18 April 2007

Author Answers with Kelly McCullough

This week's author is sci-fi novelist Kelly McCullough. His "WebMage"came out in July and a sequel will come out in Sept.

For more information on McCullough, check out his website and the Wyrdsmiths where he's a regular blogger.

WN: WebMage combines magic, Greek Mythology and computer programming. How'd you come up with this idea?
MCCULLOUGH: I started messing around with the web back in 1997 or thereabouts and one of the things that fascinated me about it was the way all of the pages seemed like individual worlds linked together by the Internet.
Parallel worlds stories are a long standing form in science fiction and fantasy, and this looked like a fabulous way for some entity to arrange worlds. That's where the first glimmer of the idea happened-I think I called it World Diving when I wrote it down.
Then I started picking at the edges, what kind of story could I tell that would let me really play with the concept? Since I tend to work mostly in fantasy I decided I wanted a magical analogue to the Internet. That in turn gave me my main character, Ravirn. A hacker/ sorcerer was the logical protagonist for that kind of story. Since I like familiars I gave Ravirn a familiar appropriate to someone who lived in both those worlds, a shape-changing goblin/laptop combo.
When I started to think about plot, I figured that I should have a hacking episode gone terribly wrong. So, what was Ravirn's target?
Had to be the heart of the web itself if I was going to really get into meat of the idea. Who would build a web to keep track of all these worlds? That stopped me for a day or two until I came up with the idea of the Greek Fates using this new technology to do their age- old job. To raise the stakes I made Ravirn a grandchild of one of them, and bingo, I had the heart of the short story that gave birth to WebMage.

WN: What's your writing process like? What made you keep working at it until you had a finished novel?
MCCULLOUGH: Most days I get up, read non-fiction stuff and deal with business for an hour or two. Then I sit down and work on my next project for 2-8 hours. I've been doing that for years. My answer to the question about WebMage gives a pretty good glimpse of how the storymaking process actually works. But that's now. Back when I started, I was in college. I'd come home from classes and write for a couple of hours every day until I finished my first novel—not WebMage. WebMage is my fourth and the sequel, Cybermancy, is my ninth. I finished my tenth two weeks ago.
I do it because I love the process, every step of it, from idea, to outline, to draft, through critique with other writers, and all the way up to final product. It's an absolute joy and there's really nothing in the world I'd rather do. I guess the short answer is: I can't not write.

WN: There's been some chatter lately among writers/critics about not reading books in the same genre you write, particularly while writing. On your website, you've got quite the list of sci-fi/fantasy recommendations... do you read the genre while writing? Why or why not?
MCCULLOUGH: I find the idea of not reading in genre to be very strange actually.
I write in the genre I do because I love it and I built that love by reading genre fiction. I think that you'd be quite hard-pressed to develop a sensibility for the area you want to write in without reading it. I read voraciously, both in and out of genre. I consider that part of my job as a writer and I mostly don't let what I'm currently working on dictate what I read. I say mostly, because I do try not to read anything that's really close to what I'm working on.
So, for the last six months while I was working on a young adult fantasy set in World War II, I stayed away from WWII fantasy, but I read a good deal of other fantasy and non-fantasy WWII material in that period.

WN: Did you always want to be a writer, or how did you end up being a novelist? Did you do anything else that helped you become a writer?
MCCULLOUGH: No I didn't. From the ages of 11-22 I pursued theater with great passion. I was dead certain I was going to work in the industry and even landed the occasional paying gig in acting or tech theater. Then I met the woman I'm now married to—we've been together for almost 18 years—and realized that theater and anything resembling a normal home life aren't terribly compatible. The hours and the travel are both deadly for relationships. About that same time I got my first computer and decided to try my hand at writing a novel. I fell in love with the process inside of a week and haven't really ever looked back. The funny thing is that I think theater probably prepared me better for writing what I do than an English degree would have. I did renaissance festivals, stunt work, slapstick, makeup, stage combat, lighting, all sort of things really, and I got a feeling for story and scene that has served me very well, and developed skills like fencing and dancing that map directly onto writing fantasy.

WN: What's the best part of being a writer to you? What's the most challenging part of writing for you?
MCCULLOUGH: The first one is easy, the process. I love creating worlds and filling them up with people and stories. I basically get to play make believe for a living. What's challenging has changed over time. It used to be the business side of things, all the endless submissions and querying and the rejections—I've got something like 400 of those.
But after I broke through on selling short stories and landed an agent, that all got much easier. Now, I guess it's making sure that I keep pushing myself to the very edge of what I can accomplish.
Writing is like any art, the more you practice the better you get, and being better means you can try more difficult projects. Really, it means you _have_ to try more difficult projects, because that's how you grow as an artist. It's really much more fun that way, but also hard, pushing yourself to work beyond the edges of what you know you can do is always scary.

WN: What's next for you as a writer?
MCCULLOUGH: Well, Cybermancy comes out this fall so I'm dealing with the copy editing process on that. But mostly I'm working on a 3rd WebMage book and will go straight from there into a 4th—I'm hoping to get those done in the next 8 months or so. After that, I'll probably write the second book in a young adult trilogy I started in August of '06–that's the WWII fantasy I mentioned and flat out the best work I've ever done. But I've got five novels with various editors at the moment and five book proposals as well, and if any of those sell it'll have a major impact on how I schedule things. Beyond that I don't know. I've got about twenty novel outlines in my ideas file, but the chances are good I'll come up with a new one that I like better than any of those before I finish the WebMage books. But that's half the fun.

WN: What is the best/most influential book you have ever read and why did it inspire you?
MCCULLOUGH: That's a real toughie and I'm going to cheat and split my answer. The Lord of the Rings is probably the single most influential book in my life. I had it read to me for the first time before I could speak, and I've read it about once a year since 1975—it's practically written into my DNA. The best book I've ever read in terms of teaching me what it means to be a writer is Tim Power's Anubis Gates.
It's a time travel book which is a genre of fantasy and science fiction that generally doesn't appeal to me, and it's almost perfect as a fantasy novel. He handles events across three time periods and involving more than a dozen major characters in a way that's practically magic. I learn something new every time I reread it. In particular, Tim's villains are amazing, genuinely scary and at the very same time sympathetic and understandable. Actually that's one of the best things about being a writer, I've gotten to meet so many of my heroes since I started down this path, and even studied with some of them, like Tim.

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