I am stoked to be able to bring you another interview! I had the great privilege of speaking to author and publisher Keith Stevenson this week. Keith kindly took time out of his busy schedule as a writer, editor, and publisher (just writing that makes me tired!) to chat to Smash Dragons about things such as publishing and his latest work Horizon.
Keith Stevenson, welcome to Smash Dragons!
Thanks! I reckon if there are going to be dragons, they should definitely be smashing.
First up, tell us a bit about yourself and your latest novel Horizon.
Well I'm a lifelong science fiction fan, brought up on a steady diet of Star Trek, Star Wars, Dr Who and far too many movies to remember.
I've also been an avid SF reader since my pre-teens, ingesting huge swathes of Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov, Frederick Pohl, Larry Niven, Robert Heinlein, Clifford D Simak, Cordwainer Smith, you name it.
In fact you can see my classic 20th C SF book cover library at https://plus.google.com/u/0/photos/109151181836305827945/albums/5679414457116568945 So I'm a hopeless case. And I always wanted to write a science fiction novel that was set in space and that delivered the kind of excitement, believable characters, ethical and moral dilemmas and physical dangers that I enjoyed reading about in the best SF. The result is Horizon.
Why did you become a writer? Was it something that you were always going to pursue?
I started out writing horror stories for my primary school newspaper. So it's always been something I've done. I love story. I love how flexible plot can be and how you can go deep or pull back. I love how stories are never really over. There's always more you can do with them and that exploration of story, tracking the consequences of what you've created or stumbling over something you've never consciously considered is a deep, deep pleasure. It's the best job I can think of. Just a pity the pay sucks :)
Why science fiction? What is it about that particular genre that you find so appealing?
Everyone will tell you their genre allows them to do stuff no other genre can. That's probably not true. SF has some pluses in its facility to create non-real places. But the thing I love about it is, no matter how dark, it posits a future where humanity persists, no matter how changed.
Where did the inspiration for Horizon come from? What challenges did you face in writing the story?
I wanted to write something relatively near future and scientifically believable. The idea came from a daydream musing I had of an astronaut waking in a panic on board a ship. You'll recognize that's the first scene of Horizon and it's the perfect set up because so many questions suddenly arise about who they are, how they got there and what danger they're facing. This was also my first novel so the major challenge was writing something at novel length that held together plot wise and maintained pace. As a multiple character piece it was also important to create a group of individuals that had their own unique take on the situations and sounded like different people. And of course the science of designing a starship, and a planet and all the gizmos they use meant lots of research.
One of the things I loved about Horizon was the intriguing universe it was set in. Will we ever see a prequel outlining how events on Earth unfolded?
It was important for me to write a story that felt complete in itself. I never considered a sequel or a prequel when I was developing Horizon. But of course time passes and coming back to the story after reading some of the reviews where folk said they wished they could see more of what happens on Earth made me see how I could expand it out further while adding some more dramatic tension.
Some other readers said they really wanted to get inside the head of Bren, the transhuman bio-jack, and I think there's a lot more to her story and the situation she finds herself in on the ship that could be teased out. So along with my other writing projects I'm plotting out 'Horizon Expanded' which may see the light of day as a print book in a couple of years (when the print rights revert to me - unless, of course, HarperCollins feel like publishing it!)
Your characters in Horizon were both fascinating and deeply layered. What is the secret to good characterization in your opinion?
I'm really glad you said that because I put a lot of work into them. For me, at least, good characters don't happen overnight. You have to work at them through rewrite after rewrite, trying out motivations, words and thoughts until you get to a point where you feel the 'person' is not bent out of shape by the requirements of the plot, but rather they act how they should act and this creates plot tensions and opportunities. You have to love all your characters as well, respect each of them and their points of view, because they believe in what they're doing and saying. They have no other choice. Some readers thought Lex, the ship's doctor, was a childish arsehole. And certainly that's true on the surface, but he could also be charming and beneath it all he has deeply held beliefs that he struggles to be true to, regardless of the cost. You have to respect that. Or I do, anyway. Even Bowen my 'big bad', is simply trying to do his job the best way he knows how. The stakes are high and he can't afford to lose...
In Horizon the theme of climate change and planetary degradation is a prominent one. What attracted you to incorporating this into your story?
It's funny, much of the early development work on Horizon took place in the early 2000s and climate change was a hot topic then. It's depressing to see that it's still a hot topic and that governments have done so little to address it. Since the journey in Horizon only starts about 70 years in the future (although it takes decades to get to the planet) it felt natural that the battle against climate change would be part of the history of the people on board the ship. But also when it came to researching and creating the planet Horizon, I learnt a lot about how planetary development and climate were inextricably linked and it made sense to carry that theme through into the exploration phase of the story: to see how climate can change on a geological scale and how it can rapidly degrade from a colonist point of view even when it's a natural product of planetary development. Climate is so important to us here on Earth. It will continue to be important no matter where we go. We can never escape it.
When writing are you an architect or a gardener? Take me through your average day of writing… do you work best in the morning… night?
