John C. Wright Interview
by Drew Bittner
Review by Drew Bittner
Date: Jan 1, 2006 / Show Official Info /
SFRevu pestered John C. Wright for an interview at the recent World Fantasy Convention. Luckily, the flagrant bribes and flattery worked.
SFRevu: How would you describe Orphans of Chaos to a potential reader?
John C. Wright: I would lie and tell the potential reader that buying Orphans Of Chaos in hardback whitens teeth, sooths gout, impassions virgins, grants good fortune, and restores lost dignities. I would then hint darkly that failure to buy the book in hardback might result in an attack by wild dogs.
Oh, wait. Or do you mean what is the book about?
This is a coming of age story starring young people who do not seem to age. The five children discover their British boarding school is actually a prison, and their teachers are their enemies. The children suspect that they themselves are unearthly beings, who must learn to be human beings before they learn to be adults.
SFRevu: Each of the five children has a unique power, which is explored as the book progresses. Was it ever a challenge keeping their individual paradigms straight?
Wright: Not in the slightest. Anyone can tell the difference between the cosmos of Aristotle and the continuum of Einstein. The metaphysics were spiritualist, dualist, materialist, monist. They are about as different as different can be.
SFRevu: Did you find any of the characters became a favorite or a challenge as the book progressed?
Wright: No. I do not get emotionally involved in my characters. They do their work, and I do mine, and our conduct during the writing process is characterized by a cool professional courtesy.
SFRevu: Without spoiling the book, there's quite a bit of mythology in play here, as well as some complex descriptions of objects in four (and more) dimensions. How was it for you, as the writer, bringing these disparate elements together?
Wright: Well, I am not sure how to answer the question. I left the first three chapters and an outline out on my back doorstep along with a bowl of cream for the elves, and in the morning, the cream was gone and book was written. I suppose they might have had difficulty with some scenes, but no one really knows what elves do when they write a book.
SFRevu: Orphans represents a new genre for you. Was there any resistance from your publisher in stretching your horizons?
Wright: You don't say! And what genre is Orphans Of Chaos?
The question baffles me. Two of the four characters are clearly in a fantasy universe: one believes in shamanism and the other cabalism. Two other characters are clearly in a science fiction universe: one can manipulate molecules and electrons with nanotechnology and the other can warp timespace by manipulating the geometry of the fourth dimension. The only genre I know where a goddess, a robot, a warlock, a psychic, and a fourth-dimensional girl are all in the same school is the superhero comic book. So I suppose this is my first superhero book.
There was no resistance from the publisher. My first sale included both a work of Science Fiction (Golden Age) and a work of Fantasy (Last Guardian Of Everness) to the nice people at Tor books. Tor wisely brought the Science Fiction out first, which generated more notice than my Fantasy work, but the publisher has been buying both my fantasy and science fiction without any hint that the readers might prefer one or the other: I doubt I am famous enough yet for the readers to have any chance to express, in their buying habits, a preference.
SFRevu: Do you intend to return to science fiction or high fantasy?
Wright: Had I left?
With the kind permission of the Van Vogt estate, I am currently writing a sequel to A.E. Van Vogt's World Of Null-A. The book will be called Null-A Continuum. Not only is this Science Fiction but this is as close to John W. Campbell Junior style 1940s hyperactive space opera as I am likely or legally able ever to write. It is science fiction of the kind your father read.
I am also revising drafts of the second and third volumes of my Chronicles of Chaos trilogy, to be titled Fugitives Of Chaos. I also have a space-opera space-war story I am working on, and an eerie bit of fantastic literature about a haunted man in a haunted house.
SFRevu: Are there other genres, (mystery, horror, etc.) that appeal to you?
Wright: I like Raymond Chandler and Maxwell Grant. If only they could have collaborated, we could have seen Phillip Marlowe and Lamont Cranston hunting down Eddy Mars and Shiwan Khan!
Er... Do you mean to write rather than to read? No, I have no plans for anything like that. I don't think I have the temperament for horror or the intellect for mystery.
SFRevu: What do you think is the biggest misconception readers have about novelists?
Wright: Surprisingly few people seem to know that the job consists of oiling motors and adjusting the input reels for the novel-writing machines in the Fiction Department of the Ministry of Truth.
