Friday, September 7, 2012

An Interview with Scott Fitzgerald Gray

Today, I am very pleased to share this interview I conducted with Scott Fitzgerald Gray, author of the science fiction novel We Can Be Heroes (see the SpecFicPick Book Feature here). Scott describes himself as a specially constructed biogenetic simulacrum built around an array of experimental consciousness-sharing techniques—a product of the finest minds of Canadian science until the grant money ran out. Accidentally set loose during an unauthorized midnight rave at the lab, the S.F. Gray entity is currently at large amongst an unsuspecting populace, where his work as an author, screenwriter, editor, RPG designer, and story editor for feature film keeps him off the streets.

Michael K. Rose: Scott, I'd like to start by asking a question I ask the writers I interview for my webzine SpecFicPick. I know you already answered it when I interviewed you for the site in July, but I'd like to ask it again because I think it offers a fantastic insight into not only the mind of a particular writer, but into the shared culture of speculative fiction writers: What role do you believe speculative fiction plays in society?

Scott Fitzgerald Gray: I mostly just repeat what people far smarter than me have already said in response to this question, which is that speculative fiction is a literature of unrestricted ideas. SF is a place where literally any question can be asked dramatically—questions of technology, sociology, culture, ethics, morality—with the ramifications and repercussions of those questions generating new questions in the reader. A kind of catalytic cycle of ideas and philosophy, as it were. When I answered the same question on the site in July, I mentioned how the use of “speculative fiction” as opposed to “science fiction” sums up my own personal take on the genre, which at its best is about wrapping the live wires of raw ideas in the protective sheath of narrative so that we can grab onto them without killing ourselves. Speculative fiction is an exchange of raw ideas and unbridled imagination, and shows us how to map those ideas onto the framework of human experience. There's absolutely nothing wrong with analyzing or exposing the big questions of life through philosophy or history or sociology or any other strictly academic pursuit. But in the end, academic analysis can rarely hit us in the heart like speculative fiction can—and it's when we get hit in the heart that we really start to care about things.

MKR: I, too, am drawn to speculative fiction because of it's ability to act as a catalyst for ideas. I believe that if we want our society to continue in a generally positive direction, we need more literature that does this as opposed to the generally meaningless pop fiction that seems to dominate the bestsellers lists. Do you think it is the responsibility of all writers to hit someone "in the heart," as you say? How much room should we allow for those who only want to entertain? In other words, what would be your ideal ratio for meaningful fiction versus entertaining pop fiction?

SFG: I don’t have a problem with people who want to write solely to entertain, or with people whose purpose in reading is just to be entertained. But I think stories that pack a real emotional punch are invariably better stories than those that shoot for mere entertainment—and as writers, I think we should all be obsessed with telling the best possible stories. I don’t view it merely as a social or intellectual obligation. To me, there’s never been a conflict between stories that entertain and stories rich in meaning and ideas, because I think the best stories do both. Whether you’re talking about George R.R. Martin or Frank Herbert, André Norton or Marion Zimmer Bradley, Hemingway or Joseph Conrad, there’s a vast field of popular writers whose works manage to marry exciting narrative and bold ideas, and those are the writers whose creative example I desperately try to follow.

Having said that, though, I’m not sure that there is an optimal ratio, just because the balance really depends on the story. As an example, it’s interesting to think about The Lord of the Rings and the films based on that novel. A book like The Lord of the Rings is necessarily built on the intellectual foundations of its historical backstory. Without that backstory, it’s hard to imagine the book being as amazing as it is. But at the same time, the films were forced to dispense with a lot of that backstory strictly because of time constraints, yet the films still managed to create a story that’s emotionally compelling in its own way.

MKR: I fully agree with you that the best stories contain both elements. However, it is my opinion that (unfortunately) much of what is "popular" is geared almost exclusively for entertainment as opposed to delivering meaningful ideas. As a writer, do you find yourself intentionally trying to insert meaning into your work, or does it happen naturally? Do you give serious thought to elements like themes and motifs?

