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Richard Kadrey and Seanan McGuire on Writing Something Entirely New

Richard Kadrey is best known for his dark and hard-edged Sandman Slim novels, so readers will be in for a (very good) surprise with his hilarious new novel, The Everything Box.

Collage.-210Sci-fi author Seanan McGuire, who is an expert at diving into the entirely new, talks with Kadrey about letting your imagination have free rein—which sometimes leads to exploding rotting whales. And readers also get a sneak peek at McGuire's latest novel, Every Heart a Doorway, about a group of young people at a very special school for those who return from fairyland, the Land of the Dead, and other mysterious worlds.

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Richard Kadrey: There's not much you haven't set your hand to—crafty fae in the October Daye novels, cryptozoological adventures in the InCryptid series, wayward children, zombie apocalypse, parasitology. As I am embarking upon a new—and very different—project with the impending publication of The Everything Box, it seemed expedient to ask an extremely talented author how so many divergent authors come out of one (evidently fertile) imagination…so I thought of you!
Seanan McGuire: Thanks!

Well, I watch a lot of television and I read a lot of books and I poke a lot of sticks into a lot of holes. Life doesn't have to make as much sense as fiction does; even the most fleshed-out fictional character is going to be a lot more linear than a real person, because they don't have to justify their interests. Since I really exist, I can be interested in dozens of things, and eventually, everything I'm interested in turns into a book. I write in series because I think in series. I always want to know what happens next. Knowing what happens next is absolutely my favorite thing about working in any sort of long-form.

So, Richard, readers know you best for your Sandman Slim noir fantasy, which is absolutely worth being known for. But that's not all you've written. You do young adult, cyberpunk, fantastic tales that darkly mix mythology and theology. "Dark" often being the operative word. With The Everything Box, you've sort of swerved, taking a distinctly offbeat, humorous approach to the material. What spurred the change in direction?

Richard KadreyRK: It's true that I've tried a lot of different styles and genres over my career. Basically, I just want to explore other voices and other ways of looking at the world. Stark in the Sandman Slim books is a thirty-year-old man, and Zoe in my YA novel, Dead Set, is a sixteen-year-old girl.

They're both challenging characters and they see the world in very different terms. The books are also written in different styles, which is fun for me. Sandman Slim is in present tense, with no chapter breaks because I want it to be one long speed freak rush from beginning to end. Dead Set and now The Everything Box are more traditional in structure and style. Both are past tense and both contain chapters.

SM: It says something when "both contain chapters" is a necessary disclaimer. But I so feel you here.

RK: Yes! The Everything Box was especially exciting for me because I was also able to play with multiple points of view. As much as I enjoy writing Stark in Sandman Slim, he's one voice and vantage point for the story. With The Everything Box I was able to tell several simultaneous stories and watch the plot evolve from different points of view. There's Coop, a thief and the chief protagonist of the book, but there are also rival doomsday cults, a secret government organization, demons, an angel, and a host of other characters with different magical abilities. It was kick being able to see through all of their eyes.

The Everything BoxI'll also admit that with The Everything Box, I wanted to shock people a bit and show them that I can write something besides the hard world of Sandman Slim. No matter how far I've pushed my work in the past, it's always been firmly rooted in real life. However, The Everything Box is absurdist from end to end. Carl Hiaasen's mysteries were an influence in criminal part of the story, but Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams had a hand in the fantasy parts. I've never tried to combine elements like that before. It was a crazy process, but a fun one.

But that was a lot about me—I'd like to know something else about your process. The first thing I figured out in writing a series is that I needed a "bible" to keep track of the characters, some of the plot elements, and a lot of my magical world. I've now started a bible for the Coop books. Working in so many series and points of view, do you create bibles? If not, how do you keep things straight for yourself?

SM: I have wikis! I build little individual wikis that live on thumb drives hidden around my bedroom like an Easter egg hunt gone terribly wrong. They're easier to edit than bibles, since they're designed to be used that way, and when I'm stressed or sad, I can spend hours updating them—a remarkably good use of my time, in a lot of ways. Plus they're harder to delete by accident.

I want to ask you about the whale now. Can you tell me about the whale?

RK: I'll have to try using wikis. I create my bibles in Scrivener, but I'm not one hundred percent sure that's the best way to keep track of things. I also created a modified version on Google Docs for a project that fell through. That was laborious, but interesting.

So, the whale.

The whale sort of landed in the very first scene of The Everything Box. I knew there would be a whale somewhere in the book, just not right at the opening. But that's where it fit, so it stayed.

The whale's significance is simply that I wanted to pay a small tribute to Douglas Adams. Reading his smart, funny books years ago was a real inspiration. As I said before, Adams and Pratchett were influences on the humor in The Everything Box, but in a very British way. There's also a very American aspect to the humor that comes from S.J. Perlman and some of Woody Allen's early writing.

Okay—now it's my turn to shift gears abruptly, so here we go: While I tend to have characters associated with one geographic region, you've sent your characters all over the place, and some have ended up far from where they started. Is this a conscious decision to put your characters under the pressure of a new setting and see how they react, or is it something more unconscious, perhaps a way of expressing your own wanderlust?

