Author Interview: John Scalzi

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JOHN SCALZI is one of the most popular and acclaimed SF authors to emerge in the last decade. His massively successful debut Old Man’s War won him science fiction’s John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. His New York Times bestsellers include The Last Colony, Fuzzy Nation, and Redshirts; which won 2013’s Hugo Award for Best Novel. Material from his widely read blog The Whatever (whatever.scalzi.com) has also earned him two other Hugo Awards. He lives in Ohio with his wife and daughter.Lock In John Scalzi

I interviewed John via phone.

How did you become interested in writing sci-fi?

Well, part of it was when I was younger; that was mostly what I had read. I think most writers tend to gravitate either initially or afterwards, to the stuff they read a lot of when they were kids. As a kid I read a lot of science fiction, mystery, and humor, so in some way all three of them come together in this particular book, Lock In.

How did you first get discovered, did it require query letters, or did it not go that way?

It did not go that way at all. I wrote a of couple novels. The first novel I wrote in 1997 called Agent to the Stars. I wrote that one specifically as a practice novel, to see if I could write one or not. Once I finished it, I said, “Wow, I guess I can do this.” I didn’t try to sell it. I put it up on my website, because I had no intent to sell it. Having done that, I said all right I now I know I can do this novel thing. I want to write one that I can sell, so that’s when I started writing Old Man’s War, which I finished in 2001.

Generally speaking, just the thought of sending it out and doing the queries, waiting for people to respond, my brain was, “Ugh! Why would I want to do that??” So what I ended up doing basically, because my ego as an author was already sated as a published non-fiction writer, I said, “I’m going to put it up on my website.”

For the first couple weeks of December 2002, I serialized a chapter a day on the website. A few days later I get an email from Patrick Nielsen Hayden, now the senior editor at Tor books. He said, “I don’t know if you’re committed to this electronic publishing thing, but that’s a really good book and I’d like to buy it, if that’s okay with you.”

I was fine with that.For me it was about creating and surviving an apocalypse…to make this world changing event, but not world ending.

It was one of the first novels, which was sold from being online. It was 2002 and something like that wasn’t usually done. It was kind of an unusual way to do it and as soon as it happened, people were thinking obviously this was the way to go. One person had this happen, meanwhile hundreds and thousands of people haven’t had this happen, so statistically speaking you might want to think about it the old fashioned way. But everybody loves a good anecdote. Everybody loves a good story.

How did Patrick Nielsen Hayden find it?

He found it because—this is a funny story in itself—he has a website called Making Light. I would go visit it every once and a while. He and other folks were having discussions about dialogue, and Robert Heinlein, who is a famous science fiction writer. After I finished my book, I had written an essay about how Heinlein was important to the book that I just wrote. I sent him a link to the essay saying, “I know you’ve been discussing things like this previously, here’s this essay that I wrote. I want to be clear, I’m sending you to the essay, not to the book because, having been an editor myself, I know people try to sneak around and get through the back door, if I was going to submit it to you, I’d submit it to you the old fashioned way.”

Patrick completely ignored me and read the book anyway. After that, people commented and said, “Come on, you knew he was going to do that.” No, actually, I didn’t. If I was in his position, I wouldn’t have done that at all.

The idea that someone could be inside someone else’s head through integrated systems is mind blowing. How did you come up with the idea for Lock in?

I’ve done writing before with mind and computer interfacing, particularly with Old Man’s War, so that’s something I’m familiar with. For me as a writer, I thought it would be interesting to say, here’s this disease and it changes the world, but it doesn’t end the world. The world doesn’t collapse; the world finds a way to move on.

Then the question becomes if the world moves on, how does it do it and what are the implications that the disease you created do? That’s the event you created. For me it was about creating and surviving an apocalypse; what happens afterwards, so that was huge for me, to make this world changing event, but not world ending.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good apocalypse as much as anyone.

You begin Lock In with the pandemic of this illness, called Haden’s syndrome. You provide the reader with the reason for the name of the illness—named after the former first lady of the United States, who had the first visible signs of the syndrome—and the different types of sufferers of this pandemic. The reader is immediately aware, and for me, this made it feel very, very real. I felt like I was reading a newspaper column. It felt like it was happening now. Was this set-up from the beginning, or was it added later as your story unfolded?  

I was trying to clue the reader into what was going on through the text itself. There is something that is used in science fiction, a writing term called info dump. I was trying not to do that and I think I was successful, but there are people who that’s not going to work for, so I thought it was fine to put an info dump up front and structure it like it would be something you’d find on Wikipedia that a teenage would use to write their research paper. In fact, the tag line for the sources—HighSchoolCheatSheet.com—I own that domain.

