Let’s start with an introduction: Who are Brad Beaulieu and Rob Ziegler?
Brad Beaulieu: I’m the author of Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, an epic fantasy with a strong Arabian Nights feel to it, and The Lays of Anuskaya, another epic, but with windships and elemental magic that was inspired by Muscovite Russia and Ottoman Turkey. Until recently, I was an IT guy, selling and configuring enterprise software for Big Blue. But I’ve recently taken the leap to full-time writing. So I’m also a very scared man. But this is an exciting time. Along with writing a collaborative project here and there (cough cough, The Burning Light, cough), I’m hard at work on the third book in The Song of the Shattered Sands.
Rob Ziegler: I’m the author of the novel Seed. It’s the story of young scavenger-cum-highwayman trying to save his younger brother from a giant agri-corp in a southwest ravaged by climate change. It has the feel of a western by way of The Road Warrior. I write full time. Currently I’m working on my second novel, Angel City, as well as the occasional side project like The Burning Light. Over the years I’ve basically done everything — landscape design, IT, bartending, real estate management. My wife and I live a mostly chill life in western Colorado. We hike a lot.
Tor.com will be published your upcoming novella, The Burning Light. It looks really interesting: How would you introduce it to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?
BB: The Burning Light is an ecopunk thriller set in post-climate change New York, after the waters have risen. It focuses on two characters: Melody Chu, a disgraced government operative, and Zola, a one-time navigator for a shipping conglomerate turned high-tech junkie, and it tells the tale of both racing along the canals of Old New York, now a Venice-like wasteland, trying to unlock the secrets of the Burning Light, a drug that brings a higher level of consciousness but has this nasty habit of leaving dead bodies in its wake.
It’s planned as a stand-alone, but who knows? I’d certainly be open to writing more in this world, because frankly, I think it’s pretty cool.
RZ: I would describe The Burning Light as… what would happen if Theodore Sturgeon had written Trainspotting. Although the setting pretty loudly describes a post-warming world, taking place in the flooded ruins of New York City, really the story’s about these junkies who are addicted the simple transcendence of connection to one another. It asks big questions — What do we become when we’re too connected? And who are we when we can’t connect at all? — but it has a lot of heart. It’s a great adventure.
The Burning Light as part of a series never really occurred to me. It could be. It’s a meaty world; there’s a lot of story still in it. Brad and I did at one time toy idly with the idea of going full novel, so who knows?
What inspired you to write the novella together? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
BB: While I’m largely known as an epic fantasy writer, I do like stretching my science fictional muscles now and again, which was one of the reasons I was excited to write this story with Rob. The other primary reason was simply to have a shared experience with a writer I respect. This novella took a long time to get written, but it was both fun and rewarding along the way. The tale grew in the telling, as did the characters, especially Zola and Melody Chu, and it was intensely interesting to see that happen with another creative mind in the mix.
As far as inspirations, I’m a big believer in the idea net, the notion that we get ideas every single day, but it’s the writer in us that takes those ideas and tries them on for size to see if it would work for a story. If not, perhaps we toss them. Or maybe we jot them down in our idea journal. But the better we are at catching the ideas that inspire us, the better writers we’ll be. After all, it’s those core ideas that can make or break a story well before the writing even begins.
RZ: The idea of collaborating was Brad’s, but I didn’t take much convincing. I’ve known Brad a long time. He’s good company and I’ve always liked his stuff. He and I were talking about this story way back at World Fantasy Con in Toronto. We worked really well together in that brainstorming space, pitching ideas back and forth, figuring out ways mesh each others’ sensibilities. It was a lot of fun. That’s really where the inspiration was for me: sharing this work that’s normally solitary. I think we both sensed there were things we could draw from the other person, and throughout process, both in terms of ideas and creative method, that proved to be true.
Inspiration comes from everywhere. News stories, scientific articles, a movie review I read last week, a sudden insight into the psychology behind a friend’s habit of over sharing. Little pieces are everywhere. What’s important, though, is the work. Everything crystallizes as you do the work. Writing itself is such an act of discovery. As I’m working, all that raw material comes forth in the form of these startling ideas. This only happens if my butt’s in the chair.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
BB: My best friend back in grade school introduced me to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I’m still terribly grateful for it, because I adored those books. To this day, they’re my favorite books. Not that I want to write like Tolkien. His is a style from a different age. But there’s still tons to be learned from how deep and rich the world of Middle Earth is.
