Interview: John Scalzi

By Dawn Burnell

John Scalzi Photo

John Scalzi is a particularly well-known author for one just putting out his first published novel, Old Man's War. He has published four nonfiction books (The Rough Guide Money Online, The Rough Guide to the Universe, Uncle John's Presents: Book of the Dumb, and Book of the Dumb 2) previously, as well as the "shareware to freeware" novel Agent to the Stars, which in addition to being featured on his website, is also slated for limited hardcover release in July. He is currently working on The Rough Guide to Science Fiction Films, as well as two novels (one of which, entitled Ghost Brigades, is a sequel to Old Man's War). He is a regular convention attendee and known in the speculative literature field for his commentary on the Science Fiction film industry and occasional critiques of SF books. He maintains two blogs: Whatever, his personal blog, and By the Way, where he is paid by AOL to help provide a community atmosphere to AOL's "JLand" (AOL's weblog presence).

Dawn Burnell: You wrote Agent to the Stars in 1997. Galaxy Quest came out in 1999. Do you think it was a matter of synchronicity or do you believe there was a similar starting point for two different plots that involved aliens receiving TV broadcasts from Earth?

John Scalzi: They stole the idea from me, those bastards.

I suspect it's coincidence more than anything else. The idea of aliens responding to signals from our planet certainly isn't new, and is probably most prominently used in Carl Sagan's 1985 novel Contact (and the subsequent 1997 movie), in which aliens respond to one of the first powerful television transmissions, from the 1936 Olympics (which, alas, featured Hitler). I can't imagine I was the first or will be the last person to imagine how aliens might respond to repeated transmissions of Gilligan's Island. And of course, just imagine how we would respond to alien sitcoms. No doubt our newly minted xenosociologists would declare they had some sort of significance when in fact they were the extraterrestrial equivalent of "Gilligan, drop that coconut."

DB: Did you edit Agent to the Stars between finishing it and sending it out to publishers or publishing it as a shareware novel?

JS: No. It is pretty much as it was when I finished it (that's content-wise; mind you—I did and still do go through to root out typos). Whatever editing that needed to be done—in my opinion—I did in the process of writing and was done when I finished. That's why it's called "being finished."

Now, had the novel been purchased by a publisher when I originally sent it out, and an editor had asked me to revisit some aspect of the novel, I probably would have been happy to go back and do the revisions required to make it publishable. But none did. For my own part I was happy with it, and the few people who read it as beta-testers had no problems getting through the structure. It was done.

I recently sold Agent to Subterranean Press for a limited edition release, and for that, I'm going back through for another round of typo-hunting and updating a few dated references in the story. By and large, however, it's as originally written.

DB: Would you, or would you not, recommend offering a first novel as shareware, as you did with Agent, to new authors?

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JS: No, I would recommend they try to sell it, presuming they are happy with the novel, and that they want to try to sell it, which most people would. Agent was never intended to be sold; I wrote it pretty much to see if I could write a novel, and finishing it was its own reward. Since I had no expectations of ever making money with it, or indeed having anyone see it but me, my wife, and some friends, placing it up on my site as "shareware" was an easy decision to make, one of those "hmmm, I wonder what would happen if . . ." things.

When you have no expectations for a work, everything that happens to it is largely a positive thing. Agent was a ton of fun to write, and as shareware, it provided constant pizza money for five years, and then it did eventually sell to a small press publisher. I couldn't be happier with it. However, I don't expect most writers write their first novels with the same expectations I had. Most would-be authors—and reasonably so—want to sell their books as quickly as possible.

DB: While Agent to the Stars was a fun, happy romp, you managed to work in some serious issues, such as "What is self?" You touch on that issue again in Old Man's War. Why does this issue fascinate you so much?

JS: Questions of self are interesting because a sense of self is pretty much the one thing every human has in common with every other human (and, in science fiction, what every sentient creature has with every other sentient creature). It's a universal, or at least appears so, and is thus a fertile field for examination and play for writers.

