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Friday, July 18, 2008

Interview w/ Edward Willett

Thanks again to Mr. Willett for doing this interview with me. Enjoy!

Thanks for doing this interview with me. To start off, tell us a little about yourself. Who are you? Why are you here? (Okay, you don't have to answer the last one, because that's a broad and mostly random question) Basically, a little bio if you will.

As my mother used to say, “I’m here because I’m not all there.”
A brief bio: I was born in Silver City, New Mexico, in July of 1959 (an event in which aforementioned mother played a very important role). We moved from New Mexico to the panhandle of Texas when I was two, and when I was eight, we moved from Texas to Weyburn, Saskatchewan. My father was a preacher in the Church of Christ and also a schoolteacher, and was offered the opportunity to move to Weyburn to teach at Western Christian College, a high school and junior college affiliated with the churches of Christ. From my point of view, this meant I started school in Texas (where I skipped the first grade—which, combined with my summer birthday, always made me by far the youngest kid in my grade) and then continued it in Saskatchewan. This gave me first-hand experience at being a stranger in a strange land and may well have contributed to my interest in science fiction, although the more immediate reason for my interest was that my two older brothers both read the stuff and thus it was always around the house.
I attended Western Christian College in Weyburn through high school and first-year university, then went to Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas (also affiliated with churches of Christ), to study journalism. (It was the school my parents attended and where they met.) I graduated in December, 1979, and in January, at the ripe old age of 20, started work at the Weyburn Review weekly newspaper as a reporter/photographer, eventually adding weekly columnist and editorial cartoonist to my duties. After four years I became news editor. In 1988 I moved to Regina, Saskatchewan, as communications officer for the fledgling Saskatchewan Science Centre, among other things researching and writing copy for all of the exhibits being built. In 1993 I left that job and have been a fulltime freelance writer ever since. My first books were all computer books with exciting titles like Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 95. From there I branched into children’s non-fiction and have written a plethora of children’s science books (Ebola Virus, Careers in Outer Space, etc.), biographies (Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Ayatollah Khomeini, etc.), histories (The Iran-Iraq War, The Mutiny on the Bounty) ever since.
My first novels were published by miniscule or, in one case, now entirely non-existent, companies. They were all YA science fiction or fantasy: Soulworm was first, then The Dark Unicorn; then came Andy Nebula: Interstellar Rock Star and Spirit Singer. My first adult novel was Lost in Translation, first published by Five Star, then picked up in paperback by DAW. My most recent is, of course, Marseguro, also published by DAW.
I’m a professional actor and singer as well as a writer, though that’s more of a sideline: the last thing I did in that regard was play several roles in a professional production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in Saskatoon over Christmas.
I’m married (to an engineer—good career move on my part!) and have one daughter, who just turned seven.

What are you currently reading, what do you plan to read, and what have you just finished reading?

I’m currently reading, with my wife, Terry Pratchett’s Making Money. On my own, I’m halfway through the Septimus Heap children’s fantasy trilogy by Angie Sage. Before that, I read Scott Westerfeld’s YA SF Uglies trilogy. Young adult fantasy and science fiction was my first love and I hope to write more of it, so I read quite a bit of it. The last non-fiction book I read was Empire of Blue Water by Stephan Talty (pirates! Aarrrr!). Up next? Probably Naomi Novik’s latest Temeraire book, Victory of Eagles. Joe Haldeman’s The Accidental Time Machine and Jack McDevitt’s Cauldron are also near the top of my pile.

Who are some of your writing influences? Favorite authors, past and present?

Growing up, on the SF side, Robert Heinlein was undoubtedly my main SF influence, as he was to so many others. Along with Isaac Asimov and, to a lesser degree, Arthur C. Clarke. Andre Norton was also a major influence: I think I read Moon of Three Rings half a dozen times as a kid. Robert Silverberg’s Revolt on Alpha C is one of the first SF books I can remember reading, and had a big influence. (Later on, his book The World Inside contributed mightily to my sex education.) Another SF book that made a big impression early on was Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Colours of Space. Other influences: Clifford Simak. John Christopher. More recently, C. J. Cherryh comes to mind as an influence. On the fantasy side, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, of course, and Andre Norton, again.
Favorite authors aren’t quite the same list as influential authors. Heinlein is still on there, and Cherryh, and Tolkien, and Norton. Diane Duane. I read everything Pratchett writes, and I’m a fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. Patrick Rothfuss (a fellow DAW author!) is a favorite based on The Name of the Wind. Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies were great fun and I’m looking forward to more. I mentioned Novik earlier. Robert J. Sawyer is another favorite, and Dave Duncan, too. John Varley. Joe Haldeman. Allan Steele. Lots and lots of favorites, in other words!

