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Interview with Scott Mackay
Here is our complete interview with Scott Mackay. A slightly abridged version appears in Challenging Destiny Number 17.
interview by James Schellenberg & David M. Switzer
CD: Your first SF novel Outpost is an interesting and unique time travel story. How do you go about trying to write an original take on a story that's been used a lot in SF before?
SM: In the case of Outpost I think what's unique and original about it is the choice of protagonist. I took a 17-year-old girl and then put her in a state of amnesia so she doesn't really know what she's done or where she is or how she's going to get out of her situation. I put a twist on the old time travel scenario. SF, as far as I'm concerned, is a series of tropes, and they've all been used again and again. I think the job of today's SF writer is to more or less put a new twist on those tropes -- putting old wine in new bottles.
CD: When you wrote it did you sit down and read other time travel stories, or did you have those in the back of your mind?
SM: I wasn't researching time travel stories in terms of reading fictional time travel stories. I was researching the historical aspects of it. For instance, the book The Prince by Machiavelli figures in it so of course I read that. A lot of collateral materials as well, to give me a feeling for the time. Time travel stories are of a type -- there are about three types. This one is the type where the person goes back in history, changes one small detail, and the rest of the future is changed from there on in.
CD: How did you get started writing?
SM: My mother's a writer. Her name is Claire Mackay, and she's quite a well-known young adult non-fiction writer -- she started her career writing young adult novels. Her cousin was a writer as well. Her latest one to come out is called The Toronto Story, published by Annick Press. She's doing a series now from Scholastic, a series of three books -- a young adult history of Canada.
CD: Have you known that you wanted to write for a long time?
SM: I started out originally as a musician. My father's a musician -- I come from a very artistically inclined family. My father's a jazz musician, and we've always had that in our family. I actually went to the University of Toronto and got my BA in music performance, and played professional classical music for about 15 years. I had my own group -- flute, violin, viola, and cello. I played flute. I got sick of the lifestyle -- you can only make so much money. I thought it was time to get a job -- I wanted to have a house and kids. So I got a full-time job. All this time I was writing -- I've been writing stories since my teens. But I think I seriously realized I wanted to be a writer in 1979. My first novel, unpublished, was SF for juveniles about these three kids who took off to another planet and they get themselves in a situation where they have to get back. Fairly standard, but I enjoyed writing it, so much so that it ignited a spark in me. Ever since then SF has always held a special place for me.
CD: What draws you to the SF genre in particular?
SM: It has such wide-open boundaries. I'm also a mystery writer. That, on the other hand, is like crafting a small gem because the focus of a mystery novel is always a murder. The focus of a SF novel can be anything, any place, any time, anywhere, any being. That's why I like it -- you can really go for the big idea. You can have a lot of fun with mysteries, but you can't have the wide open canvas that you can have with a SF novel.
CD: Are there any particular authors who have been influences on your writing?
SM: I always liked Dorothy L. Sayers, a mystery novelist. The framework of my mystery novels are more or less based on the same kind of framework she uses. Particularly her because her suspects are treated as full-fledged characters. I always say that a suspect has to be more than just a suspect, he has to be a character. The mystery genre is really a great genre for character development because, what does the protagonist do? He goes around, he interviews character after character, and they speak for themselves -- they're either unreliable as narrators about themselves or they're reliable, so you get to have a lot of fun with characters.
As far as SF is concerned, I like John Varley, who is I think a vastly underrated writer. I wish he'd produce more. In his Ophiuchi novels, aliens have taken over the Earth but left the habitable planets -- the rocks like Mars, the moon, Titan -- available for human habitation. So you have the aliens inhabiting the Earth and humans all throughout the solar system, particularly on the moon. His novel Steel Beach is just a wonderful picture of a human society on the moon, and I was thrilled when I read it and I remember it always and it's influenced me greatly.
The other writer who's influenced me is Robert J. Sawyer. I read his Quintaglio series years ago and I thought to myself, "This guy is vastly readable. I can just turn page after page." A lot of SF I find myself editing as I go. That comes from being trained by my mother. My mother being a writer, I always submitted my works to her first, and she would go with the blue pen and so forth. I have a highly conscious sense of editorial needs. Sawyer's ideas are interesting. I was talking to him recently and they're thinking of reissuing the Quintaglio series, and he's thinking of wanting to get a more serious cover on the book because now he's taken a more serious vein in his writing with Hominids and Humans. I don't know whether that reflects his own opinion about the book or not, but I think they're serious works. I enjoyed them immensely, the characters were all well-drawn -- just a great read, all three of them.
