Author-to-Author, with Adam Christopher
This is the first of an on-going series of author-to-author interviews. I’ve decided to do them simply because I can… because I’ve so often read interviews with my favorite creators and felt a bit irked when interviewers don’t ask the questions I want to ask. So, now, I’m asking. And I’ve always loved the “author-to-author” (artist-to-artist, sasquatch-to-sasquatch, etc) style of interview, because I think there’s a warmth there that sometimes isn’t present in regulation interviews. I’m already lining up quite a few authors, both from the world of prose and also comics, so there’s a lot more of these ahead! First up, though, is novelist Adam Christopher…
Paul Tobin: First… since some readers of my blog might not be familiar with your work, give a brief, “this is who I am, and what I write.” And I do apologize for this question, because I hate it myself, but it’s as unavoidable as the eventual cold and lonely death of the universe.
Adam Christopher: My name is Adam Christopher, and I’m a writer! I write novels for Angry Robot and Tor – my debut novel, Empire State, is a pulpy noirish science fiction detective story set in an alternate version of New York that is stuck in a 1930s Prohibition nightmare. With robots, and airships, and a couple of superheroes. Seven Wonders – which is out now – is an all-out superhero epic, filled with spandex and laser beams and diabolical masterminds and domino masks.
And then there’s a couple more coming from Angry Robot – The Age Atomic, which is a sequel to Empire State (featuring a whole bunch of angry robots) due out in May 2013, and then there’s Hang Wire (May 2014), an urban fantasy set in San Francisco about ancient gods, a lost power, and a sentient circus.
My first novel for Tor is a dark space opera called Shadow’s Call, and that’s out in early 2014. It’s is set on a distant space station, bathed in toxic radiation from a nearby star, where a washed-up Fleet commander must battle a sentient mechanical spider race and its sinister allies with the help of a long-dead Cosmonaut and a sexy but troubled celebrity asteroid-miner. Which sounds like a lot of fun, but it’s also dark and creepy and scary – sort of a traditional haunted house story set in space, with added weirdness and maybe a little godpunk.
So as you can probably tell, I tend to write mostly science fiction which kinda crosses genres a little, with a foray now and then into something more fantastical.
PT: Sounds like your future is set in stone. Does that bother you a little, novel-wise? My own second novel, Agatha, is on the way. It’s part of a very loose trilogy… the Corridor trilogy. And there’s another novel in line, a standalone called Red Zipper Sidekick. And a middle readers series tentatively titled The Mysterious Worlds of Kirby Steinberg, but, that said… I’m still pretty much free to go in any direction. Your books have all these publication dates set already… can you feel them hanging over you, and if so, how do you deal with that?
AC: Well, the only thing that is set are the publication dates – and that suits me, because I like to be organized and I’m terribly impatient! But I’m currently working two-to-three books ahead of schedule – of the yet-to-be-released titles, The Age Atomic is the only one that I’m actually working on now. Hang Wire and Shadow’s Call – both not out until 2014 – are all done, not counting some editorial tweaks. The Age Atomic is the odd one out as I sold it to Angry Robot on the back of Empire State’s success – I had an idea for a sequel but hadn’t actually written it, whereas Hang Wire and Shadow’s Call were written more than a year ago, before I had even signed to Angry Robot or Tor.
So in terms of novels, I’ve still got the freedom to do what I like – after The Age Atomic is submitted later this year, I’ll be making the tweaks to the other two books, but then I’m back onto new projects. I’ve got at least four novels I can start, and hopefully I can get them all done in at least first draft in 2013 – it depends what my publishers would like to see and what my agent thinks I should be doing!
PT: Okay… now that you’ve said who you are and what you write, give us the romanticized version: who would you like to be, and what would you like to write?
AC: Good lord. Who would I like to be? I’d like to be a writer with a long and glorious career in novels and comics, with a bunch of cool film/TV adaptations of his work. Writing – being creative – for a living is a privilege few get to enjoy, and one that I hope I will never, ever take for granted. So I’d like to be a writer who writes because he loves to write and needs to write and wants to entertain his audience. Because that’s the name of the game, at the end of it all.
I want to write books that excite me. I want to bring to the page the ideas and stories that just demand to be written, that need to be told to other people. I hope I’m doing that already, but if we’re being specific, as well as science fiction and fantasy, I’ve got a whole lot of ideas for crime and thriller novels, maybe something a little more mainstream but still keeping a speculative element. I’ve got a corkboard on the wall in my office with little index cards on it, each representing a book idea. At last count, I’ve got maybe fifteen to twenty years of novel ideas stuck on that board, ranging from military science fiction to urban fantasy to police procedural.
