Talking with Ti
with Ti Mikkel
Q&A with Ian Tregillis
TI: Hello Ian! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk today. I like to start with everyone’s WILD CARDS origin story. When and how did you join the consortium?
IAN: In the late summer of 2005, about three years after I moved to northern New Mexico, I was invited to join Critical Mass, a local group of professional science fiction and fantasy writers. (That invitation is itself the culmination of a longer story, but it boils down to my having been extremely fortunate, and getting to attend the Clarion workshop at just the right time.) Though the roster of active members has changed a lot over the past 15 years, it’s still going strong today (and of course it had been going strong long before I joined). Back then, active members included Melinda Snodgrass, Walter Jon Williams, the late lamented Vic Milán, John Miller, and (occasionally) this up-and-comer known as George R. R. Martin. WILD CARDS superfans might notice I’ve named much of the roster of that infamous Superworld gaming group that eventually birthed the WILD CARDS Consortium.
Around the same time, unbeknownst to me, George and Melinda were gearing up to revitalize the franchise. Their vision (which has succeeded tremendously) was to take a “next generation” approach by recruiting a new set of writers into the consortium and infusing the canon with a panoply of modern-day characters.
I guess my writing work in Critical Mass showed an inkling of promise — or maybe they were desperate as hell, I honestly don’t know — because in the late fall of that year I was invited to have dinner with George and Melinda to discuss WILD CARDS and the possibility of creating some characters for the canon. But I remember little of that dinner, aside from sitting down across from the man that most people believe is the real George R. R. Martin.
I awoke three days later, chained in the hold of a Dutch tramp steamer bound for Surabaya. I spent the next ten days alternately scrubbing the decks and shampooing the braided beards of sweaty, jowled pirates. On the morning of the eleventh day, I heard the dreaded click-thump, click-thump as our fearsome captain emerged from his bejeweled stateroom. (The real George R. R. Martin, you see, walks on a stone leg carved from the tomb of Ramses II.) He loomed over me, adjusted his chalcedony eyepatch, and said, “You’ve got spirit, kid…” I couldn’t hear the rest because the parrot on his shoulder chose that moment to unleash a blistering torrent of profanity at me.
And that, dear readers, is how one joins the consortium.
TI: I’ve been talking about that eyepatch for years and no one has believed me. Dreadful, shiny thing. I’m glad they are two of us now.
IAN: Personally, I don’t mind the eyepatch (though I agree it is gaudy) as much as that filthy parrot. I mean, look, I’m definitely not saying George is responsible for widespread outbreaks of the avian flu around the globe. That would be insane. But I am saying his parrot is.
TI: You earned your Ph.D. in physics from the University of Minnesota. Had you started writing by that time, too?
IAN: No, unfortunately. I sort of always knew, in a back-of-my-head kind of way, that writing was something I intended to pursue “some day.” But when I was in grad school I felt compelled to focus on my studies, to the extent that I even abandoned other hobbies that I’d been indulging. Looking back, that was probably unnecessary, and ultimately served only to deprive myself of a lot of fun. But at the time, I could see that learning the craft would be immensely time-consuming, possibly to the detriment of my studies.
So I promised myself that I’d take up the pen (keyboard) just as soon as I finished my degree. And that’s exactly what happened. Looking back, I regret all the lost time — I’ve become a firm believer that every sentence one writes is valuable practice for the next sentence, and so on. Even if I hadn’t been able to churn out short stories and trunk novels back then, at least I might have scrubbed the worst stains from my sentence-level craft. Instead, I started from scratch about two weeks after finishing grad school.
TI: Don’t be too hard on yourself. There are days that pass me by where I’m unable to write anything due to being caught up in home makeover shows. I wish I were earning another degree…though if you have questions about gutting your bathroom, I’m your Huckleberry.
IAN: What do you know about kitchen cabinetry? My current remodeling plan (draft six) involves a jug of gasoline and a lit match, but my general contractor is all, “That’s called arson.”
TI: In addition to WILD CARDS, you’re the author of the Milkweed Triptych, Something More than Night, the Alchemy Wars trilogy, and your short fiction has appeared at numerous venues including Tor.com, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Popular Science. How does writing solo compare with writing in a shared universe? Do you prefer one over the other?
