Notes From an Alien Shore

A few weeks ago I happened to ask two friends a question that had been on my mind a good deal lately. Both conversations went very much like this (I’ll call the friends “X” for simplicity):

ME: “Do you ever wonder what we are? What we really are?”

X: <Silence/blank stare>

ME: “I mean, think about it. We’re not our bodies, that’s obvious. But we’re not our minds, either, that’s just the organ that does the thinking. A Christian would use the word “soul”, but that just raises more questions, as does the notion that we’re a splinter of some kind of supreme being. So what are we?”

X: Honestly, I try not to think about that sort of thing.

Admittedly, two people is a narrow sample. But that fact that two intelligent, thoughtful friends should give me exact, identical answers really made me think.

I ask myself questions like the one above all the time. Questions of existence, of reality, time and space, life and death, meaning and ethics, good and evil; questions of everything that concerns our existence and what it means to be human…these occupy my thinking for large parts of every day. Metaphysics matters.

I also have a quirk in that I tend to consider everything from basic principles, taking little on trust or as given. So much of what we’re taught or presented with is false, biased, or founded on incomplete and/or sloppy assumptions that anyone interested in investigating the real must go back to the beginning or risk building on sand, or shaky foundations at best.

Moreover, to see reality at its clearest, I believe it’s critical to be free of any and all ideologies, especially political or religious belief. The moment you assume an ideology or a belief system is the moment you stop seeing reality as it is, but begin instead to filter it through the lens of your ideology, to try to make the actual territory of the real match your map. As someone once put it, “we see the world not as it is, but as we are.” So the answer is to just not be as anything—be you, a naked flame of being with no philosophy or ideology. Simply observe and think.

I do this with everything. When I was a decorative painter—a career I pursued with considerable success for twenty-five years—I took no classes but taught myself everything about colour, materials, and technique from scratch. Once I’d mastered the basics, I looked for new ways to achieve certain effects, as well as creating an array of paint effects nobody had ever seen. I mixed most of my own materials rather than buying off-the-shelf. The result was that within a decade or so I’d not only mastered the craft and was in high demand, but the look of my finishes was entirely different to the generic, cookie-cutter “faux painting” that my many competitors were practicing. This gave me a huge edge.

More recently, I’ve taken a similar approach with writing, approaching the craft from the standpoint of what works and gets results, and eschewing the mountains of stupid, fashionable rules and diktats endlessly touted at writers’ workshops and on countless blogs and Twitter feeds. Of course it’s important to know these “rules”, and a small minority of them are useful, even vital; the rest just need to be buried and forgotten.

It always struck me as odd that people talk about reinventing the wheel as though it were a waste of time—nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes you invent a better wheel; sometimes you come up with something that makes the wheel like as useless as a bag of rocks.

On a related note, we were recently given a bag full of DVDs of new and recent TV shows by an actor friend; apparently these things are passed around to people in the Screen Actors Guild so that they may consider them when dvds2-crop-smvoting for Emmy nominations. The shows include a wide variety of stuff, from The History Channel to offerings from Amazon, from American Crime to Portlandia; the last three episodes of Mad Men are in there, as well as the whole mini-series of Wolf Hall (a historical about Henry VIII, and the only one of any interest to me).

Since I don’t watch any TV at all, the huge majority of these were new to me. After enjoying Wolf Hall, we attempted some of the others, like an episode of Mad Men, and now, American Crime.

In trying to understand what people get out of TV shows like these, I’m thrown back to the gulf I sense when trying to discuss existential truths that concern me deeply only to discover that people I care for and respect would rather just not go there. I feel—and I suspect many writers will share this feeling—as though I’m living among aliens, where I barely grasp the parameters of the society and what makes it tick.

Is it even possible to understand why people behave the way they do without buying in to pop culture? Sometimes when I see people talk (and certainly when they argue), it seems to me that rather than processing and responding with thought and intelligently, they’ve learned to interact with others from TV soaps, and are just throwing out stock phases, learned reactions, mannerisms, expressions, postures. No wonder the world is the mess it is.

Why, for instance, would any sane person want to watch something like “American Crime”, which is so drenched in realism that no shred of escapism or joy is left to the viewer, so that the only possible reaction one is left with is to just end it all now? The question baffles me.

And don’t get me started on reality shows or celebrity chef contests. What possible pleasure anyone can take in watching real people put in often humiliating conflict situations, subjected to extreme stress, and then publicly defeated or even ridiculed, I can’t imagine. The Roman games were at least honest.

Fnally, take a simple predictive Google search. The trending popular searches which flash up as you click in the box are almost invariably to do with celebrities, sports, TV shows, or something so mind-numbingly banal as to leave me shaking my head. It’s glaringly obvious that the overwhelming majority of us aren’t much preoccupied with the mysteries of existence.

I am, it seems, legend. Perhaps I’m not even real.

Are you?

 

6 Comments

Filed under Material World

INTERVIEW: Under the Covers with William Hertling

Hertling2012_headshot-200x300William Hertling is the author of Avogadro Corp, A.I. Apocalypse, The Last Firewall, The Turing Exception, and the upcoming Kill Process. These near-term science-fiction novels explore the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI), the coexistence of humans and smart machines, and the impact of social reputation, technological unemployment, and other near-future issues. His novels have been called “frighteningly plausible,” “tremendous,” and “must-read.”

Hertling’s Singularity Series novels have been endorsed by and received wide attention from tech luminaries including Harper Reed (CTO for the Obama Campaign), Ben Huh (CEO Cheezburger), and Chris Anderson (CEO 3DRobotics, former Editor-in-Chief Wired).

His first novel for children, The Case of the Wilted Broccoli, was published in 2014.

 Hertling grew up a digital native in the early days of bulletin board systems. His first experiences with net culture occurred when he wired seven phone lines into the back of his Apple IIe and hosted an online chat system.

 A frequent speaker on the future of technology, science fiction, and indie publishing, Hertling has spoken at SXSW Interactive, Defrag, OryCon, University of Colorado, Willamette Writers Conference, and many other conferences.

DC: Will, thanks so very much for doing this interview. Did you start off wanting to become a writer, or did you stumble into it?

WH: I very much stumbled into it, although, in retrospect, there were a few hints ahead of time. In college I helped write and publish a set of computer manuals. I started blogging in 2003, and also wrote a magazine article that year. In 2007 or 2008, I learned about NaNoWriMo, and started a non-fiction book about the business use of social media. I abandoned that project about 35,000 words in, when I realized just how difficult non-fiction writing is.

Then in 2009 or so, I read two books back to back, Accelerando by Charles Stross and The Future is Near by Ray Kurzweil, that set my mind abuzz with thoughts of the technological singularity, the point where AI exceeds human intelligence. I noticed a gap in science fiction novels: some assumed strong AI existed, and others ignored the singularity entirely, but very few deeply explored the point of emergence and its impact on humanity.

I had the idea for Avogadro Corp over lunch one day, and daydreamed about it for six months. I took the month of December off work and wrote the entire first draft.

DC: Your four-novel Singularity Series, which began in 2011 with Avogadro Corp and concluded last year with The Turing Exception, is a deep dive and a wholly fresh perspective on the so-called technological singularity. The books in this series have sold 75,000 copies and racked up over 1,300 reader reviews with a 4.5-star average, putting you in the front ranks of success for a self-published indie author. How did you crack the tough nut of marketing and reaching visibility in a crowded marketplace?

WH: I reached out to friends and family, letting them know by any means possible that I’d published: email, Facebook, and Twitter. For these people, it was not so much selling them on the strength of the book, but conveying the excitement represented by this milestone in my life. Many people want to be supportive, but don’t know what an author needs, so I asked specifically for people to buy the book, tell friends, and post reviews.

Learning from those early experiences, I refined my website, book description, and how I asked for help. Then I reached out to more distant connections and potential influencers (other bloggers, for example). I created business cards, and handed these out at conferences. At this point I was selling 1-3 copies a day, maybe 150 books in total.

One of the most important elements of my marketing was using very finely tuned Facebook ads to reach fans of niche authors I was similar to in writing style and topic. I experimented with variations of text, images, Facebook targets, pricing, and landing pages until I finally hit on a few mixes that sold books at a profit. These ads sold an extra 5-8 copies a day, and I reached about 500 books in total.

Every success involves elements of luck and timing. But just as you can, for example, maximize the likelihood of meeting a movie star by moving to Los Angeles, you can also increase the odds of serendipity. This early phase of marketing, where you’re trying to push out a few copies a day, is mostly about maximizing the chance of acquiring a reader who is also a significant influencer.

In my case, that significant influencer turned out to be Brad Feld, a well known and highly regarded venture capitalist, who happened upon my book and blogged about it, letting a large number of about it. Soon afterwards, I was selling thousands of copies a month.

Since then I’ve continued marketing through newsletters, blogging, speaking at conferences, and experimenting with occasional ads on Bookbub and elsewhere.

DC: This series is high-intensity, core Science Fiction. It’s highly original, packed to bursting with ideas, and cracks along at a ferocious pace. But despite the series’ huge success, very few SF readers know your work, and most of your readers are people working in the tech sector. Why is that?

WH: I tried several marketing approaches that failed, including sending books to newspapers and soliciting reviews from mainstream science fiction reviewers. Both of these suffer from difficult competition because everyone wants to be reviewed there, so the actual chances of getting reviewed are quite low. Even if you do manage the occasional review, readers of the publication are inundated with daily book recommendations, so few purchase any given book.

When Brad Feld wrote about my novel, which led to other venture capitalists, CTOs, and CEOs of tech startups reading and talking about the book, I asked myself what these people had in common. It took a solid month of deep thinking before I realized the common thread was a deep interest in technology, especially where tech in going in the future.

So although my books are science fiction, and even more specifically science fiction about AI, I think of them really as exploring the theme of future technology’s impact on people and culture, whether that is AI or anything else. Once I had this realization, it helped me solidify my marketing. For example, I reached out to Brad Feld and offered him a guest post on my techniques to predict the future. The result, How to Predict the Future1, reached hundreds of thousands of people, and was the number one Google search result for that term for quite a while.

By focusing my marketing around on the themes of my writing, rather than the genre or specific topic, I’m tapping into a very different conduit to reach readers. That my book happens to be science fiction is somewhat besides the point –conceivably I could write about the same themes in a non-fiction book, and my readers would still be interested. In addition, since the influencers in this group aren’t out there recommending books every day of the week like a book review blog does, when they do make a book recommendation, it stands out, and more people buy it.

DC: A year ago, a number of leading figures in the tech and scientific community, including Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, publicly sounded alarm bells over the rush to develop strong AI, and suggested that we might be building something more dangerous than nuclear weapons. Where do you stand on this?

WH: The potential for danger is definitely there, although Terminator-like doomsday scenarios are at the bottom of my worry list.

At the top of my concerns is that AI becomes increasingly in control of the infrastructure of the planet, such that the impact of a widespread technology failure becomes much more significant. As time goes by, civilization becomes more technology dependent. For example, we can’t maintain the current standard of living for the current population based on 1950s technology, because the older technology is not efficient enough. Project twenty years into the future: if we’re dependent on AI to manage all our infrastructure to maintain a given standard of living for the population, and then we have a catastrophic failure of AI for whatever reason, we’ll be plummeted into darkness – quite literally.

Also worrisome is the scenario where AI becomes vastly more intelligent than us and decides the best way to keep us in check is to manipulate us. We’re already so vulnerable to manipulation by the media. Imagine how much more vulnerable we’d be if every communication is AI-mediated and altered. Look at Facebook’s experiment of how altering what stories were in a person’s feed affected their happiness. Very subtle stuff leads to significant impacts.

At the same time, there is potential for greatness from AI. The promise of nanobots for human health and longevity, custom DNA tweaks, and many other ultra-high-tech promises, including greater resource and energy efficiency leading to a sustainably-managed planet, are much more likely to be developed if we have strong AI here to assist us. So we can’t turn our backs on it either.

The problem is that, unlike nuclear weapons which we’ve succeeded in restricting to governments, strong AI will be accessible to anyone. Even if 99% of AI use is beneficial, it will take only one disgruntled hacker operating in their basement to build a malevolent AI. Look at the recent Microsoft AI chatbot that was unleased, where, within 24 hours, the community had managed to get it to spout racist propaganda supporting Donald Trump and Hitler.

