Ty Franck, together with Daniel Abraham, who we interviewed back in episode 35, writes the Expanse series of space adventure novels under the penname James S.A. Corey. The fourth book, Cibola Burn, is out now. The series is also being adapted for television by the Syfy channel.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the host and his guests discuss various geeky topics.
Your new book is called Cibola Burn, and it’s the fourth book in the Expanse series, which is based on a pen-and-paper role-playing game that you created. First off, why don’t you just tell us a bit about how you first got into pen-and-paper role-playing games?
Well, I don’t actually know. I remember playing Red Box D&D in, I think, grade school. That may have been the first one, but it just seems like I’ve always been doing that. Actually, the Expanse didn’t start out as pen-and-paper; the Expanse started out as a pitch for an MMORPG that never went anywhere and then became a pen-and-paper game after that because I liked the setting and wanted to see if it worked.
Why don’t you tell us a bit more about the MMORPG project?
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot to tell on that one. A friend of mine came to me and asked me if I would help her develop content for an MMO that an ISP was looking to develop. I had some notes that I had been playing around with — this near future, science fiction setting. She agreed that that would probably work for them. The thing you have to know about the MMO stuff is that everybody wants to do fantasy, but World of Warcraft really owns that space. It’s almost impossible to compete with them in fantasy. At the time, EVE was out as an SF setting; it’s a cool game, but it’s limited to just the spaceships. I really wanted a version of EVE, or something like EVE, where you could actually get off of your ship and have adventures on the ground. That was sort of the initial idea, and then I took this near-future setting and built it out to accommodate spaceship and ground-based adventure.
So the different factions that we see in this world kind of came out of the structure of an MMO.
Yeah, it did. We wanted to do different things from World of Warcraft. Of course, they have two factions, the Alliance and the Horde, so we had three factions: Earth, Mars, and the OPA. Those would have been the factions you started out your character in.
What is the OPA?
The Outer Planets Alliance — that’s everybody who does not live on Earth or Mars.
Why did you decide to go with a near-future setting as opposed to more of a Star Trek, ships-faster-than-light kind of stuff?
Two reasons: One — probably the most important one — is that my favorite book of all time is The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. I read it when I was eleven, which is way too young to read that book, so if you have eleven-year-olds, don’t let them read that. But it was exactly the right time to sort of rewrite my brain, and I just became obsessed with the idea of this fully populated solar system, which is the setting of that book — with people living on Mars, with people living on the moon, people living on the various moons of the outer planets. That just stuck in my head and stayed in there for decades, and so when I was coming up with a setting for gaming, that’s the thing that bubbled up.
The other reason is that not a lot of people play in that space. There are some people doing really good work in that space, but if you compare the number of people working in that pre-faster-than-light science fiction setting versus the people who are working in, like, Star Trek and all of that, where you have hyperspace or whatever, it’s a much smaller percentage. Very few people were working in the space where you take humans from the pre-FTL, trapped-in-the-solar-system kind of setting to the galaxy-spanning empire setting. You almost never see that transition, and I thought that was a really interesting place.
You developed all this content for the game. How much material had you come up with and what happened ultimately with that project?
I actually came up with quite a lot — almost everything that is the later worldbuilding for the pen-and-paper game that followed and the books came out of that. I sat down and went through all of the various bodies in the solar system — what possible reason people would have for living in those places. There’s no economic reason to settle our solar system, so let’s get that out of the way. There’s no reason to do it — but if we were doing it, what would be the things that people would actually use on those various bodies? I did a lot of research on that and pretty much had mapped out the political situation in that setting, what people were doing on the various bodies, why they lived there, what kind of cultures were springing up — all of that work had been done. Daniel, my writing partner, tells this story that the first time he played in the pen-and-paper setting, I had this giant three-ring binder full of notes. When he found out that those were the notes about the solar system they were gaming in, that’s when he decided to ask me if I would write the book with him because he hates worldbuilding, and I had a giant three-ring binder filled with worldbuilding that we could use.
Talk a little bit more about that process of how you went from working on an MMO to running the pen-and-paper version.
When the MMO project fell through, it was one of those things where everybody was really excited to do it, but nobody actually had the resources to do it. Even the people who asked us to work on it clearly didn’t understand what they were getting into. Once they did understand what they were getting into, they just backed away slowly, which I totally respect. I mean, a project like that is like making a Hollywood movie. To make a game that can compete with World of Warcraft, you’re looking at tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a project like that. So I understand rightly once they realized that that’s what they signed up for, they sort of backed away.
But I had all this material, and I’ve been a gamer all my life — computer games and role-playing games — so I started play testing in the universe with my gaming buddies. Did it work? Were there interesting stories to tell? What kinds of characters would be fun to play in that setting? Not with any real purpose in mind — just because that’s something I do for fun. So I started running games in the setting. I came up with a rule system that worked for a pen-and-paper setting and started gaming in it.
