Interview with Science Fiction Writer Edward M. Grant

Today I welcome science fiction author Edward M. Grant to my blog. Edward has been kind enough to answer a few questions for me.

Petrina by Edward M. Grant1. Tell us a bit about yourself.

I grew up in Britain and studied Physics at Oxford, but emigrated to Canada some years ago. By day, I work in satellite communications, which keeps me very busy, but I’ve been self-publishing my writing for a couple of years now as time permits.

2. For how long have you been writing and why did you start?

As long as I remember. While clearing out my old bedroom in my parents’ house when I emigrated, I found a book of stories I wrote when I was nine, some of which were quite entertaining despite their many flaws. As a boy, I was more likely to be found in a library than playing football, so progressing to writing stories like the ones I enjoyed reading came

I joined a fairly serious hard SF writers’ group in the 90s, and many of the other members went on to at least moderate success, but sending a paper manuscript of a short story across the Atlantic and waiting a couple of months to find out whether the magazine had accepted it (nope) grew old fast. Then I didn’t write many stories for ten years or so, until Amazon and Smashwords made self-publishing easy, and magazines began accepting submissions over the Internet.

In fact, I’ve now self-published revised versions of about half the stories I wrote for that group.

Fade to Grey by Edward M. Grant3. Tell us a bit about your books.

I primarily write science fiction, though I dabble in horror. I’ve mostly been writing shorter stories (4-15,000 words), but, the more I write, the longer the stories seem to become.

Probably my favourite so far is ‘Fade To Grey’, a 15,000 word novelette. For years, I’ve been wondering why we can’t see any aliens in the galaxy, and, in this story, it’s because alien luddites destroyed all life on their planet. Their ancient planetary defence system then destroys a passing human ship, and a maintenance bot, the ship’s synthetic intelligence computer, and the last surviving passenger try to bring the planet back to life.

One of the Amazon reviews suggested I should rewrite it as a novel. I’ll have to think about that, as I’m sure there’s enough left untold in the story to make it work.

Spaceweasels by Edward M. Grant4. You write two series, the Dirk Beretta series and the Area 52 series. So who is Dirk Beretta and what is Area 52?

Dirk Beretta was the poster boy for the Space Marines, but quit after the battle of Din Bin Foo, where many of his friends were killed by Space Weasels, who then cooked and ate them with a nice Merlot. In the current series, he’s in a love/hate relationship with the rich girlfriend he rescued from a fate worse than marinating in the Space Weasels’ kitchens, and keeps running into trouble while he looks for another job that suits his destructive skills.

It’s either a parody of or homage to the kind of pulpy science fiction I used to read as a kid, and I’m still not quite sure which. I invented him for a writing example on a web forum and never intended to do anything more, but he wanted me to write a complete story about him. Then more ideas kept coming, so I’ve released three stories and I’ve written most of the fourth, which has time-travelled into ancient Egyptian steam-punk. It’s currently a novella, but may end up as a novel.

In Area 52, a young man who reports to the British Army for his National Service in the 1950s finds himself working as a guard for a base outside a tiny Yorkshire village. Except, unknown to him, hidden beneath the Nissen huts is a cut-price version of America’s semi-mythical Area 51, where the British government keeps all the strange creatures and objects they’ve found around the Empire over the last few centuries.

Having finished the second story on something of a cliff-hanger, I was going to write the third, but decided I should really combine them into a novel. Hopefully I’ll finish that this year, and release it to close that initial story arc.

There are also my 2070 stories, which are more of a shared world than a series. They’re more serious, set in the next few centuries (hence the name), and attempt to make the science and technology as realistic as possible. The human race is expanding across the solar system, Earth is a wasteland after WWIII, the Battle of Armageddon may or may not have happened, there’s little government left, and most societies fear outsiders because one person with a grudge can destroy an entire town or space habitat.

5. Most of your published works are short fiction. Now as a short fiction writer myself, I believe that the e-books are ideal for stand-alone short stories which would never be viable in print form. But at least in my experience, short stories also sell much worse than novels. So what do you think the future holds for short fiction in e-book form?

Oddly enough, I seem to be one of the few people who’ve found their short stories sell better than novels, though I suspect that’s largely due to low sales of my one published novel.

One of the best things about self-publishing is that stories can be the length they need to be, without having to pad or cut to keep a publisher happy. I grew up reading many 40-60,000 word novels, but they’ve almost disappeared from book store shelves because publishers think all readers want longer ones. With the fast pace of modern life, I’d often rather buy a shorter story I can finish in the time I have available, than a novel I’d have to read over several days or weeks. So I think short fiction has a much brighter future now than it did in trade publishing.

6. Worldbuilding is crucial for science fiction. So how did you approach the worldbuilding for your books?

For different projects, I’ve tried the ‘plan everything in advance’ method, the ‘make it up as I go along’ method, and a number of stages in between. Planning allows you to make the world consistent, but runs the risk that you spend all the time creating the world, and not enough thinking about the stories to tell in it (or writing them). Making it up is faster, but risks building a world that makes no sense.

