Saturday, June 3, 2017

John Chu

We had a delightful conversation with author John Chu about his short stories. We were coy at first about using the full title of one of the stories, but in the end it's important to get it right, so the story was called, "A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Proposed Tradeoffs for the Overhaul of the Barricade." John told us that he kept wondering if people would make him change the title, but that in the end people don't tend to do that as much for short fiction!

I remarked that his stories seem to focus a great deal on relationships. John explained that "I steal shamelessly from the improv playbook." He says that his experiences with improv deeply influenced his writing. When people think of improv, he says, they often think of "Whose Line is it Anyway?" and other short-form improvisation. However, he explains that there is also a long form of improvisation, and within that context there is less of an expectation to be funny. The aim is to capture an emotion, with real stress on creating a sense of relationship.

In a way he describes as counterintuitive, the idea is not to think about plot. He quotes Samuel R. Delaney as saying, "Plot is an artifact that the reader creates in their mind."

When improv is done badly, the focus is on fixing a problem that has been posed. However, it's good when you can explore how the people involved attack the problem.

John says "I get accused of not writing speculative fiction a lot." This is because his stories are not often directly about the speculative element that he chooses to include. He mentions Max Gladstone talking about Superman stories, and says that the canonical question of "can he super his way out of this?" is boring, while far more interesting is when he's doing super things, but the core question of how he gets out of it requires something different.

Thus, in "...Barricade," the question is not whether the characters can fix the barricade, because if they don't, then their civilization ends. Ultimately the story is about the relationships of the characters, and what kind of decisions or sacrifices the characters make.

I asked John what comes to him first in a story, the speculative element, the relationship, etc. and he said that it depends on the story. He describes himself as "a walking collector of useful information." So as he's going through life collecting all sorts of tidbits, he finds that every so often a number of them will come together into a story.

His story entitled "Hold Time Violations" was inspired by walking into a T station and finding that the public announcement was out of sync with the train. That alone is not a story, but a setting. It's the idea of things being out of sync, and then he takes that and applies it to the characters.

In the case of his Hugo award-winning story "The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere," John says he spends a lot of time defending why the literalized metaphor of water falling on you from nowhere is actually speculative fiction. In this story, water falls on you when you lie, meaning that the implications of a lie are not just emotional. John says that some people can read the entire story and never realize that the water is literal, in spite of lots of physical description of the water and cues to the way it feels to the characters.

I asked him how he goes about creating the setting and surroundings, given how important the core relationships are to the story. He doesn't worldbuild in advance, but describes it as "discovering things as I write." Often, he says, the story ends up being about something different by the time he's done. He works from the inside out, asking, "what does this scene need?" John talked about George Saunders, who spoke about how good sentences have a rhythm. You just keep adding in words to make beautiful sentences, and it ends up creating a world.

John says he steals shamelessly from other writers. Samuel R. Delaney's specialty is to visualize and immerse in a setting full of specific detail. Delaney was one of John's instructors at Clarion writer's workshop. John clearly remembers his reading was a description of buttering toast, and felt really long for just being a description of buttering toast, but years later all his classmates remember that description of buttering toast.

Because John is not someone who builds the world in advance, most comes out as he writes in an organic process of co-evolution. He goes back and outlines after creating a first draft to keep the story from being unstructured. Sometimes he does research as an intermediate step. He says "I try not to research while I'm writing." He says you want your work to have truth to it. He often finds himself drawing on his collection of "useless" knowledge.

I asked him about his recent story in Uncanny, "Making the Magic Lightning Strike Me," in which the main character goes through all sorts of extreme body modifications to make himself bigger and stronger. John said that because he's 5'6" he's continually asked himself "How do I be taller?" This question features in the story. Some of the story elements are extrapolation, but he did look up the name of the surgery that extends the length of bones. It's useful for people with legs of different lengths, for example, and not just cosmetic.

Another element of the story is special drugs that make the main character have bigger muscles. John explains that he doesn't do steroids, the same way that people who write mysteries don't murder people. He does lift weights. Crossfit, he told us, is starting ot have a steroid crisis. He looked into things like this and turned it up a couple of notches.

For one of the scenes featuring a break-in, he chose a specific instance from the news as a template; it was the raid on Osama bin Laden's house. The exterior of the building was essentially that same house.

I asked him if he ever studied psychology for relationship inspiration, and he replied, "I probably should study psychology." His knowledge of relationships comes from personal experience, but is generally not autobiographical. "I have friends and I listen to all of them." He also gets ideas from reading, news, and other sources. He says that one of the principles of improv is to take inspiration from whatever happens around you.

Connie Willis has been known to say, "My characters do what I tell them to," but John says "You have the tail, and you have the dog, and it's not clear which part is the tail and which the dog."

John says it's important not be too attached to anything you write. Really cool ideas, if they don't match with one story, can later be used in another story, so cutting is not a tragedy.

He always finishes his stories. He describes his ethic as "I'm going to finish this story even if it kills me." He says that finishing gives you practice in finishing. Some stories write themselves, but he said that "The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere" was like "having to do a root canal on a stranger." Some of his stories have never seen the light of day, but they are finished. John says, "I'm a better writer because I finished them."

Many thanks to John for joining us! This was a unique conversation because it's been really unusual on the show to dive into the experience of someone who doesn't worldbuild in advance. However, a lot of people do it, so it was super helpful to get a peek at John's process. Thanks to everyone who attended.


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