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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Real Science & Suspense Meeting in a Novel: An Author Interview with Ransom Stephens



Your professional background is in particle physics research and tech development. How do you go from a likely technical field that it only understandable to a few to writing a novel for the masses?
I’ve been writing since I could write. School newspapers, stories, lots of essays and so forth. It’s how I sort my thoughts. Over the years, documenting my work has accounted for whatever success I’ve experienced in every career I’ve pursued. Over the years, I never stopped writing stories and poems as well as explanatory essays on science and technology. So there wasn’t so much a transition as an altering of priorities.

How you do break down the scientific jargon to laymen’s terms?
The transition from writing dry technical stuff to writing suspense fiction was more of a refinement. The tools are the same, the techniques differ. Adverbs, for example, are strangely useful in conveying complex topics while being annoyingly useless, yet easy to abuse, in fiction. Over the years, people who read my narrative work provided enough positive reinforcement that I figured I could do it and being a novelist was third on my list of life goals; behind being a scientist and playing linebacker for the Oakland Raiders (I still haven’t given up on that).

Popular science writing is a wonderful challenge. There are two primary guiding rules. The first, use as little jargon as possible. Trying to understand complicated concepts is hard enough without being asked to learn a new language; a lesson that I ODed on when I moved from physics research at national labs and universities to tech development in the private sector. I had no idea what the engineers were talking about until I realized that they just used different jargon. The second rule is to milk metaphors like you work at a science-writing dairy. But use better ones than that.

Are any of the characters in your book based on people you know?
Most of my characters are an amalgamation of people I know and my own alter-egos. So far, none of my characters are autobiographical. The closest is Chopper, the villain in The Sensory Deception. My characters have quite different religious and political opinions than mine. For example, Foster Reed, the evangelical physicist in The God Patent is based on a combination of a childhood friend who is Mormon and the only devoutly religious physicist I’ve ever known. From that starting point, over several revisions, Foster evolved into that character. He took a lot of work, probably because we had so little in common.

What inspired you to come up with the concept of The God Patent? One night, while walking around in a Florida swamp with a beer buzz, I thought of the model of the soul that forms the premise for The God Patent. I was a post doctoral research associate at the time, which means that my understanding of quantum physics and relativity and all that stuff was at a pinnacle. I explained the model to a few people and decided that it would be more interesting if I could wrap it in a plot so that people could discover it as Ryan and Katarina do in The God Patent. It took another ten years to come up with that plot.

The thing I like about this model of the soul, and I won’t tell you whether I believe it or not, has to do with faith. You see, I am very curious about why people take leaps of faith. Horoscopes, for example. Why would anyone think that the position of stars and planets could affect them? It’s a leap of faith. Science involves faith, too, but at a different scale: steps of faith, not leaps. You can’t perform every experiment, so believing other people’s results requires an element of faith, but not a leap.

The cool thing about the model of the soul in The God Patent, for me anyway, is that its believability is reduced to a single yes/no question. A single, well-defined step of faith. No great leap, just a yes/no question. A question which, evidently, requires about 400 pages of build-up. If you answer the question “yes” then you believe that model of the soul. And lots of people do answer “yes” which I find at once redeeming and kind of scary. I have no desire to lead a cult.

How long did it take you to write the first book? How many rewrites did you do on it? The first draft took four months, the second six months, the 3rd and 4th took three months each, the 5th and 6th each took a few weeks. A total of about 18 months and, by that, I mean an average of 2-3 hours each day.

For that first book, you have 85 reviews on Amazon. How did you manage to get so many people to be motivated to write a review for a less than well-known name?
The God Patent got terrific buzz right from the start. First, when I uploaded it to Scribd, it was in their top 5 most-read novels for the better part of a year and then when Numina Press published the print version, the San Francisco Chronicle did a big feature article. Plus, I promoted it relentlessly through speeches, articles, YouTube videos and literary events. I used four different speeches for promotion, two covering the science, one for writers groups, and an unrelated career development speech. The point being, that I got The God Patent in a lot of hands. I think I gave almost 50 speeches to different groups in about 18 months.

At the end of the book, there’s a message “From the author” where I ask people to send me an email of their thoughts. Lots of readers send me notes and I ask them to write a review; about half of them do so. Asking for favors runs contrary to my grain, I’m kinda shy with strangers, so it’s personally painful to ask for those reviews, but I force myself and people are pretty happy to do it. As far as I know, no one’s ever been offended.

You also wrote Your Pursuit of Greatness - a workbook which you say evolved from a speech you’ve been giving for years. How did you get started in doing inspirational speaking?
Here’s the story. Back in the mid-90s, when I was an Assistant Professor of Physics, i.e., junior faculty, the dean came to my office and said, “We need more science majors so I’m asking someone from each department to give an hour speech to the incoming freshman class. If our enrollment increases by 10% your chances for tenure will increase at least that much.”

When I gave the first version of that speech, originally called How I avoided Growing Up, the students gushed over it. The dean’s admin told me that to this day, students still tell her the effect that speech had on their career choices. The message is pretty simple: you might as well try to do what you really want to do because the world is a big place and life is short. You either succeed or you die trying, but you’re going to die anyway.

I kept giving that speech to incoming freshman every year. I got tenure and left academia, but kept going back to give some version of that speech. Then, when The God Patent came out, right during the great recession, I figured with all those unemployed people that I had a captive audience so I booked a bunch of speeches at employment development centers, networking events and so forth and handed out bookmarks and sold books. It got the word out, but marketing to people who are broke might have been a dubious concept.