Some of those ideas may – and some already have – morph into ideas for comics. Because comics are my passion along with prose fiction, so having a career in both forms is what I really want to be doing. But if I had the power to possess another writer I’d be Stephen King. He has a nice house.
PT: I don’t have a file index of ideas. Mine are on my computer, in a file labeled “unfinished.” I rarely look at it. The ideas come so fast that I don’t like to look backwards. Maybe I should, though. I wonder what’s in that file?
AC: Ha! This is why I have the corkboard on the wall and little bits of card – I need to see the ideas, every day. If I put them all into a file on my computer, I’d just forget about them. And I have a terrible memory – I’ve heard the advice that if you don’t remember an idea then it wasn’t a good one in the first place, but that doesn’t apply to me! And, like I said, perhaps some of those cards I have are not actually full novels. Maybe I’ll combine a couple to form a new idea, or maybe I’ll crib bits and pieces for another project. I find it a useful approach.
PT: Where do you write?
AC: I have two spots in the house for writing – upstairs in my office, I’ve got a nice desk and chair and a lovely big monitor. It feels more business-like up there, and I tend to work at the desk either when a deadline is approaching and I need to work more a nine-to-five day, or when I’m editing – here the large display comes in very handy, as I can easily compare multiple documents and keep notes, cut and paste sections of text, etc. Downstairs is the library, where I have an Eames chair, and that’s the spot where I start a new project and write perhaps 95% of the first draft on my Macbook Air. It’s a relaxed environment, I’m surrounded by shelves of books a nice view out into the back garden. It’s a very pleasant writing environment, and it doesn’t feel much like work when I’m in there – this is both a good thing and a bad thing, but when the work needs to be work, I shift upstairs to the office and desk.
PT: You don’t write anywhere else? It’s all in your house? No coffee shops? Tree houses? Volcano lairs?
AC: All in my house! I live in a small village which has a post office and shop, but that’s about it – no coffee shop, no library, no nothing. But I enjoy the solitude, and the view from my office window is pretty nice!
PT: Where do you wish you could write?
AC: When my wife and I moved to the UK about six years ago, we joined the National Trust, which is an organization that looks after hundreds of stately homes and historic sites that have been left to the nation. One of my favourite bits of visiting these amazing houses and properties is seeing the libraries – some are vast, and ancient, filled floor to ceiling with books, often with ladders to reach the upper shelves. There’ll be huge globes, and a giant antique desk. They always seem comfortable, and serene – the perfect writing spot, basically. Our library, in contrast, is a converted dining room and is microscopic in comparison. So if we lived in a country mansion – yeah, right – then I’d love to write in a library like the ones we can only visit.
PT: Well, now I’m jealous. Visiting those houses must not only be a treat, but also great research for your books. Have the locations made it into your writing?
AC: Not yet… but there may be an index card or two on the corkboard about a country house monster mystery…
PT: Right off the bat… “Country House Monster Mystery” makes my reading glands salivate. Write that thing. And, speaking of writing, you were talking about the corkboard and the notes for ideas… are you an author who works from copious notes, or are you gun-slinging the thoughts as they come to you, and revising later?
AC: I’m in-between – I write up a brief synopsis, not more than a page or so, and then construct a sort of “event list”. It’s not an outline or a full breakdown, but just a sequence of events that I know have to happen somewhere in the book. There are plenty of gaps all over the place, but I don’t worry about it at the beginning. Once I get writing, I find that if it is going well, the characters will start to do their own thing, moving the story in new and sometimes surprising directions. Because of this, it seems a bit of a waste of time to spend too much time working on the initial outline, if the story is just going to change anyway.
This does result in fairly long and messy first drafts, but my mantra, if you like, is to get the clay on the wheel. Once I’ve got a first draft – or really, a draft zero, as I call it – I can then start to carve the novel out of it. That’s not to say the zero draft is just a big word dump – there are a lot of blood, sweat and tears involved, as I’m sure all writers will attest to! – but it does mean I do a lot of work in the edit. But that works for me. I don’t edit as I write, I need to get the whole thing down from A to Z, and only then can I see what needs to rewritten, fixed, cut or developed. But hey, that works for me. The only thing that is a sure fact with writing is that all writers do it differently! But whatever works, works.
PT: Agreed. Too many writers worry about HOW to write. I’m all the time asked the “proper” way to write. There’s no such beast. And, yeah… editing. My own writing took LEAPS forward when I finally understood that a first draft is only a draft. It’s going to have problems. Don’t be haunted by them. Just herd them aside and then make them behave… later.
