Neukom Institute Literary Arts Awards for Speculative Fiction


(loud rumbling) (percussive music) – Hi, everyone. I’m Dan Rockmore, director
of the Neukom Institute for Computational Science here at Dartmouth College. It’s my pleasure to welcome you all to the Neukom Institute
Literary Arts Awards, the first of what I hope
will be a regular event at Dartmouth where we
recognize great recent, creative achievements
in speculative fiction. I’d like to recognize first the generosity of Bill Neukom, former trustee of the college
and Dartmouth class of 1964 whose extraordinary
generosity is made possible at the Neukom Institute and with that, the Literary Arts Awards program. The label speculative fiction is a relatively recent invention, but work of this kind goes
back well over a hundred years with seminal works from
authors such as Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells. Wells called such works, quote, “Fantasias of possibility,” end quote, wherein the writer, quote, “Takes some great creative
tendency or group of tendencies, “then develops its possible
consequences into the future.” This is an expansive
characterization for a genre that is as shapeshifting as much of the literature comprises. It accounts for all manner of stories that push the boundaries of the possible. Such work is exceedingly important for the windows into the
world that it opens to us. This is surely what Arthur
C. Clarke had in mind when he said, quote, “The only
way of discovering the limits “of the possible is to
venture a little way past them “into the impossible.” Speculative fiction is often the vehicle in which we make that journey. Often, although not
always, such work is fueled by imagined futures of
technology and science. This was, in fact, the impetus for the Neukom Institute’s
founding of the awards that we are celebrating today. The mission of the institute is to support broadly working computational science, and it has become increasingly
clear, at least to me, that artistic work that
explores the possibilities for technology both good
and bad is as important or at least differently
important as the work that directly develops or
exploits such technologies. These awards in the literary arts as well as a related award for playwriting speak to and recognize
that critical perspective and in particular, the
power of great writing to create worlds that
enable us, the readers, to explore the liminal
space between the possible and the impossible, and in so doing, allow each of us to
reflect on whether or not these are the worlds we want to build or perhaps have already built. Each of our award-winning authors have produced masterful
and thought-provoking works ultimately selected by our judge, the New York Times best-selling
author, Maria Headley, so Maria, thank you. Maria worked from a very strong shortlist constructed after a good deal of debate by myself and my Dartmouth colleagues, Professor Alex Chee from Creative Writing and Professor Tarek El-Ariss
from Middle Eastern Studies. It’s my pleasure to now introduce you to these inaugural recipients of the Neukom Institute
Literary Arts Awards. I’ve done this before
and I give people a box and everyone in the audience thinks what the hell is in that box? So, we do have these lovely mementos that I’ll give you later,
but just to show you, there is something here. (audience laughs) So, including this. So, first off, in the category
of Debut Speculative Fiction, I’m pleased to introduce
to you Juan Martinez, who’s receiving the Neukom
Institute Literary Arts Award for his short story collection,
Best Worst American. Juan, congratulations.
(audience applauds) In the Open Category, I’m pleased to be able to
give two awards this year, first to Corinne Duyvis or her novel, On the Edge of Gone. Corinne.
(audience applauds) And another award goes to Lavie Tidhar for his novel, Central Station. Unfortunately, logistics
snafus will mean that Lavie will be here, but probably not
until the end, unfortunately, of the panel that we’re about to have. So, there’s much to say about
the works of these authors and the genre generally,
and that will be the subject of our panel now. So, I’m going to turn things
over to Maria Headley, who has graciously agreed
to chair the panel, and I should also say that Maria has written an extraordinary new book, The Mere Wife, which I quite enjoyed, which I happily recommend to everyone. So Mariah, thanks for being here and I’m gonna shift it off, all to you. – Thank you.
– All right. – Okay, these mics are okay? Normally I’d be clinging to
it and worrying about you all, but if you don’t hear me, just, hand up. So yeah, so, I got to judge this prize. It was amazing. It was a shortlist of,
actually, I’m just going to read the shortlist to you
’cause it was thrilling. After Atlas by Emma Newman, Children of the New World
by Alexander Weinstein, Made for Love by Alissa Nutting, New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty, Telling the Map by Christopher Rowe, Using Life my Ahmed Naji, and Void Star by Zachary Mason along with the winners here, and it was such a beautiful experience to receive this list of 11
books that were so diverse and so full of thrilling
imaginings of the world to come and of the world that we
are currently living in, which I think is as
relevant to the building of, both of a future and of an imaginative way of increasing our possibilities for life on this planet as anything to deeply look at the
kind of world we have. So, this was a wonderful experience. It was lot sand lots of pages
and I got to the end of them with three winners, and the winners were all
thoroughly brilliant. I felt really privileged
to get to judge this prize. So, I’m gonna read to you
just a very short thing that I wrote to Dartmouth
when I chose the winners, and I’ll read a little bit
about each of these books so that you have a sense because I assume most of you have not read
these books and you should. So, I’m just going to
read just a little thing. Central Station is a
book spanning many lives, giving us perspectives of characters ranging from robotniks,
part-human, part-robot, bearing the scars of wars long forgotten, to a child seeking his father who has gone off among the stars to an unwilling data
vampire in female form trying to find her place in space. It’s lyrically written,
physically grounded, and often heart-wrenching
while still managing to be a technically
assured portrait of a world that is one of the logical conclusions of our own technology and science, a place wherein information
is rendered sustenance, and where the grit of our own history is entwined with an
intimately imagined future. It’s a brilliant
achievement both as a novel constructed in fragments and as a map of extremely diverse
experiences across a culture, still engineered of the
broken bits of its past. The conversation, a universal
data and knowledge pool, which nearly all the characters
in this book participate in through nodes is only a step beyond our current love
affair with information in Tidhar’s imagining of an ability to connect with anyone
anywhere, to immerse in story and in statistics, in all the libraries of the world in secrets and in dreams is a tender vision of the future rather than a dystopian one. On the Edge of Gone deals in family, both chosen and blood in the aftermath of a tremendous comet striking the earth. Denise, the protagonist,
is a keenly portrayed 16-year-old girl trying to
hold her family together and move them into the future
while learning new skills and pushing herself to the limit. This is a book filled with diversity, deeply felt characters,
incredibly high stakes, and profound community in
the wake of catastrophe. Corinne Duyvis, I do not know how to pronounce your last name. – Don’t worry about it.
