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Paolo Bacigalupi Looks Back on THE WINDUP Girl and Discusses His New Novel THE WATER KNIFE

JT Thomas Photography

JT Thomas Photography

Paolo Bacigalupi’s writing has appeared in WIRED Magazine, High Country News,, OnEarth Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. His short fiction been anthologized in various “Year’s Best” collections of short science fiction and fantasy, nominated for three Nebula Awards, four Hugo Awards, and won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best science fiction short story of the year. His short story collection PUMP SIX AND OTHER STORIES was a 2008 Locus Award winner for Best Collection and also named a Best Book of the Year by Publishers Weekly.

His debut novel THE WINDUP GIRL was named by TIME Magazine as one of the ten best novels of 2009, and also won the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Compton Crook, and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards. Internationally, it has won the Seiun Award (Japan), The Ignotus Award (Spain), The Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis (Germany), and the Prix Planète-SF des Blogueurs (France).

His debut young adult novel, SHIP BREAKER, was a Micheal L. Printz Award Winner, and a National Book Award Finalist, and its sequel, THE DROWNED CITIES, was a 2012 Kirkus Reviews Best of YA Book, A 2012 VOYA Perfect Ten Book, and 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist.

He has also written ZOMBIE BASEBALL BEATDOWN for middle-grade children, about zombies, baseball, and, of all things, meatpacking plants. Another novel for teens, THE DOUBT FACTORY, a contemporary thriller about public relations and the product defense industry was a both an Edgar Award and Locus Award Finalist.

His latest novel for adults THE WATER KNIFE, a near-future thriller about climate change and drought in the southwestern United States.

He currently lives in Western Colorado with his wife and son, where he is working on a new novel.

Andrew Liptak: Hi Paolo, thanks for taking the time to chat with me. With The Windup Girl now several years out of the gate, what’s it like to look back on it?

Paolo Bacigalupi: It’s still a little unreal. Mostly good, but still sort of hard to grasp. If you grow up imagining being an author, or imagine winning awards like the Hugo and or Nebula, or even just imagining having a book on the shelves at the local bookstore… those things are so remote and impossible that actually having them happen…  it feels a bit like it happened to someone else. After all, you’re still the same person you were before, still trying to write the next words, find the next story… and yet there’s this other guy who apparently wrote a book that really resonated for people. It’s sort of a double vision experience. You’re grateful for the changes in your life, but they never really sink in, I don’t think.

AL: The Windup Girl covers some fairly dark material: the climate has changed, humans are terrible to one another and major businesses are generally wrecking things for everyone. Do you see The Windup Girl as a reflection of the time that the book was written? Do you think we’ve gotten any better since then?

PB: I guess for me, I feel like you’ve just described our contemporary environment, not a science fictional future.  Carbon companies really are wrecking the climate and the future for everyone. Major banks defraud shareholders and investors every day. Corporations across the spectrum from chemical companies to petroleum companies to agricultural companies constantly lobby and succeed at reducing the amount of oversight and regulatory control we citizens have over their profit schemes.  These are big, systemic issues that we refuse to grapple with seriously. So no, I don’t think we’ve gotten better. We keep bumping along, hoping for the best possible future, but we’re not doing much to earn it. I think to the extent that people think we have a rosy future ahead of us is the extent to which people aren’t really paying attention.

AL: Do you think we’re capable of any sort of substantive, systematic change that will help us? Or are we doomed?

PB: We’ve gone through massive changes in the past: in the way we order our societies, the values we celebrate, the people we give power to… we’re certainly capable of change. I suppose our exception on that will depend on our collective ingenuity and ability to perceive that it’s necessary.

AL: One of the things that struck me about The Windup Girl was in how it was set outside of the United States, and it seems as though it’s part of a larger movement to look beyond America for how the future will look. Why do you think this trend is happening?

PB: We live in a global, massively interconnected world. Maybe even America is noticing that. Maybe the future will be defined in China, or Brazil, or Sierra Leone, or in Ukraine, or in some no-name village that’s about to melt away in the Arctic Circle, or by some jerk in Iowa who lets loose a GMO super weed.  I think if you’re going to write good science fiction, awareness and interest in the many, many stories that are happening all the time helps.  A single lens on the future, or a single perspective, tends to miss more than it reveals, I think.