IAN: Writing in any form is never particularly easy (for me), but the sad truth (again, for me) is that writing in a shared universe carries with it a tremendous overhead compared to writing solo. I always tell people that I’m a better rewriter than writer; I do multiple end-to-end revision passes of everything I write solo, regardless of whether it’s a 20 page short story or a 600 page novel manuscript. I rewrite, and revise, and polish, and rewrite again until it’s as good as my limited abilities will allow (or until I simply can’t take it any more and snap, running out of the room while screaming incoherently, like Dean Devlin in REAL GENIUS).
And yet word for word, with a collaborative project, the rewriting/revising labor is sometimes tripled. That’s because all the pieces have to fit together seamlessly, and every revision — sometimes a modification to a tiny detail in one person’s story — ripples through the rest of the project. Fix one issue in one person’s contribution, and another problem arises somewhere else. It’s a bit like playing whack-a-mole. (I’m glad I don’t have to keep track of it all, like our valiant editors.) It’s great when we have the final product, but it is a hell of a lot of work to get there.
I’ve also done collaborative/shared world work with Serial Box Publishing (an awesome venture that everybody should check out). In fact, I worked with fellow WILD CARDS writer Max Gladstone (along with Lindsay Smith, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Michael Swanwick, and Fran Wilde) on two seasons of The Witch Who Came In From the Cold. I think we produced some really great work there, but generating each episode took many times more work than writing a solo piece of equal length would have taken.
The benefit of all that extra work, of course, is that the final product benefits from the skills and talents of many people. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
TI: You grew up in Minnesota but found your way to New Mexico. How did that come about?
IAN: Entering my final year of graduate school, I learned — much to my horror — that the university wasn’t keen to let me hang around forever. Turns out that after you get your degree you’re expected to go away and find a job. So I had to go where the work was. Such is the life of an itinerant muleskinner.
TI: Dreadful. You’re an alumnus of Clarion. How did you discover that workshop?
IAN: About two weeks after I moved to New Mexico to start my new job — living far away from friends and family and feeling very isolated — I fulfilled the promise to myself and made a concerted effort to learn about writing. Not just the craft side of it, but also the business and education facets of it. How do writers learn to do what they do? Where do writers congregate? Do they have their own schools? I knew very little (still do), but I knew that becoming a writer was a very long, slow process, and that if I wanted to make any progress at all, it would require humility and patience.
So in short order I found the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror — known to many of its alumni as the venerable and beloved OWW. (Truth be told, I’d found it back in graduate school. At that time it was still being run by Del Rey. But, owing to that decision to wait until I’d finished my degree, as mentioned earlier, I didn’t join up.) There I made a number of friendships that persist to this day, nearly 17 years later as I write this. Back then, the OWW also had a vibrant listserv. (This was back in the days of listservs.) It was populated by many excellent writers who dispensed their thoughts and advice FOR FREE. Listening in on that conversation was truly invaluable for somebody starting from scratch. It was there that I learned about Clarion.
I might as well mention that joining the OWW initiated a sequence of events that radically changed my life. And I’m not speaking hyperbolically when I say that. It was through the OWW listserv that I learned about a mini writing workshop to be held over an autumn weekend at a convention in Ohio, way back in 2004. Because one of the instructors of that workshop was a nice fellow named Charles Coleman Finlay (back then, he was an all-around Kind Uncle/problem solver for the OWW; now, of course he’s known far and wide as the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction!), I figured it would be a safe environment for dipping my toes in the waters of face-to-face workshops. It was such a great and valuable experience that I applied to Clarion a few months later. (Charlie, in fact, was also one of my Clarion instructors the following year.) It was at Clarion that I met New Mexico’s own Walter Jon Williams (another instructor that year). And just as I am eternally grateful to Charlie, I’m also forever grateful to Walter for noticing that I’d come to Clarion from New Mexico and inviting me to join Critical Mass. It was through Critical Mass that I got shanghaied into WILD CARDS. It was through WILD CARDS that I met my literary agent. It was through Kay that I had the opportunity to become a published novelist. It was through my side career as a novelist that I started attending science fiction conventions such as Worldcon. It was through various Worldcons (and still more serendipity that I won’t detail here) that I reconnected with an old friend from high school and who is, now, my wife. WILD CARDS, you might notice, plays a crucial role in that sequence….
