Talking with Ti
with Ti Mikkel
Q&A with William F. Wu
TI: Hello Bill! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk today. I like to start with everyone’s WILD CARDS beginnings. How were you introduced to George and Melinda?
BILL: I met George in the seventies, I think at a ConFusion in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was in grad school at the University of Michigan. We were casually acquainted for some years because we crossed paths at cons, especially in the Midwest. He introduced me to Melinda and Vic Milan at the worldcon in 1984, in Anaheim.
TI: I’ve heard the process of pitching characters can be particularly grueling. How was it for you?
BILL: It has worked okay for me. I pitched Lazy Dragon and his sister Tienyu first. Not too long after, I recall riding in the back seat of a car at a con – I have no idea which one, nor who was driving – and George was in the front passenger side. Melinda was also present. We’d gone out to dinner. He asked me about participating in an upcoming anthology and I pitched Chuck, the joker, on the fly. I described him first and George recognized him as a Chop-Chop type of character. Yes, he has turned down some others.
TI: Joining the consortium didn’t mark the first time you collaborated with another writer. Prior to WILD CARDS, you worked with Ted Reynolds on a collaboration in Asimov’s and with Rob Chilson in multiple stories published in Analog magazine. Can you tell me a little about how the collaboration process works for you?
BILL: I think successful collaborations between two people require the right personality mix. For that reason, I’ve been careful about collaborating. I became friends with Ted and Rob long before the subject of working together came up. With Ted, I don’t recall which one of us might have broached the subject. My first collaboration with Rob came about because he was talking to writers in the Kansas City area about trying collaborations. He told me that he thought this would help him grow as a writer. We discovered we enjoyed the process of working together.
My first collaboration with Ted, out of three to date, began with a complete draft of his and I went over it, with the understanding that he would have the last word as the original writer. With Rob, some started that way, and with others, we talked out the idea and one of us wrote the first draft. The exception is the last of our ten Analog stories, for which we alternated writing sections of the first draft.
TI: Do you find there are any upsides or downsides in collaborating with others?
I didn’t experience any downsides. They’re especially satisfying in that neither of us would have written those stories in quite that way alone. I think Rob’s original thought, that the experience can help writers grow, is true. I feel the same way about working with Ted.
TI: On the whole, would you prefer working with a team or working solo?
These are special cases. In general, I prefer writing alone. Wild Cards represents a different kind of collaboration, which I find really interesting. The group input is unique in my experience and George and Melinda’s guidance has kept the series focused. Like the other collaborations, I would never have written anything resembling these stories without being in Wild Cards.
TI: For those who don’t know, your creations Ben Choy (AKA Lazy Dragon) and Vivian (AKA Tienyu) are twins trapped inside one body. The former lives a life of crime, and the latter, his sister, leans towards kindness and positivity. Even when Lazy Dragon is behind the wheel, he has his sister’s voice in his head. For everything. Before being introduced to this brother and sister duo, I thought being a third of the Oddity represented a fate worse than death. I was wrong. I can’t imagine living a life trapped inside my sibling’s head. It’s not, say, Bob down the street yammering inside my brain, it’s my brother. Revolting.
BILL: (laughing) That’s the idea. They both hate the situation. The concept of inner conflict has another level in their case.
TI: You were born in Kansas City, Missouri. Tell me a little bit about your childhood. Did you live in the city or in the country?
BILL: I grew up in a suburb on the Kansas side of the state line. My brother and I were the only nonwhite kids in the neighborhood or schools until, in my teens, there were a few Hispanic kids in the school. I learned early that I stood out visually. My upbringing included good friends and a very good public school system. In hindsight, this was an area with high-achieving families and many kids who went on to do very well. I think growing up in this environment was positive in many ways, but I certainly had plenty of reminders — not all of them hostile — that a lot of people considered me different based on my appearance. That’s one of my formative influences.
TI: When did you start reading? Did someone gift you a book, or did you pick one up from the library?
BILL: My parents read to me as far back as I can remember. Years later, my mother told me that I had memorized the words on each page of several books — short picture books, of course — and I could recite the story and turn the page at the right moment even though I could not actually read. I first created stories before I could read. When I was around four or five, I dictated very short stories and my mother wrote each sentence on a piece of construction paper cut to the desired size. I drew a picture on each page and my mother fastened the pages with brads. At least one of these still exists with my papers at the University of Kansas Kenneth Spencer Research Library.
TI: Wow. That’s some incredible parenting right there.
BILL: They were always very involved as parents. As far as reading goes, I went on to pursue many different subjects and genres when I was still a kid. The work of Edward Eager, much of Edith Nesbit’s work, and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series were especially formative. History has also been an ongoing interest since childhood and that shows in a fair amount of my fiction.
TI: I know your father served in the United States Army during World War II. What did your mother do for a living?
BILL: My dad went on to become a very highly regarded neurosurgeon. My mother majored in what was then called “Oriental Studies” at the University of Michigan. (I got my bachelor’s degree in the same department, renamed “East Asian Studies.”) With her college degree in hand, she ran the China Unit of the Army Map Service in Washington, D.C., during World War II. Related to that job, she was sent to the conference in San Francisco at which the United Nations was created.
TI: Wow. “Hey mom, what’d you do today?” “Oh, just helped create an intergovernmental organization responsible for maintaining international peace and security.”
BILL: LOL Yes, it’s impressive. However, shortly after they got married, some years before I came along, my mother developed a very serious case of Myasthenia gravis. She almost died from it and survived with medications and surgery that were cutting edge or even experimental at the time. However, she was never employable after that because she couldn’t predict whether or not she could get out of bed the next morning. She wrote, however. Her only short story appeared in the New Yorker. After that she went on to write and sell poetry for the rest of her life. Her illness meant that she was home, but I think she would otherwise have had an interesting career, building on her war-era work.
