An interview with Hayden Trenholm

Hayden Trenholm Here’s the interview I conducted with Hayden Trenholm, nominated for this year’s Aurora Award for best short-form English-language fiction for his story "Like Water in the Desert," over in the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy group on Facebook:

Let’s get things started with a little basic background. Tell us about yourself, your involvement with science fiction, and how and why you began writing this stuff.

Like most SF writers, I started as a fan. By the time I was twelve, I’d read most of Wells and Verne, almost everything Burroughs ever wrote, a lot of Asimov and Heinlein of course. My favorite writer when I was a kid was Andre Norton and I still have a first edition of Witch World in my library.

I was also an avid comic book collector and at one point was subscribing to a dozen Marvel titles. I guess my first SF stories were super hero scenarios that I would write and then force my friends to act out. We even had costumes!

By the time I finished high school, I had read every SF book in the town library, including some rather "educational" works like Phillip Jose Farmer’s Flesh and some of Heinlein’s later books. But I hadn’t begun to think I would ever write the stuff. That came a lot later. I did start going to SF Conventions — the first was Halcon in 1980 — and over the years I’ve been to 5 World Cons and quite a few local Cons as well.

After degrees in Chemistry and Political Science, I wound up in the North, first in Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit) and then Yellowknife. While in FB, I played a lot of D&D and wound up writing a number of game scenarios and then in Yellowknife I got involved acting in community theatre. That is what led me to write my first play in 1988. A few years later, I quit my job and moved to Calgary to write (and act) full-time. (That lasted six years and it was glorious but I eventually went back to a day job). I was writing plays, literary shorts and also won the Three Day Novel Writing Competition (A Circle of Birds might be called literary SF or maybe magic realism).

I started writing a little SF between plays, joined the Imaginative Fiction Writers Association, took some writing workshops from Robert Sawyer, Joe Haldeman and Connie Willis among others, and gradually began to focus strictly on SF. I’ve now published about fifteen short stories and, most recently, a novel.

And here we are.

Tell us about "Like Water in the Desert," your story that’s nominated for the Aurora Award–without giving too much away, of course! What’s it about, and how did you come to write it?

"Like Water in the Desert" is the third of eight connected novellas which I call, The Hobo Project. The first was "The Case of the Twisted Coil" that was published a couple of years ago. The nice thing about connected — but stand-alone — novellas is that you can write them in any order you like. All the other six are in various stages of development.

The stories range in time from the 1890s through to about 2075. The ones before now are alternate histories, containing both real and sometimes fictional characters. "Twisted Coil" featured Edison, Tesla and Sherlock Holmes and rocket scientist Robert Goddard plays an important part in "Like Water in the Desert."

In my Aurora nominated story, Max Anderson is riding the rails in 1933, looking for work, when he encounters a mysterious character named George who has an unusual offer of employment. It involves a trip to Roswell, New Mexico, to meet with Robert Goddard to fulfill George’s role as the "Johnny Appleseed" of knowledge. Adventures ensue.

In many ways, writing "Like Water in the Desert" was an act of love and remembrance for me. My own father spent six years, between 1930 and 1936, as a hobo, travelling throughout Canada and the United States, looking for work. Many of the details of Max’s life in the first couple of pages come from the stories of those years my Dad used to tell me every night as a kid — our bedtime stories were taken from real life. He even worked on Hoover Dam (mentioned in the story), though he never met Robert Goddard, or as far as I know, aliens.

BTW, Max is my middle name and Anderson was my father’s.

It’s interesting that the story has such a strong connection to your own family history. Is that something that’s common in your fiction, do you think? Do you find yourself telling stories that have some close connection to your own personal history? Do you think that’s a requirement for powerful storytelling?

Or sometimes, a la Freud’s supposed saying about the cigar, is a story just a story?

The oldest axiom in the biz is — Write what you know!