DC: In your first, amazingly prescient book, begun in 2009, you posit the accidental emergence of strong AI from a language optimization program called ELOPe which was created to improve email. In the last few months, both Google and now FoxType have launched software to help users optimize their email. Given the current state of AI research and the hardware available and under development, do you believe strong, self-bootstrapping AI is a real possibility in, oh, the next decade, or even at all?

WH: I think it’s possible, although not particularly likely in the next ten years. Ray Kurzweil is well-known for his projections of when we’ll see AI which compare the processing power available in computer chips with the power necessary to simulate the complexity of the human brain.

I used his calculations as a starting point, and did my own comparing a wider range of input values. What I found is a variety of scenarios that depend on three key dimensions.

One dimension is complexity of the human brain. At one end of the spectrum is the assumption we can implement intelligence more efficiently than nature, and at the other end of the spectrum, that we can’t understand intelligence at all, but rely on brute force simulation of nerve cells. My perspective is that we’re not going to be more efficient than nature, at least, at first, so we’re looking at the more complex, brute force scenario.

The second dimension is processing power. One end of the processing power spectrum concerns itself with what an individual has available to them in their home, while the other end of the spectrum takes advantage of massive parallel computing power available at organizations with Google-like resources.

Finally, you have the dimension of time, and the increasing processing power available to us as chips get faster. (Aside: For those concerned about the end of Moore’s law, do a quick calculation of the total personal computing power an individual has, rather than that residing in a single processor chip, and you’ll notice the total is still increasing on the same curve it was before. It’s just distributed among more devices now.)

Plotting these three values, and looking at the extremes, we end up with an Avogadro Corp-like scenario around 2015, where all the computing resources of a big company are brought to bear on a single AI, and at the other end, a hobbyist implementing an AI around 2045 on the computing power available to them personally. I wrote an essay for IEEE several years ago about why I think widespread involvement tends to accelerate technological progress2, like it did for recommendation engines with the Netflix Prize, so I’m again biased toward seeing faster AI development when the necessary computing power becomes available to the common person.

In sum, my two biases (believing we are unlikely to be more efficient than nature, and we need widespread involvement) make me think we’ll see the first true, strong general purpose AI sometime after 2030, but certainly by 2045.

DC: Your Singularity Series looks hard at the challenges of having biological humans and transhuman AI sharing a planet. If we arrive at strong AI by building machines that think and explore ideas and refine outcomes in the organic way humans do, using neural net and deep learning approaches as opposed to simple, linear software, do you think it inevitable that AI notions of ethics and morality will range across the spectrum from “good” to “evil”, just like our own? Or are we anthropomorphizing?

WH: If AI has free will and the ability to affect the world, it must embody some concept of ethical behavior. Even no consideration for ethical behavior is a form of ethics.

The trolley problem3 is a classical thought experiment in ethics. Pose the problem to different people, and you get different answers to what is the “right” behavior. There are hundreds of variations on that one problem alone, each representing more nuanced ethical considerations. And that’s an exercise in ethics that doesn’t take into account the messiness of real life.

You can look at the current state of American politics to see that two groups, each behaving ethically according to their own standards, thinks the other group is not merely unethical, but actually evil.

Since we humans have no one definition of ethical behavior, we certainly can’t expect AI to behave according to some absolute scale. Whatever ethics are designed into the AI by their human creators, we can be sure that some people will consider them good and some evil.

On the other hand, over time, AI may converge on a single definition of ethical behavior over time more readily than humans do, because I suspect they are more likely to rely on utilitarianism as a guiding principle.

DC: So, blue pill or red pill?

WH: Oh, red pill definitely. I can’t tolerate the notion of having reality hidden from me. One of the most terrifying scenes I’ve ever read in science fiction was from The Unincorporated Man, in which you get to see what happens when the entire human race takes the blue pill. I still have concerns over what happens when fully realistic, immersive virtual reality is created.

DC: When I was a teen, back in the late sixties and early seventies, it was widely predicted that increasing automation would quickly bring about a “leisure revolution”, and there was a great deal of concern about how people would adapt to working much less and having lots of free time. Of course, nothing remotely like that has happened and we’re all working much harder and seem to have far less leisure time than ever. What went wrong?

WH: As someone who is juggling parenthood, a day job in tech, and writing, it’s a little hard to get perspective on this question. I work hard partly because I must, and partly because I enjoy what I do. Leaving my personal situation aside, I think there are two trends that together create the current environment. One caveat: My answer is probably very US centric.

First, we have the rich taking a larger and larger percentage of the pie. For the majority of people, there’s no option but to work harder and longer because they aren’t getting paid a living wage for the work they’re doing.

Second, we have a higher standard of living including basic expectations that didn’t exist in any form in the sixties and seventies. We didn’t have cable, computers, or Internet, eating out regularly, prepared foods, or even one car per household, let alone person.

The default behavior for most people is to want it all, both materially and experientially, which crowds out any opportunity for true leisure.

On the other hand, I’ve seen people turn their back on our modern, consumer-oriented, entertainment-focused culture and live a much more basic lifestyle, and by doing so, they’re able to work part-time or live off savings. This voluntary simplicity requires a conscious, ongoing choice in a society that encourages consumption. It should be noted that this choice is a privilege of those making at least a reasonable income, although I’ve seen people at all levels of income, including part-time, minimal wage workers, make decisions that prioritize financial independence over more stuff.

In sum, I’d say the majority of people tend to prioritize material acquisitions and buying leisure experiences, like eating out, over actual leisure, like enjoying a home cooked meal with friends. Still, this choice is a privilege afforded to increasingly fewer people because of the ever greater diversion of wealth to the ultra-rich.

DC: As well as having three young children, you work fulltime in the tech industry and are a productive and successful author. What do you do for leisure, Will?

WH: Every writer juggles at least two different roles: the creative side of the house where they write new material, and the business side of the house, which is interrupt and deadline driven. Indie authors spend even more time taking care of the publishing side of things. One of the worst feelings is when I have a precious day free to for creative writing, and I end up burning it all taking care of overdue business tasks.

So doing the actual creative writing is one of the things that feels most like leisure to me, because I get so much enjoyment from it.

I’m also fairly delighted to be able to take a walk while listening to music, whether that’s an urban exploration or a nature hike. I also love connecting with the writing community in Portland in person. We have so many interesting people on all different stages in their writing careers with different objectives. It’s fun to get to know folks and celebrate their victories with them.

Other interests are on temporary hiatus, probably until I’m able to leave my day job. Some of these are live music, RC planes, and more involved video games. I’d also love to play with robotics.

DC: Are you a gamer? If so, which games do you enjoy?

WH: On and off. It depends on where I am in my writing, and how much else I have going on.

My favorite game of the last few years is Kerbal Space Program, which an insanely epic space simulation in which you get to build rockets and explore the solar system. I play in creative mode, set different missions for myself, and have just one rule: No Kerbal left behind. One specific Kerbal that’s my favorite has visited every body in the solar system.

I play with a life support mod that means the Kerbals will die if I don’t replenish their air, food, and water. I found myself playing what amounted to my own version of The Martian when a mission to Eve went awry, and rescue mission after rescue mission failed or led to more problems. Two Kerbals “volunteered” to leave the ship and walk off into the distance so as to leave enough life support supplies for the last Kerbal to live. I post journal entries to an online writing community that read like fan fiction short stories.

 DC: What do you read? Any favourite authors?

WH: Cory Doctorow is my favorite author by far, and there’s no greater delight than getting to read one of his new novels. I read mostly science fiction, although I also have a sweet spot for thrillers like the John Rain novels by Barry Eisler. I reread the classics of 1980s cyberpunk frequently. One of my favorite books of that era that’s often overlooked is Walter Jon Williams’s Hardwired which has left me with visions of armored hovercars for decades.

Reading is unfortunately one of those things that’s taken a hit due to the time I spend writing, and probably also due to time spent on the Internet. I read some research a while back that demonstrated we train our mind to a certain length attention span. By doing so much short-form interaction on the web, we’re reinforcing the pattern of paying attention for shorter and shorter periods of time. This makes it really hard to sit down and read a novel.

One of my goals for 2016 is to spend more time reading. I just finished The Handmaid’s Tale by Maragaret Atwood, which is a very powerful, devastating novel. In light of the current Presidential candidates, I found it terrifying to read. Right now I’m reading Flatland.

DC: Tell us a little about The Case of the Wilted Broccoli.

WH: My kids begged me to write something they could read. As a kid, I had a particular fondness for detective novels like The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown. I especially enjoyed novels in which the kids did everything and adults played only a minor role. So I knew these would all be elements of whatever I would write.

Then, a few years ago, the third element hit me when I was at my first Cory Doctorow appearance. Although adults probably form the bulk of his readers, Cory gears his books towards teen readers as well, and every one of his novels is an education on principles of technology, government, privacy, and power. At the event, there were several young teenagers in attendance, and several asked questions during the Q&A after his talk. It was really moving to see these people who had clearly been affected by his writing.

That made me realize that if I was going to write a novel for kids, I wanted technology to feature prominently in it, and the kids fully empowered as technology creators, not just users. So a subplot woven throughout is around the school science fair, and the kids use their project, a homebuilt drone to help solve a mystery.

DC: And your favourite food or meal is…?

WH: I’m especially fond of izakaya, which is Japanese bar food. I tend to put whatever food or drinks I’m passionate about at the time into my writing. If I happen to revisit an older book I wrote, it’s fun to remember oh yeah, this was when I was having a martini phase, or here’s where I started drinking whiskey.

DC: Although—or perhaps because—you work in tech, some events in your series, especially in book IV, The Turing Exception, suggest strong sympathies, even a yearning, for a simpler, back-to-the-land, communitarian lifestyle. Would you like to live in a simpler world?

WH: Around the turn of the millennium, I had an intense interest in environmentalism, especially the role of individual choice in our lifestyles, which was partly motivated by a series of fantastic discussion courses from the Northwest Earth Institute4. I was mostly vegan for a while, sold my car, reduced the amount of technology around me, and spent a lot of time with people looking for an escape from consumerism. I had several brief but amazing encounters with intentional communities.

Although I’m very attracted to all of that, I also can’t ignore the part of me that’s passionate about technology, the web, and online communities. At first glance, it’s difficult to embrace both perspectives. Many in the voluntary simplicity and intentional community movements want to minimize the role of technology in their lives, while many in the tech community embrace it whole-heartedly without any thought of what makes sense to bring into their lives.

I’d love to figure out the middle ground. I don’t think simplicity has to mean living in a cabin in the woods, although I see the appeal of that. It can mean being selective about what we choose to have in our lives.

Another possible model of embracing both comes from one of my favorite people, Gifford Pinchot III, who is a cofounder of Pinchot University, a sustainable business MBA program. When I first met him I noticed he had no leisure time whatsoever and worked every minute of the day. I asked him how he sustained that pace. His answer was that he worked very hard for ten months a year, and then spent two months a year living off-the-grid on a nature preserve in Canada, chopping wood, hiking, and drumming.

DC: How do we get there from here?

WH: I’m not sure. I have some hints of things I suspect are important.

Everyone needs some exposure to voluntary simplicity or intentional community. Even if they ultimately choose not to live that lifestyle, just being aware of it as an option, and having a vocabulary to be able to talk about it is important. Most people don’t even know that they have, by default, taken the blue pill. They’re in the matrix as defined by popular culture.

We also need to show up to anything we do as our full, authentic selves. Too often we go to work, where we spend the majority of our functional hours with other people, and we only permit ourselves to engage on a very superficial, very safe level. Which means we end up spending most of our lives having very superficial and safe conversations.

But you don’t get any meaningful change or connection at that level. You have to be willing to be vulnerable, to show when you are afraid, to risk crying with someone or hugging them. One of the biggest travesties is the way work culture, by keeping everything “safe,” robs us of the opportunity for deep connection and meaningful engagement. I’d like to see people steal that back. We have to risk being hurt to also experience joy and love.

Tim Ferriss says many people keep themselves busy because they’re afraid of what happens if they suddenly have free time. They’re afraid of asking themselves if their life has meaning, if they know what they want to do with their lives, if they have the quality of relationships they want to have. It’s easier by far to stay busy and avoid those questions, and by all means, avoid making changes, which are scary.

Conversely, the more accustomed we become to addressing those issues, the less we fear them, because we eventually learn that usually things work out okay and we develop better skills for adapting to change. Then, from a place of less fear and greater competency, we can help the people around us go through their own life journeys.

