Far Beyond Reality: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview! First of all, I enjoyed Strata tremendously. Reading it, I was curious about the origins of the novella. How and when did you come up with the concept, and how did it end up being a collaboration rather than a solo project?
Bradley Beaulieu: Hi Stefan. Thanks for having the two of us by to talk a bit about the story.
When I came up with the initial spark for the story—pod racing on the sun—I was in a place where I wanted to try a collaboration. I’d been writing for a while, and I felt pretty comfortable in my own skin, but I’d always wondered what it would be like to write with another author. It seemed like a pretty cool thing to do, if you could get along and push one another farther than you could get on your own (while also avoiding strangling one another).
The only questions were: which project, and who would my collaborator be? Steve and I had been to Clarion together in 2006 (the last of the Michigan Clarionites!), and I really admired his writing. He was the first one I thought of when the idea first came. It also helped that we have similar tones to our writing, and for me that was very important. Never having collaborated before, it needed to be with someone where the style of writing wouldn’t be in question so that we could focus on the story and the simple mechanics of two people working on a single story. Maybe someday it would be interesting to write a story with someone that writes in a vastly different style than my own, but for this first story, it seemed wise to match styles to some degree.
I was really happy when Steve agreed. Part of my goal was to simply reconnect with a friend. The other part was to have a cool, shared experience with a fellow writer. And, speaking from a purely self-serving point of view, I also wanted to learn. As much as I felt comfortable in writing fantasy, Steve seemed the same in sci-fi. So I was looking forward to playing in his playground, so to speak.
I mentioned the spark of the story, but I purposely kept it very loose. I approached Steve with only the vaguest idea for the story, without even a character to its name, (or even a name, for that matter!) so that we could work on it together and both have agency. It grew from that tiny seed, with each of us pitching ideas back and forth, across the pond, until we had a good idea of the world, a decent idea for the characters, and a loose direction for the plot.
Far Beyond Reality: I have a pretty solid idea of what the process is like when an author writes a solo novel, but with a collaboration like yours, I’m always curious about how the actual day-to day writing work went. The two of you were on different continents, which makes me even more curious. Can you take us through a typical day or week while you were working on Strata?
Stephen Gaskell: First off, I don’t think we ever had a typical day or week when we worked on Strata. Saying that, the creation of the novella did go through several distinct stages, each of which had its own modus operandi.
Worldbuilding was the primary initial phase and during this time we shot emails back and forth at our convenience. Sometimes over the course of a day or two we would flesh out the interiors of the platforms or the structure of a skimmer race, piggybacking stream-of-consciousness emails back and forth in an inspiring and exhilirating way. Other times months would pass with little development as real-life got in the way. Although the worldbuilding never really ended–new details popping up at the demands of the plot as we wrote–I’d say that this stage was largely done and dusted in the first six months.
Out of the worldbuilding grew the plotting stage, but this was a pretty loose affair, and I’d argue that we discovered the plot and the characters through the writing as much as through any prior planning. As Brad mentioned before, we used Google Docs to keep a single unified document, and for me, the writing stage wasn’t so different from my normal solo process. I’d go to my local coffee shop write 500 words, then come home. What helped enormously, and perhaps differentiates this joint-project from others, is that we had two main characters whose individual tales, although intertwined through world, plot, and theme, were chronologically contiguous. We had “gates” we knew we wanted to drive the characters through, but we also had plenty of individual freedom to respond to the nuances of these individual stories. By seeing what each other had written at the end of each day/week we could keep the world consistent.
During this time we had regular chats on Skype–10pm in Brighton, UK, 4pm in Racine, USA–where we would have long conversations thrashing out everything from what the workforce would call the ISPF (peefs) to how terrorist cells maintain their integrity. Within around three months we had our first draft done. Then came the re-writing stage. Amalgamating first-reader responses, getting perspective, rearranging and honing scenes made this stage more like hard work than the first two, but with the same steady pattern of emails and chats after another three months or so we finally–finally!–had something we were willing to put in front of readers. Even looking back on the hundreds of emails that we exchanged feels exhausting now. I’m glad we did it though, and I’m proud of what we produced. Also, I think I learnt a tremendous amount about writing longer forms of fiction. Up to that point my longest stories were around 10K–and they were probably bloated to boot. Strata might be only a hundred pages or so long, but I feel it packs in a novel’s worth of story.
