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The Two Solitudes: An Interview with James Alan Gardner
By Ahmed A. Khan


James Alan Gardner is one of the top-notch science fiction writers writing from Canada. He was born in Bradford, Ontario. His short stories have appeared in Amazing Stories, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, On Spec and some anthologies like Writers of the Future, Tesseracts, etc. 

He is the winner of a grand prize in the Writers of the Future contest and twice winner of the Aurora award for short stories. His story "Three Hearings on the Existence of Snakes in the Human Bloodstream" was a Hugo and Nebula Award finalist.

James has written six novels, the first of which (titled EXPENDABLE) appeared in 1997 and the last (TRAPPED) has just come out in paperback. He has also written computer textbooks; one of them-- LEARNING UNIX-- is still in print.

In my interview I asked him several questions about his life and work, and here are his responses:


How old were you when you first wrote a story that you thought was worth publishing?

When I was five years old, I wrote stories I thought were brilliant. When I was ten years old, I wrote stories I thought were brilliant. When I was fifteen years old, I wrote stories I thought were brilliant. When I was twenty years old, I wrote a story that I actually sent to an SF magazine. I thought it was brilliant. I am eternally glad that none of those stories will ever see the light of day.

I was twenty-three when I finally started writing material that I think was actually half-decent...but they were plays and radio plays, not stories. I didn't write a publishable story until I was thirty-three.

When did you first realize that writing was what you would like to do?

As my preceding answer shows, I've been writing things since kindergarten (or maybe before). I always assumed I would be a writer. However, I also assumed I'd be a scientist. That fell by the wayside while I was doing my Master's in Math. I realized that I had far more writing ideas than mathematical ones.

What was it that attracted you to SF/Fantasy over other genres?

I've always had an SF/Fantasy mind. When I get an idea, it's always an SF/Fantasy idea. I also know what an SF/Fantasy story is. That doesn't necessarily work with other genres. For example, I once tried to write a horror story. Even though I've read a lot of horror, and I can easily come up with horrifying content, I just didn't have much feeling for putting things together. I found myself thinking, "Yeah, okay, I could show a lot of people dying in bizarre ways, but so what?"

It's that "So what?" question that determines what I write. In SF/Fantasy, I know what's worth writing. In other genres, there's always a point where I think, "It's pretty stupid to be blathering away about people who don't exist."

Stories of the first sale are often fascinating. Could you tell your story?

The first story I sold professionally was something I wrote at Clarion West in 1989. Orson Scott Card read it and said, "Send this to Fantasy & Science Fiction" (the magazine). I did. Ed Ferman bought it.

The story was called "Reaper," an idea that had been percolating for a while, though I hadn't fleshed it out until I actually had to write it at Clarion. The idea was that certain dead souls are selected to be reapers - present at other people's deaths. There's a nice little cosmology behind the whole thing, but I won't spoil the story by telling it here. Eventually, Eos may do an anthology of my stuff..

A majority of writers seem to have strong relations with their editors. Would you like to tell us about your relations with your various editors? (Specific names would be nice.)

My editor at Eos is Jennifer Brehl, who's always been helpful and supportive. I sometimes hear horror stories when other writers talk about their editors, but I have no complaints at all with Jennifer. When I submit a manuscript, she reads it-- not all editors do-- and provides intelligent feedback on things that need more work. She also talks to me about ideas for cover pictures and about the text that goes on each book's back cover. I don't have "cover approval" written into my contracts, but Jennifer consults with me and listens to what I have to say. She's great!

I'd also like to mention Kim Mohan, who was editor at Amazing Stories in the late 80s and early 90s. He published many of my early stories, and was an enthusiastic supporter of my work. Like Jennifer, Kim gave me useful feedback on what I'd written and helped me make each story better. I owe a debt of gratitude to both.

Do you have a literary agent? If yes, did you seek out the agent or did the agent come to you?

My agent is Richard Curtis. I approached him on the advice of Robert J. Sawyer, who was also with Richard at the time. Richard not only took on my first novel, but was instrumental in arranging contracts for several non-fiction books as well.

Does Canadian SF have an identity of its own? If yes, what are its distinguishing elements?

Canadian SF does have its own distinctive flavor (or flavour), if not an actual identity. I don't think I can list a set of specific elements, but I can give an example, which may be illustrative.

In U.S. fiction, there are two basic models for relations between aliens and humans: the Melting Pot, and Cowboys & Indians. In the Melting Pot model, aliens are fully integrated into a blended society. The clearest example is the Star Wars universe, where aliens mingle freely and no one seems to care what species you are. 

In the Cowboys & Indians model, humans and aliens are depicted as fundamentally incompatible, doomed to fight each other over territory until one side is driven into total subjugation. Furthermore, one side is always in the wrong. The "bad guys" may be the humans or they may be the aliens, and they may simply be ignorant rather than malicious... but one side is wrong and one side is right, and attempts to introduce shades of gray are mostly perfunctory.

If you look at U.S. science fiction, you see these two patterns over and over again. And who's surprised? These two models reflect the American experience, at least as it's been embodied in the U.S. mythos.