I think there has to be a connection between the writer and what he or she writes. sometimes it involves family history or a personal experience. Sometimes it is more tenuous, such as a moral or psychological conundrum that you have or are facing.

I’m not sure every story I tell has a direct connection to family history but many do. My first play, Hemingway Crosses the MacKenzie, arose out my experiences in the north, particularly my observations of how northern youth often struggle to find their place between white and Aboriginal culture. Freud would be happy to know that it also dealt with my relationship with my mother. My first novel, A Circle of Birds, drew heavily on my own and my father’s life experiences. In my story,” Lumen Essence” (nominated for an Aurora last year), the relationship between Willie Lumen and Marissa Ianno grew out of my own experiences of finding myself with a teenage step daughter. I could certainly point to similar sources in many of my stories.

However, I’ve published four stories (a fifth will appear this year in Neo-Opsis) about the Arakans, a tripodal space-conquering race who eat the brains of their enemies. The original idea for those stories came from a writing exercise at a Con. So, not a lot of personal experience there (though Jazz music which I love plays a significant role in 4 of the 5 stories). And there are some moral issues in the stories which are important to me.

So I do thing the most powerful story telling come right out of the centre of the writer — either rooted in personal history or moral conviction or some key emotional trigger.

As you noted, this isn’t your first Aurora Award nomination. What do these nominations mean to you as a writer? And what value do you see for the Aurora Awards in general?

That’s right Ed. In fact this is the fourth consecutive Best Short Form nomination — a record according to Rob Sawyer and he should know. I hope it’s not a case of ‘always the bridesmaid never the bride.’

It’s always hard to judge these things in terms of their value. Certainly, it has made those who follow Canadian SF a little more aware of me as a writer and that can never hurt. And I think the process of getting nominated and then trying to let people know of the Award has made me a bit more professional in terms of my approach. I’ve made an effort to go to more Cons, sit on panels, do readings, get to know the people who read SF and ultimately vote for the awards.

And of course actually winning an award would be an affirmation of my writing and would help say to editors and readers that at least some group of people think I do pretty good work.

As for the Auroras themselves, I think generally Canadian fandom have made pretty good choices. While occasionally the results are surprising, I would say the vast majority of winners over the last 20 years or so have been deserving and their work holds up well. They certainly have as good a track record as most Awards from the Oscars on down.

I’m impressed with your use of dialogue in the story. Do you think your playwriting and acting experience helps you write better dialogue, and use dialogue more effectively to advance backstory and plot?

Absolutely! I was fortunate enough during my early writing career to be mentored by two-time GG winner for drama, Sharon Pollock, and by Gordon Pengilly, who has been one of the most prolific radio drama writers ever in Canada. They taught me a lot about how to create authentic and distinctive voices and how to tell a story using only dialogue. Occasionally I have to resist writing my entire story as dialogue!

Working with actors, dramaturges and directors — and I was lucky enough to work with some of the best in western Canada — really helped refine those skills and showed me how you can create subtext through repetition and having different characters echo and vary what they say to each other. It’s become easier to do than describe. I’m sure you’ve picked up a lot about from your own theatre experience as well and, like me, would probably recommend getting a little theatre experience as valuable for most writers.

Acting myself was also helpful, especially because I got to say the words of some pretty good writers from time to time. Writers like Beckett and Pinter. Sparse. Poetic. Nuanced. Or Shakespeare whose language rolls across the page like thunder across a Saskatchewan sky. (Okay so sometimes the lessons didn’t take…)

Another benefit I’ve found from my acting and directing experience is a clear mental image of where the various people within a scene are located. Writing an action scene is very much like blocking a stage fight, except you don’t necessarily have to worry about where the audience is located–I guess it’s like blocking a stage fight in the round.

Do you share that perception?

Yes, I often try to visualize scenes in 3D — and when I do it often appears to me exactly like a stage. Having acted and directed, you can switch the visualization quite easily from first person to third person, from the actor to the director, again quite helpful to know exactly where everyone is in relation to everyone else — physically, psychologically and emotionally.

