Author of the Month
My introduction to Kelly McCullough came when the first book in his Ravirn series, WebMage, was offered for review here at Myshelf. Hmmm, computers? Greek gods? Together? Through the eyes of a wise-mouthed hacker who's fighting on the side of free will against the Fates? Be still my heart.
Reading WebMage more than lived up to the anticipation, with a great combination of rollicking, action-packed, and sometimes just silly fun, interesting twists on some old concepts, plus enough depth to make this a more than mind candy read. That depth only increases as the series continues. It's still full of action and fun, but there's an increasing array of riffs on the technological and mythological underpinnings, while the impulsive, in-the-moment Ravirn is a true son of both Fate and Slapstick (read the books!) whose pratfalls are linked to learning more than he ever wanted to know about consequences and costs.
Kelly McCullough's that rare author who engages both my brain and my appreciative grin reflex with equal regularity, while his writing is refreshingly unique. I ask about influences in the interview below, and they certainly make sense when you see what he says about them, but that doesn't mean he sounds like anyone but himself. Add in the sheer range of things he knows about, by the references in his work (you can enjoy things without getting all the "with a nod to" in-joke references, but it's a lot more fun if you do), and you have my favorite kind of author. Picking him for Myshelf Author of the Month was an easy choice, and gave me an irresistible opportunity to interview him to find out a bit about the person triggering all those picqued synapses and appreciative grins. I hope you enjoy the result as much as I did—an intermingling of fun and food for thought, just like his stories.
Kim: Your stories are gleeful fun to read. I started to say simply gleeful fun, but theyíre not that simple and do make me think. I especially love the idea behind the series and the varied sorts of humor, from Ravirnís almost reflexive wise ass responses to Eris and her Apples to being given a hand in MythOS. Are they as much fun to create?
Kelly: I certainly have a blast writing Ravirn and company. I used to do comic improv and writing the WebMage books often puts me in the same mental space, where I'm trying to create scenes and situations that are inherently funny like Ravirn, Cerice, and the Furies wedged into Eris's elevator, or looking for that perfect laugh line. The advantage to doing it on the page is that if I think of a better comeback three days after the fact I can go back and write it in.
Kim: How do you work? Do you start with a core idea and a blank page / screen and take it where it will go? Outline in detail first? Do a lot of bouncing things off the cats or someone else as you develop the ideas and write them?
Kelly: I'm a highly structured writer. By the time I get to the actual point of starting a book I usually have a really good idea of what the first third looks like as well as the last ten percent. I also have a rough road map for the middle section. Then I write about a third of the book to really nail down voice and establish the story, before stopping and doing a scene by scene outline that carries me through to the end. For me the story discovery—what it's about, who my characters are, plot, setting, etc.—all happen in the planning stage before I've actually committed to the book writing process. I do discover a lot of bits and pieces along the way, but all the big-think stuff happens beforehand.
Kim: When and why did you start writing in the first place?
Kelly: The year after I met my wife is when I got serious about it and wrote my first novel—basically spring quarter of the '91/'92 school year. I had just finished my theater degree and was getting ready to start seriously thinking about career. From about the age of 11 I'd been planning to be an actor or stunt man when I grew up, but meeting Laura changed all that. As much joy as I took in theater, it wasn't compatible with having the kind of relationship we wanted—one where we actually got to spend enormous amounts of time together (in 20 years we've spent just over a week apart). So I quit theater cold turkey and started casting around for something else that I could do that would soak up the creative drive that is the other central fact of my life. I had just happened to get my first computer at the time and I'd always gotten high praise for writing, so almost on a lark I decided to try writing a novel. That's when I fell head over heels in love for the second time in 15 months, this time with the process of writing. That was 14+ novels ago and I've never looked back.
Kim: Only tangentially related, but given your approach to writing, when I learned you started as an actor I couldn't help wonder—method acting or classic style acting?
Kelly: Classical inasmuch as I subscribed to a system. I always thought of myself as an entertainer first and a performer of characters second which is probably why I was more comfortable in improv than anyplace else.
Kim: What part of the actual creating / writing do you enjoy most? Which least?
Kelly: The first part is easy. I absolutely love the idea building stage where I'm spinning worlds out of thin air and willing characters into existence. It's pure magic in the same way as the very best parts of playing make-believe when you're a kid. The day-to-day creation of the story is almost as much fun, because it's the same thing in miniature: "Poof" there's a parlor that never existed before, and "hey presto" there's a faerie ring burned into its floor spewing Shakespeare. "Oooh, I didn't know that was going to happen...shiny!" There's nothing I really dislike, though some days revision can be kind of a pain. Especially when I'm trying to shoehorn something important into a section that's already had the polish put on. I know it's mostly not visible to readers or even to me after a couple of readings, but when I first have to wedge something like that into an essential section it always looks to me like a badly sewn in patch.
