Writer Wednesday: 10 Questions with Ken Liu

I’ve realized that I know some awesomely brilliant writers. Whether just starting to make a name for themselves or authors who’ve been working in this field for decades, they have insights into writing that I may never have gotten to myself, and I wanted to know more. I wanted their secrets, their advice, the gleaming nuggets of wisdom plucked from their brains. So, I asked a few questions (10, to be precise), and these wonderful people answered. I’ve decided to share these interviews with you because I learned something about writing and you might too.

First up is science fiction author, program, and tax lawyer (yes, really), Ken Liu:

1. You were a programmer before you were a lawyer, and now in addition to that job you’ve added husband, father, and writer. How has your writing changed as you’ve acquired these new experiences? Can you see the effect of your life on your work over time, or has your style remained constant?

I think the experiences of a writer can’t help but show up in his fiction—mutated, transformed, sublimated, disguised—but they’ll be there. You write about what’s on your mind. I thought much more about parenthood after my daughter was born, and the theme of parenthood became much more prominent in my stories. My ideas about the law shifted after studying it and practicing it for a while, and that change is reflected in my stories as well.

I hope that just as we grow more interesting and wiser over time—a notion that some would question—we also become better writers. So I’d like to think that my writing has improved over the years as I’ve learned more about the world and myself. But some things have stayed constant over the years. There’s a certain lens that I view the world through which leaves its mark on everything I write. I have a hard time articulating exactly what that mark is, but even my earliest stories have the same “flavor” as my latest ones.

2. Because you have less time to devote to writing than perhaps someone who writes full-time, do you have to make choices about which ideas you’re going to work on? If so, how do you decide which stories to breath life into?

When I sit down to draft or edit, it takes a while to get the work-in-progress back into my head before I can be productive. Because of this cost for context switching and the many demands and interruptions imposed by the non-writing life, I usually avoid ideas that have a tendency to sprawl all over the place. But some big ideas just refuse to let me go. I’ve been collaborating with my wife on a novel, and now I’m thinking of starting another one by myself. I need to develop processes that will allow me to work on a big idea through short sessions spread out over a long period of time.

3. What was the first story you ever sold, and how would you have written if differently if you had to do it again tomorrow?

The very first story that I sold, “Carthaginian Rose,” was bought in 2002 by Empire of Dreams and Miracles: The Phobos Science Fiction Anthology (v. 1), edited by Orson Scott Card and Keith Olexa. I still like that story, and if I were to do it again today, I think the main thing I would change is the drafting process. Back then, I wrote extremely slowly (it took me more than half a year to finish a first draft for a short story), and I didn’t understand how to work with critiques—I had a hard time telling apart comments that I needed to think about and comments that I needed to ignore. Writing faster and getting better at making use of feedback are two skills I’ve improved since then.

4. Much of your writing can be classified as “science fiction”. How do you feel about that term as a label for your work, and would you prefer a different one?

I like the label just fine. I’ve always enjoyed reading about science and the history of science, and I like thinking through the implications of scientific discoveries on our lives. It’s no surprise that science plays a role in my fiction, but I don’t deliberately write to fit into the label either. Labels can be confining and alter reader expectations in a way that, unfortunately, mean that some readers never pick up books that they’d enjoy if they were labeled differently. And sometimes people can become so attached to labels that they start to demand every work fit a particular mold in order to be deemed worthy of the label. I don’t like these uses of labels, but it’s not the fault of the label itself.

5. Say I’m a reader who wants to understand all of the literary references that might creep into your work. Which writers and/or works would I have to read to understand your influences?

It’s impossible to list all of them because the list will include every book I’ve read. I suspect that’s true of most writers. I’ll just give a few names that are particularly vivid in my mind right now: Zhuangzi, Thucydides, The Book of Esther, Cicero, Catullus, Ovid, John, Paul, St. Augustine, Su Shi, Li Qingzhao, Yue Fei, The Battle of Maldon, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Beowulf, Shakespeare, Milton, Wu Chengen (Journey to the West), Luo Guanzhong (Romance of the Three Kingdoms), Dryden, Pope, Blake, Austen, Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, Melville, Dickens, Twain, Sui Sin Far, Jade Snow Wong, Faulkner, Dreiser, Gertrude Stein, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Hemingway, e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot, Nabokov, Jin Yong, Chiung Yao (blame my aunt for that one), David Henry Hwang, Atwood, Dillard, Orson Scott Card, Nancy Kress, Octavia Butler, Cormac McCarthy, Candace Bushnell, Yan Geling, Ted Chiang, Ma Boyong, David Mitchell.

6. How much planning and preparation do you do for a story? Do you outline, make notes, research … or do you let an idea percolate in your head before writing it out organically?

