Question and Answer with Chris Lodwig

Pre-COVID me writing at work.

Introduction

I do a lot of interviews about Systemic. Many of them are live question and answers, or panel discussions.  Those are my favorites. But there are quite a few that are just questions that folks send me which I dutifully fill out and send back.  I enjoy doing them, but they do get a bit repetitive. I thought it would be fun to just post all the questions I get asked here so you can learn everything you might ever want to know about me in one place.

These are combined and compiled from dozens of interviews, so I apologize if some things get repetitive.

ABOUT ME

Intro and Bio

[Today we’ll be talking with…] Chris Lodwig, who recently published his debut sci-fi novel, Systemic.

Chris lives in Seattle with his wife, daughter, dog, lizard, and an unlikely number of shrimp.

He spent his younger years playing music, throwing illegal parades, adult science fairs, underground Mexican wrestling matches, and bring-your-own art parties. His fifteen minutes of fame came from clandestinely installing a monolith in a local park in 2001 (get it?).

He writes science fiction, volunteers and his daughter’s school, fly fishes, and runs the neighborhood haunted alley. In his free time, he works for a major technology company in the Seattle area.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

I started writing when I was in high school, but I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was in college. I used to smoke cigarettes and hang out in cafés drinking coffee until 1 AM. I wrote a ton of bad poetry, a few short stories, a full-length novel called Heroes. The book was long on beautiful descriptions and twenty-two-year-old philosophy but very short on plot, or character development. It was a My Dinner with Andre meets Harold and Maude sort of thing about a guy who washed dishes at a fancy restaurant. A weird book. Not a good book. I had a couple other half-written novels lying around as well.  Then I got a good job and a family, and I pretty much forgot about writing.

Fast forward twenty years and I was on the bus coming home from work. My computer died and my phone died, and I couldn’t work or doom scroll. Suddenly this image came into my head along with a bunch of interesting-sounding words to describe it. I remembered how much I used to love to write. So, I got out a pen and note pad and I started writing. On the way home that day, I wrote the first scene of Systemic. Then I just kept writing. Nine months later I had a book. Once you have a decent book it’s sort of silly not to finish it and make it a great book.

Is there anything you want to share with potential readers?

My book for starters, and all the things about it that I personally enjoyed. I like that Systemic is technically a sci-fi novel, but that the sci-fi is somewhat in the background serving the plot, rather than being the focus and obsession of the book. I like that it mostly takes place in wide open spaces and small towns rather than the crowded megalopolises standard to the genre. I love my characters and I feel for them. And lastly, I want to share that excited, “Oh, that’s a really cool idea!” feeling I got time and time again while the story was coming to me.

What projects do you have up and coming?

I’m about 350 pages into the sequel to Systemic. I like to say Systemic is my pre-apocalyptic book, and the sequel is its post-apocalyptic sibling. There are three main story lines, the first of which picks up Lem and Eryn’s story where Systemic left off. The other arcs deal with an outcast girl learning from the book that showed up in the end of Systemic, and a band of professors who have turned the Systemic writings into a psudo-religion and travel around like itinerant preachers teaching it to the masses.

What is something you hate about the world.

I hate how predictable the outcome of the prisoner’s dilemma always is.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?

I remember thinking I wanted to be in the military because my father was, and that just seemed like the thing to do. As I grew up, it quickly became apparent to everyone that that was not really who I was going to be.

In high school I wanted to be an architect or civil engineer, but due to some pretty short-sighted choices my senior year, I didn’t do well on the math section of my SATs, which rippled across my future and put engineering to bed. 

In college I decided I wanted to be a writer.  I actually remember telling my parents that I was probably going to be a broke writer for the rest of my life. About two months after that I got hired at Microsoft.

Since then, I’ve wanted to be a teacher. I would love to do that. But they pay teachers such criminally low wages in the United States that I couldn’t afford it. Becoming a middle school science teacher would require me going back to school for 2 to 4 more years, incurring the requisite debt, then taking a ¾ pay cut. I couldn’t live in Seattle or feed my family on that. I’m going to stick with high-tech until I retire.

