Paolo Bacigalupi: This is What It Takes to Write a Novel

Paolo Bacigalupi, in case you don't know, is one of the most exciting SF writers working right now. His first novel The Windup Girl won both the Hugo and Nebula awards this year. It's radical and amazing. It would be a good idea for you to read it.

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Paolo Bacigalupi, in case you don’t know, is one of the most exciting SF writers working right now. His first novel The Windup Girl won both the Hugo and Nebula awards this year. It’s radical and amazing. It would be a good idea for you to read it.

He also has a YA novel, Ship Breaker, and a collection of stories, Pump Six, that will be out in paperback later this fall. And yet he is unreasonably modest. He talked frankly with us about his work, his incredible year, his four unpublished novels, and the many punishments and humiliations of the writing life.

Lev: I’m going to start with the question that all interviews with you should start with: how the hell do you pronounce your name?

Paolo: I have no idea. Bunch o’galoshes. that’s the best description I’ve heard. Yeah, it’s Paolo BATCH-i-ga-LOOP-ee.

Lev: I’ve been doing it wrong all these years.

Paolo: It’s “baci” as in “kiss,” so “kiss of the wolf” is the loose translation for it.

Lev: Wow. That’s what your last name means?

Paolo: That’s what my father tells me.

Lev: Clumsy segue: Ship Breaker is your first YA novel. What was it like shifting audiences like that? Did you have to adjust?

Paolo: What I was really thinking about was back when I was first getting into science fiction and stuff, when I had read all the Heinlein juveniles, and especially things like Citizen of the Galaxy, and how much I’d liked those and been completely absorbed by them. I was really trying to work from a model of what I’d read as  a child, and build a modernized version of this sort of high adventure, boy-who-learns-better sort of story, that I found so appealing.

But mostly I sat down and said, I’m not going to write a boring story. And that actually, surprisingly, solves most of your problems. Don’t dick around too much in the weeds of, oh, gee, this character’s deep interiority or anything like that. Get it done and make this character do some stuff and make stuff explode. That seems to work pretty well.

Lev: How similar are the worlds of Ship Breaker and Windup Girl?

Paolo: Pretty similar. There’s a certain layer of genetic engineering stuff, that I’m interested in, and that keeps coming up. And there’s the same sorts of peak oil questions, the same idea of a society that has overshot itself, and collapsed backward. All of that is there.

Lev: Less of an emphasis on prostitution and sexual slavery I’m assuming?

Paolo: Yeah, they made me take out all the child prostitution. Or most of it. I was allowed to leave just a whiff of it in. But mostly they said, if we can de-emphasize this, and emphasize things like selling kidneys, that’s better.

Lev: Those big corporate publishers, they just stifle your creativity. Congratulations on the Hugo, by the way. That is just incredibly great.

Paolo: Yeah, that was…I’m still sort of trying to put that together in my head actually, what that means.

Lev:You must have been doing a lot of that this year. It’s been such an amazing ride.

Paolo: It’s all so far outside of what I expected for this book. When I wrote Windup Girl originally…I mean, I finished it, and I remember the exact feeling I had when I was going through the final copy edits and cleaning the manuscript before it was supposed to go out.  It was done, and I’m looking at the page proofs, and I remember reading the book and just feeling this incredible sense of embarrassment about it.

I felt sort of apologetic that I was putting it out. I had no faith in it and I had no sense that it was something that should even be out in the world. I remember waiting for the reviews to come in and just feeling sick each time I heard that there was gonna be a new review coming out because I was just waiting for the eviscerating comments to come in.

And then the reviews started coming in and they were almost all very positive. The attack didn’t come.

And then as the awards were coming in it’s just been… I mean, I remember being at the Nebulas,and China Miéville was there, and I mean, you know, he’s a great writer. So I remembered seeing him there and I thought, somebody tipped him. That’s why he’s here. You don’t show at the Nebulas from England without having prior knowledge. And I was like, that’s it. That makes sense.

I remember when I won the award I heard my name called and I stood up, and then there was this moment where I stood there thinking, I hallucinated that. I wanted this so badly that I just stood up, and I actually wrote my own name into somebody else’s name being called. And I remember standing there looking around trying to figure out if China was standing up or not.

Lev: Does it change things for you when you’re at the keyboard? Now that you’re Hugo-and-Nebula-winning-author-Paolo-Bacigalupi.

Paolo: The things that have really gotten confusing to me is how you balance the desires of your publishers to produce things on a schedule, and people are always sort of giving you ideas on what you should follow up with, or how you should proceed next ,and things like that. You know, career things that are then impinging on and messing around with the question of just, what am I interested in writing?

So I’ve gone through a couple of gyrations with that, where it’s been a little confusing for me, just trying to get back to the center of, well, these are the things I’m really interested in. This is the kind of story that I feel like telling right now. And getting more comfortable with the fact that that might not necessarily be what people assume is coming next from me. I think that’s the part that’s a little confusing for me. I think inherently, a little bit, I’m a bit of a pleaser and I want people to like me and be nice, and to not ruffle feathers and just make everybody happy and stuff. It’s a personality flaw.

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