– Any attempt, any attempt? I realize I had failed to
ask a very key question before I sat down here. Brings characters I haven’t
seen on the page before and to clear focus. Her protagonist is an
autistic girl of color and we see the world from her perspective. This work places us in the
loss of our known world and in the exchange of what we know for what we can hardly imagine, and her protagonist is uniquely skilled to assess the changing world around her. It is an intense,
enlightening, important read. Best Worst American is
a short story collection which gives us bite-sized
pieces of a lot of lives, many of them humorous in
tone, but striated with pain, loss, and longing with a kind of magic that feels familiar with
talking plants and girl ghosts, unresponded communications,
marital secrets. It’s a catalog of possibility. Each of these stories urges
engagement with narrators whose dreams are not necessarily
ones we’d empathize with, but whose underlying
motivations, the search for love and connection are
written across all of us. These are stories about
being displaced in a world that hasn’t accounted for your basic needs and they are also stories
about seeking fulfillment in unusual places. The future here, as well as the present, are depicted as replete with information, with untold stories, and
with whispered hopes. The book concludes with
a refusal to let go with two people holding on tight and the entirety is based on this notion, however flawed the participants, however dark the disasters between them. So, all of these books had
just deeply human grounding in emotion, in longing, in love, in relationships between each other, which was a really
interesting place to begin in thinking about this
as a speculative fiction and as a futuristic fiction prize, the idea that we would still remain people who love other people was
for me, the unifying theme, the theme of constantly reaching out and I guess, only connect. It’s the theme of many things, but it was definitely the theme of the winners of this prize. So, I’d like to get
started with just asking a few questions of my panelists about how they came to
write in this genre. This genre is such a wide
and sprawling category, as I think we’re all aware. One of these is a young adult novel, this is that short story collection. Lavie’s book is set in
a futuristic Israel, but how did you come to
think not the daily real? How did that begin for you? – That’s a good question. Go ahead, you go ahead. Oh. So, I didn’t realize
that I was not working outside of the real partly
because I was writing about Orlando and Las Vegas and some of the parts of the story that are the weirdest and strangest are the parts that are
absolutely 100% true, right, that they’re weird, weird towns, but one thing that I realized is that when I was in Colombia, I read a lot of Asimov,
and then when my parents got to Orlando, one of my birthday present
was that they give me a subscription to Asimov’s, and so a lot of my early connection to the short story for was there, it was in the four-year length of just monthly installments of Asimov’s, so there’s a very definite infusion, I think, of the future. – And were you reading, I’m not sure what was in Asimov’s at this time. This is the ’80s? – It woulda been the late ’80s and ’90s, so it would’ve been, I
can list a bunch of people because when Gardner Dozois, the editor of Asimov’s, died, I went back and I had all the issues in my office because I had refused to get rid of them, and I pulled out an issue at random and it was Maureen McHugh was in it with this really strange story about an alternate history
of a bicycle delivery person, but he was working for the Roman Empire and the Roman Empire was still going on, and there’s a Jeff VanderMeer story. I think it was literally his first story
– Whoa, wow. – That was published. It was just a random issue, but I think of mostly
Nancy Kress was somebody. It was huge for me at that moment and James Patrick Kelly, the guy who did Mr. Boy
would’ve been in there. Yeah, there was a lot of people
I was reading and reading, and then I went off. I got an MA, got a PhD in Literature and I was writing what at
the time I was thinking of as my own brand of weird stuff, but I don’t think realizing how much of it was just being informed by a lot of very early formative reading. – [Maria] Mm-hmm, mm-hmm, awesome. – For me, it was also very much what I grew up reading. As a very young child I loved Goosebumps except, of course, translated into Dutch since that’s where I grew up, and there was also fiction like Animorphs. That was my favorite series growing up. I loved it. And also some Dutch
science fiction authors, mostly horror, fantasy,
and I just loved that throughout my entire childhood. When I became a teenager,
it turned more to X-men type fiction, so for me, it
was never really a question of what I was going to write. When I knew I was gonna write a book, it was always going to be some flavor of sci-fi or fantasy, and so
my first novel was fantasy. This one was very firmly sci-fi. The one I’ve got coming out next year, I’m still not quite sure after
three years of working on it, so it’s some strange blend of them. It’s just a genre I’ve always liked ’cause there’s so many possibilities. I remember trying to explain
to my grandad at one point why I wrote this ’cause
he would be the type, he never really understood
science fiction or fantasy. I remember we watched Iron Man with him and he loved the beginning,
all the military stuff and tha twas fantastic, and
then the suit started happening. He just walked out of that room, completely lost his interest. And I remember explaining to him all the things that we
currently deal with, you can explore those in
science fiction and fantasy in a more magnified way or in a way that might become clear to people wouldn’t otherwise understand it. A couple of themes that
I deal with in the novel is about how human lives are valued and particularly which
human lives are valued, and that’s something that’s very relevant in our current society, and of course, the very on-the-nose,
maybe a way to explore it is by having an apocalypse
and a generation ship and they have to choose who gets to be on the generation ship to flee the planet, and that’s something I really love, when you read sci-fi
and it can be all kinds of exciting new inventions or worlds or I guess explosions,
which are also great fun, and it can be anything
from character driven or action based and in the end you realize oh, actually none of what I just read could happen in our world
and all of what I just read still applies to our world, and that’s so I just
really love to explore. – I was thinking as I was
reading these books about the, as when I was a child and I
was reading science fiction, I always thought, my
grandfather had a subscription to Asimov’s and I thought well, these must be the solutions. This ust be a solution bible for how to fix the problem
and as Reagan was president, I thought okay, these
things must be things that will fix Reagan, and
that was not the case usually, but I think about our
current life on earth and reading your books,
there were many elements of, there were many solutions. I found these books very hopeful. They were full of recognition of people who are not currently being recognized in our societies in every kind of way, and I think that actually
this list of winners is the same thing, it’s people who are, in American circles,
often not as recognized. It’s a very international crew here ad people who did not grow up in America, people who are writing from traditions that are not wholly the traditions of the American golden
age of science fiction. I would like to talk to you guys a little bit about how you see
the role of science fiction and speculative fiction as the new myths. Do you see your work as
writing a new myth cycle for our future in terms of, I mean, it’s an obnoxious question. It’s like, do you think
your work is going to last? But I personally specialize in, I just wrote an adaptation of Beowulf, so I’ve been thinking
a lot about the stories that we keep telling and the ways that we change the stories as writers in this present moment. – Go for that one.
