John C. Wright is an award-winning author of science-fiction novels and short stories whose work has appeared in numerous magazines, journals, and anthologies. He is also a practicing Catholic who has written about the intersections of faith and science fiction. He lives in Virginia with his wife and four children. He recently spoke with Catholic World Report about his creative process and inspirations, as well as the role his faith has played in his life and writing.
CWR: You write science fiction; why did you choose that fiction genre?
John C. Wright: For me, it was not a choice but a foregone conclusion. From my youth up, the tales I read and the tales I was to tell were not for any other genre.
This is the reason: science fiction and fantasy stories need all the same elements a mainstream story needs to be well-crafted—namely, plot, character, setting, style, and theme. But there is one element absent from a mainstream story which is always present in science fiction and fantasy: the world is set outside the known world.
I do not mean merely that the setting is invented: a story set in the Middle European kingdom of Ruritania, or the savage island of Rokovoko, are fictional places in the real world. One can travel from Ruritania to Paris by railway, or from Rokovoko to Boston by sail. But to go from London to the London of A.D. 802701 and see the Eloi and Morlocks beneath an impassive sphinx requires a time machine; to visit the Han-conquered America of Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century requires a slumber in suspended animation under the influence of a radioactive gas; to visit Oz requires flight through a tornado vortex; to visit Narnia requires a wardrobe carpentered from an unearthly tree; to visit Barsoom requires one to die and come to life again. More to the point, the world reached is not our world of today, so the writer is required to speculate about (if it is science fiction) in what ways the known laws of nature differ from ours and (if fantasy) the supernatural.
But an unearthly, extraterrestrial, or otherworldly element who enters our known world from the unknown also brings the tale into this genre, if that element admits of no explanation viable in the world we know. A story about raising the Titanic from the ocean floor is not science fiction, because she is of our world or can be explained in worldly terms; a story about Godzilla rising from the ocean floor is, because he is not.
Science fiction and fantasy, therefore, have the freedom to explore questions of man’s place in the world by seeing him against the background of worlds beyond our own. No mainstream novel is allowed to speculate so wildly. H.G. Wells in The Time Machine asks the same question as the Sphinx: what is man? The answer found from the perspective of the posthuman creatures into which man devolves embraces a wider point of vantage than any story set in Ruritania or Rokovoko. C.S. Lewis in his Narnia books tells the story of the passion of the Christ in a fairytale setting, because merely by clothing the messiah as a talking lion, we see clear and close at hand, with a shock of the unfamiliar, a story we have known since childhood.
Science fiction and fantasy, at its worst, is worse than mainstream fiction, because it ignores the discipline realistic settings impose; but at its best, it is better, because any setting open to the imagination is open to be explored, and questions that are broader, deeper, and higher than what smaller genres ask.
CWR: In regard to each novel, how long is it from conception through to publication?
Wright: It usually takes me nine months to write a trilogy. The large New York publishers usually take six to ten years to publish that amount of material, sometimes after an initial five years of deciding to buy the work. In the modern, electronic age, smaller and more agile micropublishers can prepare electronic books for publication in a matter of weeks or days.
CWR: Given the scale of any novel as a sustained piece of writing, do you ever feel overwhelmed?
Wright: Not that I recall. My imagination naturally tends toward multiple volume novels. My current project, “The Tale of Moth and Cobweb,” is a twelve-volume set of three trilogies telling one interconnected tale, for example.
CWR: In general, how much time is spent on research compared to the actual writing of a book, or is science fiction largely an imaginative undertaking?
Wright: I am not qualified to answer this question, since, for me, research is part and parcel of the writing. It is like asking how many hours a day I am married as oppose to how many hours I love my wife. The answer is yes. I research and write at the same time, I have never kept track of which was which. Nor does research ever stop: any interesting fact learned about any field is all grist for the mill.
Science fiction is an undertaking of disciplined imagination, because it involves finding realistic but unreal extrapolations. Even fantasy stories, in order to be set in a solid-seeming world, need to get period details accurate, and require a disciplined speculation of any otherworldly elements, such as your magic system, to be thought out in detail, and coherent. Such stories are never real, but they all must create the illusion of realism.
CWR: When and where do you write—is there a set routine?
Wright: I have a set routine. When writing a first draft, my quota is five thousand words a week; when doing re-writing, my quota is twenty hours a week.
CWR: Where and when do ideas for the next project come to you?
Wright: The source is the same for where and when a cobbler gets his ideas for the next pair of shoes he is to make. Some come from seeing another’s design executed poorly and thinking you can do better; some come from patrons asking for work of a certain type; some come from the nine Muses of the Hippocrene dancing on Mount Helicon.
But you would be surprised at how many cobblers make their finest shoes as a way of flattering the pretty feet of his bride, or the girl he is courting. Poets do not differ; Cupid drives us also.
CWR: Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Wright: No. The imagination only becomes becalmed if and when your tale has sailed you into lifeless waters, and you are too stubborn to throw pages away and start over. If your imagination is going into rebellion against you, start throwing pages of the manuscript away, starting with the most recent and moving backward. At a certain point, you will discover the writing block has vanished.
Writer’s block is your muse’s way of telling you that your tale is going wrong. Listen to the muse and try a different approach.
CWR: How much, if any, does other media—music, film, art—feed your creative process?
Wright: I am not qualified to answer this question, since, as I see it, everything a writer comes across is potentially a raw material for a story. Everything is grist for the mill. In fact, I think I will put you and your questions into my next story, if I can find a way to do it. Such is the danger of talking to an author. Do you mind if I portray you as a samurai cyborg vampire from Mars?
