Sunday, June 29, 2014

Phoenix Comicon 2014: John Scalzi Spotlight

As mentioned previously, Scalzi was one of the two author spotlight panels on my schedule that I absolutely did not want to miss. (I had originally planned to have this one and the Rothfuss panel report share a post, but when I realized that together they would end up being a pretty huge chunk of words, I decided to split them.) His was at noon on the final day of the con, and it was kind of the inverse of the Rothfuss panel with regard to structure—he started off the panel by reading some of his work to us, and then followed with Q&A.

I slid in to the panel a few minutes late, but made it there in time to hear the end of a poem Scalzi wrote once upon a time, called “Ode to a Clone.” I missed the context but was nonetheless amused by the poem, especially this phrase: “a Nome clone dome home.” (If that doesn’t hook you, then I don’t know what will.) Later, I wanted to read the beginning of the poem and tracked it down on this website of science jokes (it’s about the 5th one down the page). Check it out if you’re into nerdy rhyming science humor.

Next up in Scalzi storytime, we were given a choice between a piece called “Flaming Babies” and another called simply “Chocolate.” There was some dissent in the audience over which to choose, but the flaming babies won out (and how could they not, really?). So Scalzi read us a piece from when he was a writer at AOL in the ‘90s (I think that’s where the clone poem is from, too), wherein he recounts a tale of calling the Pampers and Huggies hotlines to discuss the chances of diapers catching on fire, as had happened to him when he was a baby. It’s just as funny as it sounds (my favorite bit: “Is there some sort of weird diaper lady cabal?”), and you can read it here on his blog.

After we all vicariously learned to keep diapers away from bonfire pits and intense sunlight, Scalzi decided we had enough time to do “Chocolate” as well, another short piece from his early writer days that addresses the topic of his wife’s passion for the stuff and how though he himself has never been able to appreciate it, he can appreciate her appreciation for it. It was especially funny because his wife was in the panel audience, bearing up well. Later in the Q&A someone asked her if it was strange to hear him read that out loud, and she said, “The moment he said ‘chocolate’ I knew what it was…and I know exactly the dinner he’s referring to.” Again, if you find yourself so inclined, you can read it on his blog here. It’s short. It’s funny. Give it a go. I just re-read it, and now I really want to go hunt down the Hershey’s Kisses I know are in the freezer somewhere.

After finishing off that one, he said, “So that was okay, right? The fifteen-years-ago stuff worked alright.” We agreed that yes, it was definitely alright, and he continued, explaining the worry a little bit. “The thing is,” he said, “I’m being super highly selective, because when I was doing my column for the newspaper way back in the day, I was 24, 25 years old. I was the smuggest twenty-something you ever met, and I thought everything I wrote was pure gold. Then I became an editor for AOL and had to be writing a humor area where every year I had 20 open slots for humor-related material, and I would have 1000 submissions a month, because we did this thing called paying people, which apparently gets a lot of people to actually submit things. After going through all thousand submissions, I would still have ten open slots, because comedy’s actually hard. So I’d actually have to start telling people, ‘Well, here’s what you can do to tweak it and improve it,’ and then give you some examples and all this other stuff, doing what editors do. Then later on I went back to all the stuff that I wrote at the newspaper, which I had thought was gold, and my reaction to most of it was—[choking, horrified noise]—because it was terrible! Whoever thought it was a good idea to let me have a column—they were high.” Everyone laughed at that, and he added, “It wasn’t that they were high, it was just that I made enough noise that they were like, ‘Fine, give him Wednesday.’ I went back to that newspaper to visit at one point and I went to my editor at the time, and I was like, ‘Thank you so much for not stabbing me in the eye during all that time I was writing that column.’ And he was like, ‘I have waited for this day.’ I’m a much better writer now. Thank God. It was only 20 years.”


The reading portion of the panel thus completed, we moved into the question-and-answer session in earnest. After a compliment from an audience member that resulted in a short discussion of Dave Barry and piles of money, the first question he got was if there are any more plans for Scalzorc. “She’s referring to something we did…5 years ago now, which was called Clash of the Geeks, where I commissioned a picture of me as an orc and Wil Wheaton in his clown sweater and hot, hot blue shorts astride a unicorn pegasus kitten, battling each other while there was a volcano behind us. As you do. And we commissioned writers like Patrick Rothfuss, Cat Valente, Stephen Toulouse, and a number of other ones to write very short stories about what the hell was actually going on in that particular painting.”

