Sunday, June 05, 2011

John Scalzi and Sam Sykes at the Poisoned Pen

Left to right - Sam Sykes and John Scalzi

 I know I normally don't recap appearances by science fiction and fantasy authors, but a local appearance by John Scalzi was too good to miss. I was halfway through Fuzzy Nation, and loving it, and a friend only had good things to say about Scalzi. She and I went to see Scalzi and Sam Sykes last Saturday at the Poisoned Pen.

The audience wanted the authors to kick off the program by reading from their works. Sam Sykes started by reading from Black Halo, the second book in his Aeons' Gate series. He read  from a scene of a funny debate between a man and a monkey about evolution. (The monkey was winning the debate.)

Then John Scalzi told us the background of the excerpt he chose to read. Earlier this year, his publisher did a survey on their website,, asking readers to pick the top ten science fiction novels of the decade, although they used the years 2000-2010, which is actually eleven years, so it was a baker's decade. There were over 1000 books recommended by fans. Scalzi's Old Man's War was the #1 science fiction book of the last decade, which, according to Scalzi, really only shows his ability to drive people to online polls.

At the same time, they did statistical analysis as to the popular words in titles, and the top words, according to the analysis were "Shadow," ""War," "Night," and "Dragon." So, Scalzi told Tor he wanted to write a trilogy called Shadow War of the Night Dragon. Volume 1 would be The Night City. He told them he was going to write that book, and they might as well drive the money truck up now because if he wrote it he had demands, including a money truck and a pony with pony glitter. Since this was late March, they told him they wanted him to write it. He wrote the prologue of The Night City as an April Fool's joke, and it was on the front of on April 1.

Now, John Scalzi said it should have been obvious this was an April Fool's thing. It came out on April 1. The first sentence was 155 words long, and he used the word "black" eleven times. Then, someone wanted to interview him, and the first six questions were about Scalzi turning to fantasy and The Night City. Scalzi told him it was an April Fool's joke. Some people just didn't get it. The publisher told John there was Hollywood interest in the April Fool's thing, from a legitimate producer, but they had to tell the man it was a joke. Scalzi said he would have written it if there was serious Hollywood interest, but he really put everything he had to say in that prologue. Scalzi then read us the first three sentences in his "Best William Shatner voice."

He then told us farce is hard to write, very, very hard. If you only get half-way there in comedy, it's a failed joke.

Asked to introduce us to his series, Sam Sykes said he pumped a lot of hot air into the dictionary. He said you could tell what kind of fantasy he wrote by noting that the water is on fire on the cover of Black Halo. He said his books are fantasy carried out to the logical conclusion. An adventurer is expected to barge into someone's house, kick them around, steal stuff, and expect to be a hero. Elves aren't friendly in his stories. They've made the logical conclusion and committed genocide against other races. Demons aren't black.

Sykes' adventurers in Black Halo are six misanthropes trying not to kill each other while holding against the gates of Hell. He takes all of the characters to the "logical conclusion." There's a moral, preachy woman who is a good killer. A couple of the group are racists. The Harry Potter type of character is a "really smug little prick." All six of them are loathsome people, but as a group they're loathsome and entertaining.

John Scalzi then gave us the background for his latest book, Fuzzy Nation. H. Beam Piper wrote a book called A Little Fuzzy. He didn't realize it had been nominated for a 1962 Hugo award, and, thinking he was a failure, Piper committed suicide. Piper's heirs allowed the book to fall into public domain, and it was sold to Ace in the 1980s for $1000. That book, and the others in the series, went out of print.

Scalzi is a big fan of A Little Fuzzy. He thought it would be fun to take that classic of the Golden Age, and update it with modern sensibilities. For instance, the original Jack Holliday, the protagonist, was avuncular. He's competent, and knows what he's doing. A Little Fuzzy is a book of its time with people having cocktails, and women just standing around. It had the basic story of environment, sentients, and ecology. Scalzi wanted to bring the story up-to-date.

So, two years ago, he wrote his version, Fuzzy Nation. He had a ball writing it. Then his agent called,  asking what he had for him. Scalzi told him he's been working on something, but he'd never be able to sell it. The agent said challenge accepted. After John told him about it, he said he could work with it. So, he contacted the Piper estate, that was now owned by Penguin, asking them if they wanted a cut. Penguin said yes, but they were skeptical.

