Five questions for Brad Torgersen, Nebula and Hugo nominee

Even before I met Brad at the Writers of the Future workshop last year, I knew we would get along really well. He had a hard-working, no bullshit attitude that suits me well. At the workshop, we spent late nights in the foyer, in the company of Laurie Tom, Greg Benford, Mike Resnick and Kevin Anderson. Brad, of course was a veteran of the workshop from the previous year. After receiving his award, his first sale was to Analog (hmmm, I do hope that there is a pattern there), and went on to sell five more times to them, as well as Intergalactic Medicine Show. Here are five questions for him. Of course the next time I do this, the main question will be: when is the novel coming out?

One of my interests is military SF. And often SF has a military component, because many writers see it as a natural extension of the armed forces that they will represent humanity in space. You’ve spent more than ten years in the Army. How often does this influence your writing and how would you describe these influences?

My decade in the United States Army Reserve — as a lower enlisted man, as a Sergeant, and now as a Chief Warrant Officer — influences me tremendously. I was an avid reader of military science fiction before I joined in 2002, but my perspective has shifted such that now I have something of an “insider” view. Especially when it comes to the maddening bureaucracy. My all-time most favorite military science fiction series is the STEN series by Chris Bunch and Allan Cole. Bunch (1943-2005) had been a U.S. Army Airborne Ranger in the Vietnam war, so there is a lot of his experience in that series, and especially in their co-written, Pulitzer-nominated Vietnam war novel, “A Reckoning For Kings.” I didn’t realize how truly authentic these books were until I myself joined, and though I am not a high-speed supertroop like Bunch was in his day, I’ve seen enough of the sprawling, crazy-making beast that is the United States Army to realize that Bunch & Cole were spot-on with their portrayals. Which is not to say there isn’t pride and even a bit of glory to service. I’m very happy with my decision to join. But I am also happy that I get to be a civilian much of the year, because if I had to deal with Army life every day of every week of every year, for 20 years solid, I’d go nuts. It’s a difficult, contradictory job often populated with difficult, contradictory people. I never really grasped this intuitively until I was part of the military. So when I write military-focused fiction, I find that this new understanding “leaks” into the story quite often. As does my respect for the many amazing men and women I’ve met over the years who have managed to do amazing and often heroic things, despite all the bullshit. That too often goes into my stories. The organization has lots of warts. Big, ugly ones. But the individuals… some of them have been finest, most dedicated and terrific people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.

What do science fiction writers forever get wrong about life in the armed forces. What do you consider being some of the best science fictional representations of army life?

Well, I already touted Bunch and Cole as guys who definitely “got it right” in my estimation. So if anyone wants homework, I will always recommend anything and everything Bunch and Cole did. Orbit books is currently putting out STEN omnibus collections of the series. Look for them at Amazon UK, and for Kindle and Nook too, I think. What do SF writers get wrong? Lots of things. One of the biggest problems I often see is the heroic Private or lowly Corporal who jumps into the officer ranks due to a single, particularly brave action. This just doesn’t happen in my experience. Lower enlisted personnel who do brave and heroic deeds get medals, not promotions per se. Medals help a whole bunch when it comes time to hit the promotion board, but jumping from, say, Private First Class to 2nd Lieutenant involves a lot more than just being a hero in battle. There is a heap of schooling that has to happen — both civilian and military — as well as a rigorous selection process that weeds out people who can’t meet certain standards. In my own experience, I had to progress to Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) status before I could submit myself for consideration as a Warrant Officer Candidate, and then once I was selected I had to actually pass through the bowels of the Warrant Officer Candidate School. I don’t see this changing in the future. In fact, I think it will become even more so, especially in highly technological societies where future warfare will be conducted using very-advanced weaponry, tactics, etc. Our officer leadership is going to have to be highly adept, flexible, motivated, and capable. Not everyone who takes a bullet for a buddy or who runs across a field of fire to save a wounded troop is cut out to be a Platoon Leader, Company Commander, or a Brigade staffer. I could talk about more mistakes, but that would take pages and pages and pages. (grin) I think the best thing anyone who is writing military SF and who doesn’t have military experience can do, is find and talk to military members and veterans. Get them to tell stories. You will learn more talking to an actual veteran for one hour than reading any dozen books.

You have been nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo Awards as well as the Campbell Award. First of all, congratulations. Secondly, the nominations were on the back of the strength of your story Ray of Light in Analog. What do you think makes people like this story so much?