Bradley Beaulieu: I think the most interesting thing to me in the long process of drafting the story was the sheer number of drafts we went through. After the initial draft (which itself went through several, halting incarnations before we thought it was readable as a contiguous whole), we went through roughly twenty-two drafts—eleven each. Some of those were in preparing it for first readers. Some for the second round. Some for restructuring of the outer frame story vs. the inner. But the interesting thing to me was just how much we smoothed the story out over time. I liken it to smoothing out clay to form a sculpture, running your hands over it again and again to create the perfect texture, and even pulling off major pieces and moving them around to create something different but in the end more pleasing to the eye.
I came to learn Steve’s voice, and I suspect he came to learn mine. But after a while, I simply couldn’t remember which was which. A reader pinged me out of the blue a few days ago, asking me if the line, “She’d be one of the losers in the brave new world they were planning,” had been a purposeful nod to Aldous Huxley. I went back and read the section, and for the life of me I can’t remember who wrote it. I suspect it was Steve. But I do recall considering the line and whether or not it should stay, given the reference. In the end, it seemed like a nice little nod to our forebears.
The point is that it was an interesting melding of minds. I was worried when we first started writing that our voices wouldn’t mesh well, but in fact they coalesced nicely into a single, unified voice. It was certainly a brute-force method of accomplishing it, but it worked for us.
Far Beyond Reality: I can’t speak for anyone else, but as someone who’s always been curious about how writing collaborations work, this is really fascinating. Slightly different subject: reading the novella, it feels like it melds different strands of SF. The solar platforms and the skimmer races have a far-future feel, but the story is set in the 22nd century and has a distinctly dystopian feel to it. There’s politics and sports and a resistance movement and a family drama and even a romance. Did you set out to mix so many elements in a relatively short format, or did some of them appear during the writing process?
Bradley Beaulieu: The racing and the solar platforms were the first elements chewed over in our initial attempts at fleshing out the story. The “racing on the sun” idea felt very cool, but it needed to be supported.
Why did they race?
Well, because it was exciting…
That’s not enough. It needs to be supported. Skimmers are expensive, and they wouldn’t be available to just anyone.
And this led to a bit of backstory (very little of which made it into the story). The skimmers were not, in fact, top-of-the-line equipment. At least not at first. They were modified platform inspection crafts that had been cannibalized and repurposed. Racing, at first, was simply a hobby that management ignored because it didn’t cost them anything. And later, it provided some much-needed morale for the working populace, so they started to subsidize it.
And this implied something very interesting to us, this notion that the workforce needed a morale boost. That was the crux of much of the story, and it all came from tugging at the skein of our initial story, bit by bit, until we had something interesting. From that came the politics. And from the politics came the resistance. And from the resistance (oddly enough) came the romance.
Very, very little of what landed on the page was visible to us from the beginning. It was a slow, meticulous process of asking questions. The five W’s: who, what, where, when, and most importantly, why. That, to me, is one of the keys of writing good fiction, the process of taking an initial idea and teasing the story from it. It’s also one of the most enjoyable. It’s like a flower opening from a bud. It’s interesting and deeply gratifying to watch it all unfold.
Far Beyond Reality: I love the striking cover illustration by Doug Williams. How did you come to work with him, and did you have any input in terms of how the illustration came out?
Stephen Gaskell: The artwork wasn’t a commisioned piece, but after playing around in photoshop with our own designs involving publically available images of the sun, mining structures, and racing craft, we decided that we wanted a professional illustration for the cover. That meant searching through many artists’ portfolios. Unlike searching for information, Google hasn’t yet optimised image search so what this in effect meant was trawling through reams and reams of artists’ work. Over the course of few weeks as we were preparing the other aspects of the release, Brad and I must’ve gone through thousands of images. We discovered many talented artists, but never never quite found the exact right illustration that would do Strata justice. We made tentative enquiries for a commisioned piece . . . and then I came across Doug’s piece. At first it didn’t strike me as having enough focus, but when Brad mocked it up in a style very close to the finished article we both knew it worked brilliantly. Somehow, the harsh industrial landscape and the saturated reds perfectly encapsulated Exx-Pac’s hot and restless environment where unrest brewed. I’m really glad we persisted in our image trawl because I’m sure we wouldn’t have commisioned anything like what Doug produced. For me, Strata wouldn’t be Strata without his cover.
Far Beyond Reality: Both of you have published works professionally. How did this novella end up being self-published? It’s incredibly hard for me to imagine that, if you shopped it around, every single publisher and major magazine turned Strata down.
Bradley Beaulieu: This is an interesting thing, and something I didn’t think much about when I first started writing. I was well aware of length restrictions at various markets by the time Steve and I started writing Strata, but I didn’t know quite how bad it was. As the story grew, Steve and I became progressively more worried that we were limiting our markets, but we made a conscious decision to not artificially limit the length, to let it be how long it wanted to be. It just so happens Strata wanted to be about 30k.
