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A Plague on Both Your Houses: An Interview with Jeff Carlson

Jeff Carlson is the popular author of the Plague trilogy, three novels about an out of control nanotechnology that forces humanity to live above ten thousand feet. The first book in the trilogy, “Plague Year” has been optioned for a movie by Jim McNally of Seven Seas. Visit the author’s website, or read my review of “Plague Year” to learn more.

Grasping for the Wind: Plague Year, Plague War, and next year’s Mind Plague comprise a near-future trilogy in which the remnants of humankind survive only above 10,000 feet elevation due to an out-of-control nanotechnology that destroys all warm-blooded creatures except at low air densities. What was the genesis for the story, and what research did you do in order to make the science true to life?

Jeff Carlson:The core concept was easy. I grew up skiing and backpacking in the Sierra Nevada and, to a lesser extent, in the Rockies. My wife and I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, so we’re within easy driving distance of the mountains… and we never wanted to have to go back to work! Sometimes, in fact, we’d call in Monday morning to report that we were snowed in. You know, it certainly wouldn’t be safe to drive home today. Probably we’d better stay. And if we’re here, well, gosh, we might as well get some fresh tracks in the powder! Ha ha.

As a writer, though, I began to play with that idea a bit more. What if we really couldn’t go home again? Pretty soon you find yourself in Donner Party scenarios… and then I thought, what if that was happening everywhere in the world?

Believe it or not, I’m actually a very happy normal family guy. Once you accept the basic premise, though, things get tense in a hurry, which makes for some excellent storytelling. I ran with it.

Originally the problem in the book was a virus, but I couldn’t make a virus obey a barrier. It kept coming up over the entire mountain and killing everybody. There’s not much of a story there, or, at least, it would be a very different story, and what continues to fascinate me about the storyline as I’m working on Mind Plague is that people can be remarkably clever and tough. If there’s any chance, they’ll find it. We’re the smartest, most persistent creatures ever to walk the face of the Earth, and I wanted my heroes to have a chance to overcome the plague. It’s a slim chance to be sure, but it’s there, and it drives the story nicely.

As for the actual science in the Plague novels, I’m also fortunate that we live near Silicon Valley, where science and tech companies abound. There’s a lot of fascinating stuff being published in nanotechnology these days. People really are developing nanobots to fight cancer, for example, and they’re as excited about what they’re doing as I am about my writing. They like to talk about it. I read extensively in the field, attended seminars, made some contacts, and then mercilessly hounded them via email.

The nanotech in the books is 100% real.

GFTW: You damage and even kill characters your readers come to like. Were these a conscious decisions, or did the plot necessitate it?

JC: My favorite character in the original Star Wars movies in Wedge, a guy who survives in the background for all three episodes. I think he says about twelve words in A New Hope. He’s a random X-Wing pilot in the attack on the Death Star. Later, in The Empire Strikes Back, he seems to have moved up a bit, and by Return Of The Jedi he’s a squad leader.

What the heck am I talking about? Well, I think Wedge is probably the most real-to-life aspect of those movies. For me, it detracts from a story when you know that the heroine will always be a hot, buxom chick who prances through hails of gunfire without a scratch — or if the hero is always a chiseled smart-aleck (good with the ladies, of course) who also seems to find himself unscathed while hundreds of spear carriers fall bloodily around him.

In real life, even the good guys bleed. And die.

I don’t go into the books evilly rubbing my hands together, plotting the death of a fan favorite. Sometimes the good guys are just backed so far into a corner that not everybody is going to make it out.

GFTW: If you could describe your Plague series in one sentence, what would you say?

JC: Some genius at Ace wrote the tagline across the top of the first book, which I absolutely love. “The next breath you take will kill you.” I never would have thought of that myself, because sometimes I can be too literal, and you can also get the nanotech through your eyes or breaks in your skin. But those eight words capture the tone of the book perfectly. I hope it’s what the movie poster will say!!!

If I’m pitching the book myself in a single sentence, though, it has to be the core concept:

“Everyone in the world needs to be above 10,000 feet or they die.”

