An Interview With John Scalzi
Words By John Scalzi, Interviewed by Dani Hedlund
What was the inspiration for this trilogy?
One of the things that I promised my publisher was a new space opera series, which is what The Interdependency eventually became. In a larger sense, I was thinking about ocean currents in the European Age of Exploration. Because of trade winds and currents, they were able to cross the Atlantic and then come back and I wondered, what would have happened if they disappeared? I was imagining that in a casual sense and then I extended it forward and was thinking about it in terms of how something like that would function in a space opera context. From there I thought about the flow, which is the way that starships get from one system to another in a faster-than-light sort of way. Like the ocean currents, it’s something that the people who are using them don’t necessarily understand all that well. What if this natural resource that we didn’t particularly understand all that well, just happened to go away? How would it affect the empire, economy, and the people that had come to rely on it and assumed it would always be a static resource instead of something that ended up being, in fact, fluid and contingent on forces they didn’t understand?
How much world building and plot did you have worked out before you put pen to the page for the very first book?
I knew that I actually had to follow through on the premise of the series. You can’t call the first book The Collapsing Empire and not actually have the empire collapse. So, I knew that the empire would collapse, and I knew that certain things would and would not happen. With the trilogy, I loaded up the first book with a whole bunch of stuff, without necessarily knowing how I was going to pay it off in book two and three. But having those resources there, I could then go back and be like, “Ah, this is a tool I can use to do this.” I throw a whole bunch of stuff in the beginning and in the end, if it’s useful, that’s great, and if it turns out that it’s not useful, I will edit it out before anyone even sees it. The final book is something that has been edited and processed as opposed to coming directly out of one’s brain at one time. The secret is to make it look like it was cleverly planned for all along, when in fact that’s not the way I work.
What is it like to trust yourself that much? You’re simultaneously the writer and the reader. Do you feel you have written and read enough to know when to lay down the right breadcrumbs?
I don’t really think about it in terms of trusting. There have been times where I’ve been writing and I’ll get to about twenty thousand words and think, “Well, that’s twenty thousand words that I’m absolutely not going to use.” It’s not that the writing has been a waste, because it’s the world building and everything else I needed to do so I could move forward. I don’t really think about it as having faith. The only thing I basically do have faith in is that I’m going to hit my deadline. Sometimes I will hit my deadline at 7 a.m. on the morning that book absolutely positively has to been in. It’s not a question of faith, it’s just a question of sitting down and doing it.
You have an incredible ability to build entirely different worlds, introduce unique, beautiful characters I care about, and very rarely manage to put out a book that’s over four hundred pages. How in the world do you do that?
All my books are contractually obliged to be about one hundred thousand words, give or take. Knowing that I’m going to have to come in somewhere between ninety and one hundred andten thousand words means that I’m already thinking about delivering to that particular length. As a practical matter, I think some of the reason I can accomplish what I can do, in the length that I do it, comes down to my particular style of writing. For example, I don’t write a whole lot of description in my books. Description-wise, I usually write only what is absolutely needed for the story and nothing more. If you’re not writing a lot of description, you’re not writing a lot of particular words and all of a sudden, the amount of verbiage you need to get to your story is a lot less. Another thing that I do is I write a lot of dialogue and I have a lot of the story carried in dialogue, which is a very compact way of storytelling. That sort of lends itself to a shorter length rather than a longer one.
Have you always had an instinctual ability to use dialogue to explain complicated concepts or is it something you learned over the course of fifteen books?
The answer to that is, one, I am in fact really good at dialogue. But the second thing is that my first professional job out of college was as a film critic. Which meant that I watched six or seven movies a week for five and a half years. A lot of my story schooling came through film dialogue where so much gets explained. Before I wrote novels, I wrote a lot of nonfiction relating to science, so I have always been someone whose job has been to explain obtuse concepts in as few sentences as possible. I explain just enough that the story can move forward and then after that, have characters say, “I could explain it further, but you don’t have the math for it.” Which is my way of saying I don’t have the math for it, but I’m going to have this character say it instead. The secret is to explain just enough that 80 percent of the people go, “Okay fine, let’s go on to the story,” and 20 percent will fill in the blanks for themselves to make it work in their own heads.
What is it like to create characters that are three-dimensional, where there’s always a bit of good and a bit of bad working against each other?
I don’t believe in the theory that everyone is the hero of their own story. I think some people are really happy being the bad person. I do believe that everybody has a construct that allows them to get through their day. In my books, most people have a rational basis for what they’re doing, and you can like them or not, or understand them or not. But I think that is the secret. Nobody does things that are good or bad without reason. There is a reason they got up that morning to be a hero, there is a reason they got up that morning to do crimes, and my job is to make sure that I understand the reason they get up in the morning to do crimes. If you can make motivations understandable—even though those motivations are not your motivations—then that goes a long way towards making characters interesting and quote, unquote, “three-dimensional.” For me, it would feel inauthentic to not do that.
Some of your books have a consistent narrative throughout the entire story while others, like this trilogy, jump between different characters and perspectives. Do you have a preference, or does it depend on what the book needs?
