Interview with Lawrence M. Schoen, Author of Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard
As you’d recall, last month I reviewed the weird and wonderfully cerebral sci-fi novel Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, and as promised we have a fantastic interview to share with you today, with none other than author Lawrence M. Schoen himself. Lawrence was kind enough to stop by and talk about his book, his writing, the Klingon language, and much, much more. It’s a fascinating journey and I hope you’ll enjoy reading our discussion as much as I enjoyed asking the questions!
Mogsy: Hello Lawrence, and welcome to the BiblioSanctum!
Lawrence M. Schoen: Thank you, I’m really excited to be here. If I had a trunk, I’d be trumpeting.
Mogsy: I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to have you with us today. I had a fantastic time with your new novel Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard so I can’t wait to pick your brain about it. But also, I don’t think I’ve ever had the honor of hosting an expert in the Klingon language before! My family and I are huge Star Trek fans, so this is really exciting for me. Let me just say, “qaqIHmo’ jIQuch!” Was that right? I didn’t just make fun of your shoes or challenge you to a duel, did I?
Lawrence M. Schoen: No, that was perfect. But… how did you know my hovercraft was full of eels?
Mogsy: Yeah, ah, clearly I’m not too good with languages. So kudos to you! To get started, can you tell us a bit about your new book? How would you describe Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, and what can prospective readers expect?
Barsk can be described as Dune meets The Sixth Sense. With Elephants. In Space.
Mogsy: Now that’s a tagline I can get behind. So, after reading this book, I was just burning to know, what was the impetus behind the ideas of Barsk? What inspired you to feature anthropomorphic animals as your characters?
Lawrence M. Schoen: The very first thoughts of the book came as an off-the-cuff response to an invitation to participate in an RPG based on a popular anthropomorphic comic book of the time. Although the major characters were mostly all cats, I was told I could roll up any species I wanted. For some reason I chose elephants, but then I was told that my choice was not included in the rules. Rather than shrug and pick something else, I began conjuring up the rainy world where these elephants dwelled, a place no traditionally furry race would want to live. And then I was off and running.
Mogsy: In the book’s Acknowledgements, you mentioned how you began writing Barsk almost 30 years ago. Seriously, that’s amazing. What has that journey been like, and were there any surprises along the way? How does it feel now to hold the finished book in your hands, and did Barsk end up the way you’d envisioned it?
Lawrence M. Schoen: The most amazing thing was discovering how little I knew about writing and that I didn’t let that stop me from completing a novel. It’s also what contributed to that original version being a very bad novel. Seriously, it was terrible, chock full of overused literary devices and shameless exposition. The ideas were good, but the execution just wasn’t there. Thankfully, despite my best efforts at the time, no one bought it and I put it away in a drawer and turned my attention to writing other things and acquiring the skills and craft that I needed to tell the story in an effective and compelling way.
I think it’s fair to say that the final book was everything I’d imagined it would be, while at the same time being quite different. There are a couple pieces that are virtually unchanged from the earlier version — most notably the epilogue — but then too the impact of that final scene resonates much more powerfully because of differences that have been made to everything that leads up to it.
The oddest bit is the feeling of suddenly being an overnight success after more than two decades in the business.
Mogsy: Did you have to do any specialized research for the book? What’s the most interesting tidbit you came across?
Lawrence M. Schoen: As you can imagine, I did a lot of research on elephants. The most fascinating thing to me is their ability to generate and respond to infrasonics—frequencies of sound far below the level of human hearing. These sounds can carry for miles! It explains how young elephants can call to their mothers when they become lost in a forest and how females who are receptive to mating can alert males far away.
Mogsy: Speaking of animal behavior, while reading Barsk, it really struck me how all the characters – Jorl, Lirlowil, Druz, etc. – felt at once familiar but also alien to me at the same time. Partly, I think this is due to the fusion of things we know (how animals look and act, for example) along with the strange and unexpected sci-fi elements. What is your approach to the creation of interesting and convincing aliens, and what advice would you give to writers who want to do the same?
Lawrence M. Schoen: Writing about Anthropomorphics is a lot like writing Aliens. The trick is to balance the ways in which they are not like us — whether it be trunks and flapping ears or a silicon-based biochemistry or a language system that requires the ability to emit odors like fifty kinds of spoiled cheese — with familiar things. With Barsk this took a surprising reverse because the familiar bits were the animal traits and behavior and the unfamiliar aspect was seeing how these same things manifested in a sapient, humanoid being.
