N O W A V
A I L A B L E :
Editor's Note: Interviews
may contain minor spoilers.
Mark R. Brand: Well, I've just
finished reading The Department of Off World Affairs,
and I almost can't say enough how impressed I am with it. Everything
I liked about Iota Cycle was very much in evidence here,
and then some. Let's start with the obvious comparison to kick
things off. I know there was a lengthy span of time between
the writing of Iota Cycle and The Department of Off
World Affairs, even though the books were released only
two years apart. Then again, I get the feeling since the books
are told as a series of shorter stories that they weren't necessarily
written in the same order that the books present them. Tell
us a little about the chronological history of these stories
and how they managed to find their way into these two respective
Russell Lutz: DOWA was
pretty straightforward. I had a storyline planned out, chapter
titles and plots and characters, all pretty rigidly defined.
Since the story is more cohesive than Iota Cycle, I felt
like writing it in order, so that the arc is kept consistent
from chapter to chapter: What is the current status of Keira
and her career? What is the nature of society's view of aliens?
Things like that. I certainly came back to certain chapters
and reworked them a number of times. ("Mass Hysteria"
gave me fits.) But it was mostly written in the order you see
it in the book.
IC was more complex. I wrote "Fall"
first, as a one-off short. When I had a picture of that as part
of a bigger story cycle, I wrote the "anchor" pieces,
the ones that have titles that have to do with the seasons.
I thought I was done. Then I realized that I needed more info
about Europe and their struggle to make the revolution seem
real, so I added the shorter chapters about the Burke family.
Since there were almost no continuing characters, and the styles
of each chapter were somewhat different, I wasn't as worried
about continuity, of either plot or tone. Hopefully it worked.
MRB: Like many sci-fi fans, I
was raised not only on a diet of some of the best fiction of
the 70s and 80s, but also on a regular scholastic education
that included a heavy emphasis on math and sciences. One of
my favorite parts of The Department of Off World Affairs
(and Iota Cycle) was the bewildering use of real-world
physics and valid hypothetical science to enrich the believability
of the story. Do you have a strong background in physics, chemistry,
math, or biology, or are we seeing an author who has managed
all of this by simply reading about it in other fiction?
RL: I have a couple of degrees
in math, and when I was in school, and needed more credits,
I took physics until they told me to stop. So there's that.
Anything that I happen to get right in chemistry or biology
is either luck or, more likely, Wikipedia.
My favorite "real" science
bit in the book is also the one people would assume was purest
fantasy: the MAD drive. I describe it as a "Modified Alcubierre
Devecchio Drive". The Alcubierre Drive is an actual scientifically
supportable suggestion by the Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre.
Devecchio I added because it's the name of a friend of mine
who's a physicist. But, as with any sci-fi, I took what I liked
from the theory, and changed the rest.
MRB: The Department of Off
World Affairs brought a lot of different narrative concepts
together in an amalgam that I found very effective. There were
some tangential plotlines like "Junior" sprinkled
in with the throughline, and the diversity and sheer scope of
the story seemed to be even greater than Iota Cycle.
At the same time, however, you managed to make it all meld together
in a fast-moving and cohesive way. Any differences in the approach
to crafting the narrative for DOWA?
RL: One thing I tried to do was
make sure that the three main characters (Vanessa, Terry and
Keira) each got the same amount of coverage in the book. If
you wanted to really dissect the thing, you'd see that they
each appear in the same number of chapters, and it's not until
late in the book that they appear in consecutive chapters. I
was also very careful about the ways in which the characters
interacthow often, and when.
I've been fascinated by TV shows recently
taking disparate characters and following their trajectories
separately, before bringing them into collision with each other.
(Heroes is the gold standard, but there are a number
of other shows, too.)
Beyond that, I wanted to have a more
unifying tone for DOWA than I did for IC. IC
was about changing up the tone from chapter to chapter, because
I was traveling from world to world, from decade to decade.
DOWA was about creating a single world, and even if I'm
telling different kinds of stories (compare the riot in Harlem
to the riot in Vieux Mer), I wanted it to feel like it was really
all in the same universe. Maybe a universe that's a little more
chaotic than the real one, but not to the Hitchhiker's Guide
The trickiest part, and I hope I pulled
it off, was holding back the final threat until relatively late
in the story. There's a few chapters of "Earth accepting
the change". Then there's "Earth dealing with repercussions".
Then there's a major shift in "Zinc", where Earth
gets hit by a big spotlight, and things start to snowball. But
you don't hear the name "The Antagonist" until chapter
20 (even though there are a few hints of his existence earlier).
