Into the Tsunami: Q&A with David Gerrold & Ctein

Our readers will find a tense, exciting novella coauthored by David Gerrold & Ctein in our current issue on sale now. The sheer emotional magnitude of “Bubble and Squeak” is astounding—and it is clear that meticulous research informs the story to support this  rich, thrilling experience. Luckily David and Ctein agreed to chat about this process and the larger work this is a part of—their novel-in-progress Ripple Effect. Their interviews are woven together below—enjoy!

Find an excerpt of this tale on the Asimov’s website.


Asimov’s Editor: It is always a treat to publish a collaborative story. Every collaborative work seems to have its own process and style: How did you two approach coauthoring this piece?

Ctein: Before I get into the questions, I should mention that David and I thought it would be more entertaining to answer them individually, without consulting each other in any way. Should it turn out that we contradict each other, well—as Walt Whitman would have put it—we contain multitudes. Should some people be perturbed by that, the alternative explanation is that David and I inhabit parallel universes so what each of us says, even if it contradicts the other, is true.

“Bubble & Squeak” is about 20% of the novel that David and I are writing together, currently titled “Ripple Effect” (more about the novel later). It’s one of several interwoven storylines the novel follows. Each of us has had ideas for storylines to go into the novel, and generally speaking we’re writing them individually and then passing them back and forth. In this particular case, David had an idea for one of those subplots set in LA. We discussed the broad (sub)plot points ahead of time, but the details were all his to create (my subplots are developed similarly).* What was special about David’s was that it was so well-focused that when he was finished we realized it would make a good standalone novella.

David wrote the whole first draft. Then he passed it on to me for a rewrite, and I mucked with it. Then we fought about what I’d mucked with (‘cause that’ll happen sometimes), and I will claim I won most of those fights. Not because I’m a better writer, but because second draft is always better than first and a fresh pair of eyes is always better than a stale one.

He gave it a final pass, I gave it a sanity check, and off it went to Sheila. She suggested a very few modest (and entirely correct) changes. They got incorporated, and there you are!

*(No, I’ll take credit for one detail. David’s first idea was that it would be about a boy saving his girlfriend. I opined that this was shaping up to be an awfully “straight” novel, especially considering that both of its authors had been “out” for decades. So maybe it could be a GIRL rescuing her girlfriend . . . or . . .)

David Gerrold: “Bubble and Squeak” is part of a much larger work. We write stuff, we pass it back and forth for multiple conferences, rewrites, polishes, and tweaks. I specifically wanted to do this part of the story. Because of my familiarity with the landscape, I could take the reader across half the LA basin.

AE: Have either of you worked with another author (perhaps each other) before? In what ways was this experience different?

CT: Yes. In fact my last (and my very first—more about that later) piece of fiction was a novel, “Saturn Run” that I co-authored with John Sandford. That was a very different process. Ripple Effect is based on an idea I had. David and I are simultaneously writing different pieces of the first draft of Ripple Effect, and one of my jobs (because I like tracking this kind of minutia) is to dismember and reassemble those disparate pieces into a coherent narrative. But we are equally involved in writing that first draft, some of it entirely by me, some of it entirely by David, and some of it stuff we bounce back and forth like a ping-pong ball.

Once I put the pieces back together, it goes back to David for what I think of as a smoothing pass—get the pacing right, get the styles harmonized so it looks seamless, polish up the prose, that sort of thing. Then it will come back to me for another complete pass. There may or may not be fourth and fifth passes, depending on how much I muck with David’s smoothing pass. (And how loudly he screams.)

In contrast, Saturn Run was based on an idea of John’s, but I wrote almost the entire first draft because John was busy with another novel. Helluva way to start one’s career! When it was all done, John got it and left about one-third of what I’d written almost entirely alone, cut out about a third, added about one-third new material of his own, and substantially rewrote the remaining third (of my first draft). Then it went back to me and I did a pass, rewriting some of what John wrote and undoing some of what he did (with discussion between us, of course). That went back to John for the smoothing pass, and finally it came back to me for a final polish and sanity check before going to the publisher.

DG: I collaborated with Larry Niven on a novel, way back in the ‘70s. (The Flying Sorcerers.) That was a lot of fun because Larry makes great Irish coffee. Ctein works hard to get the details correct everywhere. That’s an important part of the process, and the result is worth it. The best part of both collaborations is working with a partner who’s so good at ideas.

AE: This story is a nail-biter! What was it like to write such a suspenseful piece? Is suspense something you find yourself writing a lot of?

CT: David would really be point person on this. I know he found some of it very difficult to write, some of the nastiest stuff he’s ever written. But it had to be—it’s a harrowing story and a horrific situation.

