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SFFWRTCHT: A Chat With Author S.M. Stirling

Born in France but Canadian by origin and American by naturalization, S.M. Stirling resides with his wife in New Mexico at present. His hobbies are mostly related to the craft—a love of history, anthropology and archaeology, and a deep interest in the sciences. His main hobby involves the martial arts. His novel series include ShadowspawnThe Change, The Fifth Millennium, The Flight Engineer and many more. His stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies such as Alternate Generals, Flights of Fantasy, and Better Off Dead. He can be found through his website at

SFFWRTCHT: How do you define epic fantasy? And what are its key elements in your mind?

S.M. STIRLING: I’d say the “fantasy” is more a matter of flavor than of anything more specific.  The gap between “mad science” or the ultimate end-of-time transhuman powers on the one side, and the magic and deities of fantasy is a bit arbitrary, and many authors have been playing with it. “Epic” generally means the scope of the issues involved in the conflicts which drive the story — and here conflict means far more than simple physical struggle thought that is often involved.

SFFWRTCHT: Where did your interest in science fiction and fantasy come from?

SMS: From my earliest youth!  I started with fairy stories and moved on from there, through Burroughs and the pulps, and also the ‘classics’ — such as the Iliad.

SFFWRTCHT: When did you start writing seriously and how long until your first sale?

SMS: I’d been telling and writing down stories before my teens.  My first sale was in the early 80’s, though that was to a quarter-cent a word magazine that went belly-up before using the story, which was published 20 years later after rights were sold and resold.  My first commercial North American sale and my first novel (Snow Brother, NAL/Signet) were only a little later.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you study creative writing at all in school? How’d you learn your craft?

SMS: I took literature courses in university (dual History/English major) but I can’t say they were all that useful, except that they involved a lot of reading.  I’m suspicious of being taught writing by people who don’t do it for a living!  The most useful course I took was in high school, where a teacher gave me and a few others a ream of paper and told us to write a novel, with weekly consultations with him and each other. I did, and it was a terrible novel, but I learned a great deal from the process.  I remember that teacher very fondly.

SFFWRTCHT: You’ve written eleven novels of The Change. Tell us how the idea for that world and plotline came about?

SMS: The idea for Island In The Sea Of Time came to me while I was on Nantucket; my wife and I honeymooned there in 1988, and we go back more years than not.  We were walking on the beach and saw the lights of a ship going past; I mused to myself that the island felt isolated, but wasn’t.  Then I wondered what would make it really isolated; then we turned around and went back to the hotel so I could write down the ideas. After that, I had a grand-eschatological framework for why that time-travel Event took place, and it implied interesting things at the other end.  Eventually I got around to writing that!

SFFWRTCHT: It’s an interesting setting—a mix of medieval high fantasy type tropes set in a postapocalyptic United States. How much of the back story have you thought through?

SMS: Well, the things that happen in the book I’m working on now (Lord Of Mountains, due out in September of 2012) were directly foreshadowed in the prophetic scene which ends Dies The Fire.  In other words, I had it planned.

SFFWRTCHT: Had you plotted out the entire series before writing or do you just keep coming up with new ideas?

SMS: I know the grand outlines; much of the intervening plot bubbles up from time to time.

SFFWRTCHT: The latest book is The Tears Of The Sun. In it, High King of Montival Rudy Mackenzie, aka Artos, must face and defeat the forces of the Church Universal and Triumphant. All else depends on it and he knows the battle cost may be high, even his own life. Is this the final book you’ve planned or are there more?

SMS: Originally I was going to end the confrontation with the Church Universal and Triumphant which forms the story arc that began with The Sunrise Lands in this book.  Tears turned out to be two books, though, so there will be another, Lord Of Mountains. Then there’s one more, The Given Sacrifice, which fulfills several prophecies.  After that… we’ll see.  I designed this ‘universe’ as a broad setting!

SFFWRTCHT: Are the books chronological or do they skip around?

SMS: They’re pretty much chronological, or at least as much as ones set in a cyclical universe can be.

SFFWRTCHT: There are a lot of characters and POVs to follow. Do you have a system for keeping track?