Why did you decide to become a writer, out of all things you could possible do in this world? Likewise, what drove you to science fiction as opposed to, say, stories about teddy bears?
I’ve always been a huge reader, and one day when I was 11 years old, a friend and I decided to while away the time on a rainy afternoon by writing stories. (No video games in 1970, alas.) I wrote a little SF epic called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot.” I was already a big SF reader at that point, again, primarily because that was what my big brothers read. (It’s all their fault!) My Dad read SF some, as well.
My mother typed my story up for me and my junior high English teacher, Tony Tunbridge, did me the great favor of taking it seriously: he critiqued it thoroughly, pointing out what didn’t work, what didn’t make sense, etc., while at the same time being encouraging. And with that, I was hooked. I started writing more and more and longer and longer, too.
Then, in high school, I hooked up with a good friend, John Smith (no, really, though he preferred his nickname, “Scrawney”) who also liked to write. We would get together in an empty classroom after school and write, and then read each other what we had written, alternating sentences back and forth. Since he was writing a historical epic and I was always writing SF or fantasy, we’d get some funny effects this way. Also in high school, my English teachers required us to keep what was called a writing book: we had to write a page a day in these books. It could be anything, we just had to fill the page.
I was usually dozens of pages ahead.
I wrote three novels in high school (I still have them), one in Grade 9 and 10, one in Grade 10 and 11, and one in Grade 11 and 12. I typed them myself, bound them in red cardboard, and handed them around to my classmates to read. After that, there was really no looking back.
By the way, my first adult SF novel, Lost in Translation, includes (for one chapter, anyway) a robotic teddy bear. So there.

Your latest novel is Marseguro, a story about genetically modified human beings, crazy normal humans who, in human fashion, want to destroy the unusual, and a load of other things. To start things off, could you tell us about it? Where did you get the idea? Where did it come from (meaning, what got you to start writing it, etc.)?
Marseguro is living proof of the value of writing exercises. It began as two sentences written in a class in writing science fiction taught by Robert J. Sawyer at the Banff Centre in Banff, Alberta, at 9:13 a.m. on September 20, 2005. To start things off that morning, Rob asked us to 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.”
My fellow students thought that sounded intriguing.
During the rest of that week in Banff, I tried to turn that opening into a short story, but I couldn’t make it fit: as I asked myself more and more questions about what was going on with this girl with gills in the bloody water, my back story grew bigger and bigger. Eventually I put it aside, unfinished.
Shortly after that, in early 2006, I received a call one morning from Martin H. Greenberg at Tekno Books, which packages SF titles for Five Star—which had recently published my book Lost in Translation, in a library-edition hardcover. He told me that DAW had had a “hole” in their publishing schedule, had asked him to send over some of his Five Star titles to look at as possibilities to fill that hole—and they’d picked mine!
With that DAW contract in hand, I went in search of an agent, and Ethan Ellenberg agreed to take me on. I needed proposals to follow up Lost in Translation with, so I prepared two: one was a sequel to Lost in Translation, and one, just because I had it in hand, was a full novel based on the abandoned short story that had been born in that writing exercise in Banff. DAW preferred the all-new tale, and so Marseguro became my next book. So there was no grand idea involved at all: just a spur-of-the moment visually arresting image that I built into a novel simply by asking myself questions like, “Why does she have gills?” “Why is there blood in the water?” and so on.

One of the strongest issues (and most interesting for me) was the presentation of religion gone bad and the intolerance that produces. Could you talk a little about this? What fascinates you about religion to want to write about the dark side of it?
It both is and isn’t odd. It isn’t odd I include religion in my work: I’m the son of a preacher and elder in the church of Christ, I attended church three times a week (Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night) growing up, I went to church-affiliated schools where we had daily chapel and special devotionals at almost every social event, and I even went on a mission trip and knocked doors to invite people to church meetings in Edinburgh and Cardiff my last year in university. I’ve lead singing and prayers and presided over communion (though preaching isn’t something I ever got into, much to my father’s disappointment). I don’t regret a minute of that, nor do I repudiate it in any way. I had a wonderful childhood, I loved my schools, and the finest people I’ve ever known—my father included—were and are devout Christians. I wouldn’t be who I am if I hadn’t been brought up what some would call a fundamentalist Christian. (I know that phrase conjures up stereotypes in some people’s minds, but battling those is outside the purvey of this interview.)
So the odd thing, I suppose, might be that the religion in Marseguro is so negative, when my personal experience with and view of religion is not. But my problem isn’t with religion per se; it’s with false religion. It’s with religion that uses force and coercion to achieve its ends. It’s with religion that sees nothing wrong with slaughtering people. It’s with religion that gets its hands on the levers of government and won’t let go. I’m all for the separation of church and state. The Body Purified, the religion I’ve created in my book, would just be a kind of wacko conspiracy theory if it hadn’t managed to seize control of government in the wake of a disaster. Modern weaponry in the hands of genocidal religious maniacs convinced the way to God is over the bodies of their enemies—that’s never a good thing.
Identifying parallels to current events is left as an exercise for the reader.