I never would have predicted that for myself.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Don’t try so damn hard. Write what comes easily to you because that it what you’re truly interested in. If it’s crap you can edit it later. You can even throw it away.

THE BOOK

What is this book about

Systemic was released June 28th 2020

The book is somewhere between a utopia and dystopia depending on who you ask. It takes place several generations in the future. We’ve created a super-massive AI and for years, it’s been solving all of society’s problems. But what happens to us when we don’t have any problems left to solve?

The story itself focuses on three strangers who are each making a pilgrimage to a small town in the middle of the Sagelands called Prower. Maik is chasing the woman he loves, Eryn hopes to make it home, and Lem is seeking revenge against the AI that’s hosted in the town’s data center.

Without giving too much away, no one knows the real reasons they’re headed to Prower, but it has something to do with solving the problem of us not having any more problems.

Why did you write systemic

There were a few ideas I was interested in exploring, things I think about a lot that I wanted to get down on paper and structure a story around.

I’m a bit obsessed with the vagaries of memory. We all like to think our memories record facts and play them back verbatim, but that’s not true. Our memories job is to tell us stories about our past that keep us alive. Your memory doesn’t care if it has to insert and embellish. In fact, it turns out we don’t remember the actual events of the past at all. Rather, we remember the last time we remembered the same event. Our memories are disturbingly untrustworthy, and yet we build our entire reality on them.

Also, I am completely horrified by the current political environment, and the willful destruction of truth. I was thinking—and still am thinking—about whether and how we can ever get back to a place where we have a general agreement about facts. I tried to imagine something that could solve that problem; a generally accepted non-partisan arbiter of truth, and the System was born. Along with the many things that it does, the System deep fact-checks whatever you ask it to. In the book, “Systemic” is synonymous with “true” or “correct”, hence the title.

How did you come up with the title for your book?

The AI in the book is called “The System,” which I was pretty embarrassed about for a while because it seems so cliché and silly. But the way the story played out, it was called that because, when it was in the lab that’s how the engineers referred to it. As an engineer myself, I can attest to the fact that we call our machines “Systems” all the time. So while it was definitely cliché it was also accurate, and fit the story really well.

One of the things the System excels at is telling fact from fiction. In fact, its ability to validate news and gossip is how it got a toehold in human society.  After a while the term “Systemic” came to mean “true” or “valid”.  So, I named the book “Systemic” because, within the novel itself it means “true.” I thought that was really neat, a cool sci-fi sounding word, that had a double meaning. It made a good working title, but I figured there had to be a million sci-fi books called Systemic, it was just too obvious. I looked. There weren’t any. It was almost too good to be true. I kept the name.

How long did it take you to write this book?

I wrote the first draft really quickly, or at least it felt that way to me. I have a more-than-fulltime job already, plus a family and many other things going on in my life.  So, the fact that I wrote the draft of a 530-page book in 9 months seemed pretty fast.

Then, I spent the better part of two years editing it and getting beta reader feedback.  All told, from first word to hitting the publish button, it probably took me two and a half years.

Talk about Systemic. It specifically deals with AI and the possible problems from it. What parallels did you draw between the AI that exists in society today and what you feature in your story?

I wasn’t trying to draw a direct line between AIs that exist today. I was more playing with the caricature of AIs that exist in other books and popular culture. I wanted it to be as powerful and all-knowing as the standard dystopian future AI, but then say, “But we applied Asimov’s laws of robotics, so it’s a good guy!” and see what happens in that world.

That said, AIs are doing some crazy things already. They create music and movie scripts, albeit not very good ones. They improve crop yields, identify genetic diseases, and drive cars. Just the other day one of my readers sent me an article that some grad students created an AI that can distinguish between conspiracy theories and actual conspiracies. Then you get into things like the Google AI’s “dreaming” and learning about cats by just crawling around on the web, and my book suddenly doesn’t seem very far-fetched.  And if I’m being honest, there was part of me that was in a hurry to get the book published before it felt too derivative of reality and wasn’t very science fictiony anymore.

Which characters in your book are the most similar to you or the people you know?

