Talking with Ti
with Ti Mikkel
Q&A with David D. Levine
by Ti Mikkel
TI: I’m always curious to hear everyone’s Wild Cards origin story and where they were when George R. R. Martin called. What’s yours?
DAVID: I started reading the Wild Cards series with its initial paperback publication of book 1 in 1987. The universe was amazing, and collaborating with a group of other writers on a project like that was something I could only hope and dream of doing. Flash forward to 2007. In the intervening years I became a writer, sold some stories, won some awards. Then I read in Locus that the series, which had been dormant for years, was about to be revived. With a freshly-awarded Hugo in my hands, I managed to find the temerity to query George about the possibility of playing in the Wild Cards sandbox. He very kindly explained that the first trilogy of revived books was already in progress but he’d keep me in mind for the future. “Be warned, though,” he said, “Wild Cards is not an easy gig.”
TI: Fortune favors the bold. I love that you took the initiative and called him. It worked apparently.
DAVID: Two years passed. Then I met George at a Worldcon party and he gestured me out into the hall. We’re just starting up a new Wild Cards trilogy, he said; if you’re still interested, the thing to do is to pitch a character. If I’m still interested. Ha.
TI: I’ve heard from others that character selection is not a simple process. Did you find that to be the case?
DAVID: I came up with several character sketches and sent them in. George smacked them down with brilliant, cogent observations about how they’re too obvious, too limited, too powerful, too similar to existing characters (he has every detail about the entire series in his head, I swear). Under George’s tutelage I combined two of them, rewrote, revised, expanded. Finally I came up with a character he liked: Tion James, aka The Recycler. Tion was accepted into the Wild Cards universe, and I officially became the 32nd member of the Wild Cards consortium.
TI: Let’s expand on The Recycler. Who or what inspired him?
DAVID: The Recycler was my audition piece for the Wild Cards consortium, and was inspired by and originally intended for The Committee (as seen in INSIDE STRAIGHT, BUSTED FLUSH, and SUICIDE KINGS). But I didn’t join the consortium until after the Committee Triad was complete, and his powers were out of line for the Fort Freak Triad which followed, so he remained on the shelf until I was asked to remake him as a minor character for HIGH STAKES. At that time I changed him from New Yorker Tion James to Tiago Gonçalves, a denizen of the slums of Rio. The new characters in HIGH STAKES were mostly non-Americans and I picked Rio because George had earlier mentioned that GAME OF THRONES is incredibly popular in Brazil and he wanted to add some Brazilian characters to Wild Cards to thank them for their support. This turned out to be a very good choice for me, because after The Recycler’s first solo appearance in “Discards” at Tor.com, George’s Brazilian publisher bought the Brazilian Portuguese rights and republished the story as a standalone chapbook.
TI: How about the Cartoonist?
DAVID: The Cartoonist was originally invented to fill in a gap in Wild Cards Volume 1. He would have been involved in the underground comics scene in San Francisco in 1966; I had some notion that R. Crumb might have based his cartoons on Eddie’s characters. George preferred the Stopwatch / U2 Crisis idea, but liked the Cartoonist character, so we repurposed him as the Fort Freak sketch artist (changing his personal history but leaving his description, powers, and personality intact).
TI: Who has been the most challenging character you’ve created?
DAVID: Eddie, the Cartoonist, has been difficult to write because his experience and outlook are so different from my own. His powers also make him challenging to create stories around, because he’s secretive, isolated, and weak (his cartoon characters, although they are more than just illusions, are fragile and have little physical strength). He’s also kind of an unpleasant person, although in his first outing in LOWBALL I gave him a character arc that moved him from peeping Tom to reluctant hero. Still, he is an unusual, complex person and his very limitations make him an interesting challenge to write. Being an ugly, physically limited antihero, he’s not the kind of character who would appear in most comic books or science fiction stories.
TI: I’ve always thought it would be difficult to write for another author’s character, and you did exactly that when writing for Ed Bryant’s Sewer Jack in Mississippi Roll. What was that like?
