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Author Interview: Paolo Bacigalupi

2011 March 25
by Kate McNair
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Image Credit: JT Thomas Photography

Paolo Bacigalupi’s writing has appeared in High Country News, Salon.com, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. His short fiction been anthologized in various “Year’s Best” collections of short science fiction and fantasy, nominated for two Nebula Awards and four Hugo Awards, and won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best sf short story of the year.

His debut novel The Windup Girl was named by TIME Magazine as one of the ten best novels of 2009, and also won the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Compton Crook, and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards. His short story collection Pump Six and Other Stories was a 2008 Locus Award winner for Best Collection and also named a Best Book of the Year by Publishers Weekly.

His debut young adult novel, Ship Breaker, about a teenage boy who strips metal from old oil tankers for scrap on a beach on the Gulf of Mexico, won the 2011 Michael L. Printz Award and was a National Book Award Finalist. He currently lives in Western Colorado with his wife and son, where he is working on a new novel.

After reading, and loving both Ship Breaker and Pump Six and Other Stories I was excited to have the opportunity to email the award winner author.

The past six months have been full of good news for you: Ship Breaker has won the Printz and was a finalist for the National Book Award and your book The Alchemist has been nominated for a Nebula.  How do all these successes feel?  Does it ever go to your head?

The positive run has actually been going for almost two years now, as I won the Nebula and the Hugo award for my first novel, The Windup Girl, though it’s not YA.  Obviously it’s nice to have the awards recognition. There’s a certain validation that comes from it, and a confirmation that maybe you’re not crazy to be writing, which is a relief. But really, no past success solves the problem of writing the present novel. Each book is different, with its own complexities, and whatever you did well or poorly in the last novel doesn’t really get you through the next one.  If anything, it probably adds another layer of anxiety. You spend time worrying about things like, “Is this one as good as the last one?” or “Is this project a worthy one?”  They’re the sorts of concerns that you don’t really want in your head when you’re trying to keep faith and write your way to the end of a story.  So no, it doesn’t really go to my head. My wife recently made a comment that she wished it would go to my head more, so that I’d have more confidence in myself and my writing, but apparently that’s not how my head works.

A lot of readers have been calling for a sequel to Ship Breaker .  I have heard you are writing a book that takes place in the same futuristic world.  Can you give us a hint about what we can look forward to?

I think of it as a companion novel. It’s definitely not a sequel. But yes, it’s set in the same post-oil, global warming world as Ship Breaker. The story takes place in the Drowned Cities, a land of perpetual war, and it focuses on a pair of war orphans. Their parents have been killed during the incessant fighting, and the kids have been taken in by a doctor and pacifist who lives on the outskirts of the city, in a village that hasn’t yet been swallowed by the war.  On foraging trip into the jungle, the young people find a critically injured half-man named Tool (the only character from Ship Breaker that you’ll recognize). Soon after, a company of soldiers arrive, hunting for the half-man, which forces the children into a series of decisions about where their loyalties lie, and drags them back into the war they sought to escape.

I don’t know if it is the same book, but I noticed on your twitter that you are writing a book about Iowa, being born and growing up in that great state, and I have to ask if you can tell us what that is about as well?

Ha! You clearly read too many twitter feeds. That’s a different story, for a different time. :)

You have flown solo and worked with other authors.  How do these two kinds of writing differ for you?

Working with other writers is convivial.  Working on your own gives you absolute control. My ideal would be to work on my own projects, but have a good eight or ten other writers in the near vicinity (say all around a swimming pool in the sunshine, as long as it’s a cold March day here, and I could really use the vitamin D) all working on their own projects as well.  Then I could have company, and also get to be a control freak.

I particularly enjoy reading short stories and it looks like your first published piece of writing (according to your website) was a short story.  Can you talk about what drew you to short stories and how you began writing novels?

It’s a complex question, but broadly, I started writing short stories because I couldn’t sell a novel to save my life. I wrote four novels and had them all rejected, and pretty much gave up on the idea of being a novelist.  I switched over to short stories because it was the one place where I’d had any success (My first fiction sale was a story called “Pocketful of Dharma” that I sold to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction).  So after all the failed novels, I focused entirely on short stories for several years, both  because it was a place where I could get published, and also because it was a form that wasn’t as devastating when I got rejected–losing a month of your life from a rejected short story is a lot better than losing a year of your life from a rejected novel.  Over time, though, as my short stories started to be nominated for and win awards, I started thinking that I might have a shot at selling a novel where I hadn’t before, so I made another stab at it. Even though it wasn’t exactly a smooth path, it did work out this time.  The only bad thing is that I really do like writing short stories, but I don’t have much time for them, now that I have novel deadlines.

With all of the awards ceremonies, author events, and book tours in which you have participated, is there an author that you were truly awed to meet?  If you haven’t met them yet, who would it be?

I was delighted to meet MT Anderson, the author of Feed. I really respected that book and what he did with it.

Many authors are part of a writing group, are you a part of one or have a group of authors who you can turn to for advice or help?

I’m not part of a group that meets regularly in that writing group sense that I think you’re referring to, because I live in a place that’s really isolated. But over the years I’ve built up a network of friends who I turn to when I get stuck.  Some of them I see every year, as I do when I go out to C.C. Finlay’s writer’s workshop, Blue Heaven.  Others are people I’ve met at science fiction conventions or at other workshops and who I continue to correspond with.

Last question (just for fun): I have noticed an above average number of lucha libre masks on your twitter.  Can you explain?

I’m taking up a career in wrestling!  Seriously, though, I recently had the opportunity to go down to Mexico with a bunch of other writers who rented a villa to hide out in while they got their work done. Sort of a writer’s intensive work retreat to meet deadlines. It turns out that after you write for enough days, your face actually starts to look exactly like a lucha libre mask. Mine still hasn’t worn off.

-Kate Pickett, just finished listening to The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

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