Seanan McGuireSM: Mostly it's a vain effort to avoid the Jessica Fletcher Effect. I love Murder She Wrote, but if there was someone living in my small town, tripping over a dead body every fifteen minutes, I'd be like, Sorry, ma'am, you need to go. So I try to set up horrible situations hither and yon, and then send my characters to them. Also...I really do love to travel. It's less wanderlust, more "everyplace in the world has different cheese." And like most writers, I tend to think in story. It's difficult not to. When I go someplace new, my first thought is "This is amazing," and my second is "I should find a way to set a book here." It turns out, I'm pretty good at setting a book there. I've never been anywhere that wasn't interesting. My goal is to make sure everyone else sees how interesting it all is.

You, on the other hand, you really like L.A. What would happen if we dropped one of your characters in one of the smaller towns that I tend to favor? How would Stark handle small-town Michigan, or Coop deal with Columbus, Ohio? Do they need their setting to stay stable?

RK: Coop is a lot less neurotic about where he is than Stark. But Coop will always be a big-city guy. The problem for Coop in a small town or even a small city is that he'd stand out as a thief. Certain impossible crimes would take place and people would know that only one person could have pulled them off. But I think you could put Coop in any big city—New York, Houston, Chicago—and he'd get by. Of course, outside of L.A. he'd spend all his time complaining about the weather.

Stark on the other hand is rooted to L.A. in a more fundamental way. L.A. is his yardstick for measuring the world, both this one and Hell too. Stark actually sees Hell's capital as a distorted version of L.A., right down to the street names. People like Stark don't need anywhere else. I've met people like this, mostly from L.A. and New York. They're both cities that are large enough and with enough intense activity that for some of its residents, it's a whole country.

For the most extreme, and you could put Stark in this category, it's the world. I've tried to take Stark out of L.A. a couple of times, but it always been a false, a "ha ha wouldn't it be funny to watch him squirm" kind of thing. However, I've figured out a way and I have a good reason for Stark to leave L.A., and we'll be seeing that toward the end of the series. Everything I'm doing with Stark now is leading up to the moment when he finally sees a reason to go on one last, possibly terminal, road trip.

Speaking of endings, how do you feel when you think about the end of a series? Is it a relief? Something sad? I'm kind of excited, not to be ending Stark, but to see where he's headed. Coop, on the other hand, is just getting started. The world is wide open for him.

SM: I'll tell you if I ever get there! I know how the Toby books end, but we have a long way left to go before we reach the point where I can say "okay, we're done, we're finished"—and I'm aiming to actually be able to say that, and mean it, because there won't be any story left to tell. She's on a quest, in a lot of ways, even if she doesn't realize it, and when the quest is over, the grail knights go back to Camelot, and they rest. InCryptid is sort of a big series made up of smaller ones, in that as each person's individual story is wrapped up, they pass the torch to the next—but that also means I can go back to fill in the blanks, and nothing has to be over before I'm ready. I guess it's sort of a weaning-off process, rather than a clean break, for me.

Endings, though...ending the world seems to be easier for both of us than ending a series could ever be. It always comes down to Armageddon in the end, doesn't it?

RK: Life hands us a lot of Armageddons, I think. The end of a major chapter in your life. A big break up. The death of a loved one. And even the end of a series you've been working on for a long time.

They're all various versions of big and small Armageddons as one world is wiped out. But with luck, the end of one world paves the way for a new one to take its place. Stark's life in Sandman Slim has been a series of literal and figurative Armageddons, and it won't get any easier for him over the course of the last few books. In some way I've made it harder than ever for him because he's come to care about the people and things in this world. The death of a universe is a messy thing, and it ought to be. Who wants too much stability? The chaotic edge of things is where the action is.

This seems like a good time to talk about how writing these new books has brought new life and excitement to our work. Why don't you go first?

Every Heart a DoorwaySM: I have to fall a little bit in love to write a book. I know that sounds sort of silly, but a book is a real commitment of time and energy and attention. When I'm writing, part of me is always in the book, never quite coming back to the real world. I live in a place that isn't, until I have a chance to come back out to a place that is. But with a really long series, where I've sort of figured out where all the rooms in the house are, and I know where the linen closet is, and I know the rules, I can get drowsy. It's not complacency, exactly, but it's a degree of comfort that doesn't force me to learn anything new unless I want to. That's a nice place to be. It means I'm free to dig deeper into things I might otherwise leave alone. But sometimes...sometimes I just want to travel. I want to go somewhere and not know all the landmarks, or where to buy the best cheese. I want to discover.

Every Heart a Doorway is all about discovering. I still don't know all the rules. I still don't know where everything is. I still don't know how to work the shower, and it is glorious, because I keep finding things. I think I will be for a while.


RK: I feel the same way about The Everything Box. I'm still getting to know the characters, the rules of the world they live in, and even the voice in which to tell the story. Voice is very important to me. In the Coop books I wanted to try something I'd never done before and that's to have the authorial voice, or "narrator" of the book, become another character, commenting on the shape of scenes, characters, and their actions. If the character is a coward or a conniver, I wanted the narrator to be free to say "Fuck this guy" as easily as a human character might. It's an experiment in tone and humor. I think it works, but it's the readers who will be the final judge, of course.

One interesting thing about working on multiple series is that each makes me appreciate the other more. Writing Sandman Slim is such a different experience to writing a Coop book. As I wind down Coop #2, I'm looking forward to getting back into Sandman Slim mode. I wasn't sure I'd like hopping worlds like this, but I'm really enjoying it.

Thanks for the chat, Seanan.

SM: Absolutely!


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