INTERVIEW: Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (a.k.a. James A. Corey, Author of ‘Leviathan Wakes’)
James A. Corey is the moniker for authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Their first novel together, Leviathan Wakes, is due to be released in June, and is already receiving positive reviews. (Our review here) We were fortunate to get a couple of minutes to talk with Daniel and Ty about the book and writing:
SF Signal: We’re happy to speak with Author ‘James A. Corey‘ , a.k.a. Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. You guys have a pretty fun book here: where did this come from?
Ty Franck: The original idea came from an MMORPG pitch I worked on with another friend for a Chinese ISP that was looking to get into the game market. That project sort of died on the vine, but the original idea kept compelling me to do things with it. It went through a number of iterations before winding up a paper and dice RPG setting that Daniel and his wife played in for a while. Daniel is the one that prompted me to redesign it to work as a novel. And he volunteered to co-write it with me. That was nice of him.
Daniel Abraham: Once I saw the game Ty had worked up and played in it for a while, it was pretty clear to me that the setting and universe he’d gotten were made entirely of awesome with little sides of nifty. We were in the same writing group for a while before this, so I knew kind of where he was with that. And we figured we’d do it for a giggle, and maybe it’d sell somewhere. As its turned out, we’ve gotten a lot of buzz and critical attention, but this really did begin as a zero-expectations, “this would be fun” project.
SF Signal: Leviathan Wakes is a book that that covers quite a bit of ground: it feels like there’s a bit of everything in the book, from a sort of hard science fiction to classic space opera. Was this a deliberate move, to include so much?
Ty Franck: It’s surprising to me how little of it was deliberate. When we began, the project we agreed we were working on was space opera with a lot of sentimentality. But once we started, the Miller character just seemed to demand a sort of Noir voice that Daniel pulled off really well. And other elements in the book couldn’t be written without exploring social and political issues. And both Daniel and I are horror writers, so we couldn’t stop ourselves from sneaking a little horror into the mix.
Daniel Abraham: As we went along and saw what was happening, we did make a conscious decision to lean into it, though. By about halfway through, we were talking about how to get the kitchen sink in there. But what came out of if really was what the story seemed to call for.
SF Signal: Leviathan Wakes is the first part of a projected three book series titled the Expanse; Caliban’s War and Dandelion Sky listed as forthcoming. In the first book, we see some pretty exciting stuff: what’s coming up in the series?
Ty Franck: No spoilers, please. But in general, we will continue to explore the idea of humanity spreading out in a universe that is stranger and more hostile than they ever expected. At heat though, they will continue to be human stories, where the characters matter more than the setting.
Daniel Abraham: And one of the central arguments that the series makes is that the real problems that humanity finds as it reaches out into the universe are the ones it packed with it. The amazing thing about humanity in the real world it that we’ve made it to the moon and – through robotic surrogates – all through the solar system, and we did it with skills and predispositions that were formed by looking for food and sex in the Pleistocene.
SF Signal: In particular, I absolutely loved the future of this Solar System, with habitations all over the place. How did this come about, what was the process for writing this novel?
Ty Franck: Those are two very different questions, I think. The solar system came from a game setting I designed. The process of translating what was originally a game into a novel was more difficult. In the end though, I’ve done a lot of world-building, and I knew this solar system very well by the time we started writing. And Daniel has written a lot of novels, and knows pretty well what works in them and what doesn’t. Our Wonder Twin powers work fairly well.
Daniel Abraham: It’s a read treat for me to be sitting down in the middle of a scene, writing away, and be able to look up and say “Hey Ty. What do the access corridors on Eros Station look like?” and just have him know. That was great.
SF Signal: It seems like you guys have a lot of material to draw upon. If Leviathan Wakes and its sequels do well, do you foresee more stories?
Ty: Yes, we’ve deliberately set up the Expanse to contain a lot of stories. If Orbit wants more stories in the Expanse universe, there will be a lot more to tell.
Daniel: In a way, I feel like we’re just now getting our legs under us for the larger project of The Expanse. And yeah, as long as we’re doing the kind of work we can be proud of, I can see a lot of stories in this. The one we’re just finishing up now – Caliban’s War – has been really interesting, and I can already see how we’re reaching toward the third one.
SF Signal: Do you believe that this is a possible future for our solar system and the human race?
Ty Franck: Probably not. Economically it makes no sense at all. But lots of people are writing fiction that seems far more likely for humanity’s future, and while some of it is brilliant (we’re looking at you Windup Girl), I also find a lot of it fairly depressing. I wanted to write about the future I want to live in, not the one I think we will. That’s why it’s space opera.
Daniel Abraham: I want to see how the rare earth markets go before I make a final call, but I do expect that anything we do in the solar system will be largely automated. Humans are delicate, and firing them off into a vacuum with hard radiation burning around them to go try to find places to live despite magnetospheres and air being in short supply is hard on ‘em.
SF Signal: Space opera has a rich history, from stories like Asimov’s “Foundation” to Lucas’s Star Wars. In particular, I was reminded of the television series Firefly. What influenced you when writing this novel?
