Saturday, February 09, 2008

Edward Willett Interview, Part 4

Photo by Sharon Eisbrenner

Robert: So the next obvious question is how do you ensure "characters who are as much like real people as you can?" Are they based on people you know? (and do they know they are those characters?) or are they composites of people you know? Or do you just draw them from your head but try hard to work out the details in a consistent way?

Edward: I've never knowingly based a character on a real person (although I do borrow people's last names without shame). In a sense, though, I'd say all characters are composites of people we know, because what else do we have to draw on when it comes to portraying how real people think and talk and react?

I usually worry about whether my characters are acting consistently or not. I'm glad you think they turned out okay!

Robert: They're not only consistent, but the product of their histories....

So who do you read? Which writers inspire you? Influence your writing?

Edward: I suspect the most influential books on my writing aren't recent ones, but the ones I read as a youngster. The first SF book I can remember reading was Robert Silverberg's Revolt on Alpha C. After that can Robert A. Heinlein's "juveniles," most of which I read multiple times. (My three favorites there: Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, Tunnel in the Sky, and Podkayne of Mars.) Andre Norton figures in there, too. Since I started writing novels in high school, I suspect their influence has seeped through everything I've ever written.

On the fantasy side, besides the aforementioned Norton (although I actually liked her SF as much or more than her fantasy), there were C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, of course.

These days--I recently devoured the Dresden Files books after my brother introduced me to them. Naomi Novik's dragons-in-the-Napoleonic-era books are recent favorites as well. Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas under Red Skies have both blown me away. I never miss a Terry Pratchett.

I still read quite a few YA books, too, because I suspect I'll find myself writing in that field again--at least, I hope I do! On that side of things, Justine Larbelestier's Magic or Madness series is undoubtedly the best of my recent reads.

Robert: Oh Oh! I remember Revolt on Alpha C! I've never heard anyone else mention that book, but it was after reading that book that I started writing. (okay, haven't actually finished anything yet, but that's when I started writing). And now you mention it, I totally see the influence on Marseguro! Though I'd have to say the ethical dilemmas (and the killer robots for that matter) are better in Marseguro than Revolt. And yeah, I can see some influence of Hienlein in your writing.

So with the mentions of Pratchett and Tolkien et al, can we look for some mass market fantasy novels in the near future?

Edward: Gee, I hope so. I have a fantasy proposal in hand and will probably be putting it forward to DAW again very soon along with a possible third book in the Marseguro sequence. (I thought I'd be done after two, and maybe I will, but I can see the outline of a third, though I think that would definitely be the last.)

I enjoy writing fantasy as much as I enjoy writing science fiction, and there's the strictly commercial fact that fantasy outsells SF to consider, as well. Sheila Gilbert (my editor at DAW) has indicated she'd be happy to consider a fantasy from me, so...we'll see!

Robert: You also mentioned YA've done quite a few of these over the years. Are you involved in school visits? I'd think your obvious performance abilities would make you a big hit on the school tour circuit.

Edward: I do a few school visits every year. I'm not sure how big a hit I am, but I enjoy them. The biggest advantage being a performer gives me is that, if they get bored with my reading or answering questions, I can always burst into song. A rousing rendition of "Me" from Beauty and the Beast usually captures their attention (and mightily embarrasses those of them who can't imagine anyone doing that).

I enjoy answering questions more than I enjoy reading, actually. I try to answer everything honestly, even the ones that obviously aren't meant seriously. My favorite: "Is it true that all writers are alcoholics?"

Robert: Oh, nice!

Changing topics slightly, you've made the first two chapters of Marseguro available online. And you have an excellent blog - my favorite part of your blog is "the first sentence I wrote today" feature, which I find captivating -- it gives this odd peek at both the creative process and your next book. So my question is, how important do you think it is for an author to have a strong online presence these days?

Edward: I THINK it's very important, but I don't think you can prove it.

My blog, for example, is doing good to get a couple of dozen visitors a day, and most of those are just random Google encounters. Is that doing anything to sell my books? Maybe once in a blue moon.

My main website does better, with around 500 visitors a day, but that's almost entirely because all of my science columns are archived on there, so Google finds me a lot. I have an ad for Marseguro on every page, but does it sell any books? Who knows?

