Tricia Sullivan thinking out of the box
Tricia Sullivan is an intriguing writer, because her books can be read on so many different levels, usually offering a challenging, but rewarding read. Her approach to writing is no less fascinating.
You’re primarily a science fiction writer, but Occupy Me had an element of crossover into fantasy. Would you explain the different types of science fiction and how you see fantasy fitting into this arena?
I have a lot of difficulty with those distinctions, because I think they’re outmoded. That’s maybe why you see me mixing things so much in Occupy Me. I don’t have a lot of use for genres of any kind. I think that they tend to be a product more of our marketing culture than our reading habits. I read across genres. So there’s been a long thing in science fiction that’s been going on about what is hard science fiction and what is soft science fiction, what is fantasy? I don’t find those distinctions to be useful. I think they get in the way. If I was to say while I was writing my novel, ‘Okay I’m going to have some technological extrapolation in it, so that means I can’t put anything in it that has a mystical quality’ I would be dead at the starting gate.
Occupy Me started as a paranormal romance. It began in a conversation with a friend of mine who reads a lot of urban fantasy and paranormal romance and writes it. We’re talking about the Angel trend. I started holding forth about my opinions and she challenged me to write it. So I started trying to write a paranormal romance, which began to take on another character altogether because I was open to other things. I’ve been writing professionally for 20 years. When I first started out I felt intimidated at the idea of mixing these things up. I felt that I wasn’t allowed to and that I was going to be ridiculed. I kind of mixed them up a bit anyway. But now we’ve started to see authors just having freely at whatever they want, smashing things together, blending things and looking at things from different angles. I find that very refreshing.
I think a writer who really epitomizes successful genre busting is someone like Lauren Beukes, who started out writing cyberpunk, then went into urban fantasy. She won the Arthur C Clarke Award and now writes crime thrillers with a supernatural twist. She’s all over the map and she sells very well. So I think when we have writers that are successful in that way, this tells publishers it’s okay to go outside the box.
Your initial degree is in music and yet you have largely chosen to write in the arena of science fiction. What made you chose this field to write in?
I’d been reading science fiction and fantasy since I was very young, as well as watching it on television since the age of six. Things like Star Trek. So it’s something that’s part of my blood stream. It really is nothing to do with what I studied at university. It’s more like that’s how I think.
So really anyone wanting to write science fiction needn’t be intimidated, because they think they should be a scientist.
I always tell people not to be intimidated, because I know that I was intimidated and it felt as if the science fiction writing field was a little bit like a fort. There’s a certain amount of protectionism that goes on amongst geeks in that ‘This is our special fort and if you don’t know the secret handshake or codes we’re not going to let you in’. I think this frame of mind is starting to break down a little bit with so many women getting involved in technology and geekdom. We are seeing more diversity in terms of race, gender and all these kinds of things. It’s no longer like Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory doing ‘rock, paper, lizard, scissors, Spock’. You know there’s room for lots of different divisions. Because I don’t want to look around and see that all people think the same.
I notice that you’re now doing a science first degree and a Masters in Astrophysics. Is this an extended piece of research for writing?s
No. When I lived in America I was an English teacher and when I moved here the national curriculum was just coming in. I didn’t want to work as an English teacher here within the National Curriculum. I became a full-time writer at that point and I managed to make that work for a while. Then it stopped working financially. So I tried to get my qualification transferred over to do English teaching in the UK, but they wouldn’t accept it. That’s when I decided to go in a different direction and started studying physics. I was originally going to do just enough to get a teaching qualification, but I got caught up in it, so I thought I would push it further. I’m now on a Masters course and would love to do a PhD if I can.
But I’ve always been interested in science. So I’m not really veering off at all. It’s just that it’s a path that you have to have a certain level of mathematical fluency to pursue and I didn’t have that. I didn’t have the discipline for that when I was younger, but now that I’m a bit older and I see the value of it, I’ve been willing to slog through the equations and start to make some progress with that.
With Occupy Me there are elements of astrophysics, a bit of biochemistry, in fact quite an interesting mix of concepts. As you’ve being doing the physics degree and then onto the Masters, has it triggered off things you’ve wanted to write about in fiction?
Occupy Me was mostly written between 2011 and about halfway through 2014. So I know a lot more now than I did when I was writing it. A lot of the ideas in it came out of popular science books that were quite apart from what I was doing. So yes and no. When I was actually writing the book I was mostly doing very basic groundwork in mathematics and very basic groundwork in physics but the ideas came out of things I was reading about brains and extensions of string theory and way out ideas, which frankly I don’t know much about because I’m not a theoretical physicist. Some of that stuff is really arcane, even amongst physicists.
I think most of the ideas were in my head. Even now I still wouldn’t want to have to tell you anything about physics on the level of the numbers.