I can honestly say that no character in the book was me, or anyone I know.  There are certainly traits of certain folks who remind me of aspects of my characters, but I didn’t base them on anyone in particular.

Maik is a little like me when I was in my early twenties. A little too quick to fall in love with random girls he meets at bars. When I was twenty, I did save up money by not eating on Monday’s so I could buy gas to drive down to Eugene Oregon to visit a girl I liked. My brother-in-law told me once that he stopped shaving to save money so he could be with a girl. Maik did both of those things.

I wanted Eryn to be awesome. There were a lot of funny cool independent young women I knew when I was in college who were tough and outdoorsy. I wanted her to be like them. So, she’s sort of an amalgamation of those women, the type of person who would be fun to go to Burning Man with.

Lem is sort of every insecure paranoid thought I ever have smooshed into one self-sabotaging disaster of a person.

So, none of them are me, or anyone I know, but in another way, all of them are.

Would you and your main characters get along?

I like them all quite a bit. Eryn is the one I would probably like to hang out with the most. She’s the most adventurous and funny. Thomas is wise, intelligent, fatherly, and hospitable. He drinks good whisky and reads books. Maik is cool, but he’s also a bit dramatic, but he’s passionate, and I respect that. I can relate to him. Lem I would most likely go drinking with and listen to him complain about life. I would care a lot about him, but I bet it would be a one-way sort of relationship. It was hard to make him likeable, because I always liked him. Most people found him decidedly unlikeable at first.

What is the one thing you want readers to take away from this story?

There were a lot of ideas that I was playing around with in the book, from the vagaries of human memory, to why the future only ever seems to happen in giant megalopolises. I would love people to think about those things and geek out about them like I do. I love nothing more than getting a drink with someone who’s read Systemic and have them say, “Isn’t memory weird…” But the idea that I was most interested in conveying, the question I would most like people to think about is what makes a human content? I have this feeling, that we look at happiness as a matter of removing things that cause us to suffer. So if I could remove heart break or war or hunger or traffic I would find happiness. And I don’t think that’s true at all. In the book, I posit that we derive our meaning from the very pursuit of solutions to those problems, and therefore solving them—especially if we outsource that solution—will counterintuitively make us miserable.  I think people should engage with the problems around them. They might not find happiness exactly, but they have a chance of finding meaning, and thereby contentment.

What was your hardest scene to write and why?

Probably the big reveal.  It’s such an important moment in the book, and so many threads all had to come together at the same time. Because I discovery-wrote the book, I was as surprised as anyone about the moment and what happened. It was easy to come up with it. But once I understood what was going on and why, I needed to support it. I had to continually go back through the entire book to reinforce the moment, laying the right hints to make it work, or developing the characters to make them believable, writing and rewriting the lead up, so I could get all the characters into the right place at the right time in the right frame of mind. It felt like remodeling a room in the middle of an old house.  Once I had that all figured out, I needed to get the pacing right to give it a sort of action movie feel with quick takes and accelerated pacing. Finally, and probably most difficult of all, I needed to write dialog that didn’t feel stilted and expository.  Getting that one scene to work probably took up 15% of my editing time.  

What is a significant way your book has changed since the first draft? (Spoiler alert)

The book has a lot to do with memory and the ways that memories work. How they tend to be more emotional than factual. At any rate, when I first started writing I had a lot to get out and so I just wrote like mad. I didn’t take the time to write dialog or give people names. I realized that all the folks who only existed in the characters’ memories didn’t have names. They were, Lem’s wife, or Eryn’s mother etc.  And there were no direct quotes. Just things like: They talked about why she had to leave, and how there was a whole life waiting for her in Prower. Things like that. It was accidental at first, but then I came to believe it was really clever. My editor informed me that, yes it was very clever, but it was also terrible and would drive people crazy. So, I went back and gave everyone names—even though they aren’t actual names—and I gave them real words to speak. It made me very sad, but she was entirely right. 

What perspectives or beliefs have you challenged with this work?

There were two ideas I was interested in poking at with this book.