TI: I love a love story! Does your wife write, too? Is she the first person who reads your work?
IAN: As a matter of fact, my wife, Sara, is a professional playwright. She had a long career as a stage manager in Chicago before deciding she’d rather be writing the plays. Our wedding reception/afterparty was held in her theater company’s rehearsal space, and some of our wedding photos were taken on the set of one of Sara’s plays. Those photos, with and without the cast, are really special to me.
Once in a while, I cajole Sara into reading things I’m working on. But only short stuff. Still, it’s been tremendously helpful to have another writer on hand as I’ve tried to claw my way free of the Sarlacc pit of a lengthy self-imposed writing hiatus.
TI: You’re the man behind Niobe Winslow aka Genetrix. For those who don’t know, Genetrix lays eggs that hatch into miniature and short-lived children that are either an ace, a deuce, or a joker. I absolutely adore her. Tell us a little bit about how you came up with her and how the pitching process went with GRRM.
IAN: It took a long time and many attempts before I pitched a character that George didn’t, well, hate. And by “hate” I really do mean “hate.” Niobe started out a little different than her final form, but the joker with an ovipositor grabbed George’s attention. So I refined her and gave her something like a 6-page backstory. I was working from a couple of George’s examples, so I thought all new WILD CARDS characters required an elaborate construction. (George, it’s probably safe to say, is somewhat well-known for his extraordinarily detailed, immersive, and engrossing worldbuilding.) Little did I know there would be easier ways to slip characters into the canon….
TI: You’re also behind Rustbelt (a joker with a thick layer of iron for skin) and Tesseract (who can create fourth dimensional gateways at will). Who or what inspired them?
IAN: During the gestation of INSIDE STRAIGHT (the book that launched the series’ “next generation”), we found ourselves needing to generate a huge roster of one-off, red-shirty aces to appear as background contestants for the in-universe reality TV show American Hero. (Several of us will never forgive Carrie Vaughn for inventing that. And I suspect I’m not the first Consortium member to tell you this.) I mean, it was a lot of brand-new-yet-throw-away characters: enough to fill a deck of cards, if I recall correctly. We were throwing things at the wall just to see what would stick; I figured nobody else in the consortium had spent time in far northern Minnesota, like I did as a kid. So Wally Gunderson was born out of a very short email to George. I swear I wrote something like, “He’s from a little town called Mountain Iron deep in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota, he has metal skin, a steamshovel jaw, and he can rust things with a touch.” George saw potential in the character, dubbed him Rustbelt, and after a couple tweaks the rest is history. Two books later, a pith-helmeted Rustbelt featured on the cover of SUICIDE KINGS, wrestling a crocodile.
(Rusty isn’t the only American Hero Season One contestant to go on to longevity in the books, by the way. Caroline Spector’s Amazing Bubbles started out similarly, as did a small handful of others. Rusty and Bubbles are pals from way back.) So from Genetrix’s 6-page backstory, my next major character was born from what was essentially a one-sentence email to George. But Tesseract beats that. Tesseract started out as a name and nothing else, mentioned solely as a piece of background “filler” dialogue in BUSTED FLUSH, the sequel to INSIDE STRAIGHT. George wanted us to insert mentions of American Hero, to suggest that the fictional show had gone on to a second season. So at one point I have some characters discussing that week’s episode. All we hear is a snippet of conversation recounting how a contestant named The Laureate, apparently little better than a deuce, somehow outmaneuvered a rather powerful ace named Tesseract to get her voted off the show. That was it: just the names without any context whatsoever.
Some time later — I suppose it must have been during the gestation of SUICIDE KINGS, the sequel to BUSTED FLUSH, the final book of that triad — George, intrigued, asked me to elaborate on that Tesseract character. Melinda liked the idea behind Tesseract and made her part of Noel Matthews’s heist team in that book. From there Tesseract (aka Mollie Steunenberg) became integral to LOWBALL, and carried a major arc in the HIGH STAKES mosaic. And readers still haven’t seen the last of her. So my major character pitches have evolved from 6 pages to one sentence to one word. I’m not sure where to go from here. Of course, I’m not the only person to mention an intriguing name in a story only for it to grow later into an entire character. And I have some minor characters that were born the same way. That’s the magic of a huge universe like WILD CARDS. And I should also mention that Tesseract does have a complete backstory/bio writeup now. In fact, I have a long-term arc in mind for her, so I use that bio to track where she is along that evolution. Assuming that story ever comes to fruition. It might not.
