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.

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.

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A new venture!
A new venture!