Adam Christopher is the author of Seven Wonders, Empire State, and the followup to Empire State, The Age Atomic, which came out last week! Adam was kind enough to answer some questions for me on his books, what he’s got up his sleeves (starminers! ancient gods!!), and we’ve also got copies of Empire State and The Age Atomic up for grabs to one lucky winner, courtesy of Angry Robot Books (and it’s open for US, Canadian, and EU residents!)
The sequel to Empire State, The Age Atomic, just came out! Will you give us a little teaser?
It’s 18 months after the events of Empire State, and things are not going well – the pocket dimension has been cut off from our universe and is slowly freezing. Rad Bradley, private detective, rescues Jennifer Jones, a damsel in distress who turns out to be a secret agent. Together they discover a madman in Harlem building an army of drug-addicted robots, based on the fever dreams of someone Rad knows very well. Meanwhile, in New York, Nimrod is under suspicion of being a Communist while the electric ghost of an Empire State Building suicide – heading a secret government organization called Atoms for Peace – is building her own army of atomic robots with one aim: total destruction of the Empire State.
Will you tell us a bit about yourself and your background? Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I think I’ve always pretty much written – we wrote fiction at primary school, starting at age 6! I still have a couple of exercise books from then, and they’re all filled with Doctor Who fan fiction mostly (which I started watching at the same time). I kept at it, and funnily enough the first stories I had published were Doctor Who fan fiction, which appeared in a couple of anthologies from the New Zealand Doctor Who Fan Club, and also their fanzine TSV. Years later, I ended up as TSV’s editor, for which I won a Sir Julius Vogel Award in 2010.
My writing sort of faded away when I started university, but I always felt the itch at the back of my mind, so it was inevitable I’d come back to it. My first attempt at a novel was sometime around 2002, and again it was Doctor Who fiction, as I planned to pitch it to BBC Books, who (in those pre-new series days) were publishing two lines of original Doctor Who novels. The book never got anywhere because I really wasn’t taking it seriously, no matter how much I convinced myself I was. It wasn’t until a few years later, right as I was making the move from New Zealand to England, when a proposal for something else was rejected when I realised that yes, I really wanted to be a writer, and that to be one – to make it a life-long career – meant you had to give it your all. Which sounds obvious – but it was actually an important moment. Writing has to be the number one thing in your life. Just ask an Olympic athlete what their schedule is – writing is the same, I think. It’s about commitment and hard work.
So far, you’ve written books about parallel worlds, superheroes, and next up, ancient gods. What are some of your biggest literary influences?
I’m one of those writers who just writes whatever I like, so whether the idea is for a science fiction novel, or a superhero novel, or even a crime novel, if it is the right idea and the idea that needs to be written, then I’ll write it! My favourite author is Stephen King, although I must admit I only started reading him with Under the Dome in 2009 (I know, I know!), and then went back to the beginning and have started reading his books in publication order from Carrie on. Robert McCammon is another recent discovery. I try to read fairly widely, which of course is vital for writers! Other favourite authors include Lauren Beukes, Greg Rucka (both as a prose writer and as a comic writer), Ed Brubaker, Chuck Wendig, Raymond Chandler. Going right back to the beginning, I owe a great deal to Terrance Dicks! He was script editor (and occasional script writer) for Doctor Who during Jon Pertwee’s tenure, which is actually the era I grew up with, thanks to TVNZ starting a big repeat season in 1985. Dicks went on to write a large chunk of the Doctor Who novelisations, and for several years growing up I would read nothing else. I remember one year getting a stack of about eight Doctor Who books for Christmas, and my dad saying he made sure they were all Terrance Dicks novels, because he knew he was my favourite author.
I need to buy Terrance a drink one day. That’s where it all started for me!
What do you love most about writing fantasy/sf?
Well, I love writing, first and foremost – I write science fiction at the moment, but I suspect I might branch out a little at some point! But science fiction and fantasy is where the imagination can really take flight – there’s nothing cooler than writing about an army of nuclear-powered robots being build in secret under the streets of Manhattan in 1954, for example. I mean, to me that’s just bags and bags of fun. Genre fiction allows that kind of flexibility and weirdness – and of course you can tell important stories as well as the fun ones. Some would argue that genres like science fiction – often sneered at by those of a more literary mindset – are actually better at telling us about ourselves than what some people consider more serious fiction.
What kind of research did you do for Empire State and The Age Atomic?
The starting point for each book was my own particular interest in New York and it’s history, and after laying out the skeleton of each I turned to more in-depth research. Dry Manhattan by Michael A. Lerner, which is specifically about the Prohibition in New York, was a major help for Empire State. Then it was case-by-case research for various individual bits – as a major New York history buff I’ve got piles and piles of notes on various weird and wonderful things – the Cloud Club at the top of the Chrysler Building, 125th Street and the Tree of Hope, Evelyn McHale, the cigarette-smoking robot built by Westinghouse, the surprise result of the 1954 World Series – and so on. Although it sounds like a cheat to say I looked them up on the internet, when you have a specific interest in a niche topic, there are a wealth of online resources, including original documents and contemporary accounts. There are scans of the original Atoms for Peace speech delivered by President Eisenhower to the United Nations, and photos and building plans for the Cloud Club. So a combination of historical analysis and point of view like Dry Manhattan, plus original accounts.
