—any novel—regardless of how it turns out. Part of the reason is that we live in the world of self-publishing and so it feels like everyone’s publishing books and therefore the accomplishment seems less notable.

But what I talk about to new writers is that when you struggle through drafting your first book, it changes your brain in the same way that training to run a marathon changes your body. You don’t run a marathon to win your first time, you run a marathon because doing so changes your body into one that can run marathons. It’s incredible.

And writing a novel does the same thing. That process alters your brain into one that can envision and create entire novels. Nothing ever feels quite so difficult after that first book. I honestly thing one of the best ways to advance in your career—whether it’s as a writer, a teacher, tax accountant, or just about anything else—is to write your first novel. Big, complicated problems become far more manageable to a brain that’s adapted itself to writing an entire book.

So, after that first novel I wrote, I was intrigued. Years later, I participated in the 3-Day Novel Writing Contest, and for three days straight I wrote a novel. And, I still had time to live my life; I slept great, I played a gig, I went for a run. And in those three days I wrote 44k words of what would later become Traitor’s Blade and launch my career as a full-time novelist.

IP: That’s such a great story. You know a lot of writers say “Oh, I started writing when I was fifteen and never stopped” but it seems like you kind of had a late start. When did you reach that point after writing your first one or two novels that you realized your dreams of having a book on the shelf was a realistic goal?

SC: I had a strange upbringing because my mother was a bit on the crazy side. When I was 9-years old, right after my father had passed away, my mother brought my brother and I together. She said that our father’s pension wasn’t enough to live on and that she was going to do the easiest thing she could think of to make money, and that was to write romance novels.

It’s a preposterous statement by any measure.

My mother’s sense of romance, as a staunchly British woman who lived through World War II, was that above all else, romance should be sensible. She wrote a couple of books and nobody published them. But somehow, my nine-year-old brain persisted and I always had the principle of “you can do this, it’s just a function of work”.

The greatest unfairness in publishing is that if you’ve been trained by society to think that you don’t fit or that you don’t have anything important to say, you’ll forever be at a disadvantage. In a lot of ways, it’s game of bluster.

When you’re trying to get someone to read your book, you have to have a degree of overconfidence about you. I see people at writing conventions who meet an agent and are terrified to pitch their book. I understand why, but they’re at a huge disadvantage when compared to all the arrogant people who aren’t afraid to take advantage of every opportunity.

You only really get better as you go because you have more life experiences, but you have to have confidence to give yourself permission to take those first steps.

I go through writers’ block a lot and points where I think “I don’t know if this book’s good enough, how did I write this book, it feels like someone else wrote it”. But if you accept that it’s a function of work and keep trying, anyone can write a novel.

When someone says to me, “I’d love to write a novel, but I don’t have the talent”, I ask them, “Can you write a good opening sentence?” I’ve never met anyone who couldn’t write a compelling opening sentence; it just comes down to how many tries you need to get there. The great thing about being a writer is that you can have all the tries you want to get to something beautiful.

You get the opening line, you can write the next line, and then you can write a scene. If you can write a scene, you can write a book.

IP: I saw on your website that you’re pretty involved as a musician, does that love of music inspire your writing of fiction?

SC: Music plays a strong role for me. I’ve been trying to understand myself better, what makes me tick, and I’ve found that music has a profound impact on my mood. As someone who has a tendency for drifting off into daydreaming, music is a potent focusing drug that pushes me towards coming up with actual scenes or characters.

Music is a great way to build up a character in your mind. It’s perilously easy to unintentionally plagiarize characters from books or movies or video games, but songs inspire me to construct characters not just out of the lyrics, but from the performance itself. The melody and rhythms can propel you into imagining a character in a setting that has nothing to do with the literal meaning of the song, and so becomes something new and fresh.

Alternately, a song’s influence on me can be extremely direct. For example, in Traitor’s Blade there’s a thing called the Blood Week, which people tell me is like The Purge even though I’ve never seen that movie. Anyways, Falcio, who is this swashbuckling magistrate, is protecting a young girl who is the target of the killers. He’s forced to stand there while the time ticks down because nobody can do anything until sundown. He’s just preparing for this incredibly difficult fight.

There was this song titled “You Know My Name” by Chris Cornell, and it was the theme for Casino Royale. The song feels like . . . like this swordfight that could unleash at any moment. At one point, before the fight breaks out, Falcio even uses the line, “You know my name.”

So, music has always been both a direct and an indirect influence for me. When I’m really lost in terms of how to make a story work, I’ll go looking for a song to trigger the emotional state I need for inspiration. As a writer you’re always looking for those things that lets you engage with a different state of consciousness. For me music is that method.

IP: For whatever reason while reading your most recent book, Way of Argosi, I got flashbacks to reading David Eddings, specifically The Belgariad. Are you familiar with his work?

SC: I am! I read The Belgariad as a kid and really enjoyed it, though it never turned the way I wanted it to. I was more prone to grudges than Garion was. I remember then he figures out that Polgara, his aunt, has been lying to him about something, and I was so mad. He forgives her two chapters later and I shouted “no way!”.

But that’s interesting, I hadn’t seen parallels between Way of Argosi and The Belgariad, but you’re probably right, because Eddings’ work was one of the few fantasy series I read as a kid.  


IP: What does your writing process look like? Are you a one draft and done kind of guy, or do you take multiple drafts to get it the way you want it?

SC: I have the most unsatisfying answer in the world, which is that every book follows a different process.

When I say that, I sound like I’m devising the most perfect process for each book, but it’s the exact opposite: picture a guy who doesn’t know how to go about writing his next book and is waiting for the right plan to appear by process of elimination, having failed all other ways to write it.

Sometimes a book will take me 2-3 years, and I’ll write 8 other books while working on that one. There’s no rhyme or reason to it.

I once wrote a book in a month. It was what I call a “for me” novel. Actually, it has a much less polite name, but let’s stick with “for me” to avoid offending anyone.

In a relatively short career, I’ve had 12 books published and been translated into fourteen languages. I’m incredibly fortunate to be earning a living as a novelist. But as time goes by, you start to get a lot of voices in your head you might not want there: the voice of your agent who is trying to help you on your career; the voice of editors, who in recent years have become increasingly more afraid of publishing anything that might offend anyone for any possible reason. It’s not even about political correctness, it’s more about how words or scenes might be misinterpreted or projected on a current societal problem and viewed as a “response”. And there’s the voices of readers who adore certain characters or hate others or wish you’d write this book instead of that and . . . it all becomes overwhelming.

These voices are usually from people who love your work and want to help you succeed in your career, but it can become very inhibiting. A better novelist than I would ignore it all, but the only way I know how to deal with getting these voices out of my head is to occasionally sit down and write a “for me” novel.

The For Me novel is my way of saying, “I going to write whatever the hell I want”. I allow myself all the tropes, clichés I feel like employing. I don’t give a damn if a scene might be misinterpreted or deemed problematic. It’s my novel, after all, and if I spend the whole time worrying about who will or won’t like it, I’m really writing somebody else’s novel, and that’s just not satisfying.

I meet new writers who get stalled because they’re constantly inundated with declarative statements about what’s cliché, who can write what, who can say or think what. It’s not about where someone sits on the political spectrum, because everyone is being inundated with opinions about what fiction should look like. Maybe some of that is even a good thing to keep us thinking about the effect of our books. But for me, I need a way to reconnect with who I am as a writer, and the way to do that is to write something that has no regard for what’s popular or even acceptable and probably isn’t—and here’s the important part—publishable.

And it’s helpful! For newer writers, the worst thing about trying to write your first novel now, you’re constantly facing these kinds of opinions and statements. If you love Twilight, you’re constantly being told Twilight sucks. But if you love sparkly vampires but Twitter is making you think, “I better not write about that,” then you’re allowing other people’s opinions to deny your creative impulses.

