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Interview: Mark Budz by Ernest Lilley
Review by Ernest Lilley
Mark Budz  
Date: 05 June 2007

Links: Feature Review: Till Human Voices Wake Us / Author's Website /

Mark Budz is one of those authors that follows Bruce Sterling's advice, to be led by his own weird. While that may take others into odd cross genre fantasies his weird leads him to do some real examination of what the consequences of technology are for the people in his stories. The more I reflect on his new book (Till Human Voices Wake Us) the more powerful a work it becomes for me, which isn't a bad test of a book at all.

The Current Book:

SFRevu: I love the title of Till Human Voices Wake Us, but didn't get it until I finished the book, and then I was blown away by the actual poem it comes from. Did you proceed from title to book, and are you a fan of Eliot, and what does the poem say to you? (we've got a link to the full text in a sidebar)

Till Human Voices Wake Us
is taken from the last stanza of the poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

...I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us,
and we drown.

Mark Budz: I actually had a different working title for the book. "Till Human Voices Wake Us" didn't end up being the final title until very late in the process. I've enjoyed T.S. Eliot for a long time, since college, and when I started trying to come up with a final title that line jumped out as eerily appropriate give the main theme I was dealing with in the book. I'll be the first to admit there's a lot in Eliot I don't understand -- I'm not as well-versed in the Classics as I should be. But "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" has always been a favorite, maybe because it seems to be fairly accessible (at least on the surface) in its description of an aging man wrestling with the passage of time, identity, self-worth, and the trivialities upon which his life has been constructed. So for me the poem is about waking up to the kind of life one has led, seeing it finally and clearly in the face of larger existential questions, and trying to decide if it's possible to extract some measure of meaning out of that life and what's left of it. Which is pretty much what the main character in the book is trying to do in each of the story lines.

SFRevu: How did this one come about? In Clade you explored a lot of social issues through the lens of nanotechnology and you worked with smart matter in Idolon. What are you exploring in Till Human Voices Wake Us?

Mark: Till Human Voices Wake Us basically started out as a psychological exploration. Initially, I was interested in what type of person might want to have her/his consciousness digitized and why. Then I started to wonder what would happen if a posthuman mind suffered the equivalent of a mental trauma or breakdown. So in the book you've got the physical trauma from a motorcycle accident and a brain tumor mirroring the information/memory loss from a cosmic event. In THVWU the issues being explored are a lot more personal than social. A few years ago my mother-in-law suffered an aneurysm, and after brain surgery had to go through the process of waking up and putting her life back together. Watching that process informed a lot of what takes place in THVWU. It was a struggle for everyone involved. Fortunately she pulled through with flying colors (all things considered), and is doing very well even though she's not *exactly* the person she was before the aneurysm. The differences are fairly minor, but they're there.

SFRevu: I struggled with the book until I got to the end, then I found that I liked it more and more. At first I was annoyed because you kept jumping back and forth between timelines, but gradually I understood what was going on and it started to be fun. Does that make sense from your side of the mirror? Is it supposed to be a bit confusing as you read it? In my review I suggest that you're trying to create the kind of confusion in the reader that the character(s) are going through. The critical thing I missed for far too long was how important the titles were in Olavo's different chapters.

Mark: Yeah, having three different time-lines, and jumping back and forth between them, was a huge concern from the get-go, for exactly the reason you outlined. First off, I wasn't sure I could bring everything together in a satisfying conclusion (I'm still not sure I succeeded!). Second, I was worried that readers might be confused and not stick with the stories long enough for the connections to start kicking in. That was a big risk, and your experience makes total sense from my side of things. I just hope there's a big enough pay-off at the end to justify any initial confusion. I'm still worried about that a bit. I tried to use the chapter titles to help cue the reader, but I know that readers (myself included) sometimes gloss over those signposts. I wanted what was going on to be mysterious in the beginning, and perhaps a little confusing because as you say, the characters are confused. But I didn't want people to be so confused that they got frustrated. It's a fine line I was trying to walk.

SFRevu: In your bio you mention that the "...consequences of it (war) seem(s) to be a recurring theme for me," and that you're "wary of institutionalized thought." Till Human Voices... shows a lot of the latter, but none of the former, and considering current events it's not like there's a shortage of war to riff of off. Did you steer away from it on purpose?

