Sunday, March 05, 2006

Talking Heads - David Marusek interviewed about Counting Heads

Growing up, when did you first get interested in SF/Fantasy?

I wasn't really aware of the genre until already an adult (which is probably the reverse order for most people). As a child I avidly read stories about knights, battles, the Crusades. It was only many years later when I tried my hand at writing fiction did I discover that SF is an open playground for my imagination. Conversely, contemporary mainstream fiction--serious fiction--strikes me as being overly concerned with the achingly trivial ephemera of life. SF, on the other hand, allows me to deal in a matter-of-fact way with issues of monstrous proportions and outrageous consequences.

What do you read these days?

I don't have much time or patience for fiction. I mostly read non-fiction on science, sociology, politics, and current affairs. At the moment I'm reading The Big Bang by Simon Singh, The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney, Ammonite by Nicola Griffith, The Other Bible edited by Willis Barnstone, and Fundamentalism Comprehended edited by Martin E. Marty.

Why do you write genre? Do you feel a stronger affinity for one genre or another?

I suppose that someday I'll try my hand again at writing non-genre fiction, but for the foreseeable future SF readers seem willing to follow my musings, and I feel lucky and pretty much free to write about anything I want. It would be hard to give that up. I really have no desire to dabble in the other genres: fantasy, horror, mystery. Naturally, my ideal is to write fiction that transcends all genres.

Who is your ideal reader?

Someone who is intelligent, curious, capable and willing to entertain absurd notions of reality. Someone who is optimistic about the future, or at least open to a future unlike the present. Someone not suicidal, not too prissy, not on anabolic steroids. Someone who is willing to buy my books with real money so I can survive. Someone who loves wordplay and has an appreciation for dry, ironic humor.

How do you write? Do you plan out your books before you start? Do you write every day?

I put in about four hours a day, six days a week. Then I do my day jobs. It's not a bad schedule, and I've managed to keep to it for twenty years now. I write the first three drafts in longhand and only then keystroke the manuscript.

I'm a very slow writer. I seem to rewrite and rewrite. Fortunately, I seem to sense when a piece is finished. Counting Heads took me over five years of daily work, during which time I didn't start any other pieces. Of course, a few of those years were due to the incredible learning curve of how to write a novel. But a lot of it probably has to do with the "organic" process I employ. That is, I write whole chapters worth of stuff and then prune it back, hacking away thousands of words, to find the story.

For my next book I am trying to shorten the process by outlining. In fact, I sent a 15-page synopsis to my editor, David Hartwell, at Tor for his input. He sent back a number of insightful comments. Because the book is still in its early stages, I am able to revise without having to throw away a lot of hard work.

However, I find the outlining to be sheer drudgery. Also, I've discovered that it's in the writing, not the outlining, that the story and characters are revealed to me. So, it looks like I'll be alternating writing and re-outlining as the story veers in unexpected directions.

Also, I am keystroking the second draft, instead of the fourth. This also means I'll be giving my first readers (a dedicated half-dozen folks who have read everything I've ever published in manuscript format) a much less polished piece to critique.

Of your own books, do you have a favorite? Was it because of the idea, the characters, your life situation while you wrote it, the way it turned out, something else? Counting Heads seems to be partly a novel of dispossession. Was there a nod to cyberpunk or does this come from your own experience?

Since Counting Heads is my debut novel, I assume you're asking about my short fiction. Of my short fiction, I think my favorites are "Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz" and "Listen to Me." Neither of these seemed to bring me much notice, but I like them because they seem to me to exemplify the pure short story form. In addition, "YR, YR, YR" is humorous, is written in epistolary form (as a cover letter to editor Gardner Dozois), and is set in my home town of Fairbanks, Alaska.

"Listen to Me" is a creepy story. It's a short short, that is, only about 1500 words. What I like about it is how each line implies whole paragraphs. It's very dense. Short shorts are a particular favorite of mine to write. I thoroughly enjoy dense writing, and short shorts provide the opportunity to wind every single word like a spring. In a perfect world I think I might write only short shorts and long novels.

What other writers do you feel you have something in common with?

I really don't have any idea how to answer this. It seems to me something to ask readers. People have compared my writing to a wide range of writers, and must not see the same things they do. Too close to it or something. Ask me again in fifty years.

Counting Heads has the feel of being self-contained novellas as well as being a novel. Is the short story an underrated form in your view? Should writers spend time writing shorts before attempting a novel?

In my case, I pretty much taught myself how to write by writing. I always considered myself a "novelist," but I spent over six years working on a novel called Longs Ha which just seemed to meander all over the place with no goal or ending in mind. Finally, a fellow writer pointed me to the Clarion workshops, a sort of boot camp for writing short SF and fantasy. I didn't really enjoy reading short fiction at the time. Don't know that I do now. The problem with short fiction, in my opinion, is all the work the reader must do at the beginning. It seems that stories these days start in medias res, right in the middle of some stirring dialog or action, and the reader must try to figure out who's who and what's going on. I hate that--too much heavy lifting. If I have to work, I'd rather invest my effort in a novel and stay with it for the week or so it takes me to finish.

But I was getting nowhere on my own, so I applied to and attended Clarion West in Seattle. What an education! It turned out that it was exactly what I needed. If reading a short story is hard work, writing one is twice as hard. You can't muck around in a short story finding your way. Plotting, characterization, theme, voice--it's all there all at once. And as it turned out, I was good at it. I sold my first short story on the spot to Asimov's. A second story I wrote at Clarion West sold to Playboy a month later.

