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Human, Understand Thyself: An Interview with Scott Mackay

scottmackay01.jpgScott Mackay is the critically acclaimed Canadian author of eleven novels and over fifty short stories. In my review of TIDES, I called it “one of the best novels of speculative fiction currently in print.” And it’s still true. Mackay talks with me a little bit about the themes he explores in his novels, both speculative fiction and crime and thriller, his writing process, and what’s wrong with a lot of writing these days.

Grasping for the Wind: Could you tell us a little bit about how you became a writer, and why you write in several different genres?

Mackay: All the members in my immediate family have a strong interest in the arts. My mother is a published writer for young adults, both fiction and non-fiction; my father is a jazz musician;, my older brother is a painter as well as bassist for The Diodes, Canada�s top New Wave band of the 1970s; and my younger brother is a music producer and distributor. In this milieu it was only natural that I should find myself involved in the arts as well. I worked for twenty years as a university-trained classical musician and composer before I turned my attention to writing. In university, I had been writing and sending out stories, even as I pursued my musical studies. By the 1990s I was having greater success with writing than I was with music, even though I continued to play professionally until 2002. As for writing in different genres, it�s primarily science fiction and crime these days, with a smaller amount of literary and mainstream thrown in from time to time. I write in these genres because I enjoy them.

GFTW: Since you write in several different genres, is your approach to writing different for science fiction than mystery or thrillers? What do you do different or the same for each genre of writing?

Mackay: A novel is a novel, regardless of its genre, and my method for each genre is relatively the same.

Starting with ideas, sometimes ideas just come to me, I don�t know from where, and at other times I create them by looking at random song lyrics, taking random sentences out of books, or glancing over various flash fiction pieces on the Internet. I combine these on a page, look at them, let them settle, go back to them, and finally get a spark, or a way to associate these random and raw bits of information into a narrative packet that might have story possibilities.

Once this narrative packet establishes itself, I start to flesh out possible dramatic directions, first by choosing my point of view characters, then understanding their goals, then listing possible obstacles they might face on the way to achieving those goals. At this stage I do everything in pen, creating up to twenty pages of notes. It�s a big mess by the time I finish, and only I can understand it.

From there I do a typed chapter-by-chapter outline. This usually runs from twenty to twenty-five pages of single-spaced 11-point font. I rewrite the chapter-by-chapter outline several times, and along the way I find out what�s going to work in my novel, and what won�t.

Once I�ve done the chapter-by-chapter outline, I let it sit for one or two months, then go back to it. When I let things rest and go back to them I inevitably see glaring inconsistencies, improbabilities, and even impossibilities. So I rewrite the outline several times again. I do a lot of preparation before I write the actual novel because I want to save myself unnecessary work later. Because of all this extensive blueprinting, it would be fair to say that I don�t really write books � I engineer them.

When I write the first draft, it goes quickly. The book I�m working on now, a thriller, came out to 178,000 words in first draft, and this first draft took me only two-and-a-half months to write.

Rewriting takes me the longest because I go over and over a piece, let it sit, then come back to it, then go over it again, often up to fifteen or twenty times, so that once the novel is finished and ready to be shipped to my agent, it�s usually taken me at least eighteen months to complete.

The above method applies to all the genres I write in. If there is an exception, it might be mysteries, where the plot has to be more tightly constructed. With mysteries, the preparation phase might take longer.

GFTW: Why do oceans and the science of oceanography play such a large role in your science fiction novels?

Mackay: I�ve never really thought about this, but if I had to speculate, I would guess that growing up two blocks from Lake Huron as a kid might have had something to do with it. I�ve seen Lake Huron in all its many moods, and in winter, Lake Huron can have some fairly boisterous moods. Other than that, I like the way an ocean creates an atmosphere in a book. I particularly like the way I used the ocean in TIDES, as a kind of purgatory of misunderstanding between two peoples.

GFTW: Many of your novels have something to do with first contact, the idea of two alien cultures encountering one another for the first time. Why do you explore this in your work?

Mackay: As a metaphor, first contact, or at least the concept of �the other� applies to every one of us in our day-to-day lives. We fear �the other� yet hold out hope we may communicate with �the other�, be it our spouse, our boss, a complete stranger, or an alien culture like Islam. Every one of us is in a sense his or her own planet, and every day we must go through hundreds of micro-cosmic first-contact scenarios. We must try to understand new ideas that initially puzzle us. We have to learn to forgive behaviors that we don�t necessarily approve of or understand. We have to untangle miscommunication before it leads to dire consequences. In the case of TIDES it was a benevolent and kind species trying to understand an apparently brutal and criminal one, only to at last understand that there was brutality and kindness on both sides, just as there was benevolence and criminality. We�re all struggling to bridge the communication gap with everyone we meet, or all cultures we encounter, and that�s why I think first contact as a metaphor is such a rewarding theme to work with.

GFTW: In Tides, you explored what it is to be human, and in Phytosphere (my review) you wrote a story about humanity�s desire for independence. Why do you explore these concepts in your work, and do you explore another part of humanity�s thinking in Omega Sol?

Mackay: I explore these themes not only because I wish to understand and even embrace �the other�, but because I want to understand myself, and what it is to be an individual human. These basic human themes are integral to my work. In my new book, Omega Sol, due out this month (May 08) from Roc, I explore another basic human theme, that of belief in a higher power, but take it one science fictional step further and postulate a hyperdimensional part of the universe that in many respects operates on a spiritual plane. I�m not a particularly religious man, have never belonged to any organized congregation, but I recognize humanity�s religious impulse, particularly this notion of a higher plane. And in OMEGA SOL I explore this third essential part of humanity�s thinking by suggesting our religious impulses find their impetus in the arcane realm of subatomic physics.

