At the World Science Fiction Convention back in August, in yet another instance of meeting more authors through authors I just met, I had the good fortune to meet a pleasant, soft-spoken author and rocket scientist named Ian Tregillis. We were introduced through Melinda Snodgrass, whom I had met at World Con when she recognized me from this series of interviews. You can still find her interview in the archives. But at her recommendation, I attended a reading by Ian, wherein he read one of his short stories. He was very modest about it when I complimented him afterward, but it was an excellent story, and he read it with great aplomb. Ian is definitely an author that people will be seeing more of in the years to come.
TH: Can you give a brief arc of your career as a writer/author?
IT: I wanted to throw myself into writing for years and years before I actually did it. I had this strange misconception that I’d start writing when the time was right, or perhaps when I had time for it. All through college and grad school, I kept putting it off, thinking somehow that the time wasn’t right. (Not only was this foolish, but it also made me somewhat miserable, because I was depriving myself of something that I knew I’d enjoy. I know people who talk about writing as therapy, but what the heck does all this mean? I shudder to think.)
It took me a long time to realize that I would never start writing with that attitude, and that if I was serious about writing I had to make time for it. After that breakthrough, I made a beeline for the Online Writing Workshop, which I had stumbled across while I was in school and secretly yearning to write. So I joined the workshop, and started critiquing other folks’ writing (all of it much better than mine) while receiving kind-hearted and educational critiques on my own fledgling writing efforts. I can’t express just how formative the OWW was for me– it helped me to learn a great deal in a short period of time.
I’d been on the OWW for about a year in a half when I decided to take a chance on face-to-face workshopping, so I attended a weekend writing workshop run by Charles Coleman Finlay. I knew him a little bit, because at the time he was one of the administrators of the OWW. It was a tremendously positive experience! So much so that it gave me the confidence to apply to the Clarion Writers’ Workshop the following winter.
And that’s how I ended up spending six weeks in East Lansing during the summer of 2005. (Oddly enough, Charlie was one of my instructors at Clarion. And I crossed paths with him again at the Blue Heaven workshop last summer.)
At Clarion, I met Walter Jon Williams. And it turned out that Walter and I lived just a couple of hours apart (which in New Mexico is practically a social distance). He invited me to join Critical Mass, an amazing group of local SF and fantasy writers: Walter, Daniel Abraham, Melinda Snodgrass, S. M. Stirling, George R. R. Martin, and Sage Walker, just to name a few. So, less than a month after Clarion, I was sitting in a room with these folks and learning craft from some of the very best.
Not long after that, George and Melinda invited me to join the Wild Cards consortium. And it was through Wild Cards that I met my marvelous literary agent, Kay McCauley, who landed a book deal at Tor for me.
Oops. You asked for the short version, didn’t you?
TH: Workshops such as Clarion and Odyssey can have profound effects on a writer’s career. You’ve talked a little bit about the connections you made to other writers, but what about the connections you made internally? How did Clarion help you?
IT: That’s a very good question. I spent a lot of time thinking over that same issue in the months (maybe even years) after Clarion. Even in my own mind, the external connections made via Clarion tend to overshadow the more personal, internal, craft-related connections that the workshop spurred for me.
One moment that stands out was during a conversation with Charlie Finlay. He had asked me about the strengths and weaknesses I perceived in my own writing; I told him that I felt I was very weak at plotting stories because it took me so much longer to do that than most of my classmates. His response — “Spending a lot of time thinking about plot doesn’t mean you’re bad at it” — struck something in me. I’ve returned to that idea, and taken comfort from it, again and again (usually when I’m struggling to plot something).
Along a similar vein, Cory Doctorow pointed out to me that even highly successful writers have weaknesses in their writing. That helped me to realize that having weaknesses isn’t fatal to my writing, as long as I’m aware of them and keep trying to improve. So I’m constantly trying to assess my own strengths and weaknesses.
And I remember one particular writing exercise that demonstrated how vivid, specific details often lead to better storytelling than drab, generic details. That lesson struck me deeply.
TH: What is The Story of Ian? Is it a novel? A short story? An epic poem? A limerick?
