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Interview: John Scalzi

Anything you ever wanted to know about science fiction writer John Scalzi you can find online at the public and rather opinionated blog that he’s kept since 1998, whatever.scalzi.com/. His bio page holds all the usual info—education, past jobs, present jobs, books published, awards won—and is wrapped up with the tongue-in-cheek coda: “For more detailed information, including a complete bibliography, visit the Wikipedia entry on me. It’s generally accurate.”

But spend a little more time browsing, and you’ll learn that beyond the dry stats and quippy bon mots, there’s more to John Scalzi and his writing than meets the eye. For one thing, his blog gets an extraordinary amount of traffic for a writer’s website–Scalzi himself quotes it at over 45,000 unique visitors daily and more than two million page views monthly. And it’s well-deserved traffic, too, in light of the man’s reputation for posting unique content. The blog’s main focus is exactly its title–“Whatever.” Scalzi writes about anything from movies to politics to a page entirely devoted to bacon. He also features regular postings by other writers entitled “The Big Idea”, where authors talk about their latest project and its inspiration.

As far as his own work, there’s at least one novel, a handful of short stories, and even some ambient electronic music that he composed himself that he’s posted and offers up free to anyone who’s interested. And most unique of all, he’s got insider knowledge on the SyFy channel’s Stargate Universe–he’s a creative consultant for the show.

But after perusing his public musings and finding myself entertained and intrigued—not to mention weighed down with a list of new books to read—I still had a few more questions.

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I would venture a guess that most people meet you through your blog-which has spawned books like You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing and Your Hate Mail will be Graded. What prompted you to start that blog back in 1998?

Scalzi: I started it because prior to ’98 I had been both a newspaper and an online columnist, and at the time I was between column gigs and wanted to keep sharp in that particular writing format, just in case anyone ever offered me another column. Because it was mostly writing exercise for me, I wasn’t particularly worried about the size of my audience, which was good because at the beginning it was about 50 of my friends who even knew it was there. There was also no pressure for me to grow the audience, either. People eventually started linking to me and coming around.

How long have you been writing, then?

I haven’t the slightest idea. It’s been long enough that I don’t remember not writing creatively in some form or another. I imagine whatever it was, I got some nice positive feedback on it, which encouraged me to do it more. But beyond that, since I don’t remember it, it’s difficult to say that whatever it was had any sort of effect.

It seems the act of writing itself is your forte, no matter the subject content. Besides your blog, you’ve authored nonfiction guides about money, the universe, and science fiction movies, as well as books about the stupid things people do. But nearly all your fiction books can be classified as military science fiction. What appeals to you about that subgenre?

Before writing Old Man’s War, I went into a bookstore to see what kind of science fiction was selling; I saw more military SF than anything else, so I decided that’s what I should probably write if I wanted to sell a book. This sounds mercenary to some, but more charitably it was market research. I wanted to sell a book, so I was pretty dispassionate about what book that should be. Now, having chosen military science fiction to write, I made sure it was a book I myself would want to read—market research is fine and good but if you’re not writing something you’d actually want to read, then that book’s probably not going to be something anyone else would want to read either.

This is why, for example, I probably wouldn’t write a book about vampires; fact is even though vampire books sell very well, as a topic, vampires bore the crap out of me. So I’m manifestly not the right author for that subject. Other people are far more interested in vampires, so they’ll write better, more interesting books than I would, and make their readers happier than my readers would be.

You’re a creative consultant on the SyFy show Stargate Universe. What’s that like?

Being a creative consultant means reading scripts and giving the writers and producers notes on both technical aspects and on character–since I write science books and fiction, I have experience on both ends. The show makers are then of course free to take my advice or leave it. I enjoy the work very much; it’s fascinating to watch a show get made from the script up. There are no downsides that I can see—the work is both fulfilling and leaves me time to write novels, and that means it’s pretty much the perfect gig.

Speaking of writing novels, Fuzzy Nation, your “reboot” of H. Beam Piper‘s 1962 science fiction novel Little Fuzzy, about a new furry species discovered on another planet, was just purchased by Tor for publication next year. You wrote about the how and when and why of the reboot back in April’s official announcement, but I have another question. Did you want to reboot a novel in general, first, or were you thinking about Little Fuzzy one day and decided to add on to the story?

