Peter Watts is a science fiction writer and a marine-mammal biologist. He is the author of the Rifters trilogy (Starfish, Maelstrom, and Behemoth) as well as Blindsight, The Island and Other Stories, and Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes. He has received the Aurora, Hugo, and Shirley Jackson Awards. Watts lives Toronto.
BEYOND THE RIFT is Peter’s newest collection of stories, and he was kind enough to answer a few of my questions!
Kristin Centorcelli: Will you tell us a bit about your new SF collection, Beyond the Rift?
Peter Watts: It’s essentially an exercise in catching up. My last English-language collection came out way back in 2000. There’s some overlap with that earlier release — BtR is basically a career-spanning greatest-hits package — but most of its stories were at least written this century.
I still like most of them. I’m at least okay with a few. There’s only one I really cringe to read: a clunky overwrought piece of neuro-chicklit stapled together at the very dawn of my career, while under the influence of someone who later became a new-age relationship counselor. I’m not quite sure why Jacob decided to exhume that particular tale for the current collection. Perhaps to teach me humility.
PW: God no. None of them were. The only original material is the Afterword: a 4,500-word essay that explores the roots of my sunny idealism and certain elements of the, ahem, US justice system. I’ll admit there was a certain catharsis in writing that. With a little luck it might even shut down a few of those malcontents who keep mischaracterizing me as an unrelenting pessimist.
KC: You have a science background, and are known for your Rifters trilogy, and more. Had you always hoped to be a novelist? Will you tell us what inspired you to dive into writing fiction?
PW: The trigger that I consciously remember was Walt Disney’s audio adaptation of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. I heard it on the radio one morning when I was seven or eight, and I immediately scribbled what I could remember across three pages of foolscap. My parents didn’t exactly encourage me, but at least they didn’t call me out for my obvious plagiarism. At which point I must have figured that here was something I could get away with.
I didn’t really immerse myself in writing, though, until after I’d fled academia in the mid-nineties, sick to death of biostitutes more interested in following the money than the data. (Hey, can’t blame the collapse of the sea-lion population on the fishing industry— those guys pay our salary. Let’s look at the sexually-transmitted disease angle instead…) At which point I had no job. And I’d pretty much run out of degrees to get. Writing was the only thing left.
KC: Undoubtedly, you’ve influenced other writers with your work, and have even been named as an influence on the game Bioshock 2, but what, or who, are some of the biggest influences on your writing?
PW: I’m going to define “influence” in the narrow sense of “Who did you want to write like, back when you were trying to develop your own style?” Which means, inevitably, that we’re talking about people older and deader than many of those I read today. This does not mean that I’m not equally in awe of less-venerable authors; it’s just that by the time I encountered (for example) China Miéville or Dave Nickle, my own authorial voice had already gelled. So I’m talking exclusively about those who shaped me then, not those who inspire me now.
John Brunner, first and foremost. Rigorously-researched science fiction and realpolitick; I’d never encountered it before (of course I was only thirteen when I read Stand on Zanzibar, so I hadn’t been around much). Robert Silverberg and Samuel Delany and Ray Bradbury, for their prose. Margaret Atwood’s non-SF stuff (yeah, I know, she doesn’t write any other kind), for prose and character. Niven for his aliens. Bester, for the idea density in The Stars My Destination. James Tiptree Jr, for perhaps the best short story ever rooted in speculative biology. Stephen King, for making me absolutely loathe a character for two hundred pages, only to hit me with one passage that filled my heart with sudden overwhelming sympathy for the same person. (Not that I’ve ever been able to pull that off myself, of course, but it’s wonderful to see it done in the hands of someone who knows what he’s doing.) And — just as I was starting to get a handle on how my voice might start taking shape — William fucking Gibson, for coming along and doing it so much better, and forcing me to start all over again.
Note all the giants I didn’t mention: Le Guin, Ellison, Willis, Herbert. The Killer Bs and the Holy Trinity of the Golden Age. I love reading their stuff too. I just never wanted to write like them; the style didn’t fit.
KC: Will you tell us a little about your writing process?