Kim: I know that writers arenít their characters and vice versa, but how much of you is there in Ravirn?
Kelly: Ravirn is more like me than most of my main characters, especially in his snarkiness and speech patterns, though he's much closer to the me I was twenty years ago, back in the days when I was a raving adrenaline junky. Of course that still only makes him about twenty-five percent Kelly. Melchior is, in some ways, even more me, but again it's an imperfect map, maybe thirty percent.
Kim: Raving adrenaline junkie, eh? So are any of Ravirnís act on impulse / think later activities directly based on personal experience? I can see Melchior being more like you in your description of how you write, which is definitely more Melchior than Ravirn. Are there other ways? Gotta admit that I like the neatness of a parallel between Ravirnís webdemon / familiar guide and his guiding spirit author.
Kelly: Nothing specific by way of incidents, though I will admit to munging up my knees pretty good when I was younger. They're quite a bit better these days after a pair of partial meniscectomies. It's much more a matter of having a pretty good insight into that mode of thinking. As for the Melchior parallel, it's mostly in the reflexive sarcasm of the voice and the more cynical worldview.
Kim: Seeing "Raving Adenaline Junkie" and "Ravirn" in the same line made me wonder if there was a connection. Where did the name Ravirn come from? Was it just one that could naturally morph into Raven or did it have other meaning.
Kelly: Actually, I made it up out of whole cloth for the short story long before I ever had the idea for the Raven metamorphosis or thought to start creating a system for names. That it worked so well was happy coincidence.
Kim: What aspect(s) of his character do you wish you had and which are you most glad you donít?
Kelly: That's a fascinating question. It depends on what you mean by character. I can think of any number of talents that Ravirn posses that would come in handy, the ability to travel near instantaneously, and the extra-human ability to bounce back are high on the list. But mostly I'm comfortable enough in my skin that I wouldn't want to graft any of the Ravirn personality bits that I don't already have onto the current package. I know I'm least interested in the self-destructive impulse set. I did that for a while in my late teens and early twenties and it's really hard on the wetware.
Kim: Would you trade living in his world for ours (assuming the wife, cats, and similar key peripherals could come along)?
Kelly: Probably.... On some levels I'd love to live in a world where that kind of magic is possible. At the same time I don't know if my worldview could survive the shock.
Kim: Thatís an interesting answer, because whether or not we should, we readers tend to think of an authorís worksí worldview as largely a reflection of his own. So which would be the bigger shock? The network behind it all or who was running it? Or something else?
Kelly: Well, it's because my other hat is science educator. I tend to take a very skeptical view of anything that gets labeled magical or supernatural. I love the idea of magic, but I simply don't believe in it, and running nose first into verifiable magic would be a pretty big gear strip for me.
Kim: Clarke's (third) Law aside, connecting computers and magic in a story isnít a wholly new idea, but doing it the way you do certainly is. Why the focus on networking, the structure of things, where most stories stop at basic code related spellcasting?
Kelly: I think it's because as a writer I'm really interested in what lies beneath, how the world goes together. Code as spellcasting is an interesting mode for magic, but if I'm going to go there I want to spend a lot of time creating the underpinnings and thinking about the rationale. Why codemagic? And how codemagic? And whose codemagic? What really gets me excited is laying out the history of world that would support a given magic system and looking at the difference in the dynamics between it and ours.
Kim: Why the Greek gods behind it all rather than some other group? Youíve said you like to play computer games—a misspent youth playing Wrath of the Gods?
Kelly: It's more that I grew up on the classics. I was raised by techno-hippies, computer people who also loved literature and who instilled that love in me before more or less letting me loose to grow up in whatever way I wanted to. Starting from the moment I was able to read for myself I ended up digging into Greek and Roman plays and myths, Shakespeare, and the Norse Eddas in parallel with a ton of science fiction and fantasy. That habit of reading and learning whatever took my fancy was reinforced by going to open schools almost continuously from kindergarten through 12th grade and continues to this day. I don't think they were trying to turn me into an f&sf author, but it would have been hard to devise a better program to do so if they had.
Kim: I mentioned the Roger Zelaznyís second Amber series in my review of WebMage and I see it listed on the your recommended SF reading list (weíve enjoyed a lot of the same books, so Iím going to have to try the listings I havenít sampled yet), so Iím assuming it was an influence. Who else has had a lot of influence on you and your writing, whether the ideas behind it or the writing itself. How have they influenced you?