AC: Exactly right. Only when you have the first draft can you see the story as a whole and, importantly, what is missing or needs to be fixed.
PT: Myself, I have a whole batch of writers who I consider as influences, but I don’t really write like any of them. Is it that way for you, or do you find yourself with a certain level of emulation?
AC: I do have a whole lot of writers I consider influences, but like yourself, I don’t think I write like any of them. But I think emulation is hard to shake off sometimes – in fact, I’ve found a direct correlation between what I’m reading and how my writing is going. If the writing is going well, the words come pouring out and I’m quite happy, it’ll coincide with me really enjoying the book I am currently reading. Conversely, when writing is like squeezing blood of a stone and, as Stephen King once said, I’m just shoveling shit from a sitting position, it’ll be because I’m not enjoying the book I’m reading.
Unfortunately, despite knowing this pattern, I never recognize it is happening until after the fact. So I’ll have a couple of weeks were writing is an agonizing chore, and then everything will pick up and I’ll realize that I’ve started reading a new novel that I enjoy. But going back to the emulation thing, I guess something of what I’m reading must therefore make it into what I’m writing. But that’s what the edit is for – usually I can spot it in the rewrite and revoice or rework the problem areas. Some writers I know don’t read any fiction at all when they’re writing their own, for fear of emulation or influence. All writers emulate when they start out, and there’s nothing wrong with that, because you want to write like your favourite writers and it takes a very long time to find your own voice and style. But if you keep at it long enough, I think it becomes less of an issue.
PT: I’m so glad you talked about this. It’s exactly the same with me… the fact that if I’m writing poorly, I can almost always find a correlation that I’m currently reading poorly. Getting so caught up in my own works that they’re just chewing on themselves. Reading a good book can alleviate that, open new fonts of creativity. I just finished Steve McHugh’s Crimes Against Magic (which I muchly enjoyed) and am now working on A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. Both have really invigorated my own writing. And, like you, I can’t BELIEVE when I forget the whole, “you have to read well to write well” truism. So, how about you, any good books lately?
AC: I don’t read fast enough, which annoys me – I have friends who burn through 200 books a year. I’m lucky if I get through one a month. It’s not that I’m a slow reader as such, it’s just the old problems of time and being easily distracted. But this year has been a good one – my favourites so far have been Alpha by Greg Rucka, The Testimony by James Smythe, This Dark Earth by John Hornor Jacobs, Shift by Kim Curran, and The Professionals by Owen Laukkanen. As you can see, I try to spread my reading around genres – in the above list you’ve got thriller (Rucka), crime (Laukkanen), zombies (Jacobs), YA SF (Curran), adult SF (Smythe). At the moment I’m going through a bit of a non-fiction phase (or at least am trying to alternate fiction with non-fiction) – I recently read Mirage Men by Mark Pilkington, which is about the UFO phenomenon and its relationship with US military and intelligence agencies and their disinformation programmes (which sounds kooky, but it’s a very sensible, serious analysis). And right now I’m in the middle of The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America, by David Hajdu, which is insane and terrifying and bewildering. And brilliant. And scary. So very, very scary.
PT: Authors are always interviewed about the right things to do… give me your thoughts on the WRONG things to do.
AC: Ha! The worst thing a writer can do is listen to all that advice on what the right thing to do is! Every writer is different, and for every so-called rule there is an exception to it. When you’re starting out, then you need the basics – grammar, spelling, the fundamentals of written language. But once you’ve got those down, you can break them, bend them, do what you like. But there’s a more important thing that writers should do: worry. The “Fear” hits us all – even Neil Gaiman, who famously called his agent halfway through a manuscript to express his concerns that he was writing a load of old rubbish, only for his agent to sigh and tell him that, oh, it was that time of the first draft again. So: don’t worry. Don’t worry about your writing, don’t worry about what other people are writing. Don’t worry about how long it is taking, don’t worry about it being good or bad or in-between. Don’t worry about your writing. A first draft is a first draft because there comes a second draft and then a third draft. Write what you want to write, and write it how you want to write it. The Fear will still arrive, unannounced, usually at an inopportune moment (like when you have a week left on your deadline), but: don’t worry.
PT: So true. I’m 60,000 words into my current novel (Emma Piplin’s School For Ghosts) and only now banishing the feeling of, “Garbage. This is all garbage.” Luckily, I’ve grown to understand that feeling will always be around. I’m almost comfortable with it. Like I’m sitting down to the computer and nodding to it, saying, “It may not be today, but, soon, I will defeat you.”
AC: I think the Fear is an important part of the process though. If you’re not convinced your work is garbage at those early stages then I think something is going wrong!