So, whenever I’m asked what my one piece of writing advice is, I tell people to write the book you most want to read, but do it as boldly as you can possibly imagine. Don’t back away from the things you most care about, because if you do, you’ll end up writing a lukewarm novel that doesn’t offend anyone and nobody wants to read.

IP: For new readers who might not have picked up one of your books before, where would you suggest they start with your work?

SC: If you’re an adult reader into swashbuckling fantasy with a dark edge, Traitor’s Blade is a great place to start. It’s a four-book series, with a new series coming out next year.

If you’re more into magic or young adult, start with Spellslinger. It’s a magical fantasy adventure full of trickery, intrigue, and it even has a murderous, thieving, talking squirrel cat.

Way of Argosi is also a good place to start if you’re looking for a one-off book to test the waters. When I finished the manuscript, I was surprised to find it turned out as a sort of YA fantasy Dickens novel.

If you’re into audiobooks, all my books are in audiobook format. I’ve been blessed to have two of the best narrators in the business: Joe Jameson and Kristin Atherton. I literally cried when I hear Kristin’s reading of Way of Argosi.

author interview, spellslinger

IP: What kind of projects are you currently working on? And can readers expect to see more stories from the Greatcoats or Spellslinger universes?

SC: The Court of Shadows is a new series set in the Greatcoats universe, it takes place right after the events of the first Greatcoats quartet. It delves a bit more into magic than we’ve seen in Greatcoats, and a bit more intrigue as well.

When I was talking with my editor about this series, I said let’s do something that’s like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where you can watch it in any order you want. I hadn’t really seen that done in a fantasy series, (though it probably has been and I just haven’t come across it), but I wanted to explore that dynamic.

You’ll be able to read the first four books in any order. You meet these characters on their individual journeys and see them come together in the final, team book. Or, conversely, you can read the team book first and then go back to see each character’s origins. Sort of like watching the Avengers movie and then going to watch the previous films.  

IP: So, Our Lady of Blades is the first book coming out in this new series?

SC: Yes, Our Lady of Blades is coming out in September, 2022. Originally, Play of Shadows was supposed to come out first, it’s already done, but then we decided it made more sense for Our Lady of Blades to be the first book we release.

Our Lady of Blades is an unusual book for me. Usually my main characters are reacting to someone else’s schemes, but this one features a mysterious duelist who comes into the story and sets her own plan into motion. As the story progresses, we learn more about her origins and the larger conspiracy that’s threatening one of the duchies in the world of the Greatcoats.

Thanks so much to Sebastien for taking the time to talk with us! You can find out more about his work and purchase his books on his website. He loves to hear from readers, so if you have a burning question, hop on over to his website or social media and let him know what you think!

If you liked this interview, check out some of the other interviews on Signals from the Edge:

Author Interview with Tristan Beiter: Understanding Speculative Poetry

Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of talking to Tristan Beiter, a rising star in the world of speculative poetry.

I’ve been following Tristan’s journey as a poet for a few years, and had a chance to ask him about his thoughts on speculative poetry as a genre, his favorite poets, as well as his upcoming work.

Author Bio:

Tristan Beiter is a speculative poet originally from Central Pennsylvania now living in Rhode Island. He holds a BA in English Literature and Gender and Sexuality Studies from Swarthmore College and an MA in the Humanities (emphasis in Poetry and Poetics) from the University of Chicago.

His work can be found in such venues as Abyss & Apex, Fantasy Magazine, Liminality, Bird’s Thumb and others. When not reading or writing, he can be found doing needlecrafts, crafting absurdities with his boyfriend, or shouting about literary theory. Find him on Twitter at @TristanBeiter

Isaac Payne: A lot of people have different definitions of speculative poetry, and some consider it to not even be a genre, as the nature of poetry is so non-linear and experimental that all poetry could come off as speculative. What does speculative poetry mean to you?

Tristan Beiter: That’s a great question. I’m sure there are panels I haven’t read, but I’ve read all of the discussions I have been able to find about what is spec poetry. These include the panels in Strange Horizons and a bunch of blog posts on the topic. This was a main issue during my Master’s thesis, it’s “what do I mean when I say speculative poetry?”

And the answer I came to, based on all the discussions and my own feelings as a writer, is that in some ways its very simple but also very difficult.

On one hand, you can define it as narrowly as poetry published under the umbrella of spec fic. By this I mean that they’re published in spec fic magazines by authors who call their poems speculative poetry. In some ways, that’s really useful. It sets apart poetry published in literary venues from poetry published in speculative-specific magazines.

But I think that definition is too restrictive.

For me, it comes down to what role is the imaginary playing. It’s about whether the speculative element is more than a metaphor.

In the case of stuff published in genre magazines like Strange Horizons, Uncanny, and Abyss & Apex, it’s pretty straightforward. When we have a poem about a dragon, maybe it’s a metaphor, but also there’s a dragon here. If there wasn’t a dragon in it, we wouldn’t have wanted to publish it at this spec fic venue.

But it also comes down to something you can feel in the text. When they say alien, do they mean space aliens, or just a sense of otherness?

In my experience, I find that you can identify when a speculative poem by it’s feeling. It’s like the Supreme Court case with the famous porn test: ‘I know it when I see it but I can’t define it.’ You can really feel when a speculative element is there on its own terms as well as doing whatever figurative work it’s doing.

And that for me is what makes a poem a speculative poem.

IP: Who are some of your favorite poets?

TB: There are a lot of great poets out there. I’m a big fan of some of the main people we see in the speculative space. R.B. Lemberg, Amal El-Mohtar, Beth Cato, Sonya Taafee.

But I’m also reading lots of other kinds of poetry as well. I tend to gravitate toward poets like Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Lo Kwa Mei-en, and Franny Choi.

Recently I’ve been reading Anne Carson, her work is really special. And Danez Smith, Patricia Smith, and T.S. Elliot.

IP: You’ve had some of your work published in Fantasy Magazine, Liminality, and GlitterShip, and your new poem “Fountain Found in an Abandoned Garden” is out now from Abyss & Apex, right? Can you tell me more about your inspiration for that poem?

TB: That was a really fun and exciting one to work with. It started in several places at once, how many of the pieces we’re excited about as writers start.

One of the places of genesis for the very first draft was written in the advanced poetry workshop in my senior year of undergrad, fall of 2018. The assignment was to write several abecedarian poems, and those are poems where each line begins or ends with one letter of the alphabet. It’s a form I’m really excited about, it’s a major thread in Lo Kwa Mei-en’s The Bees Make Money in the Lion, which is actually the subject of my Master’s thesis.

I tried several poems, A-Z one word per line, Z-A one word per line, and A-Z where I could have as much space as I wanted.

It was the third poem that eventually became “Fountain Found in an Abandoned Garden.”

One of the other strands that goes into this poem is all of my feelings about secluded spaces, statuaries, and garden spaces. I’ve been writing about this idea a lot, and this was my most recent attempt at it.

You go to a place and it’s all alone, you’re all alone. It’s not about being lonely, I wasn’t a lonely child. I had a lot of friends and I loved them, but sometimes I wanted to go to a place and be alone, to feel like the whole world fell away.

In those spaces, I was free to be anyone and anything, not having to worry about the expectations of friendship or growing up in a small town.

There are places like that all over, but that place I’m talking about is at the base of the fire escape at the church by my house where I grew up. There are boring evergreen trees hiding this place, but it’s a tiny slate patio with a bench and flowers in pots, and the fire escape.

That space embodied an absolute freedom, and I’d describe it as a homosexual place, which makes to sense. It’s not a culturally gay space, more of a personally gay space for me. I never knew anyone who ever looked in on this place, as far as I could tell, no one had set foot onto that patio, and that is the space and energy I was tapping into with this poem.

That feeling of twin freedom and aloneness, which is everywhere, but at the same time very hard to access. It’s exciting and hopeful but also kind of sad because it requires acknowledging that the person you are in relation to other people is not, and will never be, all the person you are. The poem isn’t just about the closet, obviously, it’s about lots of other things, but it is also about what it was like when the closet was part of my life, even though it isn’t anymore.

