Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Feature: Interview with Paolo Bacigalupi

Every Tuesday, I'll have a feature article posted.

Paolo Bacigalupi is a science fiction/fantasy writer whose stories have been published in markets like Salon.com, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. His stories have been nominated for various awards (Nebula, Hugo, and Seiun) including winning the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. His latest short story collection, Pump Six and Other Stories, is available from Night Shade Books. NPR has a recent piece on Paolo Bacigalupi.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. Let's start with your latest short story collection, Pump Six and Other Stories. How did that book come about? Was it something along the lines of "I've published (and got nominated for) several stories, it's time to compile them into a collection" or did Night Shade Books approach you?

Night Shade approached me. But doing a collection had been on my mind for some time. I just wanted to put all my stories in one place, and not have them disappear after a month on the newsstand. It's a bit depressing to tell people that you're a writer and then always have to point them to lost back issues of F&SF when they ask to read your stuff.

Some of your stories like "The Calorie Man" and "Yellow Card Man" are set in the same universe. Do you have this "setting" mapped out somewhere in your notes or do you make it up as you go? How do you decide whether to revisit this setting or not when crafting your stories?

I make it up as I go along, and then try to go back and catch any places that are absurdly contradictory. Normally I brainstorm sections of description: of a world, a character or a place or situation, throwing everything I can into the piece as I hunt for the right combination of ideas and images, then I'll harvest the stuff I like the most and delete the rest. As the story builds, I start seeing connections and having little ah-ha moments and then I'll write those into the piece and go backwards into the story to insert or rewrite what I need to in order to fix discrepancies. With "The Calorie Man" universe, GM foods were originally a secondary idea that I happened across as I was writing scenes and brainstorming. The original story had nothing to do with GM technologies. I try to be flexible when I find an idea that is interesting and roll it into the story, even it if breaks the original version of a story I was creating. In terms of why I revisit worlds... I've only done it so far with "The Calorie Man" universe, and that's because I accidentally created so many ideas and characters and situations that I'm now working on a book. I fleshed the world out so completely, that there are still stories I want to explore there.

Asia features prominently in several of your stories. Can you share with us your experiences there? How do you decide whether the stories takes place in Asia or in the US?

I originally went to China as a student. Later I went back for language immersion courses, and then moved there to work after I got out of college. Traveling in Asia-- in China, India, Laos, Thailand, Hong Kong, etc.--has been formative for me. It's changed the way I look at the world, and taught me a lot about what assumptions I have about the way the world works. In terms of using Asia or the US as a setting-- it really varies. "Pop Squad" is in a Western setting because I wanted U.S./Western readers to identify with it, to project themselves into it fairly easily-- so then I could drop kick them with a couple surprises that I'd cooked up. If the setting was in a different culture, the shocks wouldn't have been as powerful. With "Yellow Card Man" I just wanted a setting that would feel "exotic" to a U.S. reader. In the case of the "The Calorie Man" I started out writing a story about an American in Bangkok, and then ended up flipping it and writing about an Indian on the Mississippi. And that had to do with the kind of story I was trying to write. One was about feeling alienated from a culture, the other was about GM food (I really have no idea how one morphed into the other). Once my focus shifted, I knew there were certain things I wanted to dramatize and that meant everything, including setting had to change. I set the story in the heartland of America's agriculture, because it's such a dominant GM place already, and I wanted someone who represented opposition to that, and Lalji represented the best version of that idea for me, mostly because I'd read an interesting newspaper article about Indian protests over the attempted patenting of basmati rice. So I guess I can explain what led to my decisions with each individual story, but I don't really have an overarching explanation. I just depends on my imagined audience and the response I'm trying to generate from the story.

When you start writing a story, do you need to have a clear agenda in mind?

It varies. With something like "Pump Six" I was interested in endocrine disruptors and intelligence shifts-- that one had an agenda and a plan right from the start. With something like "Yellow Card Man" I was just interested in exploring a character and seeing what I could learn about him. With other stories, I think I've got one plan or idea that I want to write, and it turns out that I'm completely wrong-- those stories are more like discovered objects. Like walking into a store thinking you're shopping for lawn furniture, and walking out carrying lingerie. All you can think is "huh?" I wrote a story recently called "The Gambler" for Lou Anders' Fast Forward 2 anthology that really came out of nowhere. Total surprise. So I guess the answer is that I definitely need *something* interesting to jump start a story: an image, an idea, an agenda, whatever, but I try not to stay too committed to it. If I find something better along the way, I let the story change.

