Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Alec Nevala-Lee and The Proving Ground

Author Alec Nevala-Lee joined us on the show to talk about his work, including a story of his which appeared in Analog, "The Proving Ground." "The Proving Ground" is a climate change scenario set in the Marshall Islands, which are in danger of disappearing. The scenario he put together is one in which places damaged by climate change can get reparations from the governments which caused climate change... but only if they still exist. A country which has disappeared under the water can't file for reparations, so in this story the Marshall Islands have built a "seastead" (like homestead but on the sea) which now represents the country.

Alec told us that in the midst of his writing process, he realized the story would be an homage to Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. This came about because of a scientific twist that he discovered while pulling together information on seasteading, including a long report by Peter Thiel which included technology and risk assessments of various sorts.

I asked Alec to tell us more about his process. He says he asks, "What's a good story?" He does lots of research and then looks for plot. He likes near-future scenarios. In this case he was looking at engineering proposals to combat climate change, specifically iron fertilization, which encourages the growth of plankton which consume carbon dioxide, but which doesn't necessarily encourage "good" plankton. Some plankton give off poisonous substances which can cause birds to go crazy. He found out about a historical incident in the 1960's when sea birds attacked, and that gave him an organic, plausible way to have a bird attack on a Marshall Islands seastead. At that point he realized, "This is the story."

I asked him if there was any connection here to his novel work. Alec has written three thrillers, and says he loves suspense, particularly the way he must try to keep people turning pages, and create puzzles for readers to solve. He says suspense is a great way of delivering ideas.

Alec describes himself as approaching worldbuilding from the opposite direction. Whereas most people look for a story that works within a background,  he looks for a story plot with a twist, and then asks, "what is the setting where the plot makes the most sense?" He prefers a setting in which the implausible becomes inevitable. He finds it much harder to construct stories where the setting comes first. The core idea sets the constraints. He once had a story that he initially set in Greenland, but then he ended up moving it to Vietnam because it was a better fit.

He told us about a medical mystery story he wrote in which the remains of a saint caused people to catch a disease that seemed to cause miraculous healing. He learned about the story of Saint John of the Cross and decided it had to be in Spain, then decided it couldn't be in the present day because of access to medical technology. He therefore set it at a time when access to medical treatment was limited, and chose the Spanish civil war. In the end, a parallel to Hemingway came in... but that was the last thing to join the story.

"You can be forced backwards into what seems like the story's most obvious feature."

Similarly, Alec said he didn't know until quite late in his process that The Proving Ground would become an homage to Hitchcock.

Sometimes you take weeks, months, or years of ideas and arrange them into a sequence on the page, and you can make it look like you had the ending in mind.

Alec specializes in puzzle narratives. He says they force him to explore ideas that he wasn't planning to explore. He appreciates the opportunity to learn about different things because the story "told me to go there."

He has a story coming out soon in Analog. This happens to be another one that started with setting. He found a book in a thrift store called Alaska Bush Pilots in the Float Country, published in 1969. He held onto it for one year, fascinated by the risks and problems the pilots faced, as well as the setting and the pilots' profession. Then he found a second thread in the stories of Charles Fort about unexplained phenomena. Alec says he's a big X-files fan, and so he combined the two into a piece about a bush pilot hero in Alaska and a ghost city that appears like a mirage over a mountain range.

Alec is constantly on the look out for articles, connections, and places to start.

I asked him what kind of tool set he used for putting setting on the page. He told me he likes exploring the settings, sifting through research for images and details depending on what is available. "It's easier to work with what you have."

In his story process, the twist is really important. He often aims to do what he calls X-files in reverse, where he enters in with an event that looks paranormal, but then ends up being rational and scientific. The mechanism is concealed, so the story will appear sometimes to be horror or fantasy, but science lies at its core. His rule is that whatever gets revealed must be as interesting as the paranormal explanation. He doesn't want the science to be mundane.

I asked Alec about how he goes about concealing things without annoying his readers. He told me he generally uses one point of view character to limit the available information. He then puts the puzzle together by placing pieces in careful order. He wants the last piece to appear as close to the end as possible. He describes these as "mystery writer tactics."

Alec says science fiction is a fun genre to work in because weird stuff happens in it all the time, so it's much easier to convince readers that there's a monster, or that something paranormal is going on. He once wrote a Japanese-style horror story about a river creature, and enjoyed then surprising readers with a scientific explanation.

In this way he makes the natural expectations of genre work for him. However, and he stresses this, the scientific explanation must always be more interesting!

Alec is very organized about his writing process. He says there's probably a limit to the kinds of stories you can tell with this specific technique. He's intrigued by challenging ideas but if he feels "I have to write this" he gets a bit concerned because he might not be able to be objective, or because he feels there's a risk that he won't be able to write it.

Right now, Alec is working on a nonfiction project about the history of science fiction. It sounds really interesting.

Thank you, Alec, for joining us on the show and talking to us about your process! Today's hangout happens in half an hour, and we'll be talking with guest author Anne Leonard. I hope to see many people there.



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