Kelly: My strongest direct writerly influences are probably Zelazny, Tim Powers, Terry Pratchett, and Mercedes Lackey, but quite a few others fall into the very next tier—Tolkien, Andre Norton, H. Beam Piper, Glen Cook, Anne McCaffrey, George R.R. Martin (Wild Cards), Alan Dean Foster, Katherine Kurtz, Patricia McKillip...I could go on, but I've already bitten off more than I can chew there, so lets back up to the direct stuff. Reading Zelazny taught me that mixing magic and technology is not only doable but fascinating. Powers taught me a ton of things about character and creating depth in a world both by being a marvelous writer and more directly as one of my teachers at Writers of the Future. Pratchett taught me that you can be both very funny and deadly serious in the same book and that both modes can be improved by the mix. Mercedes Lackey taught me about the power of writing earnestly about the big stuff, honor, justice, duty, love. ...Honestly, I could go on for hours about any of the writers on my list, but I think I'll leave it with writing about the big things, because that's so important.
Kim: Youíve said in other interviews that you donít think of yourself as programmer or hacker. But it still requires a certain level of such knowledge to write your books and probably to fully enjoy them. Iíve had trouble when recommending them to others in conveying that idea without scaring some people off (those words "network computing" tend to bring up glazed eyes filled with terror). What do you say (or would you say) to people who ask about that?
Kelly: I'd say that it's just like any "magic" system in a fantasy novel. Take vampires, there are a thousand and one versions and a good author will give you all the information that you need to understand how they work. Likewise spell systems. Substitute fireballs for firewalls in your thinking and assume that the author will flag anything important and you're good to go.
Kim: Whatís up next for you and for Ravirn. Is this a series you see a fixed end for or one (I hope) that keeps going as long as the ideas come and people want to read them. MythOS just came out in Ravirnís WebMage series, with the next book a year off. Do you have other works coming out in the interim?
Kelly: Well, the main arc of the Ravirn books will be complete with the next book. There may be more at some point down the line, but there's certainly going to be a break for a while after SpellCrash. I'm not sure what things look like on the publication front over the longer run. I've got six series that are out with various editors, including a set of successor books that just went to my editor at Ace, but I haven't yet signed any contracts for any of them, so things are a bit up in the air at the moment. But here are the basics:
Kim: What is the main thing you want readers to take away from your books and your stories?
Kelly: I think of fiction as something that lifts us out of ourselves for a brief time. Call it escape, or transcendence, or whatever you want. What I hope is that my readers get to spend a little time outside their own heads and have some fun doing it. It's really important to shed your skin once in a while, and you're much more likely to want to try it if the experience is a fun one.
Kim: I saw that you work in teaching science through science fiction, which I think is a great idea. Pique kidsí interest with a story and introduce them to ideas in a more readily grasped context and youíve got them. Would you tell our readers, many of whom are parents, more about this and your work with it?
Kelly: It's an intermittent thing for me, so I'm not actively working on any science education projects right now, though that may change if one of several grants come through. It all started because my wife's a physics professor and back when she was a grad student I ended up doing some editing/sentence level rewrite work for her advisor for a curriculum project. It was fun and educational and I apparently made a good impression, because later on when the same team started working on a middle school physical science curriculum project with a science fiction context and realized they needed an sf author to help with the fiction side, they called me. It was great fun to write, and being able to claim that writing science fiction for a National Science Foundation funded project was my day job for a while is cool, add that I think science education is deeply important and the whole thing becomes pure joy. I think that science fiction can really help a subset of students learn things about science that would be very difficult for them otherwise by bringing them into it via a different door.
Kim: Whatís the one question you wish someone would ask about you or your writing that no one has yet.
Kelly: How about: Kelly, they're simply not paying you enough to write these books, can you make this bucket of unmarked hundred dollar bills vanish forever? Hey, I am a fantasy author and that's definitely from the realm of fantasy. Beyond that, I'm not sure. It's a really tough question. I'm still vaguely amazed that people keep asking me questions about me and my work and actually care about the answers. Though it's a source of great joy for a storytelling addict like me, there's something just a little unreal about having my books out on the shelves and everything that goes along with that.
Kim: Anything I missed that youíd like a chance to talk about?
Kelly: Let me note that this is one of the more fun interviews I've had the opportunity to do. You've asked several questions that I haven't answered before and really made me think a couple of times which I really enjoy. Thank you.
Kim: Thanks very much for the compliments, the interview and for some of the most fun SF reading I've had in a while
Kelly: You are most welcome.
Kim: Oh, and I lust deeply for Lokiís little personal tablet computer.
Kelly: You and me both.
For a complete bibliography, including descriptions and links to read some of his
short stories and book excerpts online,
For a complete bibliography, including descriptions and links to read some of his
short stories and book excerpts online,
2009's Honorary List