If I get two sentences, I would add, “Chaos ensues.”

GFTW: Writing suspense can be difficult. What writing tools or tricks do you use to generate that intense level of suspense?

JC: A lot of this goes back to the idea that the heroes cannot be immortal. None of us are invulnerable, and, if you want readers to care about your characters, the people in the book need to be like the people in the real world. We’re all at risk. Sure, sometimes the heroes are larger than life, but if they’re really just James Bond and Lara Croft, it’s hard to get as involved with them as you might with someone who’s a more realistic reflection of yourself…

And it’s not enough that the characters’ lives are in danger. In thrillers, people’s lives are always in danger. That their souls or their honor are at stake means far more. There must be a personal cost even if the story’s about the end of the world. The larger drama is never as fascinating as the individual risk and our deepest fears and hopes.

Also, the formidable Tim Powers taught me that in every scene there should be at least two things happening. A car chase isn’t enough. While they’re careening around and exchanging gunfire with the bad guys, the heroes must also be arguing, or feeling doubt, or falling in love, or something. The most gripping scenes are the ones with multiple layers of conflict.

GFTW: Politics plays a role in your first book, and becomes increasing important in the second. Why is politics and its effect on scientific research so integral to your story?

JC: In one of my favorite old Heinlein novels, Double Star, Dak Broadbent is a simple, footloose pilot who takes on a critical role in government even though his frustration and the long hours he spends haggling in congress seem out of character. When asked why… I’m going to grab the book off my shelf… when asked why, he remarks, “Brother, until you’ve been in politics you haven’t been alive. [snip] It’s rough and sometimes it’s dirty and it’s always hard work and tedious details. But it’s the only sport for grownups.”

None of us exists in a vacuum. How we deal with allies and enemies is a huge part of our success or failure. In the Plague novels, the geopolitical map has changed beyond recognition. I couldn’t ignore the pressures that would arise… and, heck, those layers of tension and intrigue were great fun to work in the story.

GFTW: What was your reaction to your (unfortunately ineligible) nomination for this year’s John W. Campbell Award For Best New Writer?

JC: Ooh! Ouch! A barbed question! Take it out! Take it out!

Ha ha. As you might expect, I was less than excited to withdraw my name from the shortlist, but I knew I was ineligible, it had said that I was ineligible on the Campbell Award admin site… and yet I still got a fair number of preliminary votes. That’s awesome.

Of course I wanted to win, although I think the favorite this year was going to be Mary Robinette Kowal no matter how you shake it.

Still, there was a bizarre rule change in 2005. Otherwise I would have been on the ballot. Here’s how it works: You’re only eligible for the award for two years after your first pro sale. In 2003, I sold two early short stories to Strange Horizons, which at the time was not considered a pro market by the Campbell Award administrators. After that, things were fairly quiet for me, because we started having babies and I was working on the book By 2007, though, I had stories in Asimov’s and Writers of the Future XXIII, plus the release of Plague Year. During that time, I learned the Campbell Award administrators had declared Strange Horizons a pro market in 2005, which is great — it’s a solid webzine. But the weird part was that the administrators also declared all prior sales to Strange Horizons to qualify retroactively as if they’d been pro sales in 2005, no matter when they’d actually appeared. This decision simplified the paperwork, I’m sure! But it really cleaned my clock. My eligibility expired just after Plague Year was published, and of course all of the Campbell votes had been cast months before then by the supporting and attending members of the WorldCon in Yokohama, Japan, very few of whom I’m sure were aware of me at that point.

When I got an email earlier this year to say I’d made the shortlist, I thought they must have reversed the ruling, re-reversing the retroactivity (try saying that five times in a hurry!). Alas, no.

I lost one night of sleep over it — too excited — but otherwise, again, it was fantastic just to get some votes. My books are doing better than average here in North America. They’ve been picked up in major deals overseas, and more are in the works. Recorded Books released Plague Year on CD. There’s film interest. I really can’t complain. Writing has become a full-time job for me, and that’s gratifying as heck. I appreciate people’s enthusiasm more than I can say.