Canadians, on the other hand, have a third model: the Two Solitudes. In this model, aliens and humans can co-exist without intermingling but without fighting, either. There may be some tensions but mostly they just leave each other alone.

Obviously, the Two Solitudes is a part of the Canadian experience. It is *not* a part of the U.S. experience (nor the British experience for that matter). Therefore, you see Two Solitudes all over the place in Canadian SF/Fantasy (my own books VIGILANT and HUNTED, for example), but not in other countries. Furthermore, when Canadian SF shows aliens and humans coming into conflict, shades of gray are the rule, not the exception.

What kind of setting/atmosphere do you find most conducive to your writing?

I write every morning starting about 10:00 and going till 12:30. I like having a shelf of reference books close to hand, but apart from that, I don't need much.

Who (among your family or friends) are the greatest help to your writing?

My wife, Linda Carson, reads everything I write and gives me feedback on it all. I listen to everything she says. Apart from that, I don't show my work to anyone but my agent and my editors.

What is your most favorite story/novel among your own work? Why?

My favorite novel is ASCENDING, simply because it still makes me laugh. As for my favorite story, it's a tie between two pieces I did for Amazing: "A Young Person's Guide to the Organism" and "Kent State Descending the Gravity Well." "Organism" had an ambitious structure based on Benjamin Britten's "A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra"; not only did it introduce the League of Peoples, but it was a great love song to the human race. "Kent State" was a meta-fiction about the Kent State killings and the nature of science fiction-- again, an ambitious but heartfelt story.

In what way has your writing contributed to the society?

Always a tough question. The things I value in fiction are honesty and audacity. I think the world needs more of each. Honesty is an attempt to tell the truth about how people and the world currently are. Audacity is an attempt to show that we don't have to be bound by our conventional perceptions of what is and isn't done. Both honesty and audacity are attempts to wake up and stay awake: to fight the deadening influences of modern culture and to live with one's eyes open.

Writing is my way of doing that for myself. I hope that some of my own effort will rub off on readers and they'll do the same.

Are you superstitious in any way? (By the way, this is my 13th question.)

Not a whole lot. My major superstition (which is shared by every member of the Explorer Corps in my books) is a reluctance to say anything along the lines of "Nothing can go wrong now." I certainly don't get upset if someone else says such things, but I consider it unwisely tempting fate. (My favorite example of such a statement is from the "Shore Leave" episode of the original Star Trek: "We'll be all right as long as they don't make a strafing run." Needless to say that immediately led to a strafing run...)

You have stated that ASCENDING is your favorite novel. Could you elaborate on the inspirations and influences that led you to write this book?

I liked ASCENDING because it was just plain fun. The central character, Oar, made me laugh a lot while I was writing. She's a perfect embodiment of a type of honesty and audacity, which I've already said I enjoy a great deal. (I say "a type of honesty" because she completely lies to herself and the reader on a number of subjects.)

Perhaps the greatest influence behind ASCENDING is my ongoing frustration with SF books where humans are at the top of the evolutionary ladder. That makes no sense to me; we are bound to be millions or even billions of years behind many existing alien races. When we venture into space, we will be hopelessly outclassed by many of the creatures we meet. Therefore, I continue to write books where humans are the ones who have the most to learn as they venture through the galaxy.

At the same time, the very fact that we're here and haven't been subjugated by Evil Aliens proves that we aren't going to be squashed like bugs when we leave our solar system. Yes, there are aliens more advanced than we are... but they're not tyrannical or malicious. In my books, they're ready to let us find our own way. That's what the books are about: people finding their way.

In the case of ASCENDING, it's about a woman who starts off stuck in arrested adolescence and who gradually becomes an adult. That's one meaning of the title: ASCENDING. In fact, almost everyone in the book is offered the opportunity to "ascend" in some sense. Some take the leap, while others run away.

Who are your favorite authors? And why?

Terry Pratchett and Robert B. Parker because they make me laugh. John Brunner because he saw where society was going. Roger Zelazny because he had heart. Joss Whedon because he always goes one step beyond the expected.

How important is the Internet to the future of the genre?

In the long run, the publishing world will come to be dominated by downloadable ebooks in one form or another. There are plenty of proposed models for how such ebooks will work, and it remains to be seen which model will "win"... but that question doesn't interest me a lot. Publishing distribution channels will change, but the writing will remain the same.

Ahmed A. Khan an IT professional, got infected with the writing bug. He was born and educated in India and currently lives in Canada. In between these two places, he spent quite some time in the Middle East (Kuwait, to be specific). 

His first professional sale was to an Indian magazine called Science Today (now defunct). He was 21 at that time. Recently, one of his stories was picked up to be included in an FCAT Preparation Textbook, Grade 8 Science Content. He has also contributed to "Open Space," an anthology of moder Canadian speculative fiction. His works have also appeared in webzines like Anotherealm, AlienQ, Pif, Cyber Oasis, GateWay S-F, Jackhammer, Millennium SF, Strange Horizons, The Phone Book, Ideomancer, etc. 

He maintains the "Index of Online Fiction" website
(http://www.angelfire.com/zine2/fictiononline) and has a weblog at: http://ahmedakhan.journalspace.com

 

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