In interviews at Wired Science, The Mumpsimus, and The Agony Column, you mention that you initially wrote novels that weren't science fiction. Given the chance, would you give those novels/genres/field another shot? Why the focus on science fiction?

I think when I wrote those other books, I was still trying to find my voice and purpose as a writer. I'm feeling a bit more settled these days. I like science fiction's tools. I think that's the biggest reason I write in the genre. I like how reveals work, and I like building extrapolated worlds. When I was out at SF in SF last winter, Terry Bisson mentioned something else which is pretty cool about SF and that's that we actually have a genuinely passionate reader community. It's a place where a short story can still be read and thought about and taken seriously and argued over, and that's an enormous pleasure for a writer. At this point, I suppose I could write a mainstream novel, but the idea would have to be pretty compelling. All the interesting stuff for me is tied up in extrapolations and meditations on what we are and where we're headed, and SF is the place for that. If I can take SF's tools out to a larger reader community, then obviously, that would be delightful, but I really like writing SF, so I don't think I have much interest in just changing genres for the sake of changing genres.

In Wired Science, you cite William Gibson as being responsible for your foray into the short story format. What makes you keep coming back to short story, especially now that you've broken into the field and got recognized? I know you're currently working on a novel but have you thought of experimenting in works longer than the short story such as a novella?

Novelette seems to be a natural length for me. I have an intuitive sense for how much I can pack into that space: how many characters, how many plot twists, etc. Mostly, I let the story grow to the size that feels right and almost invariably, it falls shy of novella length. Other than novelettes, I've written one genuine short story at 3000 words and it was a pretty painful exercise in learning to winnow down to the bare essentials. At the novel length, I'm still learning how much I can actually pack in. One of the reasons my current novel is taking so long is that I built a much larger book than I realized when I started. At the time, I thought I needed to really have a lot of stuff going on, so I put in four different viewpoint characters with their own plot arcs... and then found out that I'd created a monster. It's about 150,000 words now.

What made you decide to pursue being a writer? So far, what's the biggest hurdle you've had to overcome?

When I was younger, I fantasized occasionally about being a writer, but never did anything about it. It was idle fantasy on a par with imagining being an astronaut or an investment banker or an adventure travel guide. The thing that kicked me over was that I ended up working at a fairly soul-deadening job. I started writing just to pump some oxygen back into my life - not really because I wanted to be a writer, exactly, but more because I was trying to establish some sense of myself and my niche in the world. I would sit on a turnpike in rush hour traffic, surrounded by people all going to work at the same time and who would all come home with me eight hours later, and it started getting to me just how much of a cog in the machine I had become. Initially, writing was a way for me to establish a sense of identity and individuality.

I could say that my biggest hurdle was having four novels rejected in a row. But in reality, it wasn't the rejections that almost killed my writing, it was my own ego. In a lot of ways, when I was writing those four books, I was writing with the dream of getting ego gratification, with the hope of having my "genius" recognized, of being a 25-year-old writing wunderkind, etc. I suspect that ego hunger drives some portion of every writer, but at the end of the day, it's a terrible driver - it's insane and needy and it leaves you weak and desperate for outside approval. And when you don't get approval, what then? Having four of my novels rejected gave me an opportunity to reevaluate why I was writing. And it was only then that I really understood that if I was going to keep writing for the long haul, I was going to need to be writing because I enjoyed the act itself and not because I was hoping that someone else would put a stamp of approval and a six-figure advance on me. That was a hard lesson. I needed it, but was hard.

Who are some of the authors or what are some of the books (doesn't necessarily have to be in the genre) that have inspired you? What are some of the books you're currently interested in reading?

JG Ballard's Empire of the Sun. Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. LeGuin's The Dispossessed. Pretty much everything by William Gibson. Lately, I've been reading SP Somtow's Dragon's Fin Soup and Jasmine Nights-- he's an amazing writer. Also reading a book by Chart Korbjitti, a Thai writer, called Mad Dogs & Co. Right now I'm interested in reading the Michael Pollen's The Omnivore's Dilemma and James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency, also Orhan Pamuk's Snow and The Black Book.

