Ferrett Steinmetz’s new book, Flex, hits bookstore shelves on March 3rd. But you probably already know his work from Apex Magazine, Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Giganotosaurus, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Shimmer, and anthologies such as Unidentified Funny Objects, and What Fates Impose.
Having met him in person, I can tell you that Ferrett is funny, authentic, passionate, and intensely interested in how we all relate to and interact with one another. I’ve had the pleasure of reading Flex, and I can tell you that this is not your standard urban fantasy. Yes, there is magic, and yes the stakes are through the roof. But, there are unexpectedly sympathetic characters, prices that might be higher than the stakes, and a six year old girl and her father in the center of it all. Ferrett was kind enough to answer my questions about what inspired Flex, if working parents can actually have it all, and what he would do if unlimited luck was on his side.
Andrea Johnson: What inspired your new novel, Flex?
Ferrett Steinmetz: One of the things I adore about the Internet is how it takes all of these complete lunatics and makes them beautiful. Which is to say that, on one level, that dude who spends six months and half his annual salary creating a gigantic pumpkin trebuchet has a screw loose somewhere . . . and not just in his fifty-foot tower of squash-hurling steel.
But that’s beauty. Yeah, the dude’s absolutely bonkers on one level, but my wife and I are enraptured by the Punkin’ Chunkin’ festival, where people spend inordinate amounts of cash to fling a pumpkin two miles across a field. And it’s the same thing when we see some girl in a fully-operational Transformers outfit, or some dude who’s spent a year of his life making a scale model of Minas Tirith that takes up his entire living room.
On one level, it’s probably unhealthy to pour all that effort into something. On the other hand, oh my God I could watch YouTube videos of Damien Walters and his absolutely bone-crushingly perfect parkour all day.
So I thought: What if you loved that stuff so much that the universe started to bend to your will?
I loved that idea, because then these sad crazy cat ladies would suddenly be sparking magic. You’d have videogamemancers and bureaucromancers and origamimancers and polkamancers. Which sounded like a hella fun novel to write. And I called them ‘mancers because I wanted to do an homage to the finest RPG ever created, Unknown Armies. And I thought up a magic system that felt real to me, because too many magic systems are just like “Whatever, dude, it just happens,” and I wanted to have a magic system that felt like work. Not that the magic wasn’t fun, but there had to be checks and balances built in or else things would feel silly. And I wanted these people to have real struggles, not just some glorified nerd power trip – because I’m sure that Damien Walters has crashed head-first into a lot of walls before he finally unlocked that one perfect parkour shot, and it would be a disservice to handwave that by just making magic an easy path to take.
Then I took the most straightlaced, paper-pushing bureaucrat you could think of, gave him magical powers, and concocted an excuse where he’d have to start dealing magical drugs to save his daughter. And I followed that idea to its inevitable conclusion.
AJ: What is your writing process like? How do you get from “this is a cool idea!” to writing the final page of a novel?
FS: The writing of Flex involved writing 20,000 words of the wrong story, replacing a villain entirely, and a heart attack that almost killed me.
This is, sadly, normal, barring the heart attack.
See, basically, I’m what they call a “gardener” writer – I spend about three weeks doing the worldbuilding to figure out what sort of world the characters live in, then I write a weird first sentence and see where it takes me. So I knew I had an evil magician brewing toxic drugs to cause poor schmucks to overdose in magical explosions, and an ex-cop who used to hunt mages but had since retired. In those initial drafts, Paul Tsabo was actually a hyper-ambitious cop who was crippled by a mage and seethed with jealousy that his political career had been prematurely ended.
That “washed-up coulda-been” character archetype hewed perilously close to Breaking Bad, and I knew it – but I had faith that I’d come up with something better along the way. And lo! I got to a scene about halfway through the book where Paul did an audacious act of magic that totally surprised me. (If you’ve read Flex, that scene’s right after the extradimensional buzzsect-demons are eating him alive.) It wasn’t the magic so much, but the fact that Paul was offended by the way the invading demons refused to play by the rules.
