Hugo Award Winner Will McIntosh On the Future of Spec Fic/Historical Mashups & Other Things

December 22, 2010

I’m often asked why magic and fantasy elements appear in my historical fiction. For me, it’s always been a natural pairing. History is just a special kind of foreign world, so I’m perfectly at home in the speculative fiction community. In fact, one of the best experiences of my writing life was a summer that I spent in Michigan, at a writing program known as Clarion East.

Will McIntosh was one of my classmates at Clarion and when I first met Will, he was a thoughtful, self-deprecating and talented author. Now he’s a thoughtful, self-deprecating, talented author with a Hugo Award.

I’m very fortunate to be able to say that I knew him back when and delighted to have him here today to chat!

Me: My memories of Clarion 2003 have blurred together over the years but there are a few things that stand out. Snippets of stories that I still remember, stylistic techniques that I learned from my classmates and mentors, and a new awareness about my own identity as a writer. I still remember reading a story about a cowboy slug that I think was your doing…what do you remember from our time at Clarion and what did you take away from it?

Will: I remember Jim and Maureen didn’t like my cowboy slug story.  Maureen summed up the theme of the story as “Slugs are people, too.”  I completely reworked “Slug Western” into a story called “Friction”.  There’s an audio version of it on Escape Pod.  I learned so much during those weeks at Clarion.  I remember being blown away when Howard Waldrop suggested that all of the characters in your story had died along the way and just didn’t know it.  I remember learning that if you want to show a moment passing, don’t write “a moment later…”, just provide some small environmental detail.  Every day I learned a few small but crucial things about how to write that hit me like shots of espresso.  I think the biggest things I took away from Clarion was the astonishing value of getting feedback from other writers, and the realization that if you want to write genre fiction, make it weird.

Me: Howard Waldrop’s interpretation of my story so altered the way I looked at it that I’ve yet to rewrite it for fear of being unable to do the concept justice. I guess the lesson there is, beware smart people who know your story better than you do. On the other hand, I doubt you’ve run into that problem. You’ve seen a great deal of success in the past two years and I know you’ve worked hard for it. Can you tell us what the early years of your writing career were like and how it changed when you became an award-nominated and award-winning author?

Will: The early years of my writing career were a long series of rejection letters.  I received 88 of them before I sold my first story.  But I loved writing fiction, and I was going to keep writing no matter how many rejections I got.  I cried when I sold my first story.  I guess my writing career changed when I received the award nominations in the sense that I began to allow myself to think of it as a career, rather than a hobby.  I’m getting invited to write for anthologies for the first time.  I sold my first novel.  It feels more real, more serious.  Probably the biggest change, though, is that I walk around in a state of permanent incredulity that I won a Hugo award.  Every day I look at the award and can’t quite believe it.

Me: I think it’s safe to say that you’re the only one who can’t believe it. Your stories are all SF but most of them seem to revolve around a romance of some sort. Was this a conscious choice on your part and how has it been received by genre readers?

Will: I was completely unaware of how much romance defined my stories until a writing friend, Joy Marchand, told me matter-of-factly that I wrote love stories.  My response was, “I do?”  I was aware that some of my stories were about romance, but I hadn’t stopped to look at how many of them did.  If I ever publish a collection, I’m thinking the title will be, “Bridesicle and Other Love Stories.”  Genre readers seem fine with it, maybe because they only read one of my stories at a time, mixed in with stories that aren’t about love or relationships.  Maybe if I published a collection genre readers will get tired of reading one love story after another.

Me: I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Joy and she’s very perceptive. Perhaps I should be asking her this question, but …how does being a husband and a father of twins influence your writing?

