Interview: Ferrett Steinmetz, author of Flex

ferrettPlease welcome Ferrett Steinmetz to the blog! Ferrett’s debut, Flex, just came out this week and he kindly stopped by to answer a few of my questions. Please give him a warm welcome!
I love the whole concept of your new book, FLEX, but will you tell us a little about it and what inspired the story?
The central conceit of Flex is that magic is created by obsession. If you’re a crazy cat lady, and you really focus on those little adorable balls of fluff you’re amassing in your home, there’s a chance you’ll fall through the event horizon and become a felimancer, able to whip out Crazy Cat Lady magic upon command!

Which sounds cool! And certainly the world of Flex is filled with all kinds of unique magic – bureaucromancy, origamimancy, videogamemancy, polkamancy – each created around somebody’s deepest desires.

But there’s two drawbacks to that: the first is that by the time you become a ‘mancer, you are full barking insane.

Maybe you’re functional, but the felimancer isn’t going to take over the world, or even be able to feed herself with her magic – all of her spells are going to revolve around protecting her cat-centered pocket empire.

The second is that the universe doesn’t like magic all that much. The universe has set up all of these very carefully crafted laws of physics, and it very much resents you bending them all. So whenever you do magic, there’s a process called “flux,” wherein bad-luck coincidences rain down upon your head until the odds mostly even out. And these are targeted bad-luck coincidences – whatever you love most, the flux will target it and destroy it.

Which is very bad if you’re a bureaucromancer father with an adorable six-year-old daughter.

And that’s the central struggle in Flex: Aliyah, Paul’s daughter, gets severely burned in a terrorist accident, and needs to get his insurance company to pay for her reconstructive surgery. He should be able to just conjure up the forms to help Aliyah, but because he’s new to his powers, the magical backlash risks injuring his kid even more.

So driven by desperation, he teams up with the only person he knows who can help master his flux: the terrorist who burned his kid. And that terrorist needs to make a lot of magical drugs.

Chaos ensues.

I also love the idea of a bureaucromancer! Why do you think readers will relate to, and root for, Paul Tsabo?
Paul’s crazy-obsessed with paperwork, but for a very good reason: he works at the world’s crappiest insurance company, a cut-rate organization that throws up flurries of impossible forms in the hopes of causing their customers to despair. If you don’t cross that “T” on page 7 of form 27B/6, they will deny your claim.

That made Paul furious. So rather than quitting, he decided to undermine Samaritan Mutual. He stayed late at the office, like some sort of clerical shoemaker’s elves, correcting people’s forms until Samaritan Mutual had no choice but to pay out.

And that focus ignited Paul’s magic.

Because Paul believes in fairness. For him, paperwork is what stops kings and corporations from stomping the little guy. I mean, do you think the bank wouldn’t lose a deposit or two if they didn’t have to keep records? Do you think that your landlord wouldn’t screw you over if he didn’t have to answer to City Hall?

For Paul, paperwork is a weapon, and now he can utilize it in all the craziest of ways: he can send SWAT teams smashing through your door by magically dropping the right warrant on a judge’s desk. He can give you a rent-controlled apartment merely by conjuring a rental agreement out of mid-air. But what he does, above all, is try to make the world a better place with his magic.

Such a shame that he’s going to have to start brewing drugs to save his daughter. Oh, that’s not going to go well for Paul at all.

What supporting characters did you enjoy writing the most?
Paul’s companion through most of Flex is Valentine DiGriz, and she’s Paul’s polar opposite: Paul is straight-laced, conservative, emotionally straightjacketed. Hell, his whole magic revolves around meticulous planning.

Whereas Valentine is a kinky, chubby, snarky videogamemancer who causes mayhem wherever she goes. She doesn’t plan; she’s a whirlwind, going Grand Theft Auto at will. Which turns out to be good, because videogame magic is ideally suited to magnificent acts of violence, and Paul – who’s a scrawny amputee with an artificial leg and paper-pushing magic – needs someone to have his back when the crap hits the fan.

But I love Valentine because she channels my id. I have this habit of thinking, “Gee, what would be the most awkward and truthful thing to say in this conversation?” And then I usually don’t say it – usually – because though it’d be funny, I’d embarrass all my friends.

Valentine has no sense of embarrassment, and as such she gets all the best one-liners. And I love her because she has this relentless self-confidence – yes, maybe she’s fifty pounds overweight by traditional standards, but she dresses in the skimpiest goth dresses because she thinks she’s sexy and doesn’t give a crap what you think.
So yeah. Every scene with Valentine was good times. And people seem to be reacting well to her thus far.

What kind of research did you do for the book?
I’ll be honest: I read about half a Wikipedia entry and sag back into my chair, thinking, “Man, is that too much work.” I hate doing research. That’s why I write fantasy – I can just make stuff up.

That said, Paul is an amputee, and his daughter is burned severely, so I did a lot of medical research to see how those worked. It’s fascinating, seeing how far along prosthetics have come – admittedly, it’s for a terrible reason, because we had to develop better fake limbs after so many soldiers had their limbs blown off in Iraq and Afghanistan – but I have Paul’s precise artificial leg bookmarked.

But the important thing about Paul and his daughter Aliyah is that they’re more than just “an amputee” and “a burn victim.” At one point, Aliyah says “I am not a burn,” and that’s what sums up a lot of Flex to me: people who are profoundly hurt, yet striving to be more than the sum of their injuries.

