A “literature of epic proportions”: Interview with sci-fi writer David Marusek

Fairbanks author David Marusek’s first novel, Counting Heads, was translated into French, Russian, Czech, and Romanian. His stories are in those languages, as well as Italian, Japanese, Polish, and Dutch.

In January, Tor Books published Mind Over Ship, the sequel to Counting Heads. The plot, according to the publisher: “The year is 2135, and the international program to seed the galaxy with human colonies has stalled as greedy, immoral powerbrokers park their starships in Earth’s orbit and begin to convert them into space condos. Ellen Starke’s head, rescued from the fiery crash that killed her mother, struggles to regrow a new body in time to restore her dead mother’s financial empire.”

That summary prepares one’s expectations for a dramatic sci-fi ride, but it doesn’t communicate what I respect most about Marusek’s previous fiction: the sophisticated moral and philosophical ideas, careful language, and incredible poignancy of the universe he has created.

Publishers Weekly described Mind Over Ship as having “ambitious narrative scope and small moments of perfect prose.” One of your early short stories, “The Wedding Album” (1999) is considered a classic. What I enjoy most in your writing are the realistic details and authentic, multidimensional characterizations, all of which matter so much in any kind of literature, but really stand out in sci-fi, where cardboard characterizations occasionally get a free pass. Am I right in believing that you stumbled into the genre sci-fi, and that your first serious writing efforts were more mainstream literary short stories? What inspired you to try – and succeed – at sci-fi? I know that you worked as a graphic designer and taught at the University of Alaska Fairbanks until a few years ago. Give us a brief retrospective on the many years of toil that led to your “overnight” literary success.

First let me acknowledge the time and energy you and Deb Vanasse are putting into this 49 Writers blog. (Where did the Moose go?) You have succeeded in turning your love of writing into a handsome, relevant, resource-rich site. I visit 49W regularly, and I’m sure writers across the state and Outside are doing so as well. Your site provides a welcome Alaskan take on the profession of writing, and I appreciate the posts that you have run about my book launch and reading and all, including notice of that pet cameo auction I was involved with.

To answer your question: Science fiction is a literature of transcendence that likes to tackle issues of epic proportions: worlds in collision, the fate of the universe, what it means to be human, and so on. SF claims as its playground all space and all time. SF provides me with the lexicon, images, and framework to express any compelling idea in a compelling way. I feel as though I can do anything I want within the genre, and I am lucky to have discovered it.

But you are correct–I did start out trying to write more in the mainstream. I first made writing part of my daily routine in 1986. The University of Alaska Fairbanks has an excellent MFA program in creative writing, but I didn’t want to return to school. I decided I could teach myself to write and started out by imitating the short stories I was used to reading in Harpers, The New Yorker, Atlantic, and other literary magazines. I wrote a lot of tortured prose for a while, exquisite in effect, or so I thought at the time. Largely about my divorce, which was still painfully fresh.

I took my stories to be critiqued at the Midnight Sun Writer’s Conference, the annual conference that was held at UAF during the summer solstice back in the 1980s. The weeklong writing workshop drew attendees and instructors from around Alaska and across the country. What with the endless daylight up here and the open bar, it was easy for our honored guests from Outside to lose all track of time. A week is a long time not to sleep. How I miss that truly Alaskan workshop.

Anyway, throughout the late 80s and early 90s all my formal writing education came during those summer workshops. The instructors always gave my work high marks, and I would dutifully send off my stories to the New Yorker, Harpers, and the like. I got form rejections but also a few personalized ones. This went on for several years, during which time I never sold anything. Moreover, I had no confidence in what I was writing.

My insight came when I took up a new and unrelated project. My daughter was of bedtime-story age in those days, and sometimes she preferred my extemporaneous stories to her picture books. She especially liked my episodes about the very slow, very cautious lives of Billy and Sally Sloth. So I decided to write her a book, and I did. I wrote it very quickly, with none of my usual agonizing over character motivation or hidden subtext or whatever. I just wrote about a particularly scary time and the heroic adventures of a group of neighborhood dogs. The book was called Muttorola and the Nasty Bump. I breezed through it in a few months and had a lot of fun doing it. My daughter loved it. It garnered great rejection letters from the big publishers of children’s books, but it never sold.

That didn’t matter. Muttorola was a revelation to me. I realized that I had just written a gripping, if juvenile, adventure story in which I successfully created a dozen characters, each with his or her own distinct personality, and that I juggled them into little interactive groups. They coalesced effortlessly into a society of strange little dog persons. Their various responses to the tragic premise of the book (Muttorola injured and dazed by the side of the road, his boy stolen away by an ambulance) drove the plot and determined the resolution. I knew I had accomplished things with this kid’s book I had never gotten close to in my more mature stories, and I wondered if I could tell big kid stories to big kids.