Usually a story begins with a single image or line. I write it down on my phone and then play with it in my mind. As I read scientific papers, talk with friends and browse the web, I start to jot down notes about other things that might go with the kernel of the idea. Eventually, when I feel like I have enough notes about things that will fit in one story, I start to draft. I’ve tried outlining, and it didn’t work for me, at all. I ended up being paralyzed by the blank screen. I have to think by writing, and only by writing can I find out where the story is going.

7. What writing goal do you want to accomplish in your lifetime? Is there a particular market, number of novels, amount of money made, or other benchmark that would make you feel as if you’d achieved proper “author” status?

It’s tempting to try to quantify success with concrete benchmarks, but the risk is that some “accomplishments,” such as whether a story is accepted by a market or how much money a novel makes, are dependent on factors that are not within the author’s control. As a result, as Tobias Buckell once explained, these are things that you wish would happen to you, but they don’t make good goals. I think I’d feel like a proper author when I’ve written something that I’m proud of and want to read—and I feel confident that I can do it again, on demand. It’s that last part that I still haven’t figured out yet.

8.You are someone who stays up to date with science and technology, as evidenced by your writing and your continued interest in programming. What is the most exciting new advancement that’s been announced this year? Why?

I’ve been reading obsessively about recent research into how the bacteria in our guts may influence how we think. Here’s one article announcing one of the latest studies on the subject: “Gut Bacteria Linked to Behavior: That Anxiety May Be in Your Gut, Not in Your Head” (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110517110315.htm). A lot of our ideas about ourselves in the modern age rely on the model of a rational individual with a single, coherent mind. This “self” is at the core of economic and political theories that we think of as self-evident. But science is showing us that that model may be wrong. The notion of “self” is turning out to be very complicated and rationality an illusion. The research into gut bacteria may end up showing us that our thoughts and emotions aren’t even generated only by our cells, but also by other organisms that live on us, in us. I’m not sure if that’s liberating or not.

9. When you write, you’re aware that an editor will at least briefly go over your story before it’s published. Do you submit stories hoping to get that feedback or does it make you nervous? Are you ever surprised by the direction an editor wants to take your writing?

The best editors, in my opinion, are those who try to make an author’s words hew even closer to the ideal in the author’s mind, so that the author’s voice is enhanced, the author’s vision clarified, and the author’s story the best it can be. I’ve been very lucky to work with such editors and I’m thankful for how they made my stories better. I’m never nervous submitting to them. I’ve been surprised only once by an editor. In that case, the edits made the story worse because the editor didn’t know enough about the technical topic.

10. You’ve studied and written on the history of bookmaking as it relates to the evolution of e-books. What excites you most about e-books, either as they are now or as they could potentially be?

Right now, books (including e-books) can only come alive in our minds. On my bookshelf and on my Kindle I can see Paradise Lost, the Bible, a biography of Milton, The Golden Compass, and Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin. These books remain separate artifacts, dead marks on dead trees (or dead screens), unaware of each other’s existence. It is only when I read them and put all of them into my head that they start to converse with each other, to come alive and weave a dense web of connections between them. I’m not simply talking about shared keywords and shared concepts and the evolution of ideas. I’m also talking about idiosyncratic associations made by each of us between ideas and words and images and books that others may not share. For example, Milton’s scene of Adam and Raphael speculating in Eden on the existence of other worlds and other creatures always calls up in my mind the illustrations in my copy of Jules Verne’s De la Terre à la Lune. You may not have ever made this association before, but now, after hearing me talk about it, the next time you read that passage in Paradise Lost, you’ll probably make the same connection. These kinds of connections, humble though they may be, gather into the fabric of thought, the pattern of creativity. We read in order to make more of such connections. As far back as 1945, Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, the federal agency created to coordinate science research for military applications during World War II, remarked on the associational nature of the human mind: “The human mind … operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain.” Bush envisioned an electronic reader, the memex, “in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.”

I think e-books will fulfill their true potential when we have the memex, when each of us can weave denser and denser associational webs than ever before between the books we read with the aid of e-book readers, share and benefit from each other’s idiosyncratic idea-connections—as though we can browse the commonplace books kept by great minds and intimate friends, and feel our minds touch on all of human knowledge. With the memex, we will understand each book we read in a deeper and more profound way, see how it fits into the edifice of human thought, and hear how it converses with all the books that have come before it.

Future readers will be so lucky.

Ken is both a programmer and a lawyer, and he finds the two professions surprisingly similar. In both, one extra level of indirection solves most problems. His stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and Clarkesworld, among other places. He lives near Boston with his wife and daughter. More about his fiction can be found at http://kenliu.name.

2 thoughts on “Writer Wednesday: 10 Questions with Ken Liu

  1. Great questions, Carrie — and answers, of course, Ken. Covers some of my favorite topics: planning for a story, literary references (I agree — probably true of most writers, but I like your list!), editorial input. Being on both ends of the latter, that’s a big topic of mine. I’m starting to notice there’s an unspoken consensus in those whose work I admire most, so that’s heartening. Again, on both ends.

    Great stuff!

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