Interview: Ryk E. Spoor

Ryk E. Spoor writes mostly science fiction. His first published novel was Digital Knight, which was published in 2003. More recent works include Threshold, co-written with Eric Flint and Grand Central Arena. More information about his books can be found on his LJ and on his web page.

How did you get started writing?

Just “writing”, as in writing stories for whatever reason? I was six when I wrote a story for school (first grade) titled “Lunuai Luna the Luna Moth”, in which I described the thoughts of a caterpillar going through the process that it did not understand. The teacher had me read it to the THIRD graders, and it was THAT day that it suddenly occurred to me: PEOPLE — like, you know, regular people, that started out as kids — wrote all those books.

Did you plan on becoming a professional writer?

Well, from the above description, you can see yes, ever since I was six. I just had no idea what that meant or how you went about it, so I just wrote.

What do you like to read (either genre, or nonfiction)?

My major interests are SF/F, but I have read a lot of mystery fiction, various historical fiction ranging from the swashbuckling adventures of Scaramouche, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Count of Monte-Cristo to the quiet romances of Jane Austen. I also have read lots of nonfiction, mostly scientific (quite a bit of pseudoscientific, too — you need to know that side to write the wierd stuff well) and technical — especially since I started writing technical proposals!

Who would you say influenced your writing either in a positive or negative way?

“Positive or negative” implies there’s an objective good/bad scale of fiction writing, which I don’t believe outside of some VERY crude general rules (understand the language you’re writing — in other words, if you write misspelled incomprehensible stuff, do it deliberately).From the various authors who’ve influenced me I’ve learned to value a sense of wonder, to try to paint a world where things can change for the better, and make characters who — even if their speciality may be being tough and mean — know the value of thinking. From watching what both bothers me about other people’s work, and what works for me, I try to make worlds with things that are, for lack of a better word, interesting and cool, and THAT MAKE SENSE — within their own rules, of course. And that includes, of course, that the villains (if you have villains — some books don’t) are smart and competent too. Which can make it really hard to figure out how the good guys are going to win!

I chose “positive” and “negative” to avoid any overt value judgments of good/bad. A positive reaction would be one where you’d say “Okay, that sounds right/true/realistic” a negative would be… “No, that’s not what would happen/it doesn’t work like that/what were you thinking?”

Ah, as in “which authors do you try to be like, and which authors have traits you try to avoid?”

Yes.

You’ve listed a few writers you like in other questions, but who are your favorites, and why? 

Doc Smith is one of my favorites, though his style is hard for modern readers to deal with. I *had* a sense of wonder before reading Doc Smith, but he was the first author to just make my jaw drop before the sheer awesomeness of his world and plotline. The AUDACITY of plotting out a history two billion years long, of having all humanity BRED to be a superweapon, of having warfare carried out on the scale of millions of vessels firing weapons capable of devastating entire worlds… and having written this before we even demonstrated atomic energy was possible…. this just blew me away. The Skylark series manages to step up the scale even larger, of course, ending with the heroes destroying TWO GALAXIES simultaneously, while rescuing every single planet of good guys FROM those galaxies and placing them safely in a third!

The early to mid Robert Heinlein wrote some truly amazing stories; it’s hard to say which ones are his very best. Taken as a group, probably his juvenile novels or his short story collections. Taken individually, probably The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I don’t like Stranger in a Strange Land, particularly, and at Number of the Beast he dropped into a pit from which he never escaped. Heinlein had a gift at sketching out a character in a few paragraphs, a setting in a page, which I try to emulate but rarely manage to match.

Vernor Vinge: I’ve yet to read anything by him I didn’t like (although I haven’t yet gotten around to his latest). I’m hoping he really is making a new Zones novel as is rumored. Vinge demonstrated that you can use some of our cutting-edge information tech knowledge and still have rip-roaring adventure yarns at the same time, rather than HAVING to go all cyberpunky; conversely, he also was one of the real pioneers of cyberpunk and the creator of the Singularity concept.