IT: The Story of Ian is a free-verse poem, scrawled on a paper shopping bag, in crayon. It completely ignores the fourth wall, and frequently descends into stream-of-consciousness rants railing against government mind-control rays, the chupacabra, and court-ordered medication of violent schizophrenics. There are many footnotes.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
IT: I tried to write books for myself to read when I was a little kid. None of those panned out. I blame writer’s block, or possibly bedtime. I still remember my best effort from those days: the plot of “Space Raiders” involved one spaceship, two robots, and many, many laser beams.
I think it turned into a book of mazes (not just any mazes, either, but robot-shaped mazes) after 10 pages or so. I also tried my hand at gritty urban drama, but that project died on page three after the protagonist’s dog ran away from home.
Writing has always been the one and only form of creative expression that felt natural to me. I couldn’t draw a straight line to save my life, and sheet music is a complete mystery to me.
TH: You’re a writer, but you’re also a scientist. Can you describe how your science training finds its way into your fiction? Are you going to point anyone in your lab toward this interview?
IT: If anything, I’d say that my training as a fiction writer finds its way into my “other” life as a scientist! Technical writing is a large part of my job, but strangely, it’s also one of the parts I enjoy least. But I’m a much better technical writer now than I used to be, thanks to the effort I’ve put into learning how to write tight, precise prose in fiction.
My background in astrophysics has found its way into a couple of short stories I’ve written, but for the most part I don’t write much hard SF.
I’m not sure why. Maybe because writing is an escape for me, and I like to leave work at work. My science training more frequently finds its way into other peoples’ fiction– my friends ask me to vet the physics details in their fiction, and in return I appeal to them for help in their areas of expertise.
Some of my coworkers know about my not-so-secret writing life. Someday they’ll find my website, and this interview!
TH: A lot of established writers seem to have a stack of writing somewhere that will never a see the light of day. I m talking about stuff that perhaps helped you learn and develop your craft, like the five novels the author had to write before he could get to the good one. Do you have anything like this?
IT: Oh, you bet I do. That hand-written space opera/maze book disappeared many years ago, and I’m not too heartbroken about it. More recently, there’s a plastic crate full of truly cringe-worthy short stories in my house. And I have the proverbial trunk novel, too. I like keeping this stuff around; it keeps me humble, but in a strange way it also cheers me up.
TH: Of course, most writers want to have bestsellers or make some sort of artistic or literary impact. Is there some unrealized accomplishment that you’re striving for in the near future?
IT: This might sound strange, but the goal that makes me tear up is really simple. I’ll be ecstatic if, after my first novel comes out, complete strangers read and enjoy it. If a single stranger told me that he or she loved my novel… I can’t think of anything that would be more thrilling. So that’s what I’m striving for in the near future.
Of course, I hope more than one person reads the book. But I try not to be greedy.
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
IT: As for story inspiration, I’m learning that stories can be inspired by almost anything. Music (I love music, just can’t make it). Strange factoids. Learning new, shiny words. Snippets of conversation. Dreams.
In terms of personal inspiration, the sheer joy of the creative act keeps me fired up. I find something thrilling in the process that takes an inkling of an idea in the back of my mind and turns it into something real (insofar as the written page is real).
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you?
IT: A lot of the appeal, for me, resides in the simple pleasure of creative expression. The joy of having a creative outlet. On a more technical level, I might be a little strange in that I enjoy the rewriting process more than the initial writing itself. I often say that I’m a much better rewriter than a writer. There’s something exciting about watching a clunky, rough first draft slowly become something readable.
And it’s an amazing feeling when other folks talk about characters you’ve created as if they’re real people.
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?
IT: Most successful, hmm… I’ve only recently taken the plunge into the scary world of self-promotion, so everything I know about it couldn’t fill a thimble. But tasteful self-promotion is one of the biggest responsibilities of a brand-new author, and, to me, one of the most difficult skills to learn. I’m a fairly introverted person.
The first thing I did after signing my book contract was to launch a website– that’s an absolute must in this day and age. I’ve tried to maintain a regular blog on the site, too. I also try very hard to participate in the discussions on other writers’ blogs and websites– social networking, in one form or another, is an extremely powerful beast. (I fear it.) My goal is modest. I want to get my name in front of people, so that they might remember it the next time they’re in a book store. Just as importantly, though, I want to do it in a way that doesn’t alienate people. I think it’s far more valuable in the long run to have people know and like you than it is to try to shove your book into their hands in the short term.