Ty Franck: I doubt that anyone writing character based space opera today isn’t going to get some Firefly comparisons. And Daniel and I are both big fans of that series. But my personal biggest influences are the movie Alien, and the classic novel The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester. Bester’s novel takes place in a solar system that is fully colonized. He doesn’t explain how it got that way, it just is. I wanted that same freedom. I’m not going to tell you why millions of people live on Europa, they just do. And Gully Foyle, the protagonist of that book has a lot in common with the crew of the Nostromo from Alien. They’re just truckers in space. Not sci fi superheroes with half a dozen Phd’s and an answer to every problem, but electricians and pipefitters and computer programmers. The kind of people who actually do the jobs on modern seagoing ships. And I wanted that same gritty, real-life feel that Alien delivers.
Daniel Abraham: I grew up on Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven and Harry Harrison, so all of those are etched in the back of my mind. Always will be. And yes, I’m a big Firefly fan. And Babylon 5. But The Expanse is also an odd duck. We absolutely wrote it to be a space opera, and I think we did it. But now that it’s done, I don’t actually know what it’s like, if that makes sense. I feel almost like we wrote our platonic ideal of a space opera. It’s made up entirely of familiar characters and places and situations, but I really can’t think of another book – or movie – that it’s the same as. I’m nor sure what to make of that.
SF Signal: One major element that surprised me in the world that you’ve set forth is an undercurrent of racism (and real biological differences) between the various societies throughout the solar system: Belters, Earthers, Martians, etc. Do you think this is something that we’ll take to the stars?
Ty Franck: How can we doubt it? Humans spent tens of thousands of years evolving into angry, tribalistic, xenophobic monkeys that wage war. I’m a huge fan of trying to socially evolve to the point where we aren’t that way anymore, but I don’t think it happens quickly if it ever happens at all. And while there’s room in fiction for a humanity that’s solved all of its own problems to tackle the stars (Star Trek), it’s not what I’m interested in. I like writing about a flawed humanity still struggling with its old problems while it faces the new problems space exploration will bring.
Daniel Abraham: What Ty said, and maybe even moreso. I think we’d be firing ourselves out into interstellar space, preparing ourselves for first contact scenarios that will reshape our concept of the universe and our place in it, and we’ll also be very aware of who gets to sit next to the pretty girl or the cool boy.
SF Signal: Leviathan Wakes features two main characters, Miller and Holden, who have two very different views on life: what did you hope to impart with a noir-ish cop and an optimistic space captain?
Ty Franck: That they’re fun to read about? Honestly, that’s priority number one. If we impart any viewpoint regarding their central disagreement, it’s that simple answers are almost never right.
Daniel: I liked that one of the central disagreements in the book is about the appropriate role of information. In retrospect, it looks like the book was debating Wikileaks, but that wasn’t even on our radar at the time. For me, one of the things that really works in the book is that we have these two characters and we get to see each of them try to make sense of the other. That kind of literary parallax makes for a much more nuanced set of characters. You get what one guy thinks about the world and his place in it, and then the other taking the same facts, but standing a couple feet to the right and seeing an entirely different – and still perfectly accurate – picture.
Ty Franck: Daniel has a theory regarding what information the writer’s name imparts to potential readers, and I found it convincing.
Daniel Abraham: A few years back, I was at Worldcon, and I listened to a panel with Walter Mosley. He told a story about being in a bookstore and seeing one of his science fiction books shelved in mystery. He took it to the information desk and explained that it was in the wrong section. The infodesk critter said “On no, that’s Walter Mosely. He writes mystery.” Mosely said “I’m Walter Mosely,” and he said he could see the guy thinking and you write mystery.
Authors names are brands for their writing, whether we like that or not. And I have had a lot of people tell me that they aren’t like that, that they’d follow a writer they like to any subject matter.
The evidence is that they’re in the minority. If that were true, more people would have read Stephen Donaldson’s Gap series. John Grisham’s baseball novel would have found its audience. Booksellers wouldn’t have said that Walter Jon Williams – one of the best writers in the field – is hard to sell because he’s written so many different things that no one knows what a “Walter Jon Williams” book is. Even George R.R. Martin. If anyone has a name to conjure with, you’d think it was George. But I co- wrote a novel – Hunter’s Run – with him, and the Song of Ice and Fire fans didn’t pick it up. I think the way you meet peoples expectations is tell them what they’re going to get with the name of the author. Richard Stark wrote straight-ahead crime thrillers, Donald Westlake wrote humorous ones. Daniel Abraham writes epic fantasy, James. S. A. Corey writes space opera, MLN Hanover writes urban fantasy. Walter Mosely writes mystery.
Now there are places you can play where that doesn’t happen. YA fiction, for instance, has a different dynamic. And as far as I can tell, no rules apply to Neil Gaiman.
SF Signal: What was your writing process like, between the two of you?
