As a part of our "subtle" campaing to get Ian Sales nominated in the awards season, the British author has been so kind as to answer some questions posed by Leticia Lara (from the wonderful Fantástica-Ficción) and this humble blogger. We recommend reading this interview, since Ian Sales gives quite a lot of insights on the current state of hard science fiction, self-publishing, fandom and a lot of other topics. Hope you enjoy it!
Leticia Lara & Odo: When did you know you wanted to become a writer? Which other authors have influenced you? Is there any current writer that you admire?
Ian Sales: I don’t think I ever wanted to be a writer. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut, of course; then an engineer, then I fancied a career in the armed forces… I pretty much drifted into writing much as I drifted into my current occupation as a database administrator.
There are plenty of authors I admire, both genre writers and non-genre. Lawrence Durrell is an obvious choice - I’m a bit of a Durrell collector, as a matter of fact. Other writers I admire include, in no particular order, Gwyneth Jones, Paul Park, Anthony Burgess, Mary Gentle, John Crowley, Malcolm Lowry, Paul Scott, DG Compton, Samuel R Delany, David Herter, M John Harrison, Karen Joy Fowler, Katie Ward, Hanan al-Shaykh, Sara Paretsky, Kim Stanley Robinson, Joanna Russ...
As for influences on my own writing… Jed Mercurio almost certainly, and astronaut Thomas Stafford’s autobiography was a definite influence on the Apollo Quartet. I discovered a long time ago that a lot of the science fiction I enjoy I’m incapable of writing myself, so I can’t really count such books as influences. I think much of my present writing has been inspired by real-world things - achievements such as Piccard and Walsh visiting Challenger Deep in 1960 in the bathyscaphe Trieste, or NASA putting twelve men on the Moon; or by people who did extraordinary things for the most ordinary of reasons.
LL&O: You’re known to have strong opinions on what SF should be. Do you think reviews shouldn’t take into account personal relationships?
IS: That probably comes from my day-job. As a database administrator, I manipulate metaphors in order to perform mathematical operations on data sets, but I also have to understand what’s going on underneath. I believe you have to understand how something works before you can begin to dismantle it. Too much sf makes superficial use of the tropes associated with the genre - although, to be fair, that practice has been occurring since sf’s beginning, with all those boys’ own adventures in space stories. I think it’s much more interesting to look at why those tropes exist, what they actually mean, and then re-engineer them from that. I’m not too keen on the current fad for using tropes from all manner of genres and subgenres as it strikes me as little more than special effects, without any real interrogation of either science fiction or literature.
I’m acquainted with a lot of published science fiction writers, so if I were to only review people I didn’t know I might as well give up reviewing now… Reviewers should above all be honest - that doesn’t necessarily mean publicising their relationship with the writer of the book under review, but it certainly means they must be rigorously honest in their response to the book. I try to be objective, but some things - tropes, stories, characters, prose-style... - are going to push my buttons more than others and it’s only human to respond more positively to those.
IS: I don’t know how it changed my life because I don’t know what my life would have been like if I hadn’t grown up in the Middle East. Perhaps I’d never have gone to university, perhaps I’d have married in my early twenties, had kids and a mortgage, and ended up working in retail management or something…
Living and working in the Gulf has had one very real effect on my writing. I joined a subscription library shortly after I moved to the UAE to work, and it had only a small sf section. So I read a lot of literary fiction. I’d been reading it before, of course; but infrequently - and certainly not so much that I appreciated its qualities more than I did science fiction’s qualities. Which is what I found myself doing. My early attempts at sf stories back in the late 1980s and early 1990s were very much core genre, written in a similar mode to the sf I’d been reading for nearly two decades. Now I much prefer to approach genre conceits from a different angle of attack.
LL&O: In The Apollo Quartet you include lots of details about the Apollo Program and about actual spaceships. Why are you so fascinated with space travel? And what kind of research did you conduct in order to write these stories?
