Interview with John Scalzi

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to interview some of the 2010 Nebula Award nominees, specifically those who were shortlisted in the Andre Norton (Young Adult) category. It was a big thrill for me to do this, and I had a lot of fun researching the authors, reading their books, and asking them questions. I’ve been given the okay to reproduce those interviews here (thanks Charles Tan!), and will post them over the next few weeks. First up, multi-award nominee John Scalzi. I read John’s “Old Man’s War” books a couple of years ago, and have since foisted them onto a number of friends because they are so brilliant.

Interviewed by Tehani Wessely on March 18 2010 – originally published at the Nebula Awards website.

John Scalzi was nominee for the novella The God Engines and the Andre Norton Award for Zoe’s Tale.

Zoe’s Tale, a Young Adult novel which retells the events of The Last Colony (the third book in the Old Man’s War series) from the perspective of Zoe, was shortlisted for the Hugos last year and now it’s up for the Andre Norton Award, with your novella “The God Engines” also on the Nebula ballot. Would you please tell us how Zoe’s Tale came to be? And is it always exciting for your work to be recognised this way?

I wrote Zoe’s Tale partly because Tor, my publisher, was interested in me trying to write something that they could put into school libraries. This had coincided with my own interest in trying to write a story from Zoe’s point of view, which was convenient, so I went ahead and tried my hand at writing from the point of view of a teenage girl, which, if you are a late 30-something dude trying that stunt for the first time, as I was, is really a lot harder than it looks.

Getting award nominations for your work, whether from your writing peers (as in the case of the Nebulas) or from fans (in the case of the Hugos) is always a kick; to quote Sally Field, it means they like you! They really like you! And in the case of Zoe, it’s especially nice for me because it means I did a creditable job of bringing the character of Zoe to life, which as a writer was a challenge for me.

You say you struggled with Zoe’s point of view – what were some of the biggest hurdles in that journey? And have you had any feedback from young adults on the book and the character? Anything particularly special?

The biggest hurdle was simply that I had never been a teenage girl at any point in my life, so I had to work on making sure that when I wrote one, she didn’t sound like me in teenage girl drag (and I apologize for putting that image into your head). I ended up running early chapters past my wife and some female friends, including Mary Robinette Kowal, who gave me some excellent criticism when I needed it most. The end result has been pretty good; I do get a lot of “I can’t believe this book was written by a man” comments about it, which I take as a compliment.

You started out as a non-fiction writer, and your blog, Whatever, has a very high profile out there in Internet-land. I know you make use of a variety of social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, as well. How much do you think your online presence has influenced your success as a writer? What do you think about social networking as a whole, as a tool for other authors out there?

I think in my case it’s pretty clear that online presence has helped my fiction career—after all, I sold my first novel because I posted it on my site! And I think social networks can help keep authors connected to fans, especially during those period where the author is between major works, and keeping in touch with your readers is always a good thing.

That said, at the end of the day, if you’re not writing fiction worth reading, it won’t matter how many Facebook friends or Twitter followers or blog readers you have. The work has to be there, and it has to be good, in order for any of this social networking stuff to be useful in one’s career. None of the online stuff means anything for one’s career otherwise.

You’ve had two books compiled from your blog writings, with the most recent, Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever 1998 – 2008, winning the Hugo for Best Related Book in 2009. Are there plans for any more books from the blog? Or other non-fiction?

No current plan for more books from the blog, but remember that Hate Mail covered a whole decade. So perhaps in 2018 it’ll be time again. I do definitely have plans for more non-fiction, however—I like writing non-fiction because it uses other parts of my brain than the fiction writing, and that helps keep me from burnout.

You are running for President of SFWA. Why did you decide to take this challenge, and what changes do you hope to achieve for the organisation if you are elected?

I’m running in no small part because the current administration has a number of things in process—including reincorporation, new bylaws and other things fundamental to the well-being of the organization—that may not be entirely finished by the end of June, and thus may have to be seen to their conclusion. In a general sense I’ve supported these initiatives, so by running and by running with a slate of candidates who are also interested in seeing these processes to their conclusion, I’m helping to make sure these things get done. So in one sense this particular election isn’t about “changing” SFWA in a new way as it is about finishing the changes that are already underway.

Beyond this, however, I think one of the things I would very much like to do is help to bring in new members. I think the previous administration has done a good job in revitalizing SFWA’s reputation and appearance with non-members, and in particular with writers who could be members but are not. I’d like to help bring some of those writers into the fold in the next year—not only to give the organization a jolt of new blood but (and very importantly) to let these newer writers benefit from the experience and knowledge base that our current members have and can share. It’s an “everyone wins” scenario, in my opinion.

Is the novel The High Castle (set in the same world as The Android’s Dream) still in your sights? Fans of Harry need to know! Can you tell us a little about the journey you’ve taken with this novel?

I do still plan to write The High Castle although at the moment there’s no set schedule for it. The reason for its delay (it was originally meant to be out in 2009) is pretty simple: I was writing it, and it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, and I have strong quality standards. So I put it aside and worked on some other things instead. I have a good story for High Castle in my head, but if it’s not coming out in the writing I’ll wait until it does.

You recently became the creative consultant for Stargate Universe. What does your role on the show involve and what made you make this leap into the world of television? Would your career to continue in this direction, or is this somewhat of a sidestep?

My role is to read the scripts of the show and offer notes on what’s been written—often on science-related things, but also on characters and the overall arc of the show. I should note that my role is not to get the science 100% right—there’s always an element of speculation—but to make sure that we get right what we already know, and that what we speculate on doesn’t throw people out of the episode. I took the gig because the producers asked me, and it seemed like a fun and interesting way to explore the world of television. And it is. Will it lead to other things? I don’t know, and I’m not too worried about that. At the moment I’m having fun.

John Scalzi is the author of seven science fiction novels; he lives in Ohio with his family and pets. This is the first time he’s been nominated for the Nebula or the Norton. He’s very excited.