TI: Out of those characters, who has been the most challenging to write?
Ian: Genetrix. To begin, she was never a character with a lot of “story life” in her. At least, not that I could envision. And given where she started out in the series, it was extremely difficult to do anything with her power that wasn’t depressingly grim. Also, let’s be honest, a person can only write so many scenes of twisted degrading joker sex before it gets old. Melinda figured out a way to give poor Genetrix a better life than she had been destined for, so she has picked up that particular ball and run with it.
TI: If you could spend the day with one of your creations, who would it be?
IAN: Tesseract. Without question. Assuming she didn’t rob or try to kill me, I suppose. (She’s been through a lot and has lingering… issues.) Her transdimensional portal power is 100% a wish-fulfillment fantasy for me. Every time I write her POV, I get to think about all the ways I would use that power: sometimes for good, sometimes for ever-so-slightly-less-good, and sometimes for definitely-not-entirely-good.
I mean, my god, if I never had to spend one more minute in an airport in my entire life, it absolutely would be worth the price of Tesseract’s compromised morals and mild insanity. I would make that trade in a hot second. I am not even kidding.
TI: As someone who recently braved LAX during the holidays, I dare say I’d make the same trade. Let’s talk about your writing process. George is a self-described gardener and absolutely hates outlining. Do you feel the same? How often do you write? Do you have a dedicated space or office?
IAN: I am very much the opposite of George in this regard. I cannot write without an outline, or at least a very solid idea of where things are going. I hate, hate, hate writing without an outline.
I sometimes describe my writing process as a fractal: I like to know the beginning and end of the work at numerous scopes, from scene-scale all the way up to the full scope of a book or even a trilogy of novels. If I’m plotting out a trilogy, say, I begin by seeing how the entire story — the plot and arcs for all of the characters — begins, and also how it ends three books later. Then I break that overarching plan into three smaller pieces (the individual books), and figure out the beginning and end for each of those. Then, as I sit down to outline the individual books, I break them into acts, figuring out what the major act breaks will be. Once I know those “tentpole moments” for the book, I go down another level and break the acts into chapters, and figure out how each chapter begins and ends. And then I break the chapters into scenes. Maybe not every scene, but the skeleton of what definitely needs to be in the chapter. So by the time I’m ready to sit down and actually start writing, I have a fairly detailed sense of what’s going on, with an outline at the scene-by-scene level that scopes up all the way into the bird’s eye view of the trilogy.
The outline isn’t set in stone, though. It always changes as I go along. Usually not so drastically that the destinations change. But once a world is built, and the characters are living in their own skin, it’s pretty common to see much better ways to do things. Or to recognize that a certain plot point just isn’t going to work because a character simply wouldn’t make that choice. Or to realize that a crucial scene is missing from the outline. Or that a previously planned scene no longer makes sense in the story-as-written. But the outline is still an invaluable map.
This means frontloading the novel-writing process with a lot of work before a single word of the actual book is written.
TI: How often do you write?
IAN: I have a very time-consuming day job and my writing time is tightly constrained. With my commute it’s common for me to be gone nearly 12 hours per day, and those are hours when writing is out of the question (unless I’m feeling extremely motivated and peck out a page or two on the bus, using my phone, which is excruciating). So when I’m at home, in the writing office, I have limited time to get the day’s wordcount in place before I run out of mental energy. An outline broken into scene-level chunks helps with that: when I sit down at the keyboard, it tells me that all I have to do is move the characters from point J to point J’. That by itself doesn’t seem like a lot of progress, but you can write a pretty hefty book (maybe not the size of a GRRM book, but still nothing to sneeze at) if you do that for a year of evenings and weekends.
