Author Interview with Curtis C. Chen

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In this week’s speculative fiction author interview, Curtis C. Chen, author of the sci-fi thriller Waypoint Kangaroo, took time to answer some questions on his writing process. Curtis talks about how he tackles sci-fi comedy, what he’s learned from giving feedback to other writers, and how escaping cats is critical to his writing success.

Your novel Waypoint Kangaroo, and the upcoming sequel Kangaroo Too, are action-packed spy thrillers with a healthy dose of physics. How did you balance the science in the novels with telling a good tale?

Every now and then people will refer to my work as “hard science fiction,” and I have to stop myself from correcting them. I love hard SF — I read a lot of Golden Age stuff when I was younger — but I’m too lazy to write it myself. My math is approximate at best, and in the case of the Kangaroo books, not only do I have a handwavium-powered space drive that can propel ships at ludicrous speeds between planets, but Kangaroo’s pocket is basically magic. I feel most comfortable when I can play with some technology that feels plausible, but is just far enough out of our current grasp that nobody can actually disprove its possibility.

As far as telling a good story, IMHO getting the science right(ish) is mostly important to set the scene and establish a context for the characters. Kangaroo’s adventures tend to be more thriller than science fiction; the science and technology are not the core problem, but they do contribute to the complications and eventual solutions. For me, a big part of the fun of imagining humans in the future is portraying how our pre-industrial instincts might react to strange circumstances.

One last thing to note: I’m a computer scientist by training, and an early draft of Waypoint included an entire chapter where Kangaroo was literally sitting at a computer console and analyzing data. That was interesting to me personally, but if you thought watching movie hacking was boring, this took it to a whole new level of tedium. Fortunately, beta readers convinced me it wasn’t necessary for the plot. My editor at Thomas Dunne Books also helped me a lot with pacing and tension in the middle sections of the book.

Writing comedy is hard and writing funny sci-fi is doubly so. What interests you about tackling such a daunting combo?

I’m a glutton for punishment? On some level, I feel like I’m always writing some kind of genre fiction; I just tend to be less interested in “realistic” fiction, both as a fan and a creator. So yeah, it’s always going to be science fiction or fantasy, probably. (Remind me to tell you about the time I tried to write a romance novel and it almost immediately turned into near-future science fiction.)

And comedy I just find endlessly fascinating. For example, stand-up comics: I know it’s not a great living, but it still boggles my mind that people actually get paid to just talk about stuff. In terms of “how difficult it seems to the layperson,” I feel like stand-up comedy is similar to fiction writing–everyone knows how to talk, just like most people can write comprehensible sentences, and the subtleties of the skill required to be an expert at doing stand-up or writing fiction are often lost on those who haven’t studied either art.

All that said, I would love to someday be able to create something that approaches my own favorite science fiction comedies: Red Dwarf, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, anything by Connie Willis, Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn (OMG SO FREAKING GOOD).

You recently taught a one-day workshop through Clarion West, the organization that runs the prestigious speculative fiction summer writers workshop. What do you enjoy about teaching and how does it inform the way you approach writing?

That was actually the first official class I’ve ever taught, and I spent quite a bit of time preparing for it, which was great for reviewing and clarifying my own thoughts on writing. It turns out that I have quite a bit to say about story structure, how to write a synopsis, and query letters to literary agents! I enjoyed being able to share some of the knowledge I’ve gained on my own path to publication, which will hopefully ease the way for others.

Being in various writing critique groups over the years has also helped me consider the best ways to discuss craft issues. Giving good feedback is just as important a skill as being able to accept it from others. For several years I ran the Open Read & Critique sessions (ORCs) at OryCon, and that was always invigorating, both in terms of getting to hear what other writers were working on and having a chance to help them improve it.

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Curtis C. Chen

What makes up a good writing session for you and what are your indispensable tools?

I’m very easily distracted, so getting out of the house and away from screaming cats tends to be a big part of getting work done. It usually takes me a little while to get back into the flow of whatever project I’m working on, so I like a solid two to three hour block of time if I can manage that. Listening to instrumental music without lyrics (like film scores) also helps me concentrate.

Tools-wise, it depends on what part of the process I’m in. For writing a first draft, I love my Alphasmart NEO. It’s essentially an electronic typewriter that limits distractions. There’s no Internet access, I can only see about five lines of text at a time (which encourages me to go forward, not look back), and it’ll run for years on three AAA batteries. Once I have a complete draft, I’ll drop it into Scrivener so I can look at the big picture and keep all my research in one place.

I also pay for a few online utilities: The Free Dictionary for research, Duotrope to track my short fiction submissions, and Boomerang to manage emails.

What do you love to geek out about?

Star Trek. NASA. Robots. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Musicals. Comic books. Movies. TV tropes. Gilmore Girls. Puzzles and games. Whisk(e)y. Hot sauce. Follow me on Twitter @curtiscchen to read about all these things and more!

Thanks, Curtis!

For more about Curtis C. Chen and his upcoming novel Kangaroo Too, visit his website www.curtiscchen.com.

// Images courtesy of Curtis C. Chen. 

Kate Gorman is editor of Art & Literature on Paper Droids. She is also the author of the speculative fiction novel ON THE ICE, the screenplay and creative how-to collection INT-EXT, and the locative fiction audio walk series GREENWAY QUARTET.