IP: You mentioned that you studied speculative poetry for your Master’s thesis at the University of Chicago; what did you learn about spec poetry there that you hadn’t previously thought about or learned?

In some ways, everything. I really learned so much about how to approach big questions I have about genre in a more principled way. But I also learned to be a better reader, both of poems and criticism. And the really important thing was that I gained a new appreciation for the relationship between the poem as the object, the poem as the project, poetics as the question, and poetics as the theory.

It helped me clarify the ways in which writing a poem is both similar to and different from reading a poem. They were things I had been thinking about and it was largely a confirmation of instincts, but it gave more clarity to those similarities and differences.

And it helped me understand the relationship between questions of ‘how does this text work’—that’s poetics as the questions. And interpretations of how does the poem in general work, what is the poem in general?

How can I use individual poems to learn about poetry at large and vice versa.

It was a big complement to the critical side of my undergrad, which really taught me about how to read criticism and when to realize that criticism is about the author, and that’s most notable in cases like T.S. Elliot.

He’s sort of a pet case for me. I find his critical writings, things like Tradition of Individual Talent, and his Hamlet essay, to not necessarily be right. I don’t think he’s right about the poems or texts he’s writing about.

But it told me a lot about what he wanted to do in his own writing.

If you approach The Wasteland and think ‘what is this fragmented, sprawling monster,’ you can go, wait a second, T.S. Elliot thinks that literature is the invocations of the right words in the right order to produce the correct response.

What does it mean to read The Wasteland as an attempt to elicit a uniform, overwhelming response, almost as if by magic?

And so, at Chicago, I was able to go the other direction, thinking about how do I take poems and from them abstract a theory?

IP: What kind of projects are you currently working on? Can we expect to see a book of poetry from you in the future?

Although I have a chapbook manuscript, about ten poems, that I’ve been shopping around occasionally, I am nowhere near ready to assemble a full-length manuscript.

I’m excitedly awaiting the day I’m ready to embark on that project because I like thinking about poems together in context to each other. But I’m not there yet.

Right now, I’m writing a variety of things. Quite a few religious-of-sorts poems in the works, prayers and spells to a variety of invented gods. One I have no idea what to do with because it’s a doctrinal document. I like the entity I’ve invented, it’s appeared in two poems so far, but I don’t know what to do with the second one.

I’m also doing a series of poems based on “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” which is deeply unfinished, and I’m not totally sure if it will go anywhere.

I have some other unconnected projects too; I sort of fill notebooks at random. A lot has happened in the past twelve months!

Thanks to Tristan for having this delightful conversation! If you liked this interview, check out some of our other author interviews:

Galaxy’s Edge Interviews Jonathan Maberry

In the September 2021 issue of Galaxy’s Edge, Jean Marie Ward interviews Jonathan Maberry, prolific writer and editor of Weird Tales magazine.

Check out the full interview below, and if you like this content, consider subscribing to Galaxy’s Edge, where we bring you the best speculative fiction from writers new and old, as well as thoughtful interviews and book reviews.

About Jean Marie Ward

Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between. Her credits include a multi-award nominated novel, numerous short stories and two popular art books. The former editor of CrescentBlues.com, she is a frequent contributor to Galaxy’s Edge and ConTinual, the convention that never ends. Learn more at JeanMarieWard.com.
 

Confessions of a High-Output Writer

New York Timesbestselling author Jonathan Maberry credits his grandmother, his middle school librarian, and the college professor he once hated most with turning him into writer. But it’s doubtful they or his former mentors, Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson, could have foreseen how far their lessons would take him. The short list of his honors includes five Bram Stoker Awards, the Inkpot Award, three Scribe Awards, multiple teen book awards, and designation as a Today Top Ten Horror Writer. His many novels and anthologies have been sold to more than thirty countries. As a comics writer, he has written dozens of titles for Marvel Comics, Dark Horse, and IDW Publishing. V-Wars, the shared world anthology series he created for IDW Publishing, has been made into a Netflix series starring Ian Somerhalder, who previously appeared in Lost and The Vampire Diaries. Maberry’s young adult Rot & Ruin series was adapted as a webtoon for cell phones and is in development for film. As if that wasn’t enough, he currently serves as the president of the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers AND as editor of the iconic Weird Tales magazine.

Huffing and puffing to keep up, Galaxy’s Edge talked to Maberry about his origins as a writer, the experiences that shaped him into a multi-genre powerhouse, and the seminal role Black Panther played in his life.

Galaxy’s Edge: You’ve said many times that you always wanted to be a writer. As a young child you made stories up about your toys. What pointed you in the direction of horror?

Jonathan Maberry: My grandmother, who was my favorite blood relative, was basically a grownup version of Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter. She was that person who believed in everything. She believed in what you call “the larger world”—ghosts, goblins, and by extension, things like UFOs and alternate dimensions in the realms of fairy. She believed in everything. She was born on Halloween, and she embraced that. She only had pets that were born on Halloween. In fact, she gave me the very first pet I ever had, my dog Spooker. There’s a picture of him behind me on the wall. [My grandmother] gave him to me because he was born on Halloween.

She got me involved in the spooky stuff. But what’s interesting is, not only did she tell me all the folklore tales and some of the fictional tales of monsters, she encouraged me to read the anthropology, the science, and the commentary on why people believe these things. Even though she was very broad in her belief systems, she felt that there was a connection to our real world. She felt that what we consider to be the supernatural—or the preternatural, or the paranormal (there are different variations)—are all parts of a world we will eventually learn how to measure, and that we only know about one hundredth or 1 percent of what we will eventually know. So, she considered these things to be future science.

From there, I started learning about vampires, werewolves, and all sorts of things. Of course, I started watching the TV shows and the movies, and became hooked on those. I loved the folktales, the fiction, and the nonfiction. In fact, the first couple of books I did on the supernatural were nonfiction, exploring beliefs about the paranormal and supernatural around the world throughout history. I wrote those books because of her and because of the things she’d exposed me to as a kid.

Galaxy’s Edge: This is probably unfair to your hometown, but my mom was from Philadelphia, and I lived in the suburbs from 1969 to 1977. So, I’ve got to ask, how much did living in Philadelphia during Frank Rizzo’s tenure as police commissioner and mayor shape your vision of monsters?

Jonathan Maberry: Well, it didn’t so much shape my vision as monsters as it did shape my vision of a corrupt police state, which may have informed my love of writing thrillers with corrupt officials. [Rizzo] was not only corrupt, he was notoriously and openly corrupt. It was a reinforcement of the same skewed view of how power was used by those in power over those who didn’t have power that I had learned from home. Because I grew up in a very abusive home with a very dictatorial and violent father in a blue-collar neighborhood that was very violent. A lot of abuse.

There were also a lot of people in the neighborhood who were involved in the police department in one way or another. Rizzo was a policeman’s mayor, you know. Not a good policeman’s mayor, but a policeman’s mayor. He would have been a really good mob boss had he been in Chicago in the ’Thirties. It gave me a very jaundiced view of political power. And the fact that for him, it wasn’t even about party. It was just power. He was a manipulative sociopath in power. That’s a pattern we’ve seen elsewhere.

Galaxy’s Edge: Yes, it is. I also wondered what role did observing this abuse of power play in your writerly activism. You’re involved with multiple writers’ organizations. You founded the Philadelphia Liars Club and Writers Coffeehouses across the country specifically to help writers. Was there a connection between the two?

Jonathan Maberry: It was more of an economic thing, because in the neighborhood where I grew up—actually, in my own household—reading was not encouraged. In fact, if we were seen reading a book, the most commonly asked question was, “Are you trying to get above yourself?” My father used to ask that all the time. And of course, the thought I had was, “No, I’m trying to get above you.”