I was also lucky in that I could fudge some things – the Empire State is an alt-universe version of Manhattan in the 1930s, and not all of it matches the original. In The Age Atomic, we return to Nimrod and his department in the mid-1950s, but again his version of New York isn’t the same as ours.
Actually, for anyone interested in New York City history, I recommend The Bowery Boys podcast, which you can find at boweryboyspodcast.com.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I think I’m somewhere in between. For me, books start with an idea, and then that idea usually spawns a handful of key events or plot points, or perhaps a neat twist. From there I write a skeleton outline, which is really more of a list of events covering the beginning, middle and end, and once those are in place I fill in the gaps and connect everything up. I do this because when I start the actual writing, my characters tend to take on lives of their own and will start driving the story in new directions, or will make decisions that are a surprise and a mystery to me, the writer. This can sound a little ridiculous to non-writers, but it makes sense – if the characters and the story are working, the come to life in your head, and start to follow their own rules and logic, based on their character. For this reason, writing a very detailed outline doesn’t work for me, because when I start writing it just changes anyway.
So long as the main tent pole plot points are in the skeleton, I trust that my characters will get there.
Of course, that doesn’t always work, but that’s what the second draft is for! For some projects, I’ll stop in the middle and re-outline, or if I encounter something tricky, I’ll do a more detailed synopsis of a particular chapter or sequence.
I think it’s an important point, at least for my own writing. Story comes from character (although, obviously a character maybe initially be born from a story or idea) – without character, you have nothing. Story is different from plot as well – I think Stephen King called plot a jackhammer, when really you need to be unearthing the story with a fine brush. Using plot to drive a story doesn’t work (and I think it shows rather clearly too), because you’re betraying the characters, forcing them to follow some preordained path regardless of what they actually would do. Characters doing things for plot reasons rather than character reasons is a major bugbear of mine!
If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
I always find this kind of question curious. In the past I’ve tweeted something like “I’m about to start The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger. Never read it before!” and I’ll get people saying “wow, I wish I could read that again for the first time.” That seems a little backwards to me. My two favourite books are Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin and Veronica by Nicholas Christopher, both of which I adore, but I’m very glad I have read them, and to say I wish I could read them again for the first time doesn’t make sense. I have great memories of each book, and no doubt I will read each again and again over the years.
I guess it’s because people want to experience that wonder of discovery again… but I guess my brain just isn’t wired like that.
Which book (s) are you reading now?
I tend to be a slowish reader and I never read more than one book at once, so my to-be-read pile just keeps getting bigger and bigger! Right now I’m reading American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett. And, my goodness, do I love it. It’s a fairly weighty novel but it is jam-packed with character. It’s one of those books – and Bennett is one of those writers – where there is something else going on, a sort of indefinable X-factor that lurks somewhere between the lines and keeps you turning page after page. Stephen King has that as well. Lucky sods! With American Elsewhere I’m also enjoying seeing how it was written – there seems to be something in the text that is familiar in own writing… so
I guess I’m trying to get into the author’s head to understand how he did it! And he’s good. American Elsewhere is wonderful.
When you manage to find some free time, how do you like to spend it?
Mostly reading, although in way that isn’t spare time, it’s still part of the writing process because you have to read in order to write. I’m a bit of a TV junkie – Person of Interest is my favourite show, closely followed by Justified – and enjoy gaming. I used to be a moderately hardcore World of Warcraft player, but it’s just too much of a timesink so I’ve cut back. But I’m currently enjoying the new SimCity, as well as Tomb Raider and Dead Space 3. I’ve just received Bioshock Infinite, and can’t wait to take a look.
One of the reasons for moving to the UK was to enjoy the history and architecture, so in the summer we’re often out exploring historic places.
What’s next for you?
Hang Wire is my next novel for Angry Robot – it’s an urban fantasy set in San Francisco, which is being stalked by the Hang Wire killer, who strings his victims up with steel cable. There’s a circus in town too, but the manager of the fairground has started talking to his machines, and the Celtic dance troupe are taking their act a little too seriously. Meanwhile, a dying Chinese god has hidden his power in the city and two other immortals are looking for it… while primal evil stirs beneath the San Andreas fault. Hang Wire is out in January 2014.
Then comes my first book from Tor, a scary space opera called The Burning Dark, which is about a forgotten war hero, a dead cosmonaut, a celebrity starminer, and a mythological horror trapped behind a very strange star. That’s out in March 2014.
I’ve also got my first comic coming as part of VS Comics, a new digital anthology series. My story is called The Sentinel, and it’s a crime/urban fantasy set in Prohibition New York about a rookie cop who is killed and resurrected as an Egyptian god of vengeance to fight against a cabal of magicians who worship the New York subway system. It’s a lot of fun and I’m working with a great editor (Ned Hartley) and a super artist (Nathan Ashworth). The first arc is four episodes, and it starts in April.
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