What we were left with was a good story and a publishing landscape that has progressively favored shorter and shorter stories. Most won’t accept anything nearly as long as ours. Probably half of the markets stop around the 5,000 or 7,500 word mark. Others that accept longer works might creep up into the teens, but no further. And the few that claim to accept longer works really don’t do so very often. They’re often full up on those for months or even years ahead, which puts a high amount of pressure on newcomers like Steve and I to sell a story that long. We did think that Strata might have been serialized, but again, few are willing to bend the rules to do so.
So while we made inquiries, we had very few editors consider it seriously. (I think I can count the number on one finger.) And that left smaller markets like anthologies or markets that pay very, very little for stories. And, well, we just weren’t willing to put it out there and see so little back from it. We valued it more than the token sum we would get from the smaller markets, so we started batting the idea of publishing it ourselves.
We never did really consider larger publishers. As far as I know, Subterranean Press might be the only publisher in the U.S. that could do a decent job with this kind of story, and we didn’t feel like we had the kind of cachet to approach them. The big publishers, or even mid-sized publishers like Night Shade, Angry Robot, and Pyr, would probably only look at a story like Strata as a wind-up for a novel.
So while we ended up “resorting” to publishing it ourselves, I’m glad that we did. Strangely enough, it’s getting way more play than a single story in a magazine would ever get. I didn’t really realize this even a year ago, but e-publishing seems to be a great fit for novella-length stories since (a) it’s such a void in traditional publishing publishing and (b) it’s meaty enough for people to sink their teeth into and feel like it’s time and money well spent from their entertainment budget.
Far Beyond Reality: I noticed the subtitle A Story of the Future Suns on the cover. Does this mean we can expect further stories or maybe even a full length novel set in this universe? And aside from Future Suns, what else can we expect from each of you in the near future?
Bradley Beaulieu: You’ve a good eye, sir. We chose that name purposefully so that the door would be open to new stories—perhaps different stories in the same world, or perhaps an expansion of this story into a novel. I definitely like this story enough to entertain writing it in longer form. Then again, I’m all kinds of busy with my other projects, too. My epic fantasy debut, The Winds of Khalakovo, came out last year. I just turned in final copy edits to Night Shade Books for the second book in the series, The Straits of Galahesh, which hits the streets April 3rd. And I’m a little over halfway through the third book, which will release next year. I also have another project in the wings, a Thousand and One Nights sort of tale, that I’m excited about.
The last thing I’ll mention is a workshop that I’m running later this summer called Wellspring. Wellspring is a peer-to-peer writing workshop based on Charles Coleman Finlay’s Blue Heaven format. I ran it last year, and I enjoyed the experience so much I’m doing it again. Steve is going to grace us with his presence, and I’m sure we’ll chat over a pint or two about more Future Suns stories…
Stephen Gaskell: I would love to come back to the universe of Strata someday. Whether that means developing the novella into a full-length work, or starting afresh with new characters at a different time and place in the universe I don’t know. Each solar platform feels like a unique space–Exx-Pac being a very different place to Scando-BP, Sinopec, Pan Africa, and all the other platforms–and I would be happy to write more stories that explored these sub-worlds. The Future Suns tagline was a kind of tease, I guess–an attempt to test the waters and ask readers: do you want to spend more time in this universe? So far the answer to that question has been an overwhelming affirmative! Which, of course, makes it way more likely that we will return. Watch this space!
In the very near-future I’ve got the second of my three Numbers Quartet pieces coming out at Daily Science Fiction. “Pulse” takes its inspiration from Hannu Rajaniemi’s story, “The Server and the Dragon”, and spans vast stretches of time and space as an AI crosses the galaxy. And in April, the near-future, hard-SF anthology Rocket Science will be launched at Eastercon, which will contain my SF/horror tale, “Fisher’s Gambit”. Right now, though, my main focus is on producing the first draft of my currently untitled weird-apocalypse thriller set in Lagos, Nigeria, which blends dark matter physics, survival horror, and a very strange end of the world. Also, since I’m standing in front of such a wonderful audience it would be remiss of me not to mention my “get kids interested in science” blog, Creepy Treehouse, which I launched a month ago. Visitors are more than welcome in the ‘house!
Far Beyond Reality: Thank you both for taking the time to answer my questions!
Further reading: Strata can be purchased in Nook and Kindle format for $0.99. My review is up at Tor.com, and will appear here at Far Beyond Reality soon. You can find more information about the authors at Bradley’s website and Stephen’s website.