I think it really does depend on the book. Old Man’s War is a first-person story, so it does need to stick with that. I’ve written first person numerous times, most recently with the Lock In series. Then there are other times where I’m writing in close third which follows the same character all the way through. My first two books were first person simply because that’s how I started writing. It was easier to do first person for me than it was third person. When I got to The Ghost Brigades, I intentionally wrote it from a third-person point of view because I wanted to learn how to write third person. By the time that I got to The Interdependency, I’d become proficient enough that switching point of view was not difficult for me. It really does depend on the book. The next book I’m writing I think is going to be one where the narrative tone is going to be less flamboyant because it’s going to be a somewhat more serious story than The Interdependency. In terms of the tone I’m going for, it’s going to be a little more tense and unhappy.
Was there a voice in The Interdependency series that was easiest for you to write?
When I started writing The Interdependency–which has Dune as one of my narrative influences for it—I was trying to write something that had some of the grandeur of the original book in that series. People walking around Castle Caladan, the walls are sweating, all that sort of stuff. There’s a sort of stately-ness to the narrative and I wanted to try it. Then I wrote it and thought, “I have tried that, and it is horrible.” It was not the correct narrative tone. For me, part of the writing is to understand what tone the particular book needs and how to dress it. I find that the tone of the story and a lot of the components of the characters and stuff will reveal themselves in the process of writing itself. While I will start off with a particular tone that I’m trying for, a particular feel that I’m trying to have, it’s not necessarily the tone that I will end up with. I will find that through the process of writing the book itself.
One thing that I love about your books is what is not said. Often you will lead us in the narrative up to a big moment and then you’ll skip a good amount of time and just drop us directly back into the action. How do you figure out what needs to be said and what can be pushed to the side?
If I’m bored writing it. Honestly, that’s the answer. There’s a bit of oft quoted writing advice that states, “Stuff the story as late as possible.” A common rookie error is to have the first six chapters of your book be all set up, and then in chapter seven, the story actually starts. The advice is no, don’t start with chapter one. Start at chapter seven where you are already in the thick of it. That’s a good way to engage people, because rhetorically speaking, you’re not giving them time to think or to poke holes in the situation. The other thing (and this may be by Raymond Chandler) is “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had somebody enter the room with a gun and metaphorically speaking, it’s not always a gun. In the second novella, I literally didn’t know how to get from one scene to another scene, so I wrote a starship exploding. Because the starship is exploding, there’s stuff going on and I can put in more information. Both of those things are just examples of “get to the point.” Keep your people engaged and entertained.
You have described yourself as a gateway to science fiction for Tor. Does it allow you room to experiment? Or do you think you always need to be that gateway?
Yes, is the answer to that. The reason I have a ridiculously long contract is, bluntly, there’s an understanding between me and Tor. That understanding is Tor gives me money and I give them reliably competent and engaging science fiction that they can sell to tried-and-true science fiction fans, but will also bring in people who don’t normally read science fiction at all. I’m not going to write an epic fantasy that is written in sestinas. I’m going to write entertaining, accessible, mostly science fiction. If you look at any one of my books, the thing that comes across is that they’re easy to read, they’re generally entertaining, and they’re full of characters that hopefully you will engage with. Within that, you can find that I’m doing a bunch of stuff. I wrote a New York Times Bestselling novel with a disabled gender non-specified character. I wrote a trilogy of books that is discussing politics, power, who matters in society, and wrenching natural change and how a culture deals with it.
Are you going into a project thinking “I want to do a commentary on gender or imperialism,” or is it something that you decide on later?
A lot of it depends. When I started writing The Interdependency, I wasn’t thinking about commentary on climate change and/or how people use power. I was thinking about sixteenth century trading vessels. A lot of these issues come up as a consequence of the narrative, and they also come up as a consequence of the world in which we live. A lot of times I don’t come in with any specific agenda, and the world and my own particular personal concerns will show up in the books. It would be ignorant and wrong to say that science fiction in general doesn’t talk about the world in which the creators live. Some of the best science fiction has been a bleak commentary on what’s going on in the world. It’s a question of do you use artifice to talk about it, or are you just pretending that your space marines from the year 3200 are talking about the politics that are going on right now?
You currently have a huge impact on science fiction, but also the publishing industry in general. Thirty or forty years from now, what do you hope we can look back on and think about regarding what your legacy was?
One of the things that I do every year is I look at a list of the bestselling books of one hundred years prior. I will look at the list for the top ten bestsellers in the United States in 1920 and I recognize none of the titles. This is my way of sort of whispering into my own ear, “Remember that thou art mortal.” Regardless of who you are and how popular or significant you are or are not for your time, history has its own way of deciding what is significant and what is not. The thing I worry about and the thing I think about most is, who am I in terms of being a member of my community now? Am I supporting other authors? Am I supporting the expansion of science fiction? Not in a colonial sort of way, but in the sense of making sure that science fiction is not just the literature of well-off white engineers. Those are the things that I know I have some influence on now. If I’m helping to convince Tor to buy more and different stuff by being their safe and reliable backbone of sales, then I feel pretty good about that. I try not to get caught up in the issues of legacy. What I try to get caught up in is, am I writing something that’s fun and that people will want to read? Am I writing something that lets me do what I want to do and say what I want to say? And am I being a person that is of value in my community? These are the things that I’m interested in.