If you can develop a major web presence, like, say, John Scalzi (to name the obvious example) then I'm sure it helps a lot. For the average writer...I'm sure it helps to be online, but maybe not as much as we'd like to think.

When I studied public relations in university (part of my journalism major) one axiom stuck with me: 90 percent of advertising is wasted, but nobody knows which 90 percent it is. I suspect that's very true of online marketing efforts, too.

Plus, maintaining an online presence is work that takes away from other work, like, say, writing. It's much easier and more immediately gratifying to post to a blog than it is to actually write another chapter.

Which is one reason I like to do the "first sentence I wrote today" feature (although I'm a bit behind on that at the moment because of all the stuff I've been doing around Marseguro's release, among other things). It keeps the blog going while at the same time giving me just a little added incentive to actually write that first sentence, and subsequent sentences. If I know I'm going to tell the world how many words I wrote today, maybe I'll write a few more than I otherwise would!

Robert: Was "the first sentence I wrote today" original to you, or did you see someone else using? It seems to be absolutely brilliant for the reasons you mentioned -- not a distraction from the real work of writing and maybe even an additional motivation, while still engaging one's (potential) readers.

Edward: I don't think I"ve seen anyone else do it. I was inspired to do it by other writers who would occasionally post snippets of something they were working on, and still others who keep a progress chart showing how many words they'd written in a particular day. I just kind of combined the two.

Robert: Well, I think it is more effective even than posting first chapters online -- the 'first line I wrote today' gives a real sense of the book unfolding and the style, tone etc., while still working well as a 'tease' since there is not enough to really fill in the blanks without buying the book. I think some day you will receive some kind of award for coming up with the innovation that made blog-based promotion actually work for authors. Remarkably entertaining!

So how much time do you devote to your blog/web page typically in a day?

Edward: Half an hour to an hour, I'd guess. Sometimes more, sometimes none at all, although I like to get at least one entry on the blog every day.

I used to post more science links on the blog than I do now. Partly that's just because I'm so busy right now: when/if things ease off I'll do more of that. The other reason is that I now do some of that as one of the bloggers for Futurismic (, which is a science- and science-fiction group blog (and also has been, and hopefully will be again, a market for fiction) based in the U.K. I usually manage three or four posts there a week. Each one of those takes half an hour or more to pull together.

Then there's my main website, I want to completely redesign it, but that's a bit intimidating since it has something like 900 pages. I suspect I'll end up essentially creating a brand-new site from scratch and archiving the old one. I don't want to pull it down because there are science columns on it that people have linked to, so I don't want their URLs to change. It looks very late-90s now; very dated.

I should mention I also maintain, with some regularity, the news blog for SF Canada, the professional association of speculative fiction writers in Canada, at, and the website at, as well. Both of which I'm currently behind on, I admit, but hope to bring up to snuff soon.

Robert: Thanks so much for doing this interview! And good luck with sales of Marseguro-- and I can't wait for the sequel!

Edward: Thanks! It's been fun!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Edward Willett Interview, Part 3

Robert: I'm always interested in a writer's process. Some writers write by just sitting down at the keyboard and letting things develop as they may; at the other end of the continuum are those that don't set pen to paper until they have a completed outline, a white board filled with timelines and thematic analysis, and a stack of index cards detailing each character, his/her growth, and their interaction with every other character. You've mentioned that Marseguro grew out of a scene you developed in a workshop, but that it was also the first time you sold the synopsis before writing the actual book. So where does your process normally fall on that continuum, and /or can you talk a bit more about how you wrote Marseguro.

Edward: The fact I sold Marseguro from a synopsis didn't really change my process too much. I always sit down and do a rough outline, just so I know where the plot is going to go before I start. I'll usually make quite a lot of notes about the world and the characters before I start, too. To create the synopsis, I just put all that stuff into one file and polished it a lot more than I would if it were for my own use.

Once I start writing, though, things certainly do develop as they may. Terra Insegura, the Marseguro sequel I'm working on now, is a case in point. I realized I needed to add a new viewpoint character fairly early on so that I could provide the reader with a view on some things happening in orbit while my other viewpoint characters were all on the ground. But once I created that character, he had to have his own agenda, and that agenda has now, as I approach the end of the book, forced me to completely replot the last 20,000 words or so. I don't mind, because I think it's an improvement over what I originally put in the synopsis, but I didn't realize it was going to happen when I created the character several weeks ago now.

