Interview with Steven Brust and Skyler White, Co-Authors of THE INCREMENTALISTS

Steven Brust is the author of Dragon, Issola, the New York Times bestsellers Dzur and Tiassa, and many other fantasy novels. He lives in Minneapolis. Skyler White is the author of And Falling, Fly and In Dreams Begin. She lives in Texas.

Together, they are the co-authors of The Incrementalists. Both were kind enough to answer questions about their collaboration.


Paul Weimer: Let’s begin by asking who you (two) are?

Skyler White: Steve’s a brilliant fantasy writer of long-standing with twenty-something books under his belt (cumbersome, but worth it), all of them still in print. He’s a drummer and a Hungarian, an inveterate story and joke-teller, a dab hand at poker, and able to wear black leather hats in the Texas summer.

Steven Brust: Skyler is a dancer. She dances through the kitchen when cooking, through life with her husband and two fantastic children, she dances with ideas, and she dances with words. Sometimes she choreographs them, but mostly she has an instinct for where the music is leading her. The Incrementalists is the third setting for her Dance of the Novels.

PW: What’s the elevator pitch for The Incrementalists? (Which my auto-correct wants to change to “The Instrumentalists”, but I think its out of tune.)

Skyler: The Incrementalists cheat death, share lives and memories, and communicate with one another across nations, races, and time. They have an epic history, an almost magical memory, and a very modest mission: to make the world better, just a little bit at a time. Their ongoing argument about how is older than most of their individual memories.

Phil, whose personality has stayed stable through more incarnations than anyone else’s, has loved Celeste — and argued with her — for most of the last four hundred years. But Celeste, recently dead, embittered, and very unstable, has changed the rules — not incrementally, and not for the better. Now the heart of the group must gather in Las Vegas to save the Incrementalists, and maybe the world.

Steven: A secret society of immortals is dedicated to making the world better just a little bit at a time. What happens when one of these expert manipulators turns her skills to manipulating the rest of them for her own ends? And what if she cannot be stopped, because she is already dead?

Paul: How did the two of you exploring this idea, together, come about? What are the roots of the ideas behind The Incrementalists?

Steven: It came about because we can both talk about process forever — by which I mean, writing process. What works, what doesn’t, why, what are the exceptions, and, above all, where does the fun live? Eventually, one of these conversations turned into, “You know what would be fun? Tappan King mentioned this really cool idea a while ago. Maybe we should…”

Skyler: Yeah, Tappan had this beautiful, optimistic conception that the world is wildly less screwed up than it should be, and postulated a secret society at work behind the scenes gently keeping things from the precipices’ edge. We took that idea, the Werner Hertzog movie Cave of Forbidden Dreams, added some whiskey, and stirred liberally.

Paul: How did the writing of a book together work? What were the logistics behind doing a collaboration?

Steven: Mostly, we would email each other the next section. There were a few times when we’d open up a chat window and run some dialog in-character for a while.

Skyler: And we talked about it incessantly whenever we were together, in Minneapolis for Fourth Street or Austin for Armadillo Con.

Paul: Given that this was a collaboration, based on Tappan’s idea, what surprises and unexpected evolutions in the concept and characters occurred for the two of you in the writing of The Incrementalists? What’s your favorite happy surprise?

Steven: Um. Yeah. There is no way to even begin. Surprises were what carried the project through. Every new scene was a surprise. Every plot twist was something I hadn’t expected. Every discovery of the abilities, limitations, or history of the group was something I hadn’t been looking for until it happened, either in the writing, or in conversation.

There were maybe a couple of times when the story went in a direction one or the other of us didn’t like, so we had to kick it around and take another run at it; the rest of the surprises were all happy ones. The surprises of history, background, and the nature of the group, are what we mostly talked about, and that’s kind of interesting. Here’s how it generally worked as I remember it:

One of us would introduce something that changed, developed, expanded, or restricted something fundamental about how the Incrementalists work. That person might or might not realize how significant it is. Then the other would point out that it was a change, generally followed with, “And I really like it.” Then the first would say something like, “Okay, let’s see if we can break it.” Then we’d work together to see if it held up, and what new changes or developments it would trigger.

As for happy surprises in particular, the thing is, the way Skyler writes, I’m still finding them. I think it was, like, a month ago I wrote her an email that went something like, “I just realized that when Ren says THIS, it’s a callback to THAT. That’s really cool!”

Skyler: When I’m writing alone, I try not to re-read the previous day’s scene beyond a cursory re-acclimating skim. I can’t resist noodling and tweaking, and editing is easier than writing new words, so I have to work not to get sucked in. But I read the scenes Steve sends very carefully, looking for nuances or clues that might suggest where to go next. So, although we typically alternate scenes — he writes one, I write the next, etc. — they end up feeling more tightly connected, one to the other, than even the scenes I write for my solo projects in the same sitting. At the same time, although each event comes entirely from what precedes it, somehow, I almost never see it coming. That’s always exciting, and occasionally it’s made me stand up and yell.

Paul: How did the writing of the Incrementalists make you a better writer? What did you take away from its creation?

Skyler: I’d say the biggest thing was learning how to care shift. I have a long-standing habit of lavishing a great deal of thought and love on the planning stages of writing. It’s part preparation, part procrastination. But Steve just dove into the story and started sending me pages and I had to run to keep up. It worried me, but I found we shifted much of the detail and refining work I used to do beforehand into post-first-draft editing, which was better in a lot of ways, or at least more efficient. I’d always been a little dubious of writers who worked quickly, but it turns out it’s not careless, the care just distributes differently — you polish more than plan — and it gives you a different kind of freedom.

Steven: Why, nothing can make me a better writer, on account of, you know, I’m perfect. Um. Okay, maybe not. Mostly what I took away is how much damned fun it is to write with Skyler. As to what I actually learned, I don’t think I’m going to be able to answer that for another year or so, until it settles in, and I hear myself saying something that came out of that experience.

Paul: What’s next for the two of you, writing wise? And where can people find you in both in Verite and in Virtu?

Skyler: I have a self-published erotic novella coming out sometime this fall, but one of the beauties (and tragedies) of cowboying off on one’s own with publication is that the go-live date is entirely under my control or lack thereof.

I’m at SkylerWhite.com and Incrementalistsbook.com and Steve and I are doing a bit of book tour this fall! We’ll be Murder by the Book in Houston on September 26, Alamosa Books in Albuqueque on October first, Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego on October 11 and Borderland Books on October 12. Additionally Steve will be reading and signing at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill on October 2 , and at Pandemonium Books on October 20. Also, he and I and our Tor editors, Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden will all be at FenCon in Dallas October 4-6. Finally, the night of October sixth, we’re hosting a party at Book People in Austin where we’ll also read and sign and possibly drink too much.

Steven: My homepage and blog are: dreamcafe.com. I’m @StevenBrust on Twitter, and something like that on Facebook except I never read it.

My next novel, Hawk, should be out from Tor in a year or so, and I’m working on the next Incrementalist novel with Skyler, and another book with Will Shetterly.

Paul: Thank you both!