Interview with LAWRENCE M. SCHOEN

SchoenLM-AuthorPicLet’s start with an introduction: Who is Lawrence M. Schoen?

What? I thought you knew? Isn’t that why you invited me here? Hmm… this is why they give me those little table tents with my name at conventions, right?

Okay, more seriously I’m yet another overeducated, middle-aged, heterosexual, nearsighted, overweight, bearded, bespectacled, egocentric white male. You know, like usual.

Your new novel, Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, has been published by Tor Books. It looks rather fantastic: How would you introduce it to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?

I made up postcards to describe the novel in under 20 words. Ready?

Prophecy. Intolerance. Loyalty. Conspiracy. Friendship.

A Drug for Speaking to the Dead.

Also Elephants, in Space.

The novel was written to stand alone, but I’m far from done with the universe I’ve built. I see it as the first book in a series, and proposals for two sequels are in the queue on my editor’s desk right now.


What inspired the story? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?

The world of Barsk started as a random idea in response to a Role Playing Game that the roommate of one of my students described to me back in 1989. The characters began to assemble themselves, in part as a response to their environment and in part to just random things floating in my unconscious.

Inspiration is all around us, every day. Some of it resonates, much of it doesn’t — at least not at that time and space. For me, the trick is to start with characters, make them as rich and multi-faceted as possible, and their voices will respond and be influenced by the things around me.

How were you introduced to genre fiction?

I blame my parents. Somehow — despite tight budgets that as a kid I was blissfully unaware of — they always made sure I had a couple bucks every time my grade school teachers sent home the order forms for those old Scholastic Book Club titles. I got hooked very early.

CameronE-WonderfulFlightToMushroomPlanetI also happened to grow up in a town that had a fantastic library adjacent to a popular park. I remember going there, checking out half a dozen books, and then climbing my favorite tree in the park (adjacent to a tennis court) and sitting there all afternoon reading the newly acquired books (and occasionally fending off the wayward tennis ball).

I think my earliest genre reads were Eleanor Cameron’s Mushroom Planet books, followed quickly by the entire Danny Dunn series, and segueing from there to Heinlein’s juveniles and Burroughs’s Barsoom and Amtor series.

How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?

I like it fine, thanks. It’s an odd kind of art, one that you can practice in private at any hour of the day, with or without bothering to put on pants, or out in public spaces, in coffee shops and cafes while surrounded by dozens or even hundreds of people going about their lives.

It never ceases to amaze me when I’m at a convention and people come to my panels or a signing session, having read my work. It’s such a one-sided intimacy: They’ve spent time with something of mine that I’ve poured heart and soul into, theoretically giving them a glimpse of my innermost thoughts, but I don’t know a damn thing about them.

Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?

I’ve made the transition from being a “pantser” to working up a detailed outline of everything I want to have happen in a book, scene by scene, before I sit down to write the thing, basically creating the novel’s skeleton, leaving me the much more enjoyable task of adding the flesh. Having done that, I’ll often bring these “bones” to a small workshop of writers that I’ve partnered with for years and years. They then proceed to beat me up, questioning everything I’ve done so that each detail in the outline serves the story and emerges as a reasonable extension of the characters themselves and not out of convenience or need of the author.

Then I’ll go away, lay these scenes out in a word processing program, and begin filling out each scene, which ends up being utterly different than I imagined they would be, while at the same time being exactly what I wanted. It’s… bizarre.

When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?

I think I always wanted to be a writer, though I didn’t always know that’s what it was called. I wanted to create stories. I used to make them up and speak them aloud to myself as a kid riding my bike around town. I don’t think it ever occurred to me to ask if other kids did that, it’s just what I did.

LewisCS-S2-PerelandraAs a pre-teen I fell in with the local chapter of the Mythopoeic Society, which was basically a group of young adults who wanted to talk about books. I applaud my parents for not freaking out when I would get in a car with some college-age guy who was driving me to a meeting in some stranger’s home three towns over, or not grounding me when I’d come home past curfew, explaining that, sorry, but the discussion of C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra ran late.

I suppose it was a natural extension from talking about other people’s fiction to actively starting on my own, but I don’t recall exactly when it happened. I was too busy doing it to note it keep track.

What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?

I think it’s incredibly healthy, with more talent providing a wider range of perspectives and voices, made available through more markets than ever before. I’m also encouraged by the variety of new models that are gaining traction, like editors using crowdsourcing and cross-pollination to not only bring anthologies forth but to expand the readership of a book’s authors with ebook stretch goals. As well as new spins on the use creative commons licenses. Both of these options speak to what I see as a healthy view of a perspective of abundance (as opposed to scarcity).

It’s true, there’s more competition for readers today than before, but there’s also more avenues and methodologies for not just reaching those readers, but for making a better match between the kind of stuff you write and the ideal reader.

With respect to my own work, it’s that last bit that holds out the most hope and promise.  I never want someone to be disappointed with my work. Rather, I want to put my books in the hands of people who will enjoy the experience. Curation, hand-selling, establishing a reputation and a brand, this is the future that I aspire to, and which I believe is going to be the backbone of the industry. That said, not everything I write is going read like everything else I’ve written. There’s room for authors to aspire to more than a single voice in their work.

Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?

I’ve just started what I hope will be the first book in a new series. It’s a fantasy that is set in modern day Philadelphia, but it involves lost cities through the world, going back to 5000 BC and the beginning of civilization at Uruk. I’m more than a little excited about it.

I have proposals for two sequels to Barsk on my editor’s desk, and I’m hopeful the publisher will pick them up so that perhaps a year from now we’ll be talking about the release of the next book in the series.

And now that the rights to the first two Amazing Conroy novels have reverted to me, I’m hoping to see them repackaged as part of a deal with another publisher who wants to see the rest of the novels I have planned to complete the story arc. At a minimum, I have a publisher in hand for a fourth standalone novella in this series, probably slated for about mid-year. So, yeah, busy-busy.

What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?

I’m in the midst of reading fiction that’s come my way as contenders for nomination for the next season of awards (Nebula and then Hugo). In particular I’ve been delighted by Laura Anne Gilman’s Silver on the Road, which combines a vivid and sympathetic protagonist with an engaging setting and impressive worldbuilding. Also, an author I’d never read before and am feeling dazzled by is Kelly Robson. Go read her novella, Waters of Versailles. Seriously, go do this right now.


What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?

I have almost no music in my life.

I grew up being told I was tone deaf, which is a shame because as it turns out, a) I’m not, and b) I have awesome natural resonance that could have been put to good use.

But other than a very small handful of popular artists from the late 70’s and early 80’s I don’t know squat about music of any kind. I’ve only been to two professional concerts in my life, both around 1989 (which, coincidentally was when I started writing Barsk). One was the opening concert for a Sting tour, and the other was a small performance at Blueberry Hill, a venue in Tampa, Florida, where I sat in the front row for Al Stewart.

Since then I’ve actually had some vocal instruction, and I do listen a bit more to music, but most of the time it’s like the rest of you are speaking a secret language.

What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?

Settling in to writing at least two new books and a novella, all as part of a serious commitment and lifestyle change to being a full time writer (while still keeping a toe in the Day Job world twenty hours a week). Barsk has provided a real turning point for me, an opportunity that I intend to grab with both hands and run with as far and as fast as I can.


Lawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics. He’s also one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Klingon language, and the publisher of a speculative fiction small press, Paper Golem. He’s been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award, the Hugo Award, and the Nebula Award. Lawrence lives near Philadelphia.

For more on Schoen’s work and fiction, be sure to check out his website, and follow him on Twitter and Goodreads.

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