RZ: My first experience of genre fiction was westerns. My dad loved westerns. He had entire walls lined with them. I was maybe eight or nine when I began stealing those. I thought I was getting away with something, reading these taboo “grownup” books, but I’m sure my parents were just happy I was reading.
SF I started reading as kid. My older brother was into it, and so of course I thought I should be, too. I began plundering his books. Some classic stuff like Haldeman and Heinlein, but also a lot of really pulpy military SF. I can’t even remember most of those authors. I was playing D&D a lot back then, too, which is what got me hooked on fantasy. I was a really easy target for all the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms stuff, and all the Shannara books. There was Tolkien, too, but Tolkien came from a different direction. I think my mom really liked The Hobbit, so reading that and LoTR had the weight of something passed down. Remember those semi-psychedelic animated Tolkien movies from the seventies? I watched those over and over, with the books in my hands, trying to read scenes from the books as they happened on screen. I couldn’t get enough.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
BB: A loaded question, certainly. I like parts of it. I dislike others. It’s a tough field to be in. It’s hard to make your way, partly because it takes so long to produce a product that can actually be sold on the market. And if you’re going through traditional publishing, a lot of hands have to touch the book, thereby affecting the outcome, before it makes its way to the buying public. That can be both good and bad, depending on the hands who’ve touched it.
But by and large it’s a field I’m grateful to be in. I’m lucky to have landed with wonderful publishers who are doing great things with the books so far. And the writing itself is something I find true joy in. Don’t get me wrong. It’s hard. Harder than I’d ever thought it would be. But it’s also intensely rewarding to create whole worlds from nothing and to have other people read and enjoy it and to share in that experience. The rest, the movie and TV deals, I’m sure are right around the corner. In the meantime, I’ll content myself with losing myself in the worlds I’m creating.
RZ: Well, writing is how I like spending a lot of my time, even if I weren’t producing anything to publish. But I definitely do like having my stuff published.
Writing for a living is a difficult gig. If you want to make real money, you should probably do something else, because making a career of this is a long haul. The ones who do make it work are the ones who are pathologically committed. (See: Bradley Beaulieu.) I’ve been at if for years, and I’m still only in the beginning stages career-wise.
That said, what I love about the industry is the people. Just about everyone I’ve met in publishing has been great, especially the folks working in genre. In genre, everyone is a fan first. Enthusiasm fuels everything in genre. It’s tribal.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
BB: My main thing is consistency. I try to write every day. And by “writing,” I mean brainstorming or editing as well. Excepting the occasional Sanderson, we can’t always be drafting our next novel. (That’s a joke, btw. I’m sure Brandon gives himself a day, maybe a day and a half, to edit his thousand-page novels before moving on to the next book!) Consistency is huge for me. You start losing the thread of the story if you let it go for even a day or two. This writer does, anyway. So even if I’m stuck on a project or not otherwise actively writing, I do try to dedicate at least an hour a day. That’s netted me about a novel a year, more when I add in all the short projects I’ve worked on. Hopefully the output will increase as well now that I’m tackling this thing full-time.
RZ: I write early in the day. If I start writing early, before the critical part of my mind wakes up, I can engage smoothly with the work all day without all my neurotic hang-ups getting in the way. I try to write a thousand words a day, but I’m also learning to let myself relax a bit when I’m feeling burned out.
I do quite a bit of research prior to a project so the early draft can be grounded in solid details. There’s a lot of research on the back end, too, during revision, when I’m making sure I’ve got my facts straight.
Another important practice for me is to always be reading stuff that revs me up and makes me a little bit jealous. To be aspiring, working as much as possible at the edge of my abilities — that’s definitely the best space for me creatively.
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?
BB: It was a really slow transition for me. It took nearly a decade. I started dabbling in college, writing a horribly derivative fantasy novel. I wrote it longhand, actually. I still have that journal somewhere. It was terrible, but it was a start. I started a new novel after college, trying to get more serious about it, but it took me six years or so to get something even close to a first draft. In my early thirties I decided I’d better get serious about it or just set it aside. I started going to writing conventions and conferences, meeting more people. And from there my interest in the craft grew. It became a challenge I was really starting to enjoy. I finally finished that novel, revised it, started sending it out. It was terrible, too, but not quite as terrible as that first novel. It’s been a slow, steady climb ever since.