Another reason I find outlining a useful compensation for limited writing time is that once the outline is solid, I don’t have to worry about my creative whims taking me into a 200-page dead end. If I’m on a writing contract with a fixed deadline, I cannot afford wasting time exploring possible dead ends. Every single writing session has to put me nearer the end of the project.
TI: Do you listen to music while you write?
IAN: Sometimes, but not always. When I do listen to music, it either has to be instrumental, or if it’s lyrical it has to be something that I know by heart so well that the words blend into the music. I can’t listen to new unfamiliar lyrical music when I’m writing, because my brain tries to parse the words I’m hearing and that interferes with the conjuring of words for storytelling.
Though as I type this I’m listening to music by The HU, a Mongolian heavy metal band. It’s great (throat singing is metal AF) and, because I don’t speak Mongolian, it doesn’t interfere with my ability to string words into sentences.
TI: I’m the same way! What tips do you have for aspiring writers?
IAN: I take it you also attended a high school that didn’t offer Mongolian as a foreign language.
1) Be patient.
2) Be humble.
3) Get to know your fellow writers. This is a community.
3) It’s better to be lucky than good (but it’s best to be both).
3a) Luck is attainable through points 1, 2, and 3.
3b) Skill is attainable through dedicated practice and study of the craft.
4) Every writer has their own process. Your process isn’t wrong or flawed because it’s unique.
5) Success is a personal, internal metric. Not being an international mega-bestseller doesn’t make you a failure.
TI: How about TV—binge watching anything interesting right now?
IAN: In order to claw my way back out of a years-long writing hiatus, one of the things I had to do was ruthlessly curtail my TV intake.
TI: Have you ever faced writer’s block? What do you do to combat it?
IAN: Some writing days are easy, and some days are extremely difficult. That’s the nature of the practice, I think. At least it is for me. There are days (not as many as I’d like) when the pages just flow and I produce 4 or even 5 times my quota for the day. And there are days when getting a single page down is like force-feeding myself shards of glass. But writer’s block in the sense of sitting at the keyboard and being utterly incapable of producing anything, that hasn’t happened. I mean, there are days when I produce far less than I intended, but I’m never actually frozen — another benefit of the outlining I described earlier. I’ve also learned (but I have to keep re-learning this) that it’s hugely helpful to jump around. So, yes, I have a detailed outline, but I don’t necessarily write everything in order. In fact I don’t even write most scenes in reading order even though, as described above, I usually know how the scene begins and ends before I write it. Instead, I write whatever sentence is easiest to write in that moment. So I might start off with a line of dialogue that pops into my head. As I’m typing that, the way to open the scene comes to me, so then I back up and fill that in. Then another line of dialogue from a bit later in the conversation comes to me, so I go a bit further down and fill that in…
Learning to recognize when I’m getting bogged down and just skipping whatever is giving me trouble has been a valuable and powerful hack. Frequently, the stuff that gives me tons of trouble during one writing session proves to be almost trivial on another day. And it’s not uncommon that I come back later and discover that the stuff I had to skip because I couldn’t figure it out never needed to be written in the first place — superfluous transitions, for instance.
So I wouldn’t say I’ve had writer’s block in terms of sitting down at the keyboard and being utterly incapable of producing anything whatsoever. But, a few years ago I had to put writing aside for an extended period of time. Partially because I was suffering from burnout (seven published novels in seven years, all while working a day job that takes me out of the house nearly 12 hours/day), and partially because of outside life issues. So there was a period of about three years where I barely wrote anything, because it simply wasn’t possible for me to make space for it in my life.
TI: As part of the consortium, you’re often tasked with writing for another author’s character, or vice-versa. Are there any challenges that come with that?
IAN: Yes, definitely. Particularly with characters that have been around a long time, but it’s always a challenge to get inside the creator’s head and try to channel their style and intent. And it’s not just a matter of character voice — some of these characters have decades of history that would, naturally, inform the way they react to a new situation. Not to mention the overwhelming potential for continuity screwups. At the very least, there is always tweaking and rewriting once the character creator looks over scenes written by somebody else. Sometimes they’re minor, sometimes they’re major rewrites. It’s just an unavoidable part of the shared world.