If you read a Greg Egon novel, like the new series. It’s set in a finite shaped torus universe. So you can actually meet yourself coming. The speed of light varies with wavelength. So it’s some really hairy extrapolation. He, more or less, gives you the equations in the book. That’s something I can’t do. And I wouldn’t want to try.
You described the origins of Occupy Me. Do you consciously know what’s happening to your thought processes when you’re writing, in the sense that you actively try to pursue certain trains of thought? Or is it something that appears as you’re writing?
A bit of both. I don’t think I’ve met anybody who puts their books together quite the way I do. People talk about the dichotomy between those who outline in advance, the so called ‘plotters’ verses the ‘pantsters’ who just start writing and keep going. I know people who do both of those things. But the key way I write that is different from just about everybody I know is because it’s not-linear. I very often write scenes that are completely out of order and a lot of the mental activity is taking place figuring out what the connections are and what is going on.
In what order did you write Occupy Me?
It’s almost too complicated to say. The first thing that I wrote was Pearl, because my friend said ‘I want you to write this character and I want her to be called Pearl. Go away and write something’. The first scene I wrote was where Pearl throws Dr Soele off the airplane. But I didn’t know anything that was happening in that scene. So I had to go away and figure what was going on. The end product of the book was completely different to what I had originally envisaged.
I did enjoy the humour in the book, particularly where it concerned Alison the vet. I could have quite happily read more about her. She could certainly give as good as she got and was very resourceful.
Now that’s funny because Alison is an example of a character that was completely unplanned. When I first started writing that character it was purely because Pearl had a sick cat and had to get it treated. I really didn’t know what was going in the story. I was writing my way through it, and Pearl takes the cat to the vet and meets the vet. In the original version Alison was much younger and much less assertive. But it didn’t feel right so I changed her. That’s when I began to push against a typical character that you might meet in a novel. I’m going to make her older, more pragmatic and put her feet on the ground. Then I just let her go. I had no idea she was going to be so important to the story. But she wasn’t in any of my notes as one of the movers and shakers of the book.
To say that you’re writing in no particular order, how do you keep track of all your writing. Do you manage your writing by, for example, filing all the different drafts carefully away?
I don’t have drafts. The finished book is not hugely different from the first draft. There was some rewriting and some reordering but, no, I don’t keep writing draft after draft. I start in word and accumulate a certain about of words, until it becomes unraveled and I start to lose track of things. Then I transfer it to Scrivener and try to put it in some kind of sequence. I put each scene as a separate file in Scrivener. Over the years I’ve become more sophisticated and added colour coding to help me keep track of point of view and see what’s going on. For example, if I have about 10 scenes in a row with the same character, I might break it up with another character and another point of view. I also have to see things chronologically and make sure things match up. So there’s a lot of fiddling about to get it to work like that. It will then go back and forth between words and Scrivener that way.
The final arrangement that I have in first draft will be in Scrivener. Then I’ll pull it all off Scrivener and into word again. Then that’s my first draft. Usually with most of my books, I don’t do a gigantic rewrite at that point. It’s usually recognisable as the final thing.
I will sit down to work for the day and I’ll open up a word document and put ‘work 160716’, and so on. I put in the work and the date and start typing, then make a note of the word count so I know whether I’ve been good or bad. Then I just put that into a file. I’ll accumulate a bunch of them from random point around the book. They won’t be in sequence. I won’t even know how they connect, then after a while I’ll start to feel like the chaos is getting a bit much and I’ll go through them all and load them into the Scrivener and try to slot them into order. After this I’ll go away and have a little cry. Then I’ll put a chart up on the wall.
I use a lot of physical, visual aids to figure out what’s going on. We live in a barn conversion that’s all on one floor, and we have a long hallway with the bedrooms coming off it. This means there’s a big blank wall on one side. So with Occupy Me I put up a lot of nails of the wall about two summers ago and put flip charts on them and a cork board and white board. Then I got a lot of different coloured Post It Notes and different coloured markers and started trying to put the book all over the wall. It looked completely crazy.
I had to have some schematic way of working things out and I had little cards, with drawings and arrows, Post Its and questions for myself stuck all over it. It looked like a complete disaster. It didn’t look like anything resembling a book, by this time.
Do you think about your writing all the time?
I couldn’t think about the book all the time, because with this book I was studying intensely while I was writing it. I didn’t have a contract for it with a publisher. I had no idea whether it was going to sell or not. So I could only work on it when I could carve out a bit of time, which wasn’t very often. I think that was probably why I would core out what I could for that day and then it would go away for a while and I wouldn’t see it again. So periodically I would have to conceptually load the whole thing back into my head and try to figure out what I was thinking and then try to make a bit more progress on it. Then I put the novel to one side, because I had to forget about it for two to three months. The whole novel was written like that.
This is what many people do not understand about writing. There’s an enormous amount of discipline required with writing. You effectively doubled that up by doing academic work. How you manage to switch from one style of writing to another?