DAVID: It wasn’t difficult, exactly, to write Sewer Jack. I’m familiar with his existing adventures and have a pretty good sense of him as a character. However, it’s been quite a while since he appeared on the page and I had to figure out what had happened to him in the meantime and how he had changed. It was also a little intimidating to tackle such a well known and beloved character. I was, at least, able to get Ed Bryant’s approval to write his character, though he did not have a chance to approve the manuscript before he passed on.
TI: Let’s move onto the craft itself. Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
DAVID: The most important advice I have for new writers is PERSISTENCE. This isn’t an easy business, and it’s almost inevitable that you will face rejection after rejection. It is absolutely vital to keep writing, keep submitting, and not give up until you achieve your goal. But persistence alone, although necessary, isn’t sufficient. You also have to seek feedback on your writing, and incorporate that feedback mindfully. Always seek to improve your craft, no matter how successful you become.
TI: Do you do any research for your writing?
DAVID: Tons. The weird thing is that for stuff like orbital mechanics, stellar evolution, and quantum physics I can usually pull the information out of my head (at least good enough for science fiction) but if I’m writing about an Italian family in 1932 or a person with diabetes I wind up with research materials spread out on the floor all around my writing chair. When writing about The Recycler (the revised Brazilian version) I had a whole stack of books checked out of the library and watched a couple of movies about the favelas of Rio, and for the ARABELLA OF MARS books I built up a whole shelf of reference books as well as several browser tabs I never closed for the five years I was writing the series.
TI: Do you write seven days a week? Do you prefer the morning or evening?
DAVID: Ha! These days I’m lucky to write one day a week. But I’ve been in a serious lull recently, due to some personal crises, and hope to get back to my previous habits of 3-5 days a week. My best writing times are either midmorning (10am-12pm) or midafternoon (2-4pm) but I’ve also been a late-night writer when my days were too busy. I am NOT a morning person.
TI: Have you ever faced writer’s block?
DAVID: I’m currently in the midst of a very long stretch without producing any new material (though I have been making extensive notes on a new novel project). I thought I had broken the streak last year, but then I had a medical emergency that put me in the hospital and I was unable to write again. I know that professionals write no matter the circumstances, so this inability to produce has been extremely frustrating to me and threatens my self-image. I can’t really tell you how I’ll get out of this, but I am confident that I will eventually. It seems important to feed my head with reading and new experiences and to not beat myself up about not being productive. But it’s hard.
TI: I believe in you! You mentioned reading–what’s on your nightstand right now?
DAVID: At the moment I’m reading an ARC of RUIN OF KINGS by Jenn Lyons, and it’s brilliant. I’m particularly enamored of the dueling unreliable narrators.
TI: How about TV–binge watching anything interesting right now?
DAVID: On television I’ve been enjoying THE GOOD PLACE, which is not only brilliantly written and acted but also raises some important philosophical and theological questions. I have a lot of problems with the whole concept of eternal reward or punishment for deeds in our finite lives, and this TV comedy tackles them head-on.
TI: Who is your favorite author?
DAVID: It’s so hard to choose just one, but my single favorite author is probably Iain [M] Banks, who combined a brilliant and fundamentally positive imagination with a bitingly cynical attitude and phenomenal prose. My biggest regret is that he wasn’t able to attend the Scottish Worldcon, so I never met him.
TI: Tell me a little bit about where you grew up. What was your childhood like?
DAVID: I was born in Minneapolis and moved to Milwaukee when I was six, where I lived until college. I had a charming middle-class life as the only child of a college professor and a freelance researcher. I never wanted for love or material things, was supported in my ambitions, and got to do some foreign travel. I recognize that I have an amazing amount of privilege and I always try to use it to benefit those who haven’t had my advantages.
TI: Supportive parents for the win!Did you know when you were a kid that writing was the job you wanted?
DAVID: Sort of? I was writing science fiction stories as early as third or fourth grade, and in college I was encouraged to submit my stories to professional markets. But I never considered writing as a career; as a kid I wanted to be a scientist (specialty unspecified) and in high school and college I alternated between theatre and architecture. Writing was always a sidelight for me, never a career goal, and even now that I’m writing full time it’s not my full-time job. I am retired after 20+ years in high tech, and that pays the bills.
TI: That’s so interesting. You mentioned your parents earlier. A college professor and researcher. Were they members of the creative class or have creative habits? Did they encourage writing or science?
