Interview with Scott Westerfeld

Rob Bedford: To start off, can you give us the TV Guide version of Scott Westerfeld, the man and writer, as well as The Last Days?

Scott Westerfeld: The Last Days is about five teenagers trying to start a band during a zombie/vampire apocalypse. Old-school SF readers may detect an homage to Robert Silverberg’s “When We Went to See the End of the World,” about a bunch of upper-middle-class folks who don’t see the world ending around them. My teens aren’t nearly as clueless as Silverberg’s adults—because teens never are—but their single-minded focus on musical success as society crumbles around them is going for a similar comic irony. In a way, “getting famous” is their response to catastrophe; the twist is that they have exactly the right idea.

Scott Westerfeld is a former adult sf writer now writing for young adults, and finding it a lot more fun.

RB: It seems that, especially with The Last Days, music is a big influence on your work and part of your life.  Who are some of you favorite musical artists and do any of your other books have as much of a musical feel as The Last Days?

SW: The popular music most imprinted on me is mid-90s Bristol: Tricky, Massive Attack, Morcheeba, Portishead, and (London-based) Mo Wax Records. (Weirdly, that sound has become global generic café music.) I’ve composed music for the downtown dance scene in NY for the last 10 years, so I’m working with choreographers rather than bandmates. But the conflicts are still there, and having been in bands as a kid, I always wanted to set a novel inside that microcosm of clashing egos and crowd magic.

But TLD is my first book to actually explore music. So many band books make me queasy when the “rocking out” starts, like that feeling in the pit of your stomach when they rap on Sesame Street. But then I read Matt Zurbo’s phantasmagoric Hot Nights, Cool Dragons, and I was, like, “Band books don’t have to suck!”

RB:  Why tackle an iconic or, as some may say overused, figure, like the Vampire?

SW: Peeps came out of reading Carl Zimmer’s popular science book Parasite Rex. Zimmer explores the “new parasitology,” which is the theory that multi-species parasites regulate and control whole ecosystems. I was trying to map those scientific ideas onto the social and biological history of New York (and humanity at large), and vampires were a perfect fit. They’re biological messy (bodily fluids, disease) but at the same time they’re all about mastery (mind control, a predatory aristocracy). If parasites were human-shaped, they would totally wear capes.

RB:  In Peeps/The Last Days there is a lot going on, with the story evoking elements of horror, science fiction and fantasy, as well as a secret history.  Did you have specific goals, in these regards, and did you achieve the goal you set for yourself with these books?

SW: My main objective was for my vampires to make evolutionary sense, like, what are the predator-prey ratios in a big city, and what’s the genetic advantage of cruciphobia. As readers of Peeps know, the short even-numbered chapters are actually 100% non-fiction (about various parasites). Once the science was solid, I just let the other stuff just bounce into shape against it.

The interesting thing is how many teens write to say that they loved the non-fiction nibblets, even when it arrested the story. Of course, that’s a characteristic of young readers: a 13-year-old will go into a library and come out with a thriller, a pop biography, a romance and a book about sharks—and consume them all that weekend. Adults are more likely to focus on one genre, or even one writer.

RB:  With such deep backdrop/history, do you plan on continuing the story, or further fleshing out the world you introduced in Peeps

SW: I didn’t plan to do a sequel to Peeps at all—I thought that world was over—but then I realized that my long-planned band book would be much cooler if set during a vampire-zombie apocalypse.

The funny thing is that, while Peeps is narrated by an insider who knows exactly what’s going on, The Last Daysis from the perspective of characters who have only shreds of information. So anyone reading the books in order actually knows a lot more than the TLD protags. I loved looking at the same world from an entirely separate direction, with a wholly different knowledge base. So if I write another Peeps-world book, I’ll start with another new set of characters with a whole new framework—maybe a religious view of what’s happening.

RB:  What initially interested you in publishing in the Young Adult Market? 

SW: My first YA was Midnighters, about a group of small-town kids for whom time freezes every Midnight. That was inspired by memories of sneaking out at night in Texas and walking around in the emptiness and stillness of the wee hours. As a teenage memory, the idea only made sense as YA.

So that decision was made just like the writing advice books always say: write the book that has to be, and only then figure out the market parameters.

RB:  Do you approach writing your YA novels differently than your adult novels?

SW: The main difference is that the storytelling in YA is much more straightforward and direct: no lollygagging. Perhaps I’m a bit more language-focused in my YA work (teens are more into slang, poetry, and nicknames than adults), and my YA probably protags are a bit more uncomfortable in their own skin, in that teenage way. But I think that my basic themes and techniques are pretty much the same.

RB:  How do you churn out so many books in what seems to be a relatively short time?

SW: Midnighters 1 was finished in early 2002, and came out two years later. Specials was finished in early 2006, and came out two months later. So the seeming flood of Westerfeld titles is partly scheduling legerdemain. But, yeah, I do write fast. Fast enough that to get shingles, which I do not recommend.

RB: Writers often say their spouses must have a great deal of patience in order to live with a writer.  That must be even more of a truth when both spouses are writers, or is it just an urban myth of the writing world?

SW: My guess is that writers are like cats: it’s better to have two, so they can play together instead of drinking too much and scratching the furniture.

RB:  I’m sure you get asked this quite a bit, but who are some of your favorite writers and influences?

SW: Iain Banks, Joanna Russ, Nicola Griffith, Samuel R. Delany.

RB:  Some of your novels are being turned into films, can you tell us a bit about them?

SW: The Uglies trilogy is with Davis Entertainment, who brought us both the awesome Predator and the underrated (I thought) I, Robot. So Yesterday is being produced by Jim Czarnecki and Maria Gallagher, who have both worked in the same high-end marketing and advertising world that the book parodies, which is very promising. The Last Days and Peeps have been optioned by a young screenwriter, but that’s still a secret, so no names.

RB: Your Succession duology was well-received, do you have any plans for writing another Space Opera flavored novel/series?

SW: Though I have two more titles in mind for the Succession universe, the YA ideas keep coming, and are more compelling and lucrative. So no breaths should be held.

RB:  With these two books and your other series books, do you find bouncing from world to world, so to speak, allows you to approach the worlds more openly?

SW: I don’t think I could stay in one world for ten books in a row, or even three, if I didn’t have the other series to move among. I also like moving between third- and first-person, and between multiple and singular points of view. It probably does help open up the worlds a bit, because they have to compete against each other for brain space. I say to them, “What have you got for me today? You know, I could be thinking about some other world right now”

RB:  With the publication of The Last Days on the very close horizon, what is your next writing project?

SW: I’m working on an alternative history set in a world of advanced Edwardian biotechnology, during the first days of World War I. There are living airships and diesel-powered walkers, and the romantic leads are the son of Archduke Ferdinand and a cross-dressing young Scottish girl. It’s called Leviathan and is, obviously, the first of a trilogy.

Leave a comment