Mark: I didn't consciously steer away from dealing with questions of war in THVWU. It just didn't seem to be part of the story I was trying to tell. Looking back on that comment, it seems that questions about war have tended to show up a little more in my short fiction than novels. I'm not sure why. Maybe because I'm not ready to tackle the issue of war on a larger scale yet and tend to keep the focus a little smaller in scale.

and Writing:

SFRevu: I gather that you started out in a writer's workshop, in Eugene Oregon. How did that come about and what did it do for you? What was it, by the way, and do you keep in touch with any of the other members? (Bruce Holland Rogers?)

Mark: I moved to Eugene from Denver because I wanted to try to write full-time, and at the time Eugene was cheap and I had a friend I could live with. I didn't get involved with the workshop until I'd been there for about a year. The local SF/F bookstore, Escape Books, had a flier about the workshop (which was open to anyone), and I figured it was time to get some critiques. It was a great experience, the feedback I got was invaluable. I learned a lot about character, story structure, etc. Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch ran the workshop, which also included Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Jerry Oltion, Ray Vukcevich (who I think joined a few weeks before me) and Steve and Chris York. This was back in 1988 (before Bruce Holland Rogers, Jay Lake, and some of the other members of the current Eugene writing community came on board). I moved from Eugene to the Santa Cruz area in 1991, but I still keep in touch with Jerry, Nina, Ray, Steve and Chris.

SFRevu: In your Locus 2005 interview you said Bruce Sterling told you to "follow your weird," and it was the best advice you've gotten. Now, we all know what that means, sort of, but what does it mean to you, and where is your weird leading you?

Mark: Well, he didn't actually tell me that in person -- it was from an essay he'd written -- but it basically freed me up to write what I wanted, not what I thought would be marketable. When you're first starting out and trying to get published, it's easy to look at what's getting published and think that you have to do the same thing (or something similar) because that's (obviously) what sells. There are a number of problems with this logic, but one of the big ones is lack of originality. If you follow your weird (or at least if I do), the odds are pretty good that the result will be less derivative and more interesting than if you're simply writing for the market.

SFRevu: You've now been writing full time for a little over fifteen years, how's it going? What's changed over the course of the first three books?

Mark: Hmmm, that's a tough one. I still can't support myself as a full-time writer. I still have a day job. On the other hand I've sold four books and have ideas/outlines for half a dozen or more. I can't honestly say that it's gotten any easier to write the books. As I grow as a writer, the scope of my projects grows, so I'm always having to stretch. Each book presents it's own unique set of problems. Nothing I write ever turns out the way I envision -- the book/story/scene in my head is always better than the one that makes it onto the page. But every now and then I surprise myself and get close, and that's a good feeling. If anything's changed, I would have to say that I think I have a little better sense of whether an idea is viable or not. Early on, that wasn't always the case. I wrote a lot of stories that never panned out. But that's part of the process.

Looking Backwards:

SFRevu: We know that you were born in NJ, and that your dad worked for the park service. Were you old enough to remember NJ or did place start to leave an impression later?

Mark: I don't remember NJ at all. I was two when we moved to Arizona, and that's the first place I have any solid memory of. I think my earliest memory is of my sister (one year younger than me) standing on a porch in a dress.

SFRevu: What did your dad do, and did it translate into a terrific boyhood in the wilderness or just a fragmented life? What did you take away from you childhood travels that show up in your writing?

Mark: My dad was a landscape architect for the National Park Service, which is different from the Forest Service. In Arizona, he designed signs and picnic areas for the Lake Powell recreation area. Most of the time he worked out of an office. There wasn't much in the way of wilderness outings, back country backpacking, or that sort of thing. It wasn't that kind of job, even though we moved every few years. But because we moved around so much, I didn't identify with any particular place the way some people do. There wasn't any one environment I felt rooted in or thought of as home. That's pretty much stayed with me. I don't get homesick. I can more or less live anywhere.

SFRevu: What were your early genre influences? Do you remember if there was any book that turned on a light switch for you?