And I think the last bit I wrote on Terra Insegura, just yesterday, may have some serious ramifications for my expected ending, as well, so again, despite having put a fairly detailed synopsis down on paper to sell the book, I'm also just sitting at the keyboard and letting things develop as they may.

The other thing about my process is that I write a complete first draft, and only then go back and rewrite and rearrange and polish. I very rarely back up and rewrite anything at this point: I just want to get a mass of words in place, so I have something to go back and shape. Even when I realize I've missed something important, I don't go back in the story during this stage of writing: instead, I just write a note to myself right in the text and carry on, something like: NEED SCENE DEFINING RICHARD AND EMILY'S RELATIONSHP ON MARSEGURO PRIOR TO MISSION, to give you an actual example.

Robert: My next question was going to be if your characters ever surprised you, but I see you've already answered that one. So I'll ask instead, is writer's block ever a problem for you? Or does it all pretty much flow from the outline? How long does it typically take you to write a book like Marseguro?

Edward:Depends on how you define writer's block. I can be a terrible procrastinator, which I suppose is a form of writer's block, but once I actually make myself sit at the keyboard, words come very easily. I sometimes think they're absolutely terrible words, and there always comes a point during the writing when I think the whole thing is a hopeless mess and who am I kidding?, but I've learned to push through that. I just tell myself I'll fix everything in the rewrite.

Asor how long it takes me to write a book like Marseguro...longer than it should. If I could work on nothing but fiction, I think I could do 3,000 to 5,000 words a day, which would give me a first draft in less than a month. In an ideal world, I'd then have time to share it with some first readers and gather feedback, then a leisurely month to rewrite the whole thing. But in the world I actually live in, I manage more like 1,500 to 2,000 words a day on a good day, so it takes me more like two months to write the first draft, then I rewrite as fast as I can to meet the deadline that I've already had extended slightly...

Either way, though, I guess it boils down to about three months or a bit more to produce the mansucript I give to the editor. Editorially suggested rewrites, on Marseguro, then took another four or five weeks.

Robert: You're complaining about 2000 words a day and three months to write a novel? You need to talk to those of us who have been grinding away on the same manuscript for 12 years! :-)

So out of all the words in Marseguro, which is you favorite bit? Your favorite scene, or your favorite piece of dialog?

Edward: 'm rather partial to the scene in which the killer robot chases Emily and Richard into the lava-tube caverns of Sawyer's Point, because it was fun to write, because Sawyer's Point is named after Rob Sawyer, in whose class the book began, and because its a mutated version of one of the first scenes I wrote, back when I was trying to make the tale fit into a short story.

Robert: Yeah! Killer Robots! Anyone who knows me knows that I am always advocating for more killer robots in Canadian SF. No, honest!

But it really is a good scene and a crucial one in the development of Richard's relationship with Emily, and in his own development. So let me just clarify for readers, these are not stupid Hollywood killer robots, but decently literary killer robots.

I'm not helping am I?

But it brings up a serious point. Both Lost in Translation and Marseguro are actioners, with strong narratives and strong characterizations, but you still manage to pack in a lot of literary value: complex ethical issues, the evils of intolerance and prejudice and the importance of karma, that you mentioned earlier in this interview. So how consciously do you balance those two elements? Does it all just flow out, or do you have to work in the outline to get the right balance of killer robots and philosophical content?

Edward: 'd have to say that the killer robots come first, then I add in the other stuff.

I'm interested primarily in telling a good story. That's where the action comes in. I love space battles and killer robots and all that good old space opera stuff. But when it comes to the characters, I try to make them as much like real people as I can. The mixture of realistic characters with extraordinary events is automatically going to bring up complex ethical issues, just as it does in real life. We all struggle with our conscience every day as we choose what actions to commit. Sometimes the choice is clear-cut, sometimes it's a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils. Sometimes we do something in the heat of the moment we bitterly regret later, but we still have to live with the consequences of our actions. All these things should apply to fictional characters, too, no matter how speculative the situations in which they find themselves.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Edward Willett Interview, Part 2

Robert: One of the things I liked about Marseguro was the complexity of the main, and even a few of the secondary, characters. (This is in sharp contrast with a lot of SF where the viewpoint character is essentially flawless Hero, or at best a Peter Parker flawless Hero-with-angst.) Your viewpoint characters are either slightly damaged individuals or ordinary people (well, aside from the whole gill thing) who have to try to rise to the occasion. And every time they succeed, you keep raising the bar on them for the next task. This makes for very engaging characterizations.