IS: I think it’s the fact of actually being there that fascinates me - what did it feel like? No fiction I’ve read has managed to get that across, and while there are hints and snippets in various astronauts’ autobiographies, they’re more interested in documenting their achievements than in providing a vicarious re-enactment for the reader. And then there’s the engineering side of it. It wasn’t some magical new science that put twelve men on the Moon, it was engineering - taking known science and building something which could do something no one had ever tried before. About five or six years ago, my childhood interest in space travel was re-ignited after reading Andrew Smith’s Moondust, so I started collecting books on the topic. I set up a blog to review books from my collection, but it was a while before I decided to make use of them in my fiction.
Pretty much all of the research in the Apollo Quartet has come from three sources: books, such as astronaut autobiographies, or NASA technical and historical manuals; online websites, like Wikipedia or NASA’s Apollo Lunar Surface Journal; or documentaries, such as In the Shadow of the Moon, For All Mankind or They Should Have Gone to the Moon. Much as I’d like to visit Baikonur, or fly on a Soyuz spacecraft, I don’t have the contacts or the tens millions of dollars for a ticket to the ISS.
LL&O: How do you cope with your day-time job and your writing? What are the differences and the similarities between writing fiction and writing code?
IS: I work four days a week, which gives me a three-day weekend for my writing. I’ve not noticed any similarities between the SQL or perl I write at work and the prose I struggle over during the weekend. I do try to front-load the work when I’m writing, which is something I’ve carried over from the day-job.
IS: I don’t think Adrift on the Sea of Rains would have won an award if it hadn’t been for social media. I used the social capital I’d amassed during my years as a science fiction fan to get the novella in front of people who would talk about it, and to get it reviewed in as many places as I could. It paid off. Since I self-published it, I didn’t have a marketing machine behind me, so I was forced to use what resources I had. However, I didn’t make the same effort with the second book, The Eye with Which The Universe Beholds Itself, and though many of those who have read it have said they prefer it to the first book, the novella’s profile is nowhere near as high as that of Adrift on the Sea of Rains. Perhaps Adrift on the Sea of Rains had the advantage of novelty value - despite having a dozen or so stories published in small magazines or anthologies, I wasn’t really known as a writer. And, of course, with its glossary, and the style in which it’s written, Adrift on the Sea of Rains is very different to much other sf or space fiction.
I also use social media to keep people up to date with what’s happening with the Apollo Quartet and my small press, Whippleshield Books. I have a blog dedicated to Whippleshield, but I usually tweet under my own name, and occasionally release news on my personal blog first as it has more followers.
LL&O: Why did you begin writing your blog? How did you choose the name “It doesn’t have to be right…”?
IS: I started a blog because everyone else seemed to have one. I’d been in an APA for around ten years - that’s where a group of people each write a monthly contribution, send copies to an administrator, and then receive an envelope containing everyone’s contribution for that month. But the APA had folded shortly after I returned to the UK in 2002, a victim of the increasing ubiquity of the internet. A blog, although less of a “conversation” than an APA, seemed like a natural successor.
The title was a joke phrase I’d used at work - “it doesn’t have to be right, it just has to sound plausible” - to explain how to describe technical things to management. When I decided to start up a blog, a friend pointed out it was the obvious choice.
LL&O: In your blog you have published a number of posts on female SF writers and you curate the SF Mistressworks site. What do you think is the situation of women in science fiction at the moment?
IS: The situation is better than it was a couple of years ago, but not as good as it should be. It’s never approached parity, of course, although there’s no good reason why not. I’m seeing a lot of people now talking about current women sf writers, but there’s still very little being said about women’s past contributions to the genre. It’s almost as if people imagine things used to be fine, but around the turn of the century they took a down-swing. That’s simply not true. Women writers have always been marginalised in science fiction. In the fifty years since the Hugo Award began, Best Novel has been won sixteen times by women - and that’s by only nine women, four wins by Bujold, three by Willis, and two by both Cherryh and Le Guin. It’s all very well mobilising the fanbases of present-day female genre writers, but I’d sooner demonstrate the presence of women in sf’s history - and the sheer quality of their books - so that present-day parity comes to be seen as an obvious consequence of that history.
LL&O: Could you tell our readers what Whippleshield Books is and why you decided to create it? How do you think that ebooks and self-publishing will affect the book industry in the following years? Do you think that working on things such as book layout stops you from writing more?
