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Interview: Ted Kosmatka on “The Color Least Used By Nature”

*Tell us a bit about “The Color Least Used by Nature.”

From start to finish, this story probably took me longer to write than anything else I’ve ever written.  It took an insanely long time, in fact, for what was supposed to be a short little story.  While I was working on it, I kept thinking that I was only a few weeks away from finishing, so I’d burn the midnight oil in what I thought was the final push, working on it late at night after everyone in the house was asleep.  But it was like some crazy carnival fun room where the exit kept retreating from me the closer I got.  I was half afraid the darn thing was going to turn into a novel by the time I was finished.  It’s amazing how a small, simple idea can take on a life of its own.  

*What was the inspiration for the story, or what prompted you to write it?

The story first came to me several years ago as an image: a man standing on a sandy shore watching his son sail away in a stolen boat.  I knew the son had stolen the boat from the father, and I knew that the father was secretly happy about it, though it was a bittersweet happiness.  I wasn’t sure what the idea meant, or how I might write a story so that the scene made sense to me, and I assumed that the need to write about it would fade eventually since I seemed to know so little about it.  But my mind kept returning to that single image again and again, so I knew there was something there.  Most of my story ideas don’t come to me in this way.  Usually, the kinds of ideas I get are what-if stories.  Or strange extrapolations from existing science.  But this felt totally different—more emotional at its core, less tied to the real world than my usual fiction.  Up till then I’d only written two types of stories: sci-fi, and semi-autobiographical literary stuff based on my time in the steel mills.  This felt like something new, and I was about five pages into it when I realized that I was writing my first fantasy story.  The idea for the walking trees came to me while I was on a hike in Hawaii, and I saw a tree with all these roots poking up out of the soil like little legs.  It seemed like the tree was ready to get up and walk.

*What kind of research went into the story?

A couple of years ago I wrote a story called “Divining Light” which extrapolates from a twist on a particular interpretation of quantum mechanics.  I had to do so much research for that story that my brain melted, and looking back now it seems like it might actually have been easier to become a real physicist than to write that darn story.  Okay, that’s totally a lie; the math required for a physics degree would have killed me.  (I still get mail from physicists and physics students, asking if the experiment in that story was actually performed.)  After finishing “Divining Light” I promised myself that my next couple of stories wouldn’t require any research at all.  Of course, it didn’t work out that way.  I can’t really help myself, and I ended up doing a ton of research for “Color Least Used,” which is part of what contributed to me taking so long to finish it.  I tried to get the details as right as I could. Even when you’re writing about a fictional island in the middle of the Pacific, it turns out that no island is an island unto itself, really, as it exists somewhere in the historical milieu of Polynesian expansion and Western colonialism.  So those are forces that have to constantly be taken into account.  I did a lot of historical research about island life in the late 1800’s, and I did my best to give as accurate a portrayal of the time period as I could.    

*Most authors say their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way is “The Color Least Used” personal?

 Oh, I’m not giving up the goods that easy.

*What would you want a reader to take away from this story?

I fall firmly in the “story belongs to the reader” camp, so I’d be disappointed if every reader came away with the same interpretation.  The best stories are like life in that they can be seen from many different perspectives.  No one is a villain in their own mind, right?  I have my own take on the story, of course, but that’s not to say that it is any more important than anyone else’s.  If a gun were put to my head, and I had to choose the thing that I personally took away from the story, it would be the idea that everyone is flawed in some way, and that our flaws are part of what makes us who we are.  Sometimes our greatest qualities are our flaws, and vice versa.

*What are you working on now?

I’m a full-time writer at Valve, so I’m doing a lot of video game writing.  I’m also working on another novel.

*Anything else you’d like to add?

My first novel, THE GAMES, comes out March 13th..  You can buy it in bookstores or here at Amazon:

“The Color Least Used By Nature” appears in our Jan./Feb. 2012 issue.


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