Weirdly, it didn’t bother me so much rewriting it. I seem to slip into kind of an “editor” mode when I’m rewriting, and it becomes about making the prose as effective as possible, not what it is being effective at.

As to the third part of your question, suspense seems to be all I’ve written so far. Saturn Run was a mainstream-targeted science fiction thriller. Ripple Effect is a mainstream-targeted natural disaster thriller (NOT science fictional). But, with exactly 1.9 books under my belt, trend analysis might be premature.

DG: From the beginning, I knew what the challenge was going to be for James and Hu. Getting them into trouble was the easy part. It wasn’t until I got them into trouble that I realized I hadn’t really figured how to get them out again. Ctein and I went back and forth on the details, the real problem of a tsunami isn’t just the impact of the initial wave, you’ve got a lot of water rushing back and forth, carrying a lot of debris, there’s no way to get from here to there—that’s the one cheat in the story, getting them across the street.

AE: How much research did you do to work out the logistics of a tsunami wave in this region? Did you uncover any interesting meteorological or geographical tidbits along the way?

CT: Oh hell, LOTS! The idea was to do a scientifically accurate natural disaster thriller. In other words, this is absolutely, positively not “San Andreas.” There’s nothing in here that should give a geologist a headache (other than the improbability of something like this happening anytime soon). We’ve got computer models and simulations of tsunamis comparable to this one, and we’ve both spent a ridiculous amount of time poring over topo maps and the like. I even researched which (and how many) transpacific airline flights were likely to be impacted by this. I’ve got a half gigabyte worth of data in a folder named “Ripple Effect,” and less than 5% of that is manuscript. Not to forget the spreadsheet that runs 150 rows by 25 columns, to keep everything straight in space and time.

I came across a lot of tidbits along the way that I found interesting and fascinating, but I’m not sure they’d be so much so to anyone else. The juiciest ones are, unfortunately, plot spoilers.

Well, okay, one that doesn’t spoil anything: NOAA’s National Tsunami Warning Center makes use of a network of sensor buoys scattered about the Pacific called DART II that’s supposed to provide real-time, direct data on tsunamis when one occurs. As so often happens, it’s badly underfunded. There is exactly one buoy near Hawaii . . . and it’s been off-line for some time on a “deferred maintenance schedule!” Fact, not fiction. Now, how’s that for scary?

DG: This was one of the most thoroughly researched stories I’ve ever worked on. Ctein provided a lot of background information on the shelf-collapse that would trigger a mega-tsunami, how it would ripple outward, and the projected size of the waves that would hit the west coast. I had to review a lot of documentaries and articles and websites. One of the biggest helps was a chart showing what would happen to the LA basin if the oceans rose 260 feet. That gave me a pretty good idea just how far inland a 300 foot wave would go. I had to research the projected expansion of the LA subway, where new stations would be built, and also the underground geology. I had go to several Facebook friends for the details of the SCUBA part of the story. I spent some time studying Google Earth maps to plot out a route for Jim and Hu’s evacuation, then finally I drove down to Venice, Santa Monica, Culver City, and Westwood to personally check the route. After we had a first draft, both Ctein and I used several beta-readers for their feedback as well.

We uncovered almost too many tidbits to list. The more I worked on this, the more I noticed that I was checking various locations around Los Angeles for their survivability. Most of the basin is going to get scoured. But by the time the wave gets to Hollywood, it’s possible that anything north of Hollywood Blvd. might have some chance of surviving. The two accesses to the San Fernando Valley—the Sepulveda Pass and the Cahuenga Pass—are both high enough to keep the waves from sloshing into the Valley, so we based our survival plans on everything north of the Santa Monica Mountains and the Hollywood Hills. I also discovered a lot of interesting information about the subway system too. (Yes, Los Angeles has a subway.) It’s a serious challenge, tunneling under the city.

AE: What is the story behind this piece? How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?

CT: These are all so closely connected that I’m going to treat it as one question. And I’m going to talk about the novel that “Bubble and Squeak” is part of—Ripple Effect.

How did this all come about? The intellectual inspiration for Ripple Effect goes back to 2002, when I read a paper in NATURE that presented the results of a computer model of what would happen should a big chunk of Hawaii slide into the ocean (which does happen every several hundred thousand years). Back then I thought that this would make a pretty good framework for a disaster novel, but I had no interest whatsoever in writing fiction so I just filed it away.

After Saturn Run came out, I decided I was interested in writing another mainstream thriller and pulled that idea out again. That’s kind of the “what” of it.

As for the “who” . . . before Saturn Run was published (but after John and I were done with it) David broached the idea of collaborating with me on a novel. For those who don’t know, David and I have been friends since the Paleolithic era (1968, I think). I filed that away, too.