The desire to educate myself out of that environment was really strong. Not only was reading not encouraged, creative expression of that sort was viewed as impractical and something of an insult to people who are hard-working blue-collar stiffs, which is not the case. You rise to the call of your genius. Whatever you feel you do best is what you should try to do. Writing is what I always wanted to do, and I found so many other writers who had been browbeaten by everyone they knew, even well-intentioned family members, because it’s too hard, you’re not gonna make any money, you’re not gonna do this. It’s all this negative propaganda that is parroted at all levels. It comes down from somewhere, but it filters through family, from neighborhood, through high school counselors.

My high school counselor tried to talk me out of being a writer. That neighborhood, that environment, was all about getting out of school, getting into a factory, and paying the bills. That was it, and that’s doom to a writer. I mean, it’s worse than a prison sentence.

I got some unexpected help along the way from incredible writers who I met in most unlikely circumstances, Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson, in particular. They didn’t need to help me. It was of no actual benefit to them. But they saw someone who was trying to write their way out of where they were and into the future they wanted. And they helped.

As an inspiration, that can’t be beat. So, whenever I had the opportunity to use my position, my connections, my experience, whatever, to help other writers move up and break through the propaganda, break through the self-doubt, into the opportunity to do something worthwhile with their skills, I took it. It’s tied also to a viewpoint that I saw a lot as a kid, but also saw reinforced during the economic downturn of 2008-2009.

There are two camps of writers. One camp seems to feel that if somebody asks you for advice, or a lead, or something, and you give it to them, that means you’re denying it to yourself. That camp feels opportunities are finite, that open doors are finite, that if you help someone else, you’re screwing yourself. It’s a very fear-based viewpoint. It’s also a very popular viewpoint. The other camp believes that if writers help other writers to become better writers, more good books will get written. Those good books will attract more book sales and more readers, and everyone will prosper.

One approach is fear-based, and the other is optimism-based. I’ve always felt that the optimism-based approach is what’s going to get us out of the mud that we’re stuck in when we grow up in an environment like that and have been propagandized like that.

Galaxy’s Edge: Your first fiction series, the Deep Pine Trilogy, drew a lot on the knowledge and love of folklore your grandmother inspired. But your later works, notably, V-Wars and the Joe Ledger series display a profoundly scientific bent. What drew you to blending science and horror?

Jonathan Maberry: Again, that started with my grandmother encouraging me to read the science, the folklore, even the medicine, to explain things. For example, a lot of the beliefs about evil spirits coming to draw the life out of a sleeping child were really ways for less educated people in earlier centuries to explain things like sudden infant death syndrome. If you look at the science of it, you can understand the belief. With that comes also understanding of the needs for [the belief]. I’ll explain with SIDS.

A healthy child goes to bed and dies. There are no marks. There’s nothing to suggest that it was harmed. But maybe the window was open, and people say, “Oh, something got in.”

But say this is the 17th century, and a child died under those circumstances. It feels so arbitrary that it puts people out of sync with their religious beliefs. Why would a loving God allow an innocent child to die like that? So, the parents go to their priest, which was the common thing to do, because the local church was the center of knowledge and where information was shared. The priest says, “Well, you must have sinned in some way, say these prayers, put up these relics, and it won’t happen again.” Sudden infant death syndrome rarely happens again within the same family. So, the next child doesn’t die after the rituals, and the people have a reinforcement of their faith.

Thus the presence of the belief in a monster that has come and taken the life of the child becomes necessary to reinforce their belief in a protective God. Reading the science of that not only gives me a historical and clinical perspective, it gives me real insight into character motivations as needs, and the way in which a story then evolves into a satisfying conclusion.

Galaxy’s Edge: Did meeting Richard Matheson have anything to do with it?

Jonathan Maberry: Richard Matheson is the biggest influence on my style. Even though I write in about a dozen different genres, almost everything I write is built on the structure of a thriller, the race against time to prevent something from happening—as opposed to a suspense, where we’re all in the moment or in a mystery we’re solving. The thriller is that race against time. {Matheson’s] novel, I Am Legend (which he gave me a copy of for Christmas 1973) is a prototypical thriller. I mean, it’s a prototype for the thrillers that came afterwards.

[In I Am Legend] something comes up. A big calamity ends the world. You have the apocalyptic element of the story. You also have a science element to the story because it was the first time that a horror story or the genre of science fiction horror used actual science to try to explain itself.

Prior to that science fiction horror like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Frankenstein made references to chemicals or galvanism without going into any detail. In I Am Legend, [Matheson] actually went into the experiments to find bacillus vampiris, which created the vampire plague. He gave us the scientific explanation, the step-by-step. That made it so much more real. The story became more riveting and more threatening to the reader, because now that line between reality and fiction is blurred. That makes it a really compelling thriller.

I’ve taken that model and applied it to almost everything I’ve written. I also use this old con man saying: “Use nine truths to sell one lie.” I build my fiction on a scaffolding of pretty solid science. I do a lot of research, so it’s harder for the reader to know when I have stepped off into fantasy. That started with Matheson and a lot of what Matheson told me when I was a kid.

Galaxy’s Edge: Fifteen-years-old is a very impressionable age, isn’t it?

Jonathan Maberry: Yes.

Galaxy’s Edge: You imprinted on him.

Jonathan Maberry: Well, I met him when I was 12. It was the middle school librarian at my school in Philly who introduced me to him, Bradbury, and others. There was a group of writers who would meet occasionally in New York, and she worked as a kind of informal secretary for them. She dragged me along, partly as baggage and partly because she knew I wanted to write. They took me on as a pet project. All of these great writers, Arthur C. Clarke and Harlan Ellison—whoever was in town—took time to give me advice, like they were competing with one another to give me the best advice that night. I’m really cool with that kind of attention. In fact, the tenth-anniversary edition of Ghost Road Blues, my first novel, has the last ever cover quotes from Bradbury and Matheson.

Galaxy’s Edge: Oh, how wonderful! Now you’re paying forward the help you received.

Jonathan Maberry: Which I should. We should all do that, because there’s not one person who has ever gotten anywhere significant without help. And often, too often, people don’t pause to explain that help was there, who helped them, or to even focus on their own gratitude for what happened. You know, it’s not all about us. It’s literally about us—the community, not the individual. I get so jazzed seeing people take that step, get that deal, or hit a list. It’s like an ongoing party.

Galaxy’s Edge: Returning to the subject of science and pseudoscience, we both grew up in a time when educators and behaviorists believed that growing minds should be shielded from the horrors of things like Weird Tales, EC comics, and Hammer Films. As evidenced by your YA titles, such as the Rot & Ruin series, you see things differently. Why is horror important for young adult readers?

Jonathan Maberry: Because horror is almost always a metaphor for things that are happening in real life. I grew up, as I said, in an abusive household, a very violent household, and a violent neighborhood. There was nobody shielding me as a kid. As a result, I think I got a more clear and well-balanced perspective on life than I would have had if I had been sheltered. Sheltering someone from immediate harm—like pulling your kid away from a hot oven—okay, that’s smart. But not allowing the kid to understand the nature of danger, the nature of heroism, the nature of survival, or all the different qualities that they will need as adults? Sheltering them from that is silly, because it’s not like once they graduate from high school, they suddenly get a download of all these survival skills. They don’t. They have to acquire them along the way.

I remember just talking to my friends as a kid. We were a lot deeper than the adults thought we were. All kids are deeper than adults think they are. To shelter them is a great way to prevent that intellectual growth, empathic growth, and societal awareness. Anytime you shelter, you blind. Anytime you allow the kid to see and then make decisions, and form their own opinions, you’re encouraging growth. It’s useful if parents are there to have conversations about it, but not to stand in the way.

Galaxy’s Edge: You’ve worked extensively in comics, television, and animation. How difficult was it to switch from writing novels and short stories to scripting comics and other broadcast media?

