Category Archives: Books and Writers

The Devil’s Workshop: an interview with author Donnally Miller

When Donnally Miller hired me to copyedit his 400-page Fantasy novel, The Devil’s Workshop, he was partly looking for a reality check. The work had, like far too many terrific books these days, been passed over by scores of agents who would rather go with the standard safe, formulaic garbage. Nothing new there.

Now, freelance editors get a lot of commissions from new writers, and consequently one’s expectations are rather low. But just a few chapters into the edit of this novel, I realized what I was reading was no standard first novel but a polished, utterly compelling work of fiction. Curious, I sent Donn an email asking how long he’d been writing, and he replied, “thirty-five years”.

So what’s it about? Donnally describes his book as

A tragic love triangle set against the background of a ripping pirate yarn.

In a sea tale filled with witches, werewolves, pirates and Indians, there are many scenes of wit and whimsy, and many more of romance and dark intrigue. The main characters, Katie and Tom, have drunk a love potion and are fated for one another, but they have parted, just as a slave rebellion and an Indian war roil the waters and transform the landscape. They will search for one another through many hazards and perils.

And this is just the moment that Crazy Dog and his pirates have chosen to enter the mouth of Cutthroat Bay in search of the giant emerald that is the eye of Maddibimbo the monkey god.

The Devil’s Workshop is a delicious, sprawling, thought-provoking epic Fantasy so well-crafted I can only compare it the work of giants like Fritz Leiber, Gene Wolfe, and Ken Liu. The worldbuilding, character work, and dialogue are on a par with anything that’s ever won the World Fantasy Award. The novel is also replete with profound, humorous, and tragic insights into the nature of love, good and evil, society, power, and human nature.

This was, in short, a book I passionately felt had to be published. I advised Donnally to go indie, and the book is now finally out in the world. I strongly advise that you read it.

Now let’s hear from Donn.

 

DC: Donnally, thanks so much for letting me interview you. I know that you’ve been writing for over three decades now. Tell me a little about your trajectory.

DM: I’ve actually been writing sporadically on and off ever since I was in high school.  My first love was drama.  My mother used to stage abridged versions of Shakespeare’s plays in our backyard when I was growing up.  In college, I spent most of my time at the college theater, working on student productions.  When I got out of college I moved to New York with the intention of becoming an actor.  I also started writing plays at that time.  Acting never worked out, and I eventually had to get a real job, but I never stopped writing plays, I even got a couple of them produced Off Off Broadway, but could never get anything accepted anywhere else.  After many years I thought I’d try fiction, so I turned one of my plays into a novella and tried sending that off, but then again got nowhere.  At that time my wife was working in admissions at a local prep school.  A young man who was helping with their IT saw my wife reading a mystery in her office one day and asked if she’d be interested in reading a story he wrote.  So she read it and brought it home for me to read.  Anyway, she told this young man I was also a writer and he asked if I’d like to join a critique group he was in.  I said sure, why not?  And I started meeting with this critique group which would get together every month at the meetings of the New Jersey Horror Writer’s Association.  So I started trying to write the sort of stories they were writing, and when I wrote some that I thought were pretty good I tried sending them out.  Of course, none of them were ever accepted.  At some point I realized that nothing I wrote was ever going to get accepted anywhere so I thought what the heck, why not try a novel?  I was in my sixties then and I’d never written a novel before, but I was well read; I knew the effect literature could have on a reader and I also knew that nobody making a living writing commercial fiction was having that effect on me, so I thought I’d write the sort of book I liked.  And I did, and it was The Devil’s Workshop.

DC: Donnally, this is a complex, sprawling, epic work. How long did it take you to write?

DM: It took me two years to write, and then six months to revise.

DC: The Devil’s Workshop seems very strongly character-driven. Tell me a little about your process. Did you plot in detail, or just give the characters free rein?

DM: As a reader I can tell the difference between a character who’s been closely observed and inhabited, and one that’s being jerked around to fit the requirements of the plot.  So yes, absolutely, for me it all starts with the characters.  I had no idea of the plot when I began the book.  I don’t care much about plot and I certainly never read a book for the plot.  In fact, till I started researching what agents were looking for, it never occurred to me that anybody would read a novel for the plot.  I’ve seen infants of one or two years, when they get Christmas presents they often get more enjoyment from the box than they do from the gift.  That’s basically how I feel about people that read a book for the plot.  Of course you’re going to ask how can I then avoid plot holes?  But you’ll find that if the characters are acting entirely naturally it is absolutely impossible for plot holes to happen because everything will be motivated by what the characters want.  It’s only artificial plots that have plot holes.