You asked how we get to a life of greater simplicity, and my answer is we should all get to the life we want to live, whether that is simple or not, so long as we have the opportunity to be ourselves, to have meaningful relationships, and to do the important things we want to do in the world. Simplicity is one way to approach that, but it may not be for everyone.

DC: You’ve just completed a new novel, Kill Process, a tech thriller with a female protagonist, due to release in the coming months; I’ve read it, and it totally rocks. Can you talk about it a little to whet readers’ appetites?

WH: Angie Benenati, formerly a teenage computer hacker in the 1980s, is now a data analyst for the world’s largest social media company, Tomo. Struggling to cope with the aftermath of an abusive relationship she escaped five years earlier, she uses her access to everyone’s data to profile domestic abusers and kill the worst of them to free their victims.

This uneasy status quo is disrupted when she realizes that Tomo is, in effect, holding users’ social relationships hostage while systematically violating their privacy and control over their own data. Seeing too many parallels to the world of domestic violence, Angie decides she must eliminate Tomo by creating a new social network that ensures such a one-sided power dynamic can never occur again.

It’s a contemporary thriller with a blend of the startup world and computer hacking exploring themes of data privacy and ownership. The themes I explore stem from my interest in where power resides between people and companies, especially when the companies involved mediate our interpersonal relationships.

DC: Will, thanks so much. You’ve been a great guest and I really appreciate you taking this time with us. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

WH: It’s been a pleasure for me, as well. Thanks so much. For anyone who has enjoyed any of what I’ve said, please check out my books or sign up for my monthly mailing list, especially if you’d like to find out when Kill Process is available.

 

Notes

1 How to Predict the Future

2 Why I think widespread involvement tends to accelerate technological progress (IEEE essay)

3 The trolley problem

4 Northwest Earth Institute

 

Did you enjoy this interview with William? Let us know with a comment!

This concludes my Under the Covers interview series. Links to all the Under the Covers interviews are here

Please sign up for RSS feed at the left to follow this blog and enjoy future interviews and op-ed. Thank you!

1 Comment

Filed under Books and Writers, interviews

INTERVIEW: Under the Covers with Loreth Anne White

Loreth 250hLoreth Anne White is an award-winning author of romantic suspense, thrillers, and mysteries. She has won the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award for Romantic Suspense, the National Readers’ Choice Award, and the Romantic Crown for Best Romantic Suspense and Best Book Overall. In addition, she has been a two-time RITA finalist, a Booksellers’ Best finalist, a multiple Daphne Du Maurier Award finalist, and a multiple CataRomance Reviewers’ Choice Award winner. Her most recent novel, In the Waning Light, is a finalist for the 2016 RITA Awards (category: romantic suspense). A former journalist and newspaper editor who has worked in both South Africa and Canada, Loreth now resides in the Pacific Northwest with her family.

DC: Loreth, thank you so much for joining me for this Under the Covers interview. What attracts you to the romance genre? Would you call yourself a Romantic?

LAW: If you mean a Romantic in terms of the Romanticism movement—where weight is given to intense emotions and intuition, the evocative and atmospheric, the past, the sublimity of nature, the individual, spontaneity, as opposed to the purely rational or scientific, then yes, I think I’d call myself a Romantic. (smiles)

A romantic world view in this sense is evident in many genres of fiction, I think, from drama, to gothic/horror, to thriller, to literary, to romance. But being a romantic in this context doesn’t necessarily mean believing in a ‘happy ever after ending’, which is how the publishing industry does define the romance genre—essentially stories of two people overcoming obstacles to falling in love, and ending with a HEA, or a promise thereof.

I’m drawn in particular to the romantic suspense subgenre of romance, where danger and intense emotions can fuel or thwart that journey toward a romantic partnership, and where the stakes are love or death.

DC: You had a sixteen-year career as a journalist before you took to writing fiction. Not all writers find that an easy transition. How did you find your voice as an author?

LAW: Turning to fiction felt like a homecoming of sorts. I certainly found making up stories a whole lot more fun that attempting to tell the truth … or, perhaps, there is even more truth to be found in fiction than ‘news’?

DC: Cold wilderness areas like the BC wilds and Wyoming are frequent settings for your stories. What’s the fascination?

LAW: I’ve written almost as many stories set in hot locales as cold ones—the Congo jungle, several in the Sahara desert, Botswana, or other parts of Africa, and I do like writing those steamy, oppressive, or burning settings as much as the dark and frigid ones, However, editors have been more inclined to ask for my bleak Nordic-toned or wilderness gothic type concepts. So, possibly, the answer is simply that they sell better.

DC: Are you an optimist about humanity and society?

LAW: If anything I’m a pessimist, or, as I like to think, a realist, and perhaps this goes back to your question about what draws me to romance, and to fiction in general, because in writing fiction you can control the outcome. You can make the ‘good’ guy triumph over ‘evil’ You can conquer the heinous villain, catch the criminal, help the deserving heroine survive against impossible odds. You can give meaning to, and create order out of what otherwise often seems like a harsh randomness in real life.  It’s perhaps a way of trying to make sense of it all.

DC: Some characters in both reality and fiction—I’m thinking of psycopaths and serial killers—are so far beyond comprehension as to seem utterly devoid of any humanity or ability to feel, to empathize. They seem to represent pure evil in almost a Biblical sense. The number of crimes committed by this type of criminal seems to have risen exponentially in recent decades in Western societies, certainly far outstripping population growth rates. As an author who’s researched these personality types, do you have any thoughts on the reasons for this, and what drives these types?

LAW: I don’t know that serial murder is on the increase. Actual statistics are hard to come by, and conversely, I’ve seen it argued that serial murders might actually be on the decrease, and that the general public’s fascination with serial killers might have already seen its peak.

Certainly, serial murder did come across as being on an exponential rise for a period of time, but I also don’t know how much of that might be attributed to technological/digital advances in linking these crimes, and labeling them as such. Or how much of a role sensational media reporting and the rise of the fictional serial killer might have increased general awareness. Perhaps this even inspired crimes—life imitating ‘art.’

The fact that serial murderers appear devoid of humanity and are unable to empathize in the same way as most people is probably what gives them appeal in the first place. They are not the fantastical monster of a horror novel, but they’re real people who could live next door, or rub knees with you on the bus, or work in the cubicle beside yours. They are essentially Human Beasts, and for those who love their fiction to scare them, who want to feel fear at a safe remove, this kind of cold-hearted, ‘evil,’ human monster will be tough to top.

DC: Tell me about your Black Dog—your black Lab, Hudson.

LAW: Hah, my Black Dog is my daily smile, my exercise, my exasperation…a perpetual lesson on living large and in the moment.

DC: You began your career around a decade ago writing mainstream romance for Harlequin and have progressed to being known for romantic suspense/thrillers like your hugely successful 2015 novel, A Dark Lure, and your most recent work, In the Waning Light. These are dark, intense works featuring psychopathic killers and severely traumatized protagonists. What led you along this road?

LAW: I think it’s a natural extension of my earlier romantic suspense works, a way of exploring craft in a deeper way, trying something new, bigger, darker, and Montlake has given me a venue to do this in way I was not able to accomplish with my old publisher.

DC: Like many romance authors, you’re enormously prolific; in 2010, when you were writing for Harlequin, you published six novels in a single year. Today you still seem to average two longer and much more complex novels a year. In addition to this you have a family life, enjoy the outdoors, travel, and maintain a high profile on social media. What suffers? What do you struggle to make time for and wish you could?

LAW:  Coming from a journalistic background I was used to sitting down every day and producing a lot of words. However, I consider myself a fairly slow writer compared to a lot of other authors out there—my goal this year is to work smarter, and to be more focused when I do sit down at my computer for a writing session. And if you ask my husband what suffers when I’m on a particularly nasty deadline, he will say it’s him! He’s a saint in that respect. The only other thing that might suffer is a social life, but having a hectic social life is not a priority for me…or, perhaps staying in tune with current affairs in the way that I was used to.

DC: Your more recent novels are multilayered, tightly-plotted thrillers with solid, believable, characters. How much do you know about the outcome and the plot arc when you begin a novel?

LAW: I’m a plotter/planner. I need to nail the character conflicts and have the novel’s outcome and major turning points in mind before I can relax into the writing of the words—just  as one might plot an overland journey from, say, Vancouver to New York, marking your nightly destination points on a road map. However, if I do come upon an intriguing side road, or meet a surprising character along the way, I will explore these things, and often the resulting detours lead the novel in an entirely new direction and change the end game.

DC: You spend a lot of time outdoors and have had close encounters with bears. How do you handle them?

LAW: With great respect and caution! And I do carry bear spray when we head into the interior where the bears can be more predatory and carnivorous than our local bruins are. Mostly I’d like to avoid meeting those bears.

DC: Beyond skiing and the outdoors, what’s your favourite leisure activity?

LAW: Hands down, the ocean and open water swimming.

DC: What do you like to read? Any favourite authors?

LAW:  I love narrative nonfiction and biographies, and the fiction I have enjoyed of late includes works by, Tana French, Tami Hoag, Laura Lipmann, JoJo Moyes, Kate Atkinson, Patricia Highsmith, Liane Moriarty, Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins, Mary Kubica, Elizabeth Haynes, Erik Rickstad, PD James, Jo Nesbo, Camilla Lackberg, and Tim Johnston.

DC: Despite being a very successful novelist, you’ve mentioned wanting to overcome some writing fears in 2016. Can you talk a little about these?

LAW: I have what I like to think of as bigger, or more mainstream story ideas that I’m hungry to explore, yet I’m afraid I won’t be able to meet my own expectations for them. It’s like the old Schrödinger’s Cat experiment—the cat is both alive and dead until you look in the box, then it’s one or the other.  Similarly, both success and failure are possible until I actually sit down and tackle those stories in my head….then will come the proof, and my fear is failure as an outcome. It’s far more comforting to dabble with dreams. (smiles)

DC: Your recent books would make terrific movies. Have you had any interest from the industry or had any books optioned?

LAW: Thank you! I have had interest from both Hollywood and major studios in the UK, including an offer, but no deal yet.

DC: What can your many fans look forward to next?

LAW: Coming from Montlake on August 16 is In the Barren Ground, a dark, atmospheric romance and police procedural with gothic/horror overtones set in a remote fly-in community just south of the arctic circle. I’m working on a police procedural romantic suspense series, and also a suspense novel on the side. Haha, I know—don’t laugh!

DC: Loreth, thank you so much. Here’s wishing you every success in the RITA Awards!

 

Loreth loves to hear from readers.

* You can find her on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/Loreth.Anne.White

* On Twitter: http://twitter.com/Loreth

* Or connect with her via her website at:

www.lorethannewhite.com

 

For news of new releases, advance reader copies, and giveaways, sign up for her newsletter here

Did you enjoy this interview with Loreth? Let us know with a comment!

Read my own review of Loreth’s “A Dark Lure”

Don’t miss next week’s Under the Covers interview with science fiction/tech thriller author and futurist William Hertling, live right here on Saturday April 9!

The full UNDER THE COVERS interview calendar is here

 

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

INTERVIEW: Under the Covers with Aliette de Bodard

Aliette fullsize-crop

Photo: Lou Abercrombie

Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris, where she has a day job as a System Engineer. She studied Computer Science and Applied Mathematics, but moonlights as a writer of speculative fiction. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Obsidian and Blood trilogy of Aztec noir fantasies, as well as numerous short stories, which garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and a British Science Fiction Association Award. Recent works include The House of Shattered Wings (Roc/Gollancz), a novel set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war, and The Citadel of Weeping Pearls (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2015), a novella set in the same universe as her Vietnamese space opera On a Red Station Drifting. She lives in Paris with her family, in a flat with more computers than warm bodies, and a set of Lovecraftian tentacled plants intent on taking over the place.

DC: Aliette, thanks so much for letting me interview you for Under the Covers. There’s a lot of wonderful, atmospheric darkness in your long fiction, both in the Obsidian and Blood series as well as in your recent novel, The House of Shattered Wings. What’s the attraction of the dark for you?

AdB: I often say I’m not a horror fan–ironically, it’s not so much because the subject matter bores me, but because I’m very sensitive to it: on horror movie night you’ll find me hiding under the sofa. I think dark is an important thing in life, and I’m particularly struck by how the most innocuous situations can be a source of enormous creepiness. The House of Shattered Wings, in many ways, plays upon a familiar setting–Paris, where I’ve lived all my life–and turns it into a darker, more dangerous place.