CD: Which genre do you enjoy writing in the most?
SM: It's a question about my level of excitement at any given time. If I'm writing a mystery, by the time I've finished the mystery I'm a little fatigued by it, by the genre, and by the book I happen to be writing. So I start thinking of SF again, and when I do, it's because I haven't been working on it for a while, and my excitement is rekindled. So it's kind of this back and forth, and I have this incredible enthusiasm for SF, and when I get to the end of the book, and Laura Anne (Laura Anne Gilman, editor at Roc) sends the final copy editor's version, and we're going through it for the umpteenth time, I think, "Geez, wouldn't it be nice to write a mystery?" So one provides relief for the other, but my enthusiasm for both is basically equal. I also write literary fiction -- I haven't published a literary novel but I've published several literary short stories in magazines like The Fiddlehead. I would like to eventually write a literary novel -- in fact I'm working on one right now. But the demands of my mystery contracts and my SF contracts don't leave me too much time for that. Also, from a commercial sense you don't want to spread yourself too thin. If you spread yourself too thin you can't keep a book in your treadmill, which is what they like you to do to build your career.
CD: What do you like most about writing?
SM: With SF, what I like a lot about writing is developing the setting. For instance, in Outpost you had the setting of a fully automated prison on a remote planet. How does it work, who put it there, what does it look like, why is it falling to pieces. And just getting the atmosphere of that sense of decay and of a place falling apart was a great deal of fun.
The same thing with my most recent SF novel, Orbis. It's an alternate 1947 -- somehow that just appealed to me. SF novels are supposed to be about the future -- I wanted to write one in 1947 and change certain things about it. The biggest part I enjoyed about it was having the United States uninhabited west of the Mississippi, so that you still had all the traditional Native ways happening. My main character was thrust into that whole situation. I'm a great fan of Larry McMurtry. Lonesome Dove has got to be one of the best books ever written -- it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986. I've always wanted to do something like that about the West, and I thought this was a perfect opportunity to put some of that into Orbis. There's also a lot of research I used for that -- reading up on the different Indian tribes and the way they lived, and the way they developed through the centuries, and the introduction of white man into their society, the introduction of horses to the Plains people. That was an interesting challenge because Cortez was the one who introduced horses into the West. Of course with the West uninhabited and no Spaniards anywhere in sight I had to have the Romans introduce the horse through Florida -- a lot of interesting challenges.
As far as mysteries go, it's the character. My detective is presented with a murder to solve and he gets a certain number of suspects and he goes around and interviews them or his partner does. It's a lot of fun because you get to focus specifically on the characters. It's like carving out a small gem for each character -- a kind of set piece for each one.
CD: Do you know who the murderer is right away, or how does that work?
SM: Lately I've been having to do proposals, which is a plot outline and three chapters, and I send them to my publisher. So lately I've been having to let them know who the murderer is. But the way I really like to work it is if, through the book I begin to think that who I first believed the murderer was going to be becomes too obvious to the reader, I will then change it. I will fool myself, and then devise extra narrative, extra passages, to point somewhere else. Part of the fun of a mystery for a lot of readers is to keep on guessing. They feel cheated if they can guess who the murderer is on page 2. The Barry Gilbert series is not so much a who-done-it as a why-done-it, and that goes back to the characters, and relationships between the characters.
CD: You said for SF you liked working with the setting. For a mystery you're often working with real-world settings. How do you go about living in Toronto and writing about Toronto?
SM: Writing a mystery set in Toronto was actually my agent's suggestion. At the time when I decided I wanted to write a mystery series, regional mysteries were very big. A lot of mysteries that were coming out were set in small out of the way places or in cities with a lot of exact detail from those locales. He said, "Why don't you write about Toronto?" And I said, "OK, I'll write about Toronto." I've read books that are set in Toronto by various Canadian authors and I never felt as if they had quite the same version of it as I did, so it was a lot of fun to write my own impressions of Toronto. I've lived here now for 32 years so I know the city fairly well. A lot of my Toronto readers come up and say they love to read it because they can recognize all the places, and in that respect setting in a mystery is a lot of fun to do.
CD: You also wrote a book called A Friend in Barcelona.
