Recently I had the pleasure of reading Darwinia, and thought it was such an interesting idea that I knew i had to talk to the writer. Luckily Robert Charles Wilson was nice enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for me. Take it away Mr. Wilson…
Tell us a little about yourself and your background? (Where are you from, where you grew up, when did you start writing?)
I was born in California, but I’ve lived in Canada since the age of nine and I became a Canadian citizen sixteen years ago. I started reading science fiction and fantasy almost as soon as I learned to read, and I started writing it seriously in the mid-eighties. A Hidden Place (1986) was my first novel. Since then I’ve published a bunch more, including the Hugo Award-winner Spin, and a collection of short fiction.
Darwinia is certainly one of the more interesting novels that I have read in a while. Where did you come up with the idea for the novel?
My ideas tend to accrete in layers, like sedimentary deposits, so that’s a hard question to answer. I do remember thinking about European contact with the Americas and the way that contact has been mythologized into a narrative of vast, empty spaces, a wilderness that’s both hostile and free for the taking – hardly historically accurate, but it’s a seductive myth, and one that’s built deeply into the old sf tradition of planetary exploration stories. And I wondered what would happen if we actually did have an entirely new, unpopulated continent to explore here on Earth.
Combine that with some extravagant speculation about virtual universes and the fate of intelligence in the cosmos, and you get a rough approach to what eventually became Darwinia.
There are quite a few different themes in this story. I find that some of the best books perfectly mix a variety of different themes and genres. I think this story encompasses ideas from Colonialism similar to the infamous novel Heart of Darkness or King Solomon’s Mines, but also has very extreme science fiction and philosophical aspects. Did you intend to try and mix these ideas when hashing out the story or did they just come together while you were writing?
Well, the story’s set early in the twentieth century, and I wanted the characters to grapple with the mystery of the world’s transformation as they might have perceived it at the time. And yes, I wanted to bring some of that colonial-adventure-story quality to the novel – and it was fun to confront those same characters with some wild-and-wooly metaphysical/cosmological craziness.
I found the style you chose for Darwinia interesting. To me, I felt you incorporated the late 1800’s or late 1900’s writing style as it went with the plot. This is a small detail that I felt really added some real character to the story, that I am sure took a little more time as well. Did you have to work at this style, and was it harder to try and write the book in this manner?
I think I have a fairly good ear for voice in narrative, and it wasn’t hard – it was fun, actually – to adopt a little of that style for the purpose of the book. I’ve done the same on other occasions. My novel Julian Comstock is a story of the 22nd century told in a faux-naïve voice I borrowed from 19th-century American popular fiction, particularly the children’s novels of William T. Adams (who wrote under the pen name “Oliver Optic” and was a huge bestseller from roughly 1860 to his death in 1897).
In Darwinia you threw in quite a few real life people, such as E.R. Burroughs. Are you a fan of his or did you just throw this in for the heck of it?
I read all the Burroughs Mars books when I was about twelve years old, but I’m not sure that qualifies me as a fan. But it was hard not to imagine the real Burroughs being fascinated by the continent of Darwinia and setting adventure stories there. Burroughs only gets a brief mention in the book – he’s not a walk-on character — but I’m pleased you noticed, and I do think his presence added a useful note of verisimilitude.
Spin, one of your most successful novels, is also a three book series. I always ask writers about their series as I think they are interesting, mainly because, to me, they seem like a daunting task to write. How do you go about writing a series? Is this something that you layout ahead of time, or did the story just grow while you were writing it?
I’m not generally a trilogy-writer, and the Spin series really isn’t one – I like to say it’s a stand-alone novel with two sequels. I didn’t want to continue the original story so much as I wanted to explore some of its implications and look at the long-term consequences.
You recently released a new novel, The Affinities. Can you talk a little about this book and what drove you to write this story?
The Affinities speculates about a deep neurological-cognitive understanding of human cooperative styles that enables an entirely new social technology. For a fee, people can be sorted into one of twenty-two different Affinity groups according to their collaborative style. If you qualify to join an Affinity group, you find yourself among folks who may be very different from you in every way except their collaborative style – a genuinely heterogeneous crowd, in other words, but one in which you’re always welcome, in which you inevitably find friends and mutual support, and in which easy cooperation makes financial or political efforts more likely to succeed. The narrator, a down-on-his-luck art student, joins such a group, and he finds it’s everything the brochure promised – in fact it seems idyllic.