DC: I find a very strong element of family and familial or clan relationships in your work. Why is this important to you?

AdB: I guess because family is important to me! There’s a tendency in Science Fiction, which I think comes from the “boys’ adventures” roots of the genre, to see family as a stricture that must be overcome in order to be truly free, or to go off on adventures. Often that becomes rather problematic: I was on a panel a few years ago on motherhood in SF, and most of the ones we could think of died very early within stories, or had already died before the stories started, with the exception of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cornelia in the Vorkosigan saga, who is just made of awesome.

Whereas for me, family is also a comfort: yes, it comes with strictures, with ties that are harder to cut, but it’s also a comfort, a support network, a link to the past, and many other things besides. And it’s not only the nuclear family, but also the extended ones including aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents…

DC: You work full-time as a systems engineer, you’re a fairly prolific writer, and you also have husband and a toddler. How do you manage it all? What suffers?

AdB: Currently? My sleep! It’s been rather hard to keep all the balls up in the air: I’d heard that the toddler stage was more difficult, but I hadn’t realised until it happened that toddlers were really a full-time job all on their own. It was fine until he became mobile, at which point all hell broke loose. (grins)  I try to do everything, but I also admit that there are going to be moments when I can’t, and when I need to drop some stuff and apologise for dropping so. With luck, it won’t be the really important, unmissable deadlines…

DC: What do you do for pleasure and relaxation?

AdB: I’m tempted to say “sleep” again! (laughs)  I read a lot, though a lot of this happens on my commute. I also like to cook: I have a “recipes” section on my website, and I enjoy taking things apart to see how they work. My last project was pizza dough, which was rather more involved than I foresaw: it turns out that I wasn’t kneading dough properly, and also that French flour is rather unsuitable for breadmaking purposes, but it took me a long time to work this out!

We also have a long-running tabletop roleplaying game with a bunch of friends, which is set in an SF universe; and we do regular board game sessions too.

DC: Which games do you enjoy?

AdB: I used to play video games fairly heavily, but sadly that didn’t survive the birth of my child. I tried several times to play games on my mobile, but they never seem to last for long. Now I do board games: current favorites are Shadow Hunters, which is a neat secret role/battle game that’s played in teams, and Mansions of Madness, a rather heavy Lovecraft board game that feels, at times, like a compressed roleplaying game where one player is trying to kill/drive mad/etc. all the other ones. I generally like big, fun games with a random element to spice things up, and also cooperative ones–teaming up with friends is a lot of fun.

DC: Your most recent novel, The House of Shattered Wings, was uniformly praised by critics but has brought mixed reviews from fans of your short fiction. The atmosphere is palpable, the focus tight, the characters and their relationships intense. My own guess—and I raved about this book—is that SF readers don’t easily adapt to or can’t appreciate what is essentially a Gothic novel in tone, albeit classifiable today as Dark or Urban Fantasy. Did you know you were taking a chance when you wrote this?

AdB: I’m very much aware that my novels are different from my short fiction, both in tone and in genre focus. I’m also very much aware that The House of Shattered Wings is overflowing with Gothic. Two big influences were 19th-Century French novels, and European-set manga and anime like Full Metal Alchemist, or Black Butler: I was fascinated, among other things, by the idea of taking what are, to me, quintessentially 19th-Century tropes and giving them a 21st-Century twist, overlaying themes of colonialism and post-apocalypse on my Parisian setting. There are common points with, say, the Xuya SF stories, but the shift is large enough that I expected people to blink; on the plus side, I also expected to gain new readers, and that seems to have worked.

I also knew it wasn’t the most commercial novel ever when I wrote it. However, my previous attempt to write commercial, an urban fantasy set in 21st-Century Paris, was such a dismal failure (lack of motivation on my part) I figured I’d at least go back to something fun to dig into, as far as I was concerned, and then see reader reactions, rather than try to engineer “commercial”.

DC: Do you think that publishers have trained SFF readers to expect fast-moving, formulaic novels, rather as Hollywood has done with SF and Fantasy movies?

AdB: For me, the notion of what is a novel, what constitutes a satisfying plot, etc., is something that is very context-specific. Methods of storytelling, for instance, are highly dependent on time period: the idea of a tight third person point of view, one such POV per scene, which has become a sort of golden standard for SFF novels, didn’t make much sense in, say, the 19th Century—where point of view was fluid and omniscient. They’re also highly dependent on place: a novel like Cao Xuequin and Gao E’s Dream of Red Mansions (China) is pretty different, in shape and in plot, from Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, which roughly dates from the same time period.

As to whether that context, in turn, depends on what’s published…I think partly? Some of this is due to social/economical/political considerations: the nostalgic tone of Dream of Red Mansions, for instance, comes from the decline of the Qing dynasty at the time the novel was written; the long, rambling chapters in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables are here partly because the novel was published as a serial and he had to make wordcount for every episode. And some of it, in turn, is due to what people expect a novel to be—and this comes from published books. But to what extent I don’t know!

DC: What or whom do you enjoy reading?

AdB: Lots of people! In genre, recent stuff I’ve enjoyed has come from Yoon Ha Lee, Tricia Sullivan, Tade Thompson, Ken Liu, Zen Cho, Kari Sperring, Kate Elliott…. I also read a lot of crime novels: I’m still working my way through the Louise Penny Armand Gamache series, which are great psychological mysteries set in Québec. And I have a weakness for historical fiction—I haven’t read a lot of straight historicals lately because I’ve been satisfied with historical fantasy, but I still reread Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles every few years.

DC: I’m intrigued that your short fiction is almost exclusively Science Fiction whereas your novels fall squarely into the Fantasy genre. Can you say why?

AdB: Mostly because the science fiction novel I want to write would require a lot of research and I have no time! I want to write a Xuya mosaic novel; this would require me to brush up on Vietnamese in order to read some books and websites, and I’ve been putting it off for obvious reasons! Also, I find writing fantasy at short lengths really hard: I tend to want to cram a lot of worldbuilding into my stories, and for some reason, this seems to be easier with SF than fantasy.

DC: Many of your short stories, such as Weight of a Blessing, and even your recent novel, revolve around war. Why?

AdB: I’m a child of war. For starters, I wouldn’t be here today if not for war and its aftermath. But, as a result of this, I grew up always very much aware of the costs and consequences—of how bloody and painful and destructive the aftermath always is, often for years and decades after the war ceases; of how conflict impacts people who aren’t necessarily soldiers but are caught in the whirlwind regardless. And I guess a lot of it makes its way into my fiction.

DC: You live in Paris, which has seen two horrific terrorist incidents in the last year. Are you optimistic about the medium-term future and our ability to address the root causes of humanity’s current predicament, or are we looking at decades of turmoil?

AdB: I am not feeling very optimistic currently, I must say…. More and more, I’m wondering if, in Europe at least, we haven’t reached the failure mode of democracy: hard, long-term unpopular decisions need to be made to reform societies, but the politicians who make them are only elected for short periods of time and are therefore unlikely to do things that, short-term, are perceived as having negative impact.

We live, too, in an age of unprecedented information available, which is both a great success and a great failing: knowledge is no longer the province of the elite and can no longer be denied to people. But it is also tempting for everyone to think of themselves as experts, with costly results. See, for instance, the rise of the anti-vaccination movements, fueled partly by people ignoring medical consensus, and partly by the lack of memory–we have had herd immunity for so long that people, by and large, don’t remember what it was to die of polio or whooping cough.

DC: There’s been a lot progress in the field of Deep Learning systems. What’s your stance on AI? Are we going to see anything like self-aware systems anytime soon?

AdB: Algorithms and robotics have both made huge amounts of progress in past years, definitely–watching the explosion of the field has been very satisfying for me personally. Yeah, I’m a geek and I program stuff for a living! (laughs)

I don’t know if we’re going to see self-aware systems soon, though. Part of the issue, for me, is that the definition of “self-aware” is highly specific to us humans. I worked in Computer Vision for a while; and the fascinating thing, for me, was realising that there were a number of tasks that humans found trivial–like pattern recognition–that were extremely hard for computers. Conversely, a number of things we find really hard are easy for computers–like detecting a red balloon in a large, overcrowded swimming pool. This is because of the way they encode and process things, which is very different from our eyes’ and brain’s way of doing things! So for me, an AI would also be very different from us.

It would develop independence and a sort of conscience, but might well be going on a totally different path to us, probably with a notion of “self-awareness” that we wouldn’t even be able to apprehend. It’d genuinely be like talking to something alien, with a totally different base through which to filter reality, and totally different ideas and biases…but kind of totally cool, too.

DC: Do you think a Vingean Singularity, true AI, would be a good or bad thing for humanity?

AdB: Probably an interesting thing, but we would probably end up with something that had little interest in us–which could actually be a good or a bad thing depending on what it gets up to!

DC: You love to cook and also blog about cooking. What do you enjoy about it?

AdB: First off, I love good food, so obviously that’s a huge factor. The other thing is that I enjoy finding out how things work and doing things myself, two very important things when tackling recipes: I’m the kind of cook who always goes “what if” and tends to run live experiments, modifying recipes on the spot, sometimes much to my husband’s sorrow when I have a bit of a heavy hand with the chilies! I find there’s something really satisfying about preparing food: the gratification is instant, at least compared to novels when I have to wait for feedback for weeks and months, whereas with cooking I know within a couple of hours; and it’s also a nice break from my more intellectual activities.

DC: What’s your next writing project?

AdB: I’m currently writing The House of Binding Thorns, a sequel to The House of Shattered Wings which is still set in post-magical war Paris, but focuses on a different part–the House of Hawthorn, for those who’ve read the book. It should be, like its predecessor, standalone, though of course characters from The House of Shattered Wings will be making a comeback. It’s basically more Gothicness, more political and magical intrigues, and a lot more Vietnamese dragons, and it’s slated for a Summer 2017 release.

I’m aware that’s a long way off. For the impatient reader, there are also a number of short stories set in the universe of The House of Shattered Wings: see http://aliettedebodard.com/bibliography/novels/dominion-of-the-fallen/ for more details)

DC: Aliette, thanks so much for taking this time with us. Is there anything you’d like to add?

AdB: Buy my books? (laughs) More seriously, my website http://www.aliettedebodard.com has short fiction, articles, and recipes in addition to semi-hemi-regular bloggage, so if any of these happen to be your thing…

 

Did you enjoy this interview with Aliette? Let us know with a comment!

Read my own review of The House of Shattered Wings (vol. I of Dominion of the Fallen)

Don’t miss next week’s Under the Covers interview with, award-winning , bestselling romantic suspense and thriller author LORETH ANNE WHITE, live right here on Saturday April 2!

The full UNDER THE COVERS interview calendar is here

1 Comment

Filed under Books and Writers, interviews, Writing

INTERVIEW: Under the Covers with Sara Alexi

Sara -smSara Alexi is the bestselling author of the hugely successful Greek Village Series, a collection of stories centered on a small Greek village and its inhabitants.

Sara was born in Oxford, England. She has travelled widely and now splits her time between her home in England and a tiny rural village in the Peloponnese, where she is renovating a ruined stone farmhouse.

Sara began writing later in life. In school, English lessons were a time of confusion, and books indecipherable hieroglyphics. Dyslexia was not well understood then and no support was available.

Despite her dyslexia Sara qualified as a psychotherapist and ran her own practice for years. Her artistic nature was, at that time, confined to painting, and she exhibited widely.

When, during a casual conversation with a client, Sara discovered that Agatha Christie, Jules Verne and Hans Christian Andersen were all dyslexic, her perspective changed: the world of fiction opened to her and she has been a prolific writer ever since.

Each of the sixteen books in the Greek Village Series has hit an Amazon #1 spot. With sales totaling two-thirds of a million copies, this collection of tales provides a keenly observed, compassionate insight into the Greek people and culture, and the human condition in general.

DC: Sara, thanks so much for doing this interview. It’s very kind of you, and I hope our readers will find it fascinating.

You’re a psychotherapist by training. How does that factor into your writing?

SA: It factors not just into my writing but into the way I think now. Everything tends to go through this process of analysis, which I’m sure has really helped the books along because I can’t write about a character without making everything fit that personality, and sometimes I find that the character actually says, “you know, this plot you have planned, this character couldn’t actually do that.” (laughs) “It would be outside of their comfort zone, so let’s guide it in a way that works.”