Mark: My earliest genre influence was Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan and Barsoom books. I started out reading comics, DC and Marvel mostly. The first book I ever read was one of the Tarzan books (I can't remember which one). But what I do remember is that it was a big step because there weren't any pictures, just words. Once I figured out that the words were just as good as pictures (maybe better in some ways because I could create the world I wanted) I was hooked. The first SF book I read was Cities in Flight. That was another big step, because it told me that I didn't have to know what all the terminology meant to figure out the story -- and that after a while I could even figure out the terminology. That was very liberating and empowering. I knew then that I could read anything, and that an infinite number of worlds had opened up to me.

and Forwards:

SFRevu: You've got a list of important books on your website, but what have you been reading recently that intrigued you, and of course, why?

Mark: I haven't been as diligent as I'd hoped in updating the list. When I first put it up, I intended to keep it current. The reason I included the list on my site is that I'm always curious what other authors read, it gives me a little insight into them as a writer and a person. Here's a more up-to-date list of what I've read:

Fiction

    All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. People kept telling me that he was an incredible writer, and they're right. He's an amazing stylist. He can say more in five words than most writers can in twenty.

    Stamping Butterflies by Jon Courtenay Grimwood. I just like the way he writes. He creates believable worlds and people, in gritty but poetic detail.

    Perdido Street Station and The Scar by China Miéville. I love the way he combines genres to complete worlds that are utterly fantastical and yet meaningful.

    Diaspora by Greg Egan. This book is so hard it's like hitting your head against stainless steel, but I found the end to be really poignant.

    The Return of the Dancing Master by Henning Mankell. Right now, he's one of my favorite mystery writers. He does a great job of capturing setting and mood while exploring social issues.

Nonfiction
    The End of Faith by Sam Harris. If the validity of science is going to be questioned, why shouldn't the validity of religion?

    Play Between Worlds by T.L. Taylor. An interesting exploration of the social dynamics of MMOG's (Massively Multi-player Online Games).

SFRevu: For a technical guy with an engineering degree you seem to have a strong literary bent. Did you take a wrong turn getting into the technical world at an early age, and how did you relate to literature in school?

Mark: I've always been interested in both literature and science. I ended up getting an engineering degree as a fallback position in case the writing didn't work out. The typical hedge-your-bet compromise. In retrospect I wish I'd focused on the writing a little earlier. The engineering training was useful, I really had to apply myself to do well at it and that has come in handy with the writing as well. If I had to do it over again, I'd probably study philosophy and biology since that's more in keeping with the direction I tend to take in my writing.

SFRevu: When did you discover poetry, and if I can ask a stupid question, should it rhyme? (for me, that's yes; but only if it's something I want to memorize which I enjoy occasionally). If it's free verse, how do we know it's poetry and not just blather?

Mark: I got interested in haiku in college, about the same time I got interested in Zen Buddhism and other religious traditions (I was raised Catholic). For me, poetry doesn't need to rhyme. I don't think it needs to, to be effective. But if it doesn't rhyme, I think there should be some structure (cadence, word breaks, visual effect) that differentiates it in some way from regular text to emphasize or deemphasize certain images, thoughts, and so on in a way that normal text can't. I like haiku because it's a kind of snapshot, captured in words, that helps me see and appreciate the world, as it is.

SFRevu: Not only do you write haiku, you do it engagingly, and with the net up (5, 7, 5 syllables [on], a season word [kigo]). Can you give us one on "Till Human Voices"?

Mark: Let's see...

Half asleep today
after a night of bad dreams
and distant starlight.
I don't know if that applies or not, but that's the best I can do at the moment.

Where Do You Go From Here?

SFRevu: Do you know what the next book is yet, and how is it coming?

Mark: I know what book I'd like to write next, and have a general outline. But I'm still very much in the initial development stage and it's a bit early to get into specifics. All I can say for sure is that it won't be like any of the others.

SFRevu: What are you doing outside of writing that expands your sense of self?

Mark: I recently took up yoga. I did it for general health reasons (to counteract crouching over a keyboard all day), but for mental and spiritual reasons as well. On one level it's very meditative, but at the same time keeps me grounded in myself and the world. I also try to work out at a gym on a regular basis. It's a great way to burn off tension, and helps free up my mind. When I feel physically fit, I feel mentally fit.

SFRevu: Thank you for your time, Mark

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