SFFWRTCHT: A Chat With Ian Tregillis, Author of the MILKWEED Triptych
Ian Tregillis spends his days fighting crime, chemistry, and nuclear substances at Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico. At night, he comes home glowing to near Santa Fe and a house distinguished by the pile of used cutlery out back. He writes alternate history and superhero stories. His alternate history fantasy series, the Milkweed Triptych from Tor Books includes Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War and Necessary Evil. The series is published in the UK by Orbit Books as well. His short stories have appeared on Tor.com, in Apex Magazine and Wild Cards: Inside Straight. He’s also a member of the Wild Cards collective and Critical Mass Workshop with lightweights like Daniel Abraham, Melinda Snodgrass, George R.R. Martin, Walter Jon Williams and more. You can read some of his stories online. He can be found on Twitter (as @ITregillis) and via his website at IanTregillis.com.
SFFWRTCHT: First things first, where’d your interest in speculative fiction come from?
IAN TREGILLIS: It started at age five, first day of kindergarten. My mom set me down in front of the TV- Doctor Who. I was never the same. I already had an interest in space at that age. But a time machine that’s bigger on the inside than the outside?!? Mind blown. I still remember the episode: it was “The Ark In Space, part 2.” It also had somebody turning into some kind of monster?
IAN: My dad bought me an HG Wells anthology when I was just a few years older. I’ve read most of him, and some Verne, too! I have so many favorite authors, including Tim Powers, Roger Zelazny, Ursula LeGuin, Peter S. Beagle…I love Zelazny’s style and wordplay. (Lord of Light blew my mind.) I love Powers’s narrative authority with regard to magic.
SFFWRTCHT: When did you decide to become a storyteller and how did you get your start?
IAN: Like most writers I started trying to write stories at a very young age. I didn’t start seriously until after grad school, though. I waited until after I moved 1,000 miles from friends and family to start pursuing it regularly.
IAN: To learn craft I first made a beeline for the Online Writing Workshop. It turned out to be a good decision. After workshopping online for a couple of years, I applied to the Clarion workshop (back when it was in Michigan). It changed my life. And of course lots of trial and error! I’ve learned a lot from my mistakes. And critiquing great writers is excellent practice. I also try to study everything I read (and watch): what’s working, what isn’t, how can I do that, how would I fix it? Etc.
SFFWRTCHT: Did you start with shorts stories or novels? When was your first pro-sale?
IAN: I started with short stories because that’s what we’re told we should start with. And Clarion is geared for that. I’m glad I did. You can learn a lot of the basics relatively quickly when each project is short and doesn’t require a year of work! But coming up with short stories is tough for me (plotting takes time for me). So I switched to novels just to have longer pieces on which to practice my craft. My first pro sale was to George R.R. Martin, I believe, in a Wild Cards anthology.
SFFWRTCHT: Bitter Seeds is an awesome read, one of my favorites so far this year. Raybould Marsh is a secret British agent at the cusp of WWII investigating a special Nazi group of agents who use incredible, magic-like powers in their work to further the Third Reich. These include an invisible woman, a man who can walk through walls, a fire thrower, and a woman who’s able to predict the future. Where’d the idea for that series come from?
IAN: The idea came from two places:
- Project Habakkuk, an attempt to build ships out of ice. That got me imagining a strange Axis spy with unusual powers sent to sabotage icy shipyard.
- Minority Report, the Tom Cruise movie. It features precognition, and there are some cool things in there. But later I realized that a really good precog wouldn’t be thirty seconds ahead of the rest. She’d be thirty years ahead of everybody…
SFFWRTCHT: Yeah and Gretel is so smug about it, just relaxed through the most dramatic moments, because she knows .Tell us a bit about Raybould Marsh, your hero. He’s a man who’s haunted and conflicted throughout.
IAN: I came up with Marsh because I wanted to have a “regular man” faced with the task of fighting superheroes. Obviously others have done that, too, but I love that idea. How do you combat somebody who can kill you with a thought? — You have to be really clever. Also a little bit lucky! And I didn’t want him to be a square-jawed perfect hero.
IAN: I ended up using WWII because it just happened to be the setting for a short story that I wanted to write.
SFFWRTCHT: And then there’s Doctor von Westarp and his minions, particularly Gretel and her brother Klaus. Who are they?
IAN: Dr. von Westarp is actually based on a real historical character, Dr. Jorg Lanz von Liebenfels. A real wack job, that guy. From his occult crackpot fanzine, I lifted the notion of the “Gotterelektron” which powers the German supers’ feats. Klaus and Gretel were orphans in the aftermath of WWI. Just regular kids…mostly. Well, Gretel’s not quite normal.
SFFWRTCHT: No, she’s a precog and he has special abilities of his own, heh. And they are the primary antagonists for Marsh at least.
IAN: Gretel just happens to be a sociopath who gets embroiled in Dr vW’s human experimentation program…They do develop some unusual abilities! But only after years of Mad Science Brain Surgery.
SFFWRTCHT: Obviously this required historical research to pull off. How much of that did you do before writing or during?
IAN: My plan was to do all the research first, then start writing. In reality, I was doing research alongside the writing. Timing just turned out that way, when suddenly I had a deadline to finish the first book! The research was hard. I’m not a historian by training, so I did the best I could, though I’d never claim to be an expert on the subject matter.
SFFWRTCHT: Outliner or pantser? Did you devise the story and plot and then fit it into the history or vice versa?
IAN: I’m a fervent outliner. I had the entire trilogy outlined first– especially because of Gretel. Her precognition meant it was possible to play games where she does long-range foreshadowing across books. But it required lots of planning.