DC: Your dialogue is exceptional, and it absolutely crackles throughout this entire work. How did you get so good at it?

DM: As I said, my first attempts at writing were plays, and I wrote nothing but plays for many years, so I worked hard on dialogue.  Dialogue is the best tool there is for revealing character.  I also had the experience of seeing a couple of my plays produced, and of hearing good actors give readings of my works, even if I had to pay the actors to do it.  There’s nothing that teaches you to write dialog like hearing it acted out.

DC: I know that your father actually compiled dictionaries1. Tell me a little about that, and whether you feel that influenced your interest in fiction and writing.

DM: My father, George A. Miller, was one of the founders of the so-called cognitive revolution, and was the first person to create an online dictionary.  So I grew up around ideas about cognition and linguistics, and was familiar with Chomskyan linguistics from an early age (along with Shakespeare from my mother’s side).  A lot of the ideas that went into The Devil’s Workshop stem from that, particularly the idea that God is language.  When my father passed away, I had the pleasure of finding some of his early writings that he’d preserved from his college days, and one of them was an uncompleted novel that I’d never known anything about, but that must have meant a lot to him since he held onto it all his life.

DC: What first got you interested in Fantasy?

DM: I think that’s the wrong question.  The real question is why wouldn’t anyone be interested in fantasy?  I know what I was interested in when I was a boy, and I’ve seen my own boys grow up, and I believe that the first stories all people are interested in are fairy tales, fantasy, horror and science fiction.  Many people eventually move on and their tastes change.  Mine never really did.  There was a time in my late teens and early twenties when I started taking myself seriously and decided I should read something different, but even as I grew to love great literature I realized that much of what I loved about it was what Tolkien called an ‘arresting strangeness.’  So my love of fantasy goes hand in hand with my love of all reading.  What I’m not interested in is commercial fiction, including virtually all the fantasy being written today, but that’s because it’s dreck, not because it’s fantasy.

DC: The world in your novel, The Devil’s Workshop, is rich and complex, with a strong Alternate History feel. Did you intentionally craft it as an AH story?

DM: I was drawn to the Caribbean around 1700 because it was such an exotic environment, with pirates, Indians and slaves and I felt it had been underutilized in fantasy, unlike the typical medieval setting.  However, I didn’t want to do research to make it true to the real Caribbean.  I felt the Caribbean of my imagination was sufficient.  So I made up the world of the Coast.  This world clearly has had a classical period like the one in our world (there are references to the Bible and Socrates and so forth), so the idea was that in a world very similar to our own, when Columbus crossed the Atlantic, instead of discovering the New World that he actually discovered, he discovered this fantastical land instead.

DC: The book has a lot of strong philosophical elements and countless, very resonant insights into people. Your character work is remarkable. But I happily had no sense of a writer with an agenda which is, sadly, all too often the case with modern SFF novels. In fact, I’ve spoken to many authors who believe it’s their duty to imbue their fiction with social and political messages. What’s your feeling on this? Should fiction preach or entertain? Or can it do both?

DM: I’m glad you didn’t have that sense.  I would like the reader to be unable to spot the author intruding at any point.  Of course I’m intruding all over the place, but I don’t want to be caught in the act.  As to what fiction should do, I have no clue.  Writers should do whatever they’re interested in doing, but only if they’re able to do it.  You only sense writers with an agenda when they’re clumsy about it.  If they’re good at it, you just take it all in.  Did Orwell have an agenda when he wrote 1984?  You bet.

DC: Who are your favourite authors?

DM: In general, the writers who have taught me what writing is are Cervantes, Swift, Sterne, Fielding, Melville, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.  In the SFF field, Lord Dunsany, R. A. Lafferty, Jack Vance and James Branch Cabell.

DC: I know you’re a great fan of eighteenth century literature. What is it about the period and prose style that so appeals to you?

DM: Three books I discovered in my teens and valued highly were Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.  Of course they’re very different books, but one characteristic of eighteenth century literature is what I would call a devastating lucidity.  The authors of that period had a way of observing the world clearly and describing what they saw with elegance and precision.  For instance, try reading David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature.  If anyone is better at making the most complex, abstract ideas appear simple and understandable, I’m not aware of it. I find the writers of the Enlightenment can bring the world into focus for me, while most writers of today seem more interested in obscuring what they say.  Also, when you’ve been mocked by Swift or Voltaire you have been well and truly mocked.

DC: There’s also a very strong metaphysical element to this work, as the title implies, and supernatural forces have a lot of agency in this novel. Can you talk a bit about that?