I'm a bit of both. For Horizon I had a full plot treatment up front because it was written as part of a creative writing course. My Lenticular Series, which I'm working on now, is an expansion of a series of short stories, so while I didn't have such a detailed plot, I did know the key elements of my protagonist's journey. I write in the mornings on the train in to work. I'm usually pretty relaxed and not focused on work at that time which lets me kind of drift and follow the story. The other thing is that I write first drafts with pen and paper, which also means it's slow. I have time to think about what I'm writing while I write it and what I'll write next. It's almost meditative.
You have been picked to pilot NASA’s Orion spacecraft. You can select 3 other Australian writers to make up your crew. Who do you pick, and why?
Well if I can choose non-living authors, my first pick would be Paul Haines because he was one of the best blokes I knew and also a sick and twisted motherf*cker when it came to telling a story. We'd spend ship-time listening to XTC tracks, of which he had a huge collection. Next up would be Brendan Duffy. He's got a science background, which might come in handy, but also a brain that just doesn't stop spinning, and an evil sense of humour. I take it there's alcohol on board. Rounding out the team would be Matthew Chrulew (Choof). No bullshit and massive knowledge about all kinds of stuff you never even knew you wanted to know about.
Not only are you a writer, but you also are an editor and publisher. How on earth do you manage to get any sleep?
It all comes down to pacing and passion. And I sleep just fine :)
Tell me about the origins of coeur de lion. What motivated you to set this publishing company up, and was one of your goals to promote local writers?
CDL was set up by me and fellow writer Andy Macrae over a drunken conversation that we wanted to publish an anthology called c0ck. Simple as that (and we did). But it's become more than that over the years. I get a real thrill out of finding stories by Australian writers that I think are really good, and I feel obligated to do what I can to help those stories find a wider readership.
As a publisher what are the top three mistakes that aspiring authors make when submitting?
Make sure you meet the submission requirements in terms of theme, genre and word count (as well as timing of submissions). Make sure you're work is the best you can make it before subbing i.e. no spelling/ grammar errors or plot inconsistencies, cardboard characterization, clunky dialogue and setting. Make sure you have a good knowledge of the genre you are writing in, because the editor will and if you don't and you reinvent the wheel or trot out well-worn tropes you won't make the cut.
What is your take on book piracy? There seems to be an argument that suggests it can in actual fact be great for overall sales. What do you think?
This is a really complicated question. I'm opposed to DRM on eBooks because it makes the reading experience something different from what it has been. I can share print books with my partner or friends. DRM tries to make it hard to do that, which is a pain. Also DRM is pretty useless because anyone with an internet connection can work out how to crack it pretty quickly. So it annoys readers and fails to protect publishers - it's no benefit whatsoever.
Book piracy is another thing. For an author who's published a lot of books, if one or two of their books get pirated by someone, and that person reads them and likes them, they will probably buy other books by that author, so in a way it generates sales for the author. But if you're just starting out as an author and you don't have any other books out there, you're basically being ripped off by the pirate with no hope of a downstream sale. So it's all relative.
What is your take on the local science fiction scene at the moment? Are there any up and coming writers we should look out for in 2015?
I think the community has been going from strength to strength since the early 2000s and it just keeps getting better. There are many more opportunities to hook up with publishers, particularly in the eBook arena now, and publishers are really on the lookout for talent here. There's so much talent out there, a lot of which I've published in anthologies, and continue to do so in Dimension6, and most of them will be working on novels. It's just a matter of time and opportunity. Really I know so many writers I couldn't pick one or two names out as meriting close attention. Just read Dimension6!
Where do you see the Australian speculative fiction scene in ten years?
I think we'll all be consuming more fiction digitally and the broadening of markets and channels for publication will continue to expand. That may make it more difficult for individual authors to be heard, but quality writing that is well-developed, well-edited and well-presented will continue to rise to the top.
What are your favourite science fiction books? Why?
That's a bit of a hard one too. I've read so many. Some have stayed with me for years, though and I think about them every now and then (and in fact I've blogged about them here:
They are: Stand by For Mars Carey Rockwell - for a young boy this was a real seat-of-the-pants space adventure.
Foundation by Isaac Asimov - classic SF that takes the long view of social development.
The Man in The High Castle by Philip K Dick - because PKD!
The Seedling Stars by James Blish - adventurous science on the boundaries of human exploration.
Protector by Larry Niven - hugely entertaining tale about humanity's unknown ancestry and eventual evolution.
What are you working on right now? What can we expect from you over the new 3 years?
That would be the Lenticular Series, a three book space opera with an alien protagonist. It's a huge tale of invasion, betrayal, death, disillusionment and redemption (whew!) and I blog about it here http://keithstevensonwriter.blogspot.com.au/p/blog-page_8.html
Best advice for aspiring local writers?
Don't give up just because you think what you've written is sh*t. It'll get better but it takes a lot of work and practice.
Is coeur de lion open for submissions at the moment? What sort of work are you looking for?
We'll be open again in the middle of the year for Dimension6 stories. And we are looking for your best work of course :)
Finally, will you be appearing at any conventions or events in 2015?
I'll be at Swancon. I've never been so I am looking forward to it!
Keith Stevenson, thank you for talking to Smash Dragons!
Thanks again, Matthew!
Keith's latest book Horizon can be found at all good online book stores. We here at Smash Dragons loved it, and I would highly recommend that you all go out and buy it this instant! Cracking science fiction! You can also keep tabs on Keith via social media and his website. So google him peeps! He is a nice guy... trust me!