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Monday, April 30, 2012

A Chat/Interview between Bradley P. Beaulieu & Rob Ziegler

INTRODUCTION: In 2011, Bradley P. Beaulieu made an instant impact with his debut novel, The Winds of Khalakovo. Rob Ziegler did the same with his debut, Seed. Both are very talented writers with promising futures ahead. And when the two of them got together for a little discussion/interview, they had a lot of interesting things to say:

Brad: Ok, how do we start this thing? I suggest we go alphabetically. And since I win whether we take first name or last, I’ll ask the first question. ::grins::

I’d like to start out with a bit of the untold story of your book. In Seed, one of your main characters, Pollo, is autistic. However, I also know that he started out as unrelated to another of the main characters, Brood. How did this change in relationship alter Pollo? How did it alter Brood? And how did it alter the landscape of the book?

Rob: To begin with, Brad, I’d like to point out that your first question is in fact, like, six questions.  Prepare yourself for a thorough grilling after I’ve finished with my answer(s). Fair play...Harrumph!

Yes, Pollo is autistic, a fact on which Seed’s plot turns. I’d forgotten that you’d seen the early draft of the book, before Pollo was Pollo. He was originally a gigantic and lethal savant named Ton Ton, who was sort of a genetically engineered, weaponized version of Lennie Small. Really. That such a draft ever existed is usually highly classified, because talking about it means talking about the general clusterfucky state of the book at that point. There were so many problems in the early drafts, when the story kept wandering off track and each scene struggled to connect to the one before it. One of those problems was that everything was lethal. Brood, Doss, Satori, the world and everyone in it. Everything was either a killer or a victim, and the book lacked real emotional ballast. Brood needed a closer relationship in his life to soften him, and to give him something to fight for above and beyond mere survival. (And I think you were one of those early readers, Brad, who really took me to school on the need for a protagonist to be someone with whom the reader could sympathize.) Ton Ton definitely was not that close relationship. He was another killer in a book full of them. He did, however, embody a point of departure for Pollo. Like Pollo, he was something elemental, with a strange but gifted understanding of his world. As he became Pollo, he became someone Brood loved and needed to protect, and the result was that he deepened Brood. He revealed in Brood a hunger for true connection. Those moments when they do connect—because Pollo is so remote—are emotionally very juicy, for me anyway. Their relationship became the emotional heart of the book, certainly of Brood’s journey, and the thread tying all the story’s various parts together.

Now Brad, in The Winds of Khalakovo you also use an autistic character, Nasim, as both a fulcrum for the plot and as the quiet, emotional anchor at the story’s center (or at least that’s how I read him). In part I return your question: how did you find this character? Without giving too much away, Nasim has certain talents. What drew you to that savant blend of vulnerability and preternatural ability? I know you write steadily, 1,000 words or so a day. With a character like Nasim, did you plan him out? Or did you simply uncover him as you rolled through your words?

And what did you have for breakfast?

There, five questions back at you.

Brad: Ha! Turnabout is fair play, I suppose. I was actually just trying to throw enough questions at you that I could take a breath before your questions showed up.

Hmmm. Yes, on to Nasim. His was an interesting evolution. As much as I try to plot—and I do plot to a certain degree—I find that I can’t get too far ahead of the actual writing. I’ll work up the end of the novel, identify the major turning points, and then plot a handful of chapters before I start writing. In the early brainstorming of The Winds of Khalakovo, Nasim was simply a gifted boy. But anyone who starts writing will soon find that powerful characters are really, really tricky. Just look at Gandalf. Tolkien had to get him off stage to make him at all workable in The Hobbit. And in The Lord of the Rings, he pitted him against Saruman and the Witch-King of Angmar, just to give him something formidable to fight against. I knew right away that Nasim as I had initially envisioned him would be a difficult character to handle.

Essentially, he needed a weakness. So I recast him, and he became more or less autistic. He wouldn’t fit the modern definition of the term, but it’s the closest analog we have. He was a confused child. Because of the way in which he was reborn from his previous incarnation of Khamal, he had trouble discerning what lay in the real world and what lay in the immaterial realm, the world of the spirits. It was this confusion that made it almost impossible to learn and communicate like a normal child.

So the initial version of Nasim was largely determined before I ever started writing. But I knew little about him early on. Much of his personality—an innocent and kind yet easily confused (not to mention extremely powerful) child—came out in the writing. And that, right there, encapsulates a lot of how I work as a writer. I spent a ton of time on the world, the magic, the cultures, the politics. I know those fairly well. I know a bit of the plot, especially the high points and the ending, and I have a kernel, a core, for each of the characters. And then I fill things in as I write. I find that I can’t do it any other way, at least so far in my writing career. I can’t write completely blindly—that is, I need at least some structure—and yet, try as I might, I can’t see too far ahead in terms of plot. I thought I’d be able to given my structured life as a software programmer, but the writing side of my brain is simply not wired that way.