Around this time, in late 1991, I learned about a “boot camp” for science fiction short story writers. Clarion West is a competitive-entry, six-week, intensive workshop held each summer in Seattle. Each week the instructor is a different, top-notch sf writer or editor. The approximately twenty student writers, from around the country, live in an off-campus University of Washington sorority house. They are expected to write a brand new short story each week for six weeks. In addition, they spend 20 classroom hours a week in critiquing sessions where they shred and celebrate each other’s work under the watchful eye of the instructor and docent.

I applied to this six-week adventure in short SF and was accepted for the 1992 workshop. At the workshop I wrote a little story of about 1500 words, and Gardner Dozois, the long-time editor, purchased it on the spot for Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. Mine was the only story he bought at the workshop that year. Another story I wrote at Clarion West sold to Playboy the following month. Is it any wonder I took a look at science fiction?

Mind Over Ship takes place in the 22nd century. All of your work so far has featured clones, artificial intelligence, proxies, and – it seems to me, a reader who is not conversant with the sci-fi genre – heart-wrenching, existentialist questions about identity and interpersonal connection. Can you explain some of the central questions or themes you’re exploring via this messy, grim, realistic future?

I gotta tell you, Andromeda, I don’t work that way. I’m such a (I’m groping for a word here) such an unconscious (?) writer, I honestly don’t know what my stories are about until late in the process. Usually not until I’ve shown them to my first readers and they tell me what they’re about. And I usually go, Oh, that’s what it’s about.

With that being said, I will admit to one or two pet themes. One of them is the real possibility of the evolution of a post-human species that may supplant us Homo sapiens sapiens (as we presumably supplanted the Neanderthals and our other primate cousins). Whether we alter our DNA or meld with machines, I think it’s a good bet that humanity is about to splinter into competing sub-species. Mind Over Ship explores this theme, and I suppose it’s one I’ll return to again as our real world lurches toward it with each new scientific advance.

About your short story collection, Getting to Know You (recently re-released in a new paperback edition) the New York Times Book Review said, “Marusek [has] the potential to make an indifferent audience care about [science fiction] again.” Cory Doctorow called you one of the “best-kept secrets of science fiction,” and from what I see, you’re not such a secret at all in the sci-fi world. Your fans seem pretty enthusiastic and widespread. But admittedly, Alaska publications have missed the boat in chronicling your successes – or have they? Does it matter to you? Where, inside or outside the state, do you get most of your support, in terms of readers, booksellers, or writing colleagues?

You know, most adults I meet tell me they used to read SF when they were kids but not so much anymore. I hear this all the time. Science fiction just doesn’t have the number of readers that other genres, like mainstream or mystery, enjoy. Despite that, I have fans all over the world: Japan, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, New Zealand–I get fan mail from everywhere. My work has been translated into nine languages. I consider myself to be working on the world stage. My writing colleagues are mostly in the Lower 48 and in London, while most of my professional contracts are drawn up in New York and Los Angeles. This month I happen to be the Author of the Month at three bookstores in Sweden. Outside Alaska I’m known as that SF writer from Alaska.

Folks in Fairbanks seem to have heard of me, and I sometimes meet people for the first time who say, “Oh, you’re that guy who writes sci-fi.” I suppose my in-state obscurity is due to the fact that you don’t usually think about science fiction when someone says Alaskan books and authors. Actually, I have three short stories set in Alaska, two of them science fiction and one an adventure story first published in Playboy (and available for reading online for a limited time at the Freeze Project).

I was surprised to discover that you were blogging before there were blogs. (I’m referring to old posts at your Counting Heads blog, in which you explain that back in 1998, you posted daily essays and photos of a six-month London trip via an online newsgroup.) Now you seem tired of blogging and are Twittering. It makes sense that a sci-fi guy would stay ahead of the curve, technologically speaking, but you don’t come across as a completely pro-gadget guy to me. Where do you stand, practically and philosophically, on the tech continuum, and how does that fit or contrast with your life in a 16 by 24 foot rustic Fairbanks cabin?

The Fairbanks cabin is just a way station to my McMansion. The fact that I’ve lived in it for so long only means that my writing income has been stuck in low gear, not that I have any philosophical bias against plumbing or modernity. As to gadgets, I’m from a family of engineers, and I have an engineer’s fascination with gadgets. On the other hand, I’m not much into things, per se, so most of my gadgets never make it into the material realm, so to speak, and end up in my fiction.