I made up the Dirk Beretta world as I went along, but the more I write, the more throwaway background details I can expand on in future stories. Because it’s pure space opera, I can get away with a lot.

Some of Area 52 was inspired by war stories I heard as a kid from men who had been in the forces in WWII, or during the National Service era when almost everyone had to serve for two years. Most of them either seemed to have been fighting for their lives, or, like Ron at the beginning of the story, bored to death with little of any value to do. I also read a lot of wacky UFO and conspiracy books as a kid, and thought how much more fun the world would be if the Bermuda Triangle really was a vortex to another universe, Area 51 had aliens in the freezer, and the Moon was hollow and full of UFOs. So it was more a matter of deciding what wouldn’t go in than what would, and doing my best to research the military of the time to make it as accurate as I can; I still need to work more on that.

The 2070 stories are approaching hard SF, so that’s more complex and requires more research; the basic premise came from a role-playing game I developed at school, and, while that’s massively mutated over the years, I now have a couple of megabytes of notes about the history, the people and the places. I spent much of the time working through the consequences of some of the changes that seem likely to occur in the next few decades, such as dramatic genetic modification and life extension, 3D printing eliminating many jobs, and the economics of a space-faring culture with technology only a few decades ahead of us. I find a lot of SF worlds make no sense if you think about the economics for long, and I’m trying to avoid that problem.

7. Unlike many science fiction writers (interviewer raises hand), you studied physics and are actually a scientist. How does your physics background influence your SF?

It’s very useful for the 2070 stories, because they are harder SF. When, say, I need to work out how large the Big Momma space freighter has to be to carry enough fuel to travel between two asteroids in two weeks, or how fast it would accelerate, I can sit down and go through the numbers. It’s less useful for the space opera stories, because I keep thinking
that the things I’m writing could never actually happen!

8. Have you ever been traditionally published or did you ever pursue traditional publishing? And if so, what were your experiences?

I wrote some non-fiction articles for a science and technology magazine in the 90s, but that’s the only time I’ve seen my name on a book store shelf. I still submit some of my stories to magazines like Asimov’s and Analog, but I’ve yet to make a sale. ‘Robo-Zombie’ made the finalists for a print anthology recently, but not the final cut, and I’m sending that story out to some magazines before self-publishing it.

I think it makes sense for shorts, where turnaround time is fast, pay is good, and rights typically revert in a year or so, but I don’t intend to submit any novels. I would if more publishers were willing to do print-only deals, but when they’ll take a year or two to get a novel into print, and expect a non-compete clause preventing me from writing anything similar, I’d rather just publish it myself.

9. You’re not just a writer, but you’ve also worked on several indie films. Did your filmmaking experience influence your writing in any way?

I learned a lot about telling a story from editing indie movies. You have far less control as a movie editor with a bunch of tapes on your desk than as a fiction writer, but pacing and smooth editing is even more important than in books. Hopefully that’s come over into my writing.

I also co-wrote an indie vampire movie that was produced, and wrote about a dozen scripts that weren’t. I’m starting to work on turning those into novels.

Then, of course, there’s ‘Horror Movie’, and ‘Horror Movie 2: The Sequel’, two horror novels I’ve been trying to finish since 2010, based on a somewhat exaggerated version of my experiences working on indie movie sets.

10. According to your author bio, you’ve lived a really exciting life and travelled all over the world. So how did those experience influence your fiction?

It may contribute to having so many ‘homeless’ characters in my stories, who spend their lives travelling from one place to another; many of my characters live in space, and have nothing resembling a home to go to. I’ve travelled so much that my nightmares tend to consist of being stuck in an airport, or trying to get the rental car returned before I miss my flight. Usually while being hunted by zombies.

It’s also given me a chance to try things and visit places that I can incorporate into stories. ‘Take The Plunge,’ one of my favourite unpublished short stories, is set in New Zealand; I wrote the first draft while I was travelling around the country on a bus, inspired by their massive industry of extreme sports for tourists. Gregory Benford actually critiqued it for me, then I submitted it unsuccessfully to the major magazines, but I want to write a novelization of one of the throwaway ideas in the story before I self-publish it.

The earthquakes and rocket launches have also come in handy, for when I need to describe one.

11. It’s currently awards nomination time in the science fiction world, so what would be your pick for the best novel of 2013? And are there any other works, writer, artists or editors you believe deserve some Hugo recognition?

I’m probably not a good person to suggest anything, because I was so busy in my day job last year that I read very little SF released in 2013. I need to catch up this year!

12. Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers?

I’d like to say thanks to everyone who’s bought one of my books, and hopefully you found them interesting, or at least entertaining. There should be plenty more to come.

Thanks a lot for answering my questions, Edward.

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