Something you said above really interested me. And that’s this notion, in your words, that the early incarnations of Seed “lacked real emotional ballast.” This is something near and dear to my heart, because I think it’s one of my biggest weaknesses as a writer. I’m rather plot-driven. That’s my natural state, and I’m well aware of it, so I work hard at making sure the characters feel real, that there are touching (or at least emotional) moments in the story so that the reader can sympathize with them.

One of our friends, Deborah Coates, whose book, Wide Open was recently published by Tor Books, calls this “moments of grace.” Tell me about “moments of grace” from your perspective and how it changed not just Seed, but your writing overall. (Did you catch that? I didn’t even use a question mark, so it’s not even a question, really.)

Rob: Well done, Brad. Charlie Rose could learn a thing or two from your interviewing chops. I don’t even feel like I’m being grilled.

So, Deborah Coates. In addition to being a great person, Deb is a fantastic writer, and very smart when it comes to storytelling. It strikes me that many writers approach a novel as separate components—character, plot, theme—and do their best to puzzle those pieces together. Like, “This paragraph develops the protagonist. This paragraph is action that furthers the story,” and so forth. You can see the gears moving behind their scenes. But Deb has an instinctual knack for seamlessly integrating all of a story’s various aspects, so the thematic idea becomes the thing that moves the character’s emotional arc which is what moves the story. It’s fluid, there’s no separation. I think the key to making this work is that she gets her characters emotionally, and she works every aspect of her story through that emotional filter. Or anyway, that’s how it feels. Maybe I’m projecting, but if so, it’s a testament to her skill that she makes it look so easy. Stylistically, I want to wring her writing for all its worth and make it my own.

Deb is hilarious in person, though, because she’ll make these little comments that are at once offhanded and absolutely brilliant. Twice she’s upended the way I write. One being, as you mentioned above, when she told me Seed needed small moments of grace. Again, completely offhanded for her. We were standing in the kitchen at the first Starry Heaven workshop, and she was pouring coffee or something, barely even aware she’d said it, I think. But for me it was a light bulb moment, like she was Jehovah hurling lightning bolts down from the mountaintop. And she’s just standing there, pouring her coffee...

The phrase “small moments of grace” really cracked things open for me. It’s more than simply working through a checklist of things that make characters sympathetic. It’s about providing the reader a channel for real emotional connection to the characters. For me, that means connecting to those characters as I write, which is very much an intuitive process. I like fringe characters, characters who are tough, even sometimes cruel. But I like the idea that everyone, no matter how unsavory, has the tiniest pinch of grace, enough for a moment of compassion, even when it runs against their most obvious self-interest. Deb’s comment articulated for me a desire I barely knew I had about how I wanted to write, and in a way gave me permission to act on it.

Personally, it matters far more to me that characters be emotionally accessible than it does for a story to skillfully hit all the correct beats. The right emotional ballast can make even a flawed story work. You mentioned The Lord of the Rings above, Brad, and it’s actually a very good example of what I’m talking about. Structurally, it’s a clumsy story, with any number of awkward plot swerves and dei ex machina. (To the point that, in more than one writers’ group, I’ve heard people use Tolkienian shorthand during critique; e.g. telling someone “That’s a total Tom Bombadil” means a section is irredeemably boring and superfluous.) But goddamn if I don’t love Frodo’s quiet forbearance. And goddamn if I don’t love Sam for the way he cares for Frodo. Moments of grace fill that story—from Gandalf’s quiet ruminations on Frodo’s surprising strength, to the obvious joy whenever key characters reunite. It gives the story heft, even though its structure is wobbly. So that when, for instance, they lose Gandalf, it’s utterly devastating. And when, at the end of the first book, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli decide to go after Merry and Pippin, we don’t bat an eye, even though their decision makes no obvious strategic sense in terms of the war they face. Of course they decide to rescue Merry and Pippin, because they’re loyal friends. As the High Elves always say, that fucking rocks.

But back to your process, Brad. It’s surprising to me that you describe yourself as a “pantser” more than a “plotter.” The Winds trilogy is so complex that I always figured it involved you freebasing speed in a little woodshed where you’d be feverishly scribbling notes on the walls and connecting all the pieces with thumbtacks and string. In your underwear. It hurts me a little to hear you say you discover this shit as you go. I know you’re very structured in your approach to churning out words (and you churn out a lot of words). But help me here. Tell me you wander down blind alleys, and have to backtrack. Tell me you do major, structural rewrites. Because if it turns out you manage to get it all basically right on a first draft, I’m straight up going to have to kill you.

