Q&A With Jonathan Sherwood

Read as Jonathan Sherwood discusses wonder, his unconventional writing process, and advise on how to counter writers block and more. You can find his newest story, “Retrocausity” in our [July/August issue, on sale now!]

Asimov Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
Jonathan Sherwood: I’m in love with the feeling of wonder. I’ve come to realize it’s the main reason I read or write at all, and while most genres explore the wonder of being human in some capacity, only science fiction also explores the inherent wonder of the universe we live in. In our daily lives, we necessarily think in such limited ways—I need to go to work; when I step on the accelerator my car goes faster; my hand doesn’t go through the doorknob. But when you step back for a moment and realize that the very universe you’re interacting with every moment is behaving in bizarre, inexplicable, utterly counterintuitive ways, you start getting that feeling of wonder in every moment again. When you stop to consider the fact that both your hand and the door are 99% empty space yet still refuse to pass through each other, the world seems a little more crazy and delightful. When I think about how we’re not exactly sure what gravity is, or what consciousness is, or why the universe exists at all, I find it makes my outlook on life, literally, wonderful.
Retrocausality came about because of two wild ideas in physics: 
First, there’s quantum entanglement. In a nutshell, two entangled particles can be separated by a huge distance—even the entire width of the universe—and yet they’ll still influence each other instantaneously. We have no idea how this is possible since we can’t detect any mechanism at work and nothing can travel faster than light anyway, but we have some wonderfully bizarre hypotheses. One hypothesis is retrocausality. Perhaps, somehow, when one particle is disturbed it doesn’t communicate with the other particle instantaneously, but instead it carries that disturbance backward in time to the point where the two particles were first entangled together. It sounds absolutely ridiculous, but it’s no more ridiculous than any other hypothesis put forth to explain the behavior of entangled particles.
Second, it’s been noted that antimatter behaves very much like regular matter if you were to play the film backwards, so to speak. Scientists have asked, could it be that antimatter is just regular matter going backwards in time?
So, one day I wondered if it would be possible to combine those two ideas, essentially entangling one particle of regular matter with one particle of antimatter that’s already traveling backwards in time. The more I toyed with the thought experiment, the more disturbing the possible results became.
The story then deals with the implications of running such an experiment. What’s the fallout? How does someone deal with the consequences? What are the questions it raises and how do we as failable people cope with understanding the universe in a fundamentally new way?

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story? What is your history with Asimov’s?
JS: Asimov’s was my unquestioned first choice. In 2006, Asimov’s published my first science fiction story, Under the Graying Sea. Much like Retrocausality, that story dealt with how we deal with some of the universe’s unflinching laws of physics.
I planned to follow up Under the Graying Sea immediately, but I had started a family, went back to school, and started a new career, and trying to write on top of that was just too much for me to juggle.
So, fifteen years later, I found I had the time again to write and the first piece I pulled together was Retrocausality.
Asimov’s strikes that sweet-spot balance for me between science and humanity in science fiction. The scientific conundrum creates that sense of wonder, but its purpose is ultimately to provide a setting in which the characters do the actual work of playing out the story. Reading about some bizarre bit of physics in Scientific American or New Scientist is a lot of fun, but reading about characters you truly empathize with as they struggle to deal with the implications of that crazy conundrum is satisfying on a personal level.
The field of science fiction is blessed to have magazines that run the gamut of science-light/character-heavy, and science-heavy/character-light. Asimov’s has always struck an attractive balance for me by making sure both halves are fully represented.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
JS: I’ve just completed my first novel, Shadow on the Deep Black Sea. It’s about how the universe itself seems to be having an immune response to humans, and how we fight for our survival while we question whether we are something special, or are a cancer on creation.
I’m quite pleased with how it’s turned out. It’s definitely the most page-turning piece of work I’ve written, and it plays on the same themes I’ve talked about above—the strangeness of the universe we live in, and our struggles to understand who we are when confronted with it. I have a pair of writing groups that gave me fantastic feedback, and by the time this is published I should have the revision finished and ready for the marketplace. You can keep posted on its progress via my website or Twitter info below.
I’ve also served as an assistant editor to Asimov’s alumnus Pete Wood on an anthology coming out this fall called The Odin Chronicles. It’s an homage to The Martian Chronicles where we’ve asked eight authors to write 30 stories about people living in a mining settlement on a planet called Odin III. The stories are varied in styles and themes, but still intertwine with one another. It should be out this fall as an ebook.
And I have some more short stories in the hopper I’ll be sending to Asimov’s soon.

