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A Conversation With Karl Schroeder
An interview with Alexander von Thorn
June 2002

© Karl Schroeder
Karl Schroeder
Karl Schroeder
Karl Schroeder was born in 1962 in Brandon, Manitoba. He moved to Toronto in 1986 to further his writing career. In 1996, he was elected president of SF Canada. His awards include the Context '89 Short Story contest for his story "The Cold Convergence" (then titled "Live Wire") and "The Toy Mill" won the 1993 Aurora award for best short work in English.

Karl Schroeder Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Permanence
SF Site Review: Permanence
SF Site Review: Ventus
SF Site Review: Ventus


Alan Pollack
The Claus Effect

I met Karl Schroeder at the Delta Chelsea Inn in downtown Toronto on the afternoon of June 16. Karl had errands in the city that day, and he was kind enough to meet me at the hotel, the site of the Bloody Words mystery conference that weekend.

I had the pleasure of taking your class in "Writing Science Fiction", and more recently you wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Science Fiction. What did you learn from explaining the genre to other writers?

I think one of the best lessons from the Idiot's Guide, which I collaborated on with Cory Doctorow, was that it's very easy to over-think and over-intellectualize about all the different aspects of writing. The Idiot's Guides have a standard format which requires that you be very brief. What we discovered as we went along is that anything that you might care to know could be described or explained in less than a hundred words, but there were hundreds and hundreds of different little items like that, and we had no trouble finding new things to say. But everything was very easy to explain once we sat down to do it.

Although you have writing credits across two decades, you've been making a full-time living from it only recently. What other jobs have you done that contribute to your writing?
One of the best jobs for a science fiction writer, or any kind of fiction writer really, is technical writer, and I've done a lot of technical writing. I've worked in computers, and for seven years I worked as a group secretary at the Theoretical Nuclear Physics and Condensed Matter Group of the University of Toronto. I am not a physicist. However, I did spend a lot of time in the environment, and learned a lot about the way they think, which for writing science fiction was very useful.

That's interesting. I do a lot of technical writing myself, and I find having to learn a new skill every month to be a distraction.
It can definitely be like that. It depends on where you're working and whether you're doing contract work or long-term work. I've tended to take long contracts where I spend a lot of time on one thing. But also I thrive in creative chaos, so for me it's much better to be on a steep learning curve all the time.

You come from a Mennonite community in Manitoba, which is not commonly associated with an interest in science fiction and technology, and you also have a background in physics. So I'm interested in how your cultural origins are influencing your writing.
Well, the Mennonites have always viewed themselves as a group apart, and have always engaged in a long-distance critique of society, as part of building the Mennonite community. So I think I grew up doing that naturally, which certainly helps when I'm designing societies. Also, both my parents were somewhat radical by orthodox Mennonite standards. My mother won a Governor-General's award for a science project in high school, and went on to write two novels, and she's been quite a radical feminist in her own way. My father had a strong interest in electronics in the early Fifties, and got into television and things like that before anyone else was doing it. So they both have this tremendous fascination with science, technology, and intellectual matters all the time that I was growing up, which again you wouldn't really associate with the Mennonites.

I read Ventus and I've seen reviews of Permanence, and they have really strong, interesting scientific concepts. What scientific trends are driving your current writing?
At the moment I'm very interested in "augmented reality", which will be the next big thing after the Internet as we now know it. But I'm pretty well scientifically omnivorous; I absorb everything from South American archaeology to astrophysics, because I never know where the next idea is going to come from. I can't say for sure what the next book is going to be, because it could be far future, or it could be quasi-historical, or it could be set in current day. It just depends on which set of ideas excite my interest.

You won the Aurora award for the story "The Toy Mill" which was written with David Nickle. How do you use humor in your stories?
Humor is a very important way of humanizing your characters, and also of making a situation more real. I really believe that, in writing, humor is part of realism. But it's also, of course, a way of entertaining and engaging the audience too, and I don't want to be seen as taking myself too seriously. I do deal with very serious ideas a lot of the time when I write. But the best way to say something serious is with humor, much of the time.

