Wednesday, September 01, 2010

As it turns out, the voices in my head...

... were actually a conversation I had last summer with Hayden Trenholm, author of the great Steele Chronicles series from Bundoran Press, where we talked about our (then-) about-to-be-launched books. For whatever reason the transcript never saw the light of day, but now with the final book in that series, Stealing Home, being launched I thought it was high time to rectify that.

Hayden: Matt, you've had a fair degree of success as a short story writer, with stories in Asimov's and some foreign language sales as well. Now, you have a novel, Fall From Earth. Other than the fact that it's 'longer,' how would you describe the difference between writing short stories and novels?

Matthew: For me the biggest difference between novels and short stories is that novels need to have a much more solid structure, and they take a lot more rewriting. It's rare for me to do substantial rewrites of a short story, but of the three books I've written the first two have had at least four major drafts each and the third is due for a heavy overhaul as well.

H: That's interesting. My experience with novels and short stories is almost the exact opposite. I seldom get a short piece right on the first go and often have to go through three or even four drafts and, even then, I often don't get it the way I want it. Novels, on the other hand, are often single draft affairs, with relatively minor re-writes in the second (and usually final) draft. I've written six so far -- with Steel Whispers the third to be published [and of course Stealing Home has just been launched -- MJ] -- and none have had major overhauls. I suspect it's because I spend a very long time plotting, doing background notes on character and theme and just thinking about it (often as much as a year or two) before I write a word. Then, my process is to start each day with a quick re-write of the previous day's work.

What were the origins of Fall From Earth?

M: Fall From Earth actually started out as a TV series. I was doing work developing series ideas for a producer in Montreal and one of the ideas I worked on was for a CGI cartoon about a prison planet. It never panned out, but I liked the basic idea and the three seasons I had planned became the three main parts of Fall From Earth. At the same time I was starting to get interested in Chinese history and philosophy, both through a course I was taking and through Larry Gonick's brilliant Cartoon History of the Universe. That found its way into the book and turned the somewhat generic TV series idea into something a lot more interesting.

H: Without giving away too much, what is the story and what makes it ''a lot more interesting" than what it started as?

M: First, when I started to integrate Chinese history and philosophy it gave the background a lot more character and consistency. The government in the book has basically the same problem that China had in the imperial period, which is that with a far-flung territory and poor communications it's always fighting the tendency to fly apart. So I had the Borderless Empire in the book apply the same tenets as the Chinese historically did. Of course, when the penalty for hoarding grain is the same as the penalty for rebellion, you're going to wind up with frequent revolts -- which is what happened historically in China and what happens in the book as well.

The other reason was that when the concept changed from being a TV series, the characters became a lot more nuanced, and as a result the story itself changed significantly. Originally the plot would have been what Shi Jin, the main character, thinks it will be at the beginning of the book -- a rebel taking advantage of her exile to organize another rebellion. That thread is still there, but as the story goes on it becomes more about what she's willing to sacrifice in order to win. A lot of the other characters changed, too, the most dramatic being the one who started as a posthuman cyborg warrior and wound up a priest who uses his implants to get closer to God!

When you wrote Defining Diana, did you already have in mind the idea that you would do a sequel? What themes, plot threads or characters made you keen to revisit that world?

H: Oddly enough, Defining Diana was originally written as a prequel to one of my as-yet-unpublished novels called La Suena -- a long cyber-punk tale inspired by The Grapes of Wrath. I wanted a bridge between the present and the very different and dystopic world I had created. There are only two characters from La Suena in Defining Diana, neither of them major. I wrote Defining Diana as a stand alone noir detective with no idea that there would be a second or in fact, the third, which I'm working on now. But the character of Frank Steele was appealing as were the talkative cyborgs (called The Borg) and there were enough loose ends to inspire a second book. The theme of Defining Diana was the self and Steel Whispers deals with family. The third book, Stealing Home, will tackle community.

M: Did you find it constraining to be working in the past of an already established novel, or have you been making changes to La Suena as you write these two books?

H: Writing a prequel does create certain restraints but it is also quite liberating. A certain amount of the form and structure is already set for you but then you get to play around within that. However, Steel Whispers, and the book I'm now working on, Stealing Home, had and have their own demands and have taken the story in different ways so I will need to make major changes in La Suena as a result. The real question will be whether I want to tackle that re-write or get to work on the three other ideas I have for novels.

Matthew, you mentioned some of your influences. In terms of fiction, who do you read and why? Who would you say have been the biggest influences on your own writing?

M: In terms of authors and influences, the biggest shadow over this book is definitely the late John M. Ford, whose books include The Dragon Waiting, Growing Up Weightless and the best Star Trek novel ever, The Final Reflection. A lot of people called Ford a writer's writer and it's sad that he never got the wide acclaim he really deserved. Otherwise, people I follow eagerly include Gene Wolfe, Michael Swanwick, Tim Powers, Maureen McHugh, and many others. The last SF novel I read was Robert Charles Wilson's Axis and I'm looking forward to reading his Julian Comstock and Jo Walton's Half a Crown. What are your influences?

