We interviewed over a dozen writers, artists, and social activists at the 2015 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Check out our interviews with Mallory Ortberg, Tavis Smiley, Cynthia Bond, Karen Bender, Robert Putnam, Lalo Alcaraz, and Octavia Spencer, and stay tuned for upcoming interviews with Issa Rae, Heidi Julavits, Amber Tamblyn, and many more.
MICHELE BOTWIN RAPHAEL: In your most recent novel, Lock In, you address disability, gender, and sexuality. What was your inspiration for creating a protagonist with gender-questionable identity, and why was that important?
JOHN SCALZI: Well, I wanted to create a non-gender specific main character because, one, it was a writing challenge. We always assign gender to our characters because we tend to think of genders as binary. In fact, if you spend any time with gender-queer people, you know that it kind of exists on a spectrum. So, the more time I’ve spent with them, the more I’ve come to realize that the boxes of male and female really don’t describe everything. It was fun for me to be thinking in that mindset of “if I was going to write a character where gender wasn’t specified, how would I do it?”
Now, Lock In has a conceit of there’s this disease that sweeps the globe, and it locks in one percent of the population into their bodies so that in order for them to be out in the world they have to use these android bodies to move around. In a really intriguing way, that made it possible to have a main character whose gender is never specified, because if you’re walking around in an android body, the android body is neither male nor female; it is simply an android body. For someone who’s always been locked in, who’s had this syndrome, which is called Haden’s syndrome, they won’t necessarily think of gender the way that typical people do — that there’s male, that there’s female.
It’s been really interesting for me because people bring to the character their own defaults. Guys will almost always think that Chris is a guy. Women will frequently think that Chris is a woman. It’s been interesting in a way that is subtle because I don’t beat people over the head with it — there’s no point in doing that — but it’s been fun to see people read the character, identify with the character, put their thoughts into the character, and then later figure out that the gender’s never specified and what that means to them. As a writer, that was a lot of fun to do.
It wasn’t only just gender. It was also race.
It was also disability, because the “Hadens,” of which Chris was one, are a disability culture. They are locked in to their bodies; they are very seriously not like other people around. To put that into the world of the book and to have people be thinking about that as they read along was interesting to do. Now, when you do that — I mean, look at me. I’m white, I’m male, and you won’t know just by looking at me but I’m also straight. It’s always a thing that when you are writing the other and you happen to be this particular combination of things that you have to be aware of your own assumptions and failings and so on and so forth.
My friend Mary Anne has talked about writing the other, and for people who are white or straight or male or whatever, their grand sum of attributes is, she says, “You will fail. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it, and you should learn when you fail and how to do it better.” So, when I was writing Chris, I was aware that there was a very high possibility that I would fail in some way or another and that people would call me on it and that my response should not be “Well no, but …” but be “Okay, do it better next time,” or at least not make the same mistakes. If I’m going to fail again, I want to fail in all new ways.
One of your Twitter followers wanted to know if you are planning on a sequel to Lock In?
The answer is probably. This is actually a scoop for you because I have not actually spoken about this to anybody officially yet.
Now you’re often in LA and Hollywood for the development aspect of your books. It’s quite phenomenal that you currently have three projects in development — can you talk about them? And has that aspect of your work shaped the way in which you approach writing a new book?
So, to address the first question, we do have three deals in process right now. One is for Old Man’s War and that’s currently at SyFy. That’s chugging along as far as I know. Redshirts was at FX. Lock In is with Legendary TV. Again, all of these things are in development, and you never count your chickens when it comes to Hollywood because you just never know. The advice that I give to anybody in this particular situation is just enjoy the process; learn from it, find out how it works, and don’t be sitting there waiting for things to happen, just be happy when they do — if they do.
In terms of how it’s affected my writing: the funny thing is I was a film critic professionally before I did anything else. I got my first job out of college as a film critic for a newspaper. So, for about five and a half years I had to look at cinematic storytelling and I had to break it down. I had to say why it worked and why it didn’t work. In some sort of sense, a lot of my storytelling comes from cinema and comes from the cinematic grammar. I think — rather than “has my stuff being optioned affected the way that I write?” — that it’s more the fact that the way that I wrote, because it was grounded in that cinematic grammar, made it easier for me to sell it to Hollywood. I do write stuff and think “is this something that’s adaptable or not?” But to be clear, I write the stories I want to write because otherwise I would be bored. If you write a novel or a story to sell it to Hollywood, that story is automatically going to fail because you’re not focusing on the genre and the medium that you’re working in; you’re trying to get it somewhere else. You have to focus on what you’re doing and make it as good as you can in that medium before you do anything else.
What have you been working on since Lock In?
I was really proud of Lock In, but one of the things I couldn’t do in the novel because I was busy telling a story was to really go into the world building. Lock In takes place in the near future, and when you do the near future you have to make a plausible extension from modern day to 30 or 40 years in the future. So, I built all this stuff into this world that logically explained how we got from A to B, but I couldn’t show it all in the book. So, after I was done writing the novel, I was like, “I want to do something with all this stuff.” So, I wrote this novella that was an oral history of the Haden’s syndrome, which is the disease that affects the characters in the book. Basically, I did it so I can say to people, “See, look. This is all the work I did in this world. Isn’t it impressive?” The novella did come out before the novel, and in many ways it was people’s first encounter with it and made them interested in reading the novel. In many ways it was fun for me to do as a writer, but it also served the purpose of marketing for the book and that was very useful.
