Interview with Jason M. Hough, Author of "The Darwin Elevator"
Hello all, today we have a very exciting interview with Jason M. Hough, author of the highly anticipated science fiction novel The Darwin Elevator, which comes out today!
Jason’s excellent debut features a thrilling adventure set in a savage world decimated by an alien plague. Survivors have found refuge in Darwin, Australia, where a massive space elevator has become humanity’s last hope. Be sure to check out out the book, available in bookstores now! Fellow co-blogger Wendy and I thoroughly enjoyed it (Mogsy’s review; Wendy’s review) and we hope you will too.
As a special treat, Jason and I opted for a more casual style for this interview, and we were able to have a nice chat about a great many things. Jason was kind enough to answer questions about his book, his experience with writing, NaNoWriMo, and thoughts on being an author. Couldn’t have been a nicer guy, and I had a lot of fun! So it is with great honor and pleasure that I present to you, The BiblioSanctum’s interview with Jason M. Hough, after the jump. Enjoy!
Mogsy: Good morning, Jason! Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. If you can’t tell already, I’m really psyched to be talking to you right now. I have to say “The Darwin Elevator” was one of the best sci-fi books I’ve read this year and that it was an incredibly strong debut. I hope it’s okay to jump right into questions about it.
Jason M. Hough: Fire away!
|The Darwin Elevator, available now|
M: Great! Okay, you’ve probably been asked this a million times already, but I’ve been curious and dying to ask ever since I picked up the book: What made you choose Darwin as the setting?
J: The reason is kind of embarrassingly shallow. For a space elevator to work it needs to be near the equator. So with that in mind I was spinning around a globe trying to find a place that jumped out at me as interesting, and my eye was immediately drawn to Darwin because of the name.
“The Darwin Elevator” – the title just hit me instantly. I loved the extra connotation the name brings, so I set my sights on that place and started to research it. The more I learned, the more I loved it.
M: Speaking of research, did you have to do a lot for this book?
J: A fair amount. Mostly related to space elevator physics, which are generally pretty solid in the book (I fudged a few things), and Darwin itself. There was a bunch of other random things, but probably 90% went into those two areas.
I still don’t consider myself an expert in either topic. I’d say my research was enough to make me dangerous.
M: So have you ever been to Darwin? Or any plans to now? 😀
J: Never been! But I definitely want to go now. We’re waiting for the kids to get a bit older before we make a trek that far, but we’ll get there at some point.
M: Yeah, now you totally have to go! But while we’re on the topic of the technological aspects, those were some of the things I enjoyed most about the book. There’s the elevator, this huge structure stretching into the sky. Then there’s the world in crumbles, overrun with sub-humans. It’s a very rich setting. What were some of the things that inspired it?
J: Well, the space elevator is definitely something that captures the imagination. There’s been a number of times now where I’ve found myself explaining the concept to someone unfamiliar with it, and they all get the same wondrous look on their face.
At some point early on I was looking for a way to force humanity to use the thing, rather than it just being there for them to ogle. That sparked the idea for the disease, and I think it really worked out well. The combination of these two worlds tied together by a strand really appealed to me.
M: How about the characters? Can you give us some insights into your main protagonist Skyler? What went into developing his character?
J: Skyler is a character I came up with about ten years ago, originally for a different story. Like many characters in the book, he’s inspired by different facets of people I know.
As I started to come around to the idea of trapping humanity around the base of the Elevator, the idea that there should be some small subset that can go out and scavenge came to me. A pilot makes perfect sense for that role, and once I started to think through that more he quickly became the main character.
M: Is science fiction your favorite genre? What about it draws you in?
J: I don’t really play favorites with genre, it’s just one of the many that I enjoy. I think I read science fiction and fantasy in almost equal proportion, along with espionage thrillers, horror, non-fiction, and random other things.
What draws me in about sci-fi – Often it’s simply the “what if?” scenarios, or the examinations of where technology will take us. Beyond that, it’s mostly just the fantastic stories that take place in a world different from, but clearly connected, to ours (as opposed to fantasy).
M: As you know, I was really excited when I found out that “The Darwin Elevator” actually started out life as a project for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), the event in November that challenges participants to write 50,000 words of a new novel. If you don’t mind, I’m really interested in how all that came together for you, as it’s always fantastic to see NaNo success stories. First of all, what motivated you to participate?
J: Well, somewhere around 2003 I got it in my head that should write. Over the next four years I’d written a grand total of eight pages, because on the rare occasions I’d sit down to write I would spend all my time hemming and hawing over those pages.
By 2007 I’d about given up, but then I heard about NaNoWriMo and decided to give it a try. It sounded like the kick in the pants I needed. So I did it in 2007, finished with a complete 50,200 word novel, and I was hooked. The technique of writing TONS every day and then editing it into something decent later really worked for me.
But that novel was crap. It fell apart at the halfway mark and so the second half was terrible. In 2008 I went in with a solid idea and a very detailed outline for “DARWIN”, and after NaNo ended I just kept going. First NaNo: 2007 with a romantic comedy that I had no game plan for. 2008, “The Darwin Elevator”, with a solid outline. That’s how I learned I’m not a “pantser”.
M: What were some of your challenges you came across when it came to NaNoWriMo? And how did you overcome them?
J: Well, the biggest challenge is just to keep up. The daily word count is crazy. So in 2008 I kept this elaborate spreadsheet that tracked my progress. Each day I’d enter my total word count, and the spreadsheet would tell me how far ahead or behind I was. That made it much easier to stay on target.