When you stop to consider the fact that both your hand and the door are 99% empty space yet still refuse to pass through each other, the world seems a little more crazy and delightful. When I think about how we’re not exactly sure what gravity is, or what consciousness is, or why the universe exists at all, I find it makes my outlook on life, literally, wonderful.

AE: What is your process?
JS: Okay, I think about the process of writing a lot. Probably a little obsessively.
Most writers identify as being either a “plotter” or a “pantser.” A plotter is someone who lays out the story in detail before they start writing. A pantser is someone who has only a rough idea, or sometimes no idea, of what the story will be when they start writing. They write by the seat of their pants and invent the story as they go.
I find pantsing to be more fun, but I’m almost always a hardcore plotter. I usually don’t start unless I know every single thing that’s going to happen. I have one novel outline that’s 30,000 words long—a quarter of the actual completed novel length. That doesn’t mean things won’t evolve as I write, but I know what I’m going to write at every step because…
I usually start at the end.
I don’t actually write backwards, but I usually start with the endpoint I want to take the reader to. I have a concept, usually a crazy scientific idea, and I think about what fascinates me most about it, especially what fascinates me most about its implications. To use the hand-and-doorknob example again, what if you could exploit the fact that they’re both 99% empty space? What would that mean? What larger societal issues would be impacted? How would that change your own life? And maybe most importantly, how would you feel when all this happens?
And then I figure out what kind of situation would bring about the impact of that ending and what kind of characters are needed to create the emotion of that moment, and I work that all backwards until I have a roadmap of how to get from some beginning setup and a character at one end of their arc, to that final moment. To me, that final moment is the entire purpose of the story, and while I certainly want the story to be entertaining along the way, everything needs to be in service of that last moment.
Once I have that all sketched out, the writing is mostly about making the actual language and rhythm engaging as the story moves toward its end.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
JS: I have a theory about writer’s block.
I can only speak from my own experience, but I’ve seen this advice work for others.
When I feel like I have writer’s block, it’s always because of one thing: I don’t like the previous bit I’ve written. 
I think when most writers are writing, even if they say they aren’t self-editing, they’re still weighing the merit of their words as they go. It’s sort of like building a house, and your subconscious mind knows if your foundation isn’t going to support the next floor you want to put on it. Maybe you wrote a character’s personality in a way you just don’t like, or maybe your previous plot points aren’t satisfying, or maybe the language in which you wrote the previous scene wasn’t up to your standards. 
Usually, the sub-par bit of writing is literally the last thing you wrote—the last scene or pages. Science fiction authors are brimming with ideas, so it’s not likely that the problem is that you don’t have an idea of what to do next.
So my advice is to go back to the last thing you felt really good about, and see if the writing that comes after that is really up to your standards and producing the effect you want it to.

AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
JS: Yes! Get a good writer’s group!
By far, the best advice I can give is to find a group of writers that are like-minded, competent, supportive, and dedicated. You can find them online, and you can probably find them locally (I helped start a small organization called R-SPEC specifically to help writers find and support each other in the Rochester, NY area).
A good group of writers does not seek to tear down your work, but to point out possible flaws and offer thoughtful solutions. Likewise, a good group isn’t there just as a cheerleader. You may have to try a number of groups to find one that will give you the tough love that will improve your writing. Don’t be afraid to leave a group that isn’t working for you.

AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
JS: Though I work in finance now, I was a science writer for a research university for about 12 years, and I still do occasional freelance science writing.
My job at the university was to interview scientists about their work and write about it in a way that would (hopefully) be interesting to general readers. I realized how great a job it was one day as I was driving home thinking about how I’d spent three hours in the morning with a geneticist, and three hours in the afternoon with a physicist. I was exhausted, but I was full of that sense of wonder about how amazing the world is at its very roots.
And really, my aim in science fiction writing is to spread that exact feeling: The world we live in is overflowing with wonders. Enjoy it.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
JS: I have a website at JonathanSherwood.com, and on Twitter @jonathsherwood

Jonathan Sherwood has written about science and scientists for research universities for more than two decades, and science fiction for even longer. He holds a bachelors in science writing from Cornell University and an MA in English from the University of Rochester. His fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, and others, and he has just completed his first science fiction novel, Shadow on the Deep Black Sea.

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