Feast yer eyes!

“It was actually very impressive. We put that all together, and we put it up as pay-what-you-want with all proceeds going to the Lupus Society of Michigan because Subterranean Press, which was publishing it—the founder’s wife has lupus. We raised about $25,000 with it, which was actually really, really wonderful. Because people were totally down with it—‘I’ll happily pay $5 for this absolutely ridiculous thing.’ It was great, because Patrick Rothfuss did an edda, an actual epic poem, Wil did something, Rachel Swirsky, who has won two Nebulas now…just an amazing amount of talent in that actual, ridiculous thing. We don’t really have any plans to revisit Scalzorc or Hot Pants Wheaton, although Hot Pants Wheaton is the name of my next band. Somebody tweet that now! Done, and done… But certainly I will be doing more charitable stuff because I like doing the charitable stuff. It’s nice to be actually able to sort of spontaneously generate tens of thousands of dollars to worthy causes and not tell them about it until all the money starts rolling in. It’s like, surprise, here’s some money! Cuz we love you! So, yeah, there will be more charitable stuff, maybe not particularly that. Wil and I talk about, like, ‘Let’s get the band back together,’ sort of thinking on that one, but it’s just a matter of time and scheduling and everything else. But definitely I will be doing more charitable things.”

The next question pertained to the second Human Division book, and if Scalzorc had any more news on it. “Yes,” he replied. “I’ve started writing it. I’ve started writing it, and it will be out next year.” (!) “And it won’t be another cliffhanger,” he assured us. “We will resolve what was going on in the first book. So all of you who hated me, like ‘You didn’t finish!!!’, no, I did a complete narrative arc, and I just left the door open for more going on because if you’re doing a Human Division season one, you hope that season two will get renewed. That was kind of the thinking there. We should’ve messaged that a little better, but that was always kind of the plan.”

Concerning Television Appearances

Question: “Has Wil slotted you in for his new show as a guest star?

Answer: “Ahhh, no. Because he hates me. [much laughter from audience] And also, with no aspersions to my own awesome awesomeness, if you were to put me on Syfy like, ‘Look! Here’s our special guest John Scalzi!’, there would be three people in that audience going, ‘Wooo!’ and the rest would be like, “…?” And that’s fine! I tell people I have a very highly constrained sort of fame. Which is, I go to a convention, or Phoenix Comicon, or the L.A. Times book fair, and I go there, and people are like [starstruck voice], ‘Do you know who you are?!?’ It’s really location-oriented. And then I go out in the world and I am bland middle-aged man, looking so much like all the other bland middle-aged men out there. I have this theory that, for women in particular under the age of 30, I do not exist as a person, but just a blank spot on the map. Because people look at me, and their eyes track, and they see you for just one second, and they keep going, and I’ve noticed that young women in particular just shooomp—slide right over. Which is fine—it’s not like I’m sitting there going, ‘Heyyy, 23-year-olds. Come on down, we have so much in common.’ It’s not like it keeps me up at night, but it is fascinating. They recognize something’s in that blank spot, but they don’t see me. Unless I’m here. In which case they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re John Scalzi! You write that book! That’s awesome.’ And I actually like it that way.

“We were at the Eddie Izzard concert the other night in Minneapolis—which was awesome, by the way—and I’m on the way to the bathroom, like you do, and all of a sudden this guy grabs me—thummm [grips own arm] and he’s like [deep, vaguely Batman-esque voice], ‘JOHN SCALZI.’ And I’m like [whimpering terrified animal noise]. My bland middle-aged cosplay is no longer working! I don’t know how George Martin or Neil Gaiman, who are the two really famous fantasy/science fiction writers, deal with it. They’re both so clearly, visually iconographic. George Martin is, y’know, Santa Claus gone bad. He’s like, ‘Welcome to Red Christmas! We got you a puppy!’ There’s somebody here cosplaying as George R.R. Martin. Whereas, if you were cosplaying as me, you would look like you! [points to balding, middle-aged man in the audience who actually looked reminiscent of Scalzi, and who then gamely stood up and took a bow]