So, Scalzi reminded Penguin he was an eight time Hugo nominee, a New York Times Bestselling author. He has a huge blog, with 50,000 readers a day. So, he did something no author should ever do. He wrote a multi-national corporation an advance check, $5000 to show he was serious. Then he told Tor to load up the money truck.

Scalzi said he doesn't like it when authors quote their reviews, but he wanted to quote from his favorite one star review in Amazon. Although most reviews were favorable for Fuzzy Nation, one Piper fan wrote, "Scalzi is a carrion crow feeding off the corpse of his betters."

Sam Sykes proved to be just as funny as John Scalzi, particularly when he answered the question as to why he went into writing. He said it was survival. He was criminally incompetent at everything else. He was fired from every job.

He worked for Barnes and Noble at one time, and, when he was bored, he faked a Cuban accent. His supervisor told him publicly to knock it off, and when a customer asked about it, Sykes, who was passive/aggressive, told the customer the supervisor had something against Hispanics. The next day, he was called in and told there had been a complaint filed based on racism. So, he just said, I'm going to go now.

While he was in college, he thought he'd enjoy hospitality management. He did pretty bad in it, but he was just waiting to do health code inspections. When he had that assignment, his soul of a writer came out. He got an F on the assignment. He was told his words were too big. He just couldn't turn off the writer. So, he decided he was going to go.

Then Sam went into journalism. He liked that. He wrote opinion articles and art pieces pretty well. But, then
he was called in and told that the newspaper had writers, but everything Sykes wrote would get him kicked out because it wasn't true.

So, finally Sykes went into creative writing. He finished his book, Tomb of the Undergates, two years before he graduated. His agent called one day to tell him he had just sold the book in three countries. Sam blew it off, saying he had to go to class. And, then, part-way through the class, he realized his book had actually been sold.

Sykes said for him, it's write or die. Writing works. He says for him, little money guinea pigs push little money carts, and then he eats the guinea pigs. He said he doesn't get John Scalzi's money trucks.

Since John Scalzi is the current president of SFWA, Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he was asked about the difference between science fiction and fantasy, because fans of one genre often say they won't read the other. He said, here's the difference. If the hero wears something on his belt that powers a machine, that's science fiction. If the device on the belt depends on magic for life, it's fantasy. If there's a rational basis for something, and it could be engineered, it's science fiction. If the story depends on the supernatural and magic, it's fantasy. He said there's something called New Weird that crosses both streams. But, there's a lot of stuff in the middle. People have preconceptions of what to expect from the other genre.

Sam Sykes followed up, saying genre labels aren't as important as character, development, and plot.

Scalzi was asked if he was going to bring back Harrison Creek from his novel, The Android's Dream. He answered that Harry is happy. His girlfriend is the richest woman on the planet. His best friend is a computer that controls another world.

When Scalzi's Old Man's War sold, he had a two book contract. The second book was The Android's Dream. His father-in-law, who is the salt of the earth, asked him about his next book. In very animated terms, John told him he was going to write about a man who was farted to death. Sam interrupted to say that's the beauty of science fiction and fantasy. They can write anything they want as long as they can justify it. Scalzi agreed, saying he viewed it as a writing challenge to write the most ridiculous thing he could think of, a man who was farted to death.

When I posted that first picture on Twitpic, someone noticed that the fantasy writer was reading from a hard book while the science fiction writer read from an e-reader. Scalzi was asked about that, and he said there's just a lot of hype and hysteria right now about devices. He said publishing isn't going to go away. He used himself as an example. He's willing to do the writing and marketing, the publicity. That makes him a happy monkey. but he doesn't want to copy edit. He needs help correcting his work.

He said actually 2010 was a good year for publishing. The business has stabilized. E-readers have just added a new component to the field. When Fuzzy Nation came out, Scalzi didn't sell any fewer books in hardcover. He did sell additional copies on the Nook. He actually sold more copies in hardcover than he had in the past. Publishing is going to become a hybrid.