Will: Being a father of twins has cut my writing productivity to about 1/3 of what it used to be.  Free time has become such a scarce thing, and that’s been hard for me, much as I love spending time with my family.  Wait–you probably mean how has it affected the content of my writing   I find that I write about relationships differently.  When I was single I wrote about single people struggling to find love, going on bad dates, finally meeting someone wonderful.  Now my characters tend to be less full of longing and angst, because I’m less full of longing and angst.  Now I’m full of fatigue and covered in unwanted peanut butter toast.  Seriously, I hope my writing is finding a deeper place because of my experiences with my family.

Me: What do you think speculative fiction does best? What are its weaknesses?

Will: Speculative fiction is bristling with creativity.  There are so many ideas, so many cool ways of seeing the world, so many mind-blowing images.  I think sometimes the human story takes a back seat to all the cool things.  Not always, but sometimes.

Me: Do you read outside the SF genre. If so, why or why not?

Will: I read more outside SF than in.  There are so many books out there; I want to read the best, most engrossing and amazing books I can find.  If they have robots or elves in them, all the better, but I’d rather read a great book than a book with an elf in it.

Me: Ha! I kind of wanted to make that the title of this post. I’d rather read a great book than a book with an elf in it. But, to get to the heart of the matter on this, my historical fiction site, do you think the SF genre could benefit from cross-pollination with historical fiction or vice versa, and why?

Will: I do, and I think it’s coming.  The hot new thing in SF is steampunk, and while it mostly focuses on the late 19th-century (SF from a 19th century perspective – airships, big cool clunky machines) at this point, I think the sentiment is spreading, and we’re going to see more SF set in other historical periods.  Knights in shining armor without the knights, Leonardo De Vinci’s helicopter factory.  Of course when you write historical SF you’re often delving into fantasy to some extent, because you’re making up technology that didn’t, and often couldn’t, exist.  Unless you make it a time travel story.

Me: As an author, do you have a policy on writing book reviews, or an awareness that in writing them, you’re critiquing colleagues?

Will: I’ve never written a book review.  I’ve never been asked, and (as you may recall from Clarion) I don’t think I’m an especially perceptive reader.

Me: I recall no such thing. In fact, one of the things I’ve always appreciated most about your fiction is its social awareness. Followed is one of my favorites of your short stories. How did it come about that it will be made into a short film?

Will: John Joseph Adams chose “Followed” to be in his anthology, The Living Dead.  Somewhere in New Mexico, filmmaker Maureen Cooke received a copy of the book as a Christmas present from her husband.  She had no idea why he thought she’d want to read an anthology of zombie stories, but thought she should read at least one story to be polite.  She chose the shortest story in the anthology, which was “Followed”.  Filming begins December 13, and the cast is made up of all pro actors, including Edith Ivey, who was in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button!

Me: That’s a fantastic story of serendipity. I love it. So, what are the challenges you’ve faced transitioning from an author of short stories to a novelist?

Will: Yeah, that’s been tough.  I’ve struggled with building an overarching story arc.  I tend to see each chapter as needing a beginning, middle, and end of its own.  I’m not good at pausing, I feel like I’ve got to bounce from action to action.  I’m getting it, though.  I attended Walter John Williams’ Taos Toolbox, a workshop for genre novel writers (Kelly Link, who was one of our Clarion teachers, was the guest instructor), and that helped.

Me: Your debut novel will be Soft Apocalypse. Tell us about it!

Will: It’s at a speed-dating service that Jasper realizes he’s living through the apocalypse. He’s not interested in dating the woman who convinces him of this, because she’s in a wheelchair–a victim of Polio-X–and he feels guilty about that. In fact he struggles with the whole notion of looking for love while corpses pile up in the back alleys of Savannah. Maybe finding true love isn’t even possible when Dada terrorists prowl the streets planting bombs in dogs, and voracious strains of bamboo choke the countryside, driving ever more people into the cities. And watch out for dozens of home-cooked viruses, including a brand new one: Doctor Happy. It doesn’t kill you, it just leaves you on a permanent LSD trip.