When in this process did you meet Daniel? Had you met him prior to starting?
No, no, actually I started writing games in this setting before I moved to New Mexico. I met Daniel years later when I moved to New Mexico and we were in the same writing group together. He and his wife came over to do some gaming with my wife and I. That was years after I started running games in this setting. Actually, Daniel was late to the game — the first game I ran in this setting in New Mexico was with a completely different group. That gaming group was Melinda Snodgrass and Ian Tregillis and George R.R. Martin and my wife.
How did you get involved with that gaming group?
I just started hanging out with those guys. They love to game, and Melinda asked me, “So I hear you run a good game. Would you be willing to run a game for us?” I agreed to do it, and this was the setting I had. Those are all science fiction people. Melinda used to write for Star Trek, and Ian writes science fiction and fantasy, and George, of course, had written a ton of science fiction before that, so it seemed like a good group to try out an SF game on.
So you moved to Albuquerque, and then how did you initially make contact with all these people out there?
We moved to Albuquerque so my wife could do her undergraduate degree at UNM, so that was the initial reason we went there. I had one friend who lived there, and she was in this writing group. She went to the writing group and said, “Hey, my friend is moving here, and he’s written some stuff.” This particular writing group you had to have a professional sale to get in. They would only take people who had professional sales. So she went to them and said, “Hey, he’s got a professional sale.” That qualified me to get in. They met me, and we all got along, so they said, “Sure, yeah, you can start hanging out.” That’s how I met everybody. George needed to hire somebody to run his multimedia empire, and Melinda, again, who is sort of at the center of all this, said, “Hey, you should hire this guy.” Before we moved to New Mexico, I had sold out of a financial software consulting company that I helped found. George had always been hesitant to hire anybody because he didn’t want to hire somebody that he had to train, and Melinda’s argument was, “Well, you know, this guy used to run his own consulting company. He can probably handle your stuff.” George took a chance and hired me to do that.
That’s really amazing. What’s a job interview like when you’re going to work for George R.R. Martin?
Actually, there really wasn’t an interview because George has never had a real job other than two years he spent as a college professor in the seventies or early eighties. He said, “So, Melinda says I should hire you.” And I said, “Yes, and here’s why,” and laid out what I could do for him. The next day I was there at his office setting up his new systems. It was very informal.
What is George R.R. Martin’s office like? I heard someone say he has two houses across the street from each other and one is sort of his office house and one’s his home house. Is that true?
It is. Unfortunately, I can’t talk too much about that because we had talked a lot about it and based on conversations we had and interviews about his houses, people figured out where he lived. So, yes, it is true that he has a couple of houses, one of which is his office, but I can’t really talk about where that is or what it looks like because people will figure it out and start banging on the door.
I understand — don’t want to do anything to invade his privacy or anything. I was also curious . . . I heard that he writes on an old DOS computer with WordStar.
Well, he doesn’t actually write on an old DOS computer. He did write on an old DOS computer, and then it died. Actually, I built him the computer he writes on now, which is a state-of-the-art machine running DOS and WordStar 4.0.
Does it have internet access? I heard one of the big advantages of that old computer was it had no internet access so he couldn’t waste all day on the internet.
No, it does not have internet access. He actually has two computers at his desk, one of which is a Windows machine where he does his email and all that. The other one is this DOS machine that he actually does his writing on. He’s just got a keyboard toggle to toggle between the two of them, so if he wants to waste time on the internet he can. The real advantage with the DOS machine not being connected to the internet is, of course, he cannot possibly get a virus on it.
Or he doesn’t have to worry about hackers, I guess.
Not on that machine, no. There is a physical firewall, in that you have to be sitting at that keyboard to have access to that computer.
I’ve heard you talk about how, since you worked for George R.R. Martin, people assume that he was a writing mentor to you and all this stuff, but you’ve said that that’s not actually the case.
No, actually, the ways in which George was a really great mentor were on the business side. George has worked in the writing world, in TV, and in novels, and in feature production. He’s done that for thirty or forty years, so on the business side, it was really great to be able to ask him, “Here’s what they’re offering. Here’s what the contract looks like. If I get to do this, what’s that going to look like when I get there?” He has enormous stores of experience on that stuff. On that side, he really was a great mentor. He and I have very different ideas on what constitutes good writing. I’m a big fan of his work, so I’m not saying that I don’t think he’s good. He’s good at it, he is. He’s clearly one of the top writers in the field, but how you get to putting words on paper — sort of the pre-production process — he and I work very differently. There wasn’t a lot that we could talk about meaningfully on that side.
He talks in terms of gardeners and architects, so I guess you’re more of an architect?