Jonathan Maberry: Well, I haven’t actually written TV scripts yet. I’ve had stuff adapted. I was executive producer, but I was not actually writing the scripts. I haven’t done that yet. I’m studying the form because I will be doing that.

As far as comics go, comics were a bit of a culture shock for me. I mean, I grew up with comics. I was a Marvel kid. I’ve read all the Marvel Comics. But to write them? I write very long novels. My first novel is 148,000 words. It’s a long novel where you can have long conversations with characters, long descriptions, long interior monologues, and so on. But you can’t in comics. Brevity is very important. But also with comics, you have to realize that it is no longer a solo act. With a novel, it’s you and your laptop. With comics, you write the script. You describe what’s in each panel, so you give the art direction. Sure.

But then the artist comes in, and the artist’s A game is to do visual storytelling. You have to learn how to not yield control but share the process, so that they are able to do their best work while you’re doing yours. Then the colorist, and the letterer all have artistic contributions to make. It’s a much more collaborative process. I’ve been told by friends of mine who have gone from comics to writing TV, that it’s excellent training for writing for television, because TV and film are also collaborative. I’m now in the process of pitching a TV series with a couple producer friends, and everything is collaborative. We all have strong ideas, but it’s not one person’s gig. So I learned a lot of that from comics.

One funny thing happened when I just started writing comics. I love dialogue. So I had a lot of dialogue in one of my first comics, and the artist very politely said, “At any point, would you like the readers to be able to see the art?” And I’m like, “Oops.”

It’s funny, I had already been warned about that by Joe Hill, who is the son of Stephen King, and a great writer himself. [Hill] had had almost exactly the same conversation with Gabriel Rodriguez, who was his artist for Locke & Key. Joe said, “Do your draft, and then cut it back by 80 percent.” And I’m thinking, “I don’t need to do that.” Then I got that email, and it was: “Oh, yeah, I need to do that.” The comic was better for it, by the way…

Friends of mine, like Gregg Hurwitz, who wrote Batman and a lot of TV, said, “Writing an issue of comics is very similar to writing an hour of TV drama.” Even the beats are the same, because you have to have dramatic beats for ads and page breaks, which are not that dissimilar from the beats for commercial breaks. He said, “It’s about 75 percent. If you can write a comic book, you’re 75 percent there for how to write a TV script.”

Galaxy’s Edge: Speaking of comics, I didn’t realize when I was drafting my questions that the way you got involved with the Black Panther comic was among the most important events of your life, both in terms of your introduction to the comic, and later in terms of writing it. Would you mind talking a little bit about that?

Jonathan Maberry: When I was a kid, I got involved in Marvel Comics in a big way. I was really a huge fan of Marvel, my favorite comic being The Fantastic Four. The character of the child of the Black Panther was introduced in one of the early issues. I think it was issue 54 of Fantastic Four.

My father, who was deeply racist and involved in the Ku Klux Klan, was very upset that I was reading a comic in which a black man was a king, a superhero, and a scientist. He tore the comic up. He knocked me around for even having it. But a couple of years later, I took another issue of that comic in which the Black Panther appeared to my middle school librarian, the same one introduced me to Matheson and Bradbury. I said, “I’d get in trouble if I show this to my father. Can [you] tell me about this?” And she said, “Well, that particular issue is about apartheid.” I had no idea what that was.

[I showed her] another issue that I brought with me, and she said, “That one’s about the Jim Crow laws.” She kept asking me if I knew about these things, and I didn’t, because all that had been suppressed in my neighborhood. I met no one of color until I was in seventh grade, not one person. I wound up diving deep into an understanding of racism and intolerance. As much as Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love, there was a lot of racism there. In certain parts of the city, it was pretty intense, especially in the ’Sixties. That understanding opened my eyes. You know, you have a choice. You can close your eyes and pretend the world is what you were trained to believe, or you can keep your eyes open to see the world for what it actually is.

I don’t believe in closing one’s eyes. The old nature versus nurture thing is actually an imperfect equation. It’s nature versus nurture, versus choice. Choice is a big thing. I chose to keep my eyes open.

I went diving deep into understanding racism. It changed the course of my life and split me from my father forever. Every part of my personality, every part of my understanding of the world and fairness and everything of history pivoted on that moment. It is the most important single moment of my life.

Roll forward to 2008-2009. I had just started writing for Marvel Comics, and Reginald Hudlin who is the founder of BET, an Academy Award-winning producer, and was then the writer of Black Panther, heard this anecdote. He suggested to the editor-in-chief of Marvel that when he stepped down, they have me write the comic.

Now, this was a challenge. At this point, Black writers were writing the Black Panther comic, and I agree with having Black writers write that comic. It’s the iconic, first Black superhero ever. But that child had saved my life too. It had changed me. Just as it changed the lives of a lot of Black kids who found that character, it changed my life as a White kid who found the character. And they asked me if I would write a comic which, of course, I wanted to write. I actually cried when I was told that they were offering this to me.

But also, because I had been teaching women’s self-defense for so many years, including 14 years at Temple University, they made a change in the character. T’Challa got injured in the comic, and his sister Shuri had to step up to become the Panther. So what they handed me was the feminist Black Panther comic to write, which I did for two years. It was one of the greatest honors of my career, and so much fun. And I’m pretty sure that my father was spinning in his grave at warp speed because this was everything he would have hated, and it’s everything that I became because that character help split me off from him.

It’s one of my favorite memories, and one of my favorite things to say is: “Yeah, I was part of that actual world. I was part of the Black Panther. I have my own guest membership in Wakanda.”

Galaxy’s Edge: Amazing. Simply amazing. You never know where the words you put on the page will take someone you never met.

That’s an impossible act to follow, but I do have a couple of questions left. With all the articles, books, comics, greeting cards, and everything else you’ve written, what prompted you to add editing to your resume?

Jonathan Maberry: When I got into novels, which was only 2006, I thought that was all I was gonna do. I had no interest in writing short stories. Then I was invited to write a couple of short stories for different anthologies. I liked the process, but I generally do not do a project unless I become familiar with the other players. So, I started having conversations with the editors, getting insights into what they do and seeing how much they loved it. You know, they’re the first people to read stories [they’ve commissioned] by their favorite writers. I said, that sounds like Christmas morning.

So, I started putting out feelers. But the way I started editing my World War Z anthologies was kind of funny. Max Brooks had been editing an anthology of G.I. Joe stories—the little Hasbro toys. He invited me to write a novella for it, which I did. He had originally planned to do a couple of different anthologies for that same publisher, IDW Publishing. But after [the G.I. Joe] project, he had to go and do something else.

So IDW asked me if I would like to edit the next anthology. I had just finished reading a whole bunch of shared world anthologies, and I thought, “Wow, that’s kind of fun. If I’m gonna do one, I might as well do one where I can play too.” Generally, the editor of an anthology does not contribute a story. But in a shared world, they usually create the world, write a framing story, and other people write individual stories.

So, I pitched one about a plague that turns people into vampires. It became V-Wars, my first anthology, and I loved it. I curated it. I invited those friends of mine who were really good writers, but who were also of the same emotional bent as me in that I felt they were good-hearted people, people who were generous with their colleagues, especially with newer colleagues, and played well with others. I do not work with people who are prima donnas. It’s just not worth the effort. I want people who are having fun but also professional. I fell in love with them.

I’ve edited 18 anthologies. Then later on, a producer friend, who was involved in the return of Weird Tales magazine, asked if would I be interested in coming aboard to help curate and edit some issues. I started out as consulting editor or editorial director—I think that was the first title. But by the second issue, I was actually the editor. And well, I’m working with my next two issues simultaneously.

Galaxy’s Edge: That is a heavy workload. Anything related to a periodical is a full-time job.