Some of the ideas your book covers are hacking into neural networks of those that are ill, by use of Integrators, to implant suicidal thoughts in other people; people who are locked in due to this Haden’s illness. This is a scary thought but realistic.

I was trying to plausibly extend from science and from fiction in a reasonably future time frame. It’s 25, 30 years in the future.For example, the Haden world I create came out of conversations I had with my friend Natasha… who is deeply immersed in deaf culture.

You have your character Vann becoming infected with Haden’s due to teenage ignorance. For me, it harkened back to AIDS. Was that something you consciously thought of or did that come out as you were writing?

You have to acknowledge that AIDS is going to be present in people’s minds since it is our most cultural memory of something like that. But I have a fifteen year-old daughter and I remember being 15 years old, and you have that thing of, “How bad can things possibly be?” You have that ignorance because you don’t have the life experience. For me, it wasn’t about an AIDS metaphor specifically as it was about being teenagers are dumb. They’re not dumb because they’re not intelligent; they’re dumb because they are inexperienced.

Do you consult with anyone about the material you’re writing considering the political, technological, and scientific aspects of your work?

I do research. For example, the Haden world I create came out of conversations I had with my friend Natasha. Natasha is someone who is deeply immersed in deaf culture. She got her doctorate degree at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., which is a university for the deaf. She currently works as a counselor for the California School for the Deaf at Riverside. Her husband is deaf. Talking with her about the deaf culture was very much a touchstone for me.

I also read randomly and exhaustively with whatever catches my interest.

On p. 255, your character, Vann, mentions the theory of Integration and the real world experience of it.  The two are vastly different. Vann describes how she understands the process, but feeling it is so utterly invasive. Were you correlating this to something you experienced?

Nothing from my particular experience other than a general observation; you think something is simple from the outside and then you get in, and you say, “I had no idea.” And that’s from anything like playing a guitar to being a parent, or writing a novel.

How long did it take you to write this from conception to completion?

Conception is a funny way of thinking about it. I had been thinking about the idea for at least three to four years. I have five or six story ideas in my brain, rolling around at the same time and eventually one will drop and let me know it’s ready. I can’t say when I first thought of it, but it is one of the ideas that survived the accretion process in my brain.

I wrote 60K words in three weeks….My wife said, “That is a thing you will not do again, or I will kill you.”
I started writing it early last year, February or March 2013, but the majority of the writing got done in the last three weeks due to the deadline. When I first started writing it I was ambitious and wanted to write it from two particular character’s point of view and I’d alternate chapters and it would be super complicated. That was a bad idea.

The dual protagonists weren’t too protagony as lead characters, if you know what I mean, so I introduced another lead character, Chris. The two characters I had as leads, Vann and Bell, then became supporting characters. Once I did that, things moved a lot faster. My deadline was less than a month away and I jammed really hard on it, which I don’t recommend.

When you say jammed, what do you mean? Can you put it into time frame; were you writing from the moment you woke up to the moment you went to bed?

Yes, pretty much. I wrote 60K words in three weeks. A lot of the preliminary work had already been done, so it was going super-fast and not doing a whole lot. I gained about 10 pounds.

My wife said, “That is a thing you will not do again, or I will kill you.”

How much time did you have to write the book?

I signed the contract, so from the signing to when I turned in the book was about nine months.

Those first few months I wasn’t doing anything, I was working on something else. About three-four months I was writing the first chapters and decided they weren’t working, so I was reformatting and going from there.

What is your typical writing time for your novels?

Depends on the novel. The longest time was nine months for Zoe’s Tale and the shortest was five weeks for Redshirts.

Do you work on more than one novel at a time?

No, I don’t.

Who does your editing for you? Who is the first person that looks at your manuscript?

My wife reads them. She lets me know if the chapters are working or not. She’s a good person for that; she doesn’t believe in bullshitting me. She understands I need to create good books. I can trust her to be honest.

Does anyone else edit your work?There was so much information from the world building that I wasn’t able to put into the book…but what I ended up doing actually was creating a novella, Unlocked.

Yes. Patrick Nielsen Hayden, my editor at Tor.

In your writing process, is it systematic or less clearly defined? Does it change from project to project? Do you work with an outline?

No, I don’t work with an outline. I know people like to use an outline, so there aren’t any surprises, but for me, it’s not a congenial thing to do. Generally speaking, I have the ideas of what I want to do and one or two scenes I want to have in them. It’s just connecting and editing as I go along to make it coherent.