TH: Have your reached the point at which you realized that you had “made it” as a writer and author? If so, can you describe the milestone or circumstances? Do you recall how that felt? If not, what is the milestone you’re seeking?
IT: Oh, no, I certainly don’t consider myself firmly established as a writer. That day might not come for a long time! My friend Daniel Abraham likes to say that all writers are gamblers. It’s a strange and unpredictable business. Some people manage to live off their writing, others never achieve that.
I’m not even sure that I could identify such a milestone for myself. I already feel incredibly lucky to be where I am right now. Selling a novel has been a lifelong dream; I didn’t expect it to happen for many years, if ever. So, in that regard, I guess you could say I have made it, because I’m so very fortunate to see a dream fulfilled. It’s difficult for me to think beyond that.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
IT: I don’t think of myself as a brand, but I definitely look upon writing as a business. I treat my writing work as a profession, and I take that very seriously. The successful writers whom I know and admire all treat their writing as a business, and some of them are, in fact, a brand. (Whether they want to be or not!)
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
IT: My first novel, “Bitter Seeds”, which is also the first book of a trilogy called The Milkweed Triptych, is forthcoming from Tor in 2009. The newest Wild Cards novel, “Busted Flush”, hits shelves this December; it includes a story that Bud Simons and I wrote together.
I have three projects on my plate at the moment. I’m working hard on the second Milkweed book, “The Coldest War”. I’m also co-writing a feature film screenplay with Melinda Snodgrass. And I’m writing part of the next Wild Cards novel, “Suicide Kings”, which should be out in November or December 2009.
TH: How do you find that screenwriting and novel writing differ? How are they similar?
IT: Screenwriting is very terse. The mindset is that the screenplay is a shorthand, or perhaps a blueprint, for a story told in a visual medium. Each scene, each line of dialogue, has to push the story forward as efficiently as possible. There’s no room for fat, because you only have a strict number of pages with which to tell your story. It’s true that everything should push the story forward in a novel or short story, too, but even so there’s more room to breathe in that medium. It’s sometimes said that every scene in a story or novel should do at least 2 of these 3 things: develop characters, build setting, and advance plot. Ideally, every scene does all three of these things, but you still have more room to play. But in a screenplay, every scene absolutely must move the plot forward.
More practically, a big difference is that in a screenplay I can write “INT. GOTHIC CATHEDRAL – DAY” and let the set designers worry about what the heck that looks like. For a novel I’d have to do some research and then figure out how to evoke the setting: sunlight streaming through a rosette window, the smell of burning candles, and so forth. That’s a huge relief for me, because I find creating vivid setting descriptions to be one of the hardest parts of novel writing.
But for all their differences, good screenplays and good novels — all good stories, really — hinge on creating characters that people connect with. That’s my theory, anyway.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
IT: Ah, finally, an easy question! The most memorable moment of my writing career (thus far) was when my agent called to tell me that Tor had made an offer on the Milkweed books. I was in New York City at the time, taking a few days to go sightseeing and to visit my agent, as a matter of fact. It was a crisp, clear November day, and I had just come out of the Cloisters. There was a school fieldtrip going on, which meant there were a lot of kids running around outside. I had to hunch down behind a stone bench, with one finger jammed into my ear, in order to hear why my agent had to say. When I finally understood what she was telling me, I stood, stared at the Hudson river, and did a little jig of delight right there on the street. It wasn’t very dignified, I’m afraid.
TH: Did you frighten any children with your jig of delight? Was it a reel, a polka, did you waltz with the lamppost?
IT: It was the Snoopy dance. That’s pretty much the only dance I know. And now that you mention it, the chaperones for that field trip didn’t look too happy.
TH: Have you recognized any particular milestones in your writing abilities along your journey to a publishing deal?
IT: A big thing for me has been the subtle shift in the kind of feedback I receive from my local writing group. Over the past few years their comments on my work have focused less on small-scale technical issues and more on big-picture issues such as story structure. The milestone has been developing enough technical skill that I can spend more time struggling with my nemesis, plot.