Interview with a Scalzi
So, I got to talk to author John Scalzi at Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh, North Carolina, in August during his book tour for “The End of All Things.” Minor spoilers ahead for some of the happenings throughout the “Old Man’s War” series.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length. There is also some exclusive audio from this interview for our Patrons.
Can’t Talk: What’s your nerd origin story? How did you come to fandom?
Scalzi: I was going to say: I was bitten by a radioactive nerd for my nerd powers. Well, I came into what you would call nerdom, I guess, actually fairly late—I mean organized nerdom. I mean, I was a kid who liked science fiction and all that sort of stuff, but it was among other things as well as opposed to the only thing that I was interested in. But I started writing novels. When I started to do that, the very first novel I wanted to write I wanted to make sure it was in a genre that I was comfortable with just to see if I could write something. So the two genres that I was the most comfortable with were science fiction and mysteries. And so I literally flipped a coin to decide which one of those two was going to be the novel that I was going to write, and it landed on science fiction. So in an alternate universe, you know, John Scalzi is a mystery writer.
But once I had done that and I had sold my first book to Tor, what happened then was basically I was like, OK, I’ve sold my book to a science fiction publisher. I should probably go to a science fiction convention and see who my audience is. So I went to TorCon3, which was the World Science Fiction Convention, Worldcon, that year; that was 2003. It was in Toronto. And I went, and I looked around, and I called my wife, and she was like, well, what’s it like? And I told her, I’m like, oh, honey, I’m at the convention of misfit toys. So that was kind of my first introduction.
I came in in my mid-30s as someone who had been a professional writer for some time, and in many ways the way that I describe it to people is I became a naturalized citizen of the nerd nation as opposed to have been born into it. Because I know people who are third and fourth generation nerds, right? That was really interesting. Again, obviously I read science fiction. I was a big science fiction fan. But my main thrust of writing up until the time I really started writing novels was journalism.
I had been a film critic in California. It was my first job out of college. I worked for various magazines and so on and so forth as a freelance writer. So that was the type of writer that I identified myself with. I saw myself maybe one day possibly winning a Pulitzer. I always wanted to win a Hugo because that was always the cool one for me, but of the two up until my mid-30s I would have said, maybe a Pulitzer for commentary? Could happen. So as far as it goes coming into nerdom from outside as an adult and someone who was not aware of the convention (small c) of the culture was actually really interesting.
CT: Do you find your work as a journalist kind of informs you work as a fiction writer?
JS: Oh, absolutely, for a couple of reasons. One, in a very practical sense having had the experience of everything needs to be in at 3 o’clock. So writing at speed, writing for clarity, writing for a specified length. You’ve only got 5 inches of column for this review: Go. That sort of thing. And just the idea that basically taking the romance out of writing. Not in a negative way, but understanding in a very practical sense writing is a gig, writing is a job, writing is the thing that you do to eat dinner makes a huge difference. When I starting writing novels, I approached it like I approached any other project: What are the parameters, what are we doing, what is the deadline, hit the deadline, be reliable. I mean one of the things that I’ve always told people—because I also did time as an editor—I said the people who are successful in writing might not necessarily be the best or most talented people, but they are the people that are reliable. That you know that you say, “I have a story. Here it is. It needs to be in by Tuesday; it needs to be this long. Go.” And they get it. If you are talented and can do those things, even better. But ultimately the people who succeed in writing as a business and as a livelihood are the ones who understand the practical aspects of it. So journalism is super useful for that.
Also in the sense of being able to do research, being able to do things like capturing the rhythms of people’s language and stuff like that. And also, quite honestly, when you’re doing things like describing events writing again for clarity makes sense of that, and that’s something that you learn from journalism. So absolutely journalism informs my writing. I think every bit of writing informs fiction and novel writing if you are smart about it, because all that stuff can come into play.
Fiction doesn’t have to be a particular set way. You can bring in other elements and do lots of things with it aside from just whatever people seem to imagine whatever fiction is supposed to be. I mean, in “Old Man’s War,” there is a point where I had to describe—they get new bodies. The main characters get new bodies, and the new bodies are super enhanced and have all these great abilities and things like that. How do you explain that to people? One, you could stop the story completely and have a big load of exposition, or you could find some other way to do it. After I left journalism and before I started writing novels full time, I had a time where I was consulting for companies doing marketing work and stuff like that. So the ways that I describe these new bodies was I gave one of the characters a brochure, a marketing brochure: Your New Body, you know, exclamation point and so on and so forth. And it works because, one, a ton of information in a format that is designed to give information quickly to a layman, but also it was a funny way of getting that information. There was a little bit of a satirical thing of I have this amazing new super incredible body. What can it do? Here’s a brochure. So all of it comes into play.