Also, earlier this year a graphic novel and a video game that I wrote were released. The video game was called Midnight Star. It’s a first-person shooter for tablets. There was an accompanying graphic novel called Midnight Rises, which tells the story of the characters that are in the video game just before the events of the video game itself. What was fun about that was both the video game and the graphic novel were developed at the same time. So, it wasn’t like we did the video game and backfilling to do something else. We really developed them both simultaneously to be equal participants in that world. That made it a lot more fun to write, and, as a writer, because I was writing on the video game and the graphic novel, I really was able to integrate the two of them very, very well. Also, recently I finished the next novel in the Old Man’s War sequence — it’s the sixth novel in the series. It’s called The End of All Things.
It’s wonderful watching you consistently embrace new technology and combinations of technology.
The simple fact of the matter is that we’re in a really exciting time for publishing. Though exciting can be euphemistic, as in it can be really cool or it can be very stress-inducing. Some people are like, “Oh, I don’t trust electronic publishing or self-publishing,” but I just see it as a whole bunch of opportunities to do lots of different things. For example, The End of All Things and The Human Division (the most recent books in the Old Man’s War series) were released in episodes electronically before we compiled it into a finished novel. Part of the reason to do that is to basically see what the market is, to see what the market does. Are people interested in serialized or episodic fiction like that? If they are, what does that mean for us moving forward? Because it might be in the future that you release stuff serialized much more than we do now. It’s something we did back in the 19th century. Dickens did it, Twain did it, Dostoevsky did it. Certainly, serialization is a big thing in science fiction fantasy, which is the field in which I work. So, you basically try new things, you see what sticks and what doesn’t.
I also like to commission musicians to write songs based on the books I write. William Beckett, the former lead singer of The Academy Is …, wrote a song for Lock In. For Redshirts, Jonathan Coulton, who is a nerd rocker, wrote a song called “Redshirt.” It’s been great because you release those a couple weeks beforehand, and it raises awareness of your book in a way that is interesting to people. It also taps into the musician’s own fan base; they’re excited that there’s a new song from one of their favorite artists, and then they become interested in the book as well. So you have a lot of cross-pollination.
Everything changes. The question is, how do you approach that change: are you terrified of it, do you embrace it, do you see it as an opportunity? Generally speaking, I see it as an opportunity. There are some things I like, there are some things I don’t like, but at the end of the day these things are going to happen whether or not I like them. The question then becomes: how can I make this work in my favor, how can I make it work for my audience, and how can we get it together so that no matter what I get to continue writing and they get to continue reading. That’s the question for me.
Speaking of things you don’t like, what happened with the recent Hugo brouhaha?
The Hugo brouhaha! Basically what happened with the Hugos, which are the science fiction and fantasy awards, was that there was a group of people, two separate but related groups in that they were kind of compatriots that created a slate of works for people to vote for whether or not they had actually read that work. One group was a “Sad Puppies” slate — this is what they actually called themselves — which were people who believed that writers who are politically conservative and writers who write science fiction and fantasy that is more old-fashioned as opposed to something more thoughtful or more literary weren’t being represented on the ballot. So, they had a list of things that they wanted people to be thinking about. The other group was called the “Rabid Puppies” — again this is what they called themselves, I’m not making it up. It was basically one dude with a publishing house saying to Gamergaters and other people who weren’t really interested in science fiction or fantasy, “Here’s a slate, vote for it,” and enough of them did so that between those two slates a majority of the nominees this year came from those two slates.
Most people in science fiction and fantasy are kind of upset by this because these were things that were nominated not because somebody thought they were good but because somebody wanted to promote a particular political or social or economic agenda. In the case of the guy with the publishing house, he wanted his stuff on the ballot. In the case of the people who thought that conservative authors were not represented on the ballot, they really wanted to get that stuff on the ballot. So, there’s been an uproar about it. The people who did the slates have said they did nothing illegal, that they did nothing against the rules, but there’s the letter of the law and there’s the spirit of the law. While they followed the letter of the law, a lot of people felt that the spirit was compromised. There are a lot of people upset, a lot of people who feel that this year is kind of a write-off in terms of the Hugos. My feeling about it is that nobody should be running around with their heads on fire.
You were the president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America for three years. What did you learn about the science fiction writing community during that process, and what are your hopes for the community now?
The one thing that I learned was that writers really do come in all shapes and sizes; they all come from different political persuasions; they come from all different perspectives. You’ve heard the expression “herding cats” — I now know what that expression truly means.
The professional science fiction writers are just one subset of a larger culture of science fiction and fantasy fandom. That community, again, is very real, it does exist, it’s long-standing. There have been science fiction conventions for 70 years now, or close to it. I think the very first Worldcon was in 1939. You think about something going back that far and just the sort of culture that builds up around it. There are two ways you can deal with it: you can either ignore it as a writer and decide that that’s something you’re not going to participate in, or you can basically cannonball in. I’m a “cannonballer” in this particular sense. It was something that as a writer I found super sustaining — to be able to go to an organization of other science fiction writers and to know that they had my back if I had trouble with a publisher or trouble with an agent or editor, to learn from them, to meet some of my idols and become peers with them. What I learned is that it wasn’t just a professional organization; it really was a community of peers and colleagues inside a larger community of friends and fans. For someone who is a writer who spends most of their time in a room in front of a screen typing, knowing that that community exists was a very positive thing.