Paolo Bacigalupi is relative newcomer to the science fiction writing genre, but his work has already made waves, won the Theodore Sturgeon Award and the Locus Awards for Best Collection and Best Novelette for Pump Six. His work has appeared in two of the three biggest science fiction markets, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. His short fiction collection Pump Six was released early last year from Night Shade Books. Yours truly ran into him at Readercon in Boston in August, 2009, where he was participating in a panel on YA fiction. His short fiction is powerful, gritty, poignant, and brushes shades of mixed despair and poignance rarely achieved. If you haven’t read him, you would do well to check him out.
TH: What is The Story of Paolo? Is it a novel? A short story? A post-apocalyptic montage?
PB: It’s the story of me hacking around again and again as I tried to figure out how to write, and then figured out how to make the things I like to write fit with larger marketplaces, first in short stories, then in novels. I always thought if you just wrote the best story you knew how to write, that was enough. But it turned out that you also have to not just be satisfying your own artistic urges, but also editors’ commercial needs. I feel like I’ve been working for a long time to find the sweet spot where everyone wins.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
PB: I started thinking about it when I was working a day job I didn’t like very much. I was making decent money, but wasn’t really happy with it, and started writing on the side, as a relief from the work. Over the course of a couple of months I realized that I much preferred the idea of writing to the idea of computer work, so I quit my job and started using up my savings. At the point where I decided to start losing money to be a writer, that’s probably when I knew I actually was committed to being one.
TH: Every writer of course has things they would like to accomplish, e.g. first sale, next sale, first novel sale, first bestseller, etc. What accomplishment are you striving for right now?
PB: To fulfill my economic responsibilities to my family while telling stories that I care about. That’s pretty much it. Everything else is just cream.
TH: Do you write just fiction, or are there a variety of genres by which you support yourself?
PB: Mostly fiction. A few essays here and there, but at the moment science fiction is my gig.
TH: Do you have any writing stuck away somewhere that will never see the light of day, but nevertheless helped you build your skill to publishable?
PB: I’ve got four trunk novels. They taught me a lot. I probably won’t publish any of them.
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
PB: Endocrine disruptors. Peak oil. Drought. Mass extinctions. Stupid people. Greed. Cynicism. Free markets. Complex economic systems. Anything that spawns unintended consequences. Corporations. Business. Poverty. Foreign lands. New languages. New cities. Advertising. Religious and cultural values. Almost anything, really. I’m just looking for things that make me pause, and look again. Things that surprise me, or frighten me, or shake up my world view.
TH: It sounds like you derive a lot of story ideas from the larger world. Do you actively seek out story ideas in the news or do they come to you at random when something just clicks?
PB: I think part of me is always accumulating material. On some level, I assume all writers are observers, standing a little to one side, picking apart the world around them, whether that’s from the news, or from daily life. A lot of times, I don’t really know that I’m doing it until later, when I’m sitting down to write, and then something that I observed at a party, or read in a magazine, is suddenly there in front of me, begging to be inserted. As far as the kernels of my stories, the core concepts… it depends. Sometimes, I’ve got a definite topic I want to address, other times, the stories are more like found objects buried in dirt. I fiddle with a story, or a character, or an interesting set of lines, and see what I can excavate around it. Normally, if I’m still thinking about something six months or a year after I ran across it, there’s something interesting enough in there that I’ll be able to finish a story around it.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you? What is the most fun?
PB: When a story I’ve been struggling with snaps into focus. I finally find its core, and suddenly I know what I’m doing. There’s a glee in that. Like getting away with stealing candy from a convenience store. Sneaking out with a story under your shirt.
TH: What are the most successful ways you have used to promote yourself and your work? Are there any promising marketing avenues that you might yet explore?
PB: I try to write good, relevant stories. That seems to do most of the job. With that in place, it seems like it’s a lot easier to get interviews and profiles and reviews. Also, because a lot of my stories focus on sustainability and environmental questions, there’s appeal for readers who don’t traditionally think of themselves as science fiction readers. The content of the stories expands the audience into a couple of different spheres. Other than that, I don’t do much.
TH: Have your reached the point at which you realized that you had “made it” as a writer and author? What is the milestone you’re seeking?
PB: I don’t think writers ever make it. I certainly don’t have that sense about myself, at least. There’s always more to do. I suppose I’ll have made it if I can keep writing and supporting myself, and also can balance the writing demands with having a good healthy life with my friends and family.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
PB: I think that if you’re seriously in the business of writing, it’s good not to jerk around your loyal readers. You need to provide some feeling of continuity from book to book. A connected sense that you as a writer have some clarity of creativity. I’m not sure it’s branding, exactly, but you don’t want to give a reader whiplash or a sense of betrayal because you’re jumping around and reveling in your multiple personality disorder.
If I was trying to define my own writing, I’d say that I mostly focus on sustainability or environmental topics, and often there’s some larger idea lurking around the edges of the story. Also, a lot of my stories take place in pretty broken futures. But that’s not really a branding attempt. More like a description of my obsessions. I write fairly consistently about certain things because they’re the things that interest me enough to actually bother to start and finish a story. If I wrote a zombie story, I’d probably just use a pen name so readers wouldn’t feel jerked around expecting to get one sort of obsession from me, and ending up with another.
TH: Have you published any stories or other writing under pen names?
PB: No. But when I’m ready to write my debut zombie porn story, I’ll let you know.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
PB: My debut novel The Windup Girl is being released in September. It’s based in the same world as a couple of my Hugo-nominated short stories, “Yellow Card Man” and “The Calorie Man.” I’ve also got a YA novel coming out next year called Ship Breaker. In terms of current work, I’m in the middle of writing Ship Breaker’s sequel and also doing research for my next adult novel.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
PB: I remember failing to sell my fourth novel and feeling complete despair. That was a hard moment. I felt like I had nothing left and just wanted to give up.
TH: When you hit that despair after your fourth novel was rejected, what did you do to get through it?
PB: I had to think about why I was writing, and what I thought I was going to get out of it. In the end, it really came down to the fact that I still liked the act of writing, even if it wasn’t going anywhere career-wise. So I kept working on that basis, and just tried to write stories that pleased me.
TH: Well-established authors often still have their stories rejected. Do you get rejected much anymore? If so, how do you deal with it?
PB: When it happens, I try to understand what didn’t work for the editor and try to revise accordingly.