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Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Lawrence M. Schoen
    by Darrell Schweitzer

Our regular reprint editor and interviewer, Lawrence M. Schoen, just published a book he's been working on for more than 20 years, and to celebrate we thought it only right to put him in the hot seat and invite his predecessor, Darrell Schweitzer, back to interview him. Which of course is what we did:

Psychologist, professor, author, linguist, and (lately) hypnotherapist Lawrence M. Schoen may have once been best known as "the Klingon guy," but he is surely too accomplished for that now. True, he founded the Klingon Language Institute, edited a Klingon journal for thirteen years, and published the original Klingon text of Hamlet, but he has also been nominated for the John W. Campbell award, the Hugo award, and the Nebula award (three times). His most recent novel is Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard, published by Tor. His other books include Buffalito Destiny, Buffalito Contingency, Buffalito Buffet, Aliens and A.I.s, and Sweet Potato Pie and Other Surrealities. He founded the small press publishing imprint Paper Golem. He has also edited anthologies.

Schweitzer: Tell me something about your illustrious self, your background, education, etc. When did you start writing? What was your first success?

Schoen: I was born in Chicago, IL, the youngest of four children. My family moved to southern California when I was about 18 months old, and though I have extended family numbering at least 100 souls in the Midwest, I've scarcely any memory of any of them. Part of being the youngest meant that when my father worked at the swap meet -- which he did both days of every weekend -- I got tagged to go with him, which I did from age five to eighteen, freed from my indenture by the act of going off to university. The reason I mention this is because I started writing on those weekends. I remember buying endless spiral bound notebooks, a new one each weekend, and sitting on the gate of the van during the long day, writing stories that came into my head. This in turn led to me reading science fiction and fantasy as I grew up, and hanging out with people who wanted to talk about books. Somewhere in high school though, I somehow got distracted. My academic proficiencies landed me in the math/science track, and when I left high school my exposure to the vast humanity I'd observed during my years at the swap meet probably influenced my decision to study psychology. Fiction and writing never so much as popped up as a possibility.

Psychology gave way to linguistics, which in turn gave way to a hyphenated discipline of psycholinguistics and a year spent petitioning the university to let me design my own piecemeal major with half again as many courses as the standard ones. That led me to graduate work in cognitive psychology, a master's degree followed by a doctorate, and then ten years as a professor in my own right before one of my grad students lured me away to the private sector. 

I wrote off and on throughout college, but I started taking it seriously (i.e., trying to sell things) in grad school. I invented an atrocious pseudonym, because my department made it clear that "serious doctoral candidates did not write science fiction" (anecdotes of Isaac Asimov notwithstanding).

Fortunately, none of those stories sold, so the world never saw that pen name, and no, I'm not going to tell you now. Once I was off doing the professor thing I submitted stories under my own name, and the sales began, mostly to second- and third-tier markets that paid very little, but at least paid in coin rather than just copies or "exposure." An exception was a sale to Analog, which started my eligibility for the Campbell award and subsequent nomination. Other sales led to other magazines and anthologies, a Hugo nomination, and more recently three Nebula nominations. I've had five books published by small presses, and last month (from the perspective of when this interview will run) I've had my first book come out from one of the big New York presses. Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard was published by Tor Books on the 29th of December.

Schweitzer:  But you also have your own page in Weird Pennsylvania as the Klingon Guy. So what about this? How and why did you suddenly become one of the world's leading experts in Klingon?

Schoen: I was teaching at a small liberal arts college in northern Illinois, and they'd had several years of declining enrollment. It got so bad that they decided they needed to cut four faculty lines, and I was the newest hire in the largest department on campus so my number was up. But in such situations in academia, you have a year as a lame duck, which is good because you need that long to reach out and try to find new employment. Once I'd sent off all my papers and applications, I needed something to distract myself from the weeks and months of waiting for the phone to ring, and someone handed me a copy of The Klingon Dictionary. I'd played a bit with Tolkien's languages as a teen, hanging out with older, college-age fans who got me interested in language and linguistics, and as I looked at Klingon I wondered who else out there might be playing with it, and how I might use my experience in academia to organize them into a sort of professional society with a journal and lo, I would have my distraction for a few months. Then the media found out what I was doing and the whole thing exploded. What was supposed to only last until I found a job (which I did, and why I landed in Philadelphia) has turned into 23 years of traveling the world and speaking at conventions and museums, publishing translations of Shakespeare and The Tao Te Ching and Gilgamesh, editing a quarterly, peer-reviewed journal for 13 years, and ending up with three-and-a-half pages in Weird Pennsylvania. It's been a wild ride, and as you can imagine it has both helped and hindered my efforts as a professional author.