– Go for that big question! – No pressure. That’s honestly not something I can say I’ve ever really given much thought to, but it is, I do find it
a fascinating question ’cause so much of what
we now consider sci-fi has sort of entered the canon, but the longer the genre goes on, obviously more books get written. Which ones get added to the canon, which ones last in our
collective imaginations? ‘Cause at this point,
you can say Frankenstein and most people will think of the monster, the figure rather than the book itself ’cause it’s just gone
past the original story and become a concept of its own. I don’t think that’s quite as
likely to happen with my work, but for me, I don’t
think I really focus much on what it could be in
the future and more, even though it’s a book about the future, it’s very much in
conversation with the books that have been published
about this topic in the past. I’ve always been a fan of
apocalyptic fiction of all kinds, whether it’s just, even in the movie 2012, I just really liked seeing
everything get very destroyed, but also because of all
the themes you can explore, and one of the things
that always bothered me in pretty much all kinds
of apocalyptic stories, whether you’re talking
about a comet impact or an alien invasion or ecological disaster, any
kind, a zombie apocalypse, you really don’t get to
see certain characters, and in particular, the
group that I focus on most with my novel is disability. You don’t get to see disabled characters in apocalyptic fiction very often and a lot of the time,
people explain that, well, obviously they
wouldn’t have survived anyway or if you do see the character, they will heroically sacrifice themselves to support the people who have
a better chance of survival, and that’s something that’s
always rather bothered me and just this unspoken assumption ’cause often it’s not even
explicitly stated in the book. You just don’t see disabled people at all, and that’s something I very
much wanted to challenge. Okay, but is that really the case? Disabled people are not
all going to disappear and they’re not all going to suddenly die in the very first wave ’cause there’s kind of a lot of us, so what happens? Why would they not be featured? Who makes these decisions and how fair and how correct are these decisions? And that’s not something I
necessarily have answers for ’cause as with all questions
of if you have to choose someone to survive, who gets to survive it’s complicated, but it is something I very, very much wanted
to question and discuss in a way ’cause it’s not
something I ever saw discussed and I just wanted to raise the topic. Hey, can we start thinking about this? So, even if my novel
doesn’t really survive to become a survivor for
another hundred or 200 years, I do hope that those kinds
of ideas will survive, that we start questioning the assumptions that we have, even in
our futuristic fiction ’cause our future, there’s
a lot of imaginings of what our future could be like or is likely to be like, and
a lot of it is very depressing and it can be very cold and very skeptical and very cynical, and while
I understand part of that, I also really, really just wanna say hey, can we actually be more optimistic? Is it possible to have an apocalypse where people actually try
to help each other survive instead of bashing each other’s brains in in order to survive themselves? And that’s something
that I definitely hope we will see more of in all kinds
of these sorts of questions or all kinds of genres,
just talk a little bit more. Hey, what could the future be and be a little less cynical
about that sort of thing? I may have veered completely
off topic at this point, but– – No, I think that’s very on topic. I was going to ask a brief followup about writing for young adult fiction because of course, you are
raising another generation as you’re writing the books. You’re creating a readership that becomes the next
generation of voters, that becomes the next, that’s how I think about it. I write revolutionary way myself, often trying to provoke political action, and I think that when you
have readers who start on the young end of the spectrum, that’s something that you
can actually see happening in your readership,
which is a pleasure too, and also to have characters like yours that are really just very
infrequently depicted in science fiction for younger readers and for older readers and my dad, so I was thinking about this with your book specifically
about both bearing witness and creating new models for young readers, particularly in a climate of the world in which we are very close to every certain kind of apocalypse, so many different kinds of apocalypse. We have our fingertips toughing right now, so the idea of preventing these things is with everyone, but
especially with the young and keeping the world alive for growing up into is something that your book is really about. – Yeah, I think there’s a lot of stuff you put into a novel that you think about, but that doesn’t actually
get explicitly mentioned in the novel and I always like it when people notice those things. So sometimes, I’ll read a review and someone mentions something. I’m like yes, that is exactly
what I was trying to do, and something that I
read in a recent review was that someone really liked that the people who decided
to fight for the planet and fight for survival and
band together in communities are largely the young
and the disenfranchised because these are the
people who have mostly had to build community
in our current world and our most, and in some
ways, are more equipped to deal with this kind of disaster ’cause they’ve already had to deal with various kinds of
survival their whole lives, and right now, yeah, kids and teenagers growing up today are also having to deal with a whole lot of
different kinds of disasters, whether you’re talking
about political disasters or global warming or violence
that happens in schools and pretty much everywhere,
and you can tell, I think, that teenagers are very much
becoming more aware of this and becoming angry about
it, and that’s something I really like to see obviously ’cause I think that is really good and that people, that especially
when they’re picking up on that so young ’cause I do think that what you read or see
happening in the world around you when you’re very young
will influence a whole lot of how you consider these topics when you’re older. So, the more of these
kinds of books, I think, not necessarily mine, but just books that question the status quo and hey, could this be better? I think that definitely
can influence a ton. I can’t think of examples
right now of course, but I definitely know books that I read when I was young, sometimes
a single in a single book just completely changed my worldview and actually, those Animorphs book, I saw you nodding, they
were really good about that – Totally.