The words are graded by emotional impact and logical connection, and loaded on big drums of tape into the main actuator. The technician sets the switches to gets so many nouns, verbs and adverbs and so on from each tape feed, with an upper and lower settings for sentence lengths and reading level, and which of the six plots comes out in the hopper depends on the punchcards fed through the toothed comb. There is a girl named Julia who feeds the cards in, and she likes fantasy more than science fiction, and so that is why you see more fantasy in bookstores than SF these days.
Many people are astonished at the huge success of Harry Potter, but this is because Julia, who is a big fan, propped a spanner into the gearbox, so that the Schoolboy's Adventure Tale and Ugly Duckling stories got pushed into the high-priority switching chute. I notice also she's been inching the sliding piston controlling book length up into the "Robert Jordan" range.
I wanted my books to have big words in them, so I bribed Julia with my chocolate ration, and she set the vocabulary tolerance dial on my work over to 12, which is the "Sesquipedalian Elite" level: roughly equal to 1250 syllable-pounds of erudition pressure.
When you hear writers in bars grousing about their work, they are really talking about the noise and grime from the primary and secondary plot resolution mechanism, or the hydraulic stamp we use for stereotypes. You can lose a hand in that thing. The main plot-driver is rusty, these days. To get a surprise ending, for example, you need to crawl under the number five outcome-writing org box, and give the slip-wheel a sharp kick.
SFRevu: What do you read for entertainment, and does it influence your work or your approach to writing?
Wright: Currently? I read Gene Wolfe. He is the Master.
Aside from that, most of my reading recently is non-fiction: theology by C.S. Lewis or history by Paul Johnson.
The reading I did in my youth clearly influenced my writing, in tone and style and approach. My two favorite books were World Of Null-A by A.E. Van Vogt and Last And First Men by Olaf Stapledon. The first is a story about an amnesiac superman being hunted by mysterious enemies. The second is about the transhuman races of the far future. So when I set down to write Golden Age, I wrote a story about an amnesiac in the transhuman far future being hunted by mysterious enemies.
SFRevu: Is there any advice you'd give to aspiring writers?
Wright: Yes. Here are the John C. Wright easy-to-remember rules for being a professional writer:
RULE ONE: A professional writer writes. Your brilliant but unfinished manuscript is worthless. Use a quota or use a deadline and get a spouse who understands your neglect of real life, but finish the manuscript. Finish it this year. You can take time to enjoy real life after you win the Hugo.
RULE TWO: A professional writer writes in English. Use correct grammar. Read Elements Of Style. Avoid political correctness. "Don't say "he and she" and don't say "B.C.E." or "Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward All" unless your purpose is to advertise your loyalty to a current political fad.
RULE THREE: A professional writer submits what he writes. No rejected story should sit on your desk more than two days; send it out again; stories must sit on the editor's desk, not yours. Expect to collect, on average, one hundred rejection slips before you make your first sale. This is an average: so for every Lester del Ray who sells his first short story his first try, there is someone else, probably Ray Bradbury, collected two hundred rejections before his first sale.
RULE FOUR: A professional writer submits what he writes in a professional fashion. When submitting any work to any editor, follow his guidelines. If he says he wants white sheet pages typed double spaced one side on heavy bond paper with inch-and-a-half margins SASE and no vampire fiction, do not send him onionskin sheets of purple paper dot-matrix printed in pink ink on both side single spaced a story called Circus Of The Vampires, with return postage stamps folded up in a little plastic baggie inside the envelope. He will correctly assume your lack of courtesy shows you do not have the discipline needed to be a writer.
RULE FIVE: A professional writer is paid for what he writes; he does not pay another to write or read his work. Do not submit stories to plot-doctors, rewriting services, or contests charging an entry fee, or magazines charging a reading fee. Do not give away any money at any time for any reason, except for postage. Your agent is paid out of the money he gets for you.
SFRevu: Was there anything else you'd like to add?
Wright: Yes. Buying my books in hardback whitens teeth, sooths gout, impassions virgins, grants good fortune, and restores lost dignities. Mrs. Vinolent Mugwump of Tenafly, New Jersey failed to buy Orphans Of Chaos in hardback, and was savaged by wild dogs! Coincidence? Perhaps. But why take the chance? Order it! Now!
The pleasure is mine.
(Interviewer disclaimer: John C. Wright is a friend, which in no way detracts from his outstanding qualities as a novelist)