It was always about Fuzzy. It’s a very good story but some of the social elements of it are artifacts of the time in which it was written, and so I had sort of casually wondered what the story would have been like if someone had written the story today. Eventually I decided there was only one way to find out.

I’ve heard of Little Fuzzy referred to as a YA novel. Is Fuzzy Nation the same way?

No, and I’m not entirely sure why Little Fuzzy is seen as YA, either. It’s certainly readable for younger audiences but I don’t believe kids were Piper’s intended audience, nor were they the audience for the book when it was published. This isn’t to suggest it’s an insult for the book to be considered YA—YA is filled with many excellent books and authors these days—but I think it’s put there without much thought. In any event, my take is not intended as YA, although as with the original, there’s nothing there a bright 13-year-old couldn’t enjoy.

Are “reboot” novels done often?

As far as I know, and leaving aside fan fiction for the moment, reboot novels aren’t done at all, which was one reason I was interested. There are sequels and retellings of established stories from different perspectives, and the “Fuzzy” series has at least one of each of these, but actual reboots—reimagining the story and characters—isn’t the usual thing.

Any other reboot plans in your future?

I don’t have much interest in doing another reboot, actually. I did it because it didn’t seem to have been done before on a professional level. Now that it’s out of my hands, I have other things I want to do. As for what novels I think could use a reboot, since I’m not thinking of doing it again it’s not something I’ve given a lot of thought to. I don’t know that any novel needs to be rebooted, although I suppose if Fuzzy Nation does well, publishers might look through their backlists. We’ll have to see what happens.

In your blog, you’ve talked about authors that have inspired your writing in the past: Robert Heinlein, Orson Scott Card, Sheri Tepper, among many others. Would you add any other names to the list now?

No one new to add at this point, although I would note that many of the authors and writers who inspired me were not in science fiction; writers like H.L. Mencken, Dorothy Parker, Ben Hecht, James Thurber and Robert Benchley, Roger Ebert, William Goldman, PJ O’Rourke and Carl Sagan. There’s more to writing good science fiction than just reading good science fiction.

Speaking of good science fiction, you’ve just become President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and have held this position approximately 17 days at the time of the interview. What’s changed for you?

I’ve become very aware that I really do have to work on time management if I want to do anything with my life in the next year besides be SFWA president. And I do; I have fiction to write and other projects to work on. So even now I’m trying to keep a tight, focused schedule. Even after only 17 days it’s been a fairly active year, so again it reinforces the idea that I need to keep on top of everything or get swallowed by it. This goes against my generally disorganized and lazy nature, but then that’s probably not a bad thing

What’s up next for you, writing-wise? Any new projects you’re tinkering with?

A number of the things I’m working on I can’t talk about, and I mean that in a legal sense. Other than that, I am definitely working on a new book, which at this point I assume would probably come out in 2012, and beyond that I’m not going to say too much about it. I’m a big believer at this point in not trying to go into too much detail about what I’m doing before I do it. I think it’s better just to be able to say to people, surprise! Here’s something!

Let’s end this on a sweet note. I think we should talk about pie, specifically, your Schadenfreude pie.  I was actually introduced to it by a friend who isn’t a SFF reader, yet regularly keeps up with your blog. I immediately made the pie and found it to be exactly as you described. How did you come up with this creation?

Well, as you might expect, I’m a fan of Schadenfreude as a concept, which is something that doesn’t necessarily say good things about me. I’m also a fan of pie, which I think puts me on the side of the angels, actually. Me being me, it was only a matter of time before I put the two together. And given that the pie is basically nothing but sugar, butter, eggs and chocolate, I can’t even begin to guess how many calories it has. But I think if you’ve committed to a pie like that, calories are not actually in your top ten of things to be concerned about.

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Erin Stocks

Erin Stocks Lightspeed Assistant Editor Erin Stocks’ fiction can be found in the Coeur de Lion anthology Anywhere but EarthFlash Fiction Online, the Hadley Rille anthology Destination: Future, The Colored Lens, and most recently in Polluto Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @ErinStocks or at www.erinstocks.com.

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