I first met Gregory Scheckler at the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction in Lawrence, Kansas, a two week intensive writing workshop. I was in the novel workshop with Kij Johnson, and Gregory was in the short fiction workshop with Chris McKitterick, but the two groups socialized plenty outside of workshop time. I encountered him again when he submitted a story to an open call at World Weaver Press, and I was happy to include his story "A Persistence of Ghosts" in my anthology Speculative Story Bites.
Recently, Gregory has taken the plunge into indie publishing with some fascinating science fiction projects. I asked him to stop by my blog to talk about his writing, climate change fiction, and his advice for aspiring writers.
Sarena Ulibarri: What was the most important thing you took away from the Center for the Study of Science Fiction writing workshop with Chris McKitterick and James Gunn?
Gregory Scheckler: Community. For me one of the biggest parts was the thriving community of people. The workshops were an incredible coalition of minds, including the students who were very accomplished writers. As for big writing lessons, there's almost too many to mention. One I've been thinking a lot about is how the emotional sense of story can grow out of protagonists and antagonists. Coming at fiction with a visual arts background, it's easy for me to imagine a scene or an image. And that's great, but for all their beauty, paintings are motionless (unless you throw them at the art critics). Story moves through time. So it benefits from characters who interact across timespans, who contest each other's inner and outer conflicts, which in turn provokes our emotions. In other words, the mechanisms of fiction reflect our human modes of community.
SU: Your stories take place in a post-climate change world. How do you feel your work fits into recent ecologically-aware subgenres such as Solarpunk (i.e. the Sunvault anthology), Eco-Weird (i.e. Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy) or Cli Fi (i.e. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi)?
GS: Without climate action, goodbye humanity. I don't view my writing as situated in a post-climate change world so much as in a future extrapolated from the changes that are happening today and which will continue happening in the future. That's similar to James Gunn's thesis that science fiction is a literature of change (he outlines this idea in his Road to Science Fiction). Personal, cultural, scientific. Adding environmental issues brings climate change into that larger view. We might figure out ways to adapt to pressing ecological changes. Or we might ignore them and fall into the worst-case scenarios of geopolitical fractures that follow altered weather, flooding, rising ocean temperatures, loss of food sources, and species loss. These problems are intensifying for the foreseeable future. In that sense, a science fiction that extrapolates from what we know today must address climate change. So I think these subgenres are all on a compelling track. Solarpunk strikes me as a little too optimistic, sometimes, and I think my works are generally darker in tone like cli-fi, but not quite as inventive as eco-weird. The ecological-political issues play a bigger role in my upcoming trilogy, Infinite Things, which is permeated by a new kind of world government that asserts sustainable technologies -- and that's not always a good thing. (see next question).
SU: Will your novels take place in the same world as the stories in Water Taxi in a River of Vampire Fish and Moon Dust Infinity? Will we see any of the same characters again?
GS: Yes, and no. Water Taxi includes prehistory of some of the world described in my upcoming Infinite Things series of novels, whereas Moon Dust is stories that are happening at the same time as some of the upcoming Infinite Things series. Some of the Moon Dust characters have roles in Infinite Things, especially in the second novel I have planned for that series. I'm hoping to have the first novel in the Infinite Things series ready by Fall 2017, the second in early winter. Ideally each story and novel stands well on its own, but then when looked at as a group they create added meanings. Some of what connects these stories is the settings and world-building.
I do have a variety of unrelated projects coming up in the meantime, such as the novels StarFold, and Biomimic Generations. Both of these share many of the concepts of artificial intelligence and synthetic humans that are introduced in Water Taxi and Moon Dust, but, they are set in quite different worlds.
SU: What advice do you have for young writers struggling through the first draft of a science fiction novel?
GS: That's a hard question because the author's specific struggle may come from a variety of problems, or sometimes even from prior successes. Is it a plot or structural problem, a language or descriptive problem, a character problem, point of view, or writer's motivation, or world-building, or a lack of a plan? A hundred possibilities. To help the author come up with her own best solutions to the issues, I'd have to know the writer's intentions, the story ideas, etc. But here's a five general strategies when struggles arise:
When struggling, one tactic is to take a break. Set the work aside for a day. Give your subconscious mind a chance to mull over the story issues. Go for a walk in the woods, or other physical exercise if you can. Just to clear your head.
Another tactic is to feed your mind new information. Read some non-fiction. The idea here is to expand and contest your understandings of the world, to find new solutions for your stories outside of what you're already thinking: the ideas, histories, new scientific developments. Science literacy helps science fiction. So I recommend Carl Sagan's 'Demon-Haunted World' as a great starting place if the author is new to the sciences. Other good preliminary sources are the better overview magazines, like New Scientist, Scientific American, Nature.
A third tactic is to write a different story. Sometimes the approach to a new story or idea answers the problems in an older one.
A fourth idea would be to pack up and go work in a different environment for a while. Sometimes I get more writing done in an hour at the library than I do in three hours in my office. Funny how that works.
A fifth strategy is talk to people. For example once I was trying to write a scene that involved a character being mugged. I got stuck. So at a dinner with some friends I asked them "Hey, have you ever been mugged?" And some had or knew someone who had. What happened? What did it feel like? How did they respond? How did they feel the day after? People like to share their experiences, and these real-life events can inform our writing.
SU: What books, authors, or films influenced you while writing your story collections?
GS: Well, I draw broadly from many sources. I credit Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars series with proving to me that contemporary ecological issues can matter in science fiction. But the love of the field for me goes back to Star Wars and Star Trek, when I was young. In those years I also read Tolkien, Ursula K. le Guin, Bradbury, Asimov, and Douglas Adams. I like a lot of the more intellectual films such as Moon, Tarkovsky's Solaris, and Arrival. Readers can find a suite of author's notes in the back of each of my books, noting some of the sources that inspired me. In relationship to quantum mechanics in Moon Dust Infinity, one of the best non-fiction books I read was Amanda Gefter's Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn (Bantam, 2014).
SU: Do you have any readings or signings coming up? Where can readers find you?
GS: My next public event is an art opening, here in the Berkshires in February. Sometimes I attend Boskone or Readercon. But the best places to find me are online, like Twitter and Facebook or directly via my email newsletter. Right now if you sign-up for the newsletter, you can get the ebook Moon Dust Infinity for free. And of course Water Taxi is free on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and elsewhere. :)
American author Gregory Scheckler lives in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. He enjoys both Star Trek and Star Wars and he isn’t afraid to say so in public. He and his wife are avid telemark skiers, and enjoy mountain biking and hiking too. Writings credits include World Weaver Press, The Berkshire Review, the Mind’s Eye Liberal Arts Journal, and Thought & Action: Journal of the National Education Association. Selected visual arts credits include Ferrin Gallery, the Washburn Historical and Cultural Museum, Duluth Art Institute, Utah Museum of Fine Arts, the Bennington Museum, the Berkshire Museum, and the National Science Foundation. In addition to writing and exhibiting, Gregory Scheckler currently serves as Professor of Art at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, where he teaches critical thinking, creativity and innovation.