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Friday, October 16, 2009

Interview w/ Edward Willett

Edward Willett is the author of Terra Insegura (see my review here) and Marseguro (see my review here), among other novels. Special thanks to Mr. Willett for doing this interview. Here goes:

Can you talk a little about Terra Insegura for those that have yet to read it?

Terra Insegura takes up immediately where Marseguro left off. The people of Marseguro have reason to believe that a genetically modified super-plague has made its way to Earth and have decided, even though the Body Purified, the religious dictatorship on Earth, just tried to "purify" their planet, they have to at least attempt to help by sending a vaccine. Good impulse, but things go awry when it turns out the Body Purified is not entirely destroyed yet, nor are the Selkies of Marseguro, genetically modified to be amphibian, the only new race of humans spawned by Victor Hansen, the genius geneticist who both created them and had a nasty habit of leaving clones of himself around for other people to trip over. Terra Insegura is about the battle to decide the shape of the new society about to arise on the depopulated Earth.

One of the things I loved about Marseguro, and which continues in Terra Insegura, is your approach to human/Other relationships, with the Other being the Selkies (a genetically augmented human/fish race). What about science fiction makes it “easier” to address humanity’s less appealing qualities (discrimination, segregation, and even violent extermination of “the Other”)? (In your opinion, of course)

One of the strengths of science fiction in general is that it allows you to strip out aspects of present-day life that in the real world are wrapped in too many layers of other stuff to be seen clearly. A story about, say, the progressives of the early 20th century who saw forced sterilization or forbidding marriage to certain types of individuals as a good way to improve society, has to deal with so much historical baggage concerning the real people and events of the time, not to mention the politics of the reader (who may not like to be told that some historical figure they revere--Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Sanger, George Bernard Shaw, etc.--had this unsavory side to them), that it can be hard to examine the central issue of eugenics clearly. Science fiction gives us a way of finding, baring and illuminating these kinds of big-picture problems so that we can look at them in a different light and perhaps gain a better understanding of the issues involved.

Terra Insegura follows Marseguro, a particularly dark dystopian future/space opera, yet it takes your already established darkness to new heights. Is there some really scary part of you that just loves to put your characters through hell? Do you mentally torture little voodoo dolls? Or is all this darkness simply you way of making a darn good science fiction story?

It's funny, because while I was reading a recent thread on the SF Canada listserver about dark and dystopian fiction (prompted, I think, by the latest book by Margaret "I Don't Write Science Fiction Because There Aren't Any Talking Cabbages from Planet X" Atwood), I kept thinking, gee, you people are depressing. I'm glad all my fiction is upbeat!

At which point a little inner voice cleared its throat and said, "Have you actually read your own last couple of books?"

Really, the darkness in these two books was entirely a function of the story situation I set up. As I think I explained in the last interview, Marseguro grew out of a writing class exercise, the whole thing springing from a couple of opening sentences, one of which contained the line "the water in her gills smelled of blood." The darkness was built into that first sentence, and the story that grew out of it just seemed to demand the level of unpleasantness I heaped on my poor characters.

I'm actually a very cheerful guy. Really!

As a sequel, you run the risk of falling short of the preceding novel, of letting your fans down. Terra Insegura never disappoints, and in some ways it is a superior novel to its predecessor. Was Terra Insegura planned from the start, or was it something you put together later on? How did you go about approaching the idea of a sequel and were you at all concerned about “sequelitis?”

Terra Insegura was not planned from the start, and Marseguro was complete before I knew for certain I would be writing a sequel, though obviously I had hopes, since I crafted an ending on which to hang one.