Since Poisoned Pen's specialty is crime fiction, John was asked if he knew about J.A. Konrath going totally to e-publishing. He said, no, but he could use Amanda Hocking as an example. She had been successfully publishing e-books, but signed with a publisher. For every author that succeeds at e-publishing, there are 1000 who fail. Self-publishing is playing Russian roulette with five extra bullets. He said Hocking signed with a publisher because she didn't want to do all the work anymore. She wanted to write.

According to Scalzi, publishers aren't going anywhere. Writers are criminally incompetent at anything but writing. Both authors said they're excited about publishing and the future.I loved John Scalzi's comment. "Everyone likes to panic. It gives you something to do."

He went on to say that people forget that thirty years ago science fiction was published as mass market paperbacks. Then, with the rise of the chain bookstores, Barnes & Noble and Borders, the business changed, and science fiction was published in hardcover to meet bookstore demand. Right now, we're in the midst of such a change. There is new marketing and a production paradigm.

Sam Sykes had been asked about his background, so it was appropriate to ask John Scalzi about his. He said at fourteen he realized that writing was easy, and everything else was hard. So, he decided to do the easy thing. He was incompetent to do anything else, although he learned that writing is hard.

He said he read science fiction and mysteries. He has written professionally since college. He worked as an editor. And, he said every author should work as an editor for a year, and you'll see what you're doing wrong.

He said he was 28, and his tenth class reunion was coming around. He'd always been known as that little writing dude. So, he decided to write a novel, so, if asked what he was doing, he could say he wrote a novel. His story was going to be 90,000 words, and it was going to be about something inconsequential. Since he'd been a film critic, he came up with the idea that aliens would come, and they needed Hollywood representation. That became his novel, Agent to the Stars. He made it a science fiction novel, because he knew science fiction.

Scalzi said he's lucky because he publishes with Tor, but, when he wants to experiment, he can write for Subterranean, a small press. He wanted to experiment with a novella, so he did God Engines for them. He has the option of doing things on the side with small presses.

When Sam Sykes talked about the hard work of writing, John Scalzi agreed with him. Sykes said it's work, but fun because you're doing what you love. However, it is work. Every day, the words don't want to come, and you have to work at it. Scalzi said it's like him and the guitar. He had a baseline competence and knew all the chords in two weeks. It was such a betrayal to find out you have to put in the work to be able to play anything beyond those chords. He said he worked as a movie critic for five years, and once he was done with that, he didn't go to a movie for six months.

Both authors were asked what they were reading. Scalzi is reading China Mieville. Sykes is reading whatever he wants. He just read five books about North Korean refugees. He said he learned that dogs in China eat better than doctors in North Korea. According to Scalzi, a lot of nonfiction informs fiction.

The authors ended the program by discussing humor. When he was younger, Scalzi used humor to get approval. He was always the funny guy. He was always naturally funny. Even his mother said he made her laugh when he was little. But, it's hard to know when to stop making glib asides. There's a time to be serious in a book. In Zoe's Tale, he wrote about a sarcastic sixteen-year-old. He's particularly proud of Zoe, because he never was a sixteen-year-old girl, and he thought he did a good job with her. She's quite sarcastic, but in one chapter, she changes her tone as she talks about someone she knew who died. That's effective, showing another side to Zoe.

Sam said sarcasm is how he operates. He already said he's passive/aggressive. Glibness makes serious have an even bigger impact.

Scalzi said comedy is hard. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy wiped out all other humor in science fiction. Now, everyone expects the big boldness of British farce. It's hard to sell humorous science fiction because everything gets compared to Douglas Adams. Instead, you have to sell science fiction, and say there's some humor in it.

Once again, a terrific afternoon at the Poisoned Pen, this time with two men who know how to add humor to a presentation.

John Scalzi's blog is

Sam Sykes' website is

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi. Tom Doherty Associates (Tor). ©2011. ISBN 9780765328540 (hardcover), 304p.

Black Halo by Sam Sykes. Prometheus Books. ©2011. ISBN 9781616143558 (paperback), 602p.


sewa mobil said...

Nice article, thanks for the information.

Maria said...

Scalzi is a good, entertaining writer. I've enjoyed the works I've read by him!

Lesa said...

Thank you, Sewa.

Lesa said...

I really enjoyed this program, Maria. And, I really enjoyed his latest book, Fuzzy Nation.