SMS: I more or less wing it; I’ve lived with these people a long time.  My first readers tell me if the POV switching gets confusing, in which case I slap my head and fix it.

SFFWRTCHT: Are there any new characters or are all the major characters carried over from the prior books?

SMS: Minor characters become major ones, and there are some who are introduced but remain offstage… for now.

SFFWRTCHT: I called this epic fantasy, but do you define the genre differently?

SMS: That’s fair.  In the strictest technical sense it’s science fiction, but certainly not hard science fiction.  Clarke’s Law comes into play.

SFFWRTCHT: The Church here represents a kind of evil force. Is that at all inspired by your own feelings about organized religion?

SMS: Oh, certainly not.  The Church Universal and Triumphant is an actual theosophical cult, but even they aren’t evil in the real world (weird, yes, evil, no).  I’m an atheist myself, but plenty of extremely smart people have been and are religious in various flavors; I don’t think that belief makes you stupid or bad.  In fact, I also don’t think that atheists will ever be the majority of humanity, as religion serves genuine needs.

SFFWRTCHT: You have several interesting major female characters, particularly Ritva Havel and Asgerd. Is it more challenging getting inside the minds of female characters than male? How do you approach writing female leads differently? Or do you?

SMS: Well, when I’m writing from someone whose life experience is very different from mine I always run it past someone more similar to the character (where possible — transhumans and Gods are scarce) so that I won’t make obvious mistakes.  As the saying goes, it isn’t what you don’t know that’ll kill you, it’s what you think you know that ain’t so. This has saved me from some embarrassing errors.

That being said, I’ve always used a lot of female POV characters.  It just feels natural.  Characters usually “come to me” in what amount to waking dreams, or very vivid daydreams; then I develop them.  That involves conscious invention, but the original process is more… mmm, “organic” would be the way I’d describe it.

SFFWRTCHT: How much research did you do for your worldbuilding?

SMS: Almost infinite amounts!  Research is my hobby; I read textbooks on economic history and anthropology and so forth for fun.  My problem is stopping the research at some point; also making sure that I don’t overburden the book with it.  Nine-tenths isn’t in the book, but its presence is important, like the submerged part of an iceberg.  A world should feel ‘thick’ and lived-in, not as if it’s a false-front when the characters aren’t there.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing process like? Specific time set aside to write? Grab it when you can?

SMS: A mixture. Usually I get up around 10:00 am, head to my favorite diner, have lunch, answer my email, and write 500 or more words.  Then my wife picks me up, we go to the gym for three hours, then dinner, then I write another 500 or more words. We hit the hay about 2:00 am.  Writers may write about exciting things, but they tend to live rather routine lives. Even Hemmingway said that you could tell the real writers from the phonies on the Left Bank in his day by the time of day they started drinking and talking about literature; the real ones wrote first. (Picasso said that poseurs talked about the philosophy of art; art students talked about composition; real painters talked about where you could get good brushes, cheap.)

SFFWRTCHT: What role do beta readers play for you in the process now that you have a publisher?

SMS: At the publisher, not much.  I have first readers and a writer’s group that meets once a month.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you use outlines or character sketches? Special software? Music?

SMS: I make notes, which occasionally get attached to the book as appendices.  I usually don’t use an outline unless I’m collaborating, which I haven’t done recently. My software is boringly conventional;  MS Word.   Music is important to my writing, selected to accompany the mood.  My Change books are written to the music of Trixy Pixie, Heather Dale, and similar artists, for instance.

SFFWRTCHT: What projects are you working on for the future that we can look forward to?

SMS: Tight now I’m finishing Lord Of Mountains, the next Change book after The Tears Of The Sun.  Then I’ll do the third and final Shadowspan book (in the sequence that began with A Taint In The Blood and The Council Of Shadows; my working title is A Shadow Of Falling Night.) That will work out my current contract.  I have ideas for books after that — the Change series isn’t complete, and I’m kicking around an alternate-history setting in the 1920’s.  With Zeppelins!

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the forthcoming space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host ofScience Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.