So my question is this: if you were casting for the movie version of Marseguro, who would you have playing which roles?

Edward: Now there's a question I've never considered.

Hmmm. Richad about Nicolas Cage? Seems like an ordinary guy but can do extraordinary things when he has to.

Emily Wood...Catherine Zeta-Jones comes to mind, except she's too old. Someone like that, though. I don't see enough movies any more to be able to name somebody more in the correct 20ish age range.

Samuel Cheveldeoff...John Malkovich would be interesting.

Chris Keating...some unknown and ordinary looking kid appearing in his first movie.

Nicholas Cage as Richard Hansen

Catherine Zeta-Jones as Emily Wood

John Malkovich as Samuel Cheveldeoff

Robert: Hey, I was thinking Nicholas Cage for Hansen too!

But does your wife know about your thing for Catherine Zeta-Jones? (Oops! Nevermind...that wasn't an interview question!)

In both your SF novels, the protagonists start out with one point of view / set of prejudices, and end up with a very different set of understandings / positions. You've already suggested that character growth is an underlying principle in your writing, but the particular pattern that has appeared in your books is a archetypal Canadian version -- the hero who sets out to achieve one set of goals, but ends the book somewhere entirely different. I don't think any author ever sits down and says, "I'm going to write a Canadian SF novel" and restricts themselves to some textbook's definition of typical Canadian themes, but, upon reflection after the fact, do you detect anything distinctly Canadian about your writing?

Edward: Huh. No, I've never thought of it in that terms, and I generally vehemently oppose the notion that there's anything distinctly different about science fiction by Canadians versus science fiction by Americans: I don't like pigeon-holes and I prefer to think in terms of individual authors rather than national identities.

Besides, I only just became a Canadian citizen: I was born in New Mexico and we moved to Saskatchewan from Texas when I was eight. I went to university in Arkansas. Most of my life I've been an American only, and proud of it, much to the horror of various Canadian friends who seem to think being an American should be something to be ashamed about. Since I've lived with that attitude my whole life, I generally let it go, but it does rankle.

However, now that I'm married to a Canadian, and the father of a Canadian, and since I have, after all, lived here longer by far than I lived in the U.S., I decided I should be a Canadin. But I'm a dual citizen, so I'm still an American, too.

Maybe that's the process you see in my characters: starting out with on point of view/set of prejudices (purely American), and ending up with a very different set of understandings/positions (becoming Canadian)!

Robert: Works for me! Clearly, Canadian themes have taken over your subconscious!

[ I'd argue that analyzing cultural differences is valid because individuals are all products of their environments -- hey, I'm a sociologist in my day job -- but that one has to be careful not to over do it. People who try to dictate particular themes or forms to authors (e.g., Soviet Realism, certain Canada Council juries) are idiots.]

So my next question was going to be whether you ever had to consciously edit yourself to sell to the American market, but the answer there is pretty obviously a 'no'. So let me ask instead, how did you end up choosing DAW as your publisher for Maresguro (and Lost in Translation)? And what has that experience been like?

Edward:Ah, thereon hangs a fascinating tale. (Well, fascinating to me, anyway.)

Ten years ago, at least, I wrote Lost in Translation, a novelization of a short story that I'd sold to the premiere issue of TransVersions magazine in, I think, 1994.

I shopped Lost in Translation around on my own. Nobody wanted it. (Including, I suspect, DAW, though I don't have the records to prove that.) Then I got an agent. She shopped it around. Nobody wanted it. (Again including, I suspect, DAW.) She sent it back and quit being my agent.

Then, in 2004 or 2005, I got an email from John Helfers, who edits at Martin H. Greenberg's Tekno Books, which packages science fiction titles for the Five Star imprint. Five Star publishes hardcover editions, but really only sells to libraries; indeed, the books are library edition hardcovers, which means that they have the cover art printed right on the hardcover, not just on the slipcover. John wanted to see Lost in Translation. I sent it to him, he liked it, and in 2005 Lost in Translation came out in a Five Star hardcover.