Mogsy: Can we also geek out about the cover for a bit? I really want to get your comment for this one, because I was stunned when I saw the beautiful art by Victo Ngai. Do you recall your reaction when you first saw it?
Lawrence M. Schoen: When I first saw the cover, I swear to you I laughed, I cried, I fell down, and there’s no doubt that it changed my life. I can’t lie, I simply lucked out. We’ve all heard the horror stories of authors getting covers depicting characters or scenes that couldn’t possibly occur in the novel, and instead here I am, my first time out with a major publisher, and I get what is probably the best art I have seen in more than a decade. I cannot praise Victo Ngai enough, and along the same lines I’m hugely indebted to Tor’s art director, Irene Gallo, for making this happen.
Mogsy: Going back to your involvement with Klingon and the Klingon Language Institute (because I still think that’s the coolest thing ever), what led you to the interest? And out of curiosity, did any of your Star Trek or Klingon experiences play into or influence the making of Barsk?
Lawrence M. Schoen: When I was a young teen, I fell in with a group of college-age and older folk who were amateur linguists playing with Tokien’s Eldarin languages. This was so long ago that he was still alive, and The Silmarillion had not quite come out. Those early experiences marked me, and doubtless started my interest in linguistics. Fast forward twenty years, and I was a psychology professor at a small liberal arts college in northern Illinois, one which was experiencing shrinking enrollments and the need to reduce the size of its faculty to make ends meet. I was the newest hire in the largest department, which meant I was one of four people they marked to let go, but only after giving me a year’s notice so I could try and find another position. While waiting for that to happen I went looking for a distraction. Someone had given me a copy of Marc Okrand’s The Klingon Dictionary and I thought back to that time of playing with Elvish and how it might be fun to do the same thing with Klingon for a few months. It all exploded when the media found out about it and here I am, more than twenty years later.
I don’t doubt that Star Trek in general had an influence in Barsk, if for no other reason than that it shaped my early interest in what we might call space opera. And too, there may be a few Easter eggs in the book that a Klingon speaker could find. Maybe.
Mogsy: Ah, now I wonder. I may have to go back and scour the book for them on my next reread. Continuing with your academic and teaching background, your author page also talks about your career in cognitive psychology with a focus in psycholinguistics, as well as your research into human memory, language, and behavior. How have your professional experiences influenced your writing and storytelling?
Lawrence M. Schoen: As a rule, most of my fiction includes mention of some cognitive or linguistic process. I’m fascinated by memory and language and that can’t help but leak into everything I write.
To go a bit deeper, if more abstract, I need to tell you about the work I did for my master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation. This involved a theory of semantic flexibility that I developed, basically hypothesizing how we represent changes in meaning in the mind. That’s a great background for appreciating the power of narrative in general and the transformational and creative potential of figurative language in particular. So much of storytelling can be described as the manipulation of meaning. Couple that with an appreciation and understanding of the broader cognitive processes that underlie our use of memory and language, and it completely changes the way you think about writing.
Mogsy: What are your future plans? Do you have any other projects you’re working on currently or coming up soon, either writing or non-writing related?
Lawrence M. Schoen: I want to continue to push myself as a writer. The experience of producing Barsk has been incredible and if I had to do it over again it would be a very different book because I think I’ve grown a lot in the process.
I have quite a few books I’m looking forward to writing, including sequels to Barsk; a new Fantasy series that explains the driving force behind civilization and lets me play with cities across seven thousand years of history; a YA book about the modern day descendants of humans who were removed from Earth and enhanced by aliens back during the Bronze Age; and hopefully the remaining books in the story arc of my near-future xenophilic stage hypnotist and his alien companion animal, because they’re always light and fun. So, basically, I’d like to spend the rest of my days as a novelist.
Mogsy: Very excited to hear about your future projects…especially sequels to Barsk! Lawrence, on behalf of the BiblioSanctum, I would like to thank you again for dropping by and answering my questions! Congratulations on your new book and I definitely look forward to reading more by you in the future. Qapla’!
Lawrence M. Schoen: Thank you so much. And remember, laDlu’meH QaQ DaHjaj!
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 LawrenceMSchoen.com and @KlingonGuy.