Sep 23, 2009

Keeping An Eye On... Alex Irvine

I first heard of Alex Irvine through my Star Wars addiction when his name was announced among the writers who were part of the next Del Rey contract. At that time, I hadn't really heard of him so I did a little more digging into his previous work to set some expectations. Based on what I found, those expectations were set and they were set high. So it came as no surprise when Alex's name appeared on SF Signal's Watchlist. Like so many of the authors I've interview in the Keeping An Eye On Series, Alex is just beginning what looks to be a long writing career, but already has a few of the awards and honors that aspiring writers dream of. He didn't have to wait long either as his debut novel, A Scattering of Jades, won several awards including the Locus Award for Best First Novel in 2003. Since then he has gone on to write several more novels as well as some more diverse work, including comic books, non-fiction, and even some ARGs.

I hoped that Alex would spill the info on his secretive Star Wars book but Lucas has a lightsaber to his throat. Instead I had to settle for a great interview full of rabid fans, tree-hugging pinkos, and other information not bound by an NDA. Read on for more!

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?

AI: I’m working on a couple of novels. One is a big historical SF book that starts off in the 2070s and moves back to 1913 before ending up in the 1960s. It involves HG Wells, nuclear war between India and Pakistan, and Europe during the two world wars, as well as a bunch of other stuff. The other one is a picaresque fantastical-historical novel that takes the form of a fake memoir written by a famous 18th-century hoaxer named George Psalmanazar, in which he gives the real story behind his real-life memoir in which he said he was giving the real story.

Also I’m doing a couple of other comics projects, writing a screenplay for Buyout, and working on two licensed projects—one a Dungeons and Dragons novel and the other a Star Wars novel set in the Old Republic period. And then there are the short stories, which I’m always pecking away at. So lots of things are on the boil.

SoY: If a reader has never heard of you before reading this, what is the one single piece of work of yours (novel, short story, comics, etc.) would you like them to read?

AI: I think Buyout is a good entry point. From my perspective, which is the only one I have, that book has most of my good qualities as a writer and manifests the fewest of my flaws. I have my own sentimental favorites for other reasons—I still love The Narrows because there’s one character I got absolutely right, and A Scattering of Jades because the research and story came together better than I had any right to expect, and various of my stories for various reasons—but if a reader really wanted to know what makes me tick as a writer, then Buyout would probably be the book to start with.

SoY: Describe your writing style in haiku-form.

AI: Eek. This one is tough. Maybe:

What is this feeling?
How would this person react?
Try to get it right.

SoY: Your first novel, A Scattering of Jades, won the Locus Award for Best First Novel in 2003. Can you describe the journey between setting out to write A Scattering of Jades and getting it published? What was it like to win an award with your first novel?

AI: I started to write Jades in August of 1993, and had a complete draft by December of 1996. There followed a (retrospectively) comical series of miscommunications and resignations and lost manuscripts etc., by the end of which I was ready to tear my hair out because people kept telling me they loved the book right before they left publishing forever or were murdered by elements of the Black Hand or disappeared on an expedition to Lemuria or whatever. The first guy who ever read the book all the way through, John Klima, bought it—but it took nearly six years to get someone to read it all the way through.

Jades came out and won the Locus Award, which was terrific—it also won the International Horror Guild and Crawford awards for best first novel, which was extra terrific. This is where the ‘rising star’ appellation seems in retrospect a bit ironic, since I haven’t had a sniff of an award since then. I was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award in I think 2003 for “Gus Dreams of Biting the Mailman,” but for whatever reason I don’t seem to get on awards ballots very often. When Jades was just out and all of that was happening, though, I was over the moon. I was convinced that stardom was imminent. The intervening years have maybe taught me otherwise. It’s a little odd for me to consider myself a rising star in a field where I’ve been working for ten years.

SoY: You’ve worked with two of the most complex continuities out there in Marvel Comics (Daredevil) and Star Wars. How do you handle starting a project in such an established universe? Do you approach writing differently if you are writing in a shared universe versus a universe of your own creation?

AI: There are differences to working with an established continuity, sure—but in some ways I think they’re akin to the differences between writing formal poetry and free verse. The strictures of the sonnet or villanelle or sestina drive you to see what can be done within those strictures. If you’re writing free verse, the only rule is that you do something good. Probably when I’m working on a story that I build from scratch, I can let myself go a little more, but established continuities are an exciting challenge, and because they’ve been around for so long and have such passionate followers, they inspire a writer to create work that deserves that passion. At least that’s how I approach it.

SoY: Similarly, with established universes come established fanbases with preconceived notions of what should or shouldn’t happen. Have your experiences with these often rabid fanbases been positive or negative? Any particular stick out in your memory?