Ty Franck: We meet about once a week to talk about the next two chapters we’re working on. We work from a simple outline of the story, so each week we know, at a sort of single sentence level, what needs to happen in those chapters. We flesh that simple outline out, discussing the chapter at a scene by scene level, concentrating especially on those things that need to happen to make sure the subsequent chapters have sufficient foundation. Over the course of the week, we write the chapters we discussed. At the next meeting, we exchange our chapters and do a read and first pass edit of the other person’s work.
It’s generally that simple. We both want to write the same kind of story, so we almost never disagree on what to do next.
Daniel Abraham: I’ve done several collaborations with different folks, but working with Ty is the easiest one I’ve done. We’re interested in a lot of the same literary and aesthetic issues, and we’re both very good about letting the story be joint property.
SF Signal: Both of you come from strong fantasy backgrounds, (Abraham with the upcoming novel The Dragon’s Path and Franck as George R.R. Martin’s assistant), how did going from fantasy to science fiction work?
Ty Franck: The truth is, I have NO fantasy background. Working as George’s assistant makes me a fantasy writer about as much as it makes the office coffee-pot a fantasy writer. While George and I do discuss writing a fair bit, it’s generally theoretical. If we discuss something specific, it’s usually so that I can do some research for him. Things like, “how fast can an army march in this type of terrain,” sorts of questions. I do a lot more accounting for George than I deal with his fantasy worlds.
I’ve never actually written a fantasy story. Everything I’ve sold prior to this was either sci fi or horror. Truth be told, I don’t have much interest in writing fantasy. So a sci fi novel with a touch of horror was actually right up my alley.
Daniel Abraham: I’m only a fantasy writer in that my first series of books was fantasy. If you look at my short stories, I’ve been all over the place. But that said, there’s not a huge difference between writing a fast-paced story with engaging characters on a space ship or in Victorian London or on the borders of Elfland. The details change, but skill set’s pretty much the same. So in a way – and I don’t mean to be glib here – you’re asking me what it’s like, as someone who’s painted a lot of green things, to paint something red. It’s pretty similar.
SF Signal: Hm, I should rephrase that. What do you see the differences are between the two genres? Is there even a difference?
Ty: That’s actually a really good question. One of the early readers of Leviathan Wakes said that it was like epic fantasy in spaceships. He meant it as a compliment. And, honestly, I’d have a hard time arguing that point. We do make some effort to at least have the technology not be so laughably wrong that it throws the average reader out of the story. But we currently don’t have anything like a fusion drive that can maintain constant thrust over long distances. If you want to call that magic, I can’t really argue very hard.
To me, the biggest difference is in style. I’ve never written a fantasy story because there is a richness of descriptive detail that fantasy requires that I am not temperamentally inclined to. When I read a whole paragraph describing the queen’s dress, my eyes roll back in my head. And I am just not capable of writing in that style. Also, I am much more interested in ship to ship battles in orbit around Jupiter than I am in castle sieges. Even though both are pretty much fantasy at this point.
Daniel: I’m not as sure about that as Ty is. I’m slowly being won over to the idea that science fiction isn’t actually a genre, but something bigger that other genres can play in. Science fiction can win major literary awards now in a way that at least epic fantasy can’t. And I think science fiction accepts things like mystery and romance and police procedural in a way that epic fantasy doesn’t. I’m still thinking that one through, though.
SF Signal: Do you guys watch the current developments in space exploration? Do you have any thoughts on current events, such as NASA’s Kepler mission or the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program?
Ty Franck: Disappointment. I mostly feel disappointment. As a species, we are tragically myopic. Also, this is not the future I was promised in the sixties and seventies. Where’s my personal rocket pack, dammit!
Daniel Abraham: I’m more optimistic, in that I see NASA’s success stories. My daughter’s almost five, and she thinks the Mars rovers are fascinating. We’ve watched the NOVA program on that twenty or thirty times. And I love the Kepler mission. I don’t think we’re likely to send humans up much in the years to come, but there’s so much damn overhead keeping us monkeys alive, I think we can actually find out a lot more without. But I’m also the guy whose idea of a good vacation is sitting on his couch. I don’t really like travelling to a different city. The loss of travelling to a different world doesn’t hit me too hard.
SF Signal: Will you guys be watching the last space shuttle launch?
Ty: I follow all the latest space exploration and astronomy news with great interest. So, yes.
Daniel: I will, but more because I feel like it’s the end of one phase and the start of something new.
SF Signal: Finally, if there was one single message you hope that Leviathan Wakes readers get out of the book, what do you hope that it is?
Ty: Not to be flippant, but I just hope that it was a fun ride. That’s it. I don’t think anyone writes tales of lurid space adventure because they want to change the world. I hope only to entertain some people. But, if Holden and Miller had a message for the world, it would be, “Don’t fall for the simple answers.”
Daniel: Yeah, first and foremost, I’d like folks to skip a couple hours of TV because they’re having fun with the book.
SF Signal: Thank you so much for your time! Where can we find you on the internet? Anything else we should keep an eye out for?
Ty: www.the-expanse.com will get you to our joint website, where you can find all of the James Corey, Daniel Abraham, and MLN Hannover information.
Daniel: And keep leaning on Ty for that zombie novel.
Filed under: Interviews
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