So I think it’s a strong influence. But also my interest in human beings generally, I think that drives my writing even more strongly, so when I see something I feel is unfair to people, then I have to speak out. The combination of the two is what drives my writing.

DC: With the village as the constant, the anchor for your many characters, your work digs deeply into the nature of love and friendship, into the past and memory, and into the complex web of connections between individuals. Do you think people are essentially good, that there’s more light than darkness in the world?

SA: I absolutely think that people are good. I think all people are good. I think the only time that people are ever bad is if you push enough buttons hard enough that it forces them to do something to protect themselves. Part of the reason why I want to write these books is to make everybody realize that we’re all fantastic. (laughs) Even the ones that look grim, even they’re fantastic!

DC: I know you’re a big fan of both the Brontë sisters and Thomas Hardy. These are writers of dark, often melancholy works, and yet you’re an optimist. I find that intriguing.

SA: I think that Hardy and particularly the Brontë sisters both have real insight into human nature. Wuthering Heights is just a classic example of a woman that can’t decide between her dark and light side, and I think it’s done quite subtly. I’ve read it I don’t know how many times, and the more you read it, the more that subtlety comes through. And I think being able to see into characters like that, that’s what I really enjoy reading. I like Anthony Trollope—he’s another one who has a really god understanding of what makes people tick and why they interact with people the way they do. And he tends to delve into the dark side of human nature.

DC: He also wrote enormously long works.

SA: Yes. He also went into long series. Like The Barchester Chronicles, he took one set place and worked his way out from that. And I honestly think that—like me—he was just indulging himself. (laughs)

DC: You divide your time between Greece and England: which is your true home now? One, both, or neither?

SA: Oh my goodness, that’s so hard! Sometimes when I’m in Greece I miss parts of England; when I’m in England I always miss Greece. It’s a really tricky dilemma that I’m stuck with, I think. I’m just going to have to come to terms with it.

DC: So is it Gin and Tonic or Ouzo on the rocks with a splash?

SA: When in Greece it’s Ouzo not on the rocks…when in England it’s nothing, really. It’s a different atmosphere in England—as you know, you’re British. It’s got that drive, everybody’s going somewhere busily, whereas in Greece it’s much more reflective.

DC: Chance events figure very prominently in your books and storylines. Has chance played a large part in your life?

SA: I don’t think there’s any such thing as an accident. I think that chance is what makes all our lives happen. We all think we’re on a course, we all think we’re going somewhere, and then suddenly something might happen that takes us to another country. You might meet somebody, for example who takes us to a different country. We think we’re guiding our destinies, but I actually think it’s the interactions between people that decide the direction in which we go.

So the chance meetings—are they chance? Do we create that chance? I think we absorb much more than we think, and we create events that we don’t even know we’re creating. So you find the people that you need. Therefore are they chance meetings, or have you organized your life slightly so that you’ll meet the person that you need to meet? Or do you in fact take out of the people what you need, and therefore it’s not chance at all. Does that make sense?

DC: Yes, it does. I’m wondering if it varies from individual to individual. I’ve heard a lot of people say that the more open you are to things happening, the more things will happen to you, and the more good things will happen to you.

SA: I think everyone is open without realizing they’re doing it. I think we all just react to what comes into our lives; we all put out what we think we need, but I don’t think we all put out what will get us help in return. A lot of people give out vibes that get them what they don’t need, but it keeps them in the same position that feels comfortable.

DC: And when it comes to acting on what happens…Schopenhaeur said, “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” Do you think we really have free will or do our emotions and desires ultimately rule our decisions?

SA: I haven’t met many people who have such control over their emotions that they can make their own decisions. We think our emotions are under our control but they’re not, so they play a big part in making our decisions for us. I think over time you can drive a path that’ll make you take more and more positive steps…I think all human beings are trying to seek a place where they’re at their happiest and healthiest. Some can do it more quickly than others.

DC: What do you most love about the Greek people?

SA: (laughs) Ah! Where do we start? I think the Greeks are a passionate people, which I admire. They are very—they have two sides to them: a side that is very passionate and very humanitarian, and very loving; and they have a side that is very definitely about their own satisfaction and their own position in life. So they have this kind of dichotomy going on all the time—but it never fights, because what’s happens in the moment is the nicest thin, the thing that counts. And it’s that carpe diem, that seizing the day, they all do it! (laughs) And it gives a lightness to life, a pleasure to life.

DC: Spontaneity, then.

SA: It’s a spontaneity that’s based around really enjoying life; rather than striving for a future event that will make life better, they’re enjoying life in the moment.

DC: I know that you grew up dyslexic in a time where the condition was less well understood than today, and that made reading hard for you for some time. Still, you’re well-read in the literary classics and have written no less than sixteen novels in just five years. You wrote your first book, The Illegal Gardener, in just six weeks. Did you see your dyslexia as a challenge to overcome, and how did you go about that?

SA: Yes, it was rather odd. As if something came along that was bigger than my dyslexia. The dyslexia was very confusing for me. School was just time where I used to look around the class and couldn’t understand why everybody else just wasn’t as puzzled as me. But dyslexic people find coping mechanisms, and you find ways around questions and around things that other people don’t, and it gives you a slightly different view on life: you can look in through the back doors, while other people just look straight on.

But what happened in Greece was suddenly meeting face-to-face with this illegal gardener and seeing that his situation was so much worse than mine. I was in the middle of having to pack up to leave Greece because the economy was bad, and woe is me! I’m leaving my beautiful house! And all the rest of it…and there was this man on his hands and knees pulling up weeds. And I went out just to say, “Do you want a glass of water? Are you all right?” and I got talking to him.

He’d left Pakistan, he had a baby he’d never seen, and he had no notion of when he was ever going to get back there. And I suddenly thought—and this way before the current migrant crisis—I realized this man’s position was totally unknown, nobody was speaking out for them, nobody was doing anything for them. Some days he got paid, others he’d work and the person wouldn’t bother to pay him. It was always a question of whether he had enough to eat, and he had no way of raising the money to go home.

So at that point, my need to give this man a voice became bigger than my dyslexia. And then I just wrote. A lot of it was goobledygook, but going back over it I saw where it didn’t quite make sense; and my first editor is really good at understanding what I’m trying to say and unscrambling it, so he helped a lot. All credit to him.

DC: You had a rental business in Greece which tanked when the Greek economic crisis blew up in 2011 or so. You took to writing novels—something you’d never done before—as a way to make a living, and against all odds succeeded with your very first book, and self-publishing at that. Did you know when you set out just how slim the chances of success were?

SA: (laughs) If I had , I would never have started! I published my first book on my fiftieth birthday, and it just felt like a milestone, an achievement…halfway through, having every intention to live to be a hundred, you see? (laughs) And I thought, if I sell just one book, I would be delighted. But then—unbelievable success with that first book, beyond all hope. Even if I’d had a dream, it wouldn’t have been as big a success as it was. I’ve been tremendously lucky.

DC: You’re also very prolific.

SA: As were talking earlier about whether chance plays a role in our lives…. In Greece, as a woman, and a woman who doesn’t speak very good Greek, I didn’t have a voice, people didn’t listen to me. Neither gender listened to me: the women tended to think I must be rather stupid, and the men would just ignore me. There was even one occasion where I had some builders around and I was explaining to them in Greek what I’d like to have done, and one of them looked at the other and said, in Greek, in front of me, “Who is this?” and the other said, “Just call her the wife,” and walked off and ignored me. And they waited till my husband came home and asked him what I wanted, which was exactly what I said.

So it’s this not having a voice that meant, when I started writing, I had seven years of not having a voice, so it’s just all come out in book form.

DC: You published your first book in the Greek Village series, The Illegal Gardener, in 2012 and have since released fifteen more. As an indie author, you’re also responsible for all the production, marketing, etc. But you still find time to travel, and are very active on social media. How do you manage it all? Are you very disciplined?

SA: I think the word is driven rather than disciplined. Having finally found a way to have a voice, and that I can overcome dyslexia, the rest of it just feels like the right thing to be doing; it fits my nature, my character. Social media is invaluable to me. Exchanging voices with my readers is just incredible, because as you know, writing is such an isolating, solitary process, so if you can online and chat with some of the people who have read your books, you suddenly remember why you’re doing it, that the end result is going to make lots of people happy—it’s amazing motivation, a wonderful thing! And I go back to writing thinking, oh yeah, this person’s going to enjoy this, this person’s going to enjoy that…and I find myself putting things in that I know are going to titillate specific readers. (both laugh)

DC: What do you do for relaxation and diversion?

SA: That’s a good question. I do like thrashing my husband at tavli—Greek backgammon—which I do quite well, and I walk. I really enjoy walking—walking and talking, really—because I walk until I find someone and then I talk to them, and that tends to just fill me up with new ideas, I get interested in their character….so yeah, just pootling about life when I’m not writing.

DC: Your muse is a generous one. Very few adult novel series get into double digits, yet The Greek Village series now numbers sixteen books. In the latest, you’ve brought back Aaman, a much-loved early character, and also introduced a new setting.  Do you see yourself continuing this series, or do you have an end in sight?

SA: I did wonder if the end was in sight, and when I hesitantly made that move to write about England in Saving Septic Cyril, although it’s been well-reviewed—the reviews have been mindblowing; I don’t think it’s received anything less than five stars yet, which is very touching and I’m very grateful to everyone who reviewed it—I definitely got the feeling it all wanted to remain in the village. But the nice thing about that is I really do live in that village, and there really are lots of characters that are fascinating, and I really could write forever about it.

But what I do have a plan for is to write a series about one of the characters in the village. There’s a lady called Stella who owns the local eatery, and I think she might decide that she wants to travel a bit. And I think that she’ll travel to some very interesting places, and of course I’ll have to do some personal research on where she goes! (laughs) So the idea is to go to a country, write a book about her having an adventure in that country, maybe keeping a blog so it feels very real for the readers, and then moving on to another country.

DC: Your book sales total two-thirds of a million, and each of your books has been an Amazon #1 bestseller. I know you’ve been approached by television companies in both Germany and Canada. Are we going to see the  Greek Village Series on TV anytime soon?

SA: I find the whole process absolutely baffling. They’ve both been talking to me for quite a while, one for much longer than the other. and the whole process is completely incomprehensible. I have been told that you have to be extremely patient, that these things do take a while. So my attitude is, if it happens, it’ll be lovely; if it doesn’t, I don’t mind. I get the feeling that at some point it probably will happen, but at what point, I don’t know.

DC: Tell me about your Ghurka1 novel.

SA: Ah! The Ghurka novel that never happened. I’d gone to see a friend of mine who was working as a lawyer out in Nepal, and his job was to process the Ghurkas to see if they had a right to live in England because they’d served in the British army, so he had a very in-depth knowledge of the whole situation with Ghurkas. I met a couple of Ghurkas and heard their tales, and my response was the same I’d had to the illegal gardener, Aaman, the Pakistani; and I really wanted to write their tale.

So when I came back to England, I started making enquiries because what I really needed to do was talk to the Ghurka women…because although Ghurkas are allowed to have more than one wife, they’re only allowed to bring one wife back to England. So right there was this heartbreaking story, because he has to choose not only the wife but also the children—which children does he bring? Do the children of one wife deserve to come to England more than the children of another wife? Are the children of one wife more intelligent and so would benefit more, but he loves another wife?

So this whole complex dynamic was just fascinating. However, the Ghurka ladies are very…private is the word, and not very interested in discussing any much at all. And, due respect to them, it’s their lives and I’m not going to pry where I’m not wanted, so that came to a bit of a halt because I couldn’t really find anybody who’d talk to me about it and I wouldn’t want to make it up—it would have to be something I’d talked to someone about and understood firsthand. So unfortunately, not one that’s happened yet!

DC: Is there anything you can talk about that’s out there on the horizon as a possible?

SA: There’s another idea that I’d love to do, though I don’t know how well it would be received. I’d like to write a series based on people that have reached a crisis point in their lives and had some sort of breakdown, and how each of them managed to recover, and in what way, and what it took to get them to a better place. And that would all be based around a garden. Because I’ve touched on this and visited people in mental asylums —there aren’t many left in England, it’s all “care in the community” now—but back when I began as a psychotherapist I did used to visit people in them; and there were communities in there, and the community had an occupational therapy center, and they had a garden, and each person would find their way of healing themselves. And I thought it would be a beautiful setting: a lovely garden somewhere where people would meet other people and interact and find a way to get to a better place. So I have that in the back of my mind somewhere.

DC: The garden is of course also a great metaphor.