– ‘Cause they explored so many complicated issues of survival, and trauma, and war, and sacrifice, and those definitely
got me to start thinking about things I wouldn’t have
otherwise thought about, except this time it was
because I was reading about kids who turned into
animals to fight aliens. – With really cool covers.
– With really cool covers! – Yeah.
(laughing) – So yeah, it’s definitely something that I’m aware of as I’m writing it. I try not to let it influence me to the extent that it
becomes didactic or anything or that I’m trying to
achieve a different goal ’cause it does still need
to be about the story, but it does influence how
I think about these things, and that in itself will influence a story, even if it’s not directly. – It was interesting reading these books. I was thinking about Lord of the Flies. I was thinking about how Lord of the Flies is the trope for it all goes very badly when we’re in a community. We can’t do it. We kill each other, we destroy each other, we abuse each other, and these
books are not about that. These books are, all of them are about it, about solutions within a
community and within communities and it was really inspiring to read that and to think of that as publishable and deep mythology that continues forward. – In terms of Lord of the Flies, I was actually wondering, I thought I recently read something that the point of that wasn’t even necessarily
this is what humans are like in this situation, but this
is what spoiled white boys from prep schools are
like in this situation. (audience laughs)
– Which yeah, this– – It may be a good point.
– And that that was the intention of the
author even specifically, so when there was talk of a reimagining with Lord of the Flies but with girls, people were like, but that’s not–
– Totally work, yeah. – The point (laughing), that that would look completely different. – Then they all become Wonder Woman. Okay, it’s fine.
– Woo! That would pretty cool.
– That would be cool. – I would read that.
– That somehow reminds me of another book that I read
when I was really young and it was Two Years’
Vacation by Jules Verne where kids get shipwrecked in an island and then they’re fine (audience laughs)
and they literally just build a community,
figure out what to do, and then they make their
way through for two years and it’s awesome. – Yeah!
– Yeah. – Well, the idea that story can only be found in agony
and interpersonal agony I think is a wrong idea. There’s plenty of agony just
set up and waiting for you on every curb, you know?
– Yeah. It doesn’t have to be doom and gloom. – It doesn’t have to be we’re awful to each other and therefore.
– Yeah. I see a lot of students. Some of them have been
sort of maybe here under, I don’t know if you’re under duress. I’m just saying there’s
especially a lot of students– – Some of whom are
chained to their chairs. – Chained to their chairs,
but I was gonna say that if any of them are writers or imagine that there’s
a lot of students here who are writers ’cause
you mentioned myths, and one of the, I think the
things that really helped me crack something in my writing was the moment that I realized that I did not have to make
up a story from whole cloth, that I could borrow the
elements or the dynamics of a plot from bigger stories, stories that had existed before that had been there for a long, long time, and that was enormously helpful, so just thought I’d through it out there in case anybody is in a
creative writing class right now and it trying to figure
out how to get your person from point A to point B, and it’s just, steal somebody else’s myth and (faint speaking).
– What did you steal from? – Oh my God, I have the, in that, I just gonna (mumbles) myth and fable and (mumbles) it’s just like a really, it’s an exploitation movie from the ’70s by David Cronenberg, The Brood. I stole from David Cronenberg’s The Brood for a story about Las Vegas. There was somebody signing commission. Hey, putting this anthology together, it’s Las Vegas horror and
it’s immediately yeah, of course, Las Vegas horror, yes. Right, that’s a natural fit, and then I didn’t realize
I didn’t really know what I wanted to write about, and then I was watching
a lot of David Cronenberg ’cause people, if you’ve seen The Fly, but one of my favorite,
favorite movies by him is The Brood, which has
a lot of creepy EST, he’s ’70s, lot of earth tones, but it also has, and I’m sorry, I just realized this is a great movie and then I’m gonna give out
the coolest thing about it, which is that one of the
central characters in this has rage babies. She basically channels her entire rage and they turn in these infants that just go out into
the world full of rage, and that’s what I stole from. I’m just gonna have some
rage babies in Las Vegas. I don’t know why. So, some of it should be
doom and gloom, right? Some of it should be rage babies. – [Maria] I mean, there
are plenty of rage babies wandering about Las Vegas.
– I think there’s a lot of us have rage babies
gestating right now. – So, what do you think about, in your own work, what do you think about, what were the myths that shaped you into a man who writes? ‘Cause lots of your
stories are flash fiction. They’re little fables. – They are little fables.
– I thought. That’s how I felt reading them, and I guess we had a long
talk in the car yesterday, which was very exciting for us both because we were across
every possible topic ranging from Greek fire to– – Can say–
– Female cult leaders. – You can say female
cult leaders again, yeah. – Yeah, yeah.
– Yeah. – So, but I think you and I have in common that we think of ourselves as politically active writers. – Yes.
– As people who are trying to change the world with our work, so what are you trying to change? – Well–
– What’s the dream? – I mean, right now there’s
some very direct things that I’d like to change that have to do with the
entire current administration, right, that they should not be there. Right, that’s that obviously,
– They should just go– – They should obviously–
– Poof, erase. – Go away.