And I went, “Paul Tsabo isn’t an ambitious cop – he’s Radar O’Reilly with a spellbook! He is the kindest of paper-pushers, the quiet hero who everyone overlooks. And he does magic because he loves helping people, and he’s bad at helping people because he doesn’t understand them particularly well.” So having met my lead character 50,000 words into the first draft, I went and rewrote all of the opening scenes to make him the lovable stiff he is today.
Then I wrote another 20,000 words, and got to a scene where a decayomancer (yes, that’s a first-draft word) trapped Paul in an elevator and slowed his heart until Paul went into cardiac arrest.
One day later, I had a heart attack.
No, I’m not kidding. Sympathetic magic saturates the writing of this book.
So I underwent emergency triple-bypass surgery at the tender age of 44, and a couple of months later when I was able to write again and went back to Flex, I realized that I’d wandered off the path. The decayomancer wasn’t a bad idea, but my agent Evan Gregory – he’s a smart man – noted that my books had the tendency of bringing up all sorts of interesting philosophical questions in the first act that I didn’t answer in the second act. And I went, “Wow, I brought up all sorts of heavy questions about Paul’s responsibility to his daughter, and what kind of a man he is, and here’s Paul slugging it out miles away from his kid, with a villain who utterly doesn’t question his philosophy.”
The test of a true writer is looking two months’ worth of work in the face and being willing to delete it. I didn’t just murder my darlings – this was a war crime against my darlings, a bonfire of darlings, a Dresden bombing of darlings.
But what emerged was a plot that I could be proud of. This new villain made Paul a father again, trying to shield his daughter from all sorts of awful ramifications of his magic, questioning whether he could be a ‘mancer. The stakes kept rising. The magic kept getting weirder. And my barometer of how well a story is going for me is whether my weird-crap-o-meter is flying off the scale.
And that’s how I wrote Flex.
AJ: My favorite character in Flex was Valentine. She’s a full-bodied gamer-girl, with a brain full video game level and lore and an apartment full of take-out containers. How did you get the idea for Valentine to be the way she is?
FS: It’s no particular secret that I run in the kink scene . . . mainly because I blog about my adventures in polyamory a lot. And what I love about kink is that it’s so incredibly accepting of body types.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t groups who aren’t just as restrictive about what makes a “pretty” woman as mainstream culture… but in general, if you’re a woman, and you go to a kink event, and you wear it like you own it, people will totally buy your confidence. Older women, heavier women, skinny women – if you’re smart and clever and willing to say, “Yes, dammit, I am sexy, LOOK AT THIS,” you will generally find a bunch of people nodding in agreement and asking to be on your dance card.
Having met a lot of those women, what always struck me was the way they were never ashamed of anything they loved – kinky or not. Even when their hobbies were stuff that made me cringe personally, they had done a lot of work to finally come down on the side of “Look, society’s never going to get me, you may not get me, but this is what makes me happy and I have decided to pursue it.”
Enter Valentine. Her main obsession is, obviously, videogames – she’s focused on them enough to become a videogamemancer, and can now go Grand Theft Auto to wreak havoc on New York City. But she’s also into some pretty kinky stuff herself. And she doesn’t bother to hide that – in fact, she uses her aggressiveness as a screening process. She’s very confrontational, because if you’re going to be turned off by who she is, she’d rather know that right now, because she’s used to people leaving. But she’s not changing for you. She’s fat because she loves donuts and hates working out, she’s slovenly because she finds messes comforting… She knows what makes her happy.
And part of her journey is in finally finding someone who can actually keep up with her, even if Paul fundamentally doesn’t understand her.
AJ: The protagonist of Flex, Paul Tsabo, gets into the whole mess because he wants to save his daughter. Flex is a crazy fun book to read, but there is also a strong message of the importance of being a good parent. Why was it important to you that your protagonist be a parent, and to have parenthood be a big part of the book?
FS: A long time ago, someone asked on a panel, “Are there any good fantasy stories where the heroes are parents? Not just parents who leave their kids at home, but adventurers who have to balance toppling the Evil Empire with attending their kid’s sixth birthday?”
The collective answer was “Not that we can think of.” And I thought that said something sad about how fantasy thought of parenting. Basically, becoming a parent signaled the end of the adventure. Once you had a kid, stick a fork in you, you’re done. So I really wanted a story where the father had to find a way to balance out this amazing thing he’s discovered – this fascinating, deadly, and largely unknown magic he can do – with the responsibility of still having to ensure his kid gets the right bedtime stories read to her at night.