Schweitzer: Do you ever get strange requests for your Klingon expertise? I read somewhere about a police department that wanted to keep a Klingon expert on call, just in case they ever dealt with a psychotic who only spoke Klingon …

Schoen: Some of what you hear is apocryphal (no surprise), and some tame by compared to the reality. I've been asked for tattoo inscriptions (both in Romanized form and in Klingon script), wedding proposal and ceremonies, eulogies. There are organizations that exist to gather up translations of their respective target works, such as Sherlock Holmes stories or the Alice books, and both groups reach out to me every few years. I've been commissioned to provide translations of ad copy for everything from carpenters' tools to theme parks to DVD collections. In fact, one of the very first DVDs ever sold -- a collection of images of the Earth from space -- contacted me for Klingon rendering to be used on one of the alternate language captioning tracks. And of course, I get lots of translation requests for localization of software, both games and serious applications and developers' tools. It's... interesting.

Schweitzer: So you were an overnight success after years of trying? What do you think caused the sudden breakthrough? I remember reading some of your stuff in a workshop and it was at first, if you don't mind my saying so, not very good. But then there were sudden and dramatic improvements. What had been undeveloped little snippets became full-blown stories with strong narrative, and you were on your way. I don't take any credit for this. So what happened?

Schoen: My strength has always been in characterization and dialogue, but back in the day I couldn't recognize a decent plot if you dropped it into my arms. So what happened is I worked at it. And slowly over time and a lot of words written, I went from clueless to really bad to poor to mediocre to adequate. The big turning point for me was in 2010 when I went up the mountain and spent two weeks at Walter Jon Williams's master class, the Taos Toolbox. Walter is the master of plot, and he beat it into my head slowly and with great force and small words until I got it. Or at least, I had the beginnings of it. Like anything else in the business, it's an ongoing process. I'm very happy with the plotting of Barsk, but I'd do it differently now because the experience of writing that book has taught me even more and if I'm lucky the same thing will happen with the next one as well. We don't just learn from our mistakes, we learn from what we get right too. Or at least, that's how I think it's supposed to work.

Schweitzer: Do you think it was an advantage that you got sidetracked into psychology and linguistics before going seriously into writing, in the sense it gave you more to write about? There have always been lots of SF writers who are professionals in some scientific field, who write on the side. I think of Gregory Benford, who is an astrophysicist, for example.

Schoen: I have to think so. Back in my professoring days, I used to insist that my advisees take courses outside of psychology. They'd show up in my office the week before classes to get their proposed schedules approved and I'd look at the page of psych courses and nod and ask, "Where's your physics class? Where's your poetry class? Where's your foreign language/art history/philosophy/archaeology?" And the bewildered response would be "but I'm a psych major," and I'd look at them and say, "Psychology is the study of human behavior. Which of these other courses doesn't involve human behavior? You have the rest of your life to be a psychologist. Right now, while you're in school, sample the rest of human endeavor and it will inform what it means to be a psychologist. Nothing is wasted. Nothing!"

That applies to writing too. I don't regret the years spent pursuing an advanced degree or doing research in memory and language. All of it informs who I am as an author (though I do sigh sometimes when I see all the "young turks" coming up in the field and think maybe that could have been me if I hadn't been busy following an academic track -- but then that would have been a very different me).

I had a conversation with James Gunn some years back, after being a part of one of his two-week workshops. He'd gone through three of my stories with meticulous care, and at the end of the workshop I stopped in to ask him, one-on-one, if he thought I had a future as a writer. He pointed out that I was coming from a pretty unique perspective, that we had plenty of authors (as you've observed) with doctorates in the hard/physical sciences, but he couldn't think of anyone else with a background in cognitive psychology or psycholinguistics, and that would allow me to write things in a fresh voice. I like to think he had it right.

Schweitzer: So what do you think are the most fruitful areas for speculative writing that other people are not exploring adequately? Surely the secret of being a successful writer is finding something compelling that other people are not writing about just now, rather than doing, say, the umpteen thousandth psi-powers story.

Schoen: Call me crazy, but I believe that what makes a good story is that it connects on a human level, that the reader can relate to the experiences, motivations, and journeys of the characters. The speculative elements are misdirection that's used to distract you from what's really going on so that you can be blindsided by the meaning of the story. The classic example of this is the role of the alien in SF as a mirror of our own humanity (or lack thereof), allowing us to explore ideas that would hit too close to home if we openly admitted we were talking about ourselves.