Isaac Asimov: Asimov was the absolute, consummate MASTER of the “idea story” — a story whose intent is to take a given idea or question or concept and show off some particular facets, consequences, etc., of that idea. He is often accused of being unable to write “real” characters, but I think an examination of his work simply shows that he COULD write quite real characters (Daneel Olivaw and Lije Baley, The Mule), but didn’t waste time on them if the story really didn’t require them. Reading through the Old-School stuff gave me an appreciation for the fact that it ISN’T necessary to have all four pieces (character, setting, story, theme) balanced for a story to work — in fact, it may not be necessary to even have all four, as Asimov’s classic “On the Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline” demonstrates rather conclusively.

Barbara Hambly’s written some really excellent and innovative fantasy (although she has certain themes that keep getting revisited to the point that it gets a tad annoying); I still in some ways think her Darwath trilogy is the best of her work, and it certainly incorporates good versions of all her key ideas.

I could go on listing people all day, actually…

Of the characters you’ve written, which ones are your favorite?

Jeez, that’s a hard question. In general, I don’t write characters I don’t like (except some of the bad guys — and even they usually have something I like about them). And you say “written”, not “published”, which really opens the field wide; I have no fewer than three original novels currently looking for publishers, and almost uncountable other fiction that is either not ready, or unpublishable (due to, for instance, being fanfic of properties that don’t offer good opportunities for the fics to get published).

Of my published work… rrgh. I suppose if I have to choose just ONE it has to be Marc C. DuQuesne, one of the heroes of Grand Central Arena. A homage to the writer who truly taught me the meaning of “Sense of Wonder”, E.E. “Doc” Smith, DuQuesne is also very much my character and one into which I put a great deal of work to try to make this character real.

Of my unpublished novels, Poplock Duckweed, Intelligent Toad acquisitions specialist, companion of Kyri Vantage and Tobimar Silverun in my projected _Balanced Sword_ trilogy, of which the first book, Fall of Saints, is completed.

A related question: Who are your favorite characters in the works of other writers?

Well, obviously DuQuesne has to pop up here as well — the ORIGINAL Marc C. DuQuesne, one of the major antagonists throughout the Skylark series, and perhaps the most well-realized character Doc ever wrote. Not a nice guy, not someone I’d want to really meet or hang out with, but an excellent character.

Corwin of Amber, from the Amber series by Zelazny. Here’s a guy who started out as a pretty much arrogant and conscienceless spoiled prince who gets bushwhacked by his own brother and left for dead… and loses most of his memory, so he spends the next few centuries wandering this world, wondering where he came from, who he really is, and so on, and becoming vastly more human than his relatives — so much so that he turns down the crown the rest of them would kill for.

Paksenarrion, from Elizabeth Moon’s Deed of Paksenarrion. Here is the character who defines the D&D term “PALADIN”, and the word “hero” in any other context.

Lord Valentine, from Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle and sequels Majipoor Chronicles and Valentine Pontifex. A young ruler of one of the most incredible worlds ever put on paper, Valentine manages to keep a dazzling innocence and pacifism throughout the novel without making his pacifism STUPID, and in the end defeats one of his enemies with the literal power of love in a way that is neither cloying nor unbelievable, but — once it happens — seems heroic.

Jack Holloway, from H.Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy. A grizzled old prospector/ex Western Gunslinger archetype transplanted to the far future… and he works perfectly in that setting.

Nile Etland, from James Schmitz’ “The Tuvela/The Demon Breed”: One of the primary inspirations in the back of my head for several of my characters, Nile was a supposedly ordinary human who demonstrated extraordinary competence when she — and, in fact, her world — needed it most. Nile’s resourcefulness, coolness under fire, method of dealing with her enemies, and so on has been a strong influence on my writing; anyone reading certain sequences in Grand Central Arena might notice Schmitz’ influence.

(As you said “writers” I’ve not even touched other media, either here or in the author section; I should note that I have been influenced by and incorporated material from a lot of media — unsurprising given the time I grew up.)

What are your other media influences?