Cover of the Five Star edition of Lost in Translation

I was toying with, but hadn't yet acted on, the idea of dangling the published book in front of agents to see if I could get one to take it on in the hopes of selling the paperback rights for me when, one very fine day, I received a phone call from John Helfers, who told me Martin H. Greenberg wanted to talk to me. Which he did.

As Greenberg explained it to me, DAW had a "hole" in their publishing schedule and needed book to fill it. Since Greenberg has edited a number of anthologies for DAW, and they knew about his Five Star books, they asked him to send along some of the books published under that imprint for them to consider for paperback publication. Which he did and, lo and behold, DAW picked mine! (So really, I didn't pick DAW, DAW picked me.)

With that offer in hand, but before signing the contract, I went in search of a new, improved agent. Ethan Ellenberg responded the quickest and agreed to take me on. We agreed that my next move should be to offer DAW two synopsis for my next book after Lost in Translation. One was a sequel to Lost in Translation, while the other was Marseguro. The response was, "Which one do you want to write?" and after talking it over, Ethan and I agreed that it was better to go with the new idea rather than a sequel to a book that we didn't even know at the time whether or not anyone would like.

It was the first time I ever sold a book based only on a synopsis and then had to actually write the thing: like most starting-out novelists I was used to writing a book and then shopping it around for months and years in the faint hope someone would buy it. It was also the first time I had strong editorial input after I turned in the initial manuscript: none of my other fiction publishers were large enough/interested enough. Sheila Gilbert and I spent a couple of solid hours on the phone talking about the manuscript, and at the end of it, I went back and beefed up the story by almost 20,000 words, particularly in the areas of characterization and motivation and the political situation on Earth. A fairly major plot point also made its way into the story during the rewrite, and a good thing, too, because it's a major element of the sequel!

I've enjoyed all my dealings with DAW thus far. They've been great.

Robert: Fascinating! As part of the discussion of publishers, I usually ask authors what they think about the cover art put on their books. I'm guessing you're probably pretty happy with your covers, since both books look pretty good, but I wonder how much input you had into the coverart.

Edward: I had a bit. I suggested scenes that I thought might make a good cover, and in the case of Marseguro, provided some extra description of some of the things that might appear in those scenes. I didn't know what Steve Stone would do with it until I saw the finished product, though, and yes, I was very happy with them both.

DAW cover of Lost in Translation

cover of Marseguro

Stone is a top-notch cover artist whose art has also graced books by the likes of Stephen King and George R.R. Martin. It'd be nice if some of their sales would rub off on me by association...

Edward Willett Interview, Part 1

Edward Willett, author of Marseguro and Lost in Translation

Robert: In my review of Marseguro for Neo-Opsis Magazine, I said that "As the stakes continually rise, the protagonists have to constantly up their game to overcome yet greater obstacles and confront yet more profound ethical issues...As in Lost in Translation the characters have to confront their prejudices, overcome their justifiable hatreds, examine their loyalties and -- even more clearly in this book – Willett seems to suggest that triumph ultimately belongs to the characters who able to experience the most growth. The winners are those who are able to place others over self, whereas the losers are undone by their core selfishness. In Willett's universe, karma counts..."

So I have to ask -- did I get that right? Do you believe in Karma? Was that a conscious theme of Marseguro?

Edward: I guess I would say I believe in karma as a good organizational principle for storytelling. Certainly I don't see much evidence of it in the real world, where the shallow, foolish, self-centered and cruel can prosper very well, thank you, and live to a ripe old age. But my fictional world isn't the real world--no fictional world is, or it isn't fiction, is it? Since characters who don't grow and change and increase their understanding of their wold and modify their behaviors accordingly are dull, they don't get top billing in my story.

I'm not sure it was a conscious theme: I think it's just part of the way I tell my stories. Now that you've pointed it out, I can see it in pretty much all of my fiction to date.

Robert: Maresguro revolves around issues of genetic engineering and religious intolerance. What stimulated your interest in those two themes?

Edward: mmm. I should probably explain how this story began.