PT: When you’re writing, how many ninja attackers and/or naked dancing girls would it take to distract you?
AC: Ha! The mere thought of either of those is enough to bring my writing crashing to a halt. Seriously, I’ve got procrastination down to a fine art, which means every day is a battle. But I can recognize the signs, and I know that the only way to beat it is to sit down and write. But when I do write, the internet goes off and I put on my headphones, so it’s just me, the keyboard, and some music to drown out the world around me.
PT: I only wish I could turn off the internet, but I need constant reference, and the internet provides me with that steady stream. Of course, it also provides so much more. So much DISTRACTING more.
AC: I know the feeling! I use it for quick research too, but I’ve at least learned to close Twitter and email while I work. I KNOW! You can close Twitter? Crazy, right? What’ll they think of next? Some kind of delicious caffeinated beverage that makes your brain work, most likely.
PT: I know you love comics and superheroes… what are some of your favorite comics, and favorite moments in comics?
AC: I read a lot of comics, and I mean a lot. Recently I’ve been enjoying a bunch of the new DC titles – Aquaman is probably my favourite, and then there’s I, Vampire, World’s Finest, Earth-2, Batwoman, Demon Knights. Outside of DC, I’ve been working my way through Ed Brubaker’s back catalogue, actually starting with Gotham Central (which he co-wrote with Greg Rucka), then Criminal, Captain America, and Fatale. I’ve been sampling a lot of Marvel recently, including Daredevil and Greg Rucka’s current Punisher run, as well as going back to some older material including Journey into Mystery. Actually I tend to follow creators – so anything and everything by Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka and Kurt Busiek you’ll likely find on my shelves. I’ve also been enjoying the new titles from Monkeybrain… there’s some guy called Paul Tobin who’s even done one for them…
PT: Sounds like we have similar tastes. I’m a huge fan of Greg’s work, and Brubaker’s as well. Kurt Busiek is a long term favourite. I keep trying to get him to write novels. I know he wants to, so… maybe one day. Oh, and, yes… that Tobin kid over at Monkeybrain, the one that does that Bandette comic, I will egotistically point out that I like his work, too. You should think about rounding up a Monkeybrain book of your own!
AC: A Kurt Busiek novel would be a wonderful thing. I’d like to see Ed Brubaker do one too. A Monkeybrain book of my own, eh? Well… a boy can dream, can’t he? *Ahem* Hey, Mr. Roberson, have I mentioned recently what great taste in comics you have? No? Well, lemme tell you…
PT: On the topic of comics, who are the artists, past and present, you would love to collaborate with?
AC: I adore the work of Ivan Reis, Amanda Conner, Nicola Scott, Francis Manipul and Kevin Maguire – and they’re just a small handful. I’m a fan of “traditional modern” superhero art, if such a thing can be said to exist. Having said that, I count Darwyn Cooke, Alex Ross and Sean Phillips among my favourites too. Ah, one day!
PT: Great choices! I’ve recently finished a series of blog posts on my favourite female characters in literature, and I’d guess that Darwyn Cooke was the most heavily represented artist for the images I posted. It would certainly make my week / year to work with him. I’ve an upcoming / unannounced series with Alex Ross on the first cover. Really want to get that out there!
AC: Waaaah. An Alex Ross cover? Ay, carumba! I am made of jealousy.
PT: Have you ever written something, then stepped back from it and thought, “Oh sweet hell! I can’t publish THAT! People will think I’m insane / sick / homicidal!” And… did you erase it, or go ahead and publish it anyway?
AC: Actually… no I haven’t. That’s not to say I haven’t written stuff that is difficult or uncomfortable, because I have, but that’s all part of the game. I have written some stuff which is pretty bizarre, too, although I hope people don’t fear for my state of mind after reading it! But nothing I write is autobiographical or anything like that!
PT: That brings up a question. How much of yourself do you put into your writing? Obviously you don’t have superpowers and I can’t remember you being an international playboy spy type, but… what of Adam Christopher is in your books?
AC: That’s an interesting question and one I’m not entirely sure I can answer accurately, because to be honest I don’t know. You’d need to ask someone who knows me AND has read my work to find out, I think. Because I don’t deliberately put myself into my books, anything that ends up in there will be unconscious. Then again, that’s what Stephen King said and look at all those books about ex-English teachers with drinking problems… if you find a character in one of my books is having difficulty with their tea addiction, let me know and I’ll get myself to rehab, pronto…
PT: In closing, I’d like to give Adam a big thanks for taking his time to answer my questions. Y’all should go check out his books! And mine, of course. Mine too.
A huge wealth of my work in the field of comics can be found… HERE.