Also, in the case of both Agent and Old Man's War, a central character in each undergoes a fairly substantial change during the course of the respective stories. It would be a failure on the part of the writer—which is to say, me—not to examine issues of self in those cases.

First of all, because in both cases, the change is so radical that the issue of self is central to the plot. Second, because it would be a missed opportunity to do cool things with the characters, and I don't want to be the idiot writer who misses the chance for that sort of play.

DB: Old Man's War originally appeared on your blog Whatever. When was that? Did you finish it before it was bought by Tor? When did you take it down?

JS: It was during the month of December in 2002; I serialized a chapter a day. I had finished it about a year before that. I took it down in January of 2003, after Tor asked to buy the book. I felt that since they made the offer, and I accepted, it was the prudent thing to do until we had a sit-down and discussed the specifics of the contract. I would note that Tor never said "We want to buy the book, but you have to take it down from your site"; I made the decision unilaterally.

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In general, I think Tor is very forward-thinking in terms of electronic copies of their books as sales tools—the obvious example would be their agreement with Cory Doctorow, in which Cory lets people download electronic copies of his books for free while Tor sells the printed editions—and I suspect if I had asked, they would have allowed me to keep Old Man's War on the site. But, you know, I personally felt it should be taken down. Agent is still on the site and exists as a fine representative sample of my novel-writing style; I figure people can judge from that whether they want to take a chance on Old Man's War.

DB: How much did Old Man's War change in between you writing it for your blog and it being published by Tor?

JS: Aside from much needed copyediting, almost none. I think less than fifty words are changed from when I serialized it on my site to its printed version. I need to make very clear that I don't expect this will be the case with every one of my books (indeed, for one of my upcoming books I need to go in and do a time-placement retrofit, which will require some tinkering in the majority of the chapters). But it's nice to get it right the first time.

DB: Did you write Old Man's War for reasons similar to why you wrote Agent to the Stars? Specifically, for your own benefit and not to sell? Or did you intend to sell Old Man's War from the beginning?

JS: Old Man's War was written with the intention of selling it. I did make one or two halfhearted attempts to sell Agent before I put it up on my site, and the feedback I got from agents at the time was that while they liked the book, it would be difficult to place, because it was humorous and/or taking place in contemporary time and/or not easily classifiable. So I basically asked myself: Well, what is easy to place? Off I went to the bookstore to stare at the science fiction racks, in which, it seemed, most of the new fiction at the time was military fiction. So I said, fine, I'll try military fiction.

I imagine this sounds at least vaguely cynical, at least in part because it is. My response to this is pretty straightforward: I'm a writer by profession, and to some extent, writing professionally is about going to where the opportunities are. It seemed to me—correctly, as it turns out—I'd have more opportunity to get published if I wrote in this particular subgenre. Now, having said that, I wanted to write a military SF story that I would want to read, on the principle that if you don't write something you want to read, you can't expect anyone else to want to read it either. So while the subgenre of Old Man's War was chosen for commercial reasons, the resulting story is one I'm personally very engaged with. And I think—in terms of selling one's work—that's likely to be the best combination of situations.

Now, even though I intended to write a commercial work, once I finished writing the book, I simply dreaded the prospect of actually trying to sell it. As any newbie writer will tell you, selling that first book is just a big goddamn drag. And by this point I already had a decade-long career writing nonfiction books and doing other sorts of professional writing, so neither money nor self-affirmation as a writer was much of a motivation. Also, I'm lazy. So I decided, screw it, I'll serialize it on the Web site. And, of course, that's where Patrick Nielsen Hayden (Tor's senior editor) read it, and how the book came to the house of Tor.

So I'm happy to say the book did indeed sell, despite my clear attempts to sabotage its chances of ever making it into book form.

DB: Why did you choose John Perry as the name for your main character, given your own name of John?