Have you always wanted to write? Will you tell us more about yourself and your background?
Flex is kind of a recursively-meta novel, because it’s about obsession, and I myself am obsessed. Which is to say that I wrote novels for literally thirty years before finally writing one that sold. (You can read more about that here, if you like.)

The problem is, I was stuck, spinning my wheels: I was writing a lot and not getting better. And in 2008, I got accepted to the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, which is a six-week writers’ intensive where you and seventeen other students get completely demolished and rebuilt as writers.

And they taught me what I was doing wrong – which was in many ways much more important than teaching me what to do right – and from there, I finally started to improve. I sold a bunch of short stories, eventually racking up over 30 sales in about five years. One of them, “Sauerkraut Station,” got nominated for the Nebula award. And eventually, after two post-Clarion novels, I finally sold Flex.

But the trick is that I never would have done any of that if I wasn’t so damned hellbent on writing. I write every day. Every day. No matter what. I mean, I had seven novels that never got sold and I kept at it, because I literally don’t know how to quit.

I was not the most talented person in my Clarion class. Still aren’t, actually. Some of my fellow writers there are much more gifted at prose, or storytelling, or plot – but I kept at it, and the arc of improvement from where I was then to where I am now is staggering.

So, you know: keep writing, kids!

What’s one of the first things you can remember writing?
When I was in seventh grade, I wrote my first poem. The first line was “In a time / when people live with the spider of hunger in their bellies….” My anthropology teacher absolutely loved this, telling me how talented I was for a boy my age.

Years later I realized: my English teacher had said nothing. Only my anthropology teacher was impressed by this ghastly poetry I’d vomited out. But it was too late! By then, I’d already written two novels, and I was committed.

So my advice to all new writers is to find a fan straight away, and don’t question their qualifications too closely.

What are a few of your favorite books? Have you read anything good recently?
Oh God, yes. I just finished Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings, an Asian take on Game of Thrones, which will be out soon, and I highly recommend it; I also finished Jo Walton’s The Just City, where the Greek Gods kidnap people from all across time and space in a grand thought experiment to recreate Plato’s version of The Republic. I can’t stop thinking about that one.

As for influences, I tend to be drawn to books that give me stuff I haven’t seen before – China Mieville’s compelling cityscapes, the polite weirdness of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the alien biology of Peter Watts’ Blindsight and Kij Johnson’s Spar. Basically, if it’s utterly new to me as a concept, I’m gonna love it.

What piece of advice would you give to an aspiring author?
I was talking to a programmer the other day, discussing the problem with optimization. And when you’re a programmer, it’s impossible to say whether you have gotten a program to run as fast as it can – you can only say that you’ve gotten this program to run as fast as you can make it.

But “as fast as you can make it” is not the same as “as fast as it can get.”

Programming is complicated, and you can only see what you’re smart enough to comprehend. Maybe there’s a better way to compact this program’s run-time – but you aren’t experienced enough to know what that method would be. There’s all sorts of ways you could potentially improve this program, but you’re blind to them because you don’t even recognize these problems exist.

And occasionally you look back on an old piece of code you wrote – one that functions, but inelegantly – and go, “God, what was I thinking?” You come to realize that your code is riddled with thousands of flaws, and you’re only seeing some small percentage of them – so all you can do is make every line of your code shine to the best of your ability, and hope that the goodness of what you know how to write compensates for all the awful things you’re doing poorly and don’t even recognize you’re doing poorly.

Writing’s like that.

I know a lot of writers – myself included – who go, “Well, this dialogue’s good enough to pass, let’s send this story out.” And that’s the wrong approach. Like programming, your story sucks in a hundred different ways that you can’t even see, let alone fix. So shrugging and letting something slide that you know isn’t up to the best of your ability will screw your story over.

Flex as a novel is flawed. I know this, for every novel is flaws. But the only flaws in the book are the ones I am either unaware of, or just wasn’t smart enough to fix yet.

Polish every bit of your story. Until the parts you do get right shine. That’s my advice.

What’s next for you?
I’m currently putting the finishing touches on The Flux, the next installment in the Flex saga, which will be out in October. I’m also working on a coming-of-age story about a boy working at a fine restaurant in space – get your Douglas Adams jokes in now – and have a novel out on submission with my agent.

But mostly, it’s hoping Flex goes over well.

Keep up with Ferrett: Twitter | Website

About Flex:
FLEX: Distilled magic in crystal form. The most dangerous drug in the world. Snort it, and you can create incredible coincidences to live the life of your dreams.
FLUX: The backlash from snorting Flex. The universe hates magic and tries to rebalance the odds; maybe you survive the horrendous accidents the Flex inflicts, maybe you don’t.
PAUL TSABO: The obsessed bureaucromancer who’s turned paperwork into a magical Beast that can rewrite rental agreements, conjure rented cars from nowhere, track down anyone who’s ever filled out a form.
But when all of his formulaic magic can’t save his burned daughter, Paul must enter the dangerous world of Flex dealers to heal her. Except he’s never done this before – and the punishment for brewing Flex is army conscription and a total brain-wipe.
File Under: Urban Fantasy
[ Magic Pill | Firestarter | Bureaucramancy | The Flex & the Flux ]

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