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An Interview with Eric James Stone
conducted by Trent Walters

© Eric James Stone
Eric James Stone
Eric James Stone
While getting his political science degree at Brigham Young University, Eric James Stone took creative writing classes. He wrote several short stories, and even submitted one for publication, but after it was rejected he gave up on creative writing for a decade. During those years Stone graduated from Baylor Law School, worked on a congressional campaign, and took a job in Washington, DC, with one of those special interest groups politicians always complain that other politicians are influenced by. He quit the political scene in 1999 to work as a web developer in Utah. In 2002 he started writing fiction again, and in 2003 he attended Orson Scott Card's Literary Boot Camp. In 2007 Eric got laid off from his day job just in time to go to the Odyssey Writing Workshop. He has since found a new web development job. In 2009 he became an assistant editor for Intergalactic Medicine Show. He lives in Eagle Mountain, Utah.

Eric James Stone Website
ISFDB Bibliography
Sf Site Review: Rejiggering the Thingamajig and Other Stories

Triangulation: Morning After
Like other writers before you, you've followed a number of career paths: law school, politics, computers, etc. How does/might this shape your perspective?
I took creative writing classes in college. I still have those stories. Not a single one of them has been published, and probably never will be -- unless someone does an anthology of Before They Were Good Writers stories. And when I went to law school, I mostly gave up on creative writing and didn't start again for about ten years. But during that time I did a lot of writing, first as a law student, then while working as a researcher for a non-profit in DC, and finally when working as a developer and tech writer for an internet company. Even though I wasn't writing stories, I was learning to write clear, concise prose, a skill that would come in very handy when I turned back to writing short fiction. At the same time, I gained a lot of life experience, which allowed me to better understand what motivates people.

You've written strong SF and fantasy, but which do you feel more comfortable with? Why?
I feel pretty comfortable with both, actually. I used to think there was some sort of clear dividing line between them, but I've come to the conclusion that the difference simply boils down to what explanation you give for the speculative element. For example, if your main character is invisible because of quantum mechanics, the story is science fiction, while if the invisibility is due to a magical incantation, it's fantasy. What real difference does that make? But I'm definitely more comfortable telling stories within science fiction and fantasy than in mystery or other non-speculative genres.

A fun mix of science and fantasy was "The Robot Sorcerer," a story you've claimed once as being your favorite. Why? Have you ever thought of expanding it into a novel?
I think "The Robot Sorcerer" is the best story I've written. (My favorite is "Rejiggering the Thingamajig," possibly because it was the most fun to write.) I think it's my best story because the plot, characters, setting, and structure feel completely integrated to me, and because its themes resonate deeply for me. I have thought about turning "The Robot Sorcerer" into a novel, but haven't really figured out how to expand it properly -- possibly because that would break some of that integration I mentioned.

Which of your stories do you feel might be developed at greater lengths?
I think "Resonance" is one that I could reasonably expand into a novel. And I've written several stories (most still unpublished) set in the same universe as "Premature Emergence," involving the wars between humans and AIs, so I can definitely see myself writing a novel in that milieu someday. I've had several people ask me about turning "Betrayer of Trees" into a novel, but that's another one I haven't figured out how to expand properly.

As a hard SF writer, do you have definitive views on how science should be treated in fiction, or are you fluid, ready to roll with whatever scientific justification an author gives -- no mater how weak?
I love hard SF, but I love a good story even more. I'll forgive some impossible science in a story that grips my attention. What does annoy me a bit is what might be called "unforced errors": when the impossible science isn't necessary to the story, or it would have taken very little effort to make the science more plausible.

Do you believe there's an ideal length for SF? James Gunn said it was the novelette while Gardner Dozois claimed the novella. For this reader, your strongest work has come out at the novelette length. Does it take that long to develop well thought out SF stories? Or something else?
One of the stories I've gotten the most compliments on was under 400 words ("Buy You a Mockingbird" in Daily Science Fiction). I think different stories need different lengths to develop properly, and even then I'm not sure there's an ideal length for a particular story -- let alone an entire genre.

