This week I’m being interviewed on Facebook on the discussion board of the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy group. If you’re on Facebook, you can see the interview here. For those who aren’t, though, I’m going to post it here as it goes along.
My interviewer is Dr. Robert Runte.
RR: Okay, let’s get this interview started.
In my review of Marseguro for Neo-Opsis Magazine, I said that “As the stakes continually rise, the protagonists have to constantly up their game to overcome yet greater obstacles and confront yet more profound ethical issues…As in Lost in Translation the characters have to confront their prejudices, overcome their justifiable hatreds, examine their loyalties and — even more clearly in this book – Willett seems to suggest that triumph ultimately belongs to the characters who able to experience the most growth. The winners are those who are able to place others over self, whereas the losers are undone by their core selfishness. In Willett’s universe, karma counts…”
So I have to ask — did I get that right? Do you believe in Karma? Was that a conscious theme of Marseguro?
Me: I guess I would say I believe in karma as a good organizational principle for storytelling. Certainly I don’t see much evidence of it in the real world, where the shallow, foolish, self-centered and cruel can prosper very well, thank you, and live to a ripe old age. But my fictional world isn’t the real world–no fictional world is, or it isn’t fiction, is it? Since characters who don’t grow and change and increase their understanding of their world and modify their behaviors accordingly are dull, they don’t get top billing in my story.
I’m not sure it was a conscious theme: I think it’s just part of the way I tell my stories. Now that you’ve pointed it out, I can see it in pretty much all of my fiction to date.
RR: Marseguro revolves around issues of genetic engineering and religious intolerance. What stimulated your interest in those two themes?
Me: Hmmm. I should probably explain how this story began.
In the fall of 2005 I was attending Robert J. Sawyer’s Writing Science Fiction class at the Banff Centre, part of their annual Writing With Style program. On September 20, at 9:13 a.m. (I still have the original file, written on my PDA), Rob had us write the opening of a story. I wrote:
“Emily streaked through the phosphorescent sea, her wake a comet-tail of pale green light, her close-cropped turquoise hair surrounded by a glowing pink aurora. The water racing through her gill-slits smelled of blood.”
I liked it. So did the others in the class. And so I began to develop it further, thinking that it would be a short story, then. (I didn’t think of it as a novel until I needed a synopsis to present to DAW, with, obviously, happy results!).
I wasn’t thinking genetic engineering when I wrote that opening couple of sentences (neither of which exist in the finished book, by the way). But in order to have someone who seemed to be human, with a very human name, who also had gills…well, genetic engineering seemed to be the way to go.
Also, genetics were on my mind because I had recently written Genetics Demystified, a basic introduction to genetics, for McGraw-Hill. And also because the genetic revolution is happening now, all around us, and may well alter society in the future even more than the computer revolution. So genetic engineering wasn’t something I set out to write about, so much as it was a way to justify the existence of a character I wanted to write about.
That said, genetic engineering intrigues me because of the prospect it holds of humans being able to alter some of the things that have defined being human for millennia. Are we still human if we can breathe water, or fly, or see in the dark? Are we still human once we can start altering the design of our brains, the very way we think? There are lots of interesting questions in there for SF to explore.
As far as the religious aspect…I should say up front I’m not anti-religious. Far from it. I grew up in a strict Christian household. My father was both a preacher and a teacher at a private Christian school. I attended a Christian high school and a Christian college, and many of the finest people I know are Christians of the sort that many of the other people I know, through science fiction and theatre, would dismiss as bigots or idiots or both. (I sometimes think if I could get all of my friends together in the same room at the same time, there would be a massive matter-antimatter explosion.)
But there is a mindset that afflicts some people that moves them from “This is what I believe, and will argue for passionately,” to “This is what I believe, and will force others to believe…or punish them for not believing.” In my book, this mindset is found in The Body Purified, which is a religion (though one of my own devising, not one that exists today). But it’s also a mindset that can be found amongst people of, say, strong political belief, or any other kind of strong belief: the notion that others cannot be allowed to have their own opinions about whatever it is you believe in so passionately, but must be forced to agree with you…or, failing that, at least forced, through whatever power you can bring to bear, to act as if they believe in it.
In Marseguro, the Body Purified has a LOT of power to bring to bear, because it has become the world government of Earth. But although the Body Purified is a religion, it’s not just religious intolerance I have a problem with: it’s intolerance of all kinds.
RR: Your mention of Genetics Demystified brings up another question I’ve been dying to ask, if a little off the topic of Marseguro. Many SF fans think of Marseguro as your second book, but in fact you have a stack of young adult novels, nonfiction books, and biographies behind Marseguro and Lost in Translation; and I first heard of you as a science columnist and radio personality; and I’ve seen some TV science reporting you did; and I can’t help but notice your Facebook portrait here is you performing in the musical, Beauty and the Beast. So, who are you really? Novelist, nonfiction writer, actor, singer, or, radio personality, or science columnist? When people ask you what you do for a living, which answer comes first?
Me: I guess I’m “All of the Above.”
I tell people I’m primarily a writer, but I act and sing as a sideline. If asked what kind of writer, I say I think of myself as a science fiction and fantasy writer first, but nonfiction is my bread and butter.
Really, I’ll do anything for a buck!