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