SFG: Full (and equally unfortunate) agreement. But from my perspective, I think it’s important to say that I don’t think it’s all that much harder to write emotionally compelling, thoughtful, character-driven fiction than it is to write fiction that’s just entertaining. I think some writers might believe otherwise, though, and I think writers are sometimes reluctant to dig deeper into their stories because they’ve gotten used to simply writing on the surface. Delivering meaningful ideas in fiction is really just a matter of wanting to explore those meaningful ideas. As writers, if we have the will to push a story, the story will respond.

As far as analyzing the process by which I cram meaning into my own work, I’m not sure that “intentionally” is as apt a word as “compulsively.” It’s not like I craft a story and then look for places to nail down the thematic elements and the big ideas and the deeper character story. Those elements just kind of come together in the process of digging into the story. Sometimes you start out with an idea or theme that you know you want to explore, whether it be something like emotional loss, the perspective of madness, political allegory, or what have you. But sometimes you just start out with raw plot and the inclination to tell a story that’s exciting and memorable—only to discover that themes and motifs you never expected to focus on have woven themselves into the work and demand that you address them. One of the things I’m very evangelistic about as a writer is outlining, and I think that my own process of outlining has a lot to do with how my stories unfold and expand on different levels. Working on an outline, I feel like I’m working with story at its most primal, and it’s easy to see themes and motifs unfold at that level of raw narrative energy.

MKR: Can you tell me a bit about your most recent work, We Can Be Heroes, and the meaningful ideas you compulsively explore in it?

SFG: LOL, etc. But the new book is actually a pretty good example, because it was a story in which I both started with some specific themes I wanted to explore, then found myself exploring new things in the course of the writing that I hadn’t expected to. Without giving too much away, one of the Big Points in the book is to examine the notion of what it means to be truly alive versus what it means to just go through the motions of life. What is human versus what only appears to be human—which is a concept I hope a lot of people know because it’s a big part of the work of Philip K. Dick, and his books were a huge inspiration for We Can Be Heroes. Not in the sense that I think the book feels in any way like a PKD novel, but because my inspiration for that underlying theme came about as a response to his work, and to parallel questions raised by William Gibson in Neuromancer. But even as I knew from the get-go that those ideas were ones I wanted to explore in the story, I discovered that as the story took shape, I was inspired to dig a lot more into personal themes of isolation, alienation, and love than I had originally intended.

In its earliest outline-level incarnation, the story was more focused on the action/adventure side of things. And though there’s still plenty of that in the book, and though the characters were strong enough in the original concept, the character story got stronger as I reworked the outline and the writing eventually kicked into gear. A couple of the darker plot points and the mechanics of the relationships between the characters were things that came very late to the narrative mix, because I discovered that the more things I threw at the characters, the more resilient they were forced to become and the stronger their story became. There’s a line very near the front of the book (in the chapter that relates the significance of the title) that talks about living in a world in which telling someone you love them is the bravest thing you’ll ever do. That became one of the key meaningful ideas in the book, and was one of the last parts of the book I wrote, and I would never have predicted at the outset that it would have become as important an idea as it did.

MKR: Thank you for your great answers, Scott. Is there anything else you'd like to mention or links you’d  like to share?

SFG: Thanks to you for the questions, and for the chance to prattle on. As far as links to share, I’d be cementing my reputation as the worst self-promoter on earth if I didn't mention my website as a good place to go for more info on my writing and other projects (including an extended free sample of We Can Be Heroes. But for more useful information of benefit to the struggling writer, I’m a big fan of the collective of voices that is the AmWriting blog (to which I’m an occasional contributor), Phil Athans’ Fantasy Writer’s Handbook, David Farland’s Writing Tips, and Chuck Wendig’s TerribleMinds. I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to be a part of the community of writers, and particularly the community of fantasists. Being able to share the experience of, and the ideas underlying, a book like We Can Be Heroes is a huge treat, so thanks.

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