SA: Absolutely. I think that’s why the first book was so well-received, because it contained that metaphor as well as character. Everything grew in that book.

DC: Sara, thanks so very much for spending this time with us. Is there anything you’d like to add?

SA: It all sounds a bit cheesy when you say it like this…but I honestly would like to say that without the readers who write to me and without the people on Facebook talking to me, and all of them supporting me to such a degree…. I can’t begin to tell you how much they support me—they write to me constantly, they encourage me, they write reviews…they’re amazing, absolutely amazing! So really the only thing I’d like to do is say a massive thank you to those people. There’s lots of them now, and I love every one of them!

1 Ghurkas are a Hindu people who took over Nepal in the 18th century. Many became soldiers and fought in the British or Indian army.

LINKS:

Website  http://saraalexi.com

Facebook  http://facebook.com/authorsaraalexi

Sara’s Amazon Author Page  http://amazon.co.uk/Sara-Alexi/e/B008M6D60K

Did you enjoy this interview with Sara? Let us know with a comment!

Don’t miss next week’s Under the Covers interview with multiple award-winning Science Fiction and Fantasy author Aliette de Bodard, live right here on Saturday March 26!

The full UNDER THE COVERS interview calendar is here

10 Comments

Filed under Books and Writers, interviews, Writing

INTERVIEW: Under the Covers with Ken Liu

Photo by Lisa Tang Liu

Photo by Lisa Tang Liu

Ken Liu is one of the most prolific and highly regarded authors working in the Science Fiction and Fantasy (SFF) field today. In just the last five years, he’s published scores of high-quality short fiction pieces in publications ranging from the core SFF magazines to more scholarly venues such as Nature and The Atlantic Council. He is also the only author to have ever won all three of the field’s most prestigious awards—the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards—for the same story, The Paper Menagerie (2011).

2015 saw the publication of The Grace of Kings, the first volume in Ken’s epic fantasy trilogy, The Dandelion Dynasty. Ken has also translated several Chinese SF works into English, including Cixin Liu’s Hugo Award-winning novel, The Three-Body Problem.

Ken’s first story collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, was released just this week, and the second volume in The Dandelion Dynasty, titled The Wall of Storms, is due out in October.

DC: Ken, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. Although you published your first story as early as 2002, you really burst onto the scene with a spray of astonishing work beginning in 2010, and the standing ovation is still continuing. You’re living proof of the saying that “it takes ten years to become an overnight success.” What were you doing in those years between 2002 and 2010?

KL: Thank you, Dario! Always such a pleasure to chat about writing and books with you.

For most of that decade I was involved in the practice of law, first as a law student and then as a corporate lawyer. The legal profession demands a great deal from practitioners, both in time and mental energy, and there wasn’t much room left for fiction writing.

However, I was doing a great deal of writing—papers, memos, contracts, briefs—just not novels or short stories. Yet, in a way, the practice of law turned out to be good preparation for fiction: we like to think that abstract logic and cold reason should be the primary modes of persuasion in the law, but crafting a powerful narrative—telling a persuasive story—is just as important, and perhaps even dominant. Law students are often very good at legal reasoning, but learning how to tell stories that achieve the right result for your client takes a lifetime of dedicated practice. It was the sort of experience that came in handy later when I turned more of my energy to fiction.

DC: Your short fiction can best be described as literary, precise, and intimate. How did you go from being an English major with a passion for the Western Canon to writing Science Fiction?

KL: Ha! You know, the thing is, I’ve never thought of genre fiction as standing in opposition to “literature.” As a result, I’ve never been interested in efforts to carve out some special aesthetic claim for science fiction or fantasy.

To me, all fiction is speculative because all fiction is interested in a mode of rhetoric in which the logic of metaphors is more important than the logic of analysis. What gets marketed as science fiction or fantasy are typically just works that achieve their effect by literalizing their metaphors.

The advent of Modernism has resulted in an intense interiority being read as the (sole?) mark of psychological “realism”; writers who write in the science fiction and fantasy genres, however, can still get away with stories in which the interior drama is played out through literalized external manifestations.

I view science fiction as having a perfectly valid claim on the Western Canon—in the same way that the author of Frankenstein was consciously engaged in dialogue with Milton’s Paradise Lost throughout her text.

DC: Roots, memory and identity, the sense of straddling two cultures and the need to either reconcile them or commit fully to one, is a recurring theme in your short fiction. As an immigrant yourself—I believe you were ten when you arrived in the US—is this a process you still struggle with?

KL: Struggling with narratives of identity is at the heart of the experience of modernity. I would say that resistance to the false narrative of “straddling” two cultures is definitely a recurring theme in my fiction. The notion that immigrants are somehow torn between cultures and act as the contested battleground for clearly defined and irreconcilable dueling cultural narratives from which they must choose one is simplistic, reductive, and to put it bluntly, wrong—and yet it is a notion that shows up again and again in how we discuss cultural difference.

I’m far more interested in stories that explore the ways in which all of us are defined by, but also define, the cultures which claim us, and how we negotiate the boundaries between self and society, between conformance and estrangement. As an American who claims a proud identification with my Chinese cultural inheritance, I’m particularly interested in stories that challenge the assumptions behind what it means to be “American” or “Chinese” and reveal these categorizations as attempts by the powerful to assert dominance over fluid, unstable, always-forming identities.

We live in a world that is defined by historical injustices, and it is a mark of privilege for someone to declare history to be irrelevant—the descendants of historical winners are the only ones who can afford to ignore history. I write stories that stubbornly—and perhaps unrealistically—cling to the hope that it is only by understanding and empathizing with the pains of historical suffering and accepting the burden of historical injustice that we can truly be free.

DC: As well as being an amazingly prolific author and translator, you have a wife and two young children, practice law as a litigation consultant, and write software as well. Assuming you don’t have a time machine, how do you do it all?

KL: Ah, you give me too much credit. My biggest problem is that I’m not very efficient. Almost every writer I know writes faster than I do, and context switching is expensive for me—I’m not a good multitasker at all.

I do think I’m pretty good about picking meaty, rewarding projects and saying no to everything else. I translate only stories that I’m enthusiastic about, and I write only when I think I can make an interesting, impactful contribution. When I take up a novel, as you know, I ended up writing a very big, very long book. (smiles)

DC: Given this incredible schedule, what suffers? What do you wish you had more time for?

KL: I wish I had more time to write software and play with technology! I used to be able to spend a great deal more time writing apps and simply exploring code. The combination of being under contract with a publisher as well as having a demanding day job means that I value time with my family even more, and I’ve had to give up my coding time.

Luckily, my daughters are getting old enough to be introduced to robotics and some basic programming, so I’m hoping I’ll be “forced” to do more playing under the guise of “teaching” them something.

DC: What do you do for relaxation?

KL: I play games on my Nintendo 3DS. I especially love puzzle games (Box Boy is wonderful).

DC: Your Epic Fantasy trilogy, The Dandelion Dynasty, which is a radical departure from your short fiction, has given rise to the wonderful term “silkpunk”. Can you define it for us, and tell us who coined it?

KL: That’s my term. It’s a shorthand to describe the technology aesthetic I wanted for the novel as well as my literary approach.

Here’s the tweet-sized sound bite: “War & Peace with silk-and-bamboo airships; Iliad with living books and sentient narwhals; Romance of the Three Kingdoms with u-boats.”

If you want to hear more, let me start with what The Grace of Kings is about: It’s the story of two unlikely friends, a bandit and a duke, who grow to be as close as brothers during the fight to overthrow an evil empire, only to find themselves on opposing sides of a struggle for the definition of a just society once the rebellion succeeds.

When I describe the novel as a “silkpunk epic fantasy,” I mean that I’m writing with and against the tradition of epic fantasy—as begun by Tolkien—by infusing it with an East-Asia-inspired aesthetic that embraces, extends, and challenges fantasy/historical tropes that are assumed to have medieval European or classical East Asian origins. Epics are foundational narratives for cultures, and I wanted to write a modern foundational narrative that draws as much on Chinese epic traditions like Romance of the Three Kingdoms as on Western tradtions from Beowulf and the Aeneid.

The tale I tell is a loose re-imagining of the historical legends surrounding the rise of the Han Dynasty in a secondary world archipelago setting. This is a world of politics and intrigue, of love purified and corrupted, of rebelling against tyranny and seeing one’s ideals compromised, of friendships forged and sundered by the demands of war and statecraft. There are vain and jealous gods, bamboo airships and biomechanics-inspired submarines, battle kites that evoke the honor and glory of another age, fantastical creatures of the deep, and magical tomes that tell the future written in our hearts.

In writing this book, I devoted as much care to technology as to magic, as much attention to art and writing as to war. The text is consumed with the exercise of power while also imbued with the hope that society is capable of progress. I had such a blast writing it, and I think at least that authorial joy comes through.

DC: I know that your wife, Lisa Tang Liu, worked with you on creating the universe for this series. What sparked the idea?

KL: When I was looking for a subject for my first novel, Lisa and I had many conversations about what might be an interesting tale. One day, she said, “I’ve never read a story in English that gives me the feeling of those historical dramas in Hong Kong.”

Lisa and I both grew up imbibing Chinese historical romances as our foundational narratives (she did it by watching TV dramas, and I did it by listening to storytellers on the radio). This conversation sparked in me the thought that it would be interesting to transpose a foundational narrative in one culture—the founding of the Han Dynasty, for instance—into a narrative structure built with elements adopted from both the Western and Chinese literary traditions. It had to be done in a way that felt organic, lively, distinct, instead of being just another “magical China” story that merely validated the Western gaze.

It sounded like a tough challenge, which is also a sign that it was a project worth pursuing. Lisa and I discussed how such a world should be built and what it would look like and what sort of Orientalizing pitfalls had to be avoided to thwart the expectations of the dominant Western interpretive framework. She helped me to define the language, culture, and geography of Dara until it felt like a world that could support our dreams.

DC: This enormous landmark work (The Grace of Kings clocks in at around 650 pages) is eclectic, multilayered, and daring in so many ways. In approaching this story of upheaval and revolution you chose a narrative voice strongly reminiscent of the oral storytelling tradition, which carries echoes of Homer and other classical authors; the way these are blended is uniquely Liu. I was both engrossed and awed by how well you pulled this off—you own the narrative voice in these novels. What made you settle on this narrative strategy?

KL: Thank you! I’m so glad my choices paid off for you.

I wasn’t interested in writing a “contemporary” genre novel, by which I mean a novel whose narrative strategies are deeply influenced by Modernism, with a focus on psychological interiority and tight, intimate POVs. As I mentioned earlier, I’m more interested in exploring the idea of trans-cultural foundational narratives, the logic of metaphors, and playing with epic structure and omniscient POV. I wanted to tell a story that was self-consciously engaged in conversation with both Western and Chinese literary forerunners, both ancient and modern.

I don’t believe there is only one kind of “good story.” I wanted to write something that feels as different from the contemporary genre novel as a brush painting feels from an oil painting. Indeed, in a lot of ways it is closer to something like Moby Dick or the wuxia classics—I certainly ignored a lot of “rules” of genre writing.

DC: Looking at some of the reader reviews it’s clear than not all readers have either the background or insight to appreciate what you’re doing here, with some grumbling about too much exposition, too much telling and not enough showing. Did you know you were taking a risk with this approach?

KL: (grins) Did I ever! The Grace of Kings is a departure from much of my short fiction (as you alluded to earlier), and I knew going in that the choices I made wouldn’t work for every reader. I appreciate every reader who tried my book, and if the book didn’t work for them, I can only say that I’m sorry and I hope to write a book that will be more appealing to them in the future.

But in order to tell the story I wanted to tell, it was necessary to make use of a narrative structure and adopt techniques that melded the different epic traditions I wanted to converse with. I was sailing into the unknown, and taking risks is absolutely necessary when you are interested in terra incognita.

And I’m incredibly gratified by the many readers who have written to me to tell me how much they enjoyed what I did with Dara.

DC: I know you’re a great fan of Milton’s Paradise Lost. What is it about this work that so appeals to you?

KL: I think Paradise Lost is the greatest poem in the English language. In composing it, Milton was forced to create a new aesthetic that melded the Classical and Biblical epic traditions, and elevated vernacular English to a level formerly reserved for Greek and Latin. He was building a new world as well as a new language and a new set of narrative techniques, challenging reader expectations as he conversed with the literary traditions he claimed for himself and irrevocably changed them in the process.

