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Interview: The Redemption of Paolo Bacigalupi

Two years ago few people outside the genre community had heard of Paolo Bacigalupi. In an ascent that has left fans and well-wishers—and even Bacigalupi himself—dizzy and breathless, he has since gone from being simply a well-regarded science fiction writer to an American Library Association Reading List author, a Time Magazine Top Ten Books of 2009 designee, and just this past November, a contender for the National Book Award.

Bacigalupi’s work always seems to be one step ahead of both trends and history. The Windup Girl was published at a time when the public had just become aware of the politics of food through nonfiction works by authors and film-makers like Michael Pollan, and Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis. Ship Breaker, the novel that earned him the National Book Award nomination, came out just before Deepwater Horizon started spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Both novels have earned him recognition outside as well as inside the genre.

Bacigalupi is funny and charming, at times brash and opinionated, but what becomes surprisingly clear as you talk with him is that he is a man deeply uncomfortable with the fact that people listen to what he calls his “bleatings.” He’s worried that talking about his work will draw fire the way that the work itself has. Even more striking: He doesn’t want to defend his artistic choices; he doesn’t know if they were the right ones. And as the interview progresses, what sounds at first like humility and artistic self-doubt over the multi-award-winning The Windup Girl turns out to be something much more surprising: Shame.

These days, Bacigalupi’s career, and his preferences, are turning more and more toward the young adult market, a category one might think would require an even greater burden of responsibility and restraint. But Bacigalupi, instead, seems to have found there a comfortable space. It is in the world of Ship Breaker and boys’ adventure stories where he feels safest, and just as important, where he feels he can do the most good.

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You primarily write science fiction, but for your most recent novel you worked with Tobias S. Buckell on a shared-world pair of fantasy novellas, The Alchemist & The Executioness. Was the experience of writing fantasy different for you than writing science fiction? Do you think you’ll be revisiting fantasy any time soon?

Bacigalupi: With fantasy, you get the luxury of control. Every aspect of the world can be manipulated for your purpose, and the reader is willing to suspend disbelief to a much larger degree than with science fiction. I don’t know if I’ll be writing any more of it. Maybe. I’ve got this novel idea…

Was this your first time working with someone else on a project? How did it go?

Yes. It was the first time, and it was actually pretty fun. We weren’t working on the same story, so that meant that we each had total control within the realm of our own narratives, but the shared experience of building a world is quite convivial. Lots of kicking ideas back and forth. Lots of chances to build on each other’s ideas. It felt like good, creative play. I’m not sure how I’d do if I had to actually share text with another writer, but I loved building a shared world.

The Alchemist & The Executioness started exclusively as an audio production through Audible.com. What made you decide to release a brand new work on audio only? Did you write differently, with audio in mind?

It was Audible’s idea. They were interested in doing more original audio projects, and Toby was already involved. He invited me in as a second voice, and I said yes because I like Toby, he’s good creative company, and the basic premise seemed like it would be fun to explore. A chance to stretch.  And yes, I did write differently. I know a lot of people have listened to The Windup Girl and Ship Breaker on audio, but in my mind, at least, there are certain rhythms to the told story that are different from the written story, and so I made some choices based around that: Using first person POV, using certain rhythms, mostly just trying to help the listening reader follow and enjoy the story better.

The Windup Girl has won most of the major industry awards, and recognition in the mainstream as well. I’m not sure anyone would have anticipated it gaining so much traction outside the genre field. What do you think the wider audience sees in it?

Hell if I know. It all feels as though there’s something going on in the zeitgeist and because of it, the themes in Windup Girl resonate with people. It’s interesting because I was told so many times that science fiction doesn’t sell, and yet Windup Girl is doing really well…which makes me think that it’s not so much science fiction that’s the problem as it is a question of how relevant any given piece of science fiction feels—global warming and GM foods apparently resonate strongly, as, I think, does a certain unease over where we’re headed in terms of our wealth and prosperity. There are a lot of really interesting, really big question marks hanging over us as a species, and it seems like people are hungry to start grappling with those questions…even if it comes in a format as grim as The Windup Girl.

Your recent novel Ship Breaker was your first foray into young adult fiction. Is that something you’d like to do more of?

Well, as I’ve got more YA books under contract, it’s something I will definitely be doing more of. And I’m very happy about that. Honestly, I feel like when I’m writing about the environment and sustainability, my time is better spent telling stories to young people. They seem to have a greater capacity to change.