JS:I'm absolutely awful with coming up with names. "John Perry" actually has nothing to do with me; it's a mash-up of the names of two members of the rock band Journey, being keyboardist Jonathan Cain and former vocalist Steve Perry. And indeed, the next person named in the book (a former neighbor of John Perry's) is named Steve Cain. Other characters in the book are named after other people in other bands, as well as friends and other writers. There's a probably-rather-too-obvious shout-out to Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, whose last names I dropped in as placeholders for two minor characters and who I intended to sub out later (because they are pretty obvious) but then forgot to do so. So to Gaiman and McKean: sorry for being such a rank fanboy. Hope you like the book. Please don't sue.

DB: I have to admit, from reading the book and knowing how much you love your wife and the name similarities, I had to wonder if Old Man's War is a fictional future autobiography. Have any comments on that?

JS: Yes, John Perry is my Mary Sue. Shhhh. Don't tell.

The book is not directly autobiographical in any meaningful way; John Perry starts the book in my hometown, and later in the book mentions he was a writer back on earth, but that's again due more to my own laziness than an active attempt to pour some part of myself into the character. Kathy Perry (John's wife) shares a first initial with my wife Kristine, but otherwise I would again hesitate to make too much of a direct connection.

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However, what is absolutely drawn from my relationship with my wife is the general concept of John Perry's marriage being a central part of who he is as a person. Perry's situation does not track as autobiographical, but at the same time I could not have written him without being married to the person I am married to, and having the relationship I have with her, because that relationship gave me insight into this critical part of Perry's personality. So yes, my own marriage helped me write this book, although not in a direct and obvious way.

DB: Moulin Rouge is "a story about love." So is Old Man's War. What else is it a story of?

JS: Hmmmmm. This sounds suspiciously like a test question. I'm terrified of what happens if I, as the author, get it wrong.

The book has several elements, of course—the military fiction, and the friendships and even the love element (which I suppose is an unusual thing to have paired up with military science fiction). But what it's mostly a story of (from my perspective, at least) is me trying very hard not to stink as a storyteller. A book can be "about" any number of things, but if it's painful to read, it might as well be about nothing, since no one's going to drag their eyeballs through it (except the occasional unfortunate reviewer, and at least they're getting paid).

In the movie Barton Fink, the Barton Fink character is out on a picnic with another writer whom he idolizes, and who is clearly modeled after William Faulkner. The two are discussing the writing craft, and Fink is very passionate about how his writing comes from personal pain, and how it's his duty as a writer to ease the suffering of his fellow man, and the Faulkner character says, well, I just like making things up. And while there are other aspects of the ersatz-Faulkner I'd rather not align myself with (including the drinking and partner abuse), in this thing, I totally identify. I just like making things up.

Ideally, rather than telling people what the book's story is about, I'll get the pleasure of people telling me what they think the story is about. And it's entirely possible that what I think the book's about and what they think it's about are entirely different things (it's already happened with some of the reviews I've seen), but the thing is, they'll have read the book, and they'll have an interest in talking about it. And that means that as a storyteller, I wrote something someone thought was worth reading and discussing. That qualifies as a happy ending to the story for me.

DB: When you wrote Old Man's War did you intend for it to become a series, as you are now in the process of writing the sequel The Ghost Brigades?

JS: I wrote Old Man's War as a stand-alone, which I think is how all books should be written. I hate going to a bookstore, picking up an interesting book, and seeing the terrible words "Book II of the [insert consonant-heavy made-up word] Saga/Trilogy/Series" when Book I is nowhere to be found. Honestly. Way not to make a sale.

The Ghost Brigades will be the sequel to Old Man's War, in that it takes place in the same universe and will feature elements that will be familiar to people who have read Old Man's War. But it will absolutely be a stand-alone book, in that you won't need to have read Old Man's War to get into it. I don't want to give potential readers an excuse not to buy it, and (more importantly) as a writer it gives me the freedom to do lots of things that you can't with a sequel that has to integrate closely with an earlier book.

I think the Old Man's War universe is extensible, and I think it would be fun to write in it, since there are lots of things I want to know about the universe that I don't yet know. But I'd like to be sure that where—and when—ever a reader comes into that universe, they don't feel like they should have read something else first.