A huge number of media sources have influenced me. “Forbidden Planet” was the first classic SF film I saw which really had a strong impact on me. Gojira-sama (Godzilla) is one of my favorite movie series, especially the post-1985 era where they stopped making him cutesey (though I have a fondness for Destroy All Monsters).

Star Wars is THE mental landmark. I ignore the damage Lucas did to his own creation later; the original three film trilogy transformed the SF/F industry in a way nothing else ever has, and possibly ever will. (There are some peculiar people who try to claim 2001 was equally influential, but I have to laugh at them. Wonderfully made film [even if it bores me unto death] but influential? No.). The opening fanfare from Star Wars STILL sends chills down my spine and carries one of the most concentrated doses of “sensawunda” of anything in the world.

Star Trek, the original series, also was a huge influence. The latter follow-ons were very weak shadows of their original; only the recent movie seems to really have gotten any of the old spirit.

Babylon 5: I didn’t “get” this series at first because I hit scattered, random episodes; my friend Phil told me you had to watch it as a SERIES and gave us a tape with the first, oh, 8 eps on it, saying “If you’re not hooked by then, it’s not for you.”

And of course we WERE hooked by then. A brilliant space opera with multiple layers and some of the most fantastic characters ever onscreen (plus the melodrama that some absolutely detest, but I love).

Anime and manga have had a lot of influence, but those I’ll talk about later.

American comics have always been variable in quality, but at their peak they’ve spoken to me strongly, in the person of the Simonson run on The Mighty Thor, several different sequences of the Amazing/Spectacular Spider-Man, and much of the earlier Captain America.

How would you define your writing style, and what’s your writing process like? 

My style can shift to a certain extent, depending on need; for instance, if you read, oh, Boundary, and then read the online-available sections of “Terminators of Endearment”, or my brief Smith pastiche “Doc Smith Fashion”, you’ll see a fair shift in the way I can write.My normal style is to be fairly linear, selecting a point of view and describing some sequence of events until I reach what seems a good logical and dramatic stopping point. Then I may shift scenes, viewpoints, or otherwise transition to the next scene. I try NOT to bounce timelines around unless that is the point of the writing (for instance, those who read _Digital Knight_ may have noticed the paradoxes inherent in the existence of Raiakafan, Verne’s adopted son, and those are quite deliberate. I hope I get to the point where I can resolve them).My writing PROCESS varies with the type of book. Hard SF novels require me to at least figure out the Big Technological Events/Tricks of the book ahead of time, because in most cases I’m going to have to do some research on them. Something being written in a new universe, like Grand Central Arena, requires me to hammer out what the universe is like before I can even start to see a story in there. Oh, I’ll have a vague germ of an idea, but exactly WHAT that idea is and how it will turn into an actual story requires a universe to hang it on.

However, once I DO have the universe and critical details hammered out, the actual process becomes the same: sit down and write. I am a write-once type; I don’t do endless revisions of my work, I write it and it’s pretty much done unless someone else points out a problem in it, or requests a change that makes sense. I literally cannot SEE flaws in my work unless a *LONG* time (years) pass between the time I write and the time I go to revise it.

In Threshold, when Hohenheim was introduced I just about died laughing–what made you decide to use that name?

I always throw references to various different things I like, shows, books, pop culture, etc., into my books (in Grand Central Arena there are a LOT of them). I was looking for a German name and I didn’t want to use the same bloody names everyone always uses and that insist on popping into your head every time you go to think up a German character. And since my wife and I were and are heavily into Fullmetal Alchemist, Hohenheim suddenly seemed like a perfect name, and his appearance — with a slight trim and shoved into a fine military outfit — seemed perfect too. I imagined what Hoheheim might have been had he decided to join the military and work alongside Roy and his type rather than play the loner.

I’m glad you picked up on that one, I knew only a relatively small part of the fandom would recognize that. And only an even SMALLER splinter of that splinter would ever recognize what the joke is in A.J.’s name for the alien ship they take to chase down the E.U.’s Odin.