H: Quite a few writers have influenced me. Robert Sawyer has taught me a lot about the process of being a writer -- more through osmosis than any formal way. I've tried, in my own limited way, to take the same rigorous approach to research and to strong storytelling and the same professional approach to the business side of the job. Rob always has strong thematic elements in his books and that has inspired and encouraged me. The three other SF writers who have had a big influence on me are Joe Haldeman, Connie Willis and CJ Cherryh. I've been fortunate enough to take workshops from both Joe and Connie. And there are a ton of SF writers I read and enjoy. But I also have a lot of non-SF influences -- Hemingway, first and foremost, but also Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Chinua Achebe, Tim Winton, Barry Unsworth and most recently Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem. Several of these bridge the gap between the speculative genres and the more traditional literary. And, of course, Dashiel Hammett and the other noir stylists.

You have a job and a young family, Matt. How do you find time to write? How are you able to balance those other demands on your time? Are you happy with the current balance or do you aspire to be a full-time writer?

M: Right now I don't find a lot of time to write. Since my son Leo was born last August my writing life has largely been on hold, and if I hadn't had to revise Fall From Earth for publication and do work on my second novel, Fire In Your Heart, for an agent I probably wouldn't have done any writing at all in the last year outside from work.

I'm lucky that my current job, at the Media Awareness Network, provides me with an opportunity to do a fair bit of writing -- I design lessons and activities for teachers as well as writing a blog that gets 40-50,000 views a month and designing computer games -- but it's hard to find time to do my own work. If either Fall From Earth or Fire In Your Heart gains any traction I'll probably move to working part-time, and I'm fortunate to have the flexibility to do that.

You've had a great run at the Aurora Awards recently, winning the English Short Form award last year for "Like Water in the Desert" and getting nominated (at least) for Defining Diana in the English Long Form category this year [Steel Whispers received an Aurora nomination as well]. How has that affected your writing career?

H: Getting nominated for and then finally winning the Aurora last year has been a great experience. It is always nice to get some recognition from your work. But, of course, this doesn't happen by accident. In order for people to nominate my work, they have to know it exists. So the biggest impact for me has been as result of building an audience, going to SF conventions, meeting people and exposing them to my work. In the end, that's why we write, isn't it? You can write the best stuff in the world but if no-one reads it, what's the point? And, I think, winning a few awards demonstrates to editors who might buy your work that you are professional and that your work has a certain value. I'm hopeful that, if I can win an Aurora for Defining Diana, especially in the context of the World Science Fiction Convention, this will expose me to a whole new audience. You said that you have other novels in draft form. Are those the projects you are working on now or has a new idea grabbed hold? On the business side of writing, do you have an agent or have you been looking for one?

M: I am looking for an agent, and as I mentioned above Fire In Your Heart has been sitting with one for a little under a year now. I actually did rewrites through the whole manuscript based on his comments, so whether he winds up taking it or not it'll be a better book as a result. My third book -- actually two novels, the first two parts of a projected four-part series -- is at the first draft stage and in need of rewriting, but I'm tempted right now to leave it fallow for a while and start on a different book I've just recently started planning. It's always more fun to start something new, but for me it's also easier to do the early part of writing in little bits of time than the later part; I need a solid block of time to do any significant rewriting.

Hayden, you mentioned a lot of "mainstream" and literary influences before. How did you come to choose to write SF? From your perspective, what does it offer you as a writer that other genres don't?

H: They say you should write what you know. I'd add that you should write what you love. I was a voracious reader as a kid but I was also fascinated by science. My ambition from the age of ten was to be a scientist and, in fact, my first degree is in Chemistry. So naturally I was drawn to science fiction and, to some extent, fantasy. I even went to my first SF convention in about 1980. I wrote sporadically from a young age but really didn't get the writing bug until I was heavily involved in community theatre in my 30s. Naturally, the first things I wrote were plays but pretty soon I was trying my hand at literary short fiction. I even got a few published. But even then they always contained a fantastical element -- magic realism, for example. MY first novel, A Circle of Birds, was a literary work but was partly set in the future. Eventually, I realized that SF was my proper place as a writer. I think what I like about it is that it offers so many options. You can do everything that you can do in mainstream storytelling but you can do it with a twist. And in particular you can explore how changes in technology, politics or culture can change people.

Matthew, how do you see all your diverse experiences coming together in your future writing? Having just become a grandfather (without ever actually having my own children), I know that babies can change your worldview, so, in particular, do you think being a father will change your writing?

I know you'll be at Anticipation in Montreal for our mutual book launch. Have you spent much time at SF conventions? How do you think the relationship with fans affects an SF writer's career?

M: I think all the different kinds of writing I've done have probably influenced me in different ways. Like you, my first work was in the theatre and I spent most of my twenties writing TV and comic book scripts, so I have a similar tendency to fall back on dialogue. It's been a journey for me to let the other elements of a piece do their part, so I was particularly tickled when a reviewer recently complimented me on my use of setting. As for game design, I've read so many bad books that were clearly influenced by gaming that it's become a sort of negative test -- if something sounds like it would make a good game, it probably wouldn't make a good story. (That being said, one of the plot twists in Fall From Earth was inspired by an old board game called Web and Starship.)

I don't doubt that being a father has changed and will continue to change my writing, since it's changed my life more than anything since I met Megan. Like many writers, a lot of my work is autobiographical at its heart -- even if I don't always realize it at the time -- and fatherhood has already worked its way into my stories.

Conventions and socializing are probably the weak point in my writing career. The last con I went to was the Chicago Comicon sometime back in the mid-Nineties, when I was launching a comic I had written, and I've only ever met one the editors who've bought my stories. That's something I definitely have to remedy now that Fall From Earth is out.

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