DB: Obviously Heinlein (specifically Starship Troopers) had a huge, self-admitted impact on your writing for Old Man's War. Are there any other authors who you would cite as having a large impact on your overall writing?

JS: Well, there are writers you think you might write like, and writers whom you suspect you won't, and you can learn from both. In the SF/F genre, Orson Scott Card, Steven Brust, Allen Steele, Neal Stephenson, and John Varley I put in the former category, and Ray Bradbury, Vernor Vinge, David Brin, Sherri Tepper, and Susan Cooper in the latter. Outside of the genre, I look to mystery writers for style tips, and I'm particularly fond of Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard, as well as William Goldman (who writes in the thriller genre among others). I also love James Thurber and Robert Benchley for humor.

There are also a number of writers who have had an impact on my writing, in the sense I see them as examples of how not to write, but naming them would be uncharitable. Be that as it may, you can learn a lot from writing you don't like, as much as from writing you do.

DB: You recently listed your favorite authors in your blog. Is there anyone you care to add to this list that you originally compiled in 1998?

JS: The problem with listing newer authors I like is that I'm beginning to make friends with a number of fellow SF writers, so what I'm reading recently is the writing of people I know I like. As it happens, most of these folks are also kick-ass writers, so that's good (it would be bad to like someone but to think their writing sucks), but even so I'm not pretending to be objective about them.

With that caveat: I've been reading a lot of Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross recently, and I think their writing is a bunch of fun, since both of them are kicking out big ideas at a furious rate. In particular, I think Charlie's Accelerando (which comes out in July, I think) is going to be the book to beat in 2005, since it's one sledgehammer to the frontal lobe after another. I'm also a big fan of Scott Westerfeld and Justine Larbalestier, both of whom are writing really great YAs at the moment. I'm also enjoying Nick Sagan's Idlewild series quite a bit; it's a pretty nifty reinterpretation of both cyberpunk and post-apocalypse themes. And while I'm not a huge reader of fantasy, I've been enjoying Naomi Kritzer's books very much.

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Aside from friends, the one writer I've added to my "get everything from this person" list is China Miéville, who has a style I love to read and could never even pretend to write.

DB: You note that Agent to the Stars was not a story "near and dear to [your] heart." Was Old Man's War that story, or do we get to look forward to another great story yet to come?

JS: Well, to be clear, I like Agent's story very much—it was a lot of fun to think about and to write. But I think a lot of beginning writers try to write about something really important to them right out of the box, and to be successful in doing so, which I think is a little like expecting to hit a hole-in-one your first time at a golf tee. With my first novel (which, remember, I had no intention to sell), I just wanted to hit one on the fairway. So I chose a story about space aliens and Hollywood, which seemed to me a doable enterprise. And if I had mangled Agent beyond all recognition, it wouldn't have killed me or my desire to write.

I'm a little wary about consciously trying to sit down to write a "great story." There's that old saying: "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." I want to write a good story, one that keeps a reader wanting to read. I think that within the confines of a good story one can write some fairly significant things, so long as they are in service to that story. In Old Man's War, I think I touch on a number of significant topics, but the operative word there is "touch." If you start calling attention to what you're doing, your story is likely to grind to a halt and you've pulled your reader out of the world you've created to go "Look! A significant point is being made!" I mean, it's better to assume your reader isn't stupid and can handle some subtlety.

In other words, the moment I say to someone, "I will now sit down to write My Great Story," I hope they will do me the courtesy of braining me with a shovel. For now, I'll stick to trying to write good stories, and see where that gets me.

DB: Do you outline before writing your novels, or just go in with a basic idea and write as things happen? I ask because some things, such as the early reference to the "Ghost Brigades" in Old Man's War, seem to indicate a Master Plan, but you said for Agent that you just came up with an idea and wrote.

JS: I usually have a couple of scenes in my head (usually the opening and the ending), but other than that I just write and see what happens. This works for me, since it means I can roll with what comes out. Hopefully at the end of it, it looks like you had a master plan all along.