Actually, I think that distinction is a false distinction. He really loves that idea, but I think it really doesn’t actually make any sense. He and I had several arguments about it — friendly arguments — but we had several arguments about it. And he’s actually changed how he describes it now because of our arguments. He no longer talks about it like these are two separate things; he now talks about it as everybody has shades of both. The truth is, I think if you have an ending in mind, I don’t think you can get there unless you roadmap of how to get there. And he is much more of a sit down at the keyboard, wait for the muse to strike, and bang out whatever chapter is sort of banging around in your head at that time. That works for him; he’s able to produce work, so more power to him, but that just seems like a really inefficient way to get a story out, from my perspective.
For me as a writer, I could not do that. I have to know where I am going, and I have to know what the next chapters are about so I can start layering and foreshadowing and all the other stuff that you want to do. He’s much more comfortable rewriting chapters over and over and over and over again than I am. For me, a chapter is like a spell in old D&D, where once you’ve cast that spell, it’s not in your memory anymore. Once I’ve written a chapter, I can’t go back and rewrite that chapter. I can edit it, but I can’t completely rewrite it the way he does. We just have very different brains for doing this work.
Speaking of your writing, let’s go back a little bit. You mentioned that you joined this writers group because you had at least one pro sale under your belt. How much writing did you do when you were younger and how did you get to the point where you had the pro sales that qualified you to join this writers group?
It’s a weird and twisting tale. I never had done a lot of prose writing. I had done a lot of informal writing for gaming settings and that sort of thing. I liked writing games — that was my thing. But I would spend a lot of time writing worldbuilding kind of stuff, which is not good prose. You couldn’t sell that. But I had done a lot of that sort of writing, kind of The Silmarillion type thing, where you’re writing the backstory of the world. Then, my sister was doing a creative writing class and she asked me for an idea for a story. I gave her an idea that had been banging around in my head, and she wrote a story and gave it back to me, and she had done it all wrong. So I wrote my version of it, the version that was actually in my head, and then didn’t do anything with it. I wrote it, and then I had it.
But at the time, I was interacting online with some people who were in Orson Scott Card’s camp, and one of them had worked with him on another project. I said, “Hey, I wrote this story. Take a look at it, tell me what you think.” I emailed it to her, and she read it. She wrote back, and she’s like, “This is great. I’m going to show it to Scott.” I was not sure how I felt about that, but whatever, that’s cool. So, he was staying at her house, and she gave him the story that I had written, and he apparently told her, “This is great and this person should be writing more stuff.”
Later, Scott started running what he called The Writer’s Boot Camp, which was a two-week intensive writing course, sort of like a two-week version of Clarion with him as the teacher in North Carolina. It happened to coincide with a time when I had left one job and I had a non-compete agreement with that company, so they had to give me a giant sack of money when I left. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I said, “Hey, maybe I’ll just not take another job right away. I’ll go do this writer’s boot camp.” And my wife was fine with it. She was like, “Yeah, that sounds like fun. We should do that.” So, I went, spent two weeks in North Carolina doing the writer’s boot camp, and then that was the end of that. I took another job somewhere else, and Scott emailed me and said, “Hey, I’m starting up this magazine, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and I’d really love to buy that story you brought to the boot camp with you.” I was like, “Sure, why not?” Well, he was paying pro rates, so I got a pro rate sale out of that.
Later, he wrote back and said, “Hey, I’m doing a selected stories from Intergalactic Medicine Show, like ‘the best of’ kind of thing, and I’d like to buy your story for that, too.” I was like, “Okay.” So now, I had two pro sales — same story, but pro rates both times. Then, he wrote back later and said, “Hey, I’d like to do a sample of that for an audiobook, and I’d like to buy your story for the audiobook.” So now, I had three pro sales — all of the same story, of course, but every time I was getting pro rates for it. When I moved to New Mexico, I had more pro sales than some of the other people in the writing group who’d been writing a lot longer than I had. That’s what got me into the room.
So, you joined the writer’s group, and you started doing the pen-and-paper role-playing game, and you met Daniel Abraham. How did that lead to you writing books together?
He and his wife lived not too far from where my wife and I lived in Albuquerque. When he found out that I was writing this game for George and Melinda and those guys, he said, “Hey, would you be willing to run a game here?” because that game was up in Santa Fe, which is about an hour’s drive. Daniel and his wife had a young kid, so it was harder for them to get up there. He was like, “Hey, if you ran a game here in Albuquerque, I would play it.” So, I started running a game there. That’s when he saw the binder, and he said, “Have you ever considered writing novels in this setting?” and, of course, I hadn’t, because I’m really lazy. So, he said, “Hey, you know what you should do? You should let me write a novel in this setting, and we can split the money,” which is like the opposite version of the gag that every writer hates when people walk up to them at a convention and say, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea: You write it, we can split the money.” So, I actually had an award-winning and respected novelist coming to me and saying, “You’ve got a great idea, I’ll write it, and we can split the money.” He always tells me that I’m not allowed to tell that story, but I tell it anyway. He wrote the first chapter, and again, it was like the thing with my sister writing her story idea: He did it wrong. So, I said, “No, this is wrong. I’m going to rewrite it.” I rewrote it the way I wanted it, and he said, “Yeah, no, this is actually great. You should just write half the book.” So that’s how we started: I wrote half and he wrote half, and that’s what we’ve done ever since.