Thank you for the congrats. It was a heap of fun being on the Nebula ballot, and I look forward to spending the summer (northern hemisphere) on the Hugo and Campbell ballot. Based on reader responses, I’d guess that “Ray of Light” got a lot of attention because it was a) a post-apocalypse story that didn’t use any of the usual post-apocalypse tropes (zombies, global warming, nuclear war) and b) it focused on the predicament of a small family. Specifically, a father and his daughter. When I looked at telling this story — I got the conceit from a science article discussing new geologic evidence suggesting that the Earth’s surface had completely frozen over at least once or twice in the distant past — I decided it would be easiest and have much more emotional oomph if I considered it from the day-to-day viewpoint of someone just trying to survive and cope with virtually impossible circumstances. The story hints at broader implications, but it is essentially about two people. It’s also not a “downer” story in that while I put the characters through hell, I don’t strand them there. I think a lot of modern SF tries too hard to be edgy and literary by having sad, depressing endings; or ambigious endings, or sometimes no ending at all. This is not what I like to read, so this is not what I write. Amazingly, it worked very well for enough readers that they voted it onto the ballots.

Patty’s comment: the reason why I liked the story so much was for the doubly whammy of its emotional content. A father worried about a teenage daughter is something a lot of parents can relate to, and the hope of Earth recovering from disaster is also something that touches people inside. You know, it’s Earth. It’s kind of important.

Cheeky question: Supposing I would like to be nominated next year. What would you recommend?

I didn’t deliberately set out to make the awards ballots, so I can’t say for sure if I have a formula or strategy that will work. I do think it’s likely that having had previously-published material in a major science fiction market like Analog helped to boost my profile with the readership. My first Analog story, “Outbound,” won the readers’ choice award. I think reader response like that is what encouraged editor Stan Schmidt to boost me onto the cover of the December 2011 issue, once I gave him a story with emotional resonance similar to that of “Outbound.” And of course, making the cover of the english language’s oldest and most widely-read science fiction magazine does wonders for a writer’s “footprint” in the marketplace. So between writing a solid story that scored with readers, on top of having a growing history with a significant publication, I think these two things put me over the top with the Nebula and the Hugo. Especially since I had peers and mentors tell me in confidence that they were giving the story their nod of approval. That especially came as a welcome surprise, because it meant people I trusted to know their stuff — ergo, skills! — thought the story not just competent, not just good, but better-than-good. And I was very touched and gratified by their support. Still am, win or lose. I am necessarily proud of “Ray of Light” as a result. And as the story goes into foreign print, in addition to being available electronically from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc, I hope it keeps winning readers.

You have been to some amazing workshops. Can you elaborate a bit about them and why they were instrumental to your success?

It was 1992 when I first got it into my head that I wanted to be a professional science fiction writer. It wasn’t until 2009 that I finally won the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest — birthplace of careers. I think workshops were instrumental in this, because I literally didn’t do my first professional workshop until June of 2009. The thing about doing pro workshops taught by pros is that they usually blow away a lot of myths, peeling back the tinfoil on the realities of what it’s like to be a professional fiction writer. I was fortunate in that the first pro workshop I did was by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who has won Hugo awards for editing and writing, and her Husband Dean Wesley smith, who is also an editor and a writer. They could speak to both sides of the publishing fence. Not long after that, I got to go to Los Angeles and do Writers of the Future — with its dozen-plus array of renown and bestselling judges, who spend much of the Contest week lecturing and being available to the winners. Then I did the Superstars Writing Seminar, which featured many of the same big-name authors — Kevin J. Anderson, Rebecca Moesta, Eric Flint, Brandon Sanderson — and I’ve also done Dave Wolverton’s Million Dollar novel outlines class. In addition to still more workshops with Kris Rusch and Dean Smith — out of which I’ve sold virtually everything I wrote in class. Each and every one of these experiences taught me enormously important lessons about the business, and/or the craft. Which I think it’s important to undersand the difference between. Experienced aspiring and/or newly-published writers who are at a base-line competency with craft, can benefit a lot from exposure to business information. Fledgling aspiring writers who haven’t written much at all, or who may have never written anything, period, may not benefit from a business workshop as much as they could from a craft workshop, such as Orson Scott Card’s famous Boot Camp. And yes, these all cost money. Well, all but Writers of the Future, which is free to winners. But like any other worthwhile investment, it takes money to make money. I wish I’d done these sorts of workshops much sooner than I did. Maybe my career would be just that much further along than it is now?

This is a very good story. Take take my word for it, see it for yourself. You can read your own copy of Ray of Light on Amazon and B & N


Five questions for Claire Corbett, author of When We Have Wings

Claire is a local author, whom I first met at Conflux, when we shared a panel about science in fiction. The reason that she was on the panel was that her novel, When We Have Wings, deals with how much modification human bodies would need to fly. Here are five questions for her. Enjoy!

You recently sold your novel WHEN WE HAVE WINGS to Allen & Unwin. When did you first hear of their interest and what did you do first when you heard that you made the sale? Tell us a bit about that incredible euphoria.

