Shirtless in Seattle

Big joy for me in Seattle on Friday night, where I had the great honor of winning the Philip K. Dick Award for science fiction for 2013, for my novel Countdown City.  

As I said, or tried haltingly to say, in accepting the award, I am especially grateful that the Last Policeman series has won this particular laurel, because A) I so love and admire Dick’s whole idiosyncratic, impossible oeuvre,  and because B) I didn’t set out to write science-fiction, it just ended up that way.

What I wanted was a way to tell a classic detective story in a surprising way, maybe to fold some new ideas into that genre—the mystery genre—and so I came to the world-ending asteroid business, and (as I’ve noted in the past) once you’ve got a world-ending asteroid in your book, it’s science fiction whether you like it or not.

Some of the works of Philip K. Dick. Look at those covers!

Let me be clear: I like it. I like the novels being labeled sci-fi, and I certainly like winning an award in the category. I hope it’s not too cliche to observe that what successful science-fiction novels do (like those of, for example, Philip K. Dick), is similar to what successful mystery novels do, which is to use the conventions of  genre as a lens through which to examine the ideas, the morality, the received wisdom, of the world we actually live in.

Anyway. Here on YouTube you can see me reading a selection from Countdown City at the award ceremony, and if you keep watching you can see me accept the award, after my new friend, the Japanese novelist Toh EnJoe, accepts the Special Citation for his insane multipart experimental novel The Self-Reference ENGINE.

Me, doing a reading, post-ceremony, in ill-matching shirt and suit.

(Side note: I have to ruefully acknowledge that in this clip I am wearing a short-sleeve salmon colored button-up shirt with my light-blue suit.  This sartorial nightmare was occasioned by Mr. Fancypants Award-Winning Writer having forgotten to pack a dress shirt for the ceremony. I would have felt more self-conscious in the moment, except this award was given out at NorWesCon, a sci-fi/fantasy convention, so there were literally people there dressed as orcs.)

 

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How to Write a Novel

(This quick piece originally appeared on the website of the Indiana Authors Award, where I am privileged to serve as a panelist this year)

One of the new and joyful things about my life since moving to Indy a couple years ago is getting to hang out at Butler, where I have been privileged to work as an adjunct professor in the MFA program in writing. It means I get to pal around with cool novelists like Dan Barden and Mike Dahlie and Allison Lynn, but also that I’ve had to think seriously about a very hard question, which is how do you teach people to write?

Don’t get me wrong. You can learn to write. In fact, you should—writing is not, I repeat not, a magical inborn gift that grows inside the lucky few, or that only emerges when the muse deigns to descend from the heavens and blow her golden trumpet or blah blah blah. Nothing drives me so bonkers as the romantic gauzy idea of the writer as conduit, rather than creator, as if writers (especially fiction writers and poets) just lounge and loaf, Whitman-like, under shady trees until the words appear, illuminated and glistening and syntacticly impeccable.

Nonsense! (As Agatha Christie would say: jiggery-pokery!) Writing, like all things worth doing, requires skill and training and practice.

But then how do you teach it? There is no secret to writing a book.

Or, rather, there a thousand overlapping and interlocking secrets, including “come up with a good idea,” “make a good outline,” “know when to ignore your outline,” “get a good night’s sleep,” and “stop checking your email so much.” Also “trust your instincts,” “know when your instincts are misleading you,” “conflict is the engine of narrative,” “don’t worry so much about what other people think,” and “stop checking Facebook so much.”

See? There are a lot of things to learn. One can never finish learning all the things there are to learn, which means you should probably just start writing and find your way forward—which is another not-too-shabby piece of advice. But the best—the very best—piece of writing instruction I think I’ve got is to learn to read. And I don’t just mean achieving functional literacy (although I am a big, big fan of achieving functional literacy, which is why I love Indy Reads), I mean learning to live inside a piece of fiction. Love a book or hate it, you need to learn to see how the writer built the thing—to walk around in there and see where the beams and the posts are, see where the stairs creak and why, see how many windows there are and how the light comes in.

A lot (most?) of what I know about being funny in fiction I learned from Charles Dickens; a lot (most?) of what I know about the slow build of suspense I learned from Patricia Highsmith. What I teach my students (I hope) is to learn occasionally from me; frequently from their fellow students; and most of all and always from books and authors.

That’s why you always see writers at libraries. They want to be surrounded by books and authors, like pandas want to be surrounded by bamboo. Go to the Central Library in downtown Indy, on any given day, (or any other library or any other day) and you’ll likely see them, hunched over tables, pecking away, surrounded by the stacks—the writers in their natural habitat. Don’t get too close, or they might get spooked and spill their coffee. One of them will be me.

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Nominated for Philip K. Dick award

It is hard to overstate how excited I am about being nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award for Countdown City, the second book in the Last Policeman trilogy. As I’ve probably said here before, when I set out to write these books I wasn’t really thinking of them as science fiction, per se–although when you’ve got a giant asteroid in your story, that story is probably automatically a science-fiction story.

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Philip K. Dick

What I always said was, “well, if anything they’re speculative fiction, ” and if people said “what is speculative fiction?” I would refer them, first, to Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (which is actually probably the most clear influence, given that it is not only speculative fiction, but a speculative-fiction detective story), and then to Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. If you don’t know it, it’s about an imagined version of post-war America, in which the Allies lost World War II, and the Western part of the United States is now a Japanese protectorate. Like (almost) all of Dick’s work, it’s twisty and bizarre and strangely moving; these are qualities I have aspired to in The Last Policeman and Countdown City…

…and also the third and final book in the series, World of Trouble, which is now in that nebulous, painful state between first and final draft, which means that I, myself, am in that nebulous, painful state between thinking myself an inventive, ambitious writer and hating myself for being such a miserable talentless fraud. (Which is why it’s nice, on this particular day, to be nominated for an award.) Now, off the internet and back to work!

(Although I will be back on the internet, if not before, then in mid-March, when I’ll be a featured author in the 2014 #TwitterFiction Festival)

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