How much work was it taking this world that was originally conceived for games and turning it into a novel format? What sort of adjustments did you have to make to it?
Oh, tons. Games are terrible books. This is something I always have to explain to people at conventions when I’m on panels and things. Don’t take your D&D campaign and write it down as a book. It doesn’t work. Maybe you can take the setting, maybe you can take some of the characters, maybe you can take some of the plot points, but you have to completely redesign the order of events because in gaming, of course, so much of it is interactive, and so much of it is you, as the game runner, reacting to what your players have done and changing the setting or the story to accommodate the actions they’ve taken. In a novel, which is much more driven by the narrative, you actually have to have a much tighter grip on where the story is going, much more control over how you release information to the reader. If you actually read the game I had run and then read the story, you would recognize similarities, but the major plot is very different and how I feed information to the reader is very different than how I feed information to players.
Could you give maybe some specific examples from Leviathan Wakes of things that were changed to make that into a novel?
No, because I did that like five years ago. My memories of that are fairly dim at this point . . . Just a lot of stuff: how the protomolecule manifests on Eros and what the characters do to get away is completely different. That was a much bigger portion of game plot, but in the novel, any time we tried to keep them on Eros, it just made no sense. We took what was a huge plot element of the game and just compressed it down to one escape sequence.
As I mentioned, you guys have written a bunch of these books. You’re on the fourth one, Cibola Burn. Why don’t we talk about that? First of all, what does the title Cibola Burn mean and how did you come up with that?
Cibola is one of the seven cities of gold that the Spaniards were looking for. It kind of has that sense of the great treasure that you commit atrocities to find but doesn’t actually exist. The Spaniards burned and murdered their way across Central America looking for this huge payout in gold that didn’t actually exist. They stole a bunch of gold from Montezuma, but the Cibola — the city of gold, the city made entirely of gold that they were murdering their way across Central America to find — wasn’t real. It was a myth. The idea of people in history committing great atrocities to find treasures that don’t actually exist is one that resonates in that book.
I guess all the titles in the series have some sort of meaning like that. They don’t literally refer to things in the book.
No. Daniel says our titles are designed to let our readers know that we’re pretentious, and there is an element of that in there. They’re all sort of mythological ideas that loosely tie in to what we’re doing. In the first one, waking up the great monster that’s been sleeping, is Leviathan Wakes. In the second one, Caliban is the half-human, half-monster that lives on the same island as Prospero (in The Tempest), who Prospero attempts to control, but Caliban fights back against being controlled by the wizard. In Hebrew mythology, Abaddon is the angel who guards the gates to Hell. So, that’s what we’re using there. Cibola, of course, is the cities of gold, the treasure that you are willing to commit murder to find but doesn’t actually exist.
I don’t know how much you want to say about the actual plot of Cibola Burns, but could you talk maybe just a little bit about how that relates to the events of this book?
Each book is also us mashing other genres into science fiction. In the fourth book, we’re sort of mashing SF up with a western. It’s our version of the railroad coming through the town and what people who are living hand-to-mouth do to protect themselves when giant corporate interests are just making a land grab. We’re playing with that idea a little bit and the idea that these worlds that the corporations are spreading out to have this wealth that the corporations want to take, and people who are not wealthy, people who don’t have power, are sitting on top of it, so how do you displace them?
The plot of this book deals with the first humans to settle on an alien world. I think, in a lot of science fiction, people don’t really think through the implications from biology of what it would be like to enter a completely alien biosphere, and I thought you guys did a really good job with that here. Could you just talk about what some of those alien biology considerations are when you’re the first person to set foot on an alien planet?
Daniel has a biology degree, so we do like to play around with the idea of biology because he has a background in that. The thing that always drove both of us crazy is you get to the alien world and then you catch an alien disease, like the Martians getting our diseases in War of the Worlds. Of course, H. G. Wells had a much more limited understanding than we do today, but even the idea that aliens would have DNA is totally unfounded. That’s our version of life, which stumbled across RNA and DNA as ways to create stable replicators, but those are by no means the only possible version of that. Left-handed or right-handed chirality and proteins — our version of life has a subset of that.
That is by no means the only possible subset life could be based on. A scientist recently did an experiment where, instead of potassium you can use, I believe, cyanide as the basis for some of the protein building blocks. So you could have a life form that one of its primary building blocks is a deadly poison to us. That should go the other way, too. The things that are essential proteins to our biology could easily be deadly poisons to another biosphere. So you have things like the stinging insects that land on you, sting you, drink your blood, and then fall over dead because the things in our blood that are vital to our life are poisonous to them, or, at the very least, not nutritious. The idea that we could eat alien life and get nutrition from that is a pretty big stretch.