DAVID: My dad was educated as a physicist and worked as a professor of computer science for most of his life. My mom built a series of careers around the general idea of being an independent researcher (first in libraries, then online) and also ran an art gallery. They were very supportive of my creative ambitions, including the five years or so I thought I would make a career in technical theatre, and my dad tells me every time we talk how proud he is of me, and how proud my mom would be if she were still around.
TI: My heart just grew three sizes. I love your parents. Is it safe to say they were your biggest sources of encouragement?
DAVID: My dad is probably my biggest influencer. For one thing, he was an SF reader during the Golden Age of SF and shared several of those stories with me (including MISSION OF GRAVITY and GRAVY PLANET) as bedtime stories. For another, he set me up with a word processor (this was in the early 1970s on a timeshared computer!) which allowed me to submit the first completely typo-free story my sixth grade teacher had ever seen. I’ve been using computers for writing ever since.
TI: Aside from your amazing parents, do you have a writing role model?
DAVID: My writing role model is Mary Robinette Kowal, who has made brilliant careers in multiple creative fields simultaneously, never gives up no matter what life throws at her, never hesitates to help those most in need of help, and looks fantastic while doing it all. I’m also inspired by Walter Jon Williams, who writes in just about every genre, keeps up the work through success and failure, and always shares his knowledge with newer writers.
TI: George R. R. Martin has been a part of the genre fantasy community for years. Do you consider yourself a convention-goer?
DAVID: Heavens yes. I attended my first convention in 1977, at the age of 16, and have been to about 4-5 conventions a year ever since… that adds up to around 200 cons so far. I have missed only two Worldcons since my first one (1983) and I’m a regular at OryCon, Norwescon, Wiscon, and the World Fantasy Convention among others. I began helping to run conventions in 1978 and have chaired a couple, run major departments at several, and volunteered at dozens, though I’ve been less active in convention-running since my writing career began to take off. Although I still enjoy attending conventions, my experience of them as a writer is quite different from my experience as a reader and fan. I now feel a lot of responsibility to “perform” at cons, which suits my hammy nature but costs me a lot more energy than just attending. Still, I love to travel and cons provide a great excuse to visit cities and countries I might not have otherwise seen.
TI: In 2010 you spent two weeks at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. How did that come about?
DAVID: The MDRS experience started with a blog post in late 2009 in which I listed some space-related wish-list items, ranging from Space Camp to the actual International Space Station. At that time I had only a vague notion that there was such a thing as a simulated Mars base. A friend of mine had contacts in the Mars Society and put me in touch with someone who told me that all positions for the current season were full, but I might as well submit an application anyway because sometimes people have to drop out at the last minute. I did so, and two weeks later I got an email: someone had to drop out at the last minute, can you spend two weeks in Utah… later this month? Well, as it happens, I could! So I did.
TI: Fantastic. So what’s Mars like?
DAVID: MDRS was a life-changing experience for me in a lot of ways. I pushed my physical and emotional limits and found myself doing things I’d never anticipated possible. The most important thing I learned was that on the frontier (by which I mean any place that is physically separated from the comforts of civilization, like hardware stores) you are constantly faced with unexpected problems and must improvise a solution from whatever resources you have, whether local or brought with you. Every day on Mars is like that scene in APOLLO 13 where the engineer dumps a whole bunch of stuff on a table and says “we need to make THIS fit into THAT using only THIS stuff.”
TI: Well that’s horrifying. Would you volunteer for the first manned mission to the red planet?
DAVID: Heck no! I like my creature comforts, thank you very much, and a trip to Mars is a minimum of six months each way in extremely uncomfortable and dangerous conditions. If I really enjoyed that sort of thing, I’d be a mountain climber or deep-sea diver and not a science fiction writer.
TI: Any interesting projects in the pipeline?
DAVID: As I mentioned above, I’m currently kind of blocked, but I am working (very slowly) on a “space opera caper picture” novel tentatively titled BREAKOUT. I describe it as a mashup of FIREFLY and LEVERAGE in the universe of THE EXPANSE. I’m also taking some big risks with the structure. We’ll see how it goes.
TI: I can’t wait! Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, David.
End of Episode one of “Talking With Ti” with Ti Mikkel