Our esteemed editor Charlie Allison was lucky enough to sit down (via skype) with sci-fi author Anders Cahill. His first novel, Gradient, a sprawling and ambitious story set across multiple eras and worlds, debuted last year. We discussed the writing process(es), Star Wars, and the alien-nature of culture.
Charlie Allison: Right, lets get to it. We talk relatively frequently—but I still don’t get a sense of how you write yet. Are you more stream of consciousness or I’ve planned it out to this degree and the charts say betrayal needs to happen here?
Anders Cahill: You know, I wish I were in the latter category because I’ve probably wasted—well wasted isn’t the right word—so much time and energy exploring pathways that turn out to be dead ends. The way I find myself most productive as a writer is to sit my butt in a chair and throw an idea or a situation at a character and see how they react. Once I get some momentum going, that seems to drive me towards a more creative state. So its very stream of consciousness, so what I try and do is generate as much as I can till I run out of steam then I circle back and I work my way through. I really edit a lot as I go, which means my pace can be a bit plodding but doing that allows me to get a feel for the world that my characters inhabit, and that I’m trying to inhabit, and as I pull through I generate ideas about what direction things are going to go. I managed to successfully finish a novel doing that, and I’m hoping to successfully finish future novels using this approach. At some point I find it easier to cut things out, move things around in the book. As I go on, I hope it gets easier to cut and rearrange parts in the story—because at least in the beginning, that’s very hard for me.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the author Hugh Howey and his WOOL series of science fiction novels?
CA: I haven’t read him, but I know the name.
AC: You should check him out, you might dig it.I haven’t read all of his work, but the series he’s most famous for WOOL, starts with the post-apocalytic dystopian future thing with a very interesting twist. In an interview, he talks about ‘writing as you go’ and planning ahead are really just are two ends of one large spectrum. If you’re writing as you go, you’re essentially just outlining at the most detailed possible level, and if you’re outline and plan ahead you’re writing at the most macro-type level.
CA: Oh, nice! I like that quite a bit.
AC: Yeah, that was really helpful for me, realizing that I don’t have to pick one or the other, that I can move along that spectrum. But day to day I still find myself drifting towards that stream of consciousness style of writing.
CA: Got it. The way you’re talking about sit your ass in the chair writing and situations, it reminds me of Raymond Chandler’s advice when you’re stuck is to have a man with a gun kick down the door.
AC: Totally true. Yeah, one of the people in my writing group talks about dropping “bombs,” on characters and seeing what happens. I enjoy dialogue and getting into my characters heads—I’m not worried about pacing—but I find that if I need to generate some excitement for myself as a writer, throwing that bomb or having a person run in with a gun because characters are going to react differently. As you get to know your characters, you realize they all react differently—some run, some fight, some hide, some freeze, but every reaction is different. One of my favorite things to do as a writer is to take common situations and to take them and make something uncommon about them. Everyone's written a clever character before, but oftentimes that character falls into certain archetypes--I love mixing and matching characteristics from archetypes in new ways.
CA: What writers do you find helpful for research? For sheer reading pleasure? Is there a difference? I’m thinking about authors like Inga Clendinnen, Diane Ackerman who writes about nature the way most people write about their first loves and Julien Jaynes, who contributed a lot to their respective fields (anthropology and cultural studies) while being moving and entertaining writers.
AC: I'm glad you mentioned Ackerman. She's one of my favorite writers--I actually got to meet her in person at a poetry reading in New York. The reading was called 'Universe in Verse'. It was run by Maria Popova, she's got a blog that you should check out if you get a chance. She's this wonderful polymath who reads so much and distills so much across everything--she's an omnivorous reader and produces these readings and reflections that are wonderful to hear. Anyway, she organized this reading and Ackerman shows up to read one of her poems. For me, at least, Ackerman was hugely influential--a lot of the nature scenes by the way, in my novel, Gradient, were influenced by Ackerman. For example:
What would it be like to see earth with fresh eyes, as if it wasn't every day for us? A great example of this is to just go a hundred miles in any direction and look at how different everything is, ecologically. It's just mind-blowing. And you can be awestruck just traveling from traveling down the Eastern seaboard seeing the world change, or even going across the country East-to-West, from our kind of New England forest to the massive redwood forests of the west coast. So what Ackerman brings is the ability to see things with fresh eyes--so that was really fun to apply in a sci-fi context. I didn't have to make up that much stuff--I just had to think about an earth-like planet through the eyes of someone who has never seen that sort of tree before or an animal like that before and describe it as they would describe it. That naturalist nature writer piece is a big part of what I love to do.