– Yeah. – Right, that’s a very
direct kind of thing, and in some ways it’s kinda strange to think, try to move away from that into the more abstract ideas that I think I had in the project, but a lot of them had to do with, I was an international student when I came to the U.S.
and didn’t have a car and I was a student, so I
didn’t have a lot of money, and if you’re on an F1 visa as a student in the U.S., you can’t
work more than 20 hours, so I spent a lot of time
walking, being on buses, and I think one of the things that really sort of dawned on me early on is how invisible you are
if you’re just walking, how weird and anomalous it is, just student not have a car and how immediately,
that makes you suspect as a human being and
how none of the people that I met in buses were
any less weird or well, they were weird, but they were weird in way more interesting
ways than the people who are just out riding their cars, right, so I guess one of the things
that happened is just okay, there’s a huge disparity between
people who have the means to be in a car and the people who don’t and there’s this incredible
artificial separation between if you’re, got
money and if you don’t, and a lot of that, ultimately, I think you talk about him. I’m a huge fan of the
writer George Saunders and he was the first people who I found writing really movingly and powerfully about the experience of being broke or being afraid to go broke or just having the feeling of how money can weigh down on you
in one way or another, so that’s one of the political
sides of what happened here at the, yeah. – It’s an interesting notion. I was thinking as I was preparing for this that the notion of
writing about the future is always also about
writing about the past, and what you’re saying
in that is essentially, Industrial Age class hierarchy shifting with automobiles, with buses, with the idea that you have
a barrier between yourself and other people, that that makes you have a higher class status and less engagement with society, which of course, is what leads to problems of disastrous personal utopia, not utopia, dystopia
like apocalypses of one, which is what the whole
culture seems to be engaging in right now and I felt
like a lot of your book was about loneliness and the difficulties of not being able to get
through the barricades that have been placed
between your characters and the rest of the world. In one case, an executive
vaults over an outhouse door that is stock shot. – In Colombia. That’s actually a true story
that I heard from my uncle and this is just a great story. I have to capture it. Yeah, a lot of the stories
are about disconnection, but I hope it’s like a real
sincere effort of people to try to define some form of
connection between each other and they don’t always succeed, but I always like them
because they’re trying, right, which is, I think, something that I, that I’m just talking about
them like they’re abstractions, but that’s very much me. I’m a weirdo and then I try to, it’s always nice when
you find fellow weirdos. That always makes it really good, but you’re also just try
to connect to everybody. You try to be open and, yeah. – Nice.
– Yeah. – So, when I got this
assignment to judge this prize, we were talking. Dan and I talked on the phone. We were talking about
the capacity to imagine far beyond the possible as a scientist and as anyone working
in any kind of science, the idea that you would have a hypothesis that might seem absolutely implausible and that you could potentially
grow your imagination to meet the boundaries of that hypothesis and then to be able to prove something that seems like there’s just
no way to get there from here, and one of the things about these books and about writing speculative
fiction as a whole, one of the great privileges of it, I think, is that you get to prove the impossible all the time, you get to stretch your
own imagination beyond and then go, this is what
I want to have happen. How can I make it happen? How can I make it seem plausible? So, I wanted to talk to you both a little bit about
notions of world building, about notions of how do you create a world that feels that the impossible
can happen within it? Technical question. – (laughing) Well, for
this particular book, I tried to do the opposite ’cause I tried to create a world that was very much possible. I knew I needed an apocalypse and I considered all kinds of apocalypses. I considered is it
gonna be a comet impact, which ended you being the winner, but I also considered alien invasion and all kinds of other things, and I ended up settling on comet impact ’cause in a way, it was
the most straightforward, easy to understand ’cause I
very much wanted the focus to be on the characters
and their dilemmas, so even though the world,
the book is set in 2035, so some time in the future, there is some new technology
that we don’t currently have, but I purposefully kept
that very much to a minimum ’cause I didn’t really
want to have to distract it from the book, in a way, ’cause the more you have to imagine oh wait, what’s this,
what’s this, what’s this, the less it starts to feel
like it’s your own world and I very much wanted
people to have the feeling like this is our world or
this could be our world, so I actually downplayed
the speculative elements in a way that I don’t do
with any of my other work for that specific purpose ’cause I wanted it to feel
as relevant and possible as I could, and I would’ve
said it in the here and now if it weren’t for the fact
that I needed generation ships for the plot to work and we don’t currently
have generation ships, so that’s literally the only reason I decided to set it in the future. So, I think for me,
that question right now doesn’t quite apply. – [Maria] Does it apply
to your other work? Do you have techniques for making a world that are specific to you? What do you do when you
sit down to think about it? Do you write the bible of the world first or do you invent what you need? – A little bit of both. I start with some very
broad ideas and concepts and things that I want to explore, and the more I write the book, the more that world also starts to form, so it develops alongside the plot and I will make notes as it develops. I might start with this concept and as I write, I realize it doesn’t work, so I make a note to change that. I continue with a new idea an later I revise back to make sure everything matches up. So, for my first novel that
was partially set in our world and partially set in a
secondary fantasy world, I had to come up with all kinds of nations and history for that
secondary fantasy world, so I did a whole lot of
brainstorming for that and I wrote down a ton of notes, and in the end, not all of
that made it into the book, but I feel like having so
much that doesn’t make it on the page but it’s in your head and then just slipping in
details where it’s relevant really helps flesh out a world, and I also find that I’ll
focusing very much on people and their reactions, and particularly the relatable reactions that may not always paint the character in a very flattering light, that helps a lot with
making a world feel real, and that’s also something that I heard about On the Edge of Gone quite a bit, that as outlandish as the
destruction might get, the people felt very rooted and connected specifically ’cause you’re so deep in the character’s head
and that that felt, that that helped root it
more into the familiar. – I think it’s this
question applies as well to realistic fiction as
much as to anything else because to make a world feel real, it doesn’t matter if
it’s an imaginary world. To make our world feel real is as much technical detail and as much poetic detail,
I think, as anything else, which maybe applies a little more to your less futuristic world. – No, I agree, and usually
my technique is very similar. I believe in taking the
people who we’re making up, taking them seriously, taking
what they’re feeling seriously and taking what they’re
going through seriously. One thing that I found enormously helpful because my stuff can be very strange is that that idea that you make sure that you’re rendering everything
as precisely as possible and as accurately as possible except for this one thing, right? – Mm-hmm.
