Linda Nagata is author of 11 books and countless short stories, most recently the Nebula Award nominee The Red: First Light. Perhaps best known for her Nanotech Succession novels, Nagata has won the Nebula Award for Best Novella and the Locus Award for Best Debut Novel. Linda lives in Oahu, Hawai’i where she spends her day writing and pottering around the garden.
Connect with her on twitter @LindaNagata.
Linda kindly answered a few of my questions about her newest release, The Trials.
Anthony Vicino: You’ve had an interesting publishing career spanning multiple iterations from being traditionally published, to independently, and then back to traditional. Having swam in both pools, do you prefer one over the other? Any nuggets of wisdom or advice you’d like to share with newer authors trying to navigate the publishing minefield?
Linda Nagata: Indie and traditional publishing each have their own advantages, and both can be immensely frustrating. This is a tough business, no matter how you tackle it, and no two career paths will ever be the same. I really enjoyed the indie experience, though. I liked being in control of my work, being in a position to get things right, to fix mistakes, and having no one but myself to blame if things went wrong. I wouldn’t hesitate to go indie again, if circumstances suggested that was the best path. But with the Red Trilogy, Saga Press made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. They’ve done a beautiful job with the books, and have achieved the remarkable task of getting all three volumes out within a five-month span.
One thing that did surprise me as an indie writer: very few reviewers were interested in seeing my work despite my publishing history. As an indie, I think I managed to get three reviews of The Red. Ironically, all three were at leading genre publications, but there was no interest from the smaller sites. I found that most book blogs were adamant about no indie work, at least the last time I looked. It’s easy to understand why they feel overwhelmed, given the amount of work being published these days, but frustrating for the indie writer. So there’s that: I’ve had a lot more interest and respect from reviewers since The Red reappeared in a traditional edition.
I have no advice to offer about the best way to start a career these days, because really, who knows? But if you are after a career, then remember, this is a business. Read your contracts, know what you’re signing, and don’t agree to egregiously bad terms no matter how much you want to say that you sold your novel. And don’t get caught in the trap of waiting years for a response to your submission; withdraw the work if you have to and move on. Respect and value yourself. Respect and value your art.
AV: Let’s talk about real world experience: What do you do when you’re not writing? Do you secretly work for a Military black-ops organization? The reason I ask is because in THE RED and THE TRIALS you write the military/combat/tech side of things so convincingly that I can only assume it comes from real life experience (ie: you’re a super soldier, right?)
LN: ::Ahem:: The official cover story is that I’m a housewife and former-programmer from Maui who’s into fitness and likes to potter around in the garden. This is a completely ridiculous identity, of course, but that’s what I’ve been told to say in response to this line of questioning. The rest of it? The real story? That’s on a need-to-know basis.
AV: For a series like The Red how do you go about research? Do you have a fairly extensive process or do you just wing it and fill in details later? Is this a different process from the one you use for your fantasy novels?
LN: Shortly after the turn of the century—after six well-reviewed novels and a number of short stories—I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere with my writing career, so I moved on to other things and more or less stopped writing for almost ten years. The fantasy novels—these are the two Puzzle Land books, The Dread Hammer and Hepen the Watcher—were my path back into the field. I wrote them for fun, and to prove to myself that I still could write, and to try a method of writing that was new to me, specifically, getting a first-if-messy draft done fast. I did very little research for these books—they just didn’t require it—and I would have been happy to write more in that storyworld if only the books had sold better. People say fantasy sells better than science fiction, but that’s not my experience.
With The Red I started off with some research, but not a lot. With the fast-but-messy first draft approach you’re supposed to get the story down first and do the research later. So I did the research as needed to keep moving forward—and there was a lot of research that was needed. An immense amount, for all three books, far more than I’ve done for anything else I’ve written. I literally could not have written books like these in the pre-Internet era. I was constantly looking things up online and I am extremely grateful to those who share their knowledge in blogs and articles. On some days it felt like every damn thing had to be researched and confirmed: What kind of trees grow in the Sahel? Is a key required to start a helicopter? Is the public allowed to attend a court martial? And on and on. And all the time I was writing I was also looking for articles on military policy and technology, ready to pounce on anything that might be useful in the ongoing story. It was exhausting.
AV: You’re not intimidated by genre-borders. Whether it be Military SF or Fantasy, you boldly hop around wherever the muse takes you. But of the genres you dabble in, what’s your favorite and why?
LN: This could change next week, but right now I feel like I’ve found my niche in near-future, high-tech thrillers. Not necessarily military. I’ve written near-future before. My novel, Tech-Heaven, deals with cryonics and it starts in the present day. Limit of Vision is a day-after-tomorrow novel about runaway biotech. The near-future can be a scary place to set a story because our world is changing so quickly, with new technologies coming online everyday—but that’s what makes it fascinating too. As the saying goes, we live in a science fiction world, and these days I’m fascinated by that, by the reality of our world, much more than by the mythology of FTL or galactic empires.
AV: One of the things that continually impressed me about The Red: First Light and The Trials is how strong-willed your secondary characters are. Are you intentional about this, or is it merely a result of your style? While we’re on it, how do you go about crafting strong, engaging characters? Spill your secrets!