I didn't want this to be a novel about an alien terrorist, but
I wanted him to be the engine of the climax.
For whatever reason, the concluding chapter
of DOWA is similar in structure to IC. It's long,
it involves a lot of travel for our characters, it occurs in
a confined space, and it revolves around solving a mystery,
the seeds of which I've sown throughout the novel. I guess I
like that kind of story structure.
MRB: Scientists from India, business
tycoons from Japan... It seems as though you wanted to convey
a sense even of a coherent human world to offset the diversity
of the aliens that populated the universe. Were you consciously
trying to strike a balance between your own point of view and
the prevailing insular nature of sci-fi like Independence
Day that presents a totally Amero-centric version of the
RL: I've got no problem with American
stories about American people with American problems. But an
event like this would certainly have global implications, and
I didn't want to just toss off cute little asides about what
might be happening overseas. I wanted to show it. I regret I
didn't have any scenes in South America, but at least I have
a chapter that takes place in Djibouti!
But I also didn't want to imply that
the world would simply unite in some fantasy way with the realization
that there are aliens out there. I think about it like Europeans
coming to the New World. I seriously doubt all the natives on
the continent simply said, "Hey, we're us and they're them."
They still had to deal with each other. Similarly with humanity.
There would still be divisions within the human race that require
work. That's one of the reasons I wrote "Race Relations"
the way I did. Whites and Blacks still have some issues to deal
with... but in the fact of what's happening with the Dandelions
and the Picassos, they start to look a little pedestrian.
MRB: In addition to the richness
of the thematic detail, the depth of characterization, and the
variety of plotlines sure to ensnare even those readers who
aren't too fond otherwise of sci-fi, you also included a rather
steamy love scene in this book. I personally have a difficult
time writing these scenes, though my newest novel contains some.
The scene in DOWA, however, seemed natural and not at
all stilted or awkward. Care to comment on the construction
of this scene?
RL: Most difficult eleven paragraphs
of my writing career. Not that it took long to write and edit.
But I felt like the story of Terry and Vanessa needed that kind
of release, and so I decided to go for broke... but keep it
"literary". Still, it was tough to get in a headspace
to write like that. It helped to do it from Vanessa's perspective,
since that makes it seem a little less like some childish wish
fulfillment, and more like a story. I also ran that scene past
a couple of people (a man and a woman) to make sure it worked.
And, by the way, if my mother asks, this
scene was ghost written by someone else.
MRB: Just to satisfy my own childish
curiosity, where did you come up with the ideas for your aliens?
There are more creative interpretations of extra-terrestrial
life in this book than in any four other good sci-fi books.
How did you go about assigning them all their own separate ideologies
RL: I came to the conclusion early
on that the aliens would have these official nicknames, since
I didn't want to deal with too many of those untypeable alien
names. (I threw in a couple, just for fun.) I know people feel
the need to look for similarities to the familiar. From that,
I decided to let the names drive the design of the aliens for
most: Skeletons, Anemones, Lilies. There were a few that were
purpose-built for a story. The Red and Violet Gamers were pretty
much just a what-if. What if two cultures simply agreed to remain
at war forever? I wanted Prometheus (the crusading Dragon) to
have a forceful appearance to go with her forceful championing
of the weak. On the other hand, I wanted the Vampires to be
physically intimidating, but completely harmless, even charming.
And I wanted the Rope Man to be scary. Really scary. (She'd
have scared me, anyway.)
The one race I spent the most time describing
in the book is probably the Blues. There are some Vulcan aspects
to them: they're polite, they're curious, they're helping midwife
us into the galaxy. But I specifically wanted to invent a race
that did not think in terms of front and back, left and right.
Their movements, their personality tics, even their word choice,
was all driven by their unique biology. And then, just to make
sure you realize they are really "people", I give
you two of them with very different personalities. Too often,
I think, alien races in fiction are really one character multiplied
by a billion. (No pun intended.) And for most of the races I
describe in DOWA, I'm just as guilty. (You only ever
meet a single Bull.) But I wanted a few examples of aliens that
could be as different from each other as we are.
MRB: I can only imagine the time
and effort that you've put into crafting something as complex
as The Department of Off World Affairs. That said, what
else can we look forward to from you?
RL: I'm still working on a fantasy
series that is an allegory for the creation of the United States,
but it's slow going. My next big new project will likely be
a disaster story, another tale with global implications. My
goal is to make the scope of that one as big (or bigger) than
DOWA, just without the alien craziness. The title of
that one will be The Madagascar Event. Fingers crossed!