“And then there’s Neil Gaiman, who looks like he’s the gently aging bassist from an ‘80s new romantic band. [British accent] ‘I remember when we played with Depeche Mode…’ He’s spottable, whereas I’m supposed to be able to slide by with the balding thing, and the pudgy thing, and the nondescript polo shirts and stuff like that. So when I get spotted in the wild I’m like, ‘Mm—ulgh—ah…’ and other such comic-oriented noises. The fact that I’m that sort of famous precludes me from being an A-list person for the Wil Wheaton show. They are going to go with Chris Hardwick, they are going to go with Felicia Day, all those sort of people. And maybe four seasons in they’ll be like, ‘Jesus, who do we have left?’ Then they’ll get me. Followed by Paul & Storm. And right now Paul & Storm is going, ‘Wait a minute! You opened for us! Asshole.’”

On the Influence of Other Media

Question: “How would you say other media—television, books, games, radio, music, whatever—has influenced you for the better or for the worse?”

Answer: “Well, movies obviously influenced me. I was a film critic for years and years and years before I started writing novels, and the story structure of that influenced my writing so much that when I first submitted my novels to my agent for him to read to see if he wanted to represent me, the first email that I got back from him was did you write these as screenplays first. They’re dialogue heavy, they are a lot of exterior action and not necessarily a lot of interior thought or contemplation. So that definitely influenced me. TV influenced me obviously also because dialogue is just really important to me—plays also. I think it’s much better to give people information through talking than it is just to do AND NOW, MEATY CHUNK OF EXPOSITION. THUNK. You have to avoid making your book seem like one of those Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk scenes, but you can do that and still get a lot of information through. So definitely that has something to do with it.

“Video games were an influence on Old Man’s War and I’ll tell you why: if you’ve ever played a video game, let’s say Half-Life…you have Freeman running around, and he’s got the shotgun, and he’s got the rocket launcher, and he’s got the alien rifle, he’s got all this sort of stuff and you’re able to swap through it. And I’m just imagining him in the real world, and he’d basically be like this, [pantomimes lugging lots of huge heavy stuff], and not being able to walk at all, and the headcrabs are like, ‘We’ll come around to you. You’ll be there.’ So when I wrote Old Man’s War, I created the MP-35, which has all those functions in a single gun, because that is the logical way to do it. And thanks to living in the future with the magic of nanotechnology, I can sell that without anybody going, ‘Your nanotechnology has to be really—’ ‘Yes! The aliens made it first. Shhhh.’

“But yeah, all of it comes into the pot. We are not people who only consume one sort of media. Rare the person who only listens to music and doesn’t watch TV, or go to the movies. Rare is the person who is like, ‘If it’s not on a stage, being declaimed by people from the Royal Shakespearean Company, I don’t wanna know about it.’ We all consume lots of different media, so it all goes into the pot.”

On Great Openers

Question: “The first line in Old Man’s War—for my son that’s the iconic first line. Is there a first line of something that you’ve read that has stayed with you forever?”

Answer: “The opening line for 1984 is a good example of that for me. With the clocks chiming 13 o’clock. It was cold and the clocks were chiming thirteen. And just in that one line you’re not in your world. It’s closely related to ours, but it is not our world. Just the economy and yet complexity of that world-building, just in that single line—you’re like, ‘Ooh, George Orwell, has anyone ever told you you could write? Because you can do that writing thing really well.’ That would be my example of that. Another one would be for Fahrenheit 451: ‘It was a pleasure to burn.’ Which can be taken on all sorts of different levels. I’m a very big believer in the first line, because I am very super easily bored. So you’ve gotta hook me, and you’ve gotta keep hooking me. And the first line is the hook. The first line buys you the first paragraph, first paragraph buys you the first page, first page buys you the first chapter. They get all the way through that chapter, then they’ll buy the book. It’s like The God Engines’ first line was, ‘It was time to whip the god.’ In The Android’s Dream: ‘Dirk Moeller didn’t know if he could fart his way into a major diplomatic incident but he was ready to find out.’ That’s a great line because you know from the first line whether this is a book for you or not. From the very first line…I don’t want people to get through my book and go, ‘That’s several hours of my life I won’t ever get back.’ Might as well signal them very early on, this is the book you’re reading. If you’re not comfortable with that, bail out now, no judgment. There’s a Star Wars book right over there. But as far as it goes, I’m a big, big believer in first lines.”