CWR: Who are your favorite authors?
Wright: The easiest way to see who an author likes is to see his list of theft victims. For my books, I have stolen ideas, themes, and styles. The Golden Age steals from A.E. Van Vogt, Jack Vance, Maxwell Grant, Mallory and Olaf Stapledon; Last Guardian of Everness steals from Walter Gibson and H.P. Lovecraft; Orphans of Chaos steals from Roger Zelazny, Hesiod, Edwin Abbott, and David Lindsay; Count to a Trillion is from Homer; Superluminary steals shamelessly from “World-Wrecker” Hamilton; Iron Chamber of Memory is my attempt at a Charles Williams metaphysical thriller; The Night Lands is set in William Hope Hodgson’s eerie background; City Beyond Time is pure Keith Laumer; Somewhither is from Herodotus and Pliny if they had written the television show Highlander and the B-movie Van Helsing. One Bright Star to Guide Them is my homage and thank-offering to the spirit guiding C.S. Lewis, whom I regard as simply a remarkable craftsman of science fiction and fantasy.
However, there are two authors I also admire, but they are too skilled for me to impersonate or follow: one is J.R.R. Tolkien and the other is Gene Wolfe.
One should note that both these remarkable genius-inspired writers are faithful Roman Catholics. I suspect that a certain balanced sensibility and correct perspective about the world and man’s place in it gives these authors an ability to portray with poignant clarity the condition of fallen yet hoping man, even when Hobbits or Heirodules of far planets or forgotten eras people their stories.
(If any man be shocked that I admit my thefts, imitations, and plagiarisms so openly, it is because that man has not yet learned that only mediocre writers, also-rans, poseurs, cockatoos, and popinjays idolize creativity. Inquire, if you doubt my word, of Virgil and Milton, the greatest poet in the Latin and English tongue respectively.)
CWR: What books would you recommend to writers?
Wright: If you mean books on how to write, there is only one book on writing I have ever found to be worth a tinker’s damn: Writing the Break Out Novel by Donald Maass.
The problem is that most writers cannot teach, and most teachers cannot write. Mr. Maass is neither writer nor teacher, but a book agent who took the time to study all the novels that elevated a writer from the midlist to the bestseller rank. All such books have certain elements in common. His book tells in clear prose how to add or emphasize such elements.
All other how-to books on writing are rubbish. Avoid them like the plague. They will not only not give you good advice, they will tell you bad advice which will make your work worse than your own natural talent would most likely allow.
If you mean other books in the genre to read as inspiration and examples, any major work written by the many gentlemen written above is recommended.
Allow me also to recommend The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin by L. Jagi Lamplighter to any fans of Narnia or Harry Potter. It is simply a suburb and stirring work, but it has certain subtle Christian themes and overtones, and so no bookstore will carry it, and no major reviewer will review it. I mention it here because otherwise you will never hear of it.
CWR: What do you understand as a writer’s vocation?
Wright: Aha! This is a question I am qualified to answer.
The writer’s vocation is to dig a fresh well in the dry, sucking wasteland of our miserable lives of hard work, thankless toil, endless failure, and disappointment; or to erect a solid rock in the quaking quicksand, drench, and muck of the bog of degrading and sensuous pleasures.
The writer’s vocation is to bottle a clear wine that frees the mind and grants wings to the imagination and reminds us of our true home, which is beyond the fields we know, beyond the walls of this world.
The writer’s vocation is to put the juice of euphrasy and rue into the eye, and to unclogs the ear to let us hear the silver horns of elfland blowing, so that we know this life is not all there is.
In my case, science fiction reminds us that the future beckons; fantasy reminds us of the one, true magic of life beyond the curse called death.
No writer writes for everyone, or even for most people. I write for the few, or the two, or the one, who needs the particular vintage born of my vineyard and mine alone. Other readers I cannot reach, nor should. My wine would choke them like gall and wormwood.
Heaven arranges that the one reader who needs me will find my work. For him I write, not for you, or for any others.
Your writer has penned somewhere your book which is the one you need that one sad and dreary day when you have forgotten the color of your own soul, and you need refreshment, a festive glass, a moment out of time to hold a toast aloft and see the bubbles sparkle.
The writer’s vocation is to write for some one person—a person he will never meet in this life—his favorite book. The rest of the world might scorn this book or might adore it: that does not matter a peppercorn.
Heaven has set something I have written aside for him to find, on his sad day when most he needs it, somewhere, waiting. To the rest of the world, it will be worthless. To that one unknown reader, it will be a book of dreams as bright as diamonds, a trove of treasure. It will live in his heart forever, and be, for him, his book of gold.
CWR: If writing has taught you anything — what is it?
Seen from the audience seats, the life of a poet appears to have an almost mystic glamor, because we are something like stage magicians, and from our white-gloved hands, a little bit of magic seems to flow in from elfland or from outer space over the drab and dun prison walls of our mundane world.
Seen from the stage where all the machinery of smoke and mirrors is placed, it looks otherwise.
Writing is not a business as useful to society as shoe-making, but I, as a scribbler of tall tales, ought to at least be ready, willing, and able to give my patron his hard-earned dollars’ worth of entertainment value. I am competing for his beer money. He could get a six-pack for what publishers charge these days. So my books had darn well better dish up more good clean fun than that, or else I should break my pen in two, and go find honest labor.
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