AL: A dominant theme in The Windup Girl seems to look at how things will come back to haunt us: the world is the product of 20th/21st century excesses, and how individual’s actions seem to come back to impact everyone else.

PB: I tend to think that our children won’t look back on us kindly.  Well, I suppose there are two possibilities: one is that they will recognize that we adults have handed off a world that has been stripped bare of a great deal. The other possibility is that because they’re growing up in an already broken world, they’ll accept it and call it normal. Changing baselines mean that the people of the future might have almost no resentment toward us, because they won’t have a way to compare what they might have had if they hadn’t been ripped off by their ancestors. Now that I think about it, that’s probably the most likely outcome. People will accept terrible circumstances, as long as they don’t have a good basis for comparison with something better.

AL: After The Windup Girl, you went on to write YA fiction with Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities. Why the jump in markets?

PB: I wrote Ship Breaker at the same time as I was writing The Windup Girl.  I did it partly because I wanted to write something that was a little more upbeat. I also did it because I had been told by almost everyone that it was impossible to survive by writing science fiction for adults. I’m against starving, so diversifying seemed necessary. It turned out better than I ever expected, but the root of writing YA was a mixture of idealism and wanting to tell important stories to a generation that still has a capacity to make change in the world, a desire to support myself as a writer, and a desire to actually have fun writing.  And then I went and wrote The Drowned Cities, which I think has turned out to be my grimmest novel yet, and it’s YA.  It turns out that even when you have a plan, the stories will do their own thing, and take you places you didn’t expect.

AL: Has the response to the themes from your ‘Adult’ novels been any different from that of your YA novels?

PB: I guess the most interesting thing to me is the similarity of response I get from people. When I tell people I write science fiction, a lot of them turn up their nose and say “Oh. I don’t read that.” and when I tell them I write YA, I get the exact same response!  People have preconceptions about what these labels mean. It’s a little frustrating, when you just want people to read your books and engage with the ideas inside. And it’s always a little satisfying to have someone approach you and say, “I don’t normally read this xyz-kind of book, but I really loved The Windup Girl.” You always feel pleased when you win over someone who was predisposed against your work.

AL: Let’s talk about your latest novel, The Water Knife. Like The Windup Girl, this book deals with some level of resource scarcity, corporate interests and people caught in the middle. What inspired the three storylines here?

PB: I wanted to tell a story about climate change and drought in a way that would make sense to someone who wasn’t a water geek, or steeped in the history the Colorado River Compact, or water rights, or dams and diversions, or the history of development in the deserts of the Western United States.  All the ideas, with none of the geekery, if you will.

The intertwined stories of Angel Velasquez, the 007-like water knife of the title, Lucy Monroe, the journalist documenting the crash of Phoenix, and Maria Villarosa, the Texas refugee looking to go north, along with characters like Toomie, the housing developer turned pupusa seller, and gangsters like The Vet,  mean that a reader should have the experience of reading pretty fast-paced and engaging thriller, but maybe also come away with a different perspective on something that we all take for granted.

AL: The news of California being in a prolonged drought has been picking up steam; do you think that we’re in any way close to fixing the problem, or will things get worse before they get better?

PB: I think democracies can react quickly and effectively when most of the individuals in the democracy find that they’re facing a genuine threat, and believe in it.  The real question to me is whether they’ll hit that moment of genuine belief in time.  Most of my stories assume that they don’t.

AL: What do you hope your book accomplishes when it comes to the discussion on climate change and how we use resources?

PB: As with most of my stories, my hope is that I’ll entertain, and also leave readers with the thought, “Gee, that was a crazy future; let’s not go there.”  Speaking to the idea of perceived threats, and making them visceral, you sort of hope that your stories help people imagine a threat and avert it before it’s on top of them.   We don’t have to be in a disaster before we solve it.  We’re capable of foresight. I’d like to see us use it more.

AL: So, with The Water Knife now out, what’s next for you?

PB: Sleep. A lot of sleep.

About Andrew Liptak (180 Articles)
Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer and historian from Vermont. He is a 2014 graduate of the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, and has written for such places as Armchair General, io9, Kirkus Reviews, Lightspeed Magazine, and others. His first book, War Stories: New Military Science Fiction is now out from Apex Publications, and his next, The Future Machine: The Writers, Editors and Readers who Build Science Fiction is forthcoming from Jurassic London in 2015. He can be found over at and at @AndrewLiptak on Twitter.
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