GFTW: What was the germination of the idea for the phytosphere in Phytosphere?

Mackay: Phyto is Greek for plant, and of course sphere is self explanatory. In Phytosphere, the alien Tarsalans construct a sphere chemically based on ocean phytoplankton to block all sunlight from reaching the earth. But the main idea in Phytosphere isn�t the phytosphere itself but that of darkness entombing the earth. In fact the idea of darkness cloaking the earth twenty-four seven isn�t new, but when I first came up with the idea about fifteen years ago, I thought it was. I have since found several examples, primarily in classic poetry, and even some renditions in the sf field. In any case, darkness twenty-four seven, with all its attendant apocalyptic consequences, appeals to me in much the same way oceans do, as an unstoppable massive force that we can�t control, and that can change the world forever. As far as the Tarsalans using plankton to construct the phytosphere, that was just logic: they needed a cheap abundant building material, and there�s lots of plankton in the ocean

GFTW: In Phytosphere, you follow two brothers, both scientists, but with different methods of arriving at solutions. What was your purpose in having these two threads in the story?

Mackay: I�m giving readers a spoiler alert here. Skip to the next question if you don�t want one of the book�s major narrative tactics revealed.

There are two brothers, one a highly successful, super rich, award-winning scientist who has the full resources of the United States at his disposal to fight the phytosphere. The other brother is in debt, a recovering alcoholic, stuck on the moon, where they have no resources. This second brother is an underdog in every sense of the word. Who is going to be the one to destroy the phytosphere?. Hint: everybody likes to see the underdog win. And so I�ve used these two threads not only to get different views of the unfolding apocalypse, but also as a means to produce narrative gratification for the reader by allowing the underdog to win.

GFTW: There is third plot line in the novel, that of Glenda. Why did you choose to write her story, as well as that of Neil and Gerry?

Mackay: Glenda is underdog Gerry�s wife, and she more or less acts as the correspondent-on-the-ground as the apocalypse of total darkness slowly overtakes the Earth. She also acts as the ticking clock in the novel. Her situation becomes more and more desperate as the novel unfolds. If Gerry can�t solve the problem of the phytosphere before things get too bad for Glenda, she and their children might possibly die. I�ve italicized the word �before� in the above sentence, because it is the ultimate hinge word for any suspense novel, and that�s essentially what Phytosphere is, a suspense novel. Without Glenda�s life at stake, there would be no suspense, just a somewhat interesting scientific puzzle.

GFTW: The blurb for Omega Sol, your newest novel, makes it sound like it is very similar to Phytosphere. What makes Omega Sol distinctive from your previous work?

Mackay: I submitted a half dozen ideas to Anne Sowards, my editor at Roc, and Omega Sol was the one she picked. A lot of people don�t understand that writing for publication is often a collaborative process between writer, agent, editor, and copy-editor. My name�s on the book but we all basically wrote it. The other ideas I sent to Anne were vastly different from Phytosphere, but she thought Omega Sol was the most commercially viable.

During the writing of Omega Sol I essentially realized that it was a sister book to Phytosphere. Phytosphere tells the tale of what would happen if the sun got too dark; Omega Sol recounts what would happen if the sun got too bright. I eventually liked this idea, particularly because Omega Sol embodies many yin-yang principals � opposites in harmony, positive and negative forces balancing the universe. In keeping with this, and on a personal note, I dedicated the two books to identical twin sisters, my eighteen-year-old nieces, Phytosphere to Katie, and Omega Sol to Susanna.

Omega Sol is distinctive from previous work in that it utilizes notions and concepts of subatomic physics, and postulates from them a spiritual basis for the universe.

GFTW: What writers would you say most influence your writing?

Mackay: Honestly, none. I�ve developed my own way of writing through painstaking hard work, and millions of small literary decisions and judgments over the last couple of decades. I would have to say that it�s not writers who influence my work, but writing principles. The kind of writing I like is clean, trim, purposeful, unmuddied, and undigressive. In other words, I don�t like to be bored by lazy thinking or flabby writing. There are few writers I can read these days because they don�t seem to take the time or effort needed to perfect their work the way it should be perfected. Sadly, a majority of bestsellers fit this category. So do a majority of science fiction and especially fantasy novels. Some of the writers I still read, however, are Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Elmore Leonard, and Tom Wolfe. When these writers write, every single word seems to have a job to do. I find that most novels published these days are uninspiring. Within the first page I often discover they break most of the salt-of-the-earth compositional principles I write by. I�m always asking people to recommend good books to me in the hope of finding something halfway decent, but nine times out of ten I�m disappointed. I guess it comes from being too hyper-critical of my own work.

GFTW: Any parting thoughts for people who haven�t read any of your novels yet? Any suggestions as to which one would be best to begin with?

Mackay: You might have heard that writers are a poor judge of their own work. Omnifix was my bestseller, yet I don�t consider it my best novel. I can only tell you the books I�m proudest of. That would be TIDES, which unfortunately was published only in hardcover, but which I think will see publication in a better format some day because of the overall power of the tale. PHYTSOPHERE is another book I�m extremely proud of because it fits together beautifully, and does so because I worked extremely hard on it, sometimes writing and re-writing entire chapters from scratch in order to enhance narrative drive. My newest book OMEGA SOL, is probably the strangest book I�ve written. It tries to describe the indescribable, postulates up twenty-six dimensions, and contends that the basic nature of the universe in predicated on a kind of spiritual binary code. It�s definitely an ideas book, more so than any novel I�ve written, so if you like fairly controversial speculative ideas, it�s definitely something you should try. For further information on my other books, readers can access my website at