Aug 5, 2009

Keeping An Eye On... Benjamin Rosenbaum

According to Benjamin Rosenbaum's bio, he wanted to be one of three things when he grew up: a scientist (of the mad variety), a superhero, or a writer. Luckily for us, Benjamin didn't succeed in his death ray prototypes and luckily for him, he decided against exposing himself to lethal levels of radiation, screwed up spiders, or excessive amounts of childhood trauma coupled with an implausibly high inheritance and chiropterophilia. That left him with one option: writing. Which seems to work well enough for him. Well enough for him to get several nominations to the list of genre up-and-comers not to mention being nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, BSFA and Locus awards. Rosenbaum has published over 30 stories and been translated into 14 languages since his debut sale in 2001 to Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, including this year's Hugo and Locus award nominated piece "True Names" co-written with internet superstar Cory Doctorow. I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Rosenbaum and grilling him for information on his much anticipated novel among other subjects, genre related and not.

SoY: If we are keeping an eye on you, what should be looking for in the near future? What have you been working on recently?

BR: I have been working on novels. As Barbie used to complain of math -- novels are hard. And I am picky. It'll probably be a while yet before you see one.

I do have a story coming out in F&SF in the near future, though. It's called "The Frog Comrade".
I've been writing some stuff for children lately as well (my kids are five and eight, and their tastes have been influencing me). I recently sold some poems, based on the Tao Te Ching, to Cricket.

SoY: If a reader has never heard of you before reading this, what is the one single piece of work of yours would you like them to read? (This can be for whatever reason you would like).

BR: Reader tastes vary wildly -- surprisingly wildly, really. You would think there would be a general consensus on which was your good stuff and which was your not-good stuff, but in fact it's the opposite -- the more likely a story is to be the favorite of some, the more likely it is that there will be others who roundly detest it. But you might try The Orange, or Start the Clock.

SoY: Your novella “True Names” which was co-written with Cory Doctorow was/is up for several awards this year. What is working with Cory like? Did he try to steal things from you and give them away for free?

BR: Working with Cory was delightful. Indeed, an argument could be made that the flaws in that story are a product of us having entirely too much fun and amusing ourselves at the readers' expense. But we also got to continually push each other in interesting ways. Process-wise, I was the compulsive worry wart, while Cory was confident and freewheeling. I would panic every few months (we worked on the story, on and off, for something like 5 years) and demand a story confrerence, at which we would come up with a Plan. We would swiftly drift away from the Plan, but at least it would have a calming effect on my constitution for a while. Cory is brilliantly creative and very game -- he would take anything I could throw at him and roll with it.

Cory actually does not steal stuff. He just believes in this crazy little thing called "Fair Use", which is some kind of zany idea that these old guys in powdered wigs in the eighteenth century had, whereby corporations would not own all speech forever. I know, so old fashioned, right? It kills me!

SoY: Still on the subject of Mr. Doctorow, what are your feelings on his attitude toward dispersal of his writing?

BR: My thinking is not all that dissimilar to Cory's. I'm a big user of Creative Commons, for instance, which I use to encourage people to make use of my work and to freely distribute it. In my experience, it should be noted, this gives me more control as an author, and makes me more money, than the alternative. (I've tested this by releasing some stories into the wild and locking down others into traditional channels. The ones I give away for free are the ones people keep paying me to reprint and translate; the ones I hide away, never get mentioned again. If this seems counterintuitive, welcome to the twenty-first century.) But I'm also a pluralist about this stuff. Every author should get to decide how they want to approach the problem (within the limits of that crazy fair use idea mentioned above), and I'm not claiming that it's better for everyone to make their work freely available. Rather, different situations call for different tools. But personally, if I can get paid five cents a word for a market that will sell my story as a DRM-protected PDF to subscribers only, or I can get paid the same five cents a word and sell the story to Strange Horizons which will make it permanently available to everyone who has a browser, it's a no-brainer: I want my words out there.

Writers are creators of words. Fundamentally, words are replicable: it was only an accident of history that written words were, for a while, expensive to copy. Business models that grew up on the basis that words would forever remain tied to nonreplicable physical objects, so that being a writer would be analogous to selling soap or chairs, don't work very well once you can easily copy bits. That doesn't mean that we can't base our careers on selling books in bookstores -- on the contrary, we can do that very well. We just can't base them on the idea that readers will buy books in bookstores because they are compelled to do so in order to get the words -- because we have locked all the words away in a tower and can control who sees them. Sooner or later someone will figure out that the password is "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair", and then our words will be out there. Then, if readers are still buying books in the bookstore, we will discover that they are doing so for other reasons -- because they appreciate books as physical objects, or appreciate us as writers, or find it tacky to give someone a printout or a hacked file as a gift, or just because they are generally cooperative and fair-minded people.

