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: Instead of trash, right? Of course. I did make one foray into the literary fiction thing at one point, when I was still writing novels that weren’t selling. This is sort of back story. I wrote four novels that I never sold before I wrote The Windup Girl. So I’ve been writing for, now, it’s been about 15 years. I guess it was 13 when I sold The Windup Girl.

I wrote a science fiction novel that did get a low-ball offer that I ultimately passed on, on the advice of my agent. Thinking, well, my first novel got an offer, I can write another, and that one’s gonna be a sky’s-the-limit type of thing.

I wrote that second novel, but I actually pushed over to historical fiction. That one treaded closer to what we’d call mainstream fiction, as opposed to genre fiction. And then the next one after that was straight out literary fiction. You know, love of landscape. This thing about the rural west.

I don’t know. It was what it was. And then after that I wrote a mystery-slash-western sort of novel.  A modern western, a postmodern western, really. And then I started writing short stories and science fiction again.

Lev: So you are basically one incredibly determined motherfucker.

Paolo: Yeah, apparently I am. I didn’t really think of myself in that way, but looking back you sort of wonder, well, why didn’t I give up? Ever? And I can’t quite say. In some ways I was driven by the fact that I’d told everybody I was gonna be writer.

Lev: Looking back to when I was in college, and the people who wanted to be writers, ultimately the question of who eventually made it into publication came down less to who had raw talent, whatever that is, than to who had more of an appetite for sucking up humiliation.

Paolo: I think of it in terms of the people who have the ability to go through the try, fail, learn cycle. You have to be able to take that again and again. And those failure moments, you have to go, OK, why did I fail? What did I learn from this? How can I reapply this and go again?

For me I actually knew that I had a great deal of talent. I knew that I was a really great writer in high school. My writing teachers were amazing. When I went to college I could write essays and all that stuff—really tight, clean stuff. And having the raw ability…it was meaningless, ultimately. It was the willingness to write four novels and fuck them all up and keep going that was the definer. It wasn’t the ability at all. Yeah, the willingness to accept failure and not let it stop you, and to not let that define you.

Have you ever read Hunter Thompson’s letters? The thing that’s really interesting about that book is, you see this combination of raw ego and this unwillingness to ever stop. Just this charging unwillingness to let anything prevent him from getting where he wanted to go.

And I feel like it doesn’t get talked about, that idea that nobody accidentally gets published. You don’t accidentally fall into writing a novel. Just the process of actually writing a novel is too damn hard for anybody to accidentally fall into it. And if somebody says, “yeah I just did it,” they’re probably lying. They wanted it and they went after it is what they did. You don’t write it, get it sent out, take the agent rejections, take the editor rejections, all those different layers, without having something real powerful driving you inside.

Lev: The giveaway for me is when people tell me they’re going to an MFA program because they really need the discipline. [Editor’s note: the editor did not attend an MFA program, but mostly because he never got into any of them. — ed.]

Paolo: Discipline comes from within, not from without. I think of it as being, there are those people who are waiting for the thing to arrive, and then there’s people who are going out and making it. I think about it as almost theft. You almost have to steal the book from the rest of your life. There’s so few things that are going to support you in the process of writing a book. There’s always more child care. There’s always  some emergency that has to happen. There’s always some reason why, you know, you have a deadline at your regular job and so you have to stay up late, and you can’t get your writing done. If you’re going to write it’s always stolen from somebody else’s time, or some other responsibility.

Lev: It must be so gratifying now, after all that, to have everything validated.

Paolo: This latest stuff is honestly pretty unreal.  I do remember when I started selling the books, when I sold both Ship Breakers and The Windup Girl, that there was this huge moment of relief right then. I realized I’d actually been carrying a lot of baggage from people who would make offhand comments like, ‘well, it’s not like you’re working.’

I was still accumulating some sort of psychic pain over it. You know, that all these people really did think I was a loser, and slacking around and doing nothing, basically. And when you’re writing your fifth book, and four of them have already failed, you’re obviously a joke, right?

So I remember when those book sales happened, I remember feeling like I could finally stand up straight and look certain people in the eye and say, Wo the next time you see me sitting around in the coffee shop, or the next time you see me sitting out on the porch, quote, ‘doing nothing,’ it turns out I’m actually working. You motherfuckers.

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