RZ: Senior year of high school I was in a Latin American lit class where one of our assignments was to write a short story in the style of Gabriel García Márquez. Which, you know, good luck. I didn’t take it seriously. I loved Márquez, but my attitude towards the assignment was, here’s a paper where I can just make some shit up. Fantastic! I thought it would take fifteen minutes. Once I got rolling, though, it consumed me. Scene by scene, line by line, turns out fiction was great for me. I could give myself to it completely.
There was also a deep and immediate sense of participation in this medium that was giving me so much, especially at that time in my life. I was voracious for all kinds of fiction (why I’d taken that lit class in the first place). As I began writing it, I loved the idea that someone someday might find an important personal landmark in something I’d written, the way I was finding landmarks everywhere in the fiction I was reading. These cairns in the wilderness: you have been preceded. You are not lost.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
BB: I think the word of the day in science fiction especially, and fantasy to a lesser degree, is diversity — or, to put a different spin on it, inclusivity. Especially in fantasy, though it’s been true of science fiction as well, we haven’t really had a strong sense of inclusion. Certainly you’ll find examples of stories that include a wide variety of points of view, various cultures, sexual identities, religions (or lack thereof) and so on. But now what we’re seeing is more voices creating a greater variety of stories than we’ve ever had before. And I think it’s wonderful. It’s great to see the field moving more and more toward a big-tent philosophy. It only helps to broaden our idea of what’s possible in spec fic, and brings us stories we might never have seen otherwise.
RZ: SF is important. It’s where we can be constantly asking, what sort of world are we going to encounter? and what sort of world do we want to build? It’s where we can find frameworks and shorthand for coherently dealing with our increasing bizarre modern moment.
What I personally love about SF is that there’s license for anything. You can play it straight, write hard, science-driven stuff. Or you can bend your entire world into metaphor, and get seriously weird. The only rule is, make it interesting. Beyond that, anything goes.
As far as where my work fits in, I try not to think about it. I stay focused on what fascinates me. I write as well as I can about those things, and I keep the faith. If I write good books, they’ll find the right homes and they’ll connect with readers.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
BB: I’m currently working on A Veil of Spears, book three in The Song of the Shattered Sands series. I have several novellas in the Shattered Sands universe that are coming out from various anthologies: Unfettered II from Grim Oak Press, Hath No Fury from Ragnarok Publications, and Evil is a Matter of Perspective from Grimdark Magazine. And lastly, I have a new trilogy that I’m going to embark on next year called The Days of Dust and Ash which sold to DAW Books earlier this year. It’s a science-fantasy that pits high-tech angels and warlocks against the demons of the ashlands.
RZ: As I mentioned above, I’m working on my second novel. Currently titled Angel City, it’s the story of a crooked cop who teams up with an investment quant to investigate the murder of a young celebrity. It takes place in a future LA where all minds are more or less connected, and fame is actual, literal currency. (Connection is a theme with a lot of draw for me, as you’ll see when you read The Burning Light.)
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
BB: In fiction, I’m reading A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, the stories of Dunk and Egg from George R.R. Martin. On deck is V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic. In non-fiction, I’m reading The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians by Peter Heather.
RZ: I skip a lot from book to book. Takes me forever to finish. Here’s a partial list:
- Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, by Cathy O’Neil
- The Killer is Dying, by James Sallis
- The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt
- The Ballad for Rocky Ruiz, by Manuel Ramos
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
BB: That I once developed software for a nuclear power plant in Zion, IL. I worked there for five years, developing software for a nuclear simulator, which was used for training operators of the nuclear plant itself. Shortly after I left, the power company, ComEd, decided to close the plant down. A coincidence? I think not.
RZ: Years ago, for a season or maybe three, I made my living playing Seven Card Stud.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
BB: Oh, gosh. Being honest, it’s seeing how well the Shattered Sands series does after the second book comes out. A lot is riding on that book. I was very pleased with the reception of Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, but a series always seems to be as good as the latest novel. With Blood Upon the Sand, Book Two in the series, drops in February. I’m both excited and terrified as the date creeps ever closer.
RZ: Honestly, I’m dying to finish Angel City. I’ve been working on it a long time. My vision of life on the other side is, you know, rays of sunlight breaking through the clouds to strains of ambient choral music. Cartoon unicorns and bunnies frolicking in meadows. Strangers high-fiving me on the street and breaking coordinated into song-and-dance numbers as I walk by. I am SO ready to be finished, is what I’m saying. I’m also looking forward to ski season.
The Burning Light is published by Tor.com
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