We were at Readercon together, and I know that Max Gladstone, who we both look up to a bit, was on a panel about worldbuilding. He talked about what JK ROWLING does, for better or worse with her worldbuilding--he calls it "occular worldbuilding." If you look through the eyes of the main character, the world makes a lot of sense--but if you zoom out, start asking questions like "Is there just one street of shops in all of Britain and where do they get their bread? Is this all there is of the wizarding world?"
CA: Right, where's the magical infrastructure to support this?
AC: Yeah, and questions like "What does the Ministry of Magic do?" and "Is there a whole system of magical schools?" All these questions that in later books Rowling starts to play with, but you can see her laying the ground work for in the early titles. I'm very much an occular worldbuilder--so if I invent something, I have to go back in my work and find out whether I can make it plausible. Plausibility is a spectrum, afterall. In my novel, there's this element called Terranium that essentially fuels the voyager ships that allows for near-light-speed travel, but not faster than light, near-light-speed travel. Ok, I said to myself, if I'm making this element, it needs to be an integral part of this world I'm building so it feels consistent.
Then, along the way, as I'm researching, I fall into another rabbit hole.
There's another part of the book that's very much influenced by Sumerian and Akkadian cultures--you know, lets go 5000 years or so ago into the past. I went down that particular rabbit hole because it looked interesting, as opposed to knowing that I was going to use a particular source--pre-planning it, in a word. It was more organic--I realized as I was writing that Sumer/Akkad inspired parts that I needed to do more research to make it convincing and interesting to both myself and the readers.
CA: There's also that wonderful--it's kinda, well, I was going to say 'incestuous' but what I actually mean is circular, or circularity. To bring it back to the beginning of the question, you said, we can go to the redwood forests and have our minds blown--and those are in our current time, on our planet. Particularly, the Akkadian and Mesopotamian cultures, they're on our planet, their in our (relatively) recent historical past, but they feel alien to us. So you get this actual literal alien force coming down [in Gradient], and we empathize with the extra-planetary figures more than we do with people who were modeled after our own past.
AC: That wasn't intentional, but it was a great contrast. The way to imagine a culture clash is to just imagine our future selves, or our near-future selves, or even our current selves meeting ourselves five thousand years ago. And this speed at which culture and society evolved from then until now is just ripe with possibility. And so that's why I went there [in Gradient]. Rather than invent some pre-biblical type culture from whole cloth, I again, just like i can look out at this elm tree outside my window and describe it as if I've never seen it before, I can look at Sumerian culture and describe it through the eyes of someone setting foot on the planet for the first time. In so doing, it kind of takes on a life of its own and it was really fun to write.
CA: Do different kinds of writing use different styles of preparation for you—I.E., does a long novel like GRADIENT happen in a catch-as-catch-can kind of way, or does all writing you do—long and short, have the same origin point and process? Not to put too fine a point on it, do you use a different process for 'smaller game' like short stories or novellas than for something like GRADIENT?
AC: That's a great question. I think I started at the same place. I think the process was similar. I think the advantage of applying that stream of consciousness approach to short stories is that there is this feeling or instinct that the end is just over the horizon as opposed to at some interminable point in the future that you're not ever certain to reach. There's a sense of 'if I generate a few thousand words, I'll have an idea of the stakes of the story and who the character is'. The puzzle to solve is how to resolve it, in either a quote-unquote happy ending or in a way that produces something fun or interesting for me but isn't fun for the character but leads to an important realization of some kind. It's an interesting process, because the shape is more clearly visible a few thousand words in--you get the sense that in a few days or weeks, you could be done with it and that's really motivating.
CA: That sense of imminent resolution, it both adds and relieves pressure, I would imagine.
AC : You referenced my Star Wars stuff, right--if anyone wants to check that out it's on my website. That's so fun because the biggest risk I'm taking with that is that I'm going to play in the Star Wars sandbox and some super fan is gonna get pissed about it. The upside is I love Star Wars--the universe is rich with vocabulary--people understand the iconography, the characters, they understand the tropes and its so fun to play in that sandbox. I feel less pressure for my characters to--I'm not sure how to put this--I just not as worried that my characters aren't "original" its just really fun. Like I said, its fun to play in someone else's sandbox, seeing what creates tension or reduces tension--the pressure is off to come up with as deep a character. Like, I can introduce a character more quickly this way that plays to certain archetypes, and the readers will say "Ok, I got it." Like, the bounty hunter, chancellor, smuggler archetypes among others--they exist in the collective expectations and consciousness of the readership. When you write sci-fi, you realize that Star Wars eats into a lot of vocabulary--if you read my novel, Gradient, you'll definitely see that influence in vocabulary choice. I feel like Star Wars fanfic allows for us to put our own spin on old stories we already know--the master/student dynamic of Yoda and Luke etc.
You can find Anders on his website or his twitter @cahillaguerilla
You can find Charlie Allison at his twitter: