Author interview published February 2008
conducted (in person) by Aaron Hughes
Paolo Bacigalupi photo (left) by Amy Peterson
"Mostly I am so tired and I am so demoralized and I am so hopeless about the story, and I can't think of anything
else to do to make it better, and I just kind of give up. And that's when a story is done."
- Paolo Bacigalupi
Paolo Bacigalupi (PB): I think it's a lie to say that it's not. It definitely gives you some warm fuzzies. You feel like you're not crazy. You feel like you're actually doing something right. You feel like people are responding to your stories, that there's impact. And as a proxy for success, yes, it's really nice to get those kinds of things coming at you.
It's a little weird, because you start thinking, is this next story going to be received that well? Are people going to like this one as much as that one? So there's a crippling component to that as well that's a little bit hard to deal with, and I've tried to figure out ways to set that aside and say, "OK, I'm just going to try to tell a story and I'm not going to worry about those kinds of things."
FR: You're spoiled that fast, that if you don't win awards with a story you're disappointed?
PB: Hmm. There's a petty part of me that always wants to be recognized. I think it's partly what writers are. Ultimately you want to know people give a shit about your writing, and they respond to it. So getting those award nominations means, oh my gosh, I feel shiny for a moment. Then you go back to hating yourself the next day. But for that moment it's really, really nice, and so there is some part of me that is always hoping, oh, gee, maybe people will like this one as much as those ones.
It's sort of humbling to have people nominate your stories. You don't really understand exactly what it is about the stories that's working for people, you don't really understand why they rank strongly enough to get them onto an award ballot or to be selected for the Sturgeon Award. Mostly when I'm writing my stories I don't feel very confident in my stories at all, and so it feels very mysterious to me that there's this echo, this positive thing that comes back after you've sent out the story.
It's an interesting spot, because I've tried to set aside my need to be recognized, and stay focused on the stories. But there's that hunger there too, and that needs to shut up so that I can sit down and write.
FR: I saw a couple posts on your blog windupstories.com where you talk about writing and rewriting and rewriting to an extreme. I would have thought that getting this recognition would help you feel like, "Well, I don't have to rewrite it twenty times, I know people like what I do." It sounds like maybe that's not the case.
PB: Well, all of the stories that have a gotten a response have been stories that have been rewritten multiple times. Almost. "The People of Sand and Slag" was one of the very few stories of mine that I ever wrote pretty much start to finish without a whole lot of need to fix it. The scenes came out, bing, bing, bing, bing. The characters pretty much defined themselves as I went along. My a-ha moments came right at the moments when I needed them to, so I could keep going with the story, and it completed itself, and I went, "Wow, that was really easy!" Then I sat there thinking, maybe there's something wrong with it, because they're never this easy for me.
But with most of the other stories, the reason why I'm rewriting is because there's something that's really dissatisfying for me about it. I know it's not working somehow. Sometimes it's clear to me what's not working, sometimes I'm thinking, "This is just boring. I need to make it an exciting story, or I need to make it more engaging. Or I think these scene set-ups are boring, or I think there's an overlay that just doesn't work for the way these characters interact." There are a lot of different layers where I'm feeling dissatisfied about the story, because the way I'll write a story is to just sort of barf it out, and then look at what I've got and then try to sort of pull out the gems of that thing and try to reaggregate the story into another form.
The best way I can describe it is, the way that writing for me feels is oftentimes it feels like putty. I've got a piece of putty, and I'll pull on it and I'll stretch it out this way, and that doesn't look right. And I'll push it back in, and I'll pull it out again, and I'll push it back in, and I'll mash it around, and I'll roll it, and I'll pull it again. Eventually a form comes out of that, but oftentimes not a single sentence will survive from an earlier draft. Or only a couple of idea paragraphs that stimulated me will survive. Everything else will get thrown away, and I'll rework and rework and rework until something comes out.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): But you really feel that's because there's a problem with the story that needs to be fixed?
Paolo Bacigalupi (PB): Oh, yeah, yeah. My first drafts suck. There's no doubt about it.
I'm looking for my stories to do a lot of different things. I'm looking for them to entertain, I'm looking for them to be stimulating, I'm looking for them to be cleanly and nicely written, I'm looking for interesting language. Any one of those things falling apart is a reason for me to go back and start messing with it again.
It's just necessary work. I just was reading something in Jay Lake's blog about rewriting, because he's having some different thoughts about the way he writes now. I can't remember if he was quoting Ray Vukcevich, but the quote was essentially, "None of it's actually rewriting, it's all writing." It's all a linear path toward something. You're actually still trying to move forward with it.
FR: Then how do you know when you're there?
PB: When I'm too tired to work on it any more. Mostly I am so tired and I am so demoralized and I am so hopeless about the story, and I can't think of anything else to do to make it better, and I just kind of give up. And that's when a story is done.
FR: You have pretty high standards if you're feeling that way about your stories.
PB: Well, I think there is compulsion there, too. Right now, I'm working on this novel of mine, and I have a horrifying number of first chapters. And I look at those and I think, this is obviously a sign of a crazy person. You can't have this many different versions of a first chapter and see anything other than insanity at work.
But the other thing that's going on is that I'm not clear. And that's why I keep writing these versions, because I haven't come to that one that says, right, I know what I was trying to say. So I know the reason for that compulsion is I'm hunting for something that I can't quite articulate even to myself. Sometimes I'll try to mark down, these are the things I want in this. I want this element or I want this character to be able to do these things. And I know those are there, but there's something else more intangible that just says, no, that didn't quite nail it; it just doesn't quite fire on all cylinders for some reason.
I actually had an interesting experience taking some of my writing to the Blue Heaven workshop this last summer, and having a whole bunch of other eyes look at this first couple of chapters of my novel. They basically almost all said the same exact thing about this one character. They all said, this character has no clear stakes. What is he doing? Why is he there? What is he up to? And I went back and thought, "Oh, right. Yeah, that's true, actually." I couldn't quite get to the point where I could articulate it. It's a simple thing and it's an obvious thing. I thought I was getting to it, I thought I was solving the problem, but I really wasn't. I was being really gentle with some of the solutions I was trying to use.
Sometimes that's what you see when you have drafts like that, is you're just being chicken-shit about dealing with the real problem with the story - oh, if I deal with this, then I'm going to have to rewrite another 5,000 words, all of that's going to have to get thrown away too. Gutting up to do that is really hard sometimes, so you'll avoid it and try to find little doctor ways to fix it instead, like, "I can stitch it here instead. I don't have to throw out the whole baby, do I?"
Fantastic Reviews (FR): So how many versions of Chapter One do you have?
Paolo Bacigalupi (PB): I probably have twenty, maybe more. There are versions within versions, so there are trees of versions. It's like, this is the version that starts this way, and then it trees out and tries five different attempts to get back to this other point further on in the story. And so there will be five of those versions that start with he opens his eyes and this is what happens, or he's arriving on his dirigible and this is what happens, or he's in his office and this is what happens. So there are all these different attempts, and within those are trees of different versions as well.
FR: Can you tell us anything about the novel, or are you not ready to do that?
PB: The thing I can say about the novel is that it's set in the same universe as "The Calorie Man" and "Yellow Card Man". It's set in Bangkok. Tranh is the main character in "Yellow Card Man", and Tranh's story in "Yellow Card Man" is essentially the backstory for Tranh as he starts up in the novel. So if "Yellow Card Man" is Tranh goes and finds a job, the novel has to do with Tranh in his job. He is one of four viewpoint characters who I've got running right now, and I think they're all going to survive to the final draft. So it's set in that world, it's all about calories, kink-springs, invasive species, bioengineered plagues, global warming, those are the big things going into it.
FR: A lot of the problems the earth is having in that universe are created by corporations trying to squeeze others out of their market. Are you looking to send an anticapitalist message, or was that just a scenario that came into your head?
PB: Not an anticapitalist message, but...I think there is a school of thought about unfettered free markets, which assumes that all good things come from free markets. And the reality is that all good things come from free markets with adequate regulation. Government regulation provides certain interests of the public good that prevent corporations from becoming incredibly rapacious. Without those balancing guidelines set on corporations, you end up having things like free-market China, where you can have lead in your toys. Because nobody's paying attention.
FR: They don't have an incentive to.
PB: Right. Corporations don't have to deal with externalities, those economic costs that function outside of their balance sheet, without having a government there to identify those externalities and say, "No, those are costs as well, and you need to figure those out. You need to not drop lead in your paint for your toys, or you need to clean up after you've been mining in an area, or you need to think about how you bring this product to market and what kind of research you have to do."
There has been a process over the last, say, twenty years, maybe a little more, to really despise the government and the safeguards the government has in place. So what you see is the FDA and the USDA and the Federal Communications Commission, all of these are relatively emasculated agencies at this point. They don't do the things they were supposed to do. In some cases they are almost completely beholden to the corporations that they're supposed to be overseeing. You see that in Colorado with something like the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, which up until very recently was entirely staffed with people with ties to the gas industry. You see stuff like that and you say, okay, there is a role for government. The idea of an absolutely unfettered free market, there can only be horror from that.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): Well, even under the theory. I've studied a lot of economics, and I believe in free-market capitalism, and yet even if you study the basic theory, externalities are part of the theory. There are certain things where, you do things that cause other people to pay the cost, and why should you give a damn about them if someone else is paying for it?
Paolo Bacigalupi (PB): Right, and so clean air, and all these other things, something like the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act are designed to address problems with externalities. The problem right now is we're in a situation where the rhetoric in this rah-rah free-market capitalism - which does absolutely have a lot of benefits - has gotten to the buzzword level where you can't actually have any rational discourse about it. At the same time, the I-want-my-government-so-small-I-can-drown-it-in-the-bathtub theory has gotten so much currency that you end up in a position where we really are playing with fire in a lot of different ways. So those things are always in the back of my mind.
With "The Calorie Man" and "Yellow Card Man", where corporations have really gotten crazy about the way that they're doing their bioengineering, that actually is all written from the headlines. That's straight from Roundup Ready alfalfa from Monsanto. These guys are building bioengineered crops. We already have GMO corn, which is infecting non-GMO corn, because pollen wafts around. So you start with the new piece of technology over here in this box, and it quickly gets out of the box, and doesn't work the same way. Roundup Ready creeping bentgrass, people wanted to create basically an invasive weed for golf courses that also would be able to withstand Roundup, and then you can control the weeds on your golf courses and you have this wonderful grass. But the problem is that this grass is inherently invasive already, and then you make it resilient to the major herbicide you would use to kill it. So as soon as it gets out anywhere else, say on our public lands, it's really hard to root out after that, so you've created a super-engineered invasive.
That's stuff we've got right now. It's just a hop, skip, and a jump away from some of the really scary things. The terminator gene, the idea that you can engineer a crop where the seeds are always sterile, that's real technology - they shelved it because of protests - but it's a real technology, it's called the terminator gene and you can do this, you can make sterile seeds. The idea is that farmers would always have to come back and buy a new set of seeds from you.
So mostly what I did was I just took a bunch of the pieces that already were out there on the playing table and put them together in the worst form possible. Here we've got all these technologies and all these ideas, and this is what corporations sit around thinking about, is how do I maximize my profit? "If we can get the farmers to come back and buy our seeds every time, well, that's a great idea, Bob! Let's go ahead with that!" It's only with a certain amount of watchdogging or protests or government action that you can keep them from doing these things.
So with something like "Yellow Card Man" or "Calorie Man", I just go on the assumption that the safeguards didn't work out somewhere along the way and things got really out of hand. Then on a really cynical level, that they actually wiped out all the other species that were out there competing with them. What better way?
Fantastic Reviews (FR): The concern you're raising with unfettered capitalism and a lack of regulation in certain areas, is that the reason you go against the assumption in a lot of science fiction, which is, yes, we have environmental and ecological problems, but as we develop new technologies that will take care of them. In your fiction, either the new technology makes it worse, as it does in "The Calorie Man", or it cures the problems in a way that just really sucks, as in "The People of Sand and Slag" Is that the reason you go against that prevailing assumption?
Paolo Bacigalupi (PB): Yes. The most interesting thing to me about technology is what we didn't expect to happen, and the bright idea that went wrong. There are bright ideas that go right - "Hey, look, we've got elevators, great, isn't that nifty! We've got tall buildings now, that's great." But especially when we deal with biological sciences, you see a lot of factors coming into play and we can only evaluate a few of them at a time. One of the classic ones was a corn species that turned out to be a killer for butterflies. I can't remember now whether they made all the plants pesticide-resistant and then used pesticides so much that it killed all the butterflies, or if it was that the actual crop pollen was poisonous to butterflies. But it was one of those things where the unintended consequences spun out much further than the initial idea.
The car is a great example of that. Here we have the internal combustion engine - great idea, this is cool! - and sprawl is the result. So we got a huge amount of mobility and we also have smog and we also have global warming.
So, yes, technology is wonderful, and it's also really unpredictable. I think that's really fertile ground to write in, because the unpredictability means you can spin out scenarios. And I think right now we're in a position where a lot of technologies really are complete unknowns; these are genies in bottles and we have no idea what happens when we let them out.
Things like nuclear are actually very simple technologies. That was the big bugaboo of the 60's and 70's - oh, my goodness, we're all going to die in nuclear annihilation! - but it's actually a simple bugaboo. Radiation only goes so far, you can only build so big a bomb, it takes a lot of effort to manufacture the thing. It's much more scary to think about, "Oh, some pollen got out of the lab!" Are we going to wipe out a whole species of plant because somebody left their window open? Because these are much more complex technologies.
FR: I haven't counted, but probably most of your stories have that kind of ecocatastrophe or a technology that's gotten out of hand. Are you just raising issues and concerns you think people should think about, or have you decided that's where we're going to end up?
PB: I wouldn't call my stories predictive. I would call them extrapolative or I would call them impressionistic, maybe. I'm trying to generate impressions of possibilities, not to say that they are absolutely where we're going to go. But I do want people to sit and think. So the next time somebody is saying, "By God, the next green revolution is around the corner," somebody is also thinking, "Yes, but what does this green revolution actually do? What are the nuts and bolts? What are the other questions we need to be asking here?" If people start thinking about that, that's a success above and beyond entertainment. Just to have somebody pause for just a moment, is one quality of my writing that I'm thinking about.
A lot of my writing has actually really depressed me. It is depressing to write a lot of these stories; it's depressing to think about them. And I'm starting to think about, if I'm going to be writing long term, how do I balance my issue-oriented writing versus being able to write for a long time, not just in the marketplace but personally? When I finished "Small Offerings", right after my son was born, it was just an overwhelming story to write. And I finished it up and thought, my God, if I write another one of these stories, I'm going to have to kill myself, because this is fucking awful.
So when I wrote "Pump Six" which was the next story I wrote after that, that was my attempt to say, this topic matter is so black, the only way to handle this is as comedy. That was my attempt to say, this is going to be funny but is going to make you think.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): Was it less wearing on you to write in that mode?
Paolo Bacigalupi (PB): I had some fun with that one. I'm curious to see how people respond to that story, and whether or not it works for people.
FR: Well, as I told you, I thought it was hilarious.
PB: Good!  I was quite happy to hear that you thought it was funny, because I thought, the humor comes through!  I wasn't sure.  I read a little bit of it at Readercon last summer, and as I was reading it, I was inflecting for comedy.  And people laughed in the audience when I was inflecting, the performance quality helped it, but I wasn't sure if the writing itself was comedic, or at least gave a chuckle.
FR: Did I see that you recently went to writing full-time, as opposed to having another day job?
PB: I am writing full-time. We won't call that a job, we'll call it a writing sabbatical.
FR: Is it not your goal to write fiction full-time?
PB: I would love to write fiction full-time, that would be my happiest situation.
FR: Happy for a lot of the rest of us too.
PB: Well, that would be great!
FR: But are you feeling like if you are going to do that, it's going to change what you can write, that you can't always write things as bleak, you have to write something like "Pump Six" that has more humor in it or other elements to it?
PB: Throw the reader a few bones?
FR: Well, I'm not talking about the reader, I'm talking about for you.
PB: For me personally, I have to. I cannot keep writing stories like "Small Offerings". There was a slew of stories I wrote - I think it was "Small Offerings" and "Pop Squad" and "Yellow Card Man" - and all of those were pretty heavy emotionally, pretty raw and aggressive. So "Pump Six" for me was the one that was like, yeah, this is hard, there are hard truths that I'm trying to get at, but not every single fucking word has to grind you down to being a smaller and smaller person.
So, yes, I think I have to find ways to write so that there's something in it for me that's pleasurable. And I've thought about different ways of doing that, whether that means writing different kinds of stories. Maybe I want to write certain kinds of stories in a certain vein that might be more fun.
This is the weird thing about the awards question. I get all these award nominations coming in for writing these very serious, topical, issue-oriented stories, really aggressively focused on issues. And these nominations come in, and whenever a monkey gets another sugar treat he thinks he should do that same thing again. So then you think, well, but maybe I want to play over here. Maybe I want to write a space opera - is that okay, Daddy? Can I do that? What if I want to write an epic fantasy? I know that's not what I do right now, but maybe that's something that would be fun. Is that okay? And that's one of the other impacts of getting the award nominations, is to make me wonder what's permissible. Here is where I've gotten my recognition, shouldn't I follow in this vein? Is it okay to do other things? So I'm trying to map out for me what is a good balance.
Then I have other internal things, like, if I'm going to have some publisher chop down a bunch of trees and print a bunch of books, what can I personally feel good about having on those dead trees? Because there are going to be a lot of dead trees.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): Don't you feel if you do write space opera or epic fantasy, it will still be at least in part issue-oriented? Like "Pump Six" is a humorous story, but it clearly also has a message.
Paolo Bacigalupi (PB): I can write those stories, that's a decision to make.
FR: Can you not?
PB: I don't know about that. One of the things I'm dealing with right now with this novel I'm writing, is it's got a lot of pretty heavy issues stuff in it. It's got this GMO, biological controls, invasive species thing, what's natural versus non-natural, what's native versus non-native, this collapse of civilization quality to future Bangkok, global warming with the seas rising - it's a heavy setting, people starving and all those kinds of things. So I've been going into it now, trying to say, where can I make this also entertaining? Where can this be an adventure, a story with some rip-roaring good moments in it? And is that a reasonable thing to do, to try to mesh those gears, make those different pieces come together? So this is my first experiment to make something that's genuinely satisfying on entertainment levels as well as being pretty concerned with ideas. I am finding that to be a tough balance.
FR: A lot of your earlier stories are not light entertainments, but they certainly do have a story and they have characters we're interested in, and you manage to make your point and convey your message without disrupting the flow of the story. So I guess this is a two-part question. One is how do you do that? And second, doesn't that give you the sense that whatever style you're writing in, you'll be able to continue to do that?
PB: I'll answer the last part first.
FR: Sorry about the compound question.
PB: The last part is, I have no faith in my writing. That's the thing that I really try to deal with. I feel warm and fuzzy when people come up and say, "Oh, I love your writing," or I get an e-mail that says, "I love your writing," or I get nominated for something. And I feel really good for a really short amount of time, then I go back to having a lot of personal doubts. That's just pathological as far as I can tell, some kind of Mommy approval need or something.
FR: I'm going to give you this dictaphone and have a tape in it that says over and over, "You're a great writer, you're a great writer, please keep writing..."
PB: I think I've gotten to the point now where I say: I know you feel like you're lost, that's okay, it's going to work out. I can have faith that this is going to work out if I just keep plugging at it, because those other stories back there say that when you plug away at it for a while, you're going to get to the spot where the story works. So that's the level of confidence that I have in my stories. If I try to mesh my values with a plot with some unique adventure, that those things will actually come together. The previous successes help me say, yes, you're freaked out right now, Paolo, but set that aside, because these other stories say you actually can write some. So have faith again and keep going. So that's what I do. But I don't actually have any inherent faith, like, "Yeah! I'm a fucking wizard, I'm just going to whip this shit out, no problem!"
I actually feel really strange about the idea of trying to get into writing as a full-time thing, because it feels like you're tempting fate. You're sort of wondering, do I deserve this? Is this okay to pursue this artistic path, as opposed to having a good job and actually having a retirement fund?
Fantastic Reviews (FR): Are you frustrated with the commercial restraints? If you want to write fiction full-time, does that mean you have to write novels rather than short fiction? Are there constraints like that you'd just as soon not have to worry about?
Paolo Bacigalupi (PB): If I had a million dollars, what would I be doing?
FR: Right. Would you be writing the same things as you're writing now?
PB: I think I grew up wanting to write books. I ended up writing short stories because I was failing so badly at books. I wrote four books and didn't sell any of them. So I wrote short stories because I'd had this one little success with short stories and so I went back and starting banging away at that door some more. Then that opened up a lot of other doors for me, and now I'm at this point where I can talk about books again.
I've got to say, though, short stories are really nice, because you get to finish them so much sooner. It's nice to get them done. With my novels, I have a tendency to let them expand, and then they expand and expand.FR: But you finished several, you said.
PB: I finished them, but they get bigger and bigger and they get complex. This one particularly has gotten even more complex, so there is a conciseness that I somehow lose and then it feels unwieldy. So I'm trying to figure out how to pull that all back, that's the process I'm in right now.
FR: At the risk of making other aspiring writers hate you, had you tried to sell other stories before that?
FR: All right, we all hate you.
And then you went to trying to write at novel length?
PB: Well, I was already working on a novel at the time.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): What kind of stuff?
Paolo Bacigalupi (PB): It was set in the same sort of world as "Pocketful of Dharma", but it was just a really weird story. If you described an emotional arc of the story, it started on top of a mountain and then plunged down into Death Valley, and then dragged itself out of Death Valley a little bit at the very end; it threw the reader a couple of bones of hope at the very end. Basically, the main character makes bad decision after bad decision, and each bad decision raises him up economically and socially and totally destroys him morally at the same time. So he's becoming very successful at the same time as he's selling his soul, and finally he sells enough of his soul that everything falls apart.
FR: It worked for Émile Zola.
PB: But it's science fiction, you're writing in genre. Genre has rules. When you're writing in genre, your readers expect certain things and editors expect certain things. And one of them is for you to not crush their soul. And this story mostly crushed people's souls.
My favorite rejection from an editor said: This is an amazing story, I can't believe you're a first-time writer, it's really well-written. And there's no way I will take it, it's way too dark. And then, the final line was, "And as a mother, this disturbs me." So I thought, "Well, I've done my job!" But she didn't buy the book.
FR: And that was a science fiction publisher?
FR: Do you feel like those early books weren't working artistically, or just couldn't be marketed?
PB: I think that particular one couldn't be marketed. I think that one worked artistically. Later ones ranged all over the map. Some were really good I thought, and some were just me flailing around trying to figure some things out.
FR: I really want to ask about that. I'll tell you where I'm coming from. I believe that the best fiction being written in the English language today is coming from some of the very talented literary science fiction and fantasy writers like you. But it seems like the publishing industry is set up to discourage that kind of writer, because you have a barrier on either side. If you try to publish to the mainstream community, you're just a sci-fi writer, and why should they care? But if you try to publish within the genre, then they have the rules you were talking about, where it's got to be upbeat and all that. Do you feel like you're banging your head into those two barriers?
PB: At this point, not as much. That's one of the things that the nominations have given me. I have a little more elbow room: yeah, this is a really weird story, it's going to be really dark and might make you feel uncomfortable, but that's okay because it's Paolo Bacigalupi and he's respected now. Whereas before I was just some schmoe writing a really weird, fucked-up story. That's helped a little bit, that perceived shine means people will evaluate a risk differently with me now. Certainly that's the experience I've had talking to editors now. I can sit down and have a chat with an editor about the story that I'm working on, and they're engaged and interested, as opposed to, "Uh-huh, uh-huh, stay away from me."
And they e-mail me every so often and say, "So, have you finished it yet?" They check in. That's a totally different experience than before, when you went banging and knocking on editors' doors, now they come and knock on yours.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): Is that just on the genre side?
Paolo Bacigalupi (PB): Yes, only on the genre side. I only started to make professional contacts a couple years ago. I started going to cons; MileHiCon was actually my first con two years ago. And Daniel Abraham was the guy who took me under his wing and said, "Here. Meet people." I was totally clueless about how this whole thing worked.
Then from going to different cons, I started meeting different people, and then a lot of connections happened. That was when I finally started understanding how the professional layers of publishing really work: who the editors are at the different publishing houses, and what they're looking for, and getting to know them personally instead of just knowing that there's this imprint out there.
But I don't really know anything about publishing to the mainstream marketplace. If you were trying to pull off a Cormac McCarthy, where you're writing a science fiction novel that everybody pretends isn't science fiction -
FR: Does that annoy you?
PB: He's a great writer. It's hard to hate a great writer.
FR: Did you read The Road?
PB: No, I haven't.
FR: Not a great book. Maybe some of his others.
PB: Well, okay. I read Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, a bunch of those.
FR: If you wrote The Road, I'm not sure you could get it published as a mainstream book, and if you did everyone would ignore it because you're a sci-fi writer.
PB: Well, Cormac McCarthy also has some stamps on him, National Book Award, MacArthur Genius, and so that puts the shine on you in a certain way too so you can do weird, edgy, experimental things. So if he's dabbling in genre, that's okay for a genius to do, because he must be a genius for some reason. I can't really be resentful of that. I'm resentful of his writing style more than anything else; I wish I could write like him.
We in the genre spend a lot of time being pissed off that the mainstream doesn't respect us. But what I've also seen is that we in the genre oftentimes, much like a teenager who puts their hair in a Mohawk and then goes roaming around playing death metal really loudly, we aren't really doing things that necessarily engender respect from the outside world.
Science fiction has wonderful things and awful things and they're all packed inside the genre. Frankly, the stuff that sells the most is the stuff that's the most commercial, the most commodified, the next epic fantasy. And so that's our vanguard of representation, it's an epic fantasy or great widescreen space opera battle stuff. That's the iconic representative of science fiction right now.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): But that's also part of the double standard. Mainstream people will say, "I tried to read Robert Jordan, he sells all those books and he sucks." But I'm not allowed to say, "Well, I tried to read Nora Roberts -"
Paolo Bacigalupi (PB): J.D. Robb, sure. I guess when I think about the stuff we're writing, and I think about how much we're trying to make ourselves accessible to the outside world, I've seen some people who seem to be writing out of genre already. They're using a tool of genre, some surrealist tool or paranormal tool or futurism tool. But they tend to use just one tool at a time, and they kind of keep it easy on people. Like, we're going to do just time travel, that's it, we're not going to throw much more in than that.
One of the things I've started thinking about, the thing that feels the most hard to navigate - more than making a story palatable; is it a happy story with a happy ending? - is the necessity that if you're going to be in the genre, and you want to make people notice you in the genre, it's really good to do a hell of a lot of world-building. A hell of a lot. Massive amounts of world-building, massive amounts of eyeball kicks. That's a new phrase I've run across. The eyeball kicks are the candy of the genre, the stuff we gorge ourselves on. It's fun - oh, there's an idea! there's an idea! And you're more respected the more of these you can whip out of your hat and fling out there in a very casual way as you roar towards your story. But you're world-building the whole way, and look at all these other great ideas I've got too! I'm going to build up this gigantic amount of world stuff that isn't really about the story.
FR: And that's what makes it very difficult for non-genre readers.
PB: Yes. We are speaking in code at this point. With a lot of science fiction, you need to have a huge amount of experience with science fiction reading already just to be trained into picking up this new book that everybody loves before you can even experience it. That's one of the things I worry about. I'm trying to find somewhere in between world-building a whole hell of a lot, which is fun and I like and which is cool, but also I want somebody who is a totally non-initiated reader to be able to pick this up and get it, and the story itself will train up the reader so they get all the necessary components and can enjoy it.
FR: Are you getting pushback from editors that you need more of the high-tech gadgetry? You can't have a dishwasher, it's got to be a sonic cleanser?
PB: I got pushback on one of my short stories, where I felt I had written the story the way that I wanted to write it, and it didn't have enough world-building in it to be legitimately futuristic. So they wanted more futuristic gadgetry around the edges in order to justify the core premise. And it was an interesting moment, because I had already added a certain amount of gadgetry into the story knowing that was going to be a critique, and I got that back again. What I really wanted to do was to write a story that had very little of that at all.
This was "Pop Squad", and I really wanted to just write the surreal premise. You've just got this guy whose job is to go around and shoot kids. That's his job - you can't have any more kids, it's not allowed, sorry! Why is it not allowed? Who the fuck knows? Who the fuck cares? But in science fiction, I have to generate all this other stuff that says, oh, it's going to be because of population control. And you have to create lots of reasons, and I didn't want to have any of those reasons. I just wanted to say, nope, it's just a rule, sorry! That's the story I wanted to write.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): So that would be a luxury writing in the mainstream. Cormac McCarthy doesn't even have to say why the world is destroyed.
Paolo Bacigalupi (PB): Right, exactly! But in science fiction, that's cheating. In literature, it's called style.
So those are the kinds of things I feel like I bump up against sometimes. How genre-feeling does it have to be before it's acceptable in genre, versus how accessible is it to an audience that doesn't normally pick up a genre book?
FR: One of your stories, "The Tamarisk Hunter," was written for High Country News, which is a mainstream publication. Did you approach it differently when you were writing it?
PB: Yes. No gadgetry. No gadgetry at all. One premise. One core idea. It's about drought, about a guy who's dealing with drought, nothing else. There will be no high tech that's significantly beyond anything we're doing today, even though this is hypothetically fifty years in the future, and that was deliberate. He doesn't have any cool high-tech gadgets in his house, he doesn't carry any cool high-tech gadgets on his person. The soldiers who show up just have basic weapons. The only thing that was science fictional was how much drought there was, and how different states were reacting to it, how different Western states were going to deal with the conflict over water from the Colorado River. That was it. That was the only way you could handle it to make a non-genre reader take it seriously.
FR: And did you get a sense of how readers of the High Country News who weren't genre readers responded to that story?
PB: That actually worked really well. I was surprised. The editor and I both were holding our breaths when that one went out, because the magazine never runs fiction, so it was a test just in terms of fiction. Having fiction in front of these people, especially at lead-story length, was a surprise. To have it be a futuristic science-fictional piece on top of that? These are definitely people who are much more set in reading Ivan Doig or Laura Pritchett or something like that, so throwing science fiction at them was a real hold-your-breath moment.
FR: What is the circulation?
PB: They are at 24,000.
FR: So you probably had more people read that than a lot of your pieces.
PB: Yes, much bigger exposure, and then it got loaded on the web site for free too, so that's another layer. All told, probably 30,000 people read it, it was much bigger than almost anything else I've done. And it went really well. I actually had water managers e-mailing me and saying, "Yeah, this is totally the stuff we worry about!"
The geeks are different. In science fiction, you might get a geek arguing with you about whether or not kink-springs will actually work. The kinds of geeks I got from High Country News were the ones who were saying, "Actually, the way the water rights on the Colorado River Basin work is, the first people to be cut off wouldn't be state-by-state, it would be the smallholders in these places, followed by..."
Fantastic Reviews (FR): Water lawyers?
Paolo Bacigalupi (PB): Oh, yeah, I got water lawyers and amateur water law people and farmers who are obsessed about water rights and water managers for small municipalities, those are the people geeking out over the story. So it was a different geek factor, but in some ways more rigorous, because these people, it's their jobs to know whether you're right or wrong about whether your town is going to have water in another twenty years.
FR: You talked about your own reaction to writing some of your bleaker stories, but how about your wife? Did she want to run and hide when she read "Softer" for the first time, or hide your son after "Pop Squad" came out?
PB: Oh, God, I dressed the children in "Pop Squad" in my son's clothing. Nobody else noticed this except for my wife, but she recognized the clothing and was just like, "What were you thinking?!"
She's actually amazing. She's really wonderful, she's really supportive despite the fact that she's basically, as far as I can tell, completely horrified by what I write.
The interesting thing about "Softer" was that I actually seduced her with the main character enough that she viewed the main character sympathetically.
FR: That's a feat!
PB: I was so stunned by this that I actually started saying, "But you do remember the part when he did this?" Yeah. "And then you remember the part when he did this, right?" Yeah. "And then he did this?" And she says, "Don't touch me!"
Yes, I thought that was actually pretty successful in terms of selling a character who is completely unpalatable, and building him up as a reasonable and troubled figure as opposed to the psycho that he was.
She is really supportive, but she did ask me at one point, "Why can't you write anything nice?" And that was a shocking moment; I was thinking, God, I don't want to break her heart every time she reads a story of mine. I think "Pump Six" might have come after she asked me that question, because I think I was trying to make her feel a little bit better with "Pump Six."
FR: Did that work?
PB: Yes, she said she liked it more than she likes some of my other ones.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): Well, most of your stories are pretty bleak, but a couple go beyond that to be just disturbing. "The Fluted Girl" is the one I'm thinking of.
Paolo Bacigalupi (PB): That's my adventure story!
FR: Don't get me wrong. I really like the story, but it's also disturbing on a pretty deep level.
PB: I just heard it's going to be translated into Estonian.
FR: Really? There are a couple things I want to ask you about it. One is, do you ever reread what you've written and start to worry about yourself, like, what's going through my head that these are the ideas popping into my mind?
PB: Yes, I wonder about myself. I actually was embarrassed that I wrote "The Fluted Girl".
PB: Well, because it's got all that lesbian child-sex with the cannibalism thrown in, I guess. But other than that...
I was sure that was going to be rejected, when I sent that in to Gordon.
FR: They didn't even put a warning on that one, did they?
PB: No, they didn't, actually. They put a warning on "Pop Squad".
FR: Right. They said don't read it to your kids - pretty sound advice.
PB: Ha! That was actually an interesting thing for me, because I sort of go on this assumption that lots of people have dark thoughts or naughty thoughts or bad thoughts, but most of them are polite enough and smart enough to keep those buried. That's why we're considered to be socially competent, because we do keep those buried, down in a box, that's where you keep your demons. So when I'm writing something like "The Fluted Girl", where I know that the central images are going to be good and I know that those are going to really shock people, there is this feeling also of feeling very exposed: "I did think of that, and I am actually going to write it now." I definitely feel like you've just gotten a chance to peek inside of part of my psyche. And that's really not where I want you. I don't want you to know me as well as you might think you know me right now.
So that's something I haven't come to any clear conclusions about. I just have this in the back of my head, wow, do I really want to put this out there? My wife has asked me about that a couple times: "Are you sure you want to actually run this?" Because it's icky or disturbing or my mother's going to read this and she's going to know how fucked up I am.Fantastic Reviews (FR): Do you think it enables you to write a more powerful, effective story? If you shock the reader, not that the shock itself is the goal, but does it open the reader up to being receptive to more ideas?
Paolo Bacigalupi (PB): When I'm writing things that I think are really horrifying or disturbing or unpleasant or transgressive in some way, I'm surprised how many times that seems to resonate strongly with readers. I've spent some time apparently unearthing their psyches along with mine.
There must be some boundary - I think of someone like Bret Easton Ellis, when he wrote American Psycho - you can cross a boundary at last where people throw the book across the room saying, "You're sick!" But it seems like there's actually a lot of play; it's surprising how much people are willing to grant the characters and you as a writer, to allow them to range through some very transgressive ideas. That was one of the feelings I had about "Softer", that I was very shocked when my wife basically threw the main character so many moments of forgiveness that were essentially unearned. That character, even though he was doing horrible things, still came across as sympathetic.
I sometimes wonder now whether I'm too conservative still, whether I could actually take it up a notch and whether that would be advisable, because I still haven't apparently crossed that line yet. It must be out there somewhere.
FR: You're itching to find it?
PB: I sort of am, in a way.
There's also, when you look at "The Fluted Girl", always a question of emphasis. There are things in there that are disturbing, the cannibalism is disturbing, but it's not fetishized. The lesbian sex performance art is there, but it's not extremely fetishized. You can get away with saying XYZ occurred, and then there's another level, and I think that is where you're getting to the Bret Easton Ellis level, where you're actually moving towards the fetishization of the act or of the event. So how you decide to emphasize something is going to really affect how readers take it in.
FR: And you haven't gone there - none of your stories are about fetishizing the act itself. But there is another line that you have crossed, I think. In "The Fluted Girl", you have the hints of an incestuous relationship between these girls who have been held young, but that's what the whole story is about. Their development is arrested intentionally, and everything proceeds from there. You almost couldn't tell that story without that element.
FR: But if you had wanted to - I'm not saying you should have - you could have done it without the cannibalism. That's what got me thinking, did you want to push the envelope a little bit more to soften up the reader, or what's going on here?
PB: No, actually, the kernel of that story was that I was lying in bed one night, and I had this sentence flash across in my head: "Madame Belari served her servant cold. It would have been gauche if he'd been served hot, but she served him cold and everyone was pleased." I had this little bitlet that spun out in my head and I thought, "Man, that's fucked up." So I wrote that little chunklet down, and I kept it, and a couple years later was when it got used. But that was the starting point for understanding Madame Belari and who she was. She is not only feudally in charge, but she is in charge, she owns these people in a way you cannot imagine. So that kernel was there and it informed a huge amount for me about what this feudal structure was, that the fluted girls were operating in. The cannibalism came first, not last.
Yes, she could have done something else awful to the servant, there were other options. But it all fit so nicely together!
Fantastic Reviews (FR): All right, tell us something cute about your son.
Paolo Bacigalupi (PB): My son?
FR: We have to get something personalizing into this, so people don't only associate you with cannibalism.
PB: Right! He's learning to spell right now, and so he can draw the letters and he's very pleased with this. He's hard to describe - he's pretty cool.
Honestly, the thing that's in my head right now is we just had this pillow fight, and when he was on the carpet leaning over to pick up another pillow to throw back at me, I bomb him from behind. So this pillow comes crashing down on him, and he falls forward, and he smashes his nose right into this doorstop. He comes up with blood just pouring out of him. It's the quintessential bad dad moment - we were roughhousing and now he's broken! And my wife is saying, "What the hell were you doing? What were you thinking, you idiot?"
So today, the day after this bloodshed incident, he comes up to me and he says, "So, Dad, I was thinking, maybe you could not throw the pillow at me when I'm down on the floor." I said, "Yes, OK." And he says, "Wanna throw the pillows?!" Then he was back at it, completely bonkers again. So I guess I didn't scar him.
He's an interesting little guy, actually. He likes stories, and I like that about him.
FR: But you don't read him your stories?
PB: I don't read him my stories. We read Frog & Toad together. He's a big Frog & Toad fan.
FR: That's not inspiring you to write some children's stories?
PB: I actually have thought about writing some kids' stuff, either children's or YA, both of those have crossed my mind. I've been thinking about YA a lot recently, probably because my wife is a teacher, and she's been having a hard time finding books for boys to read. I had been suggesting a bunch of books for her, and the books that I know, that I read as a boy, were all the Heinlein juveniles, Starman Jones, things like that.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): We had a whole category like that, the Heinlein and the Norton, science fiction written for teenagers, which they just don't publish any more.
Paolo Bacigalupi (PB): Not just for teenagers, but for boys. She has a lot of Newbery Award winning books - The House on Mango Street is an amazing, wonderful book; it just doesn't work for boys, though. Boys want adventure, they want to go out and do shit, you know?
It strikes me that there's sort of a trend right now to say that good children's literature is not adventure literature. Almost by default that means that good children's literature is not literature that's well geared for boys. So at that point, boys who are already predisposed to fuck themselves up when they're at school then have one less reason to engage with learning. It's horrifying enough to watch the way my wife has had to deal with boys in her classes. These are bright boys, but they've got very little to grab onto. They can only read Ender's Game once, and that's it. What else are they going to do after that? You can throw them a Starman Jones, you can throw them a Citizen of the Galaxy, but those are dated and they're getting more dated.
That's something I think about. What would it be like to write boys' stories, really honest boys' stories that are designed to help boys actually get engaged with reading again, instead of thinking that's a girl activity, which is where it feels like things are going. I find that deeply troubling, so that's something I've been thinking about, what would a YA boys' story or a juvenile boys' story look like these days?
It's interesting, because if you think of something like Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, at the very end, the main character who has grown up and become a young man by the end of it, his triumphant moment is beating up the bully who was troubling him back on Earth. He gets back to the soda fountain and he beats up the bully, and that's the cathartic success at the very end. I don't think those endings are even allowed; I don't think you can do that now. And that strikes me as an expression that certain qualities of boy-ness are no longer allowed. That alpha-male ape behavior is not OK any more. We're going to put you guys, you little boys, in a certain role that says: don't do anything dangerous, don't do anything crazy, by all means don't get in any fights, and don't think that there is any alpha-male stuff going on, even though it is because that's how your brain has been hard-wired for the last million years. Suppress your nature instead of channeling your nature.
FR: Let me ask you a question about "The People of Sand and Slag". I love that story for a lot of reasons, but one thing I particularly like is it gets something right that I think an awful lot of science fiction gets wrong. A lot of science fiction sets up a society that's miserable and all the characters wallow around saying, "We're miserable!"
PB: Oh, yeah!
Fantastic Reviews (FR): That's not human nature. You can go to the worst possible neighborhood in New York City and the people there are wearing t-shirts that say "I (HEART) NY." That's human nature. It was something I thought was perfect about your story, that they don't see anything wrong. They haven't seen a green plant in five years, but that's OK.
Paolo Bacigalupi (PB): Hey, as long as I've got food to eat and games to play, I'm OK. It's not that bad, is it?
Yes, I really like human nature's ability to be relatively satisfied. Actually, this is something horrifying about children. If you look at children who are abused a lot, if they start out from birth being abused, they expect to be abused all the way through their lives. They cannot compare to anything else, so they assume that's normal and appropriate.
Humans are adaptable. That's what we do. We're designed to adapt to whatever our circumstances are and just kind of get on with it. And so with "The People of Sand and Slag" I was really interested in that idea, that because we are adaptable we can do a lot of things that solve a lot of problems and we'll still be adapting. I think maybe there's a human optimism gene, something that says, "Hey, you know, things aren't too bad for me, a lot better than Pete over there. I might not be as good as Joe but I'm better than Pete, so I'm doing pretty good! There are no green things, but whatever, I still have better video games than Pete does."
I've seen that a lot when I'm traveling in very poor countries. I've read a lot of oral histories from poverty stricken villages in Thailand, that's one of the things I'm doing for research, and one of the comments that a couple of the different people from those villages made is that they didn't actually know they were poor until they saw television. Then they got to watch television and they saw how the people in Bangkok were living, and then they got really pissed off.
You see that, where they're on the edge of poverty and have got nothing. If the rice crop fails they're going to starve, and yet emotionally they're feeling fine about themselves and about their situation. That's a really interesting thing to see, because we stand there and look at that and say, "That's scary as hell! You could starve any given season? Yikes! That doesn't fill you with anxiety and stress?" But it's the water they swim in, and you can't really evaluate the water you swim in.
That's something I'm interested in all science fiction, making sure that the characters believe that they're swimming in water that's the right water for them.
FR: I don't remember if it was last year or two years ago I saw you when you said you really hadn't been reading a lot of current science fiction and fantasy. Is that still the case?
PB: Yes, the two things I have a hard time with - time is one, but beyond that I definitely have a hard time separating out what I'm working on and the reading that I'm doing. So I'll find myself reading less for enjoyment than to learn things about what the other writer is doing. It's the thing I actually hate most about the fact that I'm a writer now. It seems to shift a lot of the joy of reading away. I don't read a story very organically any more, I can't incorporate it as an experience-story as easily as I used to. A lot of reading is just work.
So the thing that I used to like the most, and the thing that got me into writing in the first place - I love this genre, I love writing in it, I love the stories - is a lot harder for me to enjoy now. Because I'm busy picking it apart, or looking at it, and I'm either feeling, hey, that wasn't done very well, or oh shit, I wish I could do it that well. That little devil in your head is constantly either critiquing or being jealous. I'm getting a little better at turning that off, but it's still really hard.
So no, I'm not reading a ton of stuff. I actually just picked up a new space opera book, and I'm hoping that's sufficiently separated from me that I can read it just as an experience. That's oftentimes where I do go to read when I'm reading science fiction now. It's not the stuff that people consider of high literary quality, it's the most entertaining instead. That stuff is so unrelated to what I've been working on that I can say, "Hey, this is fun!" and be grateful that it helps me forget about other things going on in my life and can still be an escape sometimes.
FR: I feel badly for you. You don't get the thrill that I got when I started reading "Pump Six" the other day.
PB: I'm really glad to hear you liked it. That's the bait for the collection.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): Last question, most important question, what's your favorite dessert?
Paolo Bacigalupi (PB): I don't eat very many desserts. I really like pickles.
Thank you very, very much.
PB: You bet.