You’re writing about deeply unpleasant things, but it seems with a very moral intent. Did it start out that way? Did you start writing with the intent of having moral messages of things like sustainability?

No, that came much later actually. Originally I was just really intent on being an author and telling stories. That was where I was coming from when I wrote my first slew of books—all those books that weren’t selling—and my first couple of short stories as well. I was just trying to tell a story, just trying to get something down on the page and have it function, trying to make your two characters interact in an interesting way, having them follow through to a conclusion that seems somewhat satisfying, and that was pretty much as far as it got.

I started to feel it out a little bit with “The Fluted Girl” because I was interested in how media stars and rich people were buying land around the area that I grew up in and I was starting to feel my way towards sort of looking at that idea, looking at something bigger than just story but looking at ideas as well. This sort of snapped into focus when I wrote “People of Sand and Slag,” where I flat-out was trying to write about an idea. I really wanted to write with the idea of what does it mean if humans have an infinite technological capacity to solve problems? I really wanted to work with that idea, and after that I think almost every story since then has had an idea focus at least. But initially it wasn’t there.

I think some of us in the genre community feel a little bit invested in your nomination for the National Book Awards, because you’re representing genre to the wider world. Do you think it means anything for YA science fiction that Ship Breaker has been so well received?

I don’t know. I guess if there’s another science fiction novel up next year that would say it meant something. That’s an interesting one actually, because certainly I feel like I come from within the genre. I feel like I come from within science fiction, and when it was nominated for the National Book Award, it was being accepted with that awareness in the judge’s minds. But the reality is, even though I feel like I’m coming out of the science fiction genre people call my writing “dystopian fiction” instead, especially when you’re talking about YA. What I’ve noticed is that YA functions as a genre completely separately from science fiction even though it might contain a lot of science fiction within it. A lot of what we would call science fiction is actually presented in YA as “dystopian fiction”; it doesn’t have the science fiction label at all. And Ship Breaker has again and again in reviews and other things been referred to as dystopian fiction which makes me sort of think that the outside world likes what it tastes when it has that kind of a story, but it’s not actually experiencing that as a genre representative. They’re experiencing it as another depiction of a broken world of which apparently there are many, many, many in YA, and this is the flavor of the month. The thing that I see a lot in reviews is that Ship Breaker is “another dystopia, but it’s not like those other dystopias,” and there’s that rush to distinguish it from all of the other dystopian novels that have been written in science fiction. The so-called dystopian novels I guess I’d really say, because I don’t feel like they conform to what we call dystopian. I’m not even sure that they’re really speculative, they’re just science fiction in a lot of cases.

The thing that’s interesting is that when you see a reviewer say “the difference between this and all the other dystopias is this feels like it could actually happen,” and you’re like, “Yes, exactly.” You appreciate that they got the point, at least. I think there’s probably a fair amount of denial actually if you went out to that mainstream audience that Ship Breaker is even science fiction. I think that the two words “science fiction” mean completely different things in the outside world than they do to us within the genre world, where we understand that science fiction is a pretty big umbrella for a lot of different ideas.

You’ve had acknowledgement from Time Magazine, the ALA, the National Book Award, this wide audience that doesn’t really seem to realize they’re reading science fiction. Do you feel like you’re being pulled away from the genre community? Do you think you have an additional responsibility to the genre readership?

No, I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t really engage with a question like that. All along, when I’ve written science fiction, I’ve always sort of thought in terms of wanting the stories to unpack themselves for whoever picks up the story, whether that’s someone who considers themselves a genre reader or whether that’s somebody who doesn’t—that they can pick up the story and unpack it. Even The Windup Girl, which is pretty dense as far as science fiction goes, seems to unpack successfully for an outside reader.

I remember I went to a book club out here outside of Paonia, sort of western Colorado, and this woman’s book club had read the book because I was a local author and then invited me in to be in on their conversation about the book, and one of the questions that came up multiple times actually was why does this have to be called science fiction? I was like well, because it is. That’s just what it is. Well, what else would you call it? And they’re like well, literature. There are these funny layers. One of them is, where does this go, where will this book be placed in the bookshelves? Which is one layer in discussing science fiction. And then there’s this other layer which is, what does it mean that you’re science fiction? That’s the one where it says science fiction is rocket ships and Barsoom, and the sort of 1950s image of pulp, or maybe even a 1930s image of pulp science fiction is what’s in people’s minds when they say the words “science fiction” as opposed to everything from David Weber to George Orwell.

So I think that, regardless of what I’m writing, I sort of stay close to that idea that I want the story to unpack itself for the uninitiated reader. That you don’t have to have read anything else by me, you don’t have to have read anything else in the genre in order to pick up any story or book of mine and be introduced and then move through the story successfully. So I don’t really feel like I want to move away or move towards. I think you use different tools to tell different versions of story and so when I wrote something like “The Tamarisk Hunter” which was just about drought, the objective was really to actually give the reader a feeling as if they were there, that everything was so reasonable and so just on the edge of their doorstep that they could experience that viscerally as though they were in the shoes of the person. I didn’t want to explore a bigger world, I wanted to present something that seemed stark and close and very grounded and real. I didn’t want a lot of other extrapolative pieces cluttering up the works. Whereas when I wrote “The Calorie Man,” I was really interested in unpacking a bunch of ideas in a different way that was more about the ideas and less about the specific experience of the reader. You know, I sort of wanted to scare the pants off of Western readers in drought when I wrote “The Tamarisk Hunter,” whereas I wanted people to start thinking when I was writing about GM foods, and those were different kinds of things.

So to answer the question I guess, no, I’m not really feeling pulled one way or another. There are certain stories that I want to write that seem to indicate that they will be near-future or near-present day stories, and there are other stories that seem to indicate that they’re, in fact, going to be wildly extrapolated and that has more to do with the world that I want to build and the effect I want to have rather than on the genre that I think of myself being placed in, I guess.

In an interview with The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy several months ago you talked about what you called “Boys’ narrative.” Could you explain what you meant by that?

Explosions. An emphasis on adventure rather than romance. An emphasis on action and motion rather than a character’s internal workings. Screw personal growth and introspection, I want to see my heroes and heroines going out and getting shit done. Honestly, I don’t think of these things as being exclusive to boys’ interests; I think there are plenty of girls who are getting left out in the cold by the vampire romance stuff. But if I was a boy growing up today and going through the YA shelves at Barnes & Noble, I think that I would get the message pretty quickly that books aren’t meant for me, and that books don’t really give a damn about my interests. And then I’d go play video games, which are more than happy to put the emphasis on those elements.

Are boys really not reading? Was there a golden age of fiction when they were? What works used to meet that narrative need, and is there anything comparable on the market today that captures the imagination of the young adult male? The Halo and Star Wars books come to mind.

Check the stats on boys reading and their academic success. I think there was a time in the past when boys read more, partly because there were more stories that catered to them, and partly because video games weren’t so compelling. Halo seems like a fine example of a boy story: guns, explosions, high-stakes military clashes. It’s no accident that this is a video game universe.

Do you feel like you have support in writing the YA story that you believe needs to be written?

Yeah, I think so. I’m sort of splitting the difference. I’m writing these stories with explosions and adventure and all this kind of stuff and this overlay of social responsibility. I’m trying to find some sweet spot there where it’s literarily respectable but also is still not going to alienate the kid who wants to pick up a story and have a gripping read. And I think that there is a way to do that. You can have both the gripping read and some ideas scattered within. I’m not sure that necessarily if I sat down and wrote a Conan the Barbarian story that I would get support. If I’m going to write a Conan the Barbarian story it has to also have some larger thematic ideas, and that might be the Achilles heel really of whether or not we’re going to get boys to read again.

One of the things you think about reading is that you want books to be worthwhile—you want them to have lots of interesting ideas, you want them to be socializing influences, all those kinds of things. But on some other level, you’re just—and this is more from my wife’s perspective—as a school teacher she just wants boys to start thinking that reading is fun. You take them where they are, you get them involved with books, you make them think that books are enjoyable, that things that are there that are going to blow their brains, and are going to be really great. And then you’ve got time to introduce them to more stuff. The idea is it’s not the last book that they’re going to read, it’s the first book that they’re going to read.  If there’s anything I’d like to see it’s actually more trashy boys’ fiction in the YA space, on the assumption that much like Gossip Girl in the girls’ space, it’s not going to be the last book they read, it’s going to be the first one. I personally haven’t seen a lot of that yet, but I’m not the best read in the genre so I could be wrong.

So you understand that a lot of these questions are actually really, really sticky questions. There are a lot of different writers who are involved in the genre. You’ve got someone like Walter Dean Myers, who writes a lot of stuff that focuses on boys. It’s not the kind of stuff that I would necessarily say is the automatic entry point for boys reading, but on the other hand a lot of boys have read those books and it engaged with them and connected with them, and that has been their entry point to reading.

So for every word that you say there’s also a caveat that goes with it as well. There’s all sorts of interesting minefields in bleating your opinion about something, when there’s almost inevitably somebody who can point to examples that disprove it, or that people that would be offended by what you said, or think that you’re flat-out wrong.

You’re influential now. People want to know.

I think that actually the most horrifying thing about having my books out, and having some success in the genre and having the awards come is that you find that your bleatings and rantings are taken more seriously than they probably deserve. You have that sense that you’ve suddenly been handed a megaphone, and you’re still the same asshole you were three years ago, but you’ve been given the megaphone now. So everything that you would have said before and people would have engaged with on a level of “Yeah, I don’t know, I disagree with that,” or “Yeah, that’s kind of dumb” or whatever becomes a different sort of thing as the megaphone gets bigger. That’s sort of unnerving, because really you are just the same dork that you were before, you’re just the same flawed person you were before. You’re just louder now.

Not long ago you posed a question on Twitter, asking whether other writers ever regretted or felt guilt for the effect their work has on the world. What prompted that line of thought?

It’s hard to see people combing over your work. It wasn’t something I really anticipated. I know that was dense of me—to not really think about the many ways that my writing would be received—but I’m still somewhat surprised and pained when someone takes an intense dislike to a story. I never set out to poke anyone in the eye, but there are aspects of my stories that seem to do that. And then I go through most of the reactions that people go through when you feel that maybe you’ve transgressed and done wrong to another person. You worry that you aren’t a decent human being if you’re making people unhappy with what you write.

As a writer, what do you do with that, as you proceed in the future?  I know you’re writing YA but I think you also have another adult novel contracted too, right?

Yeah, I have two more adult novels contracted.

So is this going to change the way you write those, having seen the way people react?

I haven’t decided. I haven’t decided how much weight to put on the variety of reactions that come in, and this isn’t just related to negative reactions, this is also related to positive reactions. There are plenty of people who would love it if I turned around and wrote a Windup Girl sequel. And there’s a huge amount of positive response to the book as well as the negative responses that have happened, and I think that the urge to sort of satisfy either the positive responses or to assuage the negative responses sort of comes from the same part of your artistic brain which is the pleaser side, trying to make other people happy, trying to make them comfortable, trying to please, trying to be obedient to outsiders’ preferences. I think that the thing about The Windup Girl that honestly probably made it successful was that I managed to block out all of my guesses about how people would respond to the book until after it was done, and so I was able to be more aggressive with my writing than I have ever been almost in every way, whether that was stylistically, or whether that was plot-wise or whether that was, you know, one scene of Emiko’s when she’s really abused. Whatever it was I just turned the volume up to eleven and went with it as far as it would go, and I think that’s sort of both its most successful aspect and maybe its Achilles heel as well.

So when I think about going and writing another story the one thing I sort of don’t want to do is write something that’s apologetic that says “Oh, I’m sorry that you’re bothered” or “I’m sorry that you don’t like what I write” or, you know, “Here, let me give you something that makes you happy.” There are a bunch of voices I think that writers end up with in their heads, and some of those I categorize as sort of call the Mommy voices—the ones that say you should be a good child, that you shouldn’t ruffle anybody’s feathers, that you shouldn’t be impolite, that you shouldn’t be disgusting or rude or mean or cruel or whatever the thing is. And those are all good social impulses, and yet they’re maybe exactly the wrong social impulses when you’re trying to create something, when you’re just trying to be creative.

I spent a fair amount of time trying to jam the mommy voices down into a dark hole and leave them there. Now I’ve got a fair number in my head, and I think the thing that you’re trying to figure out is how to balance your sense of social responsibility, I guess—that  you are creating media, that you are creating art that’s going to be broadcast and that’s going to be consumed by lots and lots of people, and so what your social responsibility in creating that media is…if you’re going to present violence against women in your stories, that’s going to have a cascade effect, I can recognize that. But balanced against that is the question of am I worried about being polite, instead of just turning the level up to eleven again? And I don’t know. I think it’s sort of a dynamic question and I think every writer finds their own balance with that. Certainly one of my mommy voices is that I write about the environment, and I write about certain social issues that are really class issues that are really interesting to me because I do feel like I have a social obligation to write about those things. So in some ways, I’ve incorporated certain mommy voices into my work and, you know, maybe I need more, maybe I need fewer—who knows? I mean certainly some people think I need fewer. They’re like, “Well, if he’d stop wanking off about the environment, his stories would be so much better.”