IS: I knew when I started writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains that it was going to be difficult, if not impossible, to sell - all those acronyms, a 12-page glossary, the rocket science... I did approach a couple of small presses, but I think I always knew I was going to have publish it myself. And if I was going to do that, I wanted to do a proper job of it - set up a small press which focused on a particular type of sf, publish books as limited edition hardbacks, paperbacks and ebooks. So that’s where Whippleshield Books came from.
The layout actually takes very little time. I have a template, and I write using that, so I can see how the finished book will look as I’m writing it. I may tweak it a little once I’m finished, but as a general rule by the time the writing has finished the book is pretty much print-ready. I did the cover art for Adrift on the Sea of Rains - as I had done for Rocket Science - but I asked my sister, Kay Sales, to design the covers for The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. Much as I used long “literary” titles to signal that the novellas were not typical science fiction, so I wanted the design of the books to also confound genre readers’ expectations. I didn’t want the sort of cover art you normally find on sf novels, but something more representational, sort of like one of those old Penguin paperbacks from the 1960s. We’re actually in the process of designing new cover art for a second edition of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself. Since the printer I originally used has gone out of business, I’ll be using CreateSpace for paperbacks editions from now on, so I felt it was a good opportunity to bring out a fresh edition. We’ll be doing the same with Adrift on the Sea of Rains too.
IS: It validated my decision to write and self-publish Adrift on the Sea of Rains. I’d been surprised by the positive response to the novella - I’d thought it too unlike anything else to be successful. Happily, I was proven wrong.
In terms of sales, two mentions in the Guardian newspaper have had a greater impact. But winning the award has certainly meant my writing is now being taken more seriously than it was. Unfortunately, I’m not very prolific - if I were, I could possibly capitalise on my win by submitting lots of stories to magazines...
LL&O: Do you know any Spanish writer? Have you ever been contacted by some Spanish publisher to translate your books?
IS: Personally? Or that I’ve read? I did try a Javier Marías novel, but I didn’t finish it - although I plan to return to the book some time this year.
So far, I’ve not been approached by any publisher looking to do a translated edition of the Apollo Quartet.
LL&O: Are you planning to publish a single hardcover with the four Apollo Quartet stories? Will Rocket Science appear in ebook edition in the near future? And what's next in store for you after The Apollo Quartet? Could you give us a sneak peek on your future projects?
IS: An omnibus edition is appealing, but I think I’ll wait until someone else makes an offer to publish one. Rocket Science, unfortunately, is out of my hands - it’s up to the publisher to do the ebook edition, and I’ve not heard from him for almost six months.
The next book of the Apollo Quartet is All That Outer Space Allows and, unlike the other three, it won’t be alternate history or science fiction. It’s set during the actual Apollo programme, and told from the point of view of an astronaut’s wife. I suspect it’s going to be the hardest of the four to write, but I hope to have it out by Loncon 3 in August 2014.
I also have a bunch of short stories I need to get finished, so I can start submitting them to magazines and anthologies. I’m not the most prolific of writers - and the sort of fiction I write is often hard to sell, which doesn’t exactly help matters. Most of the stories are literary sf, much like the Apollo Quartet - such as ‘Our Glorious Socialist Future Among the Stars!’, which is about a Soviet mission to Mars with Yuri Gagarin. I’ve also thinking of re-engineering a number of common urban fantasy tropes in stories - I’ve already written one featuring angels, used in a way I suspect they’ve never been used before. At longer lengths, this year I plan to start on a novel about the first crewed mission to leave the Solar System, which will be similar in style to the Apollo Quartet and feature some strange Russian philosophy.
LL&O: Where can our readers learn more about you and your work?
LL&O: Any other thing you'd like to add?
IS: Nope, I think I’ve covered everything. I should add that Adrift on the Sea of Rains is still available in paperback and ebook formats, The Eye with Which The Universe Beholds Itself and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above are available in signed and numbered hardback, paperback and ebook editions. They can be bought from shop.whippleshieldbooks.com, and ebook-only editions from Amazon and Kobo.
LL&O: Thank you very much for your time and your answers!
(You can also read this interview in Spanish at Fantástica-Ficción/También puedes leer esta entrevista en español en Fantástica-Ficción)
(You can also read this interview in Spanish at Fantástica-Ficción/También puedes leer esta entrevista en español en Fantástica-Ficción)