SM: It was my first novel, published by HarperCollins in 1991, and it's a World War II thriller. At the time I was reading a lot of Ken Follet and John Le Carré and I was just coming out of a literary phase, not selling too many stories and I thought, "What can I write that might have a better chance of getting published? Well, since I'm reading all this thriller fiction, why don't I try my hand at a thriller?" So I tried my hand at a thriller and I chose WWII because I have an interest in WWII. I'm a bit of a history buff as far as WWII is concerned, and I like submarines too. It was a lot of fun to research all the submarines, and watch Das Boot about five times. As far as my novels go it's kind of an anomaly. I'm not sure that I'll ever write a thriller again, but who knows?
I was younger then, and still settling in my ways. I did try writing a few thrillers afterwards but they didn't sell. My then-agent didn't particularly think that they were strong, and I thought, "It's time to try something else." It comes back to this idea of writers having to be persistent, keep trying different things. I seem to be having some success with the SF in particular -- the numbers are going up. I'm continuing to enjoy it, which is probably the best thing.
CD: What have your experiences been with different publishers that have published your books?
SM: When you say publisher, what it amounts to for the writer is an editor. That's your chief point of contact. I've liked all my editors so far. My editor for A Friend in Barcelona was Stanley Colbert. He ran the Colbert Agency here in Toronto -- he was my first agent, and then he bought HarperCollins and published my first novel. I became a client of Linda McKnight's. As for Outpost, that was David Hartwell. Their styles are different -- he likes to write marginalia, a lot of comments on the side. I thought his comments were valid -- he's the most knowledgeable man I've ever met as far as SF goes. He can just talk a red streak of SF, pull these titles that are so archaic and on the fringes that hardly anybody's heard of them -- he has an academic knowledge. For Cold Comfort my editor was Ken Carroll. He said Cold Comfort was the cleanest book he'd ever seen. Basically he just shipped it to the copy editor. Now my editor is Laura Anne Gilman -- she's very organized, thoughtful, and thorough and I can't praise her highly enough. Of the editors that I've had I think she's brought the most out of my books. She writes these long letters -- 8 or 9 pages -- the first page will be to do with the major points and then the remaining pages will be about the smaller points. After the book goes through that process with her, it's a much better book. As far as promotion is concerned, I've had the most promotion from Penguin. Also St. Martin's -- they send me promotional materials.
CD: We thought that the premise of Orbis was very unique and interesting. How did you come up with the idea for it?
SM: A lot of novel ideas don't come full-blown, as such. What you get is a germ or two. From those germs you develop the entire novel. As for Orbis, one of the germs was my interest in older technology. A lot of SF novels deal with the technology of the future. I've always been fascinated with radio and the development of radio, so there's a big element of radio in the book. The other small germ, funnily enough, comes from my interest in WWII. I was watching a program on PBS or the Learning Channel -- it was an old black and white newsreel of the German army, and it showed young recruits and they were bragging about how these young recruits got to eat a pound of butter a day. It's not particularly nutritious but it probably builds muscle. That got me thinking about the elite elements of the German army, and that in turn led me to join that onto this whole radio idea that was developing in my head. So one of the characters, Neil, becomes a seminarian, and those two ideas together -- a unique fighting force and also the idea of radio -- joined, and from there it was developing and explaining how this could have worked. Also I just wanted to do something in 1947. You give yourself these scenarios and then you have to provide a reasonable rationale. That's the way the rest of the plot filters into it, by having to explain in a reasonably coherent fashion why the original two points come together.
CD: Another thing that was in that book was the clay-bred food, and clay-bred people. Did you have an idea of exactly what that meant?
SM: It's a genetic copy of everything, so when Eric talks about clay-bred ham he's not getting a pig that's range grown, he's getting one that's been cloned in the laboratory and so it's a copy of a copy of a copy. And everyone knows that as you make further iterations of a copy the quality of the copy gets worse. That was essentially my idea for clay bred -- that they were making copies of copies and that's why the quality of the food was so poor. The quality of the actual people, with their blood diseases and so forth, was poor too.
CD: In The Meek and Orbis, you have the theme of what it's like to be powerless because you're in a certain group, and what kind of resistance you can have to prejudice. Is that a theme you want to continue with?
SM: I've noticed that theme in my books. It's unconscious, but it keeps cropping up. In my new book Omnifix, about a man who gets infected by an alien nanogen, slowly disintegrates, and has to use an Earth-created nanogen to build himself back into a cybernetic human being, it's the same thing. There's a whole underclass of cybernetic human beings. I don't know why that is -- maybe I have an ingrown sense of injustice about that. Or maybe it's just a plot device. You have one underdog group and you start rooting for them. Put them against another group and you have your basis for conflict in a novel.
CD: When you're using that as part of your plot, have you been happy with how it's turned out?