* * *
Scott Lyerly: What are your five
favorite books, and why?
SL: Who or what was your biggest
influence in deciding to become a writer? What inspired you
to write DOWA?
RL: There are a few specific works
that were inspiration for DOWA. The most obvious is Contact
by Carl Sagan. (Vanessa = Ellie) I always wanted to actually
meet those mysterious aliens out there, not just see a holographic
simulation of a dead relative. In a lot of ways, the DOWAverse
is a somewhat less silly variation on the Hitchhiker's universe
created by Douglas Adams. I wanted to maintain a slightly out
of control, slightly kooky tone, similar to the feel of the
Potterverse from JK Rowling. I don't want the DOWAverse to feel
too dangerous, but it should feel messy, chaotic, uncontrollable.
SL: How long did it take you to
write DOWA? How much scientific research did you have
Actual calendar time was just about one
year. I did only enough scientific research to be dangerous.
There was a lot less rigorous science in DOWA than there
was in Iota Cycle. Most of the "science" on
display is pure fantasy: quicklight, time suspension, all the
alien designs. The only thing with some real science to it is
the MAD drive on Earth's first starship.
SL: Do you have a favorite character,
RL: I have two answers. My favorite
character in terms of someone it would be fun to simply hang
around with is Gainsborough, Keira's helpful Blue friend. He's
a little too nosy, and perhaps sunnier than he should be, but
he's just plain nice to have around.
My favorite character to write, though,
was The Antagonist. Getting into the headspace of someone that
arrogant and manipulative is really fun. I don't write a lot
of villains into my work; writing a villain that's more than
simply evil for evil's sake is tricky. For this one, I tried
to go all out. I want the reader to get his motivation, even
as you hate him for it.
SL: What are you reading now?
RL: All kinds of stuff. On the
fiction front, I'm slogging through Ulysses by James
Joyce, while leavening that with The Judas Strain by
James Rollins. (Really, they're basically the same book.)
In non-fiction, I'm working through The
War of the World by Niall Ferguson, because I feel the need
to understand the Twentieth Century, even if it is unbelievably
depressing. I just finished reading Year Million, a compilation
of essays about what humanity might be like a million years
from now. The future, it seems, will be almost as depressing
as the past, just for entirely different reasons.
SL: What is the most overrated
book you've ever read?
RL: The Da Vinci Code by
Dan Brown. Hands down. Poorly written, poorly plotted, poorly
characterized. It was a huge step down from the relatively deft
Angels & Demons.
SL: If you could require everyone
to read just one book, what would it be?
RL: That question presupposes
that there's a single book that would be of interest to all
people. Can I even pretend to suggest something like Moore and
Gibbons' Watchmen, when 85% of the public would balk
at reading a "comic book"? I've already mentioned
my favorites in the sci-fi and romantic comedy genres above.
I can add a few others in other genres:
SL: What's the best thing you've
RL: That's certainly a loaded
question! Well, at novel length, DOWA is the best thing
I've done so far. At short story length, I'm most pleased with
a story called "Car Service" (published on nanobison.com)
about a professional gambler who gets wrapped up in a bizarre
situation in Lake Tahoe.
But when I think of my work at its best,
I tend to gravitate to particular moments in my writing. The
destruction of the Iota Horologii system in Iota Cycle.
The revelation of who The Antagonist is in DOWA. The
final moments of the story (and of the human race) in "The
Last Perfect Afternoon". If I could sustain that level
of emotion and clarity for an entire story, then I'd start thinking
of myself as a great writer. Until then, I'll just keep trying.
SL: What's the last piece of your
writing that you hated and threw in the wastepaper bin and why?
RL: I find it really hard to give
up on anything. I tend to believe that rewriting is always possible.
(Someday my detective-living-in-an-undersea-city novel will
see the light of day! This I vow!)
But I did recently give up on an odd
little short story called "Where is Lonnie?" about
a mysterious spiritual force screwing around with people on
a train in the middle of a ten-thousand-mile trek through inhospitable
wilderness. It ended up being both too clichéd and too
SL: Is there any particular ritual
involved in your writing process (favorite pen, lucky charm,
RL: It's all about Microsoft Word
on my laptop, usually at a coffee place, plugged into a corner
outlet, tapping away. And I like to have access to the internet
at the same time, so I can quickly fact-check myself. I hate
to leave details open-ended, just in case I forget to go back
and fix them.
an off world perspective on Russell Lutz, click here.