On the Potential for Continuing the Stories of Dead Universes

Question: “Any plans on more of The God Engines?”

Answer: “Has anyone not read The God Engines? Plug your ears for the next ten seconds. THE UNIVERSE ENDS, DUDE! It’s a very definite ending. People are like, well write a prequel. And I’m like…[doubtful, noncommittal noise]. When I wrote The God Engines, I wrote it 1) because I just wanted to write something incredibly bleak. Because I write happy stuff—not necessarily happy stuff, but stuff that’s amusing and light and clever people saying clever things to other clever people who respond cleverly. And I just wanted to do one where I didn’t. I have people who read The God Engines and they’re like, ‘So I finished reading God Engines and…you need a hug.’ Which is totally not how I wrote it! I wrote it like [maniacally], ‘Heh heh heh heh…’ And I had just for that moment that glimpse of what it is to be George Martin, right? You really like this character don’t you? This character’s awesome. This character is GREAT. …this character is impaled. That sort of thing. And so that was part of it.

“It also served a purpose of letting people know that though I do write that sort of lighter, quick-moving action sort of stuff, that I can write other things. Because it is definitely something where you can get pigeon-holed. That’s kind of a calling card there. But, it is the thing that a lot of people really want more out of. I will say this—I am considering writing more darker fantasy like that. I mean, not that one, and again in the novella format because I think that is a good, quick read, and also stands as a counterpoint to George Martin, Patrick Rothfuss… Which is not a problem—I’m perfectly fine with people buying their fantasy in bulk. If it makes you happy, then go ahead and do that. Pat’s a friend of mine, George is a friend of mine—please support their ridiculously obscene habits that cost money. But I like those short, sweet, ‘Hi! PUNCH,’ right in the head. That seems like fun. So I might do more of that, but that particular universe, I suspect, is closed. Maybe we’ll do a movie one day. I think it would make an excellent movie.”

On Revisiting a Story Universe After Completing Its Initial Arc

Question: “After reading the four Old Man’s War books, I kind of got the impression that you were done with that universe, but now you’ve continued it [with The Human Division]. What are your feelings on that—have you made peace with continuing that universe?”

Answer: “Have I made peace with a pile of money? [audience laughs] It was hard…I sat there with this pile of money, and I was like, ‘Is this me? …And then my mortgage said yes.’ [more laughter]” The question-asker then focused it a little more, asking Scalzi to address the idea that if he, the writer, started to get bored with said universe, then it wouldn’t be fun to read. He agreed and said, “In fact I did take 5 years off the Old Man’s War universe. I said specifically, I wrote the John and Jane/Perry family arc. The Perry family arc is done. Those four books constitute that arc. And then I put the Old Man’s War books aside because I was done saying everything I needed to say in that world. I didn’t close the door to writing more, but I was not going to write more unless I had an actual, genuine interest in it. What happened was, I had written the story “After the Coup” for when they were starting off, because they wanted to have something from me to be the first story that they ran, which is kinda nice. I really enjoyed the interplay between Hart Schmidt and Harry Wilson, and I thought to myself, 'I could write a whole bunch of short stories with them as the main characters, having Abbott and Costello-like adventures through space.' I was thinking this right around the same time that Tor was starting to think about what can we do with the electronic medium that we’re not doing otherwise. And they came upon the idea of doing episodic things—not serialized, like tune in next week and find out—more like X-Files, where you have some that are part of an overarching arc and some that are single serving things, and they wanted to see if that would work in the electronic format. So they came to me and said, ‘Would this be something that you’re interested in doing with us?’ And I said, ‘As it happens, I have this idea to get back into that universe.’