 This is, as you might have guessed, a project that very much resonates with me.

DC: I believe you also write poetry, but I’m not sure in which language?

KL: I only write in English. My formal schooling in Chinese ended in elementary school, and though I can appreciate poetic Chinese writing, writing in Chinese at that level would take decades of dedicated practice. If I live to be a hundred and fifty, I might give it a try.

DC: Here in the US, the climate in the core Science Fiction community has become particularly toxic in the last few years, with a brutal internecine war that has caused deep and lasting divisions within the community. Despite having strong views and beliefs, you’ve wisely avoided making enemies. Why do you think people can’t have a civil dialogue over their differences?

KL: There’s a tendency in modern rhetoric to reduce complicated, multidimensional differences into simplistic, binary oppositions. The genre community is divided along many different dimensions, some aesthetic, some political, and others even more fundamental than either. Trying to flatten all of these differences into a matter of two “sides” or “factions” is, in my view, the reason why many of these debates just involve the participants talking past each other.

I do want to note that “civility” by itself is not a virtue. It is possible to be perfectly polite in discourse while utterly disrespecting the humanity of others.

Ultimately, I’m more interested in working on projects that interest me and pleasing readers who enjoy my work. Everything else is just noise.

DC: It’s not unusual to see SFF “insiders” openly slam the genre’s hugely popular writers—fantastic storytellers like Andy Weir (The Martian), Stephanie Meyers (Twilight), and, a decade ago, J.K. Rowling—as mere popular hacks lacking craft. Is SFF a popular art form or should it be the property of a highly educated elite?

KL: I think most writers would prefer their books to be both critically acclaimed and best-selling. Personally, I just don’t find it interesting to slam other writers for their success, even if what they write isn’t to my taste.

Whenever there’s a book that I don’t like—but whose fans are passionate—I try to learn why the book is so successful. Popular books inevitably do something really well and scratch an itch for their fans. It’s fascinating to figure out what that itch is.

DC: A few unkind reviewers familiar with Chinese culture have accused you of simply rehashing the Chu-Han struggle of Chinese history in your Dandelion Dynasty series. How would you reply to these critics?

KL: I’m actually not interested in replying to these critics at all. I don’t even bother reading my reviews. Writers who argue with critics rarely come out ahead. What matters is writing another book for readers who would enjoy my work.

But I will say to potential readers sitting on the fence about trying my book that Paradise Lost is also just a rehash of the first few chapters in Genesis, and Journey to the West a rehash of old oral traditions that came before it. There are no new stories, only new ways to tell them so that we are transported to new realms.

DC: In stories such as The Man Who Ended History, The Reborn, and Ghost Days, you address some difficult themes—genocide, the destruction or assimilation of peoples and cultures. We should never forget, but should we forgive?

KL: I think we bear a responsibility towards history, and it’s our duty to construct a future that is better than the past.

When we speak of historical atrocities, it’s worth remembering that their effects still govern the lives of the descendants of perpetrators and victims. The past is not past.  “Forgiveness” is often touted as a way to lead to forgetfulness, and I’m leery of it when used in that way.

DC: Last year you were honoured at the Beijing Xinyun Awards with an award for special contribution to Chinese SF. What was that like for you?

KL: Incredible. The enthusiasm of the Chinese fans was deeply moving. I was deeply moved by how much Liu Cixin himself took the trouble to thank me, when I really didn’t do much of anything as a translator.

It was Liu Cixin’s powerful imagination and skill as a writer that allowed The Three-Body Problem to replicate its success among Anglophone readers. I hope that in the future, translation of works from Chinese into English would become so routine that no one will remember the translators.

DC: What’s the best part about being a dad?

KL: Seeing the world through fresh eyes! My daughters constantly make observations about the world that remind me how full of wonder everything around us is, and how miraculous is the universe. They’ve taught me to be appreciative of the infinite joy that fills every second of existence.

DC: Ken, thanks so very much for spending time with us. Is there anything you’d like to add?

KL: Thank you so much for having me, Dario. I love our deep conversations.

This is a pretty exciting year for me, as I have four books being released.

On March 8, 2016, my debut collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, came out from Saga Press. This volume collects some of my favorite stories as well as one previously unpublished story I wrote just for the collection.

In August, Death’s End, my translation of the third and concluding volume in Liu Cixin’s Three-Body trilogy, will be released by Tor Books.

For fans of The Grace of Kings, the sequel, The Wall of Storms, will be coming out from Saga Press in October of 2016 (and it’s bigger and better in every way, with even more intrigue and silkpunk technology!).

Finally, in November, Tor Books will publish my collection of translations of contemporary short-form Chinse SF, Invisible Planets. This volume will contain translations of award-winning stories by such luminaries of the Chinese SF world as Liu Cixin, Chen Qiufan, Xia Jia, Hao Jingfang, and others.

To find out more about my plans, readers can go to my web site (http://kenliu.name) and/or sign up for my newsletter (http://kenliu.name/mailing-list/)

 

Did you enjoy this interview with Ken? Let us know with a comment!

 You can read my own review of The Grace of Kings (vol. I of the Dandelion Dynasty), here: https://dariospeaks.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/review-the-grace-of-kings-by-ken-liu/)

Don’t miss next week’s Under the Covers interview with SARA ALEXI, bestselling author of The Greek Village series, live right here on Saturday March 19!

The full UNDER THE COVERS interview calendar is here

 

 

5 Comments

Filed under Books and Writers, interviews

INTERVIEW: Under the Covers with Mandy M. Roth

MMRsept2015squareMy guest for this first instalment of the Under the Covers interview series is New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Mandy M. Roth. With a catalogue of over 100 novels and sales of well over a million ebooks, Mandy is one of the top-selling authors in the wildly popular genre of  Paranormal Romance.

DC: Mandy, thanks so much for letting me interview you for Under the Covers. What first got you interested in writing Paranormal Romance?

MMR: I’d been working in marketing for a long time and was heading up a marketing department. Someone mentioned to me that my youngest son wasn’t speaking—and he was pushing four at the time. I’d been so busy working that I hadn’t noticed. Needless to say, I put in my notice that day and within two weeks I was home with the boys, and—long story short—I started running the house similar to the marketing department.

I’m very efficient, and my older son suggested strongly that I get a hobby. I took up reading and really fell in love with Paranormal Romance (though, at the time I wasn’t aware it was called that). Thirteen years ago the bookstores didn’t stock much in the way of it, and within two weeks I was through all they offered. The writing bug struck and I foolishly thought, it can’t be that hard to write a book. Seriously, looking back, and knowing the industry now, as I do, it’s so embarrassing to admit it out loud.

Within eight weeks I had a full novel. I let a friend read it and she said, “If you don’t send it off, I will”. I utilized my skills in marketing to research to see who would accept an unagented, multigenre Romance submission. I sent it to five and four said, yes. It was in readers’ hands within six months of that. I thought that was how it was done. Yes, I really was that naïve.

DC: Wow. Now, when you say it was multigenre, was it multigenre beyond Paranormal Romance?

MMR: Yes. Actually, in addition to being Paranormal Romance, there were a lot of other subgenres that I didn’t even realize were subgenres at the time. I was still surprised the publisher wanted to list my book under the umbrella of Romance at all. Back then I thought of Romance as only one thing—I hate to use the term, bodice-ripper—but that was what went through my mind because I really wasn’t educated about Romance (and am happy to report I am now). When I look back now I’m so embarrassed for myself. I decided that I was going to learn more around the Romance genre and its subgenres and I was going to learn to market a book. After learning more about Romance I realized that was where my book belonged and I’m proud to say I write it!

DC: You’re incredibly prolific. You have over a hundred titles out in ebook, print, or both; I do know that you sometimes start work as early as two in the morning, and you seem to regularly produce upwards of six or seven titles a year. On top of that you have a family, and you’re very active on social media. How do you do it?

MMR: I still run everything like I ran a marketing department. I’m very efficient. I used to have a whistle—I kid you not—and I felt like I needed a referee’s shirt at home with the boys. I’m very big on schedules.

DC: Do you write them down?

MMR: I do. I have a very strict schedule and the boys, as they’ve aged, have adjusted to it, so…it’s worked out well. They know, when mom’s working don’t bother her unless it’s really important, like the house is on fire or something. But they always know too that they can knock on the door if they have a question, or need to get something off their chest. And I’ll stop what I’m doing and they can talk with me.

DC: How many hours a day do you spend actually at your desk or station writing?

MMR: I would say a minimum of six hours of writing a day. There have been times, especially as I’m on a really hard deadline right now, that it’s more like fourteen to sixteen.

DC: Wow.

MMR: Yeah.

DC: What suffers? What do you wish you had more time for?

MMR: You know…my health actually is what suffers. You just sit so much in this job that it’s really not good. So I set a reminder on my phone every forty-five minutes to stand up and to go around the house. That’s when I’ll throw a load of laundry in, and I’ll take the dogs out for a quick walk around the block or something. It’s always my health, I always treat myself last.

DC: I know you’re also a painter and illustrator and that you produce artwork for book covers. Do you also do any non-commissioned work, fine art rather than commercial, just for your own pleasure?

MMR: You know, I don’t anymore. I did many moons ago. Then I got into the industry and began working first in art marketing and my whole focus became doing other people’s creatives for them and constantly figuring out what would make their product thrive, what would make their business work; and that was really the creative fix I needed and that worked for me. And then when I started writing, that filled that void for me. And I still do all my own marketing, I don’t outsource that at all.

DC: Do you do all your own book covers?

MMR: Not anymore. There was a point where I was doing them all. I’ve done just under a thousand in the industry.

DC: Oh my gosh!
MMR: Yeah. (laughs) I don’t do them much anymore. I predominantly just write now, and I outsource probably seventy-five percent of my covers now.

DC: So what part do wine and chocolate play in your writing life?

MMR: (laughs) A very big part. Wine more so than anything else. Yeah, I’m a…I’m a big fan!

DC: A great writer I know once said he never trusts writers who don’t drink.

MMR: I would have to agree. (both laugh)

DC: So you’re surrounded by men in your life: you’ve got a husband and you have three boys aged between fifteen and twenty-one—that’s a lot of male energy around. What’s that like for you?

MMR: You know, I don’t even notice, I don’t recognize it, and this is going to sound so horrible but…I kind of rule the roost here. (laughs) I’m the nurser of the wounds, I’m the talker through whatever problem they’re having. But I’m also the disciplinarian—the one they do not want to want to have look at them and say, “I am extremely disappointed in what you just did”. Their dad they don’t worry about; me, they’re like, they don’t even know what’s going to happen there—she’s creative, this punishment could get real.

DC: So you’re a classic alpha.

MMR: You know, I’d hate to say it out loud but I think so. I say to my husband, “Honey don’t you want to step up?” and he says, “No, everybody needs a minion: go ahead!”

DC: You write empowered, proactive, and strongly sexual female characters, in keeping with the more feminist tone of contemporary Romance. Your stories are rife with hot and well-written sex scenes and you don’t shy away from kink. You provide your readers with wonderful fantasy reading. What do you see as the difference in the way men and women relate to erotica?

MMR: I don’t necessarily know that there is a difference. When I first came into the industry and I was so naïve about everything, I really didn’t think there was a male readership out there for Romance, it just didn’t occur to me. And then when I began doing book signings and developing a larger fan base I realized there were men out there who valued it just as much, who got as much enjoyment out of it, if not more, in some areas. And you know, a lot of them weren’t shy about it, weren’t embarrassed about it, were fine coming to the event. And others, I’ve had others send women up to my table to have books signed. I say, “come up here, it’s not a big deal…own it.”

DC: Men need love too, then.

MMR: Well, I love military memoirs, it’s something that I love to read, and that always surprises authors when I show up—there’s not a lot of women in the line normally, and I say “Hey! I like this, too!”

DC: It seems to me that even in a happy, committed relationship, people do need a fantasy life, and that fantasies, including sexual fantasies, might play a role in our emotional health and in maintaining happy relationships. What are your feelings about that?

MMR: I personally agree with that. I can’t speak for everyone but…I’ve been with my husband now for twenty-three years and I enjoy reading and having an outlet for all that. We have a very good relationship and a very complete one, but I love getting to escape into a book, and I don’t have to make any apologies for that.

DC: Do you believe in the perfect partner, the Love that Was Meant To Be, the Mr. and Mrs. Right? Or is no relationship going to be perfect and provide both partners with everything?