Which is as problem for those left out, given that a significant portion of the world’s population doesn’t qualify for membership in any Affinity group. So when does mutually-assisted success begin to look like category discrimination? What are the legal and ethical boundaries? And although the Affinities promote cooperation within the group, nothing rules out conflict between Affinity groups – which is what begins to happen, as the various Affinities compete for power and influence.
I have been trying to reach out to you for quite some time. Recently I saw that you were building a website. Now and in the future, the internet will provide greater exposure to those trying to break into the business, as well as possibly more contact between famous people (like you) and those that admire the work they do (like me). Without your website and the internet I would have had a very difficult time getting in touch with you. What are your thoughts about how technology and the internet will change writing in the future, both for peons like me and the truly gifted and talented like yourself?
I’m not naturally social. Writing is a fairly private pursuit for me, at least until the moment of publication. I have a fairly impersonal website that doesn’t do much more than announce my past and current books, and I’m not really on the convention circuit these days – not that I ever was much of a presence there. I don’t recommend that degree of insularity as a wise career move, but it worked for me. Nowadays I do most of my interacting with readers on Facebook – which, despite its drawbacks, allows casual interactions lengthier than mere tweets and less formal than regular blog posts.
You have won and been nominated for numerous awards. Which award are you most proud or which means the most to you and why?
I learned early on that “Hugo Award Winner” adorned some of my favorite books, so the best-novel Hugo was genuinely flattering, and I treasure it despite all the controversy that’s been generated around the ballot in the last few years. The Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire and the Seiun were also big moments for me.
Is there a specific story that you particularly enjoyed writing, or do you have a favorite that you have written?
I’ve already mentioned Julian Comstock – that one was endless fun to write. My upcoming novel Last Year was another very amiable project.
Do you have any specific goals? Maybe something that you set for yourself, either words per day, or how many pieces you would like to complete each year? What drives you to keep pushing forward? I think it was Stephen King (possibly someone else) who said that as a writer you needed to write one million words to get all the crap out of the way, then you can start to get to the good stuff.
The million-word quote is so ubiquitous, I’m not sure anyone knows who said it first. (I associate it with Ray Bradbury, but Google tells me that’s disputed.) The reason it gets repeated so often is that it’s true. I got those word out of the way fairly early – I wrote two full-length, utterly un-publishable novels while I was still in high school.
I used to try to a thousand words every day, but I’m an old dude now, and less strict with myself.
Who was your biggest influence that pushed you to want to be a writer?
I’ve asked myself the same question. I’ve been writing fiction literally since I learned to read. The compulsion is pre-verbal. It was never a reasoned choice. I’m just lucky I’ve been able to make a living at it.
Can you talk about any new projects you are working on? What does the rest of 2016 hold for Robert Charles Wilson?
Due in December is Last Year, a sort of time-travel novel in which the 19th-century Gilded Age becomes a tourist attraction for our own, modern-day, Gilded Age. The central character is a young drifter, hired in the 1870s as a security guard for a luxury resort hotel for tourists from our own time, who derails an attempt on the life of President Grant and gets involved in a plot to smuggle contraband weapons into the past.
And I’m currently writing a new book called The Cure, about a treatment for schizophrenia that has certain unexpected side effects – and profound consequences for the future of humanity.
As an aspiring writer, can you offer any advice to me or anyone else out there? What do you attribute your success or perhaps failures to along your journey? What has helped you the most to become successful?
A stupid, dogged persistence in the face of serial failures is the only virtue I can really claim in that regard. Writing is a roller coaster – a dangerous one, since a great many people get thrown off along the way. But the people who do it successfully aren’t gods; they’re just good at what they do and lucky enough to have found an audience. So I guess my advice would be to learn the basics, play to your strengths, be mindful of your intended audience, and pray for luck.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
My website is www.robertcharleswilson.com , and I’m on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/robertcharles.wilson.1?fref=nf