Talking with Ti
with Ti Mikkel
Q&A with Max Gladstone
TI: Hello, Max! Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions today. I suppose I should admit to everyone that I was certain we had met at an Irish Worldcon last year. But you weren’t at an Irish Worldcon, and I am horrified. Why weren’t you at an Irish Worldcon, Max?
MAX: Family business, I’m afraid. Received an urgent commlink request to return to the mother ship. That sort of thing. Happy to make your acquaintance now, Ti!
TI: Hear, hear! Before the world turned on its head, did you frequent any other conventions? As a writer or a fan?
MAX: Tons! I’ve had to cut back in recent years for a number of reasons, but I get to Boskone and Arisia and Readercon when I can, plus NYCC (when I can get in as a panelist), ICFA, WorldCon…
TI: Not an Irish Worldcon, though.
MAX: Alas, no. But you count all those, add WFC, 4th Street Fantasy… It really starts to add up!
TI: Let’s get into your Wild Cards origin story. How did you get involved?
MAX: I met Melinda Snodgrass on a Boskone panel and we hit it off—had a great conversation about the law and about fantasy, kept it up over the next couple years, and somewhere in the whirl of her ten thousand things to do, she found time to read my books—and thought I’d be a good fit for Wild Cards! And the rest is, you know, history. Alternate history?
TI: And you first came across the Wild Cards books in a youth hostel library, is that right?
MAX: I did, yes—I’d heard of Wild Cards for a long time but had never been able to track the books down, until one summer in Beijing I stumbled across the first volume on a youth hostel take-a-book leave-a-book shelf. Devoured it in a night, and I’ve been a fan ever since.
TI: You were an established writer before Texas Hold ‘Em and Fitting In. Your first novel, as part of your Craft Sequence, was published in 2012, and before that you wrote for a comic book crossover fanfiction space online. Growing up, did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
MAX: I was always writing. I don’t know that I thought of it as “wanting to be a writer,” because that implies not thinking I was one already. It wasn’t until late high school, though, that I really decided that the best life for me, if I could manage it, would be one where I wrote fiction professionally. I didn’t know how possible it was…but I wanted to do it if I could.
TI: Where did you spend your childhood?
MAX: All over the place—but I did most of my growing up in a small town in middle Tennessee.
TI: Were your parents supportive of your writing?
MAX: My parents were, and still are, very supportive. They’re neither of them exactly what I’d call science fiction people, but writing they understood and supported, even though there were times when they wondered why there were so many wizards, or people with weird names.
TI: [Laughs] You studied Chan poetry and late Ming dynasty fiction at Yale, which I find fascinating. I need to know more about this.
MAX: Well, I studied a lot of things! But I was an East Asian Studies major, and growing up I’d always been a fan of Journey to the West and of the Cold Mountain poems. So, when I got the language skills to tackle them, I dove in!
TI: And you lived and taught for two years in rural Anhui province. Tell me about that.
MAX: How much time to we have? It was like nothing else I’ve ever done, nowhere else I’ve ever been. And at the same time it reminded me a lot of middle Tennessee. Lots of country, lots of people trying to figure their lives out.
TI: What made you come back? Would you consider returning to visit or to live?
MAX: Complicated question. My wife starting graduate school at the time, so going back to be with her seemed natural. And I’d been abroad for two years at that point. I missed home. Now I miss China. But the China that I miss is the China of 2008, which is a very different place than the China of 2020. Even though you could start to see the China of 2020 taking shape back in 2008.
TI: Let’s move back to Wild Cards. You describe your characters—Robin Ruttiger, Jan Chang, Octavia Zargoza, and Fred Minz—as close to the ground and not particularly high-powered. I disagree. I am in love with the eight animated dough-men who help Octavia run her bakery. It seems the perfect power for her profession. She saves money by not having to pay more employees and can multitask seamlessly. If she were to join the Navy and be tasked with steering a submarine, I’d like to think they’d help her there, too. Octavia basically comes with her own staff for the price of one.
MAX: Octavia’s fantastic. I love her energy, I love her deep, easily-flowing emotions, and I love the doughboys. Probably keeps headcount down at the bakery, you’re right! Though they have to be careful loading and unloading the oven…
TI: Speaking of bakeries, in Fitting In, Robin’s daily indulgence is a pastry called a fardelejo. I had to look it up—they’re pastries filled with almond sauce. Favorites of yours, too?
MAX: Would you believe I’ve never been able to track one down? Perils of not living in NYC, less of the world comes to you. I researched a bunch of options for signature pastries Octavia might sell in her bakery, and went with the one that made me feel hungriest. I love anything with almond filling. Heaven tastes like a good almond croissant.