Jonathan Maberry: Yeah, but I had really interesting training. I went to Temple University School of Journalism, and I had a couple of teachers, notably John Hayes, who was a teacher I hated while at school, and now I wanna put him up for sainthood. He taught me how to be a high-output writer, which is a skill set. I didn’t know I would like to do that. Turns out it’s where I’m having the most fun. I wouldn’t have taken on the editorial gigs had I not felt that I could work them into my schedule while still writing three to four novels a year and short stories. I’m having a blast doing it. Yeah, it makes for some long days sometimes, but it’s a long day doing what you love. It’s not like it’s a hardship.

Galaxy’s Edge: We’re coming up on the end of the interview. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Jonathan Maberry: For any writer out there who’s reading this, the Writers Coffeehouse has, because of COVID, moved online. You can find us on Facebook at Facebook.com/groups/TheWritersCoffeehouse. It is free. It is a community of writers helping each other with no agenda other than to help each other. So go check it out on Facebook. Also, if you go to my website, JonathanMaberry.com (only one “Y”), there’s a whole page of free stuff for writers—comic book scripts, novels, samples, and so on. It’s all downloadable PDFs. Go grab what you need.

Copyright © 2021 by Jean Marie Ward.

Like our interviews? Read our conversation with qntm, author of There Is No Antimemetics Division and author Seanan McGuire!

Galaxy’s Edge Interviews Seanan McGuire

In the July 2021 issue of Galaxy’s Edge, Jean Marie Ward interviews Seanan McGuire. They discuss all manner of things, including writing, publishing, feminism, and much more!

Check out the full interview below, and if you like this content, consider subscribing to Galaxy’s Edge, where we bring you the best speculative fiction from writers new and old, as well as thoughtful interviews and book reviews.

About Jean Marie Ward

Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between. Her first novel, With Nine You get Vanyr (written with the late Teri Smith), finaled in both the science fiction/fantasy and humor categories of the 2008 Indie Awards. She has published stories in Asimov’s and many anthologies and provided an in-depth look into an award-wining artist, with her book Illumina: The Art of J.P. Targete. Her second nonfiction title, Fantasy Art Templates, marries the superb illustrations of artist Rafi Adrian Zulkarnain with pithy descriptions of over one hundred fifty creatures and characters from science fiction, fantasy, folklore and myth. A former assistant producer of the local access cable TV program Mystery Readers Corner, Ms. Ward edited the respected webzine Crescent Blues for eight years, and co-edited Unconventional Fantasy, a six-volume collection of fiction, non-fiction and art celebrating the fortieth anniversary of World Fantasy Con. She has also contributed interviews and articles for diverse publications before starting interviewing for Galaxy’s Edge magazine. Her website is JeanMarieWard.com.

FOLKLORE, PLAGUES, AND ANGLERFISH

What are award-winning, SFF writers made of? In the case of Seanan McGuire—author of the October Daye, InCryptid, Wayward Children series and more under her own name, as well as the science fiction horror novels of her alter ego Mira Grant and the children’s fantasy she writes as A. Deborah Baker—the answer encompasses music, art, anglerfish and 3 a.m. fanfiction attacks. Strange as the recipe may seem, you can’t argue with the results. To date, McGuire’s honors include the 2010 John W. Campbell Award (now the Astounding Award) for Best New Writer, the 2013 Nebula Award for Best Novella, five Hugo Awards, a record-breaking five Hugo nominations in a single year, and five consecutive Hugo nominations for Best Series—to say nothing of the seven Pegasus Awards she’s won for her filking. Eager to learn more, Galaxy’s Edge sat down with the California native a few days before the release of her latest novel, Angel of the Overpass, to talk about her earliest days as a writer, her fascination with microbial marvels, and expanding the notion of personhood on the page.

Galaxy’s Edge: When did you first realize you wanted to become a writer?

Seanan McGuire: When I found out it was an option. I was a very weird child. I was credulous in some ways that sound fake to me now, even though I remember the experience, and disbelieving in other odd ways. It made perfect sense to me that lunch boxes would grow on trees, which happens in The Wizard of Oz. And if there are lunchbox trees, why wouldn’t there be book trees? I had never met an author. I had never met anyone who said they were an author. I just figured that books happened. Being a storyteller felt like too much of a responsibility for any one person. It didn’t make sense, given the breadth of stories I could experience if I went looking, that anyone would do that.

At the time, one of my favorite shows was an anthology series on the USA Network called Ray Bradbury Presents. Every episode began with this white-haired dude sitting at a typewriter pounding away. Then there’d be a ding, and he would pull a sheet of paper out of the typewriter and throw it into the air. It fluttered down and formed part of the logo.

One day I asked my grandmother, “Who the heck is that? Why is this old dude taking up like a whole minute of what could be story?”

She said, “That’s Ray Bradbury. He wrote all these stories.”

That was my bolt of lightning moment. Wait, one person made all this up? This is all fake, and one person sat down and thought of it, and that was okay? That was allowed? I pretty much decided on the spot that that’s what I was going to do.

Galaxy’s Edge: How did you get from there to your first published stories?

Seanan McGuire: A lot of fan fiction. So much fan fiction. Shortly after the Ray Bradbury Presents incident, my mother brought me this gigantic manual typewriter from a yard sale. It cost five dollars, and it disrupted her sleep for years. It weighed more than I did. I would sit down, feed my paper in, and pound away for hours. I was seven. Seven-year-olds don’t sleep like humans They’re people, but they aren’t humans yet. The idea that 3 a.m. is not a good time to start working on a giant manual typewriter that sounds like gunfire does not occur to their tiny seven-year-old brains. And since the typewriter was so big compared to how big I was, I couldn’t just type, I had to assault the keyboard. I hunt and peck at approximately two hundred forty words per minute…

Because I was writing for hours at night, I would write stories about my cats or what I did that weekend or—and this is key—about having adventures with my friends, the My Little Ponies in Dream Valley. I had no idea that a self-insert was a bad thing. I was seven. I had no idea that saying I would be good at everything the ponies needed me to be good at was being a Mary Sue. Again, I was seven. I did this for years.

The thing about writing is the more you do it, the better you’ll get. You can get good at some really bad habits. But putting words in a line, forming sentences, building sentences into a paragraph, building enough paragraphs onto a page to have a page? That’s a muscle. That’s something that you learn by doing. I turned out reams and reams and reams of not goodness, but it taught me how to put together a page.

Then I got to high school and discovered real fanfic, where you write in a universe. [Fanfic] had these weird unspoken rules, like the Mary Sue Litmus Test, and what was and was not appropriate to do. One of the first pieces of advice I was given was never write a character who looks like you, even if they’re canonical, because everyone will assume that the blonde girl writing about Veronica Mars or Emma Frost is really writing about herself, and that’s not okay. At some point, every dude I know writes about himself having magical adventures in a magical D&D land and getting all the hot elf babes. But if a blonde woman writes a blonde character or a Black woman writes a Black character or anything superficially similar to their appearance, it doesn’t matter how integral that character is to the story, it’s proof they’re sticking themselves in the story, and that’s bad. I disagree with this, in case you can’t tell.

Galaxy’s Edge: What about the little blonde girl in the InCryptid series?

Seanan McGuire: I ultimately got around the problem by making everything fanfic. Verity is basically Chelsie Hightower from So You Think You Can Dance. The InCryptid series was a response to my PA saying, “Please, write something that gets us invited to go backstage on So You Think You Can Dance.

But in the beginning I just wrote a lot of fanfic. The more fanfic I wrote, the better I got at things like plot and structure and actually writing a 20,000-word, a 50,000-word, a 100,000-word story that wouldn’t bore my readers. Eventually I started writing original fiction, which pretty much went nowhere. I would write it, I would be happy with it, and then I would revise it, because when no one’s publishing you, masturbatory revision takes 90 percent of your time.

One day, my friend Tara, who knew me from the fanfic community, said an agent friend of hers was branching out and starting her own boutique agency. And because [the agent] was from the fanfic community, she was looking for fanfic authors with an interest in their own original fiction. I sent her a copy of Rosemary and Rue. She sent me back a list of suggested revisions. I did one more revision, and she signed me. Then everything went nuts.