There are a million variations on what life can be built from and we have a tiny little subset of that. The idea that our circle in the Venn diagram is going to overlap with their circle in the Venn diagram is a pretty big stretch. How does that look then when you’ve got two biologies on the same planet that have absolutely no overlap? What does that wind up looking like? We like playing around with that idea. Of course, in ours, there’s actually more biologies than that. I won’t get into that because of spoilers, but just the idea of a whole bunch of different biologies in the same space, none of which can feed off of each other — we can interact physically, but biologically, we can’t interact at all. One of the plot points is that people do start getting what appears to be a disease. What is that? Because clearly it can’t be a disease. So, what looks like a disease that isn’t? That’s one of the things we play around with.
Did Daniel know all the science that you guys needed for this book or did you have to consult any other scientists or experts?
We do, but Daniel’s joke is that we try to aim for Wikipedia-level plausibility. We want it to seem plausible, but we never want scientific rigor to get in the way of awesome. We try to at least not be insultingly implausible for most things. We probably fail sometimes, but we try not to be insultingly implausible. Most of the research we need to do can be done with just reading, finding biology texts — and there are a lot of people out there who have done work on other possible bases for life. There was a guy who was, for a while, proposing the idea that life could have started out with a crystalline structure and then shifted to DNA. What would that look like? Just reading that stuff gives you great ideas. One of the main things you do is take out all the math, so that nobody can double-check your work and see all the things you screwed up.
There’s a lot of science in this book in terms of the orbital mechanics and things like that. How did you guys figure all that stuff out?
Well, we take out all the math, so you can’t double-check our work. [laughs] We’re both nerds, and we both read a lot about the early space program. The idea of changing orbits and how you change orbits is something that’s just part of the science-fiction-ers lexicon. If we’re having somebody fire a rail gun to add more energy to go to a higher orbit, as long as we don’t tell you how fast any of that stuff goes or what orbital change they’re getting out of it, as long as we leave that kind of vague, it sounds plausible. It doesn’t throw you out of the story, but we make sure not to put any of the math in so the people who do understand all that don’t check our math and find out all these places we get it wrong.
You mentioned that before starting these books, you had only published maybe one short story, if I have that right.
Well, one short story that I actually got three pro rates for.
So, you didn’t have much experience writing fiction before starting the series, and now obviously, you have a ton of experience writing fiction, having written these four massive books. Could you just say some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned about writing over the past couple of years writing the series?
I’ve learned that chapter length is definitely something you should consider before you start writing. One of the things we learned is that three-thousand-word chapters is a fast pace that invites the reader to keep reading, because it seems like most people have the energy to read about four or five thousand words in one sitting. If you do three-thousand-word chapters, they read a chapter and a half, and most people aren’t going to be satisfied reading a chapter and a half, so we get email and tweets all the time from people saying, “I stayed up all night reading your book.” Well, there’s actually structural reasons why our books invite you to stay up all night reading them, some of which is in the chapter length.
One of the other things I learned is people will think that the solutions to your characters’ problems are too easy if you bring a problem up in one chapter and solve it in the same chapter. You can have exactly the same story, but if you bring up the problem in a chapter and then wait till another chapter to resolve it, just by breaking it up across a chapter break, it doesn’t seem like it was easy to do. That’s not a thing people can teach you; that’s not a thing people think about. Writers usually talk about how to find your voice and how to develop character, and yet, very few people talk about “here’s what chapter length does for you.” That was cool, to start learning that stuff.
I’ll go off on a tangent for a second — Michael Caine did an acting video in the nineties where he’s like, “Here’s how to be an actor.” The thing that he did that I think is brilliant is he doesn’t talk about how to act, he doesn’t talk about “here’s how you find your character’s voice” and “here’s what the method is” and all that stuff. He doesn’t do any of that. His video is about “here’s how you find your mark every time,” “here’s how you can avoid blinking during your close up,” all this sort of structural stuff that isn’t the art of it but is super vitally important to the craft of it. He did a video on that, and I think that’s brilliant. I actually feel like, at this point, I could do a writing class on that — on “here’s how you structure a chapter so that people want to keep reading,” “here’s the writing version of not blinking into the camera on your close up.” That kind of stuff is stuff you don’t learn until you actually write books and read reader reactions to them.
Do you get a great volume of reader reactions? Do any of those reactions stick out in your mind?
