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A Conversation With Scott Westerfeld
An interview with Kevin Stone
December 2006

© Scott Westerfeld
Scott Westerfeld
Scott Westerfeld
Scott Westerfeld was born in 1963 in Dallas, Texas. He graduated from Vassar with a BA in Philosophy in 1985. He has written a number of novels includingPeeps, The Risen Empire duology and the Midnighters and Uglies trilogies. He splits his time between Sydney, Australia and New York City where he lives with his wife, writer Justine Larbalestier.

Scott Westerfeld's Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Fine Prey
SF Site Review: Fine Prey
SF Site Review: Polymorph

The Risen Empire
Fine Prey

How did you get into writing?
I come from a big family in Texas, in which story telling was very valued. And I've always written, as far back as I can remember. But the career move came from being fired, in that "here's some money, go away" way. I set myself the goal of living cheaply for a year, and getting published in that time frame.

Of course, it wound up taking almost ten years to support myself completely through writing, so freelancing was important along the way. In that time, I wrote some Goosebumps, a legal thriller, and even three Powerpuff Girls books. That's choose-your-own-adventure Powerpuff Girls books. How cool is that?

You have produced a remarkable number of books within a relatively short space of time, yet the quality remains undiminished. How demanding has this schedule been for you?
Well, the books have come out faster in the UK than in the US, due to publishing compression. Still, I did write nine books in four years, and I don't recommend that. While I was writing Parasite Positive (known as Peeps in the US), I got shingles from exhaustion. The whimsical irony of being infected while writing about diseases did not make up for the pain.

With series including the popular Midnighters and Uglies, you seem to making a big impact in the young adult market. What attracts you to writing fantasy for a younger readership?
Teen readers are in some ways like SF readers: They question the way the world works and they question their place in it. They can imagine, in the way "mundane" adult readers do not, the world being utterly different. Being a teenager is a fundamentally alien experience. Also, the average teen is more into language invention than the average adult -- they write more poetry, use more slang, and bestow more nicknames than adults -- which also makes them like SF readers.

That said, the main advantage of being a teen writer is that I can change genres without any confusion. I've written fantasy, SF, and contemporary realism, but the bookstores still puts them all in the same teen section, no worries. And teenagers are wider readers than adults, because they haven't specialized into one genre yet, so no problem there, either.

How would you say the teenage fiction market has changed over the last few years?
It has exploded, in the US at least, as all those Harry Potter readers ramble through puberty. It has been great to see a whole generation embrace fantastic literature, and to know that for two weeks every two years or so, it's totally cool to carry about a book around at school. Another aspect of the Rowling effect is that more adults are reading teen books unapologetically. I mean, let's face it, not everyone is thrilled with the modern novel. Teen fiction (not unlike SF) promises more linear and old-fashioned story telling, and that's what a lot of people want.

Your UK SF titles include the excellent space opera The Risen Empire. Are there plans to continue writing adult SF?
Eventually, but right now the advantages of teen fiction are many. It's more fun, more lucrative, and the fan mail has more exclamation points. What's not to love?

The fantastic diversity of technologies form an important aspect of The Risen Empire, including sentient AI and the some original uses for microtechnology in warfare. How much time did you spend researching these sciences beforehand?
My research is a constant thing: I'm always clipping away articles from New Scientist (at least mentally) for later use. But it's never been a very organized pursuit. That is, I don't find my characters facing a situation and then research how it would really work. It happens the other way round: I get ideas for a technology, a weapon, or a system from random sources, and then collect them together and make a story. Much easier that way.

One of the key points early on in The Risen Empire is a debate between Captain Zai who has been raised to believe in the centuries old Empire, and the rogue Senator Oxley who believes that the Empire needs to change in order for humanity to grow. There is also great criticism of how politics can interfere with and manipulate the military. Are these key themes reflections of any of your own beliefs and frustrations of the world?
Oddly, The Risen Empire was finished in early 2001, so the politics may be a case of life imitating art. What I was mostly getting at with my zombie empire was a question about immortality: What would the social costs be if rich, powerful people didn't die? Many SF books (and con panels) have questioned whether immortality might be boring, or in some other way disadvantageous for those who obtain it. But the bigger question seems to me to be the consequences of wealth and power never leaving the hands of those who are mentally stuck in the past. (And yes, I think we have our answer now. Hereditary heads of government was never a good idea.)

Whether it's teenage or adult fiction, what is clear to all your readers is how original all of your ideas are. Where do you get your ideas to fuel such an extensive imagination and are there particular authors that have inspired your writing?
Samuel R. Delany, Iain M. Banks, and Linda Nagata for space opera. Francine Prose, M.T. Anderson, John Christopher, and Meg Rosoff for teen books. Ursula K. Le Guin for both.

How did it feel to be nominated for the Philip K. Dick award in 2000 for Evolution's Darling?
I'm a huge fan of Philip K. Dick, and in particular think that The Man in the High Castle is an amazing book, so it was obviously an honour. But one of the best things about the nomination is that it got me to my first SF convention, where I discovered this wonderful community having a 60-year-long conversation about all the things that were cool and important to me. What a gift.

What are you reading at the moment?
Night Watch, a Russian blockbuster fantasy by Sergei Lukyanenko, best known for the movie it inspired. It's a totally crazed piece of world-building, in which the forces of light and darkness contest each other through a vast bureaucratic system that only a Russian could have invented. (Also, Andrew Bromfield's translation is great).

What can we expect from Scott Westerfeld in 2007?
That's a secret, actually. But there will be airships. Airships and Edwardian biotechnology.

Scott, thank you for your time and I wish you all the best for the future.

Copyright © 2006 Kevin Stone

Kevin Stone also does reviews for Interzone and Waterstones.

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