SoY: You made mention of how the electronic word is changing the economics of publishing, what is the biggest mistake you see the publishing industry making right now? I would say eBook pricing.

BR: Right there with you. Though Amazon kindle (or one of its successors) may be a game-changer, I don't know enough about it yet. If the process of ordering a book and reading it on the hardware are pleasant and one-click enough, people may pay Kindle prices.

The music industry seems to be a little ahead of the book industry, so we now get Amazon selling DRM-free MP3s.

SoY: What/when was your first sale? How did you react?

BR: A check from Gordon Van Gelder at F&SF arrived one day for my story "The Ant King: a california fairy tale". I was expecting another rejection. The check was dated my 30th birthday. I was very excited: I thought that's it, I've done it, I've achieved my childhood dream. It's all gravy from here.

SoY: To date you haven’t published any full-length novels but you have written several excellent shorter works. Will we see a full-length novel from you some time soon? Or perhaps another small press anthology like The Ant King and Other Stories?

BR: Definitely working on the novel thing, but, as noted above, it's hard.

SoY: Could you provide any more hints or teasers about the novel? How would you pitch it to a publisher?

BR: I am terrible at elevator pitches. It has a sad half-million-year-old polymorphous made person named Siob trying to make societies more resilient, and coming-of-age story of a teenager with three bodies on a planet with very different notions of gender, economics, and politics than ours, in the midst of a revolutionary social crisis; so its like two contemporaneous bildungsroman on very different time scales.

SoY: What are your writing habits like? Do you have any peculiar writing habits that somehow work for you but everyone else would find quirky (and/or insane)

BR: I mostly write out of the house; kids, mess, and other distractions make writing at home unlikely. I am extremely distractable: I generally write on an Alphasmart Dana (a little Palm-OS based writing computer) and got one without wifi on purpose, because if I had one with wifi, I could not write anywhere where wifi was available. Lately I've been writing 200 words a day on the novel -- no less and also no more -- stopping in the middle of a sentence if necessary. This seems to preserve the writing energy for the next day -- as opposed to sating the writing urge, which increases the chance of blowing off writing the next day.

SoY: What are your opinions on posthumous universe expansion? Should an author (or his family) have explicit control over his creative universe forever, or should there be a time where other people can play in the sand box?

BR: Certainly not forever -- nothing makes me gnash my teeth more than the fact that Disney will own Winne the Pooh forever, or as long as they can find Sonny Bonos in the US Congress to work their evil will. And lots of fanfic is fair use. There are also a lot of different answers to "should" depending on whether you are saying "what rules should societies make", or "what policy should original creator authors adopt", or "what is it legitimate or polite for authors to do with other authors' work". These are very different questions. Society has to find some kind of balance between the rights of the entire community to its speech, and the rights of individuals to their own work. The idea of copyright is not that you "own" people writing about your characters the way you "own" the chairs in your living room: rather, the idea is that, in gratitude to creators for creating neat stuff, the government will use its coercive power to restrict the speech of other people, with regards to your creations, for a very limited time. This is an extraordinary power, and a messy compromise, but some kind of compromise makes sense here. But at the moment the time keeps being extended, and the rights get concentrated into ever fewer hands, with ever more power at their disposal to coercively restrict speech.

SoY: An incident occurs resulting in your removal from the list of up-and-coming genre stars. What is the most likely cause of that incident? Who do you nominate in your place?

BR: My never getting around to writing anything worthwhile ever again? This seems unsettlingly possible, most days, though I think that's probably how almost all writers feel. Neurotic creatures, writers.

There are a heck of a lot of people missing from that list! Where is Meghan McCarron? Where is Theodora Goss? Where is Hal Duncan? Where is Charlie Finlay? Where is Alice Kim? Where is Greg van Eekhout? Where is Haddayr Copley-Woods? Where is Chris Barzak? Where are Minister Faust, Austin Grossman, or Matt Ruff (is he too well known?). Anyway. I could go on.

SoY: [Obligatory pimpage] Is there anywhere online that readers can follow you and your work? [/obligatory pimpage]

BR: Just my website: There's a blog.

Now Benjamin didn't mention it but he's also got a short story collection (The Ant King: and Other Stories) out there from Small Beer Press that I would encourage everyone to at least have a glance at. There may or may not even be some downloadability over at TheAntKing. And as abstract as his novel sounds, I can't wait to read it. If you enjoyed this post and are looking for more Keeping An Eye On entires, this original post contains links to all of the available interviews as well as the full list of authors who I hope will participate. Thanks for reading!

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