PW: Something gives me an idea: Hey, if that’s true, then what would happen if…? (Or sometimes: what utter bullshit. If that were true, then…)
I sketch out a plan to embed that question in a story. There follows a variable period spent writing and cursing, from which emerges a product that looks like a half-assed Rubik’s Cube badly wrapped in pages taped together from a paperback novel. Then I go running, to give my subconscious time to crunch the numbers and serve up a fix. If that doesn’t work I go drinking with friends or take a shower with my wife, and use them as sounding boards to whinge about all the parts that won’t fit. I listen for ideas to steal, rewrite until the wrapping looks prettier and put it away, vaguely unsatisfied but resigned.
Three days before deadline I wake up in the middle of the night with a whole new angle fully-formed in my head. I throw out most of what I’ve done prior and start from scratch; I am frequently unaware of the passage of time at this point, even though time is now most pressing.
I hand it in.
The whole process generally consumes 30-60 hours for a short story. With novels you can stretch that out over a year or more, and bolt a detailed outline onto the front end (20-40 single-spaced pages — Cory Doctorow once described them as “not so much outlines as novels without dialog”). Then, at the two-thirds mark, insert the sudden realization that some element I hadn’t considered in the outline totally destroys the plot logic of everything I’ve written, which forces me to go back, throw away the outline, and write by the seat of my pants after all.
I go through a lot of pants.
KC: What do you enjoy most about writing, and reading, SF?
PW: When writing, it has to be sugar-coating the pill: figuring out how to build the puzzle, hide the experiment inside a narrative that readers can enjoy on its own terms (not that I always succeed, of course, but that just makes it all the more satisfying when I do).
When reading, I’m no different from most folks; I just want to find out what happens next. I’m actually not that good at solving the kind of puzzles I build; I just want to engage on a gut level.
There’s probably a lesson for me in there somewhere, if I could only figure out what it is.
KC: What are you reading now?
PW: I’ve just finished Richard Morgan’s Black Man (and am barely restraining myself from ditching these interview questions to email the man about it). Next up is Jo Walton’s upcoming My Real Children (I got an ARC) and Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. I am woefully behind the curve when it comes to genre reading; hell, I just finished Man in the High Castle a few months ago, and that came out in 1962.
It’s one of the things I hate most about life as a writer; somehow I never seem to read any more, at least not for pleasure. You hear all these good things about American Gods; Revelation Space has been on the pile for fucking ages. But every time you start eyeing the bookshelf some little voice starts whispering in your ear: you haven’t blogged all week. Have you checked the Science feeds today? What about that paper in the Swedish Journal of Lachrymal-Gland Secretions? Better post, better check or you’ll fall behind and your science fiction won’t be all cutting edge any more, and people will laugh at you and turn away…
So I end up reading a lot of technical stuff instead. But I really don’t enjoy it.
KC: When you’re not working on your next project, how do you like to spend your free time?
PW: Free time? Free time? Haven’t you been listening?
I used to scuba dive, but haven’t for years. I game; not nearly as much as I’d like to, because I like to game so much. If I let myself off the leash with more than one or two titles per year I’d just disappear into Skyrim and never come out again. I run and lift weights, but I don’t much like doing that; I’m just trying to keep from getting fat. (Also, more often than not I’m listening to some science podcast or other in a desperate rearguard attempt to stay current, so that really counts as research more than free time.)
We have five cats (more if you count the strays). Also a cyclopean rabbit, a Russian dwarf hamster, a house mouse, a dozen fish (including a Plecostomus the size of a thresher shark), and a gang of tough raccoons who shake us down for kibble every night on the front porch. So I spend a lot of time cleaning shit off of things.
KC: What’s next for you?
PW: My next novel (Echopraxia, kind of a sidequel to Blindsight) is coming out next August. I’m just finishing the final rewrite on that now. After that there are three or four possibilities— ranging from art projects to video games—circling around just out of reach. Whether any of them actually touch down long enough for me to sink my teeth into remains an open question. But if nothing else distracts me, I hope to finally start in on Intelligent Design, which would be my stab at a near-future technothriller involving a vengeful lobster, a sapient stock market, and genetically-engineered giant squid.
Actually, now that I spell it out that looks like the kind of thing Charlie Stross might write. Hopefully that’s just a coincidence.