– So everything’s sort of, so I have a story about plants that talk and this woman who never ages, and she’s offscreen
throughout this whole thing, but it’s all happening at this subdivision by a retention pond, so that part of it was totally my subdivision,
Orlando when I was living there, and all I had to do is like,
and then, I also realized all right, if the plants are gonna talk, they’re just gonna be super self-absorbed and all they can talk about is themselves. They’re constantly like, you
should check out my leaves. They’re really beautiful. So, this idea that if I, what can I do to both amp up the realism
of the situation and just so, to get the feelings that are there, but I was also gonna say,
one of my favorite quotes from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he talks about, he has this great moment in Living to Tell the
Tale, which is his memoir, and he’s talking about reading
Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and the first line, one night Gregor Samsa woke from troubling dreams to find himself transformed into a giant beetle, and then Garcia Marquez,
oh, you can just do that? Right, you can just, okay
now he’s a giant beetle. – Yeah!
– On with the story, right. So that’s another way I guess. You can also just use your Kafka bulldozer and go for it, right?
– Yes (laughing). I think that also happens in Lavie’s book, though he’s not here to talk about it. He has things that are wildly from all kinds of traditions in that book. They feel very mythic and folkloric, but then sometimes there are robots who have folkloric histories. The smell or oranges
repeats throughout the book, the idea of a lost orange
that places you on earth consistently repeats as a sentimental and it’s an emotion-cuing
motif in those books and his world building
of his futuristic colony is as built by things from our
current moment in our world as by anything else. The reality of that world
feels extra super real because of the memory of
the world that is lost and the world that has reshaped into the world that he’s built. – Nice.
– Which is very interesting ’cause his bulldozer is like, here we are, we are deep in this craziness and there are people from,
all sorts of invented kinds of people are here
from all over the universe and you’ve left there and the temptation, I found, in reading this,
initially I thought oh no, it’s going to be very,
very deep world building and I’m going to be bored because reading the dictionary of beasts makes me bored regularly and that’s not my sort of thing, and then it turns out it’s
a poem about little scraps of pain and love and lust
and longing for a parent. It’s very interestingly structured book that does its world building
in a very different way than I would have imagined it would in terms of its futuristic narrative. – I wanna say one, so
one thing I really liked about that book was that the future didn’t leave the past behind ’cause I think sometimes when you think about building a future world, it’s like oh, well,
everything that came before has now been completely lost and and it’s all gleaming white walls or whatever it is that
you’re trying to construct, but in that book, you
had the dirty streets of Tel Aviv and all the
grime in the markets that are there in the center of the city which were completely next to
this extraordinary spaceport and you had regular ole
biological humans like we are and all the way up through hybrids to completely robot to digital presences and they’re all there all at once, and so this other world was built in pieces, just as so many of the
characters were built in pieces, but it was grounded in
that it came from our world and you still saw our world in it, so it wasn’t forced to
do total heavy lifting to create an entirely new planet, which I really appreciated
’cause like you, if I’m just thrust into something
totally weird and wacky, I find that for me
anyway, I lose patience. I like to have these
tendrils of connection back to something that
I understand, and yeah. – I think all of these books
are as much about long memory as about big imagination of the future. I think that it’s all entwined
in all of these stories, the idea that there was a
world that we’ve lost parts of or that, and very recently
in the case of your book and in the case of your book,
it’s like daily memories that we’ve lost, daily bits of history that are being obliterated and changed into how will we continue,
what are we going to do, whose hand do we take,
how do we go forward? And that’s an interesting common ground between all of these books and also, writers living in this moment, I think. And with that, I think I’m
going to reach my hands out to the audience and see if
anybody has any questions. I didn’t actually run that by anyone, but well, I have a feeling
someone must have a question. Be brave!
– Yes. – There are some mics
there if you wanna step up and ask something. Here, Christy.
– I think in a perfect world, we’d all be buying hardbound
books by the truckload at– (laughing) at 30 or $40 apiece, but increasingly, we see books being
published in electronic form and downloaded to computers and e-readers, and I’m wondering how
that affects an author who has to buy tires for the car or send the kids to the dentist or pay for a mortgage? How is that affecting your lives? – I have a good answer for this because my publisher is
literally sitting right here with the audience and I think
I’m just gonna say one thing, which is that he would, I’m sorry, Gavin, I think every publisher has to just, don’t buy books from Amazon. Just buy books from, well, just buy books I guess would be the, but I
do feel that I usually read in every format. I read online, I read on my phone, I read, I mean, my
favorite thing is to read nice, physical copies,
but sometimes you can’t. I think I’m gonna read
Fear, the Woodward book, probably on the phone just out of shame, but I will read it. Don’t know why I’m saying that shame is, it’s Trump erotica, I guess. (Maria laughing) Yeah, so. (audience members laughing) – And there was the
bit about the bathrobe. That was the other book, right? – Yes.