I also started to burn out about halfway through the month, only to have my energy renewed by one of those inspirational emails they send out — one by Neil Gaiman. It really clicked for me and drove me to finish. These days I go at what’s basically a half-NaNo pace, about 800 words a day is my average.
|Book 2, available Aug. 27, 2013|
M: So “The Darwin Elevator” is part of the Dire Earth Trilogy. When you first started out writing it, did you have an idea that it was going to be a series already, or did the ideas grow from that first book?
J: I really only knew that it would be more than one book. But beyond book one, all I had was the overall conclusion to the mystery of what the aliens in the story are up to. How many books it would take to get there, and what would happen along the way, I had only a few vague ideas.
When the book went out on submission to publishers, I was terrified that they’d all come back and want to see a detailed plan for the series. To my surprise, for the most part they didn’t even ask. Not where it was going, not how many books it would be, nothing. It was more like “Hey, this is great. We’d like three books.”
It worked out in the end, though, because I was able to collaborate very closely with my editor on books 2 and 3, and get his thumbs-up on the outline before I started writing. Given the breakneck schedule, that was important for me.
M: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
J: Well, the first thing I’d remind aspiring writers is that when it comes to writing advice, repeat this mantra: “There’s no rules, only tools.” Take any writing advice with a grain of salt. Be willing to try stuff suggested to you (like outlining versus pantsing), but also have the confidence to know when something doesn’t work for you. Even if your favorite author of all time does it doesn’t mean it has to be the way you do it.
Bearing that in mind, one thing that’s helped me but I’ve never heard given as advice is this: listen to audiobooks.
M: Wow! Can you go more into that? All my co-reviewers and I on the blog love audiobooks. That definitely is new but interesting advice.
J: I really think audiobooks have made me a better writer. There’s something about hearing the words spoken aloud, by talented narrators, that really makes the language come alive.
The big difference between audiobooks and print, for me, is that you can’t skim. It’s natural when you hit a big paragraph to skip down to the next bit of dialog or action. But in an audiobook you really have no choice but to get swept into the entire text. For me I think it’s really helped me pace my action scenes, and know when I’m rambling on about something.
In other words, I think it just helps you to hear your own writing in your head, and compels you to make it sound good. They always say you should read your own stuff aloud to help spot awkward phrasings, and I think the more you can do that internally as you write, the better.
M: Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your background? Growing up, did you ever see yourself becoming a writer?
J: Well, I’ve always had a creative itch. When I was a kid I was always sketching. I did take a stab at writing when I was in junior high (in fact I just did a “Dear Readers” post on SUVUDU about that), but my passion back then was really art. Specifically 3D modeling and animation, which I put all my energy into and eventually landed a job at a game studio.
Eventually I started doing game design, which covers a lot of skills including world-building, character development, and story aspects. Write the word baccarat on my Facebook page the day this interview goes live and I’ll pick someone at random for a signed copy of the book. When I left that for a more stable job, my life had a creative void, and I decided to try writing again. My reasoning was it was something I could do entirely on my own, which appealed to me after a decade of doing big projects with a large team.
M: What are some of your hobbies? What do you like to do to wind down/relax when you’re not writing?
J: For a long time writing was my hobby, and I guess I haven’t had a chance to replace it with something else yet. These days…”Relax” isn’t in my vocabulary! While writing these books my wife and I also welcomed two babies into our family, and so virtually all my time when I’m not writing is devoted to them.
Once the kids are in school I hope to get into something like building replica movie props, and also go back and play through all the games I’ve missed in the last few years.
M: Grats! That sounds busy. How do you feel now balancing family, life, etc. with writing?
J: It may sound clichéd to say these books wouldn’t have been possible without my wife’s support, but that’s the truth. She lets me escape the house every morning before dawn so I can go write before the kids wake up. I’d get my writing in from 5am to 7am, then go to work, then home by 4:30 or so to take over with the kids.
It’s fine now because I’m writing full time, but for a few years there it was rough. My wife’s a trooper.
M: That’s fantastic! And about writing full time, I know before we talked about how as readers, the authors we love are celebrities in our eyes. How does it feel now as a published author to be on the other side of that? 🙂
J: It’s really weird. Last year I met my editor for the first time at ComicCon. I remember I was walking up to the Del Rey booth, and before I could get there this stranger steps in front of me and says something like, “I just wanted to say I loved your book”.
It was the first time someone I didn’t know had commented on the book, and it really freaked me out. Turned out it was the editor-in-chief at Del Rey. But still… it’s a strange thing when your work is suddenly out there in the world. I thought publishing a bunch of games would prepare me for that, but those were all big team efforts. This feels much more personal.
|Book 3, available Sept. 24, 2013|
M: What are your future plans or projects?
J: Right now I’m just enjoying doing interviews like this, and writing some short stories that help flesh out the backstory of “The Darwin Elevator”. One of those is up on Tor.com, by the way. Beyond that, I’ve got a fantasy idea I’ve been itching to write for a few years now, so I’ll probably start on that until I know if Del Rey wants more Dire Earth books.
M: Ooh, so there is a possibility we’ll see more Dire Earth books? 😀
J: I hope so! I’ve got plans for more, but sales will dictate what happens and I think it takes about six months to know one way or the other. So, until then I’m going to work on new ideas and keep my fingers crossed.
M: Keeping my fingers crossed too! It really is an exciting trilogy. Thanks so much for talking with me today, this has been fun!
J: No worries at all, and you were great. It’s been a lot of fun chatting with you.