What is the joke?

“Nebula Storm” is the ultimate attack used by Andromeda Saint Shun from the anime “Saint Seiya”. Saint Seiya was the anime that first got me INTO anime because of its very different approach to superheroics and so on.

What are your favorite anime/manga?

My favorite of all time is still probably The Vision of Escaflowne, though both Fullmetal Alchemist series have a lot to recommend them, as do Giant Robo, the Ah! Megamisama! first OVA series, the films of Miyazaki, Gensomaden Saiyuki, and a number of others.

The most INFLUENTIAL on me aren’t necessarily the ones I consider the BEST, partly because often some given concept or approach is first put forth by someone who only explores part of that concept, or does it sketchily, and then someone comes along who does it BETTER. Saint Seiya is a perfect example — it really started the God-Warrior subgenre, and had a lot of neat ideas in it, but (A) Kurumada only really seems to have HAD the one set of ideas, because he’s kept recycling them, and (B) he never really let the universe of Saint Seiya GROW. Yoroiden Samurai Troopers did this much better, but Saint Seiya is more influential on me simply because I encountered it first. Similarly, I am undoubtedly influenced TREMENDOUSLY by Dragonball/Dragonball Z, but it isn’t, anymore, the best example of its kind of anime; that battle of the bests is still being fought, though I’d say it looks like Naruto Shippuden is going to win. Still, DB/DBZ is far more influential on me and has some of the most iconic imagery of that type of anime.

Indirectly anime also influences me through things like video games; Chrono Trigger and Star Ocean resonate strongly with me, and they owe much of their existence to anime/manga influences.

Most importantly, of course, anime fanfiction was one of the major things my girlfriend — now my wife of over 15 years — and I shared, writing a long-running series of fics in a universe that began as an extension of the Saint Seiya universe and becoming a multi-series crossover-verse that took in Yoroiden Samurai Troopers and, eventually, Dragonball Z as well. In later years we’ve also dabbled in DBZ fanfic and a Fullmetal Alchemist-CSI Miami crossover.

Would you say you have any particular tropes or themes in your writing? If so, what would you say they were?

Evil cannot triumph, decay and depression are never inevitable, that a world with evil and petty people does not have to reflect ONLY evil and pettiness, disaster is not cause for despair or surrender, and that the sense of wonder is worth existing for itself alone, I suppose. I’m a fairly simple man and simple writer: I want my stories to be FUN, I want the worlds they exist in to make you say “Wow, I want to go there!” (even if, after a few moments’ reflection, you may decide not), and I want the people who I paint as heroes to be people you’d like to meet (even if not ones you’d feel comfortable around all the time).

Do you have any favorites among the stories and books you’ve written? Any that are your least favorite?

Of my published stories, Grand Central Arena; it’s entirely my creation and it is almost certainly the best thing I’ve written thus far. It’s also bursting at the seams with potential for me to write in that universe for, oh, twenty years and never run out of things to tell.

Unpublished work… I think it would have to be _Demons of the Past_, a story which I’ve rewritten five times because it has been that long that I’ve wanted to tell it. I think I’ve finally reached the point where I CAN.

Yet to be written work — there is only one. The one I think of as “The Grand Finale”, where I FINALLY get to kill off Virigar. I know the climactic scene of that one, I have visualized it in my mind for years, I have it set to music in my head, and I REALLY, REALLY want to write that ending, because I want that monstrous thing DEAD.

Unfortunately I have to publish something like 8 more books in the Jason Wood universe before I get to the point of writing that one.

Will Joe Buckley be continuing his streak of good luck?

Well, come ON. He’s no fun at all when he’s DEAD. That’s the mistake most of the other authors make. They kill him. Okay, Ringo cheated and made him into a manufacturable destroyable commodity item. But most of them just kill him and think that killing him ONCE makes them remarkable. I (and Eric Flint) intend to ALMOST kill him in all the entertaining ways we can imagine. He can’t complain, he’s married Maddie.

Poor Joe.

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