Today I finally get the chance to post my interview with science fiction author Charles Coleman Finlay, or CC Finlay for short. A graduate of Ohio State, his first story Footnotes was published in 2001 in Fantasy and Science Fiction, where several of his short stories have been published since. He’s also published four novels, including the Traitor to the Crown series (which one of my favorite shows, Sleepy Hollow, strangely resembles) and a collection of short stories, The Wild Things.
I sat down with him to talk about writing, fiction, and how delicious the food from the Wexner Café was (comments about that last subject are not in this interview). It was a great way to have lunch on a Friday afternoon.
RU: I guess the first question I want to ask you is, how did you get into science fiction?
CCF: I’m not sure there’s a short answer. When I was a kid, I felt overwhelmed by the world just because of personal events in my life. So I was looking, unconsciously, for larger than life characters, people who faced world-sized problems and overcame them. So I started with cartoons and comic books. I loved superheroes–Superman, Batman, Green Arrow, the Flash, the X-Men. When I started reading a lot of books, science fiction and fantasy fulfilled the same needs but in a more complex way. Take Lord of the Rings, for example. Here’s Frodo with this burden he didn’t want, and he’s not a wizard or a superhero, and still he finds some way to triumph. That really resonated with me. Edgar Rice Burroughs was also a really important writer for me. All of his characters face big overwhelming problems, whether it’s Tarzan orphaned in the jungle or John Carter transported to another planet. Science fiction and fantasy are full of those kinds of stories, and I loved them. I still do.
RU: I like comic books too, though they’re usually the Japanese kind, and I still read them a lot. When you write, what is your process?
CCF: Every writer is different. For me, it’s an iterative process. I have to have the whole story in my head, the shape of it like a picture, and then write it down. My first drafts can be pretty rough, but then I revise it and rewrite it many times. My wife’s also a writer, but she’s the exact opposite of me. She needs the scene perfect each time. So she writes more slowly, but she does less editing than I do. But if you ask this question of a hundred different writers, you’re going to get a hundred different answers. Everyone is different.
RU: A lot of the readers on my blog are a strange grouping of traditionally-published and self-published authors. How do you feel about the changing dynamics of the publishing industry these days?
CCF: There’s not a period of time where you can point to traditional publishing–however you define traditional publishing–as stable. It’s always changing, always evolving. If you’re thinking of it from a professional point of view, the most important question is this: how do authors get paid. A lot of technologies are allowing authors to get paid and published in new ways. That can be good for authors. But there are also a lot of authors who publish their books too soon, before they’re ready. I know one writer who, when he was young, self-published his first novel and was so discouraged by the reaction to it that he gave up writing for a decade. That was a shame, because he was incredibly talented. Had he stuck with traditional publishing there would have been more people around him to keep him going and to help make his books better, so that when they did come out, people would have loved them. On the other hand, I have friends who, after being traditionally published, have started to self-publish. T.A. Pratt and Henry Connolly, for example, both had series that got cancelled by their publishers, but they had a hardcore group of dedicated readers. They self-published more books in the series and had huge success with it. So it’s a lot like the question about the writing process. There’s no single right answer, and every writer has to find the right path for them. Everyone will make mistakes along the way. So it’s up to authors to educate themselves about potential opportunities, but also potential problems.
RU: What advice would you have for an author who isn’t having much success right now?
CCF: Keep working at it. I was writing seriously and submitting fiction for over six years before I sold my first story professionally. That’s pretty common. I’ve heard it described as the Million Words of Crap theory–that every writer has to write a million words of crap before they start producing something good. Other people I know quote Malcolm Gladwell and point out that you need to put in 10,000 hours of practice to get good at any skill.
Also, surround yourself with other writers who are as serious about it as you are. Pick them up when they get discouraged, and let them do the same for you. Learn from them and share your own mistakes to shorten the learning curve for everyone. Writing can be lonely enough, but don’t let it isolate you.
RU: Do you think as less people are reading, the novel will die out?
CCF: More people are reading than ever before, not just in the US but throughout the world and ebooks are making that easier. So I don’t see the novel dying out soon. The problem is there are more writers, more novels, than ever before. So it’s harder to find a big readership for any single book.
(Editor’s note: Mr. Finlay recommends going to this website for more information on the subject.)
RU: What do you look for in the stories you read?
CCF: That is a great question. I am a guest editor for the July/August issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction. In the month of January, over 750 stories were submitted to me to read for this issue. From that I had to narrow it down to about 12 stories that I will get to publish. So I’ve been thinking about this a lot.
I like to be surprised, which is hard when you’re a writer. The surprise can be plot, language, format, character, knowledge. But it has to be something. The more I read, the more it’s something else besides plot–you see every plot twist, every angle in a story before it happens. So when a plot surprises me, I really value it. And then I look for stories that make me feel. It’s not just putting characters through terrible things, there has to be some emotional resonance as well. Fear, excitement, sadness are all good emotions, but I really look for and enjoy stories that can make me feel delight, wonder, joy. Those are a lot harder to write, and I appreciate stories that can evoke those emotions. And then I love to laugh. Not every story is funny, or should try to be funny, but when a writer can make me laugh consistently, I really appreciate that.
RU: So much science fiction has become reality: communicators become cell phones, all-matter materialization devices are 3D printers, and we have information literally at the tips of our fingers. Where do you think science fiction will go from here now that a lot of it is becoming science reality?
CCF: I don’t think it’s something new. Thomas Disch wrote a great nonfiction book called The Stuff Our Dreams Are Made Of about this phenomenon. But I also don’t think that science fiction is a laboratory for new technology. Science fiction is about the present, not the future. If people envision something and make it a reality, then that’s something different from science fiction.
RU: Final question: If you were stuck on a desert island and could only bring three books with you, what would you bring?
CCF: I think you have to take Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe with you for all the obvious reasons. Defoe invented the novel and Robinson was one of the first he invented. I would also take a collection of Lois McMaster Bujold. I think she’s an amazing writer, and I reread her Vorkosigan series in particular every year or so. And then I’m a writer. So the last one would be a book full of blank pages, so I could write the book I wanted to read. That’s what we do as writers, right?
If you’re interested in learning more about CC Finlay, you can check out his website at www.ccfinlay.com.