TI: Out of both your parents, which one was the reader? Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
BILL: Both my parents read and also had written work published. My father wrote nonfiction, in the form of travel articles and other subjects including medicine. He also wrote his autobiography, which was published by a small independent company. My father’s father wrote essays and poetry that were published and my mother’s mother wrote a novel based on her marriage to my grandfather that was published and translated into seven languages. So if DNA has any role in this, I got it from both sides; in any case, I was in a very supportive environment.
I decided I wanted to be a poet as a career when I was eight, of course with no concept of financial matters. The only important lesson I learned after writing poetry for many years was that I’m not a poet. I began to focus on short stories after that realization.
TI: Speaking of choosing a career path, your father studied medicine. Did your family expect you to do the same?
BILL: My father asked me, when I went off to college, to keep an open mind about going into medicine. I agreed but I always knew it wasn’t for me. My mother and father never brought it up again. After all, they had seen me writing poetry and stories all my life. They weren’t surprised that I pursued writing professionally. They were always supportive.
TI: Do you have any siblings?
BILL: I have a younger brother. He’s a lawyer and also a pro bowler. I find the latter much more fun to tell people.
TI: Okay, your family is officially incredible.
BILL: We’re distinctive, anyway.
TI: Let’s get into the craft itself. Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
BILL: Just a few basics. Writers are people who write, published or not; thinking about it or somehow “getting ready” doesn’t count. Going forward from there, writers benefit by writing a lot. Like any other skill, writing improves with practice and a sincere effort to improve. I had good experiences at the Clarion workshop and the Milford workshop. Getting critical feedback is tricky. Whether online or in person, critiques should be eyed with a sense of the other people’s backgrounds and personalities. Writers need to be open-minded about others’ opinions but also maintain perspective and know what to ignore.
TI: Do you have any hobbies?
BILL: In my formative years, writing was my most important hobby. It gradually crowded out everything else. I grew up camping, fishing, and canoeing in the Ozarks and went to the Minnesota Outward Bound School when I was nineteen, but I dropped all those activities in my early twenties. Reading and collecting comics would qualify, but I stopped collecting in the nineteen-eighties. I rode horseback when I was young; my first wife and I owned three horses at one time. I had other interests as well, but I dropped them all for writing time. At this point, I don’t feel anything I do qualifies as a hobby.
TI: Let’s talk about your writing process. How does it work for you? Are you a ten pages every day kind of guy like Stephen King?
Bill: At some point in my twenties, I was at a con party and overheard a fan ask Fred Pohl a version of this question. He said that he had a quota of four pages a day. I especially took note that he made no excuses for failing to reach that on a given day; he said it was his quota whether or not he made it. I took that as a model; I got to know Fred years later but at that party, I figured if this concept worked for him, I’d use it. Over time, I found that I work best if I’m writing two projects at the same time. Any number of well-meaning writers have told me not to work on more than one at a time, but this works for me. So when I freelance full time, I have a quota of four pages a day on a work I prioritize and the same for a second work later the same day. So on a good day, I write eight pages. When I worked full time at a newspaper, which I did for twenty years, I rarely made my second quota and sometimes not the first — but, like Fred, I have the quota whether I reach it or not.
I write with the TV on. I suppose that started because when I was a kid, I did my homework in front of the TV.
TI: Oh, that’s interesting about writing with the TV on. Do you ever listen to music? If so, do you find yourself putting a song on repeat if it’s motivating what you’re putting on the page?
BILL: I tried working with music on, but I wind up listening to it. So it’s a distraction.
TI: You studied at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. That’s a long way from Kansas City. How did that come about?
BILL: I’ll start by looking back: My maternal grandmother’s family moved from Flint, Michigan, to Ann Arbor when she was a child. My grandmother met my grandfather, who came from China as a teen, in high school. After high school, they attended the University of Michigan. Years later, after my grandfather died, my grandmother moved from San Francisco back to Ann Arbor with her two sons and a daughter. Of course her daughter was my mother, who therefore grew up in Ann Arbor, too, and also went to Michigan. My mother and father met there. So when I went, I was following a family tradition. However, though I was involved with a number of interesting women in my ten years in Ann Arbor, I broke with tradition when I didn’t marry any of them. I’m sure they’re all better off.
TI: (laughing) Before I do these interviews, I research my subjects extensively. *Twirls mustache* I did not, however, stumble upon any social media accounts. In today’s world, writers are often expected to have an active presence on social media. What are your thoughts on that? Do you feel that social media is toxic to writing and/or productivity?
BILL: I’m just far behind the curve. I hope to catch up.
TI: Have you ever faced writer’s block? What do you do to get the creative juices flowing?
Bill: The only times I have writer’s block are when one of two problems come up. One is that I’m taking a story in the wrong direction and on some level, I know it. So I look again to see what’s wrong. The other is that sometimes I have something to do that’s not related to writing and it’s distracting me. The solution to that, of course, is to take care of it.
TI: How about TV—binge watching anything interesting right now?
BILL: I watch a lot cable news, football when it’s on, and various reruns. I watch scripted shows with an eye toward learning something about the storytelling if I can. I like some contemporary shows, but I don’t binge on anything. I have a lot of news on.
TI: In doing these interviews, I’ve learned that many in the WILD CARDS consortium have hidden talents. What’s yours?
BILL: I can write the same words or sentences simultaneously with each hand, though the version by my dominant hand comes out in mirror image. So far, this talent has benefited me in no way at all.
TI: I think we just found your first Tweet.
BILL: LOL We’ll see.