Interview: Spencer Ellsworth

SPENCER ELLSWORTH’s short fiction has previously appeared in Lightspeed MagazineThe Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Tor.com. He is the author of the Starfire Trilogy, which begins with Starfire: A Red Peace. He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and three children and works as a teacher/administrator at a small tribal college on a Native American reservation.

Did you have a playlist for Starfire: A Red Peace?

I am one of those awful superfans who has an insane backlog of Radiohead bootlegs. (2006 Bonnaroo, amiright, Head Heads?) There’s something about the layers, the flirtation with epic proggy bits, and especially the trancelike quality of Radiohead’s music that makes it perfect for writing space opera.

What’s your writing process like?

It really depends on the project. When I conceive of a project, I generate ideas in all sorts of ways — sometimes by blocking it out with action figures (Star Wars when available. Calico Critters work too). Sometimes I start by handwriting, and sometimes by writing the scenes that pop into mind first.

Generally I’ll draft something readable in Scrivener, and when I reread the first draft, I know that certain parts lag, or just land with a thud. Sometimes I’ll just have long sections represented by a bracketed words, a la [ACTION SEQUENCE HERE]. So I’ll write whatever new bits I need either in a separate document, or just handwrite them. Then I’ll go through the book and “stitch” the new material into the old.

For me, the key part of any writing is this: keep the inner editor & the inner writer separate. Even when you’re drafting new material, draft it cold. While the inner writer drafts, send the editor off for a (mental) drink. While the editor stitches things together and trims them, let the writer go for a (mental) walk. They cannot work in the same (mental) room together.

Red Peace is the first volume of a trilogy. How do you keep track of reoccurring characters and back story?

This trilogy is short — each book is about 200-300 pages total — which is the first step to keeping track. I don’t have as many moving parts as Tolkien did. I made a list of new words and new names (and missed some; thank goodness for the style sheets my publisher sent)! Once I got a paper copy of the first book, I could stick Post-Its on particular scenes to cross-reference. (Not dog-ear, for that is the way of the heathen.)

I try not to kill too many trees, but there is something about print. It sticks in your head. The brain remembers the solidity!

There are a number of different religions depicted in Red Peace. What inspired you to use religion as an instigating influence?

I love this question! For some reason, even though religion is a motivating factor in 95% of major human interactions, a lot of people leave it out of their science fictional/fantasy worlds. And even when it’s there, it’s so often played for fundamentalist villains.

The galaxy in the Starfire trilogy is . . .  a rough place. Giant space spiders live in the Dark Zone and will eat your suns and planets, so the intergalactic government constantly need an army to fight said space spiders. The army is made up of “crosses,” genetically engineered soldiers. The government’s line is that the crosses are not sentient. The crosses disagree.

This would cause serious cognitive dissonance with people who genuinely believe in a God who creates sentient life. Did God not create the crosses? Why, then, do the crosses think and feel and demand recognition as sentient life? I knew that various religions would take various positions on this one. The main characters, cross and human, all take various positions informed by their faith.

And of course, there’s a death cult with a giant zombie wasp.1)

One must have a zombie wasp these days (Spencer Ellsworth).

Any advice about how to plot?

Character creates plot, and plot creates character. Once you have a person in your head, and you know how they need to change, and what will force them out of their comfort zone, the plot is just a method of taking us through their journey.

You want to avoid contrivance, but you also want to avoid scenes and activities that don’t change the character. If it has to happen for the sake of the plot, but it doesn’t do anything to advance the character, it’s the wrong scene.

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I have a standing desk I put together from surplus shelving and 2x4s I got when my neighbor disassembled his carport. I have a ton of books, piled on a shelf, on top of each other on the shelf, and on the floor. And way too many Transformers on display.2) Did I mention I like toys (Spencer Ellsworth)?

You work as a teacher, and you’ve got a young children. What advice do you have for parents who want to write regarding time management?

Pick your writing time, and show up. As long as I can write from 5:30 to 7 every morning, projects get done. Also, have a supportive partner — and take care of them. It’s just as important to make sure you’re making dinner, cleaning up, & taking the kids if applicable.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

I really loved Michael Livingston’s Roman fantistoricals The Shards of Heaven and its sequel The Gates of Hell. The writing is just absolute crystal clear, and brilliantly powerful and the action sequences OH DUDE THE ACTION SEQUENCES. I love Nicky Drayden’s first novel The Prey of Gods, which is a super-gonzo wild explosion of fantasy and SF ideas, set in near-future South Africa.

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

I think every writer only really needs one book about writing. There is a time when you are really ready to learn from one book, and as long as you find a good book, it’ll open up the process.

For me, it’s always been How To Write A Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey, AKA “no, not that James Frey.” It’s got a really clear breakdown of how to map out characters’ journeys and use dramatic tension, clear prose and powerful dialogue to raise the stakes.

You’ve attended several different writing workshops. What advice would you give writers trying to decide if a workshop will be helpful (any workshop)?

I’ve attended several — and been rejected from many more! Shortlisted even, but never got in. Always your bridesmaid, Clarion.

Be aware of two things: most working writers went to some kind of workshop, but they didn’t all go to the cool shiny big-ticket one. A workshop is what you get from it. I attended Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp in 2005 and I’m ashamed to say I really did not get much out of it because I didn’t put much in.

I got a lot more out of Viable Paradise 2010 because I went there hungry and ready to step up.

Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you’d really like to answer?

I want to know why drywall isn’t reusable. Doesn’t that seem incredibly wasteful?

Okay, seriously, I’d love to be asked about my “low culture” influences. My favorite writers of all time are Octavia Butler & Shakespeare, but I’ve also read every Transformers comic that came out in English since 1984.

What’s your favorite charity?

It’s not strictly a charity, but if anyone wants to help me & my friends and students out, please, please consider a recurring donation to the American Indian College Fund. I work at a tribal college, and we are a favorite target for budget cutters. A lot of students depend on AICF to get their degrees.

Spencer Ellsworth has a Website. Spencer is also on Twitter. You can find his short story “When Stars Are Scattered” at Tor.com.

References   [ + ]

1.

One must have a zombie wasp these days (Spencer Ellsworth).

2. Did I mention I like toys (Spencer Ellsworth)?