GFTW: A fan of yours recently organized a VIP tour of the high security NORAD complex while you were in Denver for this year’s WorldCon. What was your reaction, and can we expect to see the experience integrated into future books or stories?

JC: Last year I was also lucky enough to tour the Jet Propulsion Labs in Pasadena, and I have to confess that JPL was sexier. They had robots! NORAD was more impressive as a large-scale feat of engineering and construction, ever-evolving computer technology — and lifetimes of discipline and vigilance.

As a tech guy, I ate it up with both eyeballs, but there were no red phones and no big red button. Contrary to popular opinion, they don’t launch the missiles from NORAD. Or so they claimed! Probably they were afraid to let a bunch of writers near the wrong control panels, ha ha.

The timing for the tour couldn’t have been better. I’ve been planning to use NORAD as one of the main settings of my fourth solo novel, a new, big thriller that I can’t tell you anything about! Top secret. But the opportunity to walk through the base for some first-hand research was ideal, and Colonel Lihani has been a great asset to me for other questions and background about the USAF.

GFTW: When not being a writer, what do you spend your time doing?

JC: Hunting and eating my neighbors.

No, I’m kidding. We ski and backpack and swim and bike and read and do a lot of laundry. We have kids.

GFTW: In order to promote your novels, you and Adad Warda put together a short film entitled “4 Minutes Above 10,000 Feet.” Why did you choose to make a live action promo, and what was involved in the process?

JC: That particular choice was easy. My understanding is that many of those graphics-driven book trailers cost a good four figures, and very few of us have our publishers picking up the tab, so the math just didn’t make sense to me. There would have been no book trailer.

By yet another stroke of good fortune, however, one of my friends, Adad, is a professional cinematographer and a mad genius! He has his own camera, sound, and editing equipment, and he suggest that we try to put something together. I wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity like that! We started scripting some ideas…

…and would you believe that “4 Minutes Above 10,000 Feet” only cost me a tank of gas, several sandwiches, a twelve-pack of Pepsi, and some licensing fees for the soundtrack? Adad and I drove into the Sierras one day, shot the whole thing from sun up to sun down. Shazam! I must have run and hiked over a mile to get those two hundred and forty seconds right, but it was more than worth it. Acting out scenes from the books was great fun, from playing Blair Witch in the freaky opening sequence to ducking the space shuttle as it came roaring out of the sky. Ha!
Editing the footage turned out to be the bigger challenge. Much like writing, assembling the shots required a lot of patience and hard choices. I thought it was intriguing as hell, because the process was all new to me, whereas Adad simply buckled down and ground through the work with remarkable focus. I can’t give him enough praise.

As a footnote, the poor bastard at the end of the film is Chuck Keen, another friend who joined us for the day. He’s in the credits as “Special thanks to Charles Keen,” and no wonder!

GFTW: You write both short fiction and novel length works. Is there anything different about your writing process for each? Do you plan your stories out ahead of time, or are you an off-the-cuff sort of writer?

JC: Short stories are more difficult than novels for me. Sure, book-length works take more time, but trying to fit an entire plot and a character arc into forty pages, much less a B story, can be a real challenge. It’s like trying to fit 600 pieces into a 500 piece puzzle, if that makes sense. Some ideas won’t support a longer piece, though. They’re just naturally short and sweet, and it’s nice to bang out something that doesn’t take ten or twelve months.

I do always have a strong feeling for where the story is going. Sometimes, though, especially with the books, the characters surprise me. As the puzzle falls together, a hero or a bad guy might see an opening that I hadn’t planned for, and I have to honor that. I let them go for it. I was always a reader first, and writing for me has become that same sort of entertainment, only more demanding and intensive. Usually, I’m in control of the process, but it’s always the most fun when the people in the book take over.

Read chapters from the first two novels, watch an HD version of the book trailer, read his blog, and learn more about Jeff at www.jverse.com. You can also read two of Jeff’s short fiction pieces at Strange Horizons.