In the fall of 2005 I was attending Robert J. Sawyer's Writing Science Fiction class at the Banff Centre, part of their annual Writing With Style program. On September 20, at 9:13 a.m. (I still have the original file, written on my PDA), Rob had us write the opening of a story. I wrote:

"Emily streaked through the phosphorescent sea, her wake a comet-tail of pale green light, her close-cropped turquoise hair surrounded by a glowing pink aurora. The water racing through her gill-slits smelled of blood."

I liked it. So did the others in the class. And so I began to develop it further, thinking that it would be a short story, then. (I didn't think of it as a novel until I needed a synopsis to present to DAW, with, obviously, happy results!).

I wasn't thinking genetic engineering when I wrote that opening couple of sentences (neither of which exist in the finished book, by the way). But in order to have someone who seemed to be human, with a very human name, who also had gills...well, genetic engineering seemed to be the way to go.

Also, genetics were on my mind because I had recently written Genetics Demystified, a basic introduction to genetics, for McGraw-Hill. And also because the genetic revolution is happening now, all around us, and may well alter society in the future even more than the computer revolution. So genetic engineering wasn't something I set out to write about, so much as it was a way to justify the existence of a character I wanted to write about.

That said, genetic engineering intrigues me because of the prospect it holds of humans being able to alter some of the things that have defined being human for millennia. Are we still human if we can breathe water, or fly, or see in the dark? Are we still human once we can start altering the design of our brains, the very way we think? There are lots of interesting questions in there for SF to explore.

As far as the religious aspect...I should say up front I'm not anti-religious. Far from it. I grew up in a strict Christian household. My father was both a preacher and a teacher at a private Christian school. I attended a Christian high school and a Christian college, and many of the finest people I know are Christians of the sort that many of the other people I know, through science fiction and theatre, would dismiss as bigots or idiots or both. (I sometimes think if I could get all of my friends together in the same room at the same time, there would be a massive matter-antimatter explosion.)

But there is a mindset that afflicts some people that moves them from "This is what I believe, and will argue for passionately," to "This is what I believe, and will force others to believe...or punish them for not believing." In my book, this mindset is found in The Body Purified, which is a religion (though one of my own devising, not one that exists today). But it's also a mindset that can be found amongst people of, say, strong political belief, or any other kind of strong belief: the notion that others cannot be allowed to have their own opinions about whatever it is you believe in so passionately, but must be forced to agree with you...or, failing that, at least forced, through whatever power you can bring to bear, to act as if they believe in it.

In Marseguro, the Body Purified has a LOT of power to bring to bear, because it has become the world government of Earth. But although the Body Purified is a religion, it's not just religious intolerance I have a problem with: it's intolerance of all kinds.

Robert: Your mention of Genetics Demystified brings up another question I've been dying to ask, if a little off the topic of Marseguro. Many SF fans think of Marseguro as your second book, but in fact you have a stack of young adult novels, nonfiction books, and biographies behind Maresequo and Lost in Translation; and I first heard of you as a science columnist and radio personality; and I've seen some TV science reporting you did; and I can't help but notice your Facebook portrait here is you performing in the musical, Beauty and the Beast. So, who are you really? Novelist, nonfiction writer, actor, singer, or, radio personality, or science columnist? When people ask you what you do for a living, which answer comes first?

Edward: I guess I'm "All of the Above."

I tell people I'm primarily a writer, but I act and sing as a sideline. If asked what kind of writer, I say I think of myself as a science fiction and fantasy writer first, but nonfiction is my bread and butter.

Really, I'll do anything for a buck!

Robert: Oh, let us say rather that you are the embodiment of the modern day renaissance man!

Interview with Edward Willett

I'm doing an interview with author Edward Willett on Facebook for the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy group (moderated by BC author, Donna Farley) to coincide with today's official release of Marseguro, Ed's second mass market SF novel. I'll reprint my questions and Ed's answers here when it's done, but if you'd like to add your own Q and A to the process, join us any time between now and Thursday Feb 7 on Facebook.

You can also read the first two chapters of the book at Ed's site and view the book trailer. My review of Marsguro is in the current issue of Neo-Opsis or you can read the positive bits excerpted on Ed's blog Ed's Blog.