The fruitful areas of speculative writing are NOT whatever flavor of the month allows you to connect with the reader, but rather the quality of the story you're telling. The genre (or sub-genre) that you're using is just a vehicle by which readers self-select where they're going to look for their next book, but Sturgeon's Revelation still applies: 90% of any of them will be crud, and I'm not the first to point out that Sturgeon was being an optimist. 

I'm reminded of my favorite quote from Freud (no, not the one about the cigar), which goes: "Analogies prove nothing, but they do make us feel at home." We like to read the things we're already comfortable with. It's why we love series, or media tie-in books of our favorite television shows. We're already comfy. And that's the time to tell a great story, when the reader's guard is down. 

But whether you're talking about shape-shifting paranormal romance, hard SF to the third decimal place, or talking animals in space, it's all just window dressing. A good story translates to any of these. Look at different genres' "adaptations" of Shakespeare, from West Side Story to Forbidden Planet. 

So, okay, I haven't really answered the question you asked, because I think it's the wrong question. Because I don't want fiction that's just about the tropes and the baggage and the symbols of a genre. What we're not exploring adequately are human questions. All that other stuff should exist as metaphor to let us talk about who we are, why we know joy and sorrow, how we treat one another so poorly and how we can aspire to change, grow, and achieve the potential of our best nature.

Or we can just have more car chases and explosions. But in space.

Schweitzer: I would certainly agree that chasing the visible trend will never produce more than imitative work. The zeitgeist produced cyberpunk, i.e. the works of Gibson and Sterling. But there were also a lot of writers who read the works of Gibson & Sterling and said, "So this is what sells," and wrote some, and produced 2nd-tier cyberpunk, imitations of what the originators had been doing a couple years earlier. I think we've seen this over and over again. So, does one watch the "market" at all while writing?

Schoen: I don't think so; at least I don't watch it. Personally, I'd rather write what I'm feeling inspired to write, and then worry about whether I'm going to be able to sell it somewhere. In theory, good writing can always find a home. That said, I do seek out the advice of people with more experience in the field, such as my agent. Last year I sat in his office and we discussed several different projects that I had in mind and he offered input as to which of them he thought had the most promise, given the ever-evolving state of the market. I find this a nice compromise between following the market and following your bliss.

Schweitzer: Let's talk about your work directly. You've got a lot of animal characters. Your new novel is about a post-human civilization inhabited entirely by genetically altered animals. What's the fascination here?

Schoen: Great question, and it goes back to the problem of writing the Other and the SF problem of writing the Alien. I'm an over-educated, middle-aged, white male, which makes the first problem fraught with dangers of stereotyping and cultural appropriation, and these are real concerns, both socially and artistically. The problem of writing the Alien is that it's a lie; because if we write something that's truly alien the reader is going to find it difficult to apprehend any of it, let alone sympathize with the alien character. The solution, to make the Alien familiar in some way (and thus less alien) is a happy answer because the Alien is typically a metaphorical device for talking about ourselves anyway.

Which brings us to writing anthropomorphic characters. Whether you call them "Uplifted Animals" or "Raised Mammals" (the term I use in Barsk), the characters you create are a blend of both writing the Other and writing the Alien. When I'm crafting my Fant characters, I'm painting with both broad strokes and fine lines. At the base level I get to take the species-specific behaviors of elephants (everything from infrasonics, to the causal use of a prehensile trunk that's basically a third hand, to gender-based social structures) and map them on to behaviors that are traditionally considered and clearly identifiable as human. To the extent that my readers are familiar with elephants (or dogs, or sloths, or bears, etc.), they'll recognize the animal trait as it manifests in ordinary, everyday behavior, creating a wonderful dynamic of nonhuman characters that are nonetheless comfortable.

Once that's done, then the same rubric that I'd employ in writing the Other comes into play, which is making sure that at the character level everyone is an individual and not a two-dimensional manifestation of stereotype. An example of this in Barsk would be the widow of the protagonist's best friend who lives alone, despite the social norm demanding that women live in large households of mothers, aunts, sisters, and female cousins. Because while stereotypes do exist in response to actual, observable behaviors, if a writer doesn't go beyond them, their characters are going to lack depth or individuality or agency. 

Writing about talking animals (in space!) gives me the best of all worlds. Plus, when it's time to do research, there's nothing like spending a fine spring day at the zoo.

Schweitzer: Surely any writer writing about other worlds or other times or even people other than himself must "appropriate" something. If you wrote a story from the point of view of an old woman or someone from a different culture - say, a Chinese emperor - that should just require you do better research. Isn't speaking with an imaginary voice from an imaginary viewpoint a good deal of what fiction is all about?