DM: As a writer, I try to use words to make the reader feel and understand things that can’t be expressed in words.  I wanted to make the reader feel that the first principles of things, including such concepts as being, substance, essence, time, space, cause, identity, etc. are linked to forces or causes that transcend the powers or the ordinary course of nature.  Any attempt to explain this linkage can only end in failure, but maybe it can be experienced in a story.  I tried to tell a story that would leave readers feeling they live in a universe that is terrifying and inexplicable and at the same time give them a good laugh.

DC: Now The Devil’s Workshop is complete, do you have any future novels planned? Would you return to this world or do something completely different?

DM: No, I don’t.  All the time I was writing this novel I felt inspired, and I’d love to feel that again.  I have started something new.  I’ve written a dynamite first chapter, but I’m having trouble coming up with chapter two.  I’m sure it’ll come to me.  It has nothing to do with the Coast.  I have no plans to return to that world.

DC: Donnally, thanks so much for your time, and I wish you every possible success with this novel. Is there anything you’d like to add?

DM: There’s always something I’d like to add, but I never know what it is till later.  I guess I’d just like to say I hope everybody enjoys the book.

 

The Devil’s Workshop is available here at Amazon in both print and Kindle format. Just do it. 🙂

To learn more about Donnally Miller, The Devil’s Workshop, and the genesis of this novel, visit https://www.donnallymiller.com/

Notes

1 Donnally Miller’s father’s remarkable online dictionary project can be found at https://wordnet.princeton.edu/  To input a word and utilize the database, just type it into the search box at http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn or click the link in the lefthand sidebar of the site.

 

 

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Gardner, We’ll Miss You.

Gardner Dozois in June 2006. Photo by Ellen Levy Finch reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

GARDNER DOZOIS, a giant of modern science fiction, left the building this week.

Others have written at length about his enormous accomplishments as an editor, so I’ll keep my comments on that brief. Dozois was a key player — perhaps the key player — in shaping today’s science fiction (SF) and especially in elevating the quality of writing in the field. He was also a very accomplished author himself, and though his oeuvre is small, I highly recommend seeking him out.

I had the fortune to know Gardner a little personally. He was our week four instructor at the Clarion West intensive SF boot camp I attended in 2002. Beyond his quick laugh and trademark ribald humour — he was just delightfully goofy — two things impressed me deeply about him. First, his intelligence. Gardner was brilliant, but in a modest and low-key way. There’s a saying: “Mediocrity knows nothing but itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.” This man listened and watched as others spoke in a way very few people do, weighing each word said in a way that made a very strong impression on me.

The second thing which impressed me about him was his fairness and equanimity. As longtime editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and editor of scores of top anthologies, his criterion was always simply the writing. Whether he personally liked an author or not – and I know he published some individuals he didn’t — had nothing to do with his selections. For him, it was, as it should be, always and only about the work.

In the sixteen years since Clarion West, I had some occasional correspondence with Gardner, and he was always kind, helpful, and honest, especially when I began to publish my own novella anthology series, the Panverse series (Panverse One, Two, and Three). A fan of the novella form himself, he read and reviewed each volume in the series with his usual fairness and humour, encouraging me and, on one occasion, making me crack up as I read his review of one story.

It’s hard to imagine a life better lived than this man’s. Quite apart from providing readers with so much wonderful fiction to enjoy, Gardner discovered and nurtured literally hundreds of new authors, transforming the field of science fiction in the process.

Finally, since I know at least some of you reading this are writers, I’ll leave you with two words of Gardner’s, which are probably the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave me: “Be audacious.”

Rest in peace, Gardner. You’ll be missed.

You can read more about this remarkable man at his Wikipedia page, and find the scores of excellent anthologies Gardner edited through his Amazon page: I own a shelf full and that barely scratches the surface. If you’ve never read truly great science fiction, give some of these a try. For a sampling of Gardner’s own remarkable body of body of work, this ebook contains several of his very best stories, ranging from the humorous to the truly moving. I can’t recommend his fiction highly enough.

Finally, one of his best short stories, “Morning Child” is available to read free online at Lightspeed Magazine.

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The Made in L.A. Anthology is here!

We at Made in L.A. Writers have been working like crazy to put our first anthology together since deciding on it late last year. The anthology is now available in print and releases in digital format on the occasion of the L.A. Times Festival of Books (April 21-22), where we’ll have a booth. If you’re in L.A., we’d love to see you there. My own fiction contribution to the 300+ page volume, a 45-page novella titled Dry Bones, is set right here in the City of Angels, as are all the other stories. I’m very excited about this anthology! Here’s a peek at the cover and the list of fabulous authors. 