What controversy surrounded your Nebula-winning story? Did it strike as you as strange since your novelette actually covered both sides, intelligently, without necessarily offering a particular answer (although it does argue persuasively for people to be able to share and choose beliefs for themselves)?
Well, the story isn't to some people's taste, and that's fine: de gustibus non est disputandum. But some people got the impression "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" was proselytizing for Mormonism -- even though not a single character converts to Mormonism between the beginning and the end of the story -- and I'd just like to make it clear that was not my intention. In many ways, this story is complementary to my earlier Analog story "The Ashes of His Fathers," which was told from the point of view of an atheist who comes to like and respect the religious protagonist, even though she considers his religious beliefs irrational. In "That Leviathan," I used the point of view of the religious character instead of the atheist, but I very deliberately set up the story so that both the atheist and the Mormon would have explanations for what happened that fit their world-views. Also, the atheist comes to the same conclusions as the Mormon as to the correct moral course of action, so the atheist is not portrayed as "evil" in comparison to the "righteous" Mormon. (The story was published in Analog, after all -- hardly the venue for stories about the triumph of religion over science.) My goal as an author was to have parity and respect between the two world-views, so I was a little surprised when people read more into it than that, but I guess the fact that the protagonist and I are both Mormon naturally made people expect I was promoting the one and denigrating the other. (That's one of the themes of the story, in fact: people tend to interpret things in light of what they expect.)

There's a simple explanation as to why the protagonist and I are both Mormon: I was at a workshop taught by Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Katherine Rusch, and the assignment was to write a story with a character based on myself. (Specifically, the prompt was "You are in the middle of the sun and can't get a date.") Since I did not recall having read a story with a protagonist who was a believing Mormon in a high-tech far future, I decided to use my religious beliefs as the basis for the character.

Some people have put forward the idea that the title and the scripture quotation at the end were my way of indicating that the "real" explanation was the religious one. (I even saw someone theorize that I must have tacked on the scripture and chosen the title for that purpose after I realized I had written a story that was too balanced.) The truth is, I came up with that title when I had written only the first third of the story and had no idea what was going to happen in the rest of the story, but I needed a title for turning the story in at a workshop. I had already named Leviathan (a natural name for a gigantic being), so I just searched the Bible for uses of the word "leviathan" and found the quote that became the title. Later, the title did help me come up with the rest of the plot by inspiring the question: What if Leviathan claimed not to be created by God? But I only included the scripture quotation at the end to indicate where the title came from, not as an indication of religious victory over science. (I did the same thing in "The Ashes of His Fathers," putting the quotation from which the title came at the end of the story.) With the benefit of hindsight, however, I can see why some people took it that way, and if I had it to do over again, I might not have used a scriptural passage for the title.

You have treated religion a number of times, from the above Mormon character to the various religions in "Tabloid Reporter to the Stars," to the imaginary religion in "The Ashes of His Fathers," to the Buddhist in "Rejiggering the Thingamajig." What have been reader reactions? Can religion and science fiction coexist? Why be even-handed in your treatment of religions?
Other than for "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made," I haven't really noticed any negative reactions to my inclusion of religion in science fiction stories. And I've had more positive reactions than negative even for that story. I definitely believe that religion and science fiction can coexist. Religion has been part of human culture since before recorded history, so I think it's perfectly reasonable to portray religion in "future history."

While I personally believe in the Mormon religion, I also believe that other religions teach many things that are true and can be an influence for good in their adherents' lives. I also know that there are good, moral people who believe in other religions -- or in no religion at all. Therefore, whether my main character is a Buddhist, a Baptist, or an atheist, I try to write a character who is true to his or her beliefs.

What is the secret to developing 1) charm (by which I define as quirkiness and humor), 2) the heart of a story (by which I mean characters/scenarios readers get moved by), 3) that extra bump or beat at the end of your stories, which sometimes moves a story in a slightly new or different territory?
I don't think there's any one secret to developing those things in a story. (As it says in Kipling's "In the Neolithic Age": "There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,/And every single one of them is right.") However, I can tell you some things that have worked for me. I heard years ago that humor is based on incongruity, and from an essay in the book How to Write Funny, I learned about a specific kind of incongruity: disproportionate response. Have your characters respond to a situation disproportionately. If there is a minor inconvenience, have them treat it as a catastrophe, and vice versa.

With regard to the heart of the story, I try to write the kind of stories that move me. Generally that involves a likeable characters striving to do what they think is right despite overwhelming odds, and their willingness to sacrifice something they care about. Sometimes the willingness is enough, and the sacrifice does not need to be made. Sometimes they must carry through with the sacrifice.

As for that extra bump at the end of stories, I wish I knew exactly how I do that. I generally have an ending in mind while writing a story, but the extra twist or power generally comes as I'm writing the ending, and it's often based on something I inserted into the story earlier without any conscious idea it would become crucial to the ending.