IAN: I’d definitely recommend just accepting that research will be a huge part of the project. Every page required looking things up. Making it up as I went along wouldn’t have held together. Or would hold together even worse! I knew just enough WWII to get the first draft of the outline down. The real research was in the details of daily life.
SFFWRTCHT: With that much research, how long did the novels take to write?
IAN: I’m not a lightning fast writer, so between the full-time day job and the research, it was more or less one year per book.
SFFWRTCHT: What are some of the challenges to doing historical research and how did you approach it?
IAN: Dates and things are easy. The tough thing is knowing how people thought, and spoke, and lived each day. I ended up with a full bookshelf for research materials by the time I was done with the Milkweed Triptych.
SFFWRTCHT: Indeed. So you have to dig in deep to not just historical time line by socioeconomic and psychological history?
IAN: It helps to read from people who were alive in your setting. Or to read from the period to get the vernacular. It was a discovery for me when I realized regular history books wouldn’t be enough. Luckily for me the WWII era is pretty heavily documented in almost every single facet. I also watched many documentaries, etc. Oh, and the BBC People’s War archive was invaluable.
SFFWRTCHT: Obviously you made some changes to history, but how do you decide what to change, juggling fiction with truth?
IAN: I started with the story that I wanted to tell, and then reverse-engineered the necessary changes to history. Though it was an interative process, because I still wanted a setting that was recognizable if different. In the end I tried to come down on the side of telling an entertaining story. So when I had to choose I violated history as necessary. I hope that people who know the real history will see where I made the changes but go with them for the sake of fun!
IAN: Not as much pushback as I expected. It’s more on the trickier research stuff, because as an American writing about Brits in 1940 it was very difficult to get the vernacular and tone correct.
SFFWRTCHT: Despite its subject matter and some very dark moments, the books have a sense of hope. Is there a message you had in mind?
IAN: No, I didn’t actually have a particular message in mind while writing these books. I just wanted to tell a story that had a definite beginning, middle, and end. Dunno if I succeeded, but that was the goal…
SFFWRTCHT: I have to ask this since Doctor Who was formative for you–if you were asked to write a DW novel, which Doctor?
IAN: Which Doctor? Easy! Number four, Tom Baker. He’s my doctor. They’re all great, but he’s my first, so to speak…
SFFWRTCHT: How does your writing process differ between short stories and novels or does it?
IAN: I think my process is somewhat similar for ss and novels. I obsess over the outline first and foremost.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any writing rituals or tools? Scrivener? Word? Do you write to music or does silence reign?
IAN: My ritual is to first unplug the internet connection before I sit down to write. I do like music, but not always. I’ve recently started playing with Scrivener, but haven’t mastered it yet. I have a physical corkboard in my office and I plot things out on index cards. I find it really works well for me. I learned the index card method from Melinda Snodgrass. Prior to that my method was to do a stream-of-consciousness outline in MS Word. Her method is far better for me! Her method is to put each “beat” (a scene, a chapter, an act, a line of dialogue, whatever) on a card. Keep jotting ideas on cards and then, as they pile up, you arrange them into some semblance of order. Rinse, repeat. After a while you have an outline!
IAN: Best advice: “Just because you spent a lot of time on something doesn’t mean you’re bad at it.” – from Chuck Finlay. Worst advice: “You can’t write a book with blood magic and science-based superheroes in the same story.” – name withheld.
SFFWRTCHT: Tell us a bit about your Wild Card character and the collaborative process there
IAN: I’ve written for four Wild Card books so far. I had to pitch many, many character ideas to GRRM before I got one he liked. Took me a while to get the hang of Wild Cards. But now I have several characters in the “canon” including Rustbelt (who is made of iron and can rust things), Genetrix (who lays eggs that hatch into shortlived homunculi), and Tesseract, who can open trans-dimensional shortcuts. Wild Cards requires a huge amount of collaboration between writers. It’s a lot of work, especially in the full mosaic novels.
SFFWRTCHT: And I know it’s based on GRRM’s RPG but how do you guys collaborate? Each write your character? Trade off?
IAN: Every character in the canon is property of the group, so in theory, anybody can write any character. However, the creator of a character always gets to review and OK a scene containing his/her character when written by somebody else. So we end up writing our stories, then sending them to all the other writers whose characters we’ve used plus GRRM and Melinda Snodgrass.
SFFWRTCHT: Ah, that’s nice then. Good respect and cooperation. What is Critical Mass and how’d you become involved in it?
IAN: Critical Mass is a long-lived face-to-face writing critique group (one of several) in northern New Mexico. I joined CM immediately after Clarion, because one of my instructors, Walter Jon Williams, is a longtime New Mexican. It’s via CM that I met Melinda, GRRM, Daniel Abraham, and many others. It was a very intimidating group to join as a freshly-hatched peep just out of Clarion without a sale to my name! But it’s also a really, really great group of people. I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to be a part of it.
SFFWRTCHT: But you spend your days playing with Atomic radiation so piece of cake, right?
IAN: Fighting radioactive mutants and aliens is easy compared to having GRRM tell you he really hates your character idea.
SFFWRTCHT: And how do you guys manage critiques? I know you point out a lot of people who read your books. Is there a queue/schedule?
IT: It’s “pay to play”. In order to come to the meeting, you have to turn in something of your own. That keeps the group professional and weeds out the folks who aren’t serious. When I first joined CM, the monthly reading load was 300+ pages. Sometimes up to 500 pages. CM had a “free pass”, so if you subbed one month you could take the next month off. Otherwise we’d have been buried!
SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on?
IAN: My fourth novel, Something More Than Night, comes out in December from Tor Books. It’s a noir-inspired mystery in heaven. And I’m writing another fantasy alt-history for Orbit Books right now, tentatively titled Clakkers. Clockpunk with magic!
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