– Yeah, mm. – [Maria] Mm. – For me, I really think that
e-books are a positive thing. I think at this point, like you say, publishers and authors just
want people to read books and the specific format, I don’t think we can be
very picky about that ’cause there is so much demanding
our attention these days with internet or other media or movies, games, and I’m
a fan of all of those, so I know how difficult it can be to balance all of those interests, and for me, having e-books
has made that easier in a way ’cause it’s much easier to
have books on the go with me. Right now I’m traveling and
I have to be very careful about not bringing too
much or not buying too much ’cause I’m gonna hit my
weight limit when I get back, and I just have my e-reader with me with a couple hundred books on there. It makes it much easier when
I standing in line somewhere. I just grab my phone, I open
the ebook that I’m reading, and I can read a couple of pages, so I find that it lowers
the barrier to reading in a lot of ways, especially
because it’s on devices that people are already very
familiar with and close to. It also makes it a lot
more accessible price-wise, especially ’cause e-books
often will go on a sale, whether it’s daily sale or a few weeks and it reaches a price
level that most people are able to afford, so
it gives access to people who might not otherwise be able to read it unless it were from a
library or a used book sale and it also makes books more accessible for all kinds of disabled people. I have a blind friend and
she is so happy with e-books ’cause it’s the only
way she can read books. It allows her to enlarge letters to a point that she can
actually comfortably read it. It means that only a few
words will fit on her phone, but she can read it in a way that it doesn’t really
work with physical books and she still prefers audiobooks, but those are very limited. Not every book gets an audiobook. So, I think there’s a lot of advantages, and for me, that rather
outweighs whether, I think, the financial impact ’cause
I think it opens up books to more people that the lower
price point gets balanced out and if I had to choose, I would vastly prefer a larger audience rather than a select audience
that’s able to buy books for higher prices, but
I do still really like having a very pretty hardcover (laughing). – [Maria] Alex. – So, this is a little
bit of a game, I guess. I’m thinking of, I’m
wondering if you on the panel have seen something like a weird news item recently that is like a novel that you want somebody else to write. It’s a little bit of (faint speaking). So, I saw for example,
Facebook revealed recently that in one of their data centers, there was a cloud that
was created in a rainstorm and it ruined all of these servers, just all happened indoors spontaneously. (laughing) Do you ever have those kinds of moments and can you think of something like that? – This is a very weird question, Alex because I’ve been trying to do this thing where I’ve been leaving my phone upstairs and I actually read the
newspaper or something when I’m eating without the phone and there was something on
the bottom right hand corner of the Wall Street Journal today that I literally thought this would be a great novel. I have no idea what it is because I was in the middle of eating and then I forgot about it, but it was a very tiny, very
tiny, very strange story. The most recent one that I can think of that I definitely said
I would literally read either a story or a
novel is the Wrigley rat, the Wrigley Field rat. So, this week in Wrigley Field, the game stopped for a moment because there was a rat that
was trying to hop over a fence and everybody started
cheering for this rat and the rat just kept trying and trying, but it was a Wrigley Field rat. This is a very fat rat trying to get over this fence, and I was like, if
there’s a children’s book about the Wrigley Field rat, I would buy this for my
three-year-old immediately. – [Maria] I have a very similar thing.
– I would buy it for myself. – [Juan] I would buy it for myself, too.
– For yourself? – Yeah.
– That sounds amazing. – For my kid, yeah, yeah.
– I know, I know. I want it. I want your little myth of the rat. – Yeah.
– I have a very similar one, which is the fox in the London high-rise – Yes!
– That got in the elevator and moved to the very, very
top floor of The Shard, I think, is the name of this building. It’s a terribly, terribly
tall, very ugly building and the fox moved into the top floor and I have wrangled this piece of news. I think about it sometimes in my sleep. I’m like, can’t I just write a novel from the point of view of that fox and the ghost that’s there or something? But it seems like a lot to
do a novel on that topic in this moment, but it still, I want to read it, – Oh yeah.
– I want to know that fox’s story. I want to know about living
on the top floor above London, looking down at of the
history of London beneath you and you are just a triumphant fucking fox. – Yeah.
(audience laughs) – [Corinne] That’s the name of the book? – Triumphant fucking fox.
– Triumphant fox. – Yeah.
– Yeah, I would buy that book. – In a heartbeat, yes.
– Alex, do you, I’m sorry Corinne. Do you (faint speaking)?
– No, I’ve definitely had those moments, but
I’m completely blanking on details, so please go for it. – Whatever’s on the
bottom right hand corner of the Wall Street Journal is triumphant. Alex, do you have one? Just ’cause it sounded like the– – Oh, that was the cloud inside– – The cloud side, yes.
– Basically. – That’s a good one.
– I’m amazed at that. I have no idea what to do with it. (audience laughs)
– It’s luscious though. – Yeah.
– Just the notion of it is almost enough to have
and just chew for a while. Maybe you could converge it with the fox. (audience laughs) The two of them together.
