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 He talked frankly with us about his work, his incredible year, his four unpublished novels, and the many punishments and humiliations of the writing life.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.

One of the consequences of this is that I just threw an entire book away. I’d written it out to 80 or 90 thousand words and I just threw it away, because it’s not what I love.

Lev: That’s a lot of discipline, to bin that many words.

Paolo: My wife says that I’m nuts, actually. It’s one or the other. You can just tell when it doesn’t work.

Lev: I’m curious how much of an influence on you William Gibson has been. When I went looking for an analog to the sense of shock I felt the first time I read Windup Girl, the obvious answer was reading Neuromancer.

Paolo: Oh, yeah. I grew up reading Gibson. I’m a huge fan of his writing. I remain addicted to his writing. I know that when I was writing my first short story, “Pocket Full of Dharma,” that cyberpunk flavor of things was very much in my mind, in that Gibson style. That language, and lushness, and sort of that grittiness of the world was something that was something really interesting to me.

I emulated it too well, as it turned out. Because when I had that story workshopped by Elizabeth Hand, she was like, cyberpunk’s dead. Just so you know. You need you need to de-cyberpunk this story in order to make it actually sellable. That was the first time that I’d ever understood that there were actually really trend lines in science fiction as a genre, and slices of genre within science fiction.

And then frankly, he was the guy who kind of sent me off in the direction of writing short stories, because he had told me that’s how he’d gotten started. I literally stalked him at a Tattered Cover signing. I’d never actually met a real writer before, and it was the first author signing or author event I’d ever been to. So I went and I stalked him and I got my book signed. And then I kind of went and I stood over his shoulder. I just peppered him with questions as he signed for other people. I kind of cringe at it now. I was so starved for any instruction I could get

Lev: And yet now people probably do that to you, at your events.

Paolo: Yeah, it’s interesting to be the object of other people’s fascination. I mean, I’m sure you’ve had that too. It’s sort of a strange thing to really be extremely engaged in something you created. And then because of that they’re engaged in you.

It’s not an entirely natural interaction. By nature I’m sort of an introvert. So it’s somewhat exhausting

Lev: Could you name a couple of other writers, or a couple other works, that were inspirations for Windup Girl?

Paolo: Inspirations for Windup Girl, hmm. It’s hard to kinda pull these things apart. It all ends up being mulch. For Windup Girl, some of it’s things like Graham Greene, actually. I’m kind of intrigued by The Quiet American. Stuff about idealistic people doing stupid stuff in foreign countries has always sort of fascinated me.

Lev: Did you ever make forays into literary fiction? Mainstream fiction?

Paolo: You mean good fiction?

Lev: Right. That’s what I meant. “Legitimate” I think is another word for it.

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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