You’re going to get some. Our books are pretty popular and a lot of people read them, so you’re going to get people who email you, and you’re going to get people who tweet at you. You’re going to get reviewed. Neither Daniel nor I are big fans of reading reviews on review sites like Goodreads or Amazon because reviews tend not to be helpful. But when somebody writes you an email and says, “Hey, I was a Marine, and this thing that you’re having a Marine in your book do doesn’t read right to me and here’s why,” that’s actually really useful stuff. And we do actually listen to that kind of thing — technical sorts of things. The other thing is when somebody writes to you and says, “I really love this character.” That makes you think, “Okay, what did we do with that character that made somebody fall in love with them, and how can we do more of that with our other characters?” That kind of stuff is the thing you pay attention to.
The other big news obviously with the series is that it’s being turned into a TV series for the Syfy channel.
I’m actually at our production offices right now, sitting in the executive producer’s office doing this interview because he has an office that’s quiet.
Tell us how that first came about.
People always want a story on how we did it, but there isn’t one because we didn’t actually do anything. We wrote the books, which is pretty much the end of what we did to get this. Our literary agent has a connection to a Hollywood agent and passed the books along to the Hollywood agent. This part happened without us knowing about it. The Hollywood agent went out and took the books out and started getting offers on them. If you have a series that’s popular at all, it’s pretty easy to find option offers because they tend to not be a lot of money and studios and networks buy a bunch of options and just sort of hold on to them.
So, he got a bunch of option offers, but what we didn’t know is that our Hollywood agent was awesome and super experienced. He represents Dennis Lehane, he’s the guy who took Band of Brothers and sent it to HBO. He’s kind of a high-powered agent. So, he got a bunch of lowball option offers and turned them all down without telling us just because he didn’t think it was worth anybody’s time. He just kept turning all these offers down and what he kept saying is, “I think I can get a lot for these books, and I’m not going to take you seriously” — to the people who were making the offer — “until you come to me with a production company and a writer already attached.”
One of the people who’d been snaking around the project is the Sean Daniel Company, which is a production company run by Sean Daniel, who used to be a bigwig at Universal. Sean has personally produced two hundred movies, or some crazy number like that. I don’t know what the exact number is, but pretty much any movie you mention, Sean will go, “Oh, yeah, I produced that.” He has his own independent production company now. Sean knew Mark and Hawk — Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby — they had worked together on another project. Mark and Hawk are the writers of Iron Man and Children of Men and a lot of high-profile science fiction projects. Sean took it to them and said, “Hey, take a look at this and let me know what you think and see if you’d be interested in being attached to this.” They read the first book, and apparently they liked it. They got back to Sean and said, “Yeah, we totally want to be involved in this. Tell them that we committed to doing it.” So, Sean came back to Brian and said, “Here’s who we have attached.”
Then, Brian and Sean and Mark and Hawk and another guy named Jason Brown who works for Sean, all of us got on a conference call and they said, “Here’s Mark and Hawk, they’re committing to writing a pilot for this. Are you willing to give us the option so we can move forward?” Then Daniel and I were like, “Yeah, that sounds great. We love those guys.” We’re both big fans of the first Iron Man. We thought it was a perfect blend of science fiction and action and humor, and we didn’t want somebody who would be humorless about this. So we’re like, “Yeah, people who can be funny, that sounds great. We want those guys.”
So they went off and they wrote a pilot, and then took that pilot to Alcon Entertainment, which is a big movie production company that’s starting its own TV division. We were the first project that Alcon was doing as a TV project. Alcon took it to a bunch of networks. There was a bidding war, apparently. I was not involved in that piece, but I have heard that there was a bidding war. Syfy were the ones who pushed the most poker chips to the middle of the table. So that’s who we’re doing it with. It’s a joint Alcon TV and Syfy Channel production and that’s how it happened.
As you can see, Daniel and I did almost nothing. Through a lot of this process, we were baggage. We did come out when the Sean Daniel Company was pitching the project to the various production companies and networks. We sat in the room, I guess as show ponies, where they could turn and say, “These are the guys who wrote the books,” and we could wave.
Like a visual aid?
Like a visual aid, yeah. Once we got picked up, Alcon insisted that it was a direct-to-series thing. They weren’t going to do a pilot, and Syfy was willing to do a direct-to-series order. Once we got that, we were invited by the executive producers to come out and join the writers’ room and help develop the story for the first season and we’ve been asked to write a script for the first season. Because I had figured out what all this stuff should look like years ago, I’ve been asked to help take point on the production side of it, so I’m talking a lot with production designers and concept artist on what things should look like. I’ve been invited to have a big piece in that, which is really nice, because they don’t have to do that. They don’t have to let us be involved at all if they don’t want to. They just have to mail us checks. We’ve been invited to do a lot of stuff that writers are often not invited to do. It’s been pretty cool.
Just to be clear for listeners, often they’ll film a pilot and, depending on whether that’s successful, it’ll go to series, but this is a deal where the whole first season is definitely being made at this point.
They have purchased the entire first season. So if they don’t make it, something catastrophic would have to happen.
