Q&A With Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds goes into his inspirations, his long history with writing, and advice for new authors.  Read his newest story, “Things to do in Deimos When You’re Dead” in our [September/October issue, on sale now!]

Asimov Editor: How did this story germinate?
Alastair Reynolds: I talk a little about the title and the inspiration below, but the process of putting it all together was quite slow (as it usually is for me) and was as much about striking a mood as coming up with characters and a plot. I’m a big fan of surrealist art so in the landscapes of this story I was trying to evoke the empty, melancholic city-scapes of de Chirico, with their eerie statues and long, creeping shadows. I took the name of the spaceship in my first novel from a de Chirico painting, so it’s a lifelong influence! There’s a bit of Titian in there as well.

AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?
AR: It’s very much a standalone. I’m at the point now where I’m not so keen to be revisiting larger universes, at least for a while.

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
AR: This is also the genesis of the story. I’m a fan of the late American rock musician Warren Zevon, and I always liked his “Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead.” There’s a film of the same name that I haven’t seen, also inspired by the song. I swapped Deimos for Denver and off we went! Except that’s not quite true as I had the title and a few fragments of story for about five or six years before the thing cohered into a finished piece. I thoroughly recommend checking out Zevon, by the way. A lot of people will know “Werewolves of London” but that’s only the tip of an enormous number of great songs. He was a terrific loss to music, at such a young age.

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story?
AR: Way back when, Gardner Dozois took a story of mine for Asimov’s. It was a huge breakthrough to me and it also happened around the time Gardner bought another of my pieces to be reprinted in his Year’s Best series. He was the first American figure to show any interest in my work so it felt like a big validation. I sold a couple more stories to him in reasonably quick succession, so I had a run of appearances in the magazine around the millennium and then I just didn’t send anything else in. I always meant to, but time slipped away and then suddenly it was two decades! Holy cow. This story wasn’t written for a commission, so when I finished it, it felt like the right time to try and sell another piece to Asimov’s—under Sheila’s excellent tenure this time, of course. And I’m really delighted to have broken that twenty year drought!

AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
AR: Music and art are the primary influences. I’m known for having a background in space science so people understandably tend to assume that the science comes first, but it’s not really the case.  I get stimulated by a mood or set of images, and then I start feeling my way into a story which spirals out from that starting point. I’ll see a character in a predicament and want to know who she is and how she came to be there. The science and worldbuilding, such as they are, get salted into the process as I go along. It’s all very organic and intuitive. To feed this, I need to keep exposing myself to new influences, so I’m a voracious consumer of music and visual imagery across nearly all genres. Without bigging myself up, I also suspect that I have a somewhat over-developed visual imagination. I can see stuff in my mind’s eye as clearly as a CGI render, right down to highlights and reflections, and often all I’m doing as a writer is translating these image-rushes into prose.

I can see stuff in my mind’s eye as clearly as a CGI render, right down to highlights and reflections, and often all I’m doing as a writer is translating these image-rushes into prose.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
AR: I don’t know whether it’s real or not, but I do know that there are times when it becomes very difficult to progress with a piece of work. I deal with that in two ways: first by reassuring myself that it’s an inevitable part of the process, and no cause for alarm, and then just grinding down through the gears until I’m just barely moving forward, but at least making some imperceptible progress. The second thing I do (that was the first!) is to have more than one project on the go. If I’m really honestly stuck with something, then I switch over. I’d rather be writing then not writing, basically. If that fails as well, then go to the cinema and let your mind freewheel for a couple of hours. It’s surprising how often exposing yourself to a different narrative form can unblock things.

AE: How did you break into writing?
AR: I’d always been a compulsive writer, right from when I could hold a pen. I wrote two novels in my teens, as well as a bunch of linked stories. Around the time when I was sixteen, I started making cautious investigations into getting published, and that’s when I realised that there was this standard pathway into SF, by which you sell stories to magazines and then eventually graduate to novels. I couldn’t get hold of the American magazines, but within a year or two I became aware of a British one, Interzone. I started sending them stuff as I moved from school to university, all written on a manual typewriter. After three or four years they took a piece of mine and gradually doors began to open. Life throws lucky chances at you. Because we were both working at the university at the time, I ended up getting to know Paul McAuley, who aside from being a more-established writer, helped me get an editor to look at my first “grown-up” novel. Of course you have to put in the hard graft so that you’re ready to jump on these opportunities when they arrive.

AE: What inspired you to start writing?
AR: That’s an easy one. My dad took me to the cinema to see a double-bill of James Bond films: From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger. I was bored by the first one (even though it’s actually a really good Bond in retrospect) but my tiny little mind was completely blown away by Goldfinger, with the car, the gadgets, the laser! The next day at school I started drawing and writing a Bond-inspired story, leaning heavily on Goldfinger, and I never really stopped. If anyone needs a script for the next Bond, I’ve got some time in my calendar.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
AR: Machine Vendetta, a new novel in my Prefect Dreyfus series, which is itself a sub-series in the Revelation Space universe. This is the last one for a while, though, as I’d like to concentrate on entirely new standalone SF works for the next few years. There’s a novella, “I, Clavius”, on the back-burner, about a sentient moonbase, but that’s a way off being finished.

AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?
The Known Space universe of Larry Niven, around the time of the Beowulf Schaeffer stories. It seems like a pretty fun, groovy, day-glo sort of place! I’d have my own ship with a General Products Number One hull, a hyperdrive and some cool friends to come along on an adventure to the fringes of Known Space.

AE: What are you reading right now?
AR: I’ve just finished the autobiography of Dave Grohl, the drummer from Nirvana
and the front-man of the Foo Fighters. I’ve always enjoyed reading about drummers and this is a really good read. Now I need to pick up a David Baldacci thriller I’m part-way through. I haven’t read any science fiction for a few months but I’m feeling the itch again so it won’t be long.

AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
AR: Finish stuff. This is really good, basic advice but it’s surprising how powerful it is. You can always improve a lame story, but you can’t improve something that isn’t complete. I liken a first draft to throwing a line across a ravine. It’s too flimsy to carry a load, but now you’ve got that line across, you can use it to drag a heavier rope, and so on, until you’ve got a bridge.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
AR: I have a website at http://www.alastairreynolds.com which is in need of updating, and I maintain a blog at http://www.approachingpavonis.blogspot.com. 

Alastair Reynolds was born in Wales in 1966. He started publishing SF in 1990 while working in space science, and has now written around twenty novels and many short stories. His most recent novel is Eversion (Gollancz UK and Orbit USA). After living and working in the Netherlands for nearly two decades, he and his wife now live back in Wales, surrounded by birds and bats. Alastair is a keen runner and owns way too many guitars.

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