Additionally, the intolerance doesn't stop with religion, which I was really happy about. Your Selkies are not all entirely innocent. A lot of bullying goes on between the normal humans and the modified ones and there is a little of the same intolerance towards the different on the planet of Marseguro. It seems, in a way, like a discussion of human nature (even though the Selkies aren't entirely human). Were you shooting for this or did it just happen? What about this "human" intolerance do you find most pressing not only in science fiction (yours and in general), but also in society as we know it?
Intolerance is a bad thing. It’s also a very human thing. If you like your evolution straight, it probably arises out of plain old survival instinct: someone who is not like you may represent a threat. Better kill him. If you lean toward the religious, you may think in terms of fallen humanity: one of the earliest sins in the Bible, after Adam disobeys God and eats of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, is Cain murdering Abel, basically because he’s jealous. Human nature is what it is. We do our best to mitigate the negative effects—we try to stop the really intolerant from slaughtering the rest of us--but we’ll never abolish bullying and intolerance and violence and all the rest of it. So I think what you’re picking up on is just my attempt to make my imagined world believable. The Selkies aren’t better, they’re just different. But they’re still human.
One could write an entirely different story in which the genetic modification of humans was used to abolish intolerance and the capacity for violence. But that’s not the story I chose to write.

I was reading some other interviews done with you and one interview in particular discussed the supposed differences between Canadian SF and American SF. I personally don't know what the difference is (I've read a little of both and while there are always differences between writers, I can't pin any of those differences down to being a "Canadian thing" or "American thing"). You seem against the idea of there being a difference at all. Why, in your opinion, do people perceive or assume there is a difference between the SF of each country (and a significant difference at that)?
Canadians are more invested in this idea of a difference between the two than Americans, and the reason is simple: many Canadians are heavily invested in the ideas that a) they are not American and b) they’re better than Americans. So even if no significant difference exists between Canadian and American SF (and that’s where I come down on the question: I believe there are differences between individual writers, but little you can attribute to nationality) some Canadians would have to invent one, primarily in order to assert that Canadian SF is better than American SF, just as Canadian health care/foreign policy/economic policy/environmental record/race relations/etc. is better than the American equivalents.
The worst insult you can hurl at a Canadian politician, after all, is that the policy he or she is advocating is “too American.”

I also hear you're working on a sequel to Marseguro called Terra Insegura. Could you tell us a little about this new work? (If you're bound by contract to keep the details secret, just mention what you're allowed to talk about, because I don't want you getting in trouble or anything).

Marseguro is Portugese and Spanish for “safe sea.” Terra Insegura means “unsafe earth,” and, indeed, that’s where the sequel is set: on Earth, which has been drastically affected by the events of the first book (I don’t want to say more about those events so as not to spoil Marseguro for anyone who hasn’t read it yet). Through various paths, Richard, Emily and Chris, the main characters of Marseguro, end up on Earth and have to deal with what they find there. There’s a whole new race of genetically modified humans, the cat-like Kemonomimi, who play an important role. The Avatar, the leader of the Body Purified, is a primary character. There are some brand-new characters, both Selkie and non-mods.
What else can I say? Um...there’s some shooting, both in space and on Earth, hand-to-hand combat, a flash flood and one really big explosion.
How’s that?

What would you say are some advantages and disadvantages to working with small presses (such as Five Star) versus large presses (such as DAW)? What were both experiences like for you?

There were a couple of major differences. Lost in Translation was essentially unedited: Five Star pretty much published what I submitted. Because DAW’s edition was a reprint of the Five Star edition, they didn’t edit it either.
But with Marseguro, few weeks after I submitted it to DAW, I was on the phone for a couple of hours one day with my editor there, Sheila Gilbert. We talked through the problems and concerns she had. Some were character-related, some were plot-related. I went back to the keyboard and rewrote the whole thing, adding about 15,000 words in the process, mostly character development stuff. I’m currently waiting for a similar editorial conversation with Sheila about the sequel, Terra Insegura.
Cover art was another difference. I’ve been thrilled with the art on both of my DAW Books, created by Steve Stone. The Five Star edition of Lost in Translation...not so much. And I think that just reflects the level of artist a larger publisher can afford for cover art compared to what smaller publishers can afford.
And, of course, the biggest difference is that you can go into almost any bookstore and have a reasonable chance of finding Marseguro on the shelf (or at least you could when it was first released; it’s been out long enough now it’ll be getting bumped by newer releases in some stores). Five Star publishes pretty much exclusively for the library market, which is nice, but can’t compare in volume of sales. Which means, ultimately, I make more money writing for DAW than for Five Star, and my books are much more visible, enabling me (I hope) to start to build an audience that will come back for future books with my name on the cover.
But I’m extremely grateful to Five Star, because if they hadn’t published Lost in Translation in the first place, I might never have been published by DAW or any other large publisher.

Now for a completely random question: If you could have any genetic modification to yourself, except for gills or fish things (cause that would be cheating), and assuming that you could do it temporarily if you wanted to and it would be completely painless, what would you have?
I’d go for strength and agility. I’d love to be as graceful and strong as the acrobats I saw recently in the Cirque du Soleil.

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