After Saturn Run came out, John and I figured out that we weren’t going to be writing together again anytime soon. Not because we didn’t have a great time collaborating, but because the guy was contractually committed to turning out two New York Times best-selling detective novels each year for several more years, and there were only 24 hours in the day.

I like collaborating, so, remembering David’s offer, I called him up and asked him if he’d be interested in collaborating on this particular book. His answer was extremely diffident and hesitant. “Hell, yes!”

There was very little “inspiration” behind the novel. Mother Nature handed us the overall scenario. All David and I had to do was fill in every single little bit of detail that would make it a novel instead of a scientific paper. Piece of cake!

(I’ve got nice shiny bridges for sale, too.)

David and I rattled off four or five chapters pretty quickly, just to get into the swing of things, and then we started brainstorming like mad, bouncing ideas and subplots off of each other until we had more than we possibly need. Then we got into the hard part. It’s called “writing a novel.”

DG: I really admired Ctein’s previous book, Saturn Run, and I told him so more than once—somewhere in there, we began trading ideas. I wanted to do something about the colonization of the Moon, he suggested the mega-tsunami and I liked the idea of wiping out LA, so we started throwing specific plot points at each other. One day, he started writing and so did I.

AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?

DG: This is part of a novel-in-progress that we might call Ripple Effects. We each took on specific parts of the west coast to destroy. That was part of the fun, doing all the research on what would happen to specific towns and cities.

AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?

DG: James works in the film industry, Hu is working for an advanced degree. And James and Hu are planning to be married when the story starts. So it’s easy to see that both James and Hu are reflections of my own life in one way or another.

AE: How did you break into writing? What inspired you to start writing?

CT: Well, that’s a slightly odd and distinctly unlikely story. I’ve been a successful nonfiction writer for over four decades. Until about four years ago, I had no interest whatsoever in even attempting to write fiction; it seemed way too much like work, whereas nonfiction comes easily to me. Nor had I the least belief that I could. Nonfiction is like giving a lecture: You know all the facts, it’s just a matter of presenting them entertainingly and with clarity. Fiction, you don’t know any of the facts. You have to make all that shit up! It’s one lie after another.

I’ve got dozens of friends who are successful fiction writers. I had a pretty good idea of what it involved. Not my skill set.

It’s really all the fault of my friend John Sandford, as chronicled here:

https://whatever.scalzi.com/2015/10/08/the-big-idea-ctein/

This is, in fact, 99% true. We concatenated a couple of different conversations for the sake of narrative, and I never said money was the root of all evil (John stuck that in—he thought it amusing), but it is true to life. There are witnesses.

In truth, even after John talked me into giving it a try, I was pretty certain I couldn’t write fiction. I gave it a go anyway because (a) it would be interesting to find out if I were wrong for all those decades and (b) there was a crapload of money involved if I was.

And, so, after 40 years of being quite certain I would not and could not write fiction, I’m suddenly a New York Times best-selling author. I figure that makes me the second most fortunate science fiction author on the planet. (Andy Weir is the first, and if Ridley Scott ever decides to make a really great movie out of Saturn Run, I’ll revisit that question.)

AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?

DG: I find that many of my stories deal with love, loss, and redemption. I could explain why, but that would require a short novel. Or even a long one. The short version: I think the greatest adventure, the greatest drama, happens in the space between two people.

AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?

CT: Not at all. In fact, the opposite—Ripple Effect is set about five years from now (sometime in the early 20s) because we very much wanted to get away from current events. In the hyper-partisan clusterfuck that is current US politics, there’s nothing we could write set in the now that wouldn’t be taken wrong (or presumed to be a comment on one politician or another) by a significant fraction of people. We are not writing a political screed, we’re writing a simple thriller. Why tick off a whole bunch of readers on matters that are extraneous to the novel? You just know that anything related to present-day realpolitik would. It would only cost us sales for no good reason.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

DG: I had a writer’s block once. It was the worst twenty minutes of my life.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

DG: I am working on The War Against The Chtorr. I need to finish that epic soon.

AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?

CT: Finish what you start. The most common failure mode for promising writers is that they get discouraged and quit halfway through. Writing can be a slog, even for experienced professionals. For some, it never stops being a slog—it’s just what they do. A finished work is not a sold work . . . But an unfinished work is guaranteed to be an unsold work.

And don’t quit your day job. Seriously. Not until you’ve demonstrated to yourself that you can produce (and sell) wordage at a sufficient rate to pay the bills. Ideally you should have a partner who is happy to pay all the bills while you become a successful artist, or you should have an inheritance sufficient to make you of independent means.

Curiously, both of those are harder to come by than one might suppose.

DG: Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and type. Don’t get up until you’ve written at least 500 words.