– So, what advice do you have for a new author trying
to set up a new world or world building? ‘Cause that seems to be the
biggest hurdle right now for a creative project I’m working on. – This is not my advice and I
cannot remember who told me, but I found it fascinating advice that for a secondary world, where does the food come
from and where does it go, which is where does the food come from, where does it grow, how does
it enter the city or wherever, and where does the sewage go? Is there a sewage system, et cetera. Just those two basic
questions can really help flesh out the world ’cause both of them really deal with the very daily practices that everybody has to deal with, but that you’re not normally aware of. That’s very specific for
a secondary fantasy world or a sci-fi world. If you’re dealing with a
more contemporary world, I think a lot of it for me
is just noticing the details ’cause you can fudge a lot
of the bigger question stuff if you know how things would work just for your character. You don’t need to know
the whole economic system to know that if your character’s poor, it’s gonna affect them in some ways and it’s much more interesting
to see what ways those are and how those affect the character, how their experiences might differ rather than the whole system around it that they might not ever
get into contact with, but I still struggle with world building, so I might not be the best
person to give advice here. – I was gonna go ahead and suggest also Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook, which actually has a couple of
really, really good chapters on world building, and
then the other sort of, if you are leaning toward the
more realistic side of things, I often urge my students
to be a little lazy and to not keep reaching out, but what are some things that you know that you’re deeply
familiar with in some ways and use a variation of
that for your own means so you don’t have to work that hard. – A few years ago, I was
writing secondary world fantasy mashed together with our
world and it’s a world, the sky ships, sky kingdom
with sailing ships, and I went to a friend
of mine who is a person with a big imagination, and I was like, if you had a world full
of sailing sky ships, what’s your top ask of
what you would want, what creature would you want? And then I just went to all of
my biggest imagining friends and said, “What’s the creature you want?” until I had just a list of creatures, and then I just put them in. It was like an Easter egg collection for all my nerdy friends, but it did, it built the world for me, just the one line of here’s a world that has sailing ships
and it’s above our head, what would be in that world for you ’cause everybody has a different idea, so that’s one tool, it’s the
community-sourced version, but the non-community sourced version for world building for me
is always break the story you wanna tell down into
the one page version, the one paragraph version, and the one line version,
and then all you need in the world building
is what you have to have in that one sentence, really. You need a world where
that story can take place and you don’t need all of
the details of the whole, every level of everything. You just need a series
of objects, basically, and once you have series of objects, you can move them around. So, I think the deep dive
world building approach, which does work for some people, some people write their
whole, all the beasts and the names of them,
you don’t have to do that. If that’s what you’re getting stuck on, you can just make a tiny
list of things you need in order to make these events happen, and that’s all you need in the
world for that first draft. You’re welcome. I know you have one. – [Man] Unlike many American writers, both of you are at least
bilingual if I’m not mistaken. Am I correct in assuming
that for both of you, English was not your native language? Then my question is, how do you think that that has affected your
English language writing? Are there strengths that you see that your experience
with language gives you that a monolingual writer
would not have difficulties? – That’s a really good question. – That is a really good question. If we’re talking about
specifically on a prose level, I think the difficulties
are fairly straightforward and that sometimes I’m
not quite sure like, wait, what would the most
natural way to say this be? But at this point, English is also, comes so naturally to
me that those moments are becoming less and less frequent. On more macro level, I
think being bilingual does help play with
language a little bit more because even if it’s something
that’s certain sayings, knowing certain sayings in English or knowing certain saying in Dutch and how different they are, there’s this saying in Dutch. If something is complete nonsense, you say oh, that’s like a wrench on a pig, which is complete nonsense obviously, but those kinds of things that you would not have in English and all kinds of variations,
there are certain words that we have that don’t
exist in the English language that I think are very nice words that I would very much like to exist. One of them is, I tend to describe it as the opposite of begrudging something. It means I want this
person to have this thing, I think they deserve this thing, I think it would be nice
for them to have this thing, so it’s a very warm, positive, fuzzy word that you cannot describe
in a single word in English ’cause it doesn’t exist, and I think having that
awareness of the limitations of language and simultaneously the possibilities of language
does help you play with it in some ways, and in the more direct ways, my first novel deals with multilingualism and it’s actually a plot
point here and there and I have heard from
multiple bilingual readers that they really appreciated that approach ’cause it’s not something
that you often see, and in this case, it was about some word in the fantasy world and that ended up being so much more relevant
than people thought purely because of the
whole bilingual aspect that I can’t really explain right now without having to detail
the whole novel, but yeah, sometimes it actually has very
practical plot consequences. – I guess the one, just to be completely, embarrass myself, the one difficulty that will still occur less and less, but it’ll happen at least once in a while is that I will fuck up a preposition. I can’t. That’s just like–
– Those are the worst. – Yes.
– Yes. – Nobody understands why
they are the way they are unless the people do. – No, we don’t.
– We don’t know it, yeah. – I don’t understand either.
– So, that’s the difficulty. I have to say that for me,
because so much of the stuff that I was reading when I was growing up, First eight years of my life, I was in a worker’s camp in Venezuela and it was Venezuelan kids,
Colombian kids, Japanese kids, adults too, but, and the
Americans had the best toys and they had, people
were sending them tapes of Saturday morning cartoons
and I was watching them and they were awesome, so, there’s this real love affair early on with American culture, especially anything having
to do with Star Wars. All the American kids had
the really big Star Wars toys being shipped off to a, so for me, one of the things, one of the advantages of being bilingual is there’s this real genuine sort of A,
frustration with the fact that Spanish was all romance, purely a romance language, which is just a lot of florid, circular, I mean, eventually once I thought oh, that is really beautiful, but at first, it’s just very frustrating because if you wanted to say anything, it took everybody forever
just to get to the point and English has a great deal
of Latinate romance influence on the one side. It’s got this, so it’s go everything, and so there were multiple
ways of getting at an idea in a way that I felt you
could not get at in Spanish, but, so that’s the, yeah, those are my finds. – I don’t quite know. I know what time it is
and I don’t know how long we are meant to be going, so I don’t– – I mean, this is a natural jumping point – Are we good? – Yeah.
– Yeah. – Okay, thank you guys for coming to this and buy their books ’cause
their books are amazing. – So, buy Maria’s books, too. – Thank you! (audience applauds) – So, Christine Alberga just stepped out. Lavie is actually gonna
be here in two minutes, but two minutes too
late, but he will be here to sign some books. If you could buy some,
I hope you do buy some. So, I know Christine
isn’t here to receive it. I do wanna give her a round of applause.
– Oh yeah. – She’s had an extraordinary
logistical (faint speaking). (audience applauds) Christine organized all the submissions and was really an extraordinary
help pulling this off, and I just wanna thank Maria once again for leading us through this and congratulate the authors on their extraordinary work and do support them. Read, read, read! Everyone should read. So, thank you and hope to
see you here next year. (audience applauds) – Oh, before I let you read
that search (faint speaking).

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