It’s true that intention shifting is difficult. For me, doing the maths and physics all the time uses a certain type of focused thinking that’s extremely disciplined and left brain and requires full conscious concentration. I would reach a point where I would almost feel mentally ill unless I got some writing done.
So I would sit down and it would all come pouring out. It is almost like tapping right into my subconscious. The difficult part for me isn’t switching from the maths and the academic stuff into the writing. The actual hands on the keyboard, the kind of dreaming that you do when you’re writing means you’re in a kind of daydream and taking down what you see, so that is not difficult for me.
What was the problem, and always seems to be the problem for me, is the organisation of the writing, because that uses the same circuitry as maths and any kind of logical process making connections to figure out sequences. It was like doing a jigsaw puzzle. I found that incredibly exhausting.
I use triggers like music, a favourite chair, smells or chocolate. Any type of Pavlovian response that I subconsciously hook onto is helpful to get me into writing. It kind of says ‘Oh I know what I’m going to do now’. It just puts you in that space. But it is tough getting there.
How much do you think you’re going to use of the degree now that you’re coming to the end of the Masters you currently doing?
I’m primarily going to use them to get gainful employment. I didn’t enter into them as a sideline to my writing. They’re going to be my day job. I do think most writers need a day job. It is very rare a writer can make a living purely through writing. You must have seen the Society of Authors’ survey where it showed how little the average annual income of a writers is.
But also for me and for my sanity, I felt that there came a point where I had to decouple my source of income from my writing, because it was making me incredibly miserable to worry about the money. Our whole publishing system is in such a huge state of flux it’s not predictable in the way it used to be. There’s nothing reliable about it. There’s so much anxiety and depression that goes along with writing professionally that I really think if you have something else to do it’s very healthy for most people.
A lot of my friends are writers and many of them have been through hard times. It’s a very difficult thing to do at a professional level. It takes a lot of mental toughness. It’s unfortunate that the system that you’re working in right now expects people to produce books like machines. I was thinking about this earlier today. You’re supposed to produce very rapidly and regularly. If you can do that you stand a much better chance of getting some money out of your writing. If you can’t do that then the system is really pitched against you. So a lot of people who are highly creative just don’t do well stuck in a trench digging situation all the time. It’s very hard. I know some very successful writers and they just work so hard.
I know this sounds negative, but I think it’s important for people who want to be published that they can’t just assume that once they get accepted for publication that’s it. Some of the successful writers that I know have it pretty tough and there is no easy way to make a buck.
Having said that. If you had your time over again would you still be writer?
I don’t think I have a choice about being a writer. I’ve been writing since I was seven years old. I fell into doing it professionally. I had a teaching job that I got with the idea I could have a good profession that I could enjoy, but would still leave me a little bit of wiggle room to do some writing when I had holidays. That was my plan. I never intended to be a full-time writer. I think I’m cut out to be a part-time writer. That’s what works best for me. I don’t think I would want to do it full-time again.
So really the important message is that writing is hard work and in order to finish a book you have to be disciplined and very dedicated.
Yes. It’s not just about getting one book finished. It does depend on why you’re writing. The tendency is that people assume you’re writing because you want to be published. I know that’s easy for me to say because I’ve been published. It’s easy for me to say it doesn’t mean that much. It does mean a lot. It is great to be published. But I think if you frame it in such a way that you’re not really a writer until you’re published by someone, then you miss out on what writing really is. It’s actually a way of life. It’s just like you making things all the time and there’s a discipline to it, but you do develop a facility for it the more you do it. If you’ve written one or two novels then you know what doing a novel feels like. It’s not so difficult to produce a third.
If you’re only going to write one novel and it doesn’t sell and you’re done, you’re going to miss out on writing the second and the third and the fourth. There is lot of gratification in the process. It’s a kind of masochistic gratification, but just like making or doing anything, a lot of the juice is in the doing. It really is.
What are you going to do next?
I have another book under contract. I’ve actually been working on two things on and off. They’re both science fiction but they’re very different to one another. I generally have a few things on the burner at once.
One of the ones I’m working on at the moment started as my light relief novel when I was writing Occupy Me. When Occupy Me was being really difficult and I couldn’t get my head round it or deal with it, I would get my writing gratification just by playing on something that was strictly for fun. I would mostly write it sitting in my car waiting for my son to come out of school. I’d get there early to get a parking place and he’d invariably always be the last one out. So sometimes I’ve have a good 20 minutes, just sitting there with nothing to do and I would write purely for fun and not with any plan of it coming to something. Eventually it built up enough that I thought maybe I should do something with it.
This was the stage where before it was all fun and games, until you suddenly realise that it’s actually work and then it becomes terrifying. So now I have another light relief project to get me out of that one. I’m always cheating by working on something else.