The first had to do with the idea of Dystopia itself. So much of the AI trope in Sci-Fi is about our horrible AI overlords getting loose taking over the world and enslaving humanity. I wanted to see what would happen if the AI got loose in the world and was actually a radical force for good. Would it still be a dystopia if our AI overlords are kind and give us everything we could hope for? In short, yes, but not for the reasons you might think.  Turns out we can make ourselves plenty miserable without the help of technology, thank you very much.

I’m also really obsessed with how the mind and memory work to construct reality.  There is an almost infinite list of factoids about memory I could point to as being mind-blowingly crazy. But just to poke at one: We think that we remember events and people as they occurred, but really, we remember the last time we remembered something. Every time we recall something and then put it back into storage when we’re done, we corrupt it a little. So, counter intuitively, the more often we recall something the less accurately we remember it. I had a lot of fun playing with concepts like that in Systemic.

What age group do you think best describes your reader? Why?

Systemic is more about characters ideas and mood than spaceships and laser beams. The book has a pretty big “What does it all mean!?” component to it.  So, an ideal reader would be someone who likes to think about consciousness and the theory of mind and ideas about human nature and society. If you like Philip K. Dick, or Black Mirror, or Tales from the Loop, this is a book for you.

The book has a slow build, so if you want a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants adventure, you won’t be sorry you read it, but you will have to be patient and wait for the second half of the book.

Nothing particularly bad happens in the book. There’s a little swearing and a couple allusions to sex, but other than that, it’s a pretty safe read. That said, the subject matter and the pacing of it might be a bit hard for a kid. I’d say it’s for readers around 17 and up. Though my 11-year-old nephew read it and seemed to like it, so who’s to say

What risks have you taken with your writing that have paid off?

There was never a time when I said something like, “They told me chocolate would never go with peanut butter, but I knew in my heart it would be great!” That said, dedicating as much of my time, emotions, and brain power to an image that just popped into my head on the bus one day felt like a risk.  Letting other people read what I’d written, soliciting feedback, getting an editor and taking the whole thing seriously. Letting the story wander around where it wanted and trusting that something brilliant would pop out of it, that was a risk too.  Each of those things were scary, and each of them paid off.

WRITING PROCESS

What inspires you to write?

I love when I have an image, or situation, or idea in my mind that I want to explain, and I have to struggle at it. I might try twenty different ways to get at the idea, and then, when I get it right, I go, “ah, that’s what I wanted to say.” I get this little shot of dopamine or oxytocin. It’s a bit addictive. And then, when I’m done and someone else reads it, and they get what I’m saying or see what I’m showing them, it’s the closest thing to telepathy I can imagine this side of the technologies I write about in my stories.

Are you a plotter or a pantser? A gardener or an architect?

Yes.

For Systemic I was definitely a write-by-the-seat-of-my-pantser. That whole book just spilled out of me. Now that I know the broader arc that Systemic fits into, I’ve become much more of a plotter. I worry sometimes that the much more ridged structure of the sequel will make it less organic. But I also think it will give the whole thing better bones to start with and might make the editing process much quicker. But I’m still learning, and I have to try new things. I’ll let you know how it all turns out when I’m done.

Tell us about your writing process

For Systemic I was a discovery writer, which was really fun. I had no idea at first where the story was going. Writing felt a lot like reading, so every day was exciting, interesting, and surprising. But there were a lot of problems with writing that way. I had to go back and edit and restructure the manuscript to death once my beta readers and editors got a hold of it. There were just some parts of the story that didn’t work very well and the corrections had to be retrofitted in. The result is something I’m extremely proud of, but it took a ton of effort.

For the sequel, I decided to outline the whole thing and make sure all my characters had believable motivations, backstories, etc. I think that the sequel will be a better crafted story, but I do worry that it might lack some of the sense of wonder that made its way into Systemic.

One of the things I like to talk about when discussing process are the tools I use and the ways that I use them. There are different stages of writing, and different styles of prose within the body of the work. I’ve found that some tools may be better suited to a given task, so I switch between them continually.

Here are all the different tools I use and how I find them most useful.