Your fiction tends to labeled as dystopian. Do you have any comments on that label?

It's not the label that I would have chosen automatically for myself. And there's something about it that seems to me to be a simplification-- I think because I feel like a lot of what I use for raw material is so awful that I have to tidy it up and make it nicer in order to slide it into fiction. Last year I was reading oral histories of boys who had gone into the monkhook in Thailand, and a lot of their stories are rife with abuse and starvation. If I use some of that material in my own writing and set it in the future, it gets called dystopian, but really, I'm just working with material from our own present. If we call it dystopian to show ethnic conflict or starvation or see people's ugly responses to scarcity, I have to think that we're trying very hard not to look at the world around us. I just read an article about the use of mass rape as tool for asserting control in civil wars-- this is our present, but we seem to ignore the dystopian aspects of ourselves until it's dropped into fiction. Mostly, when I see the response to what I write, I have to think that we live very sheltered lives. But even that... it's hard for me to put into words. Dystopia seems like a convenient label, and I buy into it, too, just for the sake of having a shorthand description for my writing.. I think "Pop Squad" fits my conception of a dystopia pretty clearly. Others, like "Yellow Card Man" not so much, even though it's quite a depressing world.

What's your editing process like? I read in Fantastic Reviews that you do a lot of re-writes.

It really depends on the story. Some stories come out very quickly, "The People of Sand and Slag" was worrisomely easy to write. I kept thinking it couldn't possibly be so easy. I kept thinking I was missing something. Others, like "The Fluted Girl" or "The Calorie Man" were stories that I had to write out and complete, and then throw everything away and start again because it was only after I'd finished a version of the story that I realized where the most interesting parts were. It's not so much that I'm editing, it's that I'm having a hard time finding the good stuff, and sometimes I have to write a couple versions before I can figure it out. Once I nail down the core of the story, things go pretty smoothly-- but that core is hard to find for me.

Were you naturally interest in environmental concerns, bio-engineering, and the like or do you have to do much research on these subjects for your stories?

My family moved to western Colorado to grow organic apples back in the 70's. Environmental issues have always been in my life. Working for an environmental newspaper sharpened my awareness, but my root interest in environmental concerns is something I grew up with. Sometimes I have to do a little extra research, but a lot of what I write comes from information I'm already coming across in my daily reading.

What's your criteria for what makes a short story "excellent"? Do you think your stories fall under this category?

Honestly, I just work a story until I'm exhausted with it and then I give up and send it out. It's not so much that I finish a story and behold the polished diamond with satisfaction. It's more like a feeling of resignation that I can't fix a broken toy anymore and I'm just going to have to be content with the strings and the glue and the wheel that doesn't roll. Certain things, I feel like I have a lot of control over: line level writing, original details, tight sentences, active verbs, things like that-- but the core conception of the story comes into being at some point, and even though I know it's got flaws and there are aspects of it where the premise is skating over thin ice, I just let it go because I'm too tired to keep working on it any more.

I enjoyed your reading of "The People of Sand and Slag" at SF in SF (via
The Agony Column). Do you have any new insights regarding your story when you read it out loud? Do you enjoy public readings?

I really do enjoy the readings. I like the performance, and I like being with an audience that's reacting immediately to the piece. Sometime elements of the story come out more strongly as the audience reacts and I can play into those reactions and try to reinforce them, and that creates a new experience of the piece for me as well; it opens up aspects that I hadn't really thought about. With "The People of Sand and Slag," there's a certain absurdity that crops up, and it makes for a more humorous read than one might think.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

There are so many aspects to this question. For me, I'd say there are two major ones that have helped me as I've struggled through this process. 1) write the best story you can. Try to write stuff that's better than what you see currently being published. Make it more engaging, more shocking, more funny, more insightful, or more stylish. Raise the bar with your writing. It's the editor's job to reject you. Your job is to write something so good that he or she forgets that. 2) If you're really serious about writing, don't ever stop. Keep learning and keep improving and keep submitting your work. I've been writing for twelve years now, and I'm finally getting to a place where it feels like a some pieces are falling into place. It's a much longer process than I thought it would be.

Anything else you'd like to plug?

Nope. Thanks for the interesting questions.

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