MMR: I’m probably going to get into a lot of trouble for saying this, but I feel like every person needs to first and foremost love themselves and completely know who they are before they can have anyone else come in and compliment that. I think if you know yourself and you’re happy with yourself, then the people you surround yourself with will naturally work for you; they’ll naturally make you more and make you happier; and things will work easily and they won’t be a struggle…. That’s just my own philosophy, and I’m really big into cutting toxic people out of my life; if people aren’t fitting into that, they don’t have a place with me and I move forward.

DC: Okay, so your readers are not entirely, but probably overwhelmingly, women. If you could change one thing about Joe Average, about men in general, and give them your best advice about maintaining a happy relationship, what would it be?

MMR: Hmm. I would say, listen with both ears. Sometimes people listen but I don’t know that they hear. And I feel that if you just listen to your partner and you really are hearing what they’re saying, even if you don’t agree with what they’re saying…for me it’s always putting myself in their shoes for a moment to see how they’re seeing it. Because there are times, I will admit, when my husband should get a medal for being my husband, he really should! (laugh) I do have to sometimes stop and think, okay, well he processes things differently to the way I process them. So I do try to listen with both ears, and when I don’t, I try to recognize that I didn’t, and I sop. I wish people would try to do that, and I wish that—not even just men, but partners, period—I wish they would do more of it.

DC: They have to be given a safe place in which to do it, don’t they?

MMR: They really do. And I’ve always believed that you should really avoid the, “You, you, you,” in a discussion or heated moment, and instead go with, “This is how I’m feeling.” Because I think a lot of people can shut down and become distant and combative if they feel they’re being verbally put on the spot, so to speak.

DC: I know you like ’eighties music; what are your favourite bands and songs from the period?

MMR: Oh my gosh! I think the easier question would be what didn’t I like from the ’eighties!

DC: Pick three without thinking too much.

MMR: Ah…George Michael. Michael Jackson. And Depeche Mode. (laughs) Strange to go there, but…

DC: And one favourite song that you couldn’t live without?

MMR: Oh my goodness…wow. I would say, Careless Whisper. As silly as that sounds, whenever I’m having a writer’s block moment, I will put on Careless Whisper on loop, and I’m able to listen to it and sound it out and just write for hours on it. I don’t know what it is about that song, but I can just go.

DC: Do you always write to music?

MMR: I tried to give that up about two months ago and couldn’t figure out why my wordcount really dropped; then it hit me that maybe if I just turned back on the playlist…and then suddenly, I think it was fourteen thousand words in one day?

DC: Wow! That’s a good week’s output for most writers.

MMR Yeah, that’s how much my brain just gets in the zone. And I don’t even hear the music, it’s just there and I’m—I can just have one song playing all day and I don’t even notice it.

DC: Since you mentioned the term, have you ever suffered writer’s block, and how have you dealt with it?

MMR: I have, but I don’t know that that what everyone assumes is writer’s block is what I suffer. I have project block sometimes…the project I need to be working on, I can no longer see clearly in my head. And it doesn’t matter how long I’ve spent outlining and how many notes I’ve detailed, I can’t shut off and be in the moment and get my mind to see it like a movie or a TV episode and just write. But I’m able to then take the energy that’s there creatively and I’m able to then open other documents and other unrelated projects and I’m able to channel it there, and then quite often I’ll be able to come back to the original project and pick up.

DC: So following on from the ’eighties question, do you still own any leg warmers?

MMR: (laughs) I do!

DC (chuckling) I ask because you mention them on your Facebook page as something you wish would come back into fashion.

MMR: I have pink ones, I have rainbow ones, and I have cream-coloured ones… (both dissolve in laughter) I still have banana clips from the eighties and I’m not letting those go! I don’t wear them, but I’m holding onto them.

DC: I remember leg warmers. They looked great.

MMR: I love them, and I’m waiting for the comeback!

DC: Okay. So I know you like reading Military History—what’s the attraction for you?

MMR: I love to learn. I love talking to people about their past and their lives, and I love reading different points of view on history, different opinions…I think it’s so subjective that you should read as much you can on it.

DC: If you could have lunch with just one historical figure, who would it be?

MMR: Oh my goodness! (thinks) I don’t even know because there are so many. I have too many.

DC: Following on then from Military History, your own hugely successful PSI-Ops and Immortal Ops series are best categorized as…Paranormal Shifter Military Romance, I’d say. That’s quite an achievement to blend all those genres: what gave you the idea for these series?

MMR: Well, I have quite a few friends and a lot of them have served. And we’d sit and all be drinking wine together and talking, and they would tell me of their time serving and some of the things that would happen…and one thing led to another, and I said to my husband one day, “What would you think if I did a team of shifter males who were in the military and they were a paramilitary group, a black ops type thing?” And I said, “What if I took from history, from eugenics, which so many assume was just a Nazi thing, and let’s go with that? Because a lot of it started in America, it started here. And what if I play with it and build off it, that America was making super-soldiers behind the scenes, and then drew back and wanted to cut ties and stop everything when Nazi Germany rose and the backlash from that hit…but in reality they didn’t stop, and this is what would happen; and then what scientific advances would play into that?” And my husband just looked at me and said, “Your mind’s a scary place, honey! Have fun.” (laugh) He just nods and walks away. But he is really good and reminds me to say I love you in the Romance books…it’s so cute because he’s definitely the more romantic of the two of us.

DC: You have a number of ongoing series, and looking down the book list on your website I note that you have several titles marked as being in outline or editing phase. Do you work on multiple books or series at once?

MMR: I do; usually four to six, depending.

DC: And what’s your own personal favourite among your series and characters?

MMR: Ahh. You know…usually I dislike whichever one I’m working on. (laughs) Whichever one I’m working on, I think, this is just utter crap! This is so bad I can’t even—if I have one more minute with this, I…. And then I will step away from it and come back a couple of days later, and I’m thinking, oh! this is so great! I can’t wait to see how it ends! And then I’m, ohh…I have to think about that now.

DC: Do you find your characters live in the background, in your heart, and it’s as if you have this shadow army of people who live with you as your books build up?

MMR: No. I find when I step away from the computer I’m able to detach and leave them there. In strange times they will talk to me—they will wake me from my sleep and I’ll just have this urge to say, do you have first scene, or I’ll have this really funny idea for a dialogue. And I will have to run to my office to jot it down. Other times it happens when I’m walking the dogs, and I never have pen and paper with me then. And my dogs, they are ridiculous: if they see anything—a squirrel, a leaf, the wind—they pull…so being able to even take an audio recording on my phone is not a possibility, so I have to keep repeating it in my head on the way home. And I sometimes start to mumble it aloud, and people in the neighbourhood probably think I’m crazy!

DC: It’s the local crazy author lady!

MMR: Yeah, talking to herself with the dogs.

DC: Okay. So you’re really active on Facebook, where you often post several times a day. Besides being very funny, you’re extremely gracious and personable in your interactions with fans. Do you see a strong social media presence as vital for any author today?

MMR: I do. I feel like it’s important to connect. In this world of everyone connecting, if you stay removed from it I don’t think you’re doing yourself a whole lot of favours; and these people, they’re taking their hard-earned money and they’re buying one of your products. The least you can do as author is to come on and acknowledge them and be gracious and grateful for that.

DC: Do you have any real-world interactions with fans? Do you go to any of the Romance Writers of America or other genre conventions?

MMR: I do. I was actually very heavy in the circuit for a while, and the last three years I’ve pulled back and I’ve just been focused on writing: it was getting to the point where I was  traveling so much that writing time was suffering.

DC: Talking of travel, I know you’ve recently moved to Mississippi, which is a state not generally known for progressive values; on the other hand, the South has always valued its writers. What’s the most memorable reaction you’ve encountered as people discover your work?

MMR: You know, I moved to Oxford, Mississippi, which from my understanding—I haven’t really ventured that far into other cities here, and I’m going on three years (laughs)—they are extremely open and welcoming to authors. William Faulkner’s home is here; John Grisham, I believe, has a home here; and there are many others. People are very supportive of the arts and the authors that come here, so I actually have found them to be more supportive than where I’d come from.

DC: That’s interesting. I’ve found the same thing in the Mediterranean—people view authors with rather more respect and regard than people generally do in North America.

MMR: Yeah. I have not had anyone here say to, “So why do you live here?” I would get that all the time up north, and I’d just stand there and think, am I supposed to move to a mythical little author island? Where would you have me live?

DC: You’re one of an elite few fabulously successful indie authors; you’ve risen as high as number eight on the New York Times bestseller list, you’ve hit the top ten on Amazon, and you’re also a USA Today bestselling author. So while the upside of indie publishing is that you have full control and retain a much greater share of royalties, you also have to spend a great deal of your time doing all the marketing, accounting, book design, et cetera; do you ever look back and just wish you could spend all your time writing, without having to everything yourself?

MMR: I’ve actually never had that. Even when I went in from the start with a small press, I never had that. Very quickly they learned I could do cover art, very quickly they realized I could do marketing. And I’ve always been my own marketing entity, I’ve never had anyone else doing it for me. The only thing I can say that used to be done for me is that I would send the book off and their team of editors would handle it and I would get it back; now I employ those same teams—it’s the same people—and I am responsible for sending it off. I always joke that I have to pay to be told that chapter two was crap. Someone else used to pay to be told that!

DC: Do you employ a secretary or assistant at all?

MMR: I did for a while, I don’t now. My oldest son—he’s a computer science engineering major at Ole Miss—he and his best friend actually help. Sometimes when I’m getting overwhelmed and I need a lot of work done on my website, I’ll pay them on a per project basis to handle that…and sometimes I’ll pay them to handle the art review team or something, and they’re really great about that.

DC: So given the success of some genre works—I’m thinking obviously of the Twilight series—have you had any interest in your books from TV or Hollywood?

MMR: I have, actually. I’ve been approached multiple times over the years by different houses looking to acquire the rights for something. None have felt right at the moment, if that makes sense?

DC: It does.

MMR: And then I was approached to write for television—but because of NDAs and that, I’m not able to go into that further. But it was a wonderful opportunity; I wasn’t able to accept it at the time with my schedule and current commitments but it was nice to asked.

DC: I know a lot of times books are optioned by a film company or studio just to stop someone else getting them, and then they’re never produced. I guess that’s also a concern.

MMR: Yeah, that’s a biggie for me, and I’m holding out hope. I’ve been in this industry and I’ve seen the advent of indie publishing, seen it take off and seen the vendors open their doors to indie. I’ve seen so many things. I’ve seen this happen with audio, and I’m seeing it happen with foreign translations. I have hopes that production for TV and that will take a similar course.

DC: Do you have a favorite leisure activity?

MMR: Reading. I do. And it’s so bad….in fact I spend so much time writing and reading now that I will often have to get a lot of my books on audio now to help my eyes take a break.

DC: That’s another casualty from sitting at a computer all day.

MMR: I love it because then I can turn on my phone and turn the app on for it and put my earbuds in, and I can walk or I can go out. I made sure in the house we have here that I tried to incorporate as much nature and walking paths in the yard and in the property so that I can just go out and be alone and think and listen to books.

DC: Finally, and speaking of the outdoors, is there a place on Earth that you really, really want to visit?

MMR: Italy.

DC: Ahh. Well, as an Italian, of course I think you’re right!

MMR: Yeah. I would love to go while my grandfather’s still alive. And I would like to be able to take him with me if possible. I think it would mean a lot to him, to go home.

DC: Well, Mandy, thanks so very much for your time. It’s been an absolute delight talking with you. Is there anything else you’d like to add for our readers?

MMR: Well, I wanted to thank you for this, and for the opportunity; and to say congratulations, I saw that you posted a cover recently?

DC: I posted a cover to my own last novel a couple of months ago, Black Easter.

MMR: (laughs) Facebook just showed it to me!

DC: Good old Facebook! (laughs)  Thank you, Mandy, and I wish you all continued success with your career.

 

LINKS

Website: http://www.mandyroth.com

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/mandymroth

Mandy’s Amazon Page: http://www.amazon.com/Mandy-M.-Roth/e/B002BLOYH6

Full book list: http://www.mandyroth.com/full-book-list

 

Did you enjoy this interview with Mandy? Let us know with a comment!

Don’t miss next week’s Under the Covers interview with multiple award-winning Science Fiction and Fantasy author KEN LIU, live right here on Saturday March 12!

1 Comment

Filed under Books and Writers, interviews