Writing by hand, produces flowing beautiful prose. It’s also good for getting at nagging ideas that have slivered their way deep into my cranium and need to get worked back up to the surface.

Writing on my phone is my second favorite way to write. Oddly, it’s almost as flowy as writing by hand. I wrote probably 70% of Systemic on the bus using my thumbs. Since both Word and Google Docs are in the cloud, you can work on your story on your phone while commuting, then hop on to your computer the second you get home and all your changes are already there.

I also use dictation a lot because it’s very fast. I described a huge portion of the outline of my new book aloud just to get it down as quickly as it was coming to me.

Right now, I’m fleshing out the outline of the sequel to Systemic.  There are lots of characters inhabiting different places and timelines, and there are at least three major story arcs. I have a massive glossary of terms, and descriptions of world building, and character sheets. I use Scrivener to keep all of that straight since it has a million different useful features for novel writing. 

Once I’m happy with it, I’ll output it to a Word doc, do another editing pass to smooth it out. Then I’ll read the entire book aloud to my wife. I have always been of the opinion that the written word should be read aloud as part of the refinement process. Your ear will pick up on unnatural phrases and reused words etc, that your eyes never will. I also have begun using Word’s “Read Aloud” feature for this same purpose.

How much research did you do for your book?

That depends what qualifies as research. I would say I do research continually in little ways every day while I’m writing. This involves looking up things like the various parts of a train, or the types of plants or rocks that exist where the book was set. I always have a google map open to judge times and distances. For the more technical aspects of the book, things like AIs, or chemical engineering, I speak to friends that are experts in those fields.  Not sure that any of that really counts as research. In the end, I probably came away with about thirty pages of notes.  I’m having to do a lot more research for the sequel.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

I think my interesting writing quirk, if I have one, is that I often write on my phone. I find that opening up Google Docs or Word while I’m on the bus on my phone is actually really fast and flowy. It reminds me a lot of writing long hand. About 70% of Systemic was written with my thumbs.

Do you listen to or talk to your characters?

In a way, yes. I tend to speak their lines aloud while I’m writing them, and I give them permission to get away from me and say unexpected things. But I don’t talk to them about random things like the price of gas, good movies, or politics.

Mostly I visualize them. I see their body posture, or the way expressions look on their faces. I always want to know what they’re doing with their hands, and which direction they’re facing in a room. And of course I always want to know how they’re feeling.

How did you decide how to publish your books?

I self-published. There is the sort of punk-rock DIY aspect to it that I really like. But then there are sales. It’s really hard to get your book noticed in a sea of other books. I knew that going into it. But I figured the chances of any publisher wanting a forty something first time writer with no history, no social media presence, and no desire to quit their day job, seemed low. So, I left it up to fate. I researched a dozen or so publishers and sent them query letters. If one of them showed interest, great, if not, I would just self-publish. None did, so here I am. In hindsight I wish I would have tried a little bit harder, but I just didn’t have the patience for it.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?

That I had it in me to write a good book. That was really surprising. At first, I didn’t have the expectation that I was going to finish a book. I figured I’d just keep writing until I got bored. I was literally surprised every day by the things that happened in my book. For instance, I didn’t know I was writing a sci-fi novel until I was about 90 pages in. There’s a twist about ¾ of the way through the book and I did not know that was going to happen until the moment I wrote it. So, I guess what I learned is that there are things happening inside my mind that even I’m not aware of.

How important was professional editing to your book’s development?

Very. I had a wonderful editor. She was very kind but forthcoming about issues with the book. I guess I would call that supportive. I really didn’t know much about editing when I handed my manuscript off to her. She was great about telling me when things did or didn’t work, where the action lagged, when the character’s motivations didn’t make sense. All the hard block and tackle stuff that matters to composing a good story that I hadn’t ever considered. Not only did she make my story tighter, characters more believable and likeable, she probably taught me more about writing in the process than any book I’d ever read or class I’d ever taken. 

What do you need in your writing space to help you stay focused?

Not much really. I write all over the place. I often write on the bus, or while I’m walking or in cafes or in one of several room in my house.

I mostly just need no one to talk to me. Noise cancelling headphones help.

