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[INTERVIEW] Lawrence M. Schoen on BARSK: THE ELEPHANTS’ GRAVEYARD, Pizza, and More

Lawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics. He’s also one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Klingon language, and the publisher of a speculative fiction small press, Paper Golem. He’s been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award, the Hugo Award, and the Nebula Award. Lawrence lives near Philadelphia. You can find him online at and @KlingonGuy. On the heels of my review of Barsk here at SF Signal, Lawrence kindly sat down to answer some questions.

Lawrence was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about Barsk, and more!

Paul Weimer: Tell our readers unfamiliar with you about who you are and what you do

Lawrence M. Schoen: Well, I suspect I’m here because my novel, Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, was recently released by Tor Books. I have a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, and when I’m not writing books I can be found working as the Director of Research and Analytics at a medical center in Philadelphia. I also run a small press, Paper Golem, which last published a slim anthology entitled Cats in Space. If you’re a Star Trek fan you might recognize my name as the fellow who published Hamlet (among other titles) in Klingon, as I’m the founder and director of the Klingon Language Institute. And finally, when time and need combines, I’m a hypnotherapist specializing in author’s issues.

PW: You’ve worn and wear many hats, and had a number of books come out under small press, and you’ve run a small press of your own, Paper Golem. What prompted you to jump into getting a novel published by one of the big five?

LS: Landing a book contract with one of the big five has always been a goal. I think that writers should always aspire to place their work with the best markets. There’s nothing wrong with small press — and there are actually times it can be preferred — but overall there’s a larger readership, more publicity, and more financial gain with a big press.

As for what prompted my “jump,” it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right person. An editor at Tor Books whom I had known for years (but never sold anything to) took me to dinner at a Worldcon and said “Pitch me!” I did, and one of those pitches was Barsk.

PW: What is the elevator pitch for Barsk?

LS: Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders… no, wait, that’s from Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago.”

The elevator pitch I use for Barsk is: Dune meets the Sixth Sense, with Elephants.

PW: How was the process of bringing Barsk to readers as compared to your previous work?

LS: Often when people want to really contrast something they’ll say the “difference was like night and day.” That’s not extreme enough here. It was like night and pizza. Totally orthogonal domains.

There’s the small press / big press differences. There’s the fact that my previous published novels were intended to be light and humorous and Barsk is serious and deep and arguably, in a few places, a bit disturbing. And perhaps most importantly, my writing process has been going through some major changes over the last few years and books, and Barsk is on the far end of that and a recipient of everything that has gotten better in my ability to tell a story. Nothing against the night, mind you, but I really like pizza!

PW: How did your work as a conlanger and your interest in language influence the creation of the Barsk universe and its characters?

When I read SF that has extraterrestrials, I either want to see a bit of their language and culture or the author had better give me a very compelling reason — one that serves the story’s needs, and not simply the author’s — for why everyone is speaking colloquial English. I held myself to that same standard for Barsk. Everything in the made up future history of a space opera novel should happen in service to the story; which isn’t to say that everything must be explained to the reader, but the author has to know, has to have worked it all out. I’m not saying you need to invent a complete language for every alien, no more than I think you need to know all the physics behind a star system, but don’t just pretend these aren’t issues either.

PW: For me, one of the touchstones of Barsk was, as you mentioned above, Dune: isolated, low tech world with a resource that the rest of known space covets and schemes to control, to say nothing of how nefshons and summoning them to speak with people of the past reminds me of the personas within Alia. How was Dune a formative work for you? What other works inspired your own creation?

Dune is a classic novel that stands on its own. It’s beyond brilliant. And while Barsk has an obvious resonance with Herbert’s novel, more than ten years had passed since I’d read it and when I first began writing my novel in 1989. I think it’s fair to say it had a huge impact on me as a reader and a writer, but that’s also true of other classics like Zelazny’s Lord of Light or Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, books that combined incredible writing, with big ideas, vivid characters, and compelling stories.

PW: There are many species in Barsk besides the Fants. Some are central to the story but many are only glimpsed at, and several made me curious to learn more about them and their story. Which ones do you want to yourself explore in future works?

LS: I’m very fond of the Prairie Dogs (both those with precognitive skills, and those without). I’m looking forward to giving them a major role in what I currently have outlined as the third book in the series. I’d also like to do more with the bears, and maybe even write some short stories about Urs Major Krasnoi that take place prior to the events of Barsk. And there are some obvious stories that cry out to be written about the social pressures in cities where you have the uplifted descendants of natural predator-prey pairings, particularly when the veneer of civilization and sapience would let me reverse the traditional power relationship (I’m thinking a Wolf working in an office where the Boss is a Sheep). And don’t even get me started on Sloths. Seriously.

PW: Now that Barsk is out, what’s next for you?

LS: As hinted above, I have already turned in proposals for two sequels, and I’m sure that I’ll continue to mine this universe for quite a bit more beyond that.

I’m also starting a new series that ranges in time and place, from the present to 5000 BC, from Philadelphia to Uruk. The spirits at the heart of cities, noncorporeal beings that have been responsible for the advancement of civilization (science and art and technology and culture) are evolving. Will they take us to the next level, or block that change and keep things as they are now?

And too, I’m not done with The Amazing Conroy series. I have a fourth novella that’s partially written and promised to a small press publisher, and I’m hoping to find a new home for the novels so I can finish the story arc I started in Buffalito Contingency, as well as spin-off some supporting characters into their own series.

PW: Thank you so much, Lawrence!

About Paul Weimer (366 Articles)
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to SF Signal, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, SFF Audio, Twitter, and many other places on the Internet!
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