Galaxy’s Edge: Because you had something else in the pipe—something that became the Newsflesh series.

Seanan McGuire: The thing about writing very fast is I write very fast. When we took Rosemary and Rue to DAW, I had already finished [the] first three books in the October Daye series (Rosemary and Rue, A Local Habitation and An Artificial Night). I also had a rough and not-so-great draft of Book Four, Late Eclipses, but I had time to revise and beat it into a shape. I also had Feed, my biotechnical science-fiction thriller. We took Feed to Orbit.

With DAW, we were very fortunate in that a good friend of mine was also a DAW author and able to give me the nepotism referral to her editor. She wasn’t inappropriate about it. She just said, “This is my friend, Seanan. She wrote a really good book. I think you’ll like it. Let me introduce you.”

At Orbit, we went through a more normal submissions process. We wound up with DongWon Song, who’s now an agent but at the time was an Orbit editor. They were the perfect editor for that series. I miss working with them.

Galaxy’s Edge: You mentioned in another interview that you took the “dragon major” in college: a double major in folklore and herpetology. How did that play into your writing and your day job?

Seanan McGuire: I’ve never had a day job that used either parts of my degree. I think that anything we do or are interested in will play into our writing. We can’t help it. It’s part of why I get kind of angry on a personal level at authors who say that fanfic is bad and you can’t do fanfic ever. Well, okay, I’m gonna go over your work and find every element that you took from Shakespeare. How dare you write fanfic? I’m gonna find every element you took from Austen or from Poe. Or from fairy tales, from the Brothers Grimm, from Disney.

Humans are magpies. We do not thrive on original thought. That’s not how we’re constructed. If you have one truly original thought in your entire lifetime, you’re about average. You’re doing well. We want to think of ourselves as these incredible original innovators of everything, but that’s not how monomyths work. It’s not how human psychology works. Everything’s a remix.

Because I studied both the so-called soft science of folklore and the hard science of herpetology, I have, to a certain degree, the flexibility of thought arising from two very different disciplines. It doesn’t make me better or worse than anyone else. It just means that I have been trained to look at things from those multiple angles. There are still ways of thought that are completely alien to me. I have no experience or background in any kind of physical handiwork. I don’t know how to fix a car. If you hand me a hammer and a nail, the odds are good that what I’ll hand you back is a trip to the ER, because I have just broken my hand. There are patterns and ways of thought that I can’t wrap my head around. But having that initial flexibility made it easier for me to switch gears as I got older.

You can see the dichotomy in the two sides of my work. When I write as Seanan, I tend to write very monomythical, very inspired by folklore, very poetic. One of my favorite copy editors says, when you copy edit my work for flow and for tone, you need to remain aware of the fact that I have never written a book in my life. What I write is 300-page poems. That’s not inaccurate. The way I build sentences, the way I phrase things and manage the rising action very much reflects the fact I was a folklore major who studied oral histories for a long time. Within a single book, there will usually be one or two phrases that I hit very often. It’s not because don’t I think my readers are clever; it’s how I assemble a narrative.

When I write as Mira Grant, [the stories] are very biological. I started out wanting her to be a horror author. It turns out she’s not, because I am so much less interested in the screaming than I am in the scalpel. I want my science to make sense, and I want my biology to make sense. That’s what makes me happy.

Galaxy’s Edge: Even when dealing with mermaids?

Seanan McGuire: Even when dealing with mermaids. The mermaids [of Into the Drowning Deep] were actually a direct attack on DongWon. When they were my editor, I would threaten to write them a book about anglerfish mermaids.

The way anglerfish reproduce is the male anglerfish will be attracted by the smell of the female anglerfish’s pheromones. He thinks she’s so sexy that, when he finally finds her, all he wants to do is eat her. So, he chomps onto her skin. This causes a chemical reaction which melts his skin and fuses him with the female. Her body will gradually absorb his until all that’s left is his scrotum.

The female now has a pair of testicles sticking out of her, and she can control when sperm is released. One female anglerfish can have hundreds of sets of testes stuck to her from men that she has effectively eaten. In terms of size, the male anglerfish is about one and a half to two inches long. The female anglerfish is the size of an alligator snapping turtle. It’s one of the biggest cases of sexual dimorphism in the vertebrate world…. The biology of my mermaids was preset by that horror.

Galaxy’s Edge: You didn’t work in herpetology, but I understand your former day job used a lot of your science background, which contributed to Feed and your all-too-plausible zombie apocalypse.

Seanan McGuire: Yep. I am a prophetic genius. The entirety of COVID-19 has been an exciting game of people telling me: “You were right about everything two years ago.” Yes, I was. Thank you. There you go.

Galaxy’s Edge: Are there more such prophecies in our future? Should we be shivering in our boots?

Seanan McGuire: Right now, I am not doing anything super pathological, in part because I lost a lot of optimism in the current pandemic.

People ask me all the time, “What do you feel like you got wrong? What would you do differently?” The answer is I had too much hope. Part of that is Feed was written and published before the real rise of Facebook, before the rise of microblogging, [at a time] when if you wanted a blog, you still had to set up a blog and usually wrote longer-form things. Readers could get an idea of who you were, your likes, your dislikes, your prejudices. You weren’t just delivering speedy sound bites of hatred and vitriol.

I like the flexibility and speed of Facebook and Twitter in terms of things like coordinating disaster response. But what we’ve seen is we’re not doing as much as we could, because we’ve all learned to hate each other in this time of super-fast microblogging, botnets and trolls.

There was a point, early in the current situation, where I posted a thread on Twitter (which is my primary habitat most of the time) about ways to protect yourself from con crud and the seasonal flu. There is a tweet in that thread which can be seen as equating coronavirus with airborne diseases.

At the time, the official position was that the disease we’re dealing with now was not in fact airborne, even though anyone who had ever worked with any coronavirus anywhere was saying, “No, it’s probably airborne. If you don’t think it’s airborne, you’re probably wrong.” The science said, “Probably airborne,” but the official public information said, “Not.”

So, I posted this tweet. It’s in the middle of a relatively innocuous thread. Hey, wash your hands, drink lots of water, sleep. I know that you don’t feel like those last two have anything to do with your health at a convention, but they genuinely do. The more well hydrated you are, the less likely you are to pick up most common crud. That sort of thing. For three days I got barraged by trolls screaming at me for being so irresponsible as to imply that this could be an airborne disease. They weren’t real people. None of them had existed on Twitter prior to a month previous. They weren’t there to engage in conversation. They were there to yell at me. That’s because it’s so easy to set up a word finder, something that triggers off a keyword and unleashes this tide of hating on people who say things you don’t like.

My pandemic response [in Feed] was founded on the idea that the news would lie to us (which we saw will happen), and that in the absence of the news, citizen scientists and citizen reporters would rise as a source of credible information. Instead, what we saw is people will rise to sell you miracle cures made from mercury and tell you that your children have COVID because they were given a vaccination twenty years ago, even though your children are eleven. It’s just bad.

I am not currently working on any diseases because part of what I enjoy about writing pandemic fiction, why it makes me happy to be Mira Grant, is that diseases fascinate me. I find them really interesting—the mechanisms by which they work, the things that we know they can do to us, the things that we’re still finding out they can do to us. They’re amazing. They’re so simple. They’re not living things. They’re basically malware. They’re just these little instruction bundles that plug into your body and go haywire.

It is easier for me not to be afraid of them if I understand them and am writing about them and having a good time. It feels a little mean to have a good time with diseases right now. The way I have always coped with the horrible diseases I created was by going, “No-no. Once enough people started dying, we would care. Once enough people were at risk, we would care.” But what I’ve seen is that far too many of the people in positions of power wouldn’t.

Galaxy’s Edge: There are those who say, if this world fails us, we should write the world we want to live in. What would that world look like for you?