In addition to learning the craft, publishing short fiction can get you noticed by writers, publishers, and agents. You can win awards. You're building a fan base, creating a list of publication credits. All things an aspiring novelist needs.

How do you feel about the future? What makes you the most hopeful and the most fearful?

I moved to Alaska in the 1970s with the view of establishing myself somewhere likely to be spared the nuclear Armageddon that I was sure was imminent. Somewhere I could live a self-reliant subsistence lifestyle. Three decades later, I live in Fairbanks, just up the road from the missile silos of the neocons' Star Wars initiative. In other words, at ground zero. And the land here in the Alaskan Interior is too hungry to support even a small population. All of our food and goods are trucked thousands of miles to our big box stores.

On the other hand, I feel more optimistic these days about the durability of civilization. Somehow we'll muck through, no matter what.

That said, what I find that the most hopeful and the most threatening influences today are the same thing--the transcendent power of technology. The more we understand the laws of Nature, the more we will be able to stand outside them. Eventually, given our current ever-increasing progress, we'll become demi-gods. We'll conquer death, disease, space, and time. We won't need Jesus or the Prophet to act as our agents; we humans will do it ourselves.

There are a lot of people in the world today who don't want to be gods and will do everything to stop anyone else from becoming a god. There are a lot of other people who want to become gods but are determined to keep godhood to themselves and their own groups. Whatever you call it--racism, fundamentalism, tribalism, corporatism, elitism--the heart of conflict today is human progress.

Does writing have a role in shaping people's world view?

Absolutely. Artists, in general, apprehend the future and expose the public to it. Writers, especially SF writers, catalog society's options and create a working vocabulary for public discussion.

What are you currently working on?

Two short short stories and two novels. Both novels are on the Counting Heads story arc. One of them, Day of the Oship, takes up right after the first book ends. The second, The Slow Lounge, takes place 600 years later.

Does some contemporary SF reflect a Rich Reader Experience in its use of ready technologies, like the grey water recycling mentioned as well as the Internet, or contemporary society, like the celebrity share system?

If I understand the question, I'd say yes, but no more so than good narrative always has.

This could be the subject of a whole semester's discussion, but in brief, I'd say that the prerequisite of storytelling, something that is hardwired into our DNA, is a person's ability to construct a whole world model in their inner eye through the medium of language. This ability to model outside realities internally through the medium of language must have a strong adaptive value, because we do it from infancy (bedtime stories).

The language needed to invoke this response naturally changes through time and culture. For example, it has jumped from spoken words to written. Technological innovation has further worked on our imaging and ideation faculties. For example, in the 19th century, readers valued the author's skill in painting word pictures, voluble descriptions of the story's settings. We have much less tolerance of that today. It makes the story drag. We don't need it.

I think the art of description started to change in the late 19th Century with the use of, first, graven images and subsequently photos in the popular media. Mark Twain's writing style reflected this. In the foreword to The Unabridged Mark Twain, he boldly declares:

"No weather will be found in this book. This is an attempt to pull a book through without weather. It being the first attempt of the kind in fictitious literature, it may prove a failure, but it seemed worth the while of some dare-devil person to try it, and the author was in just the mood.'

Many a reader who wanted to read a tale through was not able to do it because of delays on account of the weather. Nothing breaks up an author's progress like having to stop every few pages to fuss up the weather. Thus it is plain that persistent intrusions of weather are bad for both reader and author."

The point he was trying to make, I think, was not about weather but about Victorian word pictures.

With print, film, photos, and TV, we swim in images constantly. The average person collects a staggering inventory of images in a lifetime. Images of things he may or may not have personally witnessed in reality. Images of actual and imaginary things. The savvy writer can tap into this inventory. I can write, for example, "The captain steps onto the bridge of the starship," and instantly a dozen possible sets, complete in every detail, spring to mind: Enterprise, Battlestar Galactica, Serenity, etc. My job as writer is not to duplicate the work of hundreds of set designers but to provide the essential details that fix in the reader's imagination the unique qualities of my starship.

In a similar manner, we acquire an inventory of ideas. I think the invention of magazines, which are essentially "idea digests" has started the process and that blogs are a natural extension. Our cultural knowledge base is expanding so fast these days that no one can keep up completely. At best we do a daily scan of all the ideas floating around and pursue only a few in any deeper or comprehensive way. Ideas take longer to apprehend than images; they take effort.

Since SF is purportedly a fiction of ideas, the SF writer must decide whose idea inventory to tap into--the early adopter's or the traditionalist's. As I implied in an earlier question above, there is a portion of society (better than half of the US population, IMO) who actively resist new ideas and the progress they foretell. I read an explanation by Michael Crichton's agent once about commercially successful SF--it never extrapolates technology beyond six years from the present. Anything further out exceeds the comfort level of the mainstream reader. I believe that, even though I ostensibly place my fiction a hundred years out, most of the ideas in my work adhere to this rule.

How has 9/11 affected how one writes about society, in particular the interface between the individual and the state? Has there been a freeing up of genre post-Seattle, as some writers have suggested?

I really don't think there's been much change in how one writes about society or that there's been a freeing up of SF. If anything, these and other recent events have only helped identify who the major players are. The tragedy of 9/11 has emboldened the power elite to emerge from behind their curtains, and the WTO-type demonstrations in Seattle and elsewhere have convinced them to increase their domestic spying.

The Aust Gate


Post a Comment

<< Home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License.