Do I believe that the technologies I write about will come true? Human clones, Artificial Intelligence, colonies in space, universal surveillance, indefinite longevity, and so forth–yes I do, eventually. Barring the collapse of civilization or the arrival of the Rapture. Do I believe these technologies will be good or bad for humankind? I don’t know, but I’d love to be around when they’re introduced, and I am a little impatient for the future to get here already.

Blogging is so 2002. I’m trying out Twitter (and FaceBook, MySpace, LiveJournal, and several more social apps) to see what can be done with them. To see how they feel. In 1998 and 1999, I spent six months in London, and I undertook a project in which I would post a fresh photograph and a descriptive paragraph about my trip each day for my friends back in Alaska. It wasn’t a completely novel idea at the time because, as you may recall, a few intrepid people were already keeping personal diaries on their web sites (and I see on Wikipedia that LiveJournal was introduced in 1999). I chose a Netscape newsgroup for my project because of its ease of uploading photos. It was essentially browse and click, like it is today, but unusual for the time.

You dictated all of Mind Over Ship. Astonishing. To me, writing is different from speaking – I can almost feel a different part of my brain being used. (Or maybe that’s just an excuse for my verbal ineloquence.) Explain why you did this, and how it affected the final manuscript.

I agree–writing and speaking use whole different sets of diction and syntax. It’s true that I dictated Mind Over Ship into my computer using Dragon Naturally Speaking, a speech recognition application. But first I composed it in longhand on paper, as I usually do. And then, instead of spending weeks of straight keystroking the manuscript into a word processor, I simply dictated it in. I find that I can’t compose anything more complicated than email on a keyboard. Something about words on a monitor seems to limit my creativity, and I much prefer to write my fiction in longhand in a binder. That means writing two or three complete drafts before committing the manuscript to the word processor. My pages end up scratched out, overwritten, and barely legible, with liberal use of arrows, notes, and marginalia. Alternate word choices are stacked up on top of provisional words. By the time I’m finished, each page is as much an alphanumeric picture as it is text. I can be creative in such clutter.

Your first novel took six years to write; your second, three years (correct me if I’m wrong here, David) and basically, you’ve been writing fiction based on the Counting Heads universe since the 1990s. According to your blog, you’re taking a break from the Counting Heads/Mind Over Ship world. What’s next for you?

I’m sorry, but I can’t say. It’s a secret.

4 thoughts on “A “literature of epic proportions”: Interview with sci-fi writer David Marusek”

  1. Wow. There’s so much good stuff here I don’t know where to start. I know I’ll miss something. First, thanks for the kind words, David. Every so often Andromeda and I ask ourselves “are we nuts?” and then go right back to what we’re doing. As in all writing ventures, a little affirmation is a wonderful thing.

    I love how you describe your transition from angsty pseudo-fiction (if that’s a good name for it) to gutsy, meaningful genre work. With our Western way of boxing and categorizing, I think the line between literary and commercial work is often too heavily drawn. People like good stories that make them think. Period.

    Wish we’d met during the 20 years I spent in Fairbanks. That’s why all these electronic media are so great – finally you get to know, a little, these people you keep hearing about but whose paths never seem to cross with yours.

    Get back to us on the Twitter try-out. So far that’s where I draw the line. Which is why I suspect sci fi will never be my genre, even though I love the wild imaginative spins and ultra-cool ideas all spun with the usual stuff that makes fiction great. You guys don’t draw lines.

  2. It is constantly surprising to me to discover a new Alaskan author who has been published for more than five minutes. By that I mean that even though I intentionally look for Alaskan authors, it seems like I learn about them long after the fact and only by accident.

    I love SF and fantasy. I am in my forties and have been reading this genre for my whole life. I look forward to meeting David Marusek’s world.

  3. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Hooray — that’s what we’re here for! Thanks for commenting, Lynne. (And yes, isn’t it amazing? I’d seen Marusek’s name on the cover of Asimov’s magazine for YEARS without realizing he was an Alaskan. I only figured it out last year.)

  4. Can’t wait to read this and so happy to know–never would have know David Marusek, but I discovered “Cabbages and Kale” some months ago and was entranced–Andromeda said on this blog: “Cabbages and Kale or: How We Downsized North America” (in anthology Getting to Know You, 2007; story first published 1999) is Fairbanks writer Marusek’s SF story about an Alaskan Vice President!!! [who] “…makes virtual proxies of himself to attend votes, answer journalists’ questions, make appearances, and so on, spreading himself much more widely than a single individual ever could.

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