Have you ever traveled as research for your book?

In a way yes, and no. I’ve found that the settings in System came from various places I’d been. For example, there is a hotel I go to every year in Priest Lake Idaho with my buddy when he and I take our kids skiing.  Last year I showed up and was surprised to find that it was the template for the Prower Hotel. And all the small towns like Hamer Falls are places I’d driven through in the western United States. But I didn’t travel specifically to write about the places. The closest thing I’ve ever done to that, is my wife and I drove out to Monroe Washington and back so I could take pictures of the highway so I could describe the journey for my next book.

What’s your favorite writing snack or drink?

I only ever drink coffee while writing. Sometimes—if I’m lucky—I get to eat an omelet or a nice pastry in a café.

Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?

I try to write a book that I enjoy writing. Then I go back and am pretty harsh on myself. I try to weed out things that are cliché or trite. I like to ask myself questions like, “Why not make the AI the good guy?” or “why wouldn’t the future of the world hinge on a non-descript building in a rural area? It actually makes more sense in a way.” I find those ideas interesting, and they are sort of original, but I don’t really strive for originality for its own sake, I got over that a long time ago. But I also don’t tailor my story to my readers. I don’t do research and figure out what sells or anything like that.

I have three friends who give me great book recommendations, my brother-in-law, my cousin, and my co-worker. I want to make those three people happy. If I do, then I know I would probably like my own book.

At the end of the day, I just want my readers to enjoy what I write as much as I enjoyed writing it.

What is your kryptonite as a writer?

Donald Trump. I’m serious. That guy took up so much of my headspace for so long. I just felt hopeless and outraged all the time. My phone would buzz and there would be some news alert about some new outrage or existential horror that he was promulgating, and I just couldn’t think straight.  The day after he left office, my writing throughput jumped 300%.

I’m not kidding.

My influences    

What influenced you to write your genres?

Dystopia

I didn’t want Systemic to be a standard dystopia where the government was horrible, or the AIs have taken over the world and are feeding us to each other or some such thing. I wanted it to take place in a golden age—a near perfect realization of the techno-utopian ideal—and explore how terrible even that would be.

I think that the dystopia/utopian combination of Systemic captures the two halves of my world view. On one hand I’m an optimist. I love humanity, and believe deeply in the ability for science, engineering, and human ingenuity to solve the world’s problems. On the other hand, I think that the more we lean on our technology the less there will be for us to do. I fear idleness and the meaninglessness that comes with it. Humans are creators, workers, and problem solvers. The less of that we do, the more a sense of ennui will creep into our lives. So I think, in a way, the book is a warning to myself and other techno-optimists that, even a world without problems will have unintended consequences.

Sci-fi

Systemic became sci-fi out of necessity more than anything else.  I honestly didn’t know I was writing a sci-fi novel until I was 90 pages or so into the first draft. It was just the way the world needed to work so I could tell the story as it unfolded. I either needed advanced technology or magic, and I read quite a bit more sci-fi and actual science than fantasy, so it felt more natural to me.

Who are some of the people that influenced your love of writing?

There were teachers of course. Two in particular, when I was in middle school in Italy, Ms. Hewitt, who for some reason decided I was an interesting kid, and Dr. Tachella who made us all learn unabridged Shakespeare plays in the 6th 7th and 8th grade.

The person who made me think I could actually write a book was Ramez Naam. Mez and I go pretty far back to our 20s. We knew each other and he was actually my first boss out of college. One day I found out that he wrote a book called Nexus. I checked it out and it was great. Mez is an extraordinary person in a lot of ways but something about the fact that he could write a book—several actually—made me believe books weren’t written by magic story elves somewhere. It made me want to try it.

I think the writer I most emulate is Phillip K Dick. I like the way he was always playing with ideas of consciousness and the capricious nature of reality. I think a lot of that made its way into my book. I had read Station 11 by Emily St John Mandel pretty early on when I was writing Systemic, and while the story doesn’t have a lot in common with Ms. Mandel’s novel, I think it has a very similar atmosphere. It’s empty and sparse in a similar way.

Who are some of your favorite Authors?