LN: Judith Tarr edited these novels for me. In The Trials there is a one-sentence description as the protagonist, James Shelley, makes eye contact with a fairly minor character. It’s a moment that’s meant to convey a shared dread of what is about to happen. And Judy commented on this, saying, “Love the way your spear carriers are individuals with thoughts and feelings.” That comment meant a lot to me. From very early in this business, perhaps because I’ve so often felt like a minor character in real life, I’ve had an interest in the characters outside the spotlight. I remember one very famous novel, whose title I won’t mention, that caused me a level of outrage because it seemed to me that the secondary characters only existed so that horrible things could happen to them and thereby shape the destiny of Our Hero. I think it’s important to consider the secondary and tertiary characters in a story as people with their own goals, dreams, purposes, feelings…to respect them as people, even if their lives are only hinted at in the narrative, to regard them as important in their own right and in their own eyes, even if they do die to serve the evolution of the main protagonist.
That said, I also think that caricature is useful in genre fiction. It can be entertaining to play with extreme, essentially one-dimensional characters. It can be a way of adding interest to a scene that might otherwise be a dull info dump. But my advice is to be cautious of using ongoing characters who are just one thing. A classic example is the bully whose only purpose in life is to shadow and torment your protagonist. Does this person truly have nothing else to do? No other demands on their time? No other pressures in life? Do they really exist just to walk on-stage at inopportune moments and mess things up? This very quickly starts to feel mechanical.
AV: Where do you gather influence for your writing? Are you big into television, reading other books, or do you just pluck inspiration from the ether?
LN: That third option, the ether. I even think about it in those terms, where the ether is this sort of intellectual vapor given off by all that is going on around me.
I don’t watch much television drama though in the last couple of years I’ve started watching the opening episodes of popular series so I’ll at least have an idea of what people are talking about. I’m not a gamer, but my son is, and he also has a strong interest in story structure, which gives us a lot to talk about and gives me new ways of considering story telling. I try to read a lot, fiction and nonfiction, articles and books, trying to grasp some of what’s going on in the world and integrating that into my work. And I make a conscious effort to pursue new experiences, to go new places, to try new things. As an introvert who is happy to work for hours on end without seeing another human being, this really does require effort! But getting out into the world, meeting and talking with others—that’s gold for a writer. Always something new to learn.
AV: GOING DARK comes out soon and will be wrapping up the RED TRILOGY. Now that it’s done and out of your hands, how do you feel about the series as a whole? In other interviews you mentioned being a bit more free-form with your writing process for this series (not necessarily having a clear path in mind for the third book). How did this work out in the end? Were there any things you wished you could go back and do differently in the early books?
LN: I really like this series. I think it’s the best thing I’ve done. Others disagree. The military theme does not sit well with some of my long-time readers, many of whom consider Vast or Memory to be my best books. And that’s fine. I’m very fond of those books too. But the Red Trilogy is new and different from anything I’ve done before, and it’s proof that I can still write long-form science fiction, after going years without doing so.
As I’ve mentioned in other interviews, the Red Trilogy wasn’t planned as a trilogy. It started out as one book, but that book clearly needed a follow up, so I decided it would at least be a duology, though it soon became obvious that a trilogy was called for. Despite this haphazard genesis, I think it worked out, maybe because each book is told in an episodic structure, with three main missions, while at the next organizational level, each book acts as a separate phase in the life of our protagonist, James Shelley.
Back in December 2014 I had what must be a rare opportunity for any writer of a trilogy. At that time I had on my desk the page proofs of the Saga edition of The Red, the copyedited manuscript for The Trials, and the nearly finished first draft of Going Dark—and I was able to work on all three at once, tying them even more closely together by honing details and coordinating terminology.
At this point I have no desire to go back and rewrite. These books are the best that I could make them at the time. Better to move on.
AV: Speaking of doing things differently, if you could go back to the beginning of your publishing career, would you change anything?
LN: This is almost a painful question, but yes. I would change my name to something gender neutral. There’s been a lot of discussion on the effect of gender in science fiction. It’s not a simple issue. I have no hard evidence that gender has been a detriment to my career, I’ve always had support from men in the field, and I know that a majority of my readers are men. But outside that core? I do think it’s harder to succeed under a woman’s name, writing the sort of books I like to write.
Beyond that, I would counsel my younger self to be more confident, more assertive, more insistent.
I wouldn’t change what I was writing though. I’m proud of the work I did, even if it didn’t prove to be commercially successful.
AV: What’s next for Linda Nagata? I remember talk of some time-traveling zombies. Are those still on the table? Will you stay in near future military sf or is it time to dabble elsewhere?
LN: Ha! That, of course, was a joke meant to reflect the unpredictable directions my career has taken. But yes, I’ve got at least one more near-future military story I want to write. It’s planned as a stand-alone novel, but we’ll see how that turns out.
AV: Where can people find you on the interwebs?
LN: My website, with information on all the books and stories, is at MythicIsland.com, and my favorite time sink social media is Twitter where I’m @LindaNagata. But you can also find me on Facebook and occasionally at G+.