SM: For the most part, yes. But Fitzgerald said you should never repeat yourself. The more I unconsciously do it, the more I think that I should break out and try something else. Most of my novels are good against evil, especially my SF novels, and it's usually an underdog pitted against a superior being. Like The Empire Strikes Back. It's all just Star Wars in new bottles. I like to have a moral issue, an angle. I like my characters to have to face some sort of moral dilemma. For instance, in Orbis, Eric has such a strong belief in the church, and in the first 200 pages of the novel he begins to see evidence that makes him starts to doubt the church, and he has to figure out what's right for himself rather than have the church figure out what's right for him. The same thing with The Meek -- they finally come to Carswell and encounter what they think at first is a non-intelligent race called the Filaments, and they have this moral dilemma: Are they going to take over this planet and rid it of these intelligent indigent beings or are they not? In my mysteries too -- if you add that sort of moral dilemma for the characters to solve as well as the usual obstacles, an adventure challenge, it adds an extra element and makes it a lot more enjoyable for me to write. It makes me really feel as if the characters are coming alive, and that they have feelings. It's a good character device.
CD: You mentioned your new novel Omnifix. Can you tell us more about it?
SM: It's coming out in February 2004 from Roc. My agent thinks it's my best since Outpost. Robert Sawyer read it and he wrote a glowing blurb for it -- "This is the one we've been waiting for, the one that's going to make Scott a big SF name." Laura Anne thinks it's the one too. To me, I was writing another SF novel -- you never know what you're going to get. The story takes place in and around the year 2500 and it's about a man who's infected by an alien nanogen which disintegrates his body bit by bit, so he's slowly watching himself disintegrate. People on Earth have developed a nanogen to fight this, and the way they do this is to slowly replace the bits he's losing with cybernetic equivalents or biological equivalents. Through the course of the novel what you see is a man who starts out as human slowly turning into a machine, and not only in a physical sense but also in an emotional, spiritual sense. So he has to cope with this and his struggle is obvious -- he wants to become human again and he's willing to do anything. He's part of this large underclass known as Number 17s. That's what they're calling this alien nanogen, Number 17. It's basically a man into machine story.
CD: You have a new mystery that just came out too.
SM: Old Scores. It's about the murder of a rock and roll mogul who promotes concerts in Toronto. Gilbert, my protagonist -- his wife had an affair with this mogul 23 years ago and it almost broke his marriage up. Through the course of the investigation he begins to uncover clues that implicate his wife in the murder. The department brass begin to see this and they take him off the case. He realizes that other detectives are now trying to convict his wife, so he has to work behind the scenes on the other suspects in order to prove her innocence. Time is running out. It came out from St. Martin's Minotaur in September in hardcover.
CD: Each of your SF novels seems to be very different -- time travel, genetically engineered beings on asteroid, and alternate history. Is that a conscious choice, and how do you go about writing such diverse novels?
SM: I perhaps don't read as much SF these days as I used to. I read a lot in my university years and I now read very selectively in SF. I don't have a solid grounding besides what I read in Locus magazine about what current trends are. Some writers say they don't like to read other writers' books because it'll influence what they themselves write, and to a certain extent it's the same with me and SF. With Orbis my editor's first comment was, "This is original." I'm not sure whether she levelled that as praise or criticism. It comes down to just what appeals to me at the time -- I get an idea and then I start working on it. I don't abandon ideas, no matter how hard they are to work believably, like Orbis -- it was very hard to make it with enough verisimilitude to suspend the disbelief of the reader. I keep at it, so eventually I get these strange little orchids coming up.
CD: Would you write a sequel to one of your SF books?
SM: I read a customer review of The Meek on the Chapters web page, and he said he thought that The Meek was the middle book of a series. I steal my ideas from my readers. When I was coming up with a new proposal after Omnifix I wrote a proposal for a prequel to The Meek, called The Orphans. It tells the tale of Buster, the lead Meek guy. I submitted it to my agent and he thought that people wouldn't really want a prequel to it, they would want to continue on. So there's an idea for a sequel called The Builders -- the Builders are the ones who left archeological evidence on Carswell and great monoliths that have some spa-like effect on the individuals, and that mystery was left unsolved. I guess I left it unsolved for the purpose of possibly building a sequel. Outpost was supposed to be a series of three, but because it was my first SF novel Dave Hartwell wanted to play it safe and end it there. I think that's the reason some critics thought the ending was a little forced in spots. One guy said this is really great writing but it's just a little too much too fast. That's because I was trying to conclude a whole trilogy. If I'd had the two extra novels to build verisimilitude… But the rest of his influence was good.