DB: You've written both fiction and nonfiction in your career. Which do you prefer? Which is easier?

JS: It's an issue of the individual books, not whether it's fiction or nonfiction. Some books are easier, some are harder; some require research while others you can just bang out. Sometimes a project is difficult simply because your brain decides you should be doing something else. I like writing both fiction and nonfiction for the same reason people can like two different flavors of ice cream. Also, strictly as a matter of being a working writer, it's better to have more than one writing skill. If for some reason my fiction writing career hits a bump, I still have nonfiction, or vice versa.

Also, at this point in my fiction writing career, writing fiction doesn't exactly pay large sums, whereas my nonfiction books pay better. So to some extent, my nonfiction career makes it possible to have my fiction career. So I'm happy to continue both.

DB: You are currently working on The Rough Guide to Science Fiction Films. What was the most fun about working on that book? The least fun?

JS: Well, watching the movies is generally fun, as is reviewing them. The least fun is the drudge work of research. It's fun to learn stuff (and then to know it), but finding the information can be a real slog, and no fun at all. Fortunately I live in an era that includes the Internet, which makes finding information easier (even if then you have to take special care to verify, because the Internet lies lies lies). I can't even imagine how people wrote research-intensive books before 1997. I would kill myself, I swear.

DB: Do you think your training as a journalist and a critic helped your foray into fiction, hindered it, or neither?

JS: It's definitely helped. From the journalist side I've learned to organize information and then write it compactly and directly, which can be useful, particularly if you have a lot of information to get through and you don't want to bore your reader with too much exposition. As a critic, I've been exposed to thousands of movies, albums, and books, and in coming to an opinion about each of them, I had to figure out why they worked (or didn't). If you're open to it, it's an excellent way to learn about storytelling structures.

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I'd also mention that my stint as an editor has been extremely useful; having spent a fair amount of time grinding through a slush pile and then working with writers to get their work to publishing quality helps me in my own writing, and also makes me willing to believe my editor might actually have my best interests at heart, which is something writers often have a hard time believing.

DB: You are an avid fan of music, both independent and commercial. Do you have a set playlist you use when you are writing? If so, does it change for fiction and nonfiction, or on a chapter/scene basis?

JS: I don't tend to listen to music when I write; it's distracting (the exception, naturally enough, being when I write music reviews). If I do listen to music while I'm actually writing, it's usually either fairly sedate classical piano or ambient electronic music (particularly work by Brian Eno). I listen to music pretty much all the rest of the time, however, so it evens out.

DB: What is a normal day for you like, given your home office, several projects, official AOL journaler status, and role as a father and husband?

JS: Heh. You make it sound so dramatic.

The typical day has me waking up, getting my daughter off to school, and then sitting down and typing one thing or another until it's time to get my daughter from school. Then it's a combination of work and doing stuff with her, and then my wife comes home and in the evening we do family stuff and I'll catch up on reading and whatever. Repeat (hopefully) for the next 40 years or so. Now, this routine changes when I'm on a deadline, in which case I disappear into my home office for days at a time, but by and large it's routine and uneventful.

Which is as it should be; writing is many things to many people, but for me, it's also a job, and as with any job, it helps to keep fairly regular hours. Yes, it's kind of unromantic and anticlimactic to say that. On the other hand, when the FedEx guy shows up with the first copy of your first novel, and you stand there staring at the physical manifestation of your job, well, that is definitely climactic. It's the results that matter.

DB: Thank you, John, for taking the time to talk with Strange Horizons.


Essays by John that are good reading:

"John Scalzi's Utterly Useless Writing Advice"

"Even More Long-Winded (But Practical) Writing Advice"

"My So-Called Writing Life"

"The Real World Book Deal Descriptions"


Dawn Burnell Photo

Dawn Burnell is a chemist, reader, writer, and wife. She believes in exploring all of her nonfiction and fiction writing avenues, having been published in Strange Horizons before for her nonfiction. Look for her fiction soon! (As soon as she sells it . . .) Read more by Dawn in our archives.