Your second novel, The Sensory Deception, is coming out in August. Are there any similarities between that book and your first novel? They are similar in the sense that their premises are built around cutting edge science. I think the science is better integrated in The Sensory Deception.
The idea for The Sensory Deception came from a newspaper article about a polar bear that swam from ice floes off of Greenland to Iceland. Two weeks of swimming, looking for ice and not finding any. Finally the bear washes up on shore and the police shoot it. Here’s a link to the story: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/jun/05/animalwelfare.animalbehaviour
It occurred to me that if people could experience that first hand, it might alter their politics, might turn them into environmentalists. So I started thinking about nature-based immersive virtual reality and came up with the idea for “sensory saturation,” did a little research and discovered that the effect had been verified by neuro-scientists.

What inspired you to consider writing what it would feel like to be an animal?
The idea is that if you’re inundated with sensory information, your brain doesn’t have time to reflect, to think, and your time horizon reduces from what you experience now, hours, weeks, years, decades, to a window of about ten seconds—the reality of most animals. Developing characters and a plot for that premise led me to Gloria, the brilliant, beautiful Iranian Jew venture capitalist, Farley Rutherford, the naive natural born leader, Chopper Vittori, the migraine-tortured badass neurologist, and Ringo Hayes, the uber-geek engineer.

From a writer’s standpoint, the idea of writing from an animal’s point of view is a wonderful challenge. Animals process information differently, whales, for example, visualize through sonar and bears are more attuned to scent and taste than sight. So those POV passages are detail heavy. I usually hate excessive details, but they’re necessary here so I had to balance my loathing of irrelevant details with conveying the sense of an animal’s reality. From the twenty or so people who’ve read the manuscript and the response at readings, the polar bear and sperm whale POV pieces come off pretty well.

How do you write? Did you do an outline first? Did you do individual character development before doing the full plot?
I develop an outline as far as my own impatience allows, usually, 3-4 pages of initial ideas for how the story unfolds. For The God Patent, The Sensory Deception, and the novel I’m working on now, The Time Prisoner, the plots come to me in the middle of the night. I get up and run into another room and lay down the essential story. It takes a few weeks to eek out the other details and, during that time, I start building characters.
I need to know my characters pretty well before I can start drafting. To nail down their attributes and get an idea of their quirks, I use specially modified dungeons and dragons character sheets. Yes, I played DnD in high school, thoroughly baked most of the time. If you want a copy of my character sheet, send me a note: ransom@ransomstephens.com .

Tell me how you got involved with 47North for your publishing? 
The Sensory Deception was ready to go in January of 2012 and I was shopping it around to agents and publishers. I got about 40 rejections—every writer knows how it works—as well as two offers from small publishers including Numina Press, who published The God Patent. Since The Sensory Deception is more blockbuster-y and less “literary,” I wanted a bigger house to get behind it so, with all voices of self-doubt in my head telling me I was crazy, I turned down both of the publishers. 

A few months later, in July of 2012, with that growing stack of rejections, I started looking for a developmental editor to help me fix it up. I’d gotten great feedback and encouragement from the San Francisco Writers Workshop and the handful of writers, including some authors of bestsellers, so I believed it was a good project, a full-speed techno-eco-science thriller, if you will.

One morning in the middle of July, I was at hotel in Silicon Valley getting dressed before heading to a high-tech development conference, “The PCIe SIG-DevCon” (see what I mean about engineering jargon?), and checked my email. There was a note from someone who had read The God Patent—as I already told you, I get these notes now and them. The note went on about how he loved the story and characters, premise and so forth. So I’m patting myself on the back, “Yes isn’t this nice, another love letter from my adoring—“ and the letter concluded with “…by the way, I’m an acquisition editor with 47North and I’d like to talk to you about your writing career. Do you have any other manuscripts we could consider?”

What happened next?
I talked to him the next day and sent him The Sensory Deception manuscript. Then I sweated for a month, waiting. During that time, I wrote a note to myself promising that no matter what their response, I would not alter my pursuit of this goal.

The lesson for other writers, as well as myself, is that this sort of good fortune (who are we kidding, it’s luck) that he read my book—results from years of effort. Writing fiction had been my top priority every day for seven years when this opportunity found me. That it found me was a result of uploading The God Patent and doing everything I could to get word out.

In scientific terms, I made a big cross section, a big target that made it possible for good fortune to find. In the current state of the publishing industry writers have to expose themselves. For many of us, putting our work, our metaphorical necks, on the line runs counter to our every instinct, but it’s the only way to reach that point where someday, maybe, if we keep pushing long enough, we’ll be allowed to sit in a favorite chair, in the dark corner of a favorite room, with a couple of dogs at our feet and be left alone to write fiction for living.

What is the best advice you’ve been given about writing you would like to pass along?
I can’t think of a single piece of advice. I’m a craft junkie and so the best advice I’ve been given is a long list of lessons about how to write compelling stories with interesting characters. I put most of them on my website for anyone to check out: ransomstephens.com/the-craft.htm

If you would like to learn more about this author and his books, here's a link to his website and Amazon
The Sensory Deception won't be out until August but can be pre-ordered as ebook, audio, or print with guaranteed best price.