TI: Robin is partial to coffee as well, not necessarily tea. Are you a tea drinker? I’ll admit, having grown up on stale tea bags of whatever-was-on-sale, I wasn’t convinced tea actually tasted good until I visited the U.K. I understand the hype now.
MAX: I drink situationally, whatever happens to be appropriate. In Anhui I lived in a tea producing region, so I have a kind of hometown snobbery about Qimen reds and Huangshan Maofeng teas (which tend to get sold in the US as ‘golden needle’ iirc). I’ve never been a huge infusion or tisane guy… I like pure tea, even though I drink it what I think of as high school teacher-style: a single tea canister with a bunch of leaves, repeatedly steeped throughout the day. Most of the time in the US, though, I just drink coffee, black.
TI: Let’s talk about your writing process. Do you have any tips for new writers and getting published?
MAX: Just keep at it, when you’re new. You have flexibility. Writing is a liminal space. You can grow, try out voices, styles, processes. Find what works. Find what works better. Enjoy that.
TI: What was the most brutal mistake you made as a new writer?
MAX: I don’t know if I’d say this is a brutal mistake, but the biggest mistake I made as a new writer—a mistake I make all the time to this day—was not keeping my eyes on my own paper. That is: live your own career. Don’t get anxious about where you are in terms of milestones compared to someone else.
Ti: Do you write on a schedule? Every morning or every night?
MAX: I’m not wedded to any one time in particular. Living situations change—your process has to change with them. But I try to find a time I can consistently set aside and dedicate for work.
TI: You’re quite worldly, having lived on a couple of continents and travelled extensively for fandom. What is the most beautiful place you’ve visited?
MAX: Every place has its own beauty. The most surprising beauty, though, was probably the summit of Wudang mountain. I’d been climbing through dense, humid air for hours, step after step, unable to see more than five feet in front of my face at times. And then I broke through the cloud cover. I’d reached the temple at the top of the mountain, blue skies and direct sun, and the sea of clouds spread beneath us. Butterflies in the air. Magnificent.
TI: I just Google-image searched it—breathtaking. I had a similar experience in the Venice canals years ago, in the off season. It was bone cold, but when I stepped out of the near-empty train station, I could swear I stumbled into a post card.
MAX: Breathtaking photography is so often the fruit of careful timing, luck, and decorous editing, that it’s easy to forget that sometimes, in an instant, the world really can be that magical.
TI: During your travels, was there anything that surprised you or that you took for granted?
MAX: People are strange and interesting everywhere.
TI: The world has changed this year. In California, we’ve been on lockdown due to COVID-19. What has your experience been? Has the state of the world impacted your writing?
MAX: We’re in lockdown up here. It’s a different experience for parents than it is for single and childfree people, for certain. Friends talk about feeling the vast gulf of time, about losing what time of day it is, or what day of the week, or even which month. That’s not where we are. Between childcare, work, and cooking / meal prep, that’s six thirty in the morning to nine at night, every day. It’s a lot, but it is what it is.
TI: How many children do you have? Any aspiring writers in the mix?
MAX: Just one, and we’ll have to wait and see!
TI: Do you foresee any changes to the publishing space?
MAX: Nothing I’d be willing to commit to. I see points of divergence. Questions. Will Bookshop dot org work, as a long-term proposition? Will the pandemic cement small bookstores as communal focus points, as has happened in my town? Or will it drive even more people to the Big River Megamart? I don’t know that anyone would have anticipated the boost in print book sales over the last six months, but hey, it’s happened.
TI: How about books and tv? Watched or read anything interesting while locked in?
MAX: I’ve been reading Proust, who’s, you know, Proust. Great. Finished the Broken Earth trilogy, which is as good as anyone says if not better. Loved Ann Leckie’s Raven Tower. I’m reading a lot these days, a lot more than I was before. Books are good.
TI: I’ve done a handful of these interviews, and it appears near every contributor to the wild cards series has some sort of hidden or secret talent. Cherie Priest could parallel park a Sherman tank on a bathmat, for example. What’s yours?
MAX: I like writing. I honestly do enjoy it. It’s fun. It makes me happy. When I’m writing, my thoughts feel more ordered, and the world’s at peace.
TI: Quick—your card has turned. Considering the objects around you at this very moment, what is your new power and/or how has your appearance changed? I now secrete a potent hand sanitizer with refreshing hints of vitamin E and aloe vera.
MAX: My every thought is instantly translated into a to-do list item.
TI: Last Question. If you found yourself suddenly capable of time travel, would you go back and attend an Irish Worldcon?
MAX: It would be on my list!
TI: Thank you so much, Max. You’re terrific.