How many episodes is this going to be? Is it going to be an adaptation of the first book, I assume?
Yes, it is an adaptation of the series. I’m not actually yet allowed to talk about what portion of the series the first season will cover, but yes, it is from the material in the book series. And it is ten episodes for the first season. That could change if we go forward, if there’s additional seasons, that order could change, but right now it’s ten.
I’m getting that you can’t really say much at all about the content of it, like what changes might be made or anything like that?
Not really supposed to talk about that yet. They’re developing their marketing plan for this and they have a process that they do when you release certain information and how you package that information. We have to make sure that we don’t step on any of that. We don’t get to really talk about much. We can talk about Mark and Hawk because we love them and that’s already public information. We can talk about Sean and Jason because that’s already public information. We can talk about who the Alcon executives were who bought this because that’s already public information. The Alcon executive who bought it for Alcon is a woman named Sharon Hall who has been working in TV a long time. She developed Breaking Bad, so she’s a high-power figure in the TV world, along with a gentleman named Ben Roberts. They are the two executives who bought it for Alcon, so we can mention their names because that’s already public information.
Can you talk at all about the process of being in the writing room? How much time are you there and how many people are there? What does the room look like? Is there a whiteboard? I don’t know, stuff like that?
I can’t talk about it too much. Daniel and I have been here now for, I don’t know, five weeks? We’re in the writing room every day for eight or nine hours a day. It started out with Daniel and I and Mark and Hawk and one other gentleman who’s an EP on the show whose name hasn’t been mentioned yet, so we don’t get to mention him. But the five of us sat around a table for two weeks and just talked about the series and talked about who the characters were and talked about what the later books were going to be about so that we could start seeding some of that information in. The rest of the writers showed up after those two weeks, and we moved to different offices. Now we’re actually starting to beat out the episodes and what happens in the first season and how that is broken up into ten episodes and what are things that happen in each of those ten episodes. The end of this, of course, is that people go off and start writing scripts.
Do you have any idea at this point when the series will actually be on television?
Next year. I don’t know when next year, but they’re pretty committed to getting it on the air next year. With a ten-episode run, they have a lot of flexibility on when they can start it. It used to be you had to start by a certain point because everybody’s show was twenty-two episodes, and so there was a certain time of year where all shows started. That’s no longer true, and especially with short-run series like ours, like ten episodes or twelve episodes, those sorts of series can start whenever the network wants them to start. So they have some flexibility there, and we don’t know exactly when that will be.
The other James S.A. Corey project this year was a Star Wars novel called Honor Among Thieves. You want to tell us a bit about that?
It’s a boring story. I know some people at Random House, and they were looking for somebody to write this Han Solo novel, and one of the people at Random House says, “Have you considered James S.A. Corey? He kind of writes stuff that’s kind of like Star Wars.” Not really, but I guess for those people, anything that’s SF is the same. They were like, “You should talk to this guy.” The people at Del Rey contacted us and said, “Would you be interested in doing this?” At first, we weren’t. I have to be honest with you: We were kind of hinky on doing a Star Wars novel, but then they said, “Oh, and this novel will be about Han Solo, set between Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back.” Then, we were like, “Yeah, okay. We have to do that, right?” That’s pretty much the coolest character in the series in the coolest period in the series because it’s still got all the sexual tension with Leia before the big “I love you” dramatic reveal in Empire. We’ve still got the tension of “Is Han Solo a hero or not? Is he still a smuggler?” He’s still struggling with his own feelings on whether or not he’s actually a rebel. That’s great stuff. You have to write that book. Once they told us which book they were offering us, we had to take it.
Did you always know you were going to use the James S.A. Corey name for that, or did you ever consider using a different pseudonym?
No, they wanted Jim. James S.A. Corey is a much bigger name than Daniel or I individually. He’s a much more popular author now than even Daniel is under his own name.
Do you have any tips for writing Han Solo?
Everybody gave us advice on which books we should read and all that, but the truth is Del Rey didn’t want us to reference much in the expanded universe. The goal for these books was to be a novel that somebody who’s never read any expanded universe books could pick up and enjoy, even if the only exposure they’ve ever had to Star Wars is the movies. They didn’t want us dragging a lot of backstory from previous expanding universe novels, and they actively told us not to do that. What we did to research is we had all the movies on Blu-ray and we just sat down and watched Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back over and over and over. Mostly what we were looking for is the cadences of language. How does Han Solo talk? How does Leia talk? How do Han Solo and Chewbacca interact? What does that look like? What does it sound like? Just getting to the point where you could say anything in a Han Solo voice, where you could say anything in a Leia voice. Getting to that point before you start writing, so that when you have to write a Leia line, or you have to write a Luke Skywalker line, or you have to write a Han Solo line, the patterns of their speech are just natural. You’re not trying to force it to sound like Han Solo because I feel like that’s a trapping. The reader can kind of sense that. But if you’re just writing whatever as Han Solo and his way of speaking is just already built into your brain, then I think it comes off a little more naturally. That’s what we did. Whether we were successful or not is up to the reader, but that’s what we were trying for.