Cover of the Made in L.A. anthology, vol.1

cover design by Allison Rose


CONTRIBUTORS:

Amy Sterling Casil
Dario Ciriello
Jude-Marie Green
Andre Hardy
Gabi Lorino
Bonnie Randall
Allison Rose
Cody Sisco

Readers in Los Angeles are thirsty for stories that bring their city to life. This anthology features a diverse range of voices and genres. Like the City of Angels in which these stories were born, nothing is off-limits. Literary or contemporary, noir or ghost story, fabulism or science fiction, each story in this volume will forever change the way you look at this iconic metropolis.

Made in L.A. Writers is a collaborative of Los Angeles-based authors dedicated to nurturing and promoting indie fiction. This 2018 volume is the first of the annual Made in L.A. anthology series. While our styles, themes, and story locales differ, our work is both influenced and illuminated by our hometown and underpinned by the extraordinary, multifaceted, and often surreal culture and life of the City of Angels.

From my colleague Cody Sisco’s introduction to the volume, here’s the scoop on how this anthology series came to be:

“In 2017 four indie authors first came together under the Made in L.A. banner to support each other and share a booth at the Los Angeles Festival of Books. We passed out bookmarks, watched as kids made away with our candy, chatted with a few questionable characters, and found many new fans. We expected all of that.

“What surprised us was how many people approached our booth with a version of the question: Are these books all set in L.A.? Our reluctant though truthful response, “Not really,” didn’t satisfy them and it didn’t satisfy the four of us, who saw a missed opportunity to “give them what they want.”

My own novella, Dry Bones, set in the Altadena foothills of the San Gabriel mountains, revolves around the breakdown of relationships, reality, and even time in the face of L.A.’s haunted past of cults and occultism.

The Made in L.A. anthology is already available in print at Amazon, and will release as an Amazon eBook on Saturday April 21. If you prefer the digital copy, please pre-order it now, since every pre-ordered copy will help us immensely by building momentum and interest on release day. Either click on the book cover image above or follow this link to the book page for either edition.

We had a lot of fun putting this volume together, and I know you’re going to love it. And don’t forget — if you’re in L.A. that weekend, do stop by our booth at the festival and say hello!

 

 

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Drown the Cat: Video Trailer

Are you ready, world?
My new and somewhat contrarian guide to writing craft, Drown the Cat: The Rebel Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules, releases on July 4, 2017. I chose to release the book on U.S. Independence Day because Drown the Cat is all about empowering writers to take back their freedom by questioning all the so-called “rules of writing”. Check out the awesome one-minute video trailer and turn it up!If you like the sound of this, the click here to pre-order the Kindle version and have it delivered wirelessly on Independence Day! Print and other retailer links will follow on release date.

Just to whet your appetite, here’s a brief excerpt from the book in which I address what may be the most misunderstood writing rule of all:

Show, Don’t Tell

The show, don’t tell dichotomy is entirely false: all fiction is telling; if it weren’t, it would be called storyshowing. The author is telling you a story, and you, the reader, agree to either play along or not. And given that you’re paying for the privilege, it had better be well-told.

The nonsense spoken on this subject is legion, with the result that writers drive themselves mad, often wasting days of their time trying to dramatize, in onstage action and dialogue, scenes that could be far more effectively and economically handled another way.

Remember when we talked about narrative distance in the interiority chapter, and I pretty much said, “screw pulling back the camera, keep the narrative distance tight”? Well, strong interiority will feel most like showing to the reader, and pulling back so that the reader’s not tight in the PoV character’s head anymore will feel more like telling.

When you read, as any editor does, a lot of newer writers’ novels, you’ll find they’re often puffy, too long by thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands, of words, with stiff, awkward scenes that stand out in contrast to the faster, free-flowing sections.

One major reason for this is that the poor author has had the tyrannical Show, Don’t Tell dictum pounded into their brain by so many writing books and blogs and fellow authors that they’re terrified to summarize in narrative things which don’t need to be dramatized. So they go ahead and build a “live” scene around every particle of information or setting they think the reader may require.

This perceived need to dramatize everything can, among other things, result in pointless scenes where characters talk about things for no reason other than to avoid a narrative passage. The scene isn’t doing anything else, and the characters who were so alive earlier have turned strangely wooden. At its worst, you have the dreaded “As you know, Bob” dialogue, a scene in which characters tell one another things they already ought to know.

Don’t do this. Ditch these scenes mercilessly.

[…] There, now—that didn’t hurt a bit, did it? No need for dialogue or having it all happen onstage, you’d have been bored to distraction. Narrative summary in viewpoint works just fine.

I’ll say it once again. The show, don’t tell dichotomy is entirely false: all fiction is telling.


My sincerest thanks are due to Allison Rose for her spectacular work on the book trailer


 

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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

 

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

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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

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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

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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

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