“But again, it was the whole thing of—you’re absolutely right, if you’re just doing it to do Old Man’s War 7, Even Oldier—I’m not going to do it because a) I get easily bored, and b) if I’m bored, you are going to be bored. Oh God, are you going to be bored. So I wouldn’t do it just for that purpose, but at that point I was like, I’ve thought more about the universe, there’s maybe stuff that I want to do with it. This particular setup that we have with The Human Division, I really see as a two book arc. So you have book five and you have book six, which I’m writing right now, and part of that is part and parcel with how it’s actually being distributed, which is actually part of an interesting writing challenge in and of itself. But part of it is, I want to explore more the aftermath of what happened in the first arc. So you have this two book arc, and after that two book arc is done, I suspect that I will probably put away Old Man’s War again for awhile, and kind of see what happens with it again. I’m never going to be one of those people who’s like [gravelly rocker voice], ‘We’re never getting the band back together,’ and five years later they do the reunion tour because they’re all broke. But again, there’s no reason to do it unless… The good news is that the standalone books that I write do fine. I’m not reliant on that series for income. Thank God all of you have accepted that I write things other than the Old Man’s War series. Thank you so much for that. But yeah, if I want to go back into that I would be more than happy to, but there has to be a reason.”

Concerning Effective Motivators

Question: “How do you stay focused and motivated when you’re writing?”

Answer: “In all honesty, having a spouse going, ‘Where the hell are my chapters?’ is a huge motivator. It’s one of those things that I have deadlines, and having a spouse that is reminding me I have those deadlines has actually been very important. I don’t listen to music; it distracts me. When push comes to shove, I yank the internet out of the wall so that it doesn’t distract me, which I have to be doing real soon now. But generally, the fact that my wife wants to read what comes next is actually a huge motivator for me, because she is no bullshit—she tells me when things are working and when things aren’t working. And I want to make my wife happy. That’s the primary thing.”

His Stance on the Standalone Status of Redshirts

Question: “There’s a Redshirts TV thing in the works, but are you planning on continuing that story in book form?”

Answer:Blueshirts? Goldshirts?” [“Sure!” the man who asked the question laughed.] “At this moment, no. I think it’s pretty standalone-y, and I’m happy to leave it where it is. Again, never say never. If Tor came to me and said, ‘Here’s one million dollars for Redshirts 2: The Red Nation,’ then I would have that conversation with myself again. ‘Hello, pile of money, my old friend…I see you found your way back to me. It’s time for us to have a long night of the soul together. …You’ll pay for the pizza.’ But quite frankly, at this point, no. What would be interesting to me is, FX is thinking of Redshirts as a limited series—what we used to call mini series, but now we call them limited series because it’s hipper and cooler. If it’s successful, then they’re going to want to do Redshirts 2: The Reddening, season two, or something like that. And my opinion about that is they should actually just do Chronicles of the Intrepid. That would just be awesome. But at this point, no plans to do that—I have two or three books in my head that I would like to do. I’ve got to finish up Human Division 2, and then I have a couple other things I want to get to as well. But again, if Tor comes with a million dollars, then I will seriously think about that because, y’know—” [“You’ve gotta pay for the chocolate somehow!” a man in the crowd interjected, to much laughter.] “I’ve gotta pay for the chocolate somehow. Yes sir, well done to bring it back around! And on that note I think we are done. Thank you so much for coming.”

As always, it was equal parts enlightening and amusing to attend a Scalzorc panel. I now know to keep an ear out for info on the Redshirts TV show, and that there’s going to be a second Human Division book! (Have I been under a rock or something? Wow.)

Have you read anything by the Scalz? What’s your favorite of his books? Let us know below!


CarlR said...

Thanks for posting that in such detail. I wasn't at the convention but like Scalzi a lot, and enjoyed hearing what he had to say. I'll look forward to your Rothfuss post, too. I hope you had fun at the con!

Alyssa L. said...

Awesome!! Thanks for stopping by! Scalzi is so much fun, and it's nice to know someone enjoyed my transcription efforts. :) PHXCC was a ton of fun--I'd highly recommend it, especially to SFF book nerds. If you're interested in the Rothfuss post (it's not quite as detailed or extensive as this one, since I experienced some technical difficulties), it's two posts prior to this one. Here's a link:

Thanks again for stopping by and commenting! :D

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