How did “Beyond the Heliopause” come about?
The two of us have collaborated for a long time. Back in the early 1990s we started critiquing each other’s work, so, to an extent, a lot of our stories have been a form of collaboration, always far better for that last-minute reality check, ranging from picking up typos to “That’s nonsense—you can write that scene much better than this.” We started collaborating more formally a few years after that, and a collection of our joint stories, Parallax View, came out in 2001. For a time, that drew a line under the collaborations—it gave the sense of a project completed—but in the last year or so, we’ve started writing together again, speculating about big ideas and writing a few stories, and “Beyond the Heliopause” was one of these new stories.
What is the theme of this story? I thought it might be about the nature of faith, but this seems to be more the question we are left with than the material explored in the story itself. Or maybe it all sets the foundation for that final question?
We prefer to leave readers to work out that kind of thing. It’s rare for us to set out to write a story with a particular theme or message. These things emerge from the concerns of the characters and their interaction with the big science-fictional idea. SF tends to deal with such big ideas that the writer doesn’t need to strive for theme, it just emerges. Maybe we should work harder at this aspect, but we tend to be more concerned with the story and the characters!
What is your process for dealing with tropes in your stories? For instance, the whole “I had to hurt you now in order to hurt you less later” logic that Charles uses with Suzanne?
Again, it’s not a conscious thing: We bounce ideas around, characters and twists emerge in that process, and a story takes shape. In the case of this story, the big idea was Fermi’s Paradox: If aliens are out there, then all the laws of statistics say that at least some of them would be sufficiently advanced to have left a mark, so why have we seen no evidence?
It’s a question we’ve both explored before and will do so again (Keith’s Philip K. Dick Award-shortlisted novel Harmony is a Fermi story, as is another recent collaboration, “The End of the World”, which appeared in Ian Whates’ Fermi anthology Paradox). But these ideas are really only the starting point, and as we develop our approach to such tropes, we’re also identifying the protagonists and their stories; “Beyond the Heliopause” required a character like Charles to take some tough, and apparently cold-hearted, decisions, but the way these choices manifest in his personality and how he communicates them all comes from the character that emerges as we develop the story.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing “Heliopause”?
It might sound a bit disingenuous, but the story was actually a delight to write. One of the real joys of collaborating is that when one author finds something tricky, it might be something that plays to the strengths of the other writer—or if that’s not the case, any challenges are usually solved by the fresh perspective a collaborator brings. With our collaborations, we each always argue that we’ve done less than half of the work—there’s that magic extra bit that neither of us takes credit for. The most challenging part? Probably something as simple as the logistics: We’re both very busy, and it can be hard to make the time to indulge ourselves in developing ideas together and then actually doing the writing. We really should do more of that!
Tell us more about the process of collaborating. Why do you do write together, how does it work, and what does it bring to a story that you couldn’t manage alone?
As we’ve already mentioned, we’ve worked together in various ways for around twenty-five years, ranging from critiquing solo work to full-blown collaboration. Some of our early joint stories started off as solo efforts that never took off—in such cases, it’s no holds barred: The collaborator wades in and rips apart the original and then rebuilds it. From there, we moved on to developing ideas from scratch, and most of our collaborations are of this variety. Occasionally this happens in person, often over a drink or two or a good curry; usually, though, that’s not possible, as we live 400 miles apart, and it all takes place by email—lots of “what if?” and “yes, but what about . . .?” until we have enough in the way of notes that we feel ready to start on the opening scenes and take it from there. The first draft bounces back and forth between us by email as we take it in turns to add anything from a few hundred to a few thousand words. There’s no set rule for who gets to do the first edit, but it’s a similar iterative process, until by the end we would really struggle to identify who wrote which bit originally and who then fixed it so it worked. As collaborators, we’re lucky that we have similar interests in what we want to get from a story, but there are enough differences that a joint story is always something that neither of us could have written alone. It can be very strange to end up writing something neither of us could have otherwise written, but it’s fascinating to see such stories emerging and we’re both very happy to be collaborating again after taking a break.
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