When you’re writing Chewbacca, do you say, “He growled,” or do you spell it out phonetically or do you say, “He growled in a way that Han Solo knew he meant this,” or . . . ?
Yeah, actually, that’s what we did. We used descriptive text: “Chewbacca growled, he howled, he barked” — that sort of thing. Because that’s what the movies do. Han Solo’s reaction to Chewbacca tells you what Chewbacca said, and that’s what we wanted. We wanted to have that movie feel to it, where Chewbacca makes a growl and then Han said, “It’s not my fault.” We know that Chewbacca just blamed him for something bad that just happened. A lot of the humor in their interactions comes from that, because you can see Chewbacca sort of growling around the ship and grumping around, and then Han’s reaction to that letting you know that Chewbacca is complaining about stuff is funny. That’s funny stuff, and we didn’t want to lose that.
I heard you say that one thing you noticed rewatching the movies is that Han Solo is always wrong.
That is true. If you rewatch the first two movies, the things that are true about Han Solo is that, if he says something is true, it isn’t, and if he makes a plan, it fails every single time. He is never correct about anything in the first two movies. Not once. The thing that he’s great at, though, is improvising. You have Han say, “We’re going to make the jump to light speed,” and then he pulls the lever and it doesn’t work. But, if he says, “I still got a few maneuvers up my sleeve,” and then starts yanking on handles, the Millennium Falcon does all these amazing maneuvers to escape.
That’s what Han is great at. Han is great at yanking on levers in the Millennium Falcon and making it do amazing maneuvers to dodge incoming fire. Han is great at shooting his way past stormtroopers. He has a plan, it totally fails, a bunch of stormtroopers show up, and then he and Chewy just run at them shooting and the stormtroopers run away. That was never the plan. The plan was never “Let’s just charge the stormtroopers and they’ll chicken out and run away,” but he does it and it works. That’s what we love about Han, and capturing that in the books was important to us: that we have him be sort of a bumbler when he’s making plans, but when he’s just improvising, he kicks ass.
I’ve heard a lot of people suggest actually that the original trilogy works so well because of Han Solo, that he’s sort of an average guy just trying to do his job, doesn’t believe in any of this Jedi crap, and it gives it this grounding in reality. And when you make everybody a Jedi or president or something in the prequels, you lose that everyman quality that makes the whole thing work.
It’s silly and when everybody’s taking it seriously, it comes across as silly. You have to have at least one guy going, “Come on, this is ridiculous.” As long as you have one guy saying that, it takes the curse off of it, to use a writing term. If you have something really improbable happen in your story, and one person in the story goes, “Wow, that was really improbable,” that’s what the reader is thinking, so having a character say it takes the curse off of it. Han Solo is that guy in the first three movies. He’s the guy who’s going, “This is ridiculous. What are we doing here?” And because he’s saying that, it’s okay. When everyone on screen is taking it seriously, the audience stops taking it seriously. That is a truth of storytelling.
What do you think about the upcoming J. J. Abrams/Rian Johnson Star Wars movies?
I have no idea what to think. I don’t know. I’m not a huge fan of the Star Trek reboot, but I recognize that J. J. is an extremely talented filmmaker, and his stuff looks gorgeous. Maybe it’ll be awesome, I don’t know. We’re going to have to wait and see I guess.
And we understand that Han Solo is coming back, so maybe that’ll help.
Maybe. I heard the Millennium Falcon fell on his legs.
We’re just about out of time. Do you want to just talk about any new or upcoming projects you have going on?
We got this TV show. That’s coming out next year, so everybody should watch that. Cibola Burn just came out a couple of weeks ago. If you don’t have a copy, you should buy that. And we’re working on writing the fifth book.
Is there anything you can say about the fifth book? I actually heard you guys say that you’re really excited about this one; a lot of plot threads are going to come together.
Yeah, the fifth book is the axle around which the entire series is involved. We get to do a lot of stuff. We’ve been dropping in hints about stuff in book five since book one. The tentative title for it is Nemesis Games. Other than that, I don’t know what else I can really say.
I heard Daniel say they always change his titles.
They always change his titles, but they tend to keep mine. I don’t know why that is. We have a pretty good justification for calling it Nemesis Games, and it fits with the structure that they like. They really like “a mythological thing has or does something.” We’re using nemesis in the Greek mythology term. Nemesis is a Greek god, or a Greek mythological character, I should say. So they should like that.
Well, I really enjoyed Cibola Burn, and I’m really looking forward to Nemesis Games or whatever they end up calling it.
Whatever they end up calling it, yeah.
Ty, I really just want to thank you for joining us today.
Thank you for having me.
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