Brad: I’m, uh, going to choose my words carefully here... (If you’ve seen Rob and know he studies Muay Thai, you’d understand why.)

I don’t actually know that I’d call myself more of a pantser than a plotter. I’m probably somewhere right in the middle. I plot high points, including the ending of the novel early on. I plot the beginning and a few chapters out. And then I start writing. What happens then is kind of interesting. I keep writing until I feel like things are going off the rails, until I feel like if I go any further I’m at serious risk of taking the book in the wrong direction. When this happens, I stop for a day or two. I think about where I’m headed and the interesting paths I could take to get from where I am to the nearest high point. Eventually one path or another will seem more interesting than the rest, and I’ll map out the dramatic steps I need to take to get there.

It’s like an inchworm. Write, plot, write, plot, constantly creeping forward, bit by bit. Sometimes I adjust the major points I envisioned in the beginning to suit the story, sometimes I adjust the characters and their goals to suit the plot, so that hopefully by the end what I have is real characters traveling through a real world doing interesting things.

That doesn’t mean I don’t take a wrong turn now and again and am forced to back up. I do. But I’ve gotten pretty good at performing these mind experiments, taking the possible dramatic paths to their natural conclusions. I can envision what a particular choice will mean to the characters and to the plot much more easily than I could years ago, and it allows me to weed out mistakes without having to spend thousands (maybe tens of thousands) of words on them.

As a small aside, my focus on this stems from a book I wrote where I made major, major mistakes. I made them early and I made them often. And the result was an utter mess of a book. I tried to repair it in subsequent drafts, but it never quite worked, and I had to trunk the novel.

I didn’t want that to happen again, but I didn’t quite know how to fix it until I went to Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp in 2005. He teaches this technique of asking questions of your characters and your plot and your world. The questions are the basic five: Who, What, Where, When, and Why. And also How. Why does Nikandr want to learn more about the wasting disease? What is the nature of the rifts? How do the Matri communicate telepathically? Why is Nasim unable to relate to the world around him?

These are the tools I use over and over, both in the beginning, where I’m asking major questions about the overall plot, and when I get to those stopping points, and they allow me to proceed along a path that’s much more likely to work than if I had just bulled forth and continued to write.

One of the things I wanted to discuss before we say our goodbyes is worldbuilding and the worlds we’ve shown in our two novels. We both have environmental impact in our stories. We both have the concept of permanent change. It’s interesting to note that my world is essentially on the upswing of these changes, whereas yours is on the opposite side. Environmental change in Seed has already happened and there’s really no going back. What was it about that side of the curve that interested you? It’s a fatalistic sort of view. Do you think that’s a more interesting way to look at the question of environmental change than, say, when the changes themselves and their eventual impact are still in question?

Rob: Brad, it’s fun to hear that you have a mutant novel you’ve never let out of the attic. The secret novel, the one of which we’re ashamed. I think this must be a positive indication that someone has the right qualities for a novelist’s career, because not only does it mean they’re pathological enough to write a book in the first place, but they also have the good judgment to be able to acknowledge when it doesn’t turn out well—that yes, this one should be kept in the trunk. Just because you wrote it doesn’t mean it should be seen. Kudos to you. (Then again, you might be able to parlay that book into some serious Ebay cash one of these days.)

You describe an infuriatingly reasonable process. I find myself relating to every word, up until you say you allow yourself to pause for a day or two when you feel the story going off the rails. I should take a lesson from you there. My mindset, when I’m plowing through a first draft, is that progress equals words on the page. Which means a word count, daily, no matter what, even when I sense things going off kilter. For me, backtracking and lots of rewriting are frustratingly inevitable. So...I’m going to give your method a try. Next time I feel the story going wonky, I’m going to pause and ask myself: What Would Bradley Beaulieu Do?

We’ll see what happens.

As for environmental change, I came to the world in Seed from two angles. One was from the standpoint of my characters. I liked the crew of Brood, Hondo and Pollo, and very badly wanted to write their story—a story which could only take place in a badland, because they’re outlaws.

Of course, I also wanted to comment on big problems we face today. Problems like climate change, which, if we fail to address it now, will determine what our future looks like. We’ve talked before, Brad, of how genre allows an author to take a piece of our real world and recontextualize it, distend it until we can see it in a new way—testing ideas to the point of destruction, to use Elizabeth Bear’s wonderful phrase. I wanted to break open our modern and tacit assumption wherein tomorrow’s children get to pay today’s butcher bill; our assumption that we can continue to live and pollute the way we do without there being any consequence, along with an underlying value set that prioritizes profit over the sustainability of our economy, of our society, perhaps even over our sustainability as species. In Seed, we get to see a world where that logic has run its course—yes, to the point of destruction. You describe Seed as fatalistic, but I’d call it merely cautionary. (Though as we veer closer to the precipice of irreversible climate shift, and as half the population of the US continues to disbelieve climate change is anthropomorphic, or is even happening at all, one word I wouldn’t use to describe my outlook is “optimistic.”)