And I wanted that to be a father/daughter story, because the compassionate fatherhood is often overlooked in fantasy. You have a lot of stories where the dad teaches his sons how to Be A Man, but you don’t have a lot of fathers who take joy in all the weird things their kids devise. Kids are like their own crazy movie, if you watch them. They do so many wild things. And I wanted a man who cherished his daughter’s individuality, even when it inconvenienced him.
In a very real sense, Flex is that question that men hardly ever get asked – “Can Paul Tsabo have it all?” But when you’re brewing magical drugs and calling down bad luck from the heavens, it is valid whether you can be a decent parent.
AJ: Without giving us any spoilers, can you tell us your favorite scene in the book?
FS: There are a lot of great magical battles, but for me, my favorite moment is the one right after where Valentine and Paul cast a spell together. That’s actually a pretty big deal for ‘mancers in this universe – remember, magic wells out of obsession, so teaming up with another ‘mancer who believes the universe should work an entirely different way usually leads to battles to the death. Paul’s a bureaucromancer, all regulations and responsibility, and Valentine’s a videogamemancer who uses videogames as an escape valve, so they teaming up does not come easily.
But Paul and Valentine manage it. And afterwards, as they’re sorting their feelings out about this, there’s a lovely scene that tells you precisely who each of them are.
AJ: Flex (the drug) allows a person to create incredible coincidences, and basically be ridiculously lucky. The universe hates free lunches, so there are horrible consequences of course, but just for argument’s sake let’s say you could take Flex consequence-free. What would you do if you knew luck was on your side and nothing could go wrong?
FS: I would snort up a big dose, sit in front of my keyboard, and think, “I want to write the perfect story.” (I think a novel would be a bit greedy for a dose of Flex.) And I would start slapping my fingers randomly on the keys, and the story of a generation would come flowing out, and I would send it to the biggest magazine that would publish it, and it would become an all-time classic. It would become a touchstone in pop culture, this story; they’d make movies out of it. People would weep.
And they’d turn to me, this absolutely genius writer, and… I’d be out. I’d have no more Flex to take. I’d write what I had, of course, but they’d stare at me with disappointed eyes, the reviewers going, “Well, that was a nice story, but … he’s never going to do that again.”
And I’d wonder if I had done it again. Yes, I took the drug, yes technically I wrote it, but did that story really come from me? Was I some kind of plagiarist, a typing monkey for the universe, allowing some greater beauty to pour through me and selfishly taking the credit? People would love me for something I wasn’t, and that hollowness would erode me from the inside out.
I’d become afraid to write. Every story after that would simply prove to people that I was a one-hit wonder, a fraud, a charlatan. Eventually, in despair, I’d give up writing, lock myself in a room, coast on past glory for a thing I’d never written, and probably eat a gun.
Maybe it’s better if I didn’t have Flex.
Or maybe I should just try to whip up that double date with Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone I’ve been angling for.
AJ: Who are some of your favorite writers? What is it about their writing style that makes their books so attractive?
FS: Well, obviously Valentine DiGriz is a direct nod to The Stainless Steel Rat series by Harry Harrison – I adored his ability to come up with capers, and his amazing voice. But basically, I’m always attracted to one of two things in fiction: absolutely weird crap, or friendships aborning.
So if we’re talking watching people fall desperately in like with each other, I’m a huge fan of David Eddings’ The Belgariad, Spider Robinson’s Callahan series, Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin series, Frank Baum’s Oz series, and the King of Unlikely Fantasies, Watership Down. All of those feature unlikely allies having a common goal and then finding much to their surprise exactly how fond of each other they are. I really want people to feel friendships forming here.
If we’re talking absolutely weird stuff, though, then we get into thought experiments like China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, Peter Watts’ Blindsight, Jo Walton’s The Just City – basically, where people take a single concept and ride it all the way down. And I adore finding novels where there’s nothing I can be familiar with, it’s just this welter of awesome stuff happening, and I can either keep up with it or drown.
So either newness or buddy comedies. That’s what gets me. Call me shallow.
AJ: Thanks Ferrett!