I used to do a whole bunch of writing at one time, and then take several days off. As I got older, that was less useful for me to do. What I usually try to do, is write a couple thousand words a day, which is an easy pace for me. I was a journalist before, so I got used to writing quickly and to spec.

I write after I take my daughter to school. It’s in the morning and my brain is fresh. If I have struggles in those two thousand words, I stop. It’s usually an indication I need a break. After that I spend on emails and catching up on other things.

So you’re more of a morning writer?

Yes. I used to be more of a night writer. When my daughter was born, I took the 10pm to 5am shift because I was going to be up anyway. As I got older two things happened: I got older and I had to conform to my daughter’s schedule.

I resent it terribly. I liked to stay up late and do things in the middle of the night, but the fact of the matter is, now I do everything in the morning.

What do you do with material that you edit from your work?

That chunk of text goes into a file, which I can use for later in the story or in a new novel.

How do you organize those edited files?I do have to ask myself am I going to mess up people’s commercial expectations of a Scalzi book, since my name is associated with science fiction. The other part of my brain is like, “Who cares! Do it anyway!”

I have a good mental index for organizing.

What did you do after you were done writing the novel?

After I was done writing the novel, I personally wanted to know more about the universe. There was so much information from the world building that I wasn’t able to put into the book, because the book is about the murder mystery, but what I ended up doing actually was creating a novella, Unlocked.

It’s like an oral history of all the parts that happened before Lock In, so they talk about how the disease is spread. That was fun for me for two reasons: the structure alone, the oral history gives it a you are here feeling, and the second thing was, as a writer, I got to show off all the world building I did that didn’t get put into the book.

You can’t put all that information in the book because it will detract from what the book is supposed to be. For example, I created this new sport, like football, that has exclusively threeps as players. It exists nowhere right now except in my brain. This helped me build my world and it also helped me if I should create a sequel of where I will go next.

The novella, Unlocked, is on Tor.com and is available for download at most retailers, including Amazon and Barnes and Noble. There is also a limited signed addition that is coming out a couple months after Lock In.

I was very fortunate. The thing I basically wrote for myself turned into something they wanted, which can help with the marketing of Lock In.

Are you currently writing a novel?

Yes, I’m working on the sequel to The Human Division.

What are some areas that you haven’t explored that you want to go into?

Well, as a writer I think one of the fun things to do is to write in a different genre. Every time I write a book, I try to do something new that’s a challenge to me.

What would that be for you?

Two books are in the development for television series

I would like to write contemporary mystery or contemporary humor.  When I first decided to write science fiction, I basically flipped a coin to see if I was doing sci-fi or a mystery. It came down the on the sci-fi side, so I decide to try that. I think it would be fun to do a Gregory McDonald’s Fletch book or a Carl Hiaasen book.

I do have to ask myself am I going to mess up people’s commercial expectations of a Scalzi book, since my name is associated with science fiction. The other part of my brain is like, “Who cares! Do it anyway!”

Would Tor be publishing it, or would you have to go to a different publisher?

They’ve been very good to me and would probably want to publish it, unless I screw it up, which is entirely possible. But they would probably want to publish it under their Forge publishing, which is everything not science fiction and fantasy.

How would the marketing aspect be handled?

They have to look at the disadvantages and advantages of it. Should I use a pen name? There is a science fiction writer and historical writer that goes by Harry Turtledove and Harry Turteltaub, which Turteltaub is turtledove in German. It sounds kind of silly, but on the other hand, everybody is not confused by his name and his genre. It’s not hiding, it’s consumer aid.

Have you ever had Hollywood knock at your door?   

Two books are in the development for television series; Redshirts, that came out in 2012 and Old Man’s war, came out in 2005.

Has that be going well for you?JScalzi300dpi Credit Athena Scalzi

Yes, we met in California about a month ago. We had very nice discussions, things are progressing very well and things are going along swimmingly. I’m the Executive Producer for both shows, so they’re obliged to keep me in the loop.

I know you were a film critic, your books are so easy to read and are so visual. I read your books and see it like I’m watching a movie. Would you agree that experience has a big influence on your writing?

It was like going to storytelling school. I had to ask myself, do they work? Why don’t they work? Day in and day out, seven films a week for five years. That’s quite a lot of time at it.

It’s also true that some of my favorite writers and people for inspiration are screenwriters. There is a very strong cinematic influence.

Most of my books really do have a three act structure.

Lock In is due out August 26, 2014.

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