AE: What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask?

CT: Should . . . That’s a loaded word. But, three things that are informative—

1) My first and true love remains photography. That NEVER seems like work even when I am “slaving” over a print for days.

2) I am a parrot person (see photograph).

2) I am a tea person (and a teetotaler, which is not quite the same thing). A shelf of EXTREMELY good teas is a requirement of my existence.

AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?

DG: We’re already living in a SFnal universe, aren’t we?

AE: What are you reading right now?

DG: Time Was, by Ian McDonald. It’s very good.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing? (IE: Social media handles, website URL . . .)

DG: I’m on Facebook and I regularly post my thoughts about a lot of subjects there. But I also have quite a few books and stories available on Amazon for eBook readers. I’d recommend readers look for Jacob or Thirteen, Fourteen, Fifteen O’clock.

CT: I thought you’d never ask! You can follow my photographic work by going to http://ctein.com/.

If you email me a request (there are email links on my website on of every page) I will put you on my e-mail list that I use to send out news to folks about what I’m up to—where I’ll be showing work, when there is new stuff on my web site, when there are new editions of my books out, special print sales . . . that sort of thing. It also includes one article by me with each mailing. I don’t mail to it very frequently and I do not give the list to anyone else.

I do have a Facebook account, but I never use it, so it’s not a good way to reach me. It’s just a way for people to locate me—like a listing in the Yellow Pages used to be. No Twitter or other social media accounts. Email is my preferred mode of communication.


Elmo Kissing Ctein-large photo credit David Dyer-Bennet
Ctein and Elmo (Photo credit to David Dyer-Bennett)

Ctein  (yes, that is his sole and legal name and it’s pronounced “kuh-TINE”) is a professional photographer and writer. He is the coauthor, with John Sandford, of the New York Times bestselling science fiction thriller, Saturn Run. He is currently writing an natural disaster thriller with David Gerrold. Ctein is also the author of Digital Restoration From Start To Finish and Post Exposure. His photographic work can be seen at http://ctein.com and photo-repair.com.

Ctein’s been an industrial consultant on computer displays, a technical writer of computer manuals, has degrees in English and Physics from Caltech, and has engaged in pollution research, astronomy, photocopy research, world designing for CONTACT, and radical feminist queer activism.

Ctein identifies as “radical poly feminist bi-queer.” Not necessarily in that order. If he grows up, he wants to be a dilettante. Ctein lives in Daly City with retired technical writer and geologist Paula Butler, three demented psittacines, a half dozen more-or-less normal computers, and twenty kilobooks. He reports that the house seems to be shrinking. . . .

David Gerrold’s work is famous around the world. His novels and stories have been translated into more than a dozen languages. His TV scripts are estimated to have been seen by more than a billion viewers. Gerrold’s prolific output includes teleplays, film scripts, stage plays, comic books, more than 50 novels and anthologies, and hundreds of articles, columns, and short stories. He has worked on a dozen different TV series, including Star Trek, Land of the Lost, Twilight Zone, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Babylon 5, and Sliders. He is the author of Star Trek’s most popular episode “The Trouble With Tribbles.” Many of his novels are classics of the science fiction genre, including The Man Who Folded Himself, the ultimate time travel story, and When HARLIE Was One, considered one of the most thoughtful tales of artificial intelligence ever written. His stunning novels on ecological invasion, A Matter For Men, A Day For Damnation, A Rage For Revenge, and A Season For Slaughter, have all been best sellers with a devoted fan following. His young adult series, The Dingilliad, traces the healing journey of a troubled family from Earth to a far-flung colony on another world. His Star Wolf series of novels about the psychological nature of interstellar war are in development as a television series. A ten-time Hugo and Nebula award nominee, David Gerrold is also a recipient of the Skylark Award for Excellence in Imaginative Fiction, the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Horror, and the Forrest J. Ackerman lifetime achievement award. In 1995, Gerrold shared the adventure of how he adopted his son in The Martian Child, a semi-autobiographical tale of a science fiction writer who adopts a little boy, only to discover he might be a Martian. The Martian Child won the science fiction triple crown: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Locus Poll. It was the basis for the 2007 film “Martian Child” starring John Cusack and Amanda Peet. Gerrold’s greatest writing strengths are generally acknowledged to be his readable prose, his easy wit, his facility with action, the accuracy of his science, and the passions of his characters. An accomplished lecturer and world-traveler, he has made appearances all over the United States, England, Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. His easy-going manner and disarming humor have made him a perennial favorite with audiences. David Gerrold was the Guest of Honor at the 2015 World Science Fiction Convention. He is currently completing, A Method For Madness, the fifth book in The War Against The Chtorr series.

 

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