AI: One thing I remember is reading on a couple of comics websites, shortly after Daredevil Noir was announced, that it was a stupid and redundant idea. People had already formed their opinions about it based on how they felt about the existing character without giving a single thought to the possibility that the story might be worth reading. Then it was interesting to see a number of those commentators change their minds and decide it was a pretty cool story. This is the dynamic you let yourself in for when you work in established continuities. But it’s all good in the end because the readers are interested and respond to what you do.

SoY: You’ve written both novels and comics. How did you transition from writing novels to writing for comics? Does working across multiple formats make it easier to stay creative?

AI: I find that working in different formats is great for creativity. Not only are you telling different kinds of stories, but you’re constantly discovering new ways to tell stories. Some of those discoveries are transitive across formats and some aren’t, but all of them get you thinking in unexpected directions, which is always great. There’s a learning curve, though. It was tricky for me at first to learn how to say less in a script. My instinct was to go into great detail about everything I wanted in every panel, but I found it worked better (at least in terms of my relationship with the artist(s) I was working with) if I wrote the script so that it had everything in it I really needed to see in a certain way, and left the rest up for discussion as the script gets transformed into a comic book. Until I find a better way, that’s what I’m going to do—and of course that interaction is much different from the internal discussions you have while you’re writing a piece of fiction.

SoY: You are contracted for a 6 issue miniseries but you get to pick the superhero/comic book character. Who would you choose and what type of story would you want to tell?

AI: I think I would do a story in which Dr. Strange and Wong fall in love and confront an occult menace accidentally brought into our world by Jack Parsons in 1950s San Francisco just as the Beat era is really coming into its own.

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)?

AI: The truth is, I wish I had writing habits. I write whenever I can snatch a moment or an hour. If you’re a single guy with no kids and no job, you get to have a writing schedule. If not, you sledgehammer it in wherever you can make it fit. That’s what I’ve been doing for eight years now, and it has sort of worked. In the end, it’s the writer and the blank page. If you want to make something happen, you will; if not, that’s a separate question. I do confess to a weakness for writing in bars because I like the background noise they provide. Beyond that, all I can say is that it may be bizarre, but I take time where I find it and I try to find time wherever it appears. It’s all pretty ad hoc.

SoY: Excuse my geek-out but I am a complete and utter Star Wars junkie. Can you provide any details of your upcoming Star Wars novel featuring Nomi Sunrider?

AI: I really can’t say much. The story develops the relationship between Nomi and Vima Sunrider and involves a resurgent threat from Sith and Mandalorian forces. Plus I introduce a new character that I’m really enjoying, a sort of interstellar scavenger who runs across some artifacts that are a little more than he can handle.

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?

AI: The passage of time is probably the one thing most likely to make me no longer up-and-coming. My first book came out seven years ago, and my short fiction started to appear two years before that. I’m a little surprised (pleasantly, of course!) to have been included on that list; I guess sometime in the last few years I had stopped thinking of myself as up-and-coming, and I’m glad that people disagree! If, however, I were to be removed from the list, I would nominate Vandana Singh to replace me. If she isn’t already on it.(She is)

SoY: Who wins in a fight to the death between Harry Potter, Optimus Prime, Tom Bombadil, and Boba Fett?

AI: Because I am a tree-hugging pinko at heart, I’m going to say Tom Bombadil.

SoY: You get to choose a single SF/F author (can be living, dead, or zombie) to write one additional book. Who do you choose and why?

AI: I want Philip K. Dick to write The Owl in Daylight. Or, if that’s not possible, I want him to write the sequel to The Man in the High Castle he began and apparently abandoned. There’s a chapter of it in his papers at Cal State-Fullerton. Either way—especially with The Owl in Daylight—I want Tessa Dick to stop her graverobbing.

SoY: What’s the best thing you’ve read this year?

AI: Probably Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. It’s not new, and it’s not SF, but it really is the best thing I’ve read in the last year. Killer book.

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

AI: Funny you should ask. There’s the blog and the twitter and the Facebook, etc. There’s also a web site that is still in the process of being rebuilt. That’s at and will soon have actual information on it.

Unfortunately for me, Irvine's Star Wars novel won't be out for a while. Fortunately for me, and for anyone who isn't hopelessly addicting to Star Wars continuity, that Historical SF novel sounds might intriguing. H.G. Wells? I'm thinking time travel... The George Psalmanazar fake story about a fake book written by a conman sounds pretty good as well.

On a related note, I wonder if I stopped learning about new books now, would I finish everything I wanted to read before I died? Sigh. At least some authors COUGH* GRRM *COUGH give you time to catch up on your reading.

Anyway, thanks again to Alex for participating. And go out and buy Buyout!

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