My agent ringing me on a Sunday to tell me how excited she was about the book was the real start of it. Till then I wasn’t sure I even had an agent. When she loved the book I was pretty sure it would be sold. Still, there was more work to do, then she pitched it; we didn’t hear anything for a few weeks, then I got the phone call. Hard to say exactly what I did then. There would have been champagne (OK sparkling wine) that night. The main thing was that I was thrilled it was Allen & Unwin. They are perfect for me and completely grasped the unusual nature of the book, that it didn’t neatly fit genre boundaries.
There was incredible euphoria there but it took time to sink in. It was more that each milestone on the way to publication was exciting (and nerve-wracking, as with the structural edit) and the book became more and more real: cover design, book trailer, poster and finally the arrival of the physical book. Having the book become real to other people was a wonderful process and new to me. How much longer will new authors be able to look forward to the arrival of a printed book they can hold in their hands?

The euphoria continues when your agent rings to tell you you’re going to be published in other countries – I have three international deals so far: Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal, all of them impressive publishing houses. I saw a cover rough for the Dutch edition the other day; it was very different to my Australian cover but I loved it.

In the process from writing the novel to publication, what did you find the hardest?

Three things: getting the right agent to read my book and take me on; the ongoing discipline of improving my writing, especially as I took on the distinct challenge of writing SF and crime in a literary way; and just the sheer persistence and hard work it took to get published, far beyond anything I’d imagined.

You studied film at UTS. How does working in film relate to writing a book?

The challenges of storytelling in film are more similar to those of novel-writing than some screenwriters or novelists care to admit. Mainstream feature films are all about narrative structure and character. I worked in the cutting room on features so seeing the way in which scenes were played around with, trimmed, or even deleted altogether taught me a lot about the importance of dealing with structure in a flexible, creative way. I had to do a lot of re-thinking structure through various drafts of When We Have Wings because there are complexities in the plot.

Also when cutting films you can lose a character or clarify and strengthen one in a short scene, just a few seconds of screen time. Watching Jane Campion work was an education; she was always asking ‘what does the film need?’ I don’t believe she was ego-driven regarding her work and I learned from that discipline: what does the book need, not just what do I want to say?

You have worked as a speech writer/policy adviser. What is the most unexpected thing you learned from working with politicians?

The single most unexpected, and frightening, thing I learned was that governments are just made up of people, mostly trying to do their best but without magic answers. I learned that many public servants are honourable and hard-working. Some are dreadful but you get that everywhere.

The last remnants of childish fury about how ‘they’ should fix everything fell away. I’ll never forget an elderly woman writing to the Premier complaining that a child had visited her and broken a doll the old lady loved. Could the Premier replace the doll for her please? She’d included a photo so he’d get the right one. I don’t think we sent her a doll but that letter made me wonder what people think government is for.

Standing between us and chaos are some ordinary – and some extraordinary – people! We don’t value good government as much as we should; if we all looked hard at a failed state or two, maybe we’d comprehend what we have and be determined to make it better.

Two other things: I learned how to smash writers’ block because we had to produce large volumes of work to strict deadlines, so that was priceless. The other aspect was broader and deeper, which is that policy work was an extraordinary education in how society functions. All organisational politics is much the same, from a big corporation to a government department to a small non-profit – people are people.

I love having that confidence; I know how government agencies work, I know the difficulties politicians face. It’s fantastic for writing novels, which demand a bit of a broad canvas. It doesn’t matter if your committee or government is in Ancient Rome or on Alpha Centauri – the realities of political self-interest, conspiracy and compromise will be much the same. It’s why Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is still so relevant. The conspirators to kill Caesar could be the mafia or they could be any number of contemporary politicians and there’s no easy right or wrong, good or bad when it comes to any of the characters in that play.

Is there anything you’d like to say to your newbie-writer self years ago?

Work a hell of a lot harder and faster! Read about Hemingway’s early years and write so much more. Unfortunately I can’t do anything about that now.

About the book:

When We Have Wings

In a dystopian near-future, genetic engineering, radical surgery and a regime of drugs can give you something humans have always dreamed about: the ability to fly. If you have the money, you can join this self-created elite: the winged.

These fliers are not only given wings; they have their own architecture, fashion, religion and politics, and build floating towers in the sky. Those who live outside The City in the rural slums of RaRA-land can only look up at this new species of human in wonder and despair.

Except for one remarkable girl, Peri, who is prepared to sacrifice everything to get her own wings. When she kidnaps a rich family’s child, the investigation threatens to undermine the glittering world of fliers and reveal its ruthless secrets.

“This book is mischievous with scientific meddling in a way that echoes Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fiction Oryx and Crake. Corbett creates a world where cars have artificial intelligence ….plants glow at night.. spliced with jellyfish genes and… lions are shrunk to the size of a cat….Corbett’s prose has the clarity, luminosity and beauty of a well-cut diamond…. this flight of fancy deserves to soar.”
– Thuy On. The Weekend Australian

“This is what makes When We have Wings unsettling–the realisation that this is a metaphor for today’s world….Humanity is still the force that matters and endures.”
Mary Philip – The Daily Telegraph

“..a thoroughly convincing, immaculately researched account…. this wonderful new author unerringly explores the social consequences and the strains between fliers and non-fliers.”

Crisetta MacLeod, AurealisExpress

Buy When We Have Wings at Amazon