Speaking of genre, in the Winds trilogy, you’ve created a world where environmental consequence and magic are closely tied. We’ve spoken before of how genre fiction inevitably embodies the sentiments of its day, whether or not an author does this intentionally. In Winds, however, I get the feeling that parallels to the real world are very intentional. Since I have you cornered, tell me: to what extent is the Winds trilogy allegory? What ideas are you testing to point of destruction?

On an unrelated note, I’ve been procrastinating my writing today. I’ve just asked myself, WWBBD? The answer? Write a hundred and fifty thousand words, then eat lunch. I’d better get busy. It’s been fun.

Brad: That’s a tall word count. Feel free to stop at 100k. You know, if you get queasy looking at the hill you’re about to climb.

I too like Bear’s notion of testing an idea to the point of destruction. I’ll admit I haven’t fully grokked it yet. I’m not convinced it works for all or even most science fiction. If you look at something like first-contact stories. Science fiction, yes? But I don’t know that any idea is being tested to destruction. It’s more about the effects such an event has on a group or a society or even an entire world. Or take survival-after-the-crash stories. I think those tend to be more man-vs-nature stories than anything else. Still, it’s a useful and interesting notion, and I think a very cool way to create a certain kind of story, particularly those that examine cultural or social change through a slightly dystopic lens.

But back to your question. Is The Lays of Anuskaya a parable? Answering as straightly as the question was asked: no, it isn’t. Or at least, I didn’t intend it to be. It certainly speaks of today’s issues. There are distinct parallels. But I didn’t so much want to teach a lesson as I wanted to examine how environment can affect culture in a world other than our own. I also wanted to grant my characters a bit of agency. Unlike Seed, the world of Winds is one in which the collective fate of the world is not yet known. There’s still time. After all, in Winds, the alternative is not a harder lifestyle, but assured destruction.

A different aspect of Lays I’ve talked about lately that is closer to allegory is the notion that we’d better learn to get along if we have any hope of survival. This is related to the environmental issues in my story, but in a way I’m using that environment peril as a Petri dish in which to examine the political, cultural, and religious morass the peoples of Lays have gotten themselves into over the course of time. I was intensely curious how people violently opposed to one another might bridge their differences, and in fact, this was one of the most interesting things for me to write. I spent pages, chapters, trying to set these conflicts up, and it was terribly gratifying when I finally got to play them out to their natural conclusions.

Well, I think that about wraps things up. Thanks for the chat, Rob!

Heads-down, now. We have these books to finish…


Bradley P. Beaulieu is a winner of the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Award, while his short story, “In the Eyes of the Empress’s Cat”, was voted a Notable Story in the 2006 Million Writers Award. Other stories have appeared in Realms of Fantasy Magazine, Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, Writers of the Future 20, and several anthologies from DAW Books. He is the author of The Winds of Khalakovo and The Straits of Galahesh, the first two volumes in The Lays of Anuskaya trilogy. For more information, please visit the following links:

Official Bradley P. Beaulieu Website
Order “The Winds of KhalakovoHERE
Order “The Straits of GalaheshHERE
Read the First Fifteen Chapters HERE (ePub) or HERE (PDF)
Read FBC’s Review of “The Winds of Khalakovo
Watch the Book Trailer HERE


Rob Ziegler began writing science fiction in 2008. In November of that same year, his short story “Heirlooms” won the regional short fiction contest, A Dozen on Denver, which served as the point of departure for his debut novel, Seed. He is currently working on his second novel, Angel City. For more information, please visit the following links:

Order “SeedHERE
Read the First Three Chapters HERE


Matthew MacNish said...

I could listen to you guys talk about Tolkien (and both your books) all day.

If I had one question, it would be: did you know each other before you both started writing for Nightshade?

Brad Beaulieu said...

Hey, Matt. Thanks much. I do love talking Tolkien, that's for sure.

Yes, we knew each other before we were picked up by Night Shade. We met in 2009 at Starry Heaven, a peer-to-peer workshop run by S.K. Castle. I brought Winds to that workshop, and Rob brought his first incarnation of Seed, which I immediately loved. I was drawn to the entire book, but it was the Lobos that sealed the deal. If I could have just one Lobo, I'd die a happy man.

In any case, it was a cool workshop. I ended up getting the offer from Night Shade the next spring, and it was clear that Rob, by the time he brought the second incarnation of Seed to Starry Heaven the next year, was going to get picked up by someone. It was just a question of who.

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