Seanan McGuire: The way I would like the world to be is incredibly overly optimistic. I don’t think we’re going to get there in my lifetime. We have enough food that no one needs to be hungry. We have enough resources that no one needs to be homeless, no one needs to be sick. We have enough of everything that no one actually needs to feel like they don’t have enough. But there is a point at which anything stops being the thing itself and becomes counting coup. There are people with so much money, they could be spending money every minute of every single day of their lives and not come even remotely close to running out of money. And what do they do? Do they rent Disney World for a month? No. Do they set up a zoo full of tigers in their basement? No. They make more money because they have seen how much they are willing to exploit the world, and they want to make sure there’s no one in a position to exploit them.

I want a world where rich people pay their fair share, where everybody gets safe housing, food, clean water, medical care. Where the color of your skin is not treated as any kind of judgment on your personal character. Where the fact that people love who they’re gonna love is not treated as some kind of judgment on their character. It’s so idealistic. Every step forward is amazing, but we have the potential, as a species, to be so much better. Sometimes we aren’t because it would be inconvenient to be better right now. Sometimes it’s because we don’t want to, or it would be hard or “How can I feel like I am better than you if you have as much as me?”

Galaxy’s Edge: As opposed to seeing equality as a valid goal.

Seanan McGuire: We’ve been unequal for so incredibly long that equality really does feel like oppression to a lot of people who have been on the top of the inequality pyramid.

Galaxy’s Edge: Your fiction celebrates diversity and inclusivity. Is this your way of making the world you write shinier, or is it something that just happens?

Seanan McGuire: A little bit of both. But mostly it’s that anything that is 100 percent straight, white, and able-bodied is unrealistic unless you want to set up a bunch of oppressive structures I have no interest in writing.

The world is not a monoculture. Humanity has never been a monoculture. [A lot of stories] treat humanity like a monoculture where any setting you want to use is just pretty stage-dressing and any character you want to design needs a reason to be something other than what we jokingly refer to as the “Six-fecta”: straight, white, vaguely Christian (but not too Christian; you can’t be too religious) able-bodied, cisgender and male. So many books in our genre still hit all six of those attributes with every main character. The only exceptions are some secondary characters who are women because, otherwise, how do we reward the men for being awesome?

But that’s not the world I live in. I have been a queer, disabled, half-Roma woman for my entire life. I knew I liked girls from the time I was eight. Not in a sexual way but in a “If I’m gonna hold hands with somebody and kiss them” way, I would prefer it be a girl. So I can absolutely say that I was queer when I was eight. I’ve been half Roma since my daddy knocked up my mom in the back of a van, and I’ve been female since I popped out. I’ve done the gender interrogation you’re supposed to do as a cis ally and determined that “girl” is pretty much the label that works for me.

I never had a shot at that Six-fecta if I wanted it. Why would I, as someone who deviates from that “norm” on multiple levels, want to write that norm? I know people who fit it, I love people who fit it. I am not saying there’s anything wrong with them wanting to see characters who look like them. But sometimes I want to see a character who looks like me, and that means a character with multiple overlapping identities all of which inform her daily life.

Sometimes, people I know will tell me they want to see a character that looks like them, and they don’t get to do that very often. Then I will make a genuine effort to include a character that looks like them, because I want them to have that experience. We learn how to human from stories. Like I said before, humans are not built for constant original thought. We learn what a person looks like from the stories people tell us. Sometimes that is learning: “Wait, that’s me. I’m a person.” And sometimes it’s learning: “Wait, that’s Jean Marie. Maybe she’s a person too.”

Culturally, we have done ourselves a huge disservice by telling so many stories for such a long time where the only people who got to be at the center of the story were the ones who fit those six attributes, because only those people get fully acknowledged as people by the monomyth we’re living in. That’s not fair and not okay. The only time I tend to manipulate the diversity in a story is if I realize I need to kill somebody. If a group has little representation, you can kill a much larger percentage of that group by killing one character. If I kill a straight white man in science fiction, I have killed one of ninety million straight white men. If I kill a trans woman in science fiction, I’ve killed one of maybe twelve. That’s a very different statement, whether or not I intend to be making it.

So, if someone is in the line of fire and I cannot move them, I will stop, look at what I’m doing, and ask myself: How big a deal is this character to the group they represent? How big a deal would it be if I were reading this book and that character looked like me? Would I have seen me before? That’s not tokenism. I don’t give plot armor to these characters. They can still die. It’s a matter of am I taking away someone’s emotional support character?

Galaxy’s Edge: You have explored just about every subgenre in speculative fiction. Is there any particular kind of story or genre that you would really like to write but haven’t had the chance?

Seanan McGuire: I have an intense, bordering on the ridiculous, fondness for mid-Nineties chick lit, the sub-genre where The Princess Diaries, The Boy Next Door, and Bridget Jones’s Diary live. I’m waiting for the nostalgia wave to whip those back around. I’ve written several. I’m pretty good at it, but there’s no market for them right now. So they sit and occasionally get revised, when I have time, to make sure that they stay up to my current standards. And they go nowhere.

I would also very much like to write a series of cozy mysteries—The Dog Barks at Midnight sort of thing. I have a concept for a fun series of cozy mysteries. But unfortunately, I am told by both my agent and several authors I know who write cozy mysteries, there is no money there. There’s just none.

It’s not that I only write to chase the money, because no one becomes a writer to chase the money. That is the worst decision you could possibly make. Don’t do that, children. Or adults. Or unspeakable cosmic entities. Don’t become a writer because you want to get paid. You will not get paid. But there is a difference between writing something I am truly passionate about, cannot stop myself from writing, that I already know I’m good at, and not getting paid; and writing books in a genre I find charming but not completely compelling, kind-of-wanna-try-my-hand-at but will not get paid. One is a reasonable self-limiting decision. The other is just not bright.

I’d also like to write a truly horrific horror novel that has no science fiction elements. Just horror. I wanna do horror for the sake of horror. I wanna get my Clive Barker on. I wanna get my Kathe Koja on. I can’t. Every time I try, I get distracted by the possibility of science.

Galaxy’s Edge: That’s tragic. Science is death to horror.

Seanan McGuire: Yeah, I love horror so much, and I’m so bad at it.

Galaxy’s Edge: Any closing thoughts?

Seanan McGuire: We are recording this on April 29, 2021. I have a book coming out on May 4 called Angel of the Overpass. It’s the third book in my Ghost Roads series, which is InCryptid-adjacent, published by DAW Books. I won’t say it’s the last, but it is likely to be the final entry in Rose Marshall’s story for a while. So I’m very excited about that.

Over on my Twitter, I just finished a complete review of the October Daye books, because they are nominated for a Best Series Hugo this year. Having grown up in fandom, I tend to be very careful and a little aloof when talking about the Hugos. I remember being told by my foster mother when I was a teenager that it’s gauche to say you want to win. But I really want to win this year.

I feel that the Best Series category was created for urban fantasy. I know it wasn’t created just for urban fantasy, but urban fantasy plays best at series length. It is a story that needs that room to grow and breathe and really be considered as a whole, not just as the sum of its parts. I would desperately like for the first true urban fantasy—just urban fantasy, not urban science fiction, not urban horror, but urban fantasy—Hugo to go to a female or female-identifying author. It’s the only science fiction subgenre that is female-dominated and doesn’t have the word “romance” somewhere in the description. Romance is great. I love romance. I write romance. But female authors get shoved into romance so quickly, whether or not that’s what we want to be doing. Having a subgenre we currently control has always been very very important to me. It feels like a thing we have accomplished as ladies.

So, I would like the first Hugo Award given to a work of pure urban fantasy to be given to a female-identifying author. It doesn’t have to be me. You have many other choices. We are a big and diverse field. But if you’re looking at this year’s ballot, it does have to be me.

Galaxy’s Edge: We’ll keep our fingers crossed and hope the best.

Seanan McGuire: Thank you.

Like our interviews? Read our conversation with qntm, author of There Is No Antimemetics Division!