What is your process for developing ideas?
With short fiction, I generally come up with a plot idea and a point of view character, and I just start writing the story. For novels, though, I've found I need to come up with a detailed outline before I start writing, or else I lose momentum and don't finish. Developing the plot itself generally consists of asking myself "What if..." questions and seeing where they lead.

[Interviewer's note: EJS does this with some detail here. The story is not his best but worth reading before/after reading this essay on the story's development.]

The quality in writing -- from your first Writers of the Future story to your second -- seems to have made a large leap. What did you learn between those periods?
Between writing the first and the second, I attended Orson Scott Card's Literary Boot Camp, at which I learned a tremendous amount about almost every aspect of crafting a story. So it's not surprising that the second is noticeably improved over the first.

[Interviewer's note: EJS took notes from his 2003 Bootcamp here. He also discusses a critique of his first page here.]

You've attended workshops with Orson Scott Card, Writers of the Future, and Odyssey. What did you walk away with from each?
I have learned (or in many cases, re-learned) a lot of things while attending workshops. One of the key things I learned at Odyssey was how to use my characters to shape my plot. Before that, I tended to come up with a plot and just plug characters into it, occasionally managing to get characters who fit the plot perfectly. Jeanne Cavelos, who runs Odyssey, showed me that understanding my characters' motivations could help me come up with satisfying endings. Specifically, her advice was to determine a character's greatest desire and greatest fear, and then find a way to put those two in conflict at the climax of the story. Learning that felt like a revelation. Later, I found that exact piece of advice in my notes from the Writers of the Future workshop I'd been to a couple of years before. But at that earlier point in my development as a writer, I wasn't ready for that advice, so it didn't have a big impact on me.

In addition to walking away with more insight into the writing process, I came away from those workshops with stories I eventually sold. A lot of my best work has been produced in the high-pressure environment of writing workshops.

How has becoming an assistant editor at Intergalactic Medicine Show shaped your writing?
I've become much more aware of the importance of a strong ending. One of the most disappointing things for me as an editor is to start reading a story, find myself caught up in it, and then finish it and feel like the ending did not live up to what came before. So I really try to make sure my endings are worthy of the time an editor spends in reading the whole story.

In an interview with David Steffen, you advised writers to keep writing and write "(1) intriguing characters (2) facing interesting challenges, leading to (3) a satisfying conclusion." What other advice do you have writers entering the field now?
In addition to practicing your writing skills by writing, find ways of improving your skills by learning: attend workshops/classes, read advice books, join a critique group, etc. Be willing to experiment with new ways of doing things, but remember that not all advice applies to all writers and all stories. Find the advice that works for you, and don't worry about the rest.

Could you name stories or novels you've read recently that's really impressed you?
Here are some that I've read this year that have impressed me: Ken Liu's Nebula-winning "The Paper Menagerie" had excellent development of characters and a fascinating look at cultural differences and family life. Terra LeMay's "Paper Airplanes into the Void," published in the May 2012 issue of IGMS, takes a fantastical initial conceit and explores it beautifully. I've been listening to the audiobooks of Jack McDevitt's Alex Benedict series, and I've really enjoyed them, particularly Seeker and Firebird.

Last year, you began serializing the novel, Unforgettable, but were told to stop by your literary agent. What can you tell us about it? Has it found a home?
Unforgettable has been optioned by a Hollywood studio as a potential TV series or movie, which is a very exciting development. (There is no relation to the current TV series of the same name.) I'm finishing up a revised version of the novel, and I hope my agent will be able to find the right publisher for it.

Are there any other Eric James Stone novels on the horizon? What stories are forthcoming, from where?
Once I finish the revision of Unforgettable, I'll begin work on another novel, but I'm not yet sure what it will be. As for short fiction, my story "Write What You Want" will be in a forthcoming issue of IGMS. Some of my critique group members think it's the best story I've written, so I hope readers will like it. I also have an essay about Ender's Game that will be in Ender's World, coming out from Smart Pop Books in February 2013.

What question would you like to be asked that you haven't been asked before?
"How does it feel to be the most popular, most critically acclaimed, richest, and handsomest author in the world?" Unfortunately, I don't think anybody's going to be asking me that one any time soon.

Copyright © 2012 by Trent Walters

Trent Walters teaches science; lives in Honduras; edited poetry at Abyss & Apex; blogs science, SF, education, and literature, etc. at APB; co-instigated Mundane SF (with Geoff Ryman and Julian Todd) culminating in an issue for Interzone; studied SF writing with dozens of major writers and and editors in the field; and has published works in Daily Cabal, Electric Velocipede, Fantasy, Hadley Rille anthologies, LCRW, among others.

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