CD: What's your favourite thing about writing?
SM: Writing's a process. When I look at the process, I start off with notes, some general research -- more specific research comes later -- then I write the first draft. Then I go back and I write the second draft -- the second draft actually involves about five drafts by the time I'm through with it. I have my own peculiar system. Then I do the polish-up drafts. My favourite part is writing the first draft, because when you're writing it you're engaged in creating the story rather than worrying about the words. As a reader -- because when you're writing you're also reading -- you're more engaged in your own story, it becomes more alive to you. Once you finish the first draft, you go back and say, "Oh my god. How could I have written all this crap?" So the second draft I don't like too much. But I have a system. I go through a chapter from beginning to end trying to clean it up, and I'll do each scene three times, and then I'll go through it a final time. By the time I go through it the final time it's clean enough so that the story starts to come alive again and I begin to enjoy it again. Once I've done that second draft -- there's the five drafts of the second draft -- I go through the whole thing again, and by that time it's totally cleaned up. When you finally get to the sixth draft, it's enjoyable -- it's fun to cross out a word here and add an extra shiny part there.
Then you have the whole publishing aspect. That's a lot of work, because by that time, you're fatigued by the novel. You get the editor's main revisions back and start working through them. I get excited when the novel is really worked on -- when she suggests something that will really improve the novel. Then the copy editor goes through it and makes his or her changes, and you put "stet" at the side if you don't want them -- it's quick. After that it's promotional, and that's something I'm just learning now. I had a big lunch with Robert J. Sawyer in March, and as everybody knows he's the wiz at promotion. He was so helpful, I can't praise him highly enough for the way he and his wife freely gave me their time and their expertise, and I think it's really going to make a difference for my upcoming novels.
CD: What kind of response have you had to your novels?
SM: Critically, they've all been basically favourable. Kirkus Reviews loves my mystery novels. Booklist loves them. Locus had good things to say about Outpost, good things to say about The Meek, mixed things to say about Orbis. That's because Orbis came out right when The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson came out, and it was compared against that kind of meticulous researched, encyclopedic world building that he does, compared to my moral fable. But they thought there were a few riveting scenes of great drama. Challenging Destiny just loves me.
When readers come up to me on the street, they say, "I love The Meek." In terms of the numbers, the numbers on that were better than Outpost, and the numbers on Orbis were even better. About 22% higher than The Meek. My agent and I are riding the wave, and he's happy with the way things are going.
Mysteries are little harder. So far all I've had is a hardcover deal. We've now set up a paperback deal with Worldwide, the mystery branch of Harlequin. Cold Comfort, the first mystery, is finally coming out in paperback this March. With a much bigger print run, we're hoping that sales of the paperback will influence sales of the hardcover Old Scores.
CD: Do you have any advice for new writers?
SM: I think a real writer will know that he's a real writer, that he'll have such a burning passion for writing -- such a desire to do it, that it doesn't matter what I say or what editors say or how many rejection slips he gets or she gets, she'll keep writing. Other than the usual clichés -- stick with it, try and improve yourself, read widely -- I really have no advice other than to say that if you're a writer you'll know it. You'll do it to the exclusion of everything else. I have to say my family comes first, they always have. But given that, I sometimes get complaints about spending too much time on the computer. My wife's very understanding, she's totally supportive of me, wants me to be a writer. That's the other thing -- hook up with a partner who will support you in your habit. Because that's what it comes down to -- it's such a competitive industry you have to be completely obsessed. You have to be writing every day as much as you can, as far as I can see. When I go to work at my day job I go there at 7:30, I write until 9, then I do my day job until 12, at lunch I write for an hour, I get off at 5, and I come home and do an hour at night. As I get older I'm beginning to see energy as a bigger factor in the whole equation. I'm 46 now -- I don't have the same kind of energy I used to.
CD: Have you gone to many conventions?
SM: I don't travel too much because of my day job. Ever since I had my talk with Robert Sawyer I plan on going to more. They're great -- to talk to people and promote your work. I think SF conventions are indicative of the kind of readership SF has -- this is another reason I got into SF -- it has a really dedicated readership. These people are interested in what they read. It isn't like the latest Jacqueline Susann novel for the airplane. A lot of readers have almost a cult interest in what they read, they have that sort of devotion, they have fanzines. I thought, "This is a great audience to write for -- dedicated readers who really care about what they're reading."
Last modified: November 21, 2003
Copyright © 2003 by Scott Mackay