This changes all the time but there are a couple that stick around. Neil Gaiman is always great, and Neal Stephenson. I love how Philip K. Dick was always playing around with reality and consciousness. Cormac McCarthy writes like no other human alive. China Miéville’s pretty remarkable as well. I never think I like Stephen King, but then I’m wrong. There are a ton of authors I’ve been reading lately who will certainly become favorites given time. Gareth L Powell, Iain M. Banks, N. K. Jemisin, and John Scalzi to name a few. I just ready Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, and she instantly became one of my favorite writers.

If you could spend a day with another author, who would you choose.

Ramez Naam would be fun, but that’s because I happen to know he is truly a ton of fun, and is a wonderful human being. That’s sort of cheating. I think Gareth L Powel would be neat. Not only because I love his books, but because he seems like a kind intelligent guy. He also mentioned that he wants to go get a sandwich at Katz’ Deli in New York. I also want to do that. We seem to like a lot of the same music.  So we’d probably have at least a meal’s worth of interesting conversation between the two of us.

What are your favorite books?

The book I force on every young person is Ender’s Game. That book probably turned me on to reading and sci-fi in particular. Dune is so epic and vast it blows my mind. Blood Meridian is the most beautifully written and wrenchingly horrible book I’ve ever read. Moby Dick’s not bad either. But I love all sorts of books for all sorts of reasons. Currently the books that have me pounding the table and shouting at people to read them are: The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill which is incredibly charming. Erin Morgenstern’s, the Night Circus wins for atmosphere, and Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor was refreshingly original as was Gideon the Ninth.

Who are your favorite literary characters?

I’m a bit of a sucker for anyone who starts out assuming they are one thing and then discovers they’re something else entirely. Paul Atreides from Dune, Bagginses both Bilbo and Frodo.

I appreciate anyone who points out the ridiculousness of life like Yossarian from Catch 22, Don Quixote, or the odious Ignatius J. Reilly from Confederacy of Dunces.

And I’ll always have a soft spot for characters who embody a childlike joyfulness like Fyrian the Dragon from The Girl Who Drank the Moon, or Wilbur the pig from Charlotte’s web.

And then there’s Owen Meanie, and however he fits into things.

What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?

I have a couple of friends who write. Critiquing their work puts mine in perspective. Beta reading and editing their work is really helpful. I have to ask why this or that doesn’t work, and I see the same things in my writing.

My one real author friend is Ramez Naam. He wrote the Nexus series and a bunch of non-fiction stuff as well. He helped me mostly by being some random dude I used to work with and go to Burning Man with who wrote a bunch of novels. He made me realize it was possible. Then he beta-read my book and gave me really good advice. He even wrote the blurb on the back of the book. He’s a generous soul.

Advice and other random stuff

If you had one piece of advice for an aspiring Author, what would it be?

Write. A lot. I don’t mean hone your craft (though you should) I literally mean write as much volume as you can.

I think the hardest thing about writing, aside from just making the time to do it, is writer’s block. And I think writer’s block comes from our desire to write something amazing. Then the thing that falls out of our brains is just some quivering pink embryo of an idea and we’re a bit too grossed out or ashamed to commit it to paper. But I’m a firm believer that writing is a lot like sculpting. You need to have a block of words so that you have something to carve away. Let yourself write crap, just make sure to write a lot of it. No one needs to see anything you’ve written until you decide to show them. The number of days I start off writing something like “So, what are you trying to do here? You’ve got character X in situation Y and she’s panicked. Why is she panicked?  Well…let me think about that…perhaps…” I literally write things like that all the time. And generally, about one or two paragraphs in, and I’m off to the races. Then I go back and delete all the hemming and hawing later. Just be glad we aren’t dealing with quills and parchment. It’s very liberating.

What does your family think of your writing?

They’re extremely supportive and great. But I make it easy on them, since they almost never see me write. I wrote most of Systemic on the bus or at work in the mornings or in the middle of the night. So, to them it’s like a book just materialized. My writing time is pretty unintrusive. 