When the country finally collapses under the weight of a thousand cuts, Jasper flees his home town of Savannah with a tribe of friends. It’s here that he encounters Phoebe, an old girlfriend, and wonders if she might be the one. Both suspect they’re incapable of love after all the things they’ve seen and done. Close to starvation, an opportunity arises–a community that offers food and safety.  If they’ll infect themselves with the Doctor Happy virus first.

Me: This sounds like an awesomely trippy book! That’s all the time Will has for us today, but I want to thank him for stopping by and sharing his insights. Happy Holidays everybody!

Will McIntosh is a Hugo award winner and Nebula finalist whose short stories have appeared in such venues as Asimov’s (where he won the 2010 Reader’s Award for short story), Strange Horizons, and Science Fiction and Fantasy: Best of the Year.  In 2005 his short story “Soft Apocalypse” was nominated for both the British Science Fiction Association and the British Fantasy Society awards.  His story “Followed,” which was published in the anthology The Living Dead, is currently being produced as a short film.  A New Yorker transplanted to the rural south, Will is a psychology professor at Georgia Southern University, where he studies Internet dating, and how people’s TV, music, and movie choices are affected by recession and terrorist threat.  In 2008 he became the father of twins.


5 Responses to Hugo Award Winner Will McIntosh On the Future of Spec Fic/Historical Mashups & Other Things

  • I love complete genre mash-ups with historical, fantasy, romance, sci-fi . . . everything! As you point out: history is a bit fantastic to us anyway, so why not? I’m not one of those readers who gets down into the nitty-gritty on accuracy. I want a good story, told engagingly. If it has that, I’m there and coming back for more.

    And I’m writing down the title to Will’s book. This is going to be interesting . . .

  • Great interview. I must now go in search of his book too!

  • I honestly think that introducing speculative elements into existing cultures/settings can be a lot of fun, both in terms of storytelling and in terms of world-building. How would immortality affect, say, slavery in an ancient culture? How about a shortened lifespan? If people were immortal (and literally could not be executed), how do you deal with crime and punishment within a culture? Etc.

    As a result, I really want to read Will’s book now. 🙂

  • My advice to your hero and heroine: “Don’t Drink the Kool Aid!” I love this twist on SF/history run amok. In a world gone mad, which is worse: the rest of the world or the cult? Looking forward to your genre mashing book.


    PS: I started out in horror and migrated to romance. You’re among friends.

  • I find historical mash-ups a tough concept to buy into. I can suspend disbelief on a futuristic or fantastical world, but history is a known thing, and the bar is higher for altering or adding to it.

    I think Will is right that SF is moving closer to historical mashups because of the steampunk subgenre but it exists in two other realms: time travel and altered history. Connie Willis’ time travel novels (“To say nothing of the dog” is a great example) have mashed up SF and history quite seamlessly. But the time-traveling trope tends to steal the stage and the historical aspects of the story can be relegated to faded scenery if not handled carefully (Willis does handle it beautifully but others do not).

    Alternate history has a big following, from Turtledove to Kim Stanley Robinson, but usually it alters the history so dramatically that it’s questionable if the premise is still historical. One telling sign that it is not is if the same historical figures still figure prominently in a dramatically changed historical world. This smells more of history buff fan fiction (Napoleon unites Italy against France’s Louis XVI!) than doing the careful world-building that a speculative fiction-history mashup should demand, where maybe Napoleon never becomes prominent.

    Fantasy seems to have more mashup traction though. Historical fantasy is next door to the currently hot urban fantasy. Plus, it gets fantasy away from swords and fangs in a way that casts history in a new light, which SF historical can’t do as well. Also, fantasy elements are more subtle and therefore more believable in a historical setting than sci-fi elements, which tend to rewrite the entire world (Washington’s army having breech-loading mass-produced Springfield rifles at the Battle of White Plains in 1776, for example, would change everything).

    This is a great chat. 88 rejection letters is downright inspiring for a writer. And it sounds like Clarion really paid off for both of you.