Interview with Mark Tiedemann

Q: For someone who has not read your books yet, how would you describe them?

A: There are a couple ways to answer that–one by comparison to others, another by exhaustive description of intent. I’ll start with the latter. Allen Steele has called my work (to paraphrase) space opera for adults. Perhaps instead of space opera I write space concerti. I prefer working in fictional situations that as closely as possible evoke a sense of real life. The characters, therefore, are less than perfect, error-prone, thoroughly human. They are not superhumans capable of changing the universe by acts of derring-do and as such are more plausible. When I was a kid reading SF for the first time, one of the things that made it important to me was the possibility of my inhabiting exactly those universes that appealed to me most. As I grew up and started writing the stuff, I realized that in order to fulfill that I would have to remain faithful to my own possibilities and limitations. I’m not the Gray Lensman or Jon Carter. Most people aren’t. Most of the people caught in dramatic situations aren’t. They rise above from time to time, occasionally meet enormous challenges successfully, but at the end of the day they are just like anyone else. So I write situations that are as believable as I can make them given the permutations of my future settings and I put people in them that are recognizably authentic. I think that makes for a much more dramatic set of possibilities.

Having said that, basically I really like working in an interstellar milieu. So my Secantis Sequence is set a few centuries hence in an expanding human hegemony where the chief tension is just how to deal with the nonhumans we’ve encountered.

As for comparisons, maybe I should leave that pleasure to the readers. I’ll tell you who I really admire and respect, whose work really inspires me: Iain M. Banks, C.J. Cherryh, Michael Swanwick, early Poul Anderson, Greg Bear, Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, and Joanna Russ. That list is hardly exhaustive, but I think it represents a spectrum and gives you some idea of the level of art and craft I’m interested in achieving.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your current projects?

A: Right now I’m researching an alternate history set in early 20th century French America. In this universe, Napoleon never let go of the Louisiana Territories. After that, I’m assembling my first short story collection–all the stories set in the Secantis Universe–and beginning to think about the next Secantis novel. I’ve got a couple of other novels in sketch form–including one post Civil War novel that is almost a straight historical tale, but with a central SFnal idea that will make it “different.”

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the experience of writing in the world created by Isaac Asimov?

A: When I first began working on the Robot Mysteries–which are all set in the Robot City/Caves of Steel Asimov universe–I had the pleasure of rereading the originals. The first thing that became apparent to me was that they were, in terms of basic narrative assumptions, Fifties books. The social milieu, the approach to character, the “givens” were all very Middle American. Asimov was a master at simply leaving out embarrassing details that would irrevocably “date” his stories–like domestic scenes where the dynamics of the family could be seen to define the period–but still, a lot of basic assumptions about how the world might change are clearly made from the perspective of the Eisenhower America of the Cold War. So I had to figure out how to update that without actually changing it. Fortunately, Asimov had left a lot open to broad interpretation. Social layers were left unexplored, and the politics were largely just sketched in. Then there were the obvious technological problems. When Asimov wrote the “Caves of Steel” the quantum revolution had yet to manifest and no one had even heard of nanotech.

But at base, his robot stories were Socratic dialogues about the nature of intelligence and awareness and the limitations of design perception, and there I had to change almost nothing. There are slight hedges, which Asimov himself indulged in the later Robot books, concerning the “flexibility” in the Three Laws–flexibility that would have to be there in order for the world to function at all.

So it became like entering a wonderful house that needed some new furniture. The folks at ibooks wanted a more adult approach, so I was able to “grow up” the characters, which led to the kinds of complications I prefer to examine. By the third book I also realized that I could sort of suggest a direct tie-in to Asimov’s own robot books, and I offered a few suggestions about what became of the Spacers and the robots and how the universe that subsequently unfolded might have gotten its start. Suggestions only, mind you, but it was deliriously fun to do.

Q: How much research do you put into your novels?

A: That’s a hard question to answer precisely because I’m always “researching”. I do a broad range of reading all the time. When I finally sit down to do a story, I find specifics that I need to know a little more about and so find more work, but I’ve already built a broad base upon which to start the narrative. I read a lot of articles on AI and robotics and nanotech during the three years of work on the robot books. I pointedly studied disease pathology and public health when working on the last one, Aurora. If I had to guess, I’d say I’d read the equivalent of about a hundred books that went directly into the Robot Mystery series.

For the alternate histories, I’ve got a pile of about fifty books I’m working through, plus articles and online searches. I’m beginning to think I’m going to have to learn French when I actually get into the writing.

Q. Do you ever encounter “writer’s block” and if so, how do you overcome it?

A: Yes, and I overcome it by working on something else. Writers Block is essentially hyperactive doubt. When you sit there and know the next sentence is going to be crap (whether it will be or not doesn’t matter) you often end up not writing anything. My first strategy, which I stumbled on a long time ago, is to work on new material first thing in the morning, when I’m still half-asleep. My internal censor is dopey and silent. I can always rewrite later, but the important thing is to get something down on which to do a rewrite. Working at four int he morning, I find I can be enormously productive, whereas if I’m trying to come up with new material in the evening, it just doesn’t work.

But when that seems to fail, I just switch gears and work on something else. You have to trust your doubts–doubt leads to an awareness necessary to know when something’s bad–but you can’t let them overwhelm you. When they do, that’s writer’s block.

Q: What’s the best thing about being a writer?

A: Fixing the world. No, seriously, it is creating a world that is also a work of art that is also an intellectual puzzle that is also communication that is also self-satisfying. It is involving yourself wholly with a process that requires breadth of interest and intense focus, that in turn allows you to know something about the world and yourself you would not otherwise have understood. It engages everything you have. Musicians, painters, performers all understand this engagement with the work. It is a whole-being response to a creative impulse. And when it works, it’s incomparable.

Q: What has the Internet meant for you as an Author?

A: That actually remains to be seen. I’ve found it useful to promote my work in ways that aren’t possible through traditional media–I have a webpage on which I can tell people what I do and what I think and before the Internet only a few successful writers could do anything comparable through self-published newsletters. But what it will ultimately mean or how it will affect the work itself? I don’t know.

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