Schoen: Well that's the trick, isn't it? Doing better research. Truly pushing yourself to the limits to immerse yourself in the culture, to walk in the shoes of that person to whatever extent is possible, be it traveling to distant lands, interviewing cohort members of your target culture, reading diaries and letters from generations past, and so on. The problem seems to be that too many of us are lazy, and are content to run with "what we know already" and that knowledge is based on popular culture portrayals from television and film, and quick skimmings of Wikipedia. That to me is the difference between authenticity and appropriation. 

Schweitzer: By way of "uplifted" animals etc., how much did you have in mind (perhaps in a sense of deliberately differing from) the earlier science fiction precedents? I mean the beast-people of The Island of Dr. Moreau, Cordwainer Smith's Underpeople, etc.

Schoen: I've never read that classic H. G. Wells story, but I vaguely remember seeing the 1932 film adaptation (the first of several) back in high school. I don't believe I drew on that for writing Barsk, but as I sit here thinking back on it the insistent line "What is the law?" comes to me, and of course my novel begins with the three laws established by the person who discovered the drug for speaking to the dead, so maybe there is something happening there at an unconscious level.

My main intention in crafting the various anthropomorphic races that occupy my novel was to focus on the ethology of the different species referents, to find traits that I could complicate by intermixing them with the motivations and goals of sapient beings. That, and to steer a course away from any Disneyesque representations. I wanted Jorl to be seen as a complete, self-aware being, who just happened to look a lot like an elephant, but without the reader ever mistaking him for Babar or Dumbo.

Schweitzer: Isn't it more true in science fiction, than in most other fields, that we are writing in a dialog with previous writers, and there is less "anxiety of influence"? Do you ever have a sense of writing in answer to another writer?

Schoen: What's that line about stealing from one person and it's plagiarism, but steal from many and it's research? I can't begin to comprehend how any writer can pretend not to be influenced. I take inspiration from quite a few of the authors I read. I encounter some impressive bit of characterization or storytelling or misdirection and I marvel at it, and then I ask myself how that author pulled it off, followed almost immediately by asking how I could do something similar in my own work. 

I don't know if this happens more in science fiction than other fields. That's a question that probably deserves to be someone's dissertation topic. But certainly I see the influence of other authors on my own work, and believe I see it (whether accurately or just imagined) in the writing of others. But at the end of the day, ideas themselves are cheap. Most of us have more ideas than we have years to write about them. It's not the idea that matters, it's the execution of it. I'm hardly the first author to run with anthropomorphic animals, in space or otherwise, but I like to think I've taken the idea somewhere fresh. As one example, I do an odd twist on time travel in the book, but it's in such a different way that I'm sure there will be people who will have read it and say, "What? Time Travel? Where? No way!" and that's a perfectly fair response.

Schweitzer: So what are you working in these days? What's your big upcoming project?

Schoen: I've just begun what I hope will be the first volume of a new series. It's Fantasy, and while large portions of it are set in contemporary Philadelphia, other portions reach back 7,000 years to the creation of (arguably) the first city, Uruk. The underlying idea is that when humanity began creating cities, our cities somehow gave rise to an entelechy, a city "spirit." This being in turn siphoned off minute bits of its citizens' lifeforce to mold, refine, and ultimately -- through a human "instrument" -- re-invest in other residents, creating "old souls," various prodigies, and creative geniuses. This is the secret that advances all civilization.

The first book focuses on a lost city, Altinum, which was destroyed around 452 AD by Attila the Hun. Or more specifically, the city spirit of Altinum who has been wandering the earth for 1,500 years. It accidentally bonds with the descendant of one of its past citizens, a young woman living in Philadelphia. Oh, and did I mention that Gilgamesh shows up? Yeah, it should be a lot of fun. I have the first book outlined and I'm writing it now. I've also already roughed out books two and three.

I also have proposals for two sequels to Barsk currently in submission, and a small press publisher waiting for the fourth novella in the Amazing Conroy series. And I have a YA novel that's mostly done but requires some research and about a solid two weeks of rewrites before I can kick it out the door. 

Finally, I'm hoping to be able to repackage all the previous Conroy work (novels, novellae, novelettes, and short stories). Now that the rights have reverted back to me from small presses, I'd like to find a home for them with a bigger press, the idea being that I could then write the remaining novels to will finish off the main story arc. 

So, yeah, 2016 is already shaping up to be a very busy year. Thanks!

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