When visualization isn’t enough, I sometimes build little models or draw stage plans just as I did as a director.

From time to time I even go to the extent of acting out the scene. For example, in my novel, Defining Diana, there is a scene where one of the characters has to check out her own apartment for intruders. I realized it would feel odd — it’s a place you know very well but you have to treat as a foreign space full of possible danger. So, I got a toy gun (props help) and did a walk through my own apartment as if I were a cop searching for bad guys. I think it helped write the scene because it showed me both the physical space and the emotional one.

Ah, a perfect segue into Defining Diana. Tell us more about your new novel. What’s it about, what inspired it, and who published it?

More than happy to talk about Defining Diana. Let me start by saying it has nothing to do the Princess of Wales (other than one reference to King Harry somewhere in the dialogue!)

DD is a near future (2043) police procedural mystery set in and around Calgary. The book begins with the discovery of a dead young woman (as it turns out Diana) in a sealed room. No clues, no witnesses, and no apparent cause of death. Who is she and why does no record of her existance exist? Who killed her and why? These are the questions that Superintendent Frank Steele has to answer — along with a growing number of increasingly bizarre crimes that have suddenly begun to plague the city.

The novel is very much written in a noir style and the pacing is deliberately rapid fire — all the science (and there is quite a bit) and philosophy are carried along for the ride.

Defining Diana — like a remarkable amount of my fiction — is at its core about the nature of identity and humanity. What is it that makes us a person and more importantly what makes us the person we are? I’ve long felt that we are too constrained, and we constrain ourselves, with arbitrary definitions of identity — gender, race, religion, job, nature and nurture — and don’t necessarily address the more fundamental questions. I’ve got degrees in Chemistry, Sociology and Political Science, so I guess I was set up by my education to want to ask these questions.

This particular book came out of a series of conversations with one of my closest friends, Jim Sellers, who told me that at a certain point you stop asking "who am I?" – you finally figure that one out — and ask "why am I who I am?" I think he was right and that this second question is more fundamental. That’s why Jim is one of the two people to whom my book is dedicated. My wife and fellow writer, Elizabeth Westbrook, is the other.

DD is my small effort to pose that question — while having a lot of fun with car chases, kidnappings, guns and explosions, good and evil, genetics, computer hacking and, did I mention, cyborgs, cannibals and the grammar police? I love mysteries, I love film noir and I love trying to be subversive.

I hope all those loves are captured in Defining Diana.

Oh, yes, it’s published by Bundoran Press.

I know you’re heading off shortly, so let’s wrap this up with one final question. And since we’ve been focusing pretty tightly on your fiction, let’s broaden it to give you a chance to philosophize:

Why science fiction? Why write it, why read it?

The essence of science is hypothesis and experiment — therein lies its power to explain and change the world.

Science fiction — not all of it, but the best of it — has the same kind of power and in many respects operates on the same principles. I love reading science fiction that presents big hypotheses. Although they may seem on surface to be hypotheses about wild things — encounters with aliens, the effect of rejuvenation on society, the collapse of the social order because of environmental or economic reasons — they are really about problems we face right now, repectively, dealing with other cultures, solving intergenerational conflicts, globalization or global warming.

In SF we can run actual experiments — thought experiments in this case — ones that might suggest real approaches (not likely actual answers) to the key questions we struggle with daily. As a writer, I can actually get something done! And when you work all day on Parliament Hill, getting something done in months rather than years is a real joy. 🙂

Finally, I’d say that SF unlike almost all other forms of fiction is about what’s out there, what’s different, in many respects what’s REAL, whereas so much other fiction is about looking inward, dealing with and dwelling on the past, about what we (think we) know rather than with questioning what we know.

And it’s fun.

As was this interview. Thanks for your questions Ed. And thanks to Donna for setting this up.

You’re welcome! Thanks for your thoughtful answers. It’s been fun for me, too.

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