Outlining the sequel was really the same process as outlining the original book. Marseguro started from just a couple of sentences, as I mentioned, and I just began asking myself questions about those sentences as a way of getting to the story they implied. Terra Insegura was the same process, except I was asking myself questions about things I had mentioned in Marseguro, so I had a lot more to work with. There are always loose ends in a novel, alleyways you could have explored but didn't, little bits of throw-away scene decoration or dialogue that you put in really as a kind of stage trick, to imply that there is more to the world than is in the foreground of the story. When I started thinking of a sequel, I looked for those bits and pieces that hinted at something more...and then developed that something more. For instance: in Marseguro, early on, there is a scene at a religious service of the Body where a genetically modified female attacks the priest and is shot down. I described her as being feline. That was a throw-away bit, really, just something to dramatize how moddies were being treated on Earth by the Body Purified. Didn't give that poor dead moddie another thought...until I started plotting Terra Insegura. And then I remembered her and thought, wait. If there's one feline moddie, there must be others...maybe a whole race of them. How did they get there? What have they been up to? Etc....and that led to the Kemonomimi, which became a central feature of Terra Insegura. When I wrote Marseguro, I really had no idea they existed beyond that one throw-away character.

I don't worry about sequilitis. Maybe because I haven't written enough sequels yet. Ask me again five or six books into a series some day...

Do you have plans to write more in this universe?

I proposed a third book, which would see the action move back to Marseguro and also further into space to some of the other colonies mentioned in the first two books, but so far, at least, DAW hasn't taken me up on it. For now, it looks like this will be a two-book series only.

What other projects do you have coming up and can you tell us a little about them?

I'm just finishing the first draft of my first adult fantasy novel, Magebane, which will be my next book for DAW, out next year sometime (no date yet). Because of the switch in genres, it will appear as the first book by Lee Arthur Chane. But Lee Arthur Chane c'est moi! (Lee is my oldest brother's middle name, Arthur is my next-oldest brother's middle name, and Chane is my middle name.) It's a slightly subversive fantasy about a rather repressive magical kingdom where those with magical ability--the Mageborn, and in particular the MageLords--rule rather tyrannically over the non-magic-using Commoners. The kingdom hid itself away four hundred years ago behind an impenetrable barrier after a mysterious hero called the Magebane led the Commoners of the day in a successful revolt. Now there are MageLords who want to destroy the barrier and seize control of the outside world again and Commoners and others who want to overthrow the rule of the MageLords inside the hidden kingdom as their ancestors did centuries ago. Meanwhile, outside, the world has advanced to about the 19th-century level of technology, and one day a young man from that outside world crash-lands in an airship next to the manor of a powerful MageLord...

It's got magic, airships, swords AND dogsleds, assassinations, machinations and assignations, and even a lake of lava. What more could you want?

Switching gears, what do you think about the present state of the book industry, both on the selling end and on the making end? What about eBooks/readers?

Well, I'm not exactly plugged into what the publishers are seeing on their spreadsheets, but it doesn't seem all that great. My dream has always been to make a living just by writing fiction. I'm closer than I ever was, but it still seems pretty distant. Most fiction writers do other things to make ends meet. I suspect most small-press fiction publishers do, too!

I'm a big fan of ebooks, but I'm still wondering if dedicated ebook readers are really going to take off. Frankly, the best ebook reader I've seen is the free Stanza software for the iPhone and iPod Touch. And does anyone really want a dedicated piece of hardware for reading books when you can get a terrific general-purpose piece of hardware like the iPhone or iPod Touch you can read books on just as well?

Terra Insegura and Marseguro, and my previous DAW book, Lost in Translation, are all available as ebooks now, by the way, in various formats including Kindle.

What unusual piece of writing advice would you give to budding writers? (Emphasis on unusual)

How about, contrary to what you hear a lot in writing classes, "Don't write what you know! Write what you WANT to know, and then find out about it--or just make it up."

Now for a random question: If you could be a ninja or a pirate, which would you be and why? Don't worry, this is a safe place...

Definitely a pirate. Better clothes, lots of sea cruises, and a chance to bellow sea chanties at the top of your voice. And that parrot-on-the-shoulder deal is petty sweet, too. If you're shipwrecked, you can always eat it.

Thanks again to Mr. Willett. Now go buy his books!

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