My wife is great because she doesn’t tend to like sci-fi and doesn’t pull any punches. When we walk around the neighborhood, I’ll tell her some cool idea I have, and she never lets it stand on coolness alone. She asks me questions about the characters, and why this or that thing would happen. She calls BS on me a lot and I need that.  So, when she read Systemic and told me it was good, not “for a sci-fi novel” but just good, it gave me a lot of faith in the book.

My daughter is a lot of fun to talk to about my writing, when she’s not too busy being a teen-ager. I’ll tell her something and she’ll say, “you need an old lady in this chapter” (turned into Eileen) or a dog (became Sadie) or a rattlesnake (Lem at the foot of the ridge).  She also helped me develop some of the early ideas about the System by asking me how the AI felt.

Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?

I love people and ideas and conversations. I find out a lot of new and interesting things about Systemic from my readers, things even I did not realize. So, I would love to talk to more of them.

I have a ton of friends who’ve read the book, and they ask me questions about it all the time, which is really fun. If Covid ever goes away I’ve been invited to talk to various book clubs which I’m really looking forward to.  I get strangers reaching out to me to tell me they enjoyed it, which is exciting as well. Then there are the reviews on Amazon, Good Reads, and Audible which are consistently positive. That feels good.

I find there are two types of readers, first-halfers and second-halfers. First-halfers tend to comment on my descriptions, character development, and mood. Second-halfers tend to tell me that the pacing at the beginning of the book—when I’m setting up the characters setting and mood—was a bit slow, but get really excited by the twists and turns and action that ramps up in the second half of the book.

Out of all the books you have written which is your favorite and why?

My favorite book is—far and away—Systemic, but I’ve only ever written two books. The first one I wrote in college. It was beautifully written, it really was. But it was terrible. The whole plot is awful and the characters are awful. But I was twenty and depressed. It’s just what happens.

What do you think makes a good story?

I think what makes a good story is hope. It could be hope about nearly anything. For me, I think it’s hope for change, or that some bit of hidden knowledge will be revealed that will help make sense of the world. Which isn’t to say that a good story needs to be optimistic. Sometimes the truth that gets revealed or the change someone goes through can be pretty dark. But watching someone go through some trial and come out the other side transformed, or having had an epiphany, I think we all hope that can happen. I’m not brilliant for having noticed this. It feels like the one story we’re always telling ourselves. Once you have the spine of the story down, after that, it’s about building characters and worlds where things happen that we find interesting, or clever, or beautiful; something that presents us with ideas we hadn’t thought of on our own.

If you could pick one actor to play a character in your book in the movie version, who would it be?

I image Amandla Stenberg playing Eryn. But other than that, I’ve not really thought of it. Sort of like I didn’t know what my cover would look like, or what my narrator would sound like, until it was done. I am delighted by what happens when people with amazing skills are allowed to bring their talents to bear on a project. So far that attitude has made my book better than I ever could have done on my own. So, if there is a talented casting director out there, I would love to talk to you.

What song best describes your book and why?

The song that jumps to mind is Horse With No Name by America. It’s kind of a weird mysterious song about being in the desert, and that jibes well with Systemic’s mood. The fact that the horse in the song had no name also fits with the story pretty well. I’ve always liked that song, but it’s not the sort of music I listen to on a regular basis, and it’s definitely not the sort of music I listened to when I was writing Systemic, but it definitely fits the bill.

What would you like to say to friends and family of writers (not just your own)?

Give writers space. My family was wonderful the entire time I was writing, and it was amazing.

Also, you don’t do anyone favors by telling them that their manuscript is “good” or that “you liked it.” If your local writer can’t take criticism and recognize that it comes from a good place, I don’t think they will make it very far. Don’t get me wrong, you shouldn’t go around crushing anyone’s spirits. Sharing your writing is an extremely vulnerable act, so don’t be mean. But be honest and constructive or beg off giving feedback at all. I had to hear a lot of people say a lot of uncomfortable things about my story through the editing and beta reading process. Luckily, I’m the type of person who can see a well-made point and I was able to make some pretty painful changes based on sound advice and that made my story a million times better. So be kind, be supportive, but be honest.

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