You haven’t had any negative reactions to Ship Breaker like you did to The Windup Girl?

No, it’s a different story…I hope that maybe Ship Breaker is my redemption, where I get to present a bunch of strong functional women all around the main character—some of them are stronger than the main character, in fact—and present them in a positive light. Who knows?

You’ve recently gone into hiding to work on your next novel. What can you tell us about it?

It’s a year behind schedule, but I’m sure that I’m onto something good now—if I can just keep myself from despairing and throwing it away again.

I originally told some people awhile back that I was working on a direct sequel to Ship Breaker, and that Nailer and the rest of the cast are going to be showing up again, and that it was going to be a direct sequel just a little bit later on. That’s not happening now. The only character that exists still in this story is Tool. It’s not a direct sequel—it’s a companion novel. I think it’s set in a place called the Drowned Cities, but there’s a whole different cast of characters who are also in the story in addition to Tool…I don’t really want to give a lot of spoilers because I’m still sort of feeling out the story line that I like in this. So what I can say is that I think it’s going to be set in a place called the Drowned Cities and it’s about a couple of war orphans—the young people in the story are war orphans—and they and Tool sort of have a run-in that’s defining. So that’s about as much as I can really give you right now.

You know, honestly, it’ll probably suck, but you know.

Did you say that about the last two books when they were in progress, too?

I liked Ship Breaker. I was proud of Ship Breaker. When I wrote it, I was proud of it. When I sent it out, I felt proud of it. When it sold, I was proud of it. I think when it got published, I was proud of it. With Windup Girl, I felt ashamed all the time. I felt ashamed while I was writing it, I felt ashamed that I had written it, I felt ashamed that I was inflicting it on other people, and now I feel ashamed when people criticize it.

It’s interesting because I feel like that’s the book where I took lots of risks. I mean, I pretty much took every risk I possibly could in The Windup Girl. So when you’re taking lots of risks, you know, your failure opportunities are big. You’ve huge failure opportunities. I suppose that’s the thing that made it good in other people’s eyes was that it was risky—I mean, it was as big and as ambitious as I could make it, whether it was setting it in a foreign country where I needed to do so much research, whether it was having so many characters on the page or whether it was just being so unapologetic about the violence in it or what. It was all risky. And so you feel exposed. I think with Ship Breaker there’s actually very little that’s truly risky about it—the only layer that’s really risky is some of the violence and nobody cares about violence against meth-addicted men, so it’s pretty safe territory really.

I’ve never really had a lot of confidence in the things that I’ve worked on. With the short stories I used to feel the same way. I’d send out a short story and feel like I just despised it, and then it would get positive recognition and I’d think, oh, well maybe that’s a good story after all—and then I could kind of like it later on. And it’s sort of like that for The Windup Girl at this point. It’s like enough people have liked it that I go, oh, well it’s kind of nice, I actually kind of like it too—there was that part that I thought was good or whatever, and I can see that a little bit. But it’s confusing. I think that actually the thing that I liked most about getting nominated for the National Book Award with Ship Breaker was that it was reflective of the kind of artistic experience I’d prefer in some ways. I actually had fun writing that book, and so it was nice to sort of have something positive come in from that, as opposed to the writing experience of The Windup Girl which was really kind of painful and traumatic for me, and so if that was the only book that I got recognition for, it would sort of seem to indicate that I needed to go back to another dose of self-torture and doubt. And I didn’t really want to have another experience like that writing a book. And so if that’s the necessary process, you sort of think “Oh, please kill me.”

I guess I feel like having each book with its very different processes get recognition sort of feels like I’ve been given a little room to maneuver, where I can find a more healthy sort of path of creative work. Hopefully.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: On January 10, 2011 the American Library Association named Ship Breaker the winner of the 2011 Michael L. Printz Award, which honors the best books for young adult readers.

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Christie Yant

Christie Yant

Christie Yant is a science fiction and fantasy writer, Associate Publisher for Lightspeed and Nightmare, and guest editor of Lightspeed’s Women Destroy Science Fiction special issue. Her fiction has appeared in anthologies and magazines including Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2011 (Horton),  Armored, Analog Science Fiction & Fact, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, io9, Wired.com, and China’s Science Fiction World. Her work has received honorable mentions in Year’s Best Science Fiction (Dozois) and Best Horror of the Year (Datlow), and has been long-listed for StorySouth’s Million Writers Award. She lives on the central coast of California with two writers, an editor, and assorted four-legged nuisances. Follow her on Twitter @christieyant.