You wrote The Claus Effect with David Nickle and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Science Fiction with Cory Doctorow. How do you approach the process of co-writing a book?
First of all, you have to have a good relationship with your co-author, and trust them. With both Cory and David it was very, very easy; there were never any arguments. I don't know whether that's because I'm simply a pushover and roll over at every possible moment, or whether we organized it well. But we did definitely divide the work carefully, and we each had our own domain of expertise or authority for both of the projects. With David and I, we divided the storylines, so that he dealt with one character and I dealt with another, and he would be writing Chapter One while I wrote Chapter Two, because we wrote it during a three-day novel competition...

{laughing... nods] over a 72-hour period. And with Cory, we divided again by subjects. It would be a lot more difficult to be dealing with a single protagonist and a single scenario, because then the easy demarcation of authority would be gone.

How do you think you add value to the parts that your collaborator has done, and what do you look for them to do with your sections?
Well, again it's part of knowing your collaborator and knowing their particular tics and habits. What David and I did was converge on a kind of common style. We ended up with a voice that was neither his voice nor my voice, it was something in between. It came from both of us trying consciously to imitate the other, which we could never do completely successfully. But people have tried to guess which chapters he wrote and which I wrote, and they often get it completely wrong, perhaps because we're exaggerating one another's styles.

I think you mentioned that you're a member of the Cecil Street Irregulars writing circle for many years. How does this contribute to your writing?
Having a regular writing workshop has been invaluable for the progress of my writing. I don't think I could be where I am now without it. As with most writers, I don't think I'm sufficiently objective about my own work, and objectivity is what a writer's workshop teaches you, although, as in my case, it may take many years to get it pounded into your head. But the other writers in the Cecil Street writer's workshop are all of an extremely high calibre, and over the years have been either active collaborators or very good critics and editors for everything I've done.

Could you share a practise or technique that you use in your writing circle that might be helpful to other people in their circles?
I don't know that we do anything that's special in our workshop, but we have been in the habit of meeting weekly for fifteen years, and that is something that is very unusual. One of the truisms of a writing workshop is that you always feel charged up to write for a few days after, but most workshops meet on a biweekly or even monthly basis. It was one of Judith Merril's strong suggestions at the beginning of the process that we meet weekly, if we could. And it's turned out to be one of the best things she could have suggested.

In Ventus, you used a lot of fantasy elements in a story that has a strong science fiction background, and I want to know if you thought of that consciously in a cross-genre context, and how you use cross-genre ideas in stuff that you are working on?
Using fantasy tropes in Ventus was a very deliberate strategy on my part, although admittedly it was also colored by a desire to put in everything that I enjoyed about fantasy and science fiction into one book. So I didn't see any reason to distinguish between the style and character of high fantasy, which I've always enjoyed, and the ideas and hard-nosed approach to hard SF that I've also enjoyed. I was lucky with the whole scenario for Ventus that I could do that easily. But I find it's become an enjoyable game for me to mix genres, so that in Permanence I deliberately mixed, or perhaps updated, the space opera genre with the slower-than-light, hard-nosed, science-based fiction of hard SF. It was deliberate, but it was a game for me, it was fun.

Okay. Thank you for coming out of your way to come see me, and thank you for teaching me that course.
Well thank you. Every bit helps, whether giving or taking in talking about writing.

Copyright © 2002 Alexander von Thorn

Alexander von Thorn is actively involved in many aspects of science fiction fandom. He is deputy head of programming for Torcon III, the 61st World Science Fiction Convention, and vice-chair of the Seattle in '05 bid for the North American Science Fiction Convention. He is nominated for the 2002 Aurora Award, the Canadian science fiction awards, for fan writing. In his day job he is a manager of technical support at WorldCom, a global data communications organization. He is also a member of the Ink*Specs writing circle in Toronto and is an avid watcher of (digitally enhanced) bad television.

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