Rustbelt, for instance, has a particular voice. I don’t always get it right myself, but I try to be helpful and nudge others’ depictions of him into a similar direction. So if you cross your eyes and squint, he’s more or less that same character every time we see him. Some folks, like Steve Leigh and Caroline Spector, have used Rusty a lot and so they have him down pretty well.
TI: In the writing of INSIDE STRAIGHT, George tasked you with writing a new story featuring Rustbelt. The only catch was, you had about two weeks to complete it, and over the Thanksgiving holiday to boot. How horrifying was that? Would you say you thrive under pressure?
IAN: I wouldn’t say I thrive under pressure. But I do find deadlines help!
TI: Outside of writing and exploring the mechanics of heat, radiation, sound, magnetism, and the structure of atoms, do you have any hobbies?
IAN: Long before I started writing I used to play a lot of chess, but that was more than 20 years ago. I don’t have a talent for it, though, and never had much promise. Suffice it to say I was never going to play competitively or ascend to the master ranks. But I love it in the way that a person with no musical talent might love to sing in the shower.
With lots and lots of dedicated study and practice, I might have risen to the level of mediocre club player. Despite that, I occasionally still feel drawn to it. Years ago I had to make a conscious decision that writing would be my hobby career. This meant accepting that I’ll never have as much time for chess as I’d like. In the winter — when there’s snow for it — I love to ski. I’m not particularly great at this either, given that I’m 100% self-taught and hail from a place with no mountains.
TI: Are you a fan of travel? Tell us about the most interesting place you’ve been.
IAN: One delightful travel experience took place on a nondescript roadside outside of Whangarei, New Zealand. My wife and I had rented a car and were doing a driving tour of the North Island. (It wasn’t the first time in my life I’d driven on the left — I’ve driven in Australia, too — but it was never not nervewracking, if that makes sense.) One afternoon, while I was in the driver seat, we encountered some road construction and had to slow down to a crawl. Just before we got there the road crew had dumped a load of gravel over the road, so it was very loose. We were inching along at maybe five kilometers/hour in a very narrow stretch of road when a truck (what we’d call a semi in the States) in the oncoming lane hit the gas, spun a wheel, and kicked a particularly large stone from the gravel directly into my driver’s side window. The window exploded, instantly, into hundreds of tiny shards of glass. I mean, one second everything was fine, and the very next second we were covered with glass. And because of the narrow construction zone there was nowhere to pull over or stop — if I’d stopped right there, I don’t know how far traffic would have backed up. I had no choice but to keep driving at a snail’s pace, with glass in my hair and under my shirt, until there was a safe place to pull over, maybe half a mile or even a full kilometer from the construction zone.
When we called the car rental company from the roadside, they told us it would take several hours for them to get a new car to our location. So we settled in for a long unhappy wait. But after an hour or so, an incredibly nice man pulled over and offered to help us. Turned out he lived nearby; he had seen us sitting by the side of the road when he drove into town earlier, and on his return trip, when he saw we hadn’t moved, he came to our aid. He invited us to follow him to his house, where he had the tools in his workshop to make our car drivable. We did, and while he worked on fixing and de-glass-sharding our rental car, his equally delightful wife made tea for us. Wayne and Cushla Donnelly are their names — absolutely wonderful, kind, generous people.
When I got back home, I sent them a crate of signed books. And we send them a card every year. There was also the time I momentarily got caught in a ghost trap in Australia that was, no exaggeration, straight out of a Tim Powers novel. That was freaky as hell. But also a story for another time.
TI: In doing these interviews, I’ve discovered that quite a few in the consortium have secret talents. What would you say yours is?
IAN: I have none whatsoever. Though I’ve sort-of convinced my wife that I have an almost supernatural ability to know, down to the second, how much time has passed. One evening, back when we were dating, we’d put some food to simmer on the stove while we played a board game in another room (Sara is a cutthroat Settlers of Catan shark). At one point during the game, like half an hour later, Sara asked, “Hey, did we set a timer?” So I said, purely as a joke, “Five, four, three, two, one…” and — through sheer stupid luck — the timer went off right at that instant. The look of amazement on Sara’s face… For that brief shining moment she thought I was either a savant or a wizard.
TI: You’re a delight. Thank you so much, Ian!
IAN: My pleasure!