Interview with Kelly McCullough

May 20, 2008

Today’s interviewee is Kelly McCullough, another of my friends at sfnovelists.com.  Kelly’s first novel in the WebMage series, WebMage, was released by Ace in 2006 to considerable critical praise. A second, Cybermancy, followed in 2007. His newest release, CodeSpell, will be out May 27th. And a fourth book, MythOS, is slated for late May ’09. His short fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Weird Tales, Writers of the Future, and Tales of the Unanticipated. His illustrated collection, The Chronicles of the Wandering Star, is part of a National Science Foundation-funded middle school science curriculum, Interactions in Physical Science.  Enjoy!

1) Why this book? What made you want to write this story?

That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. This is the third book of a series and certainly part of my motivation for writing it is that this is a fun world to play in and I like these characters enough to want to spend more time with them. Part of it is that I had what I thought was a fast fun plot that continued the story in a way that would be entertaining to write and to read. But probably the most important part of the equation for this book is that actions have consequences. The things that Ravirn did in books one and two have ongoing repercussions and I wanted to see how they played out and how Ravirn would have to grow to respond to them.

2) Which authors inspire you? Has that changed over time?

Different writers teach me different things at different times. Zelazney and Tim Powers are probably at the top of the list of writers who’ve affected my work most visibly, though Powers is less present in the WebMage stuff than he is in some of my other, darker work. Norton and McCaffrey and Tolkien are in my bones. Martha Wells is wonderful and so are Robin McKinley and Lois McMaster Bujold.

3) Why genre? Is there something special about science fiction or fantasy that draws you to write in the field?

I was pretty much raised to be a fantasy and science fiction writer, though that certainly wasn’t the intent of the process. I’m a third generation fan of the genre and some of my earliest memories are of having the Lord of the Rings, Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream read to me. I learned very early to love story and genre and once I found out that I could maybe make a living by telling the sorts of stories that were told to me I was pretty much lost.

4) What do you find most interesting about Ravirn? Why write about this protagonist?

What I love about Ravirn is his combination of idealism and cynicism. He expects the worst of a situation but won’t let that stop him from working toward a solution, even when he knows the attempt is probably doomed. That and his sense of humor. I come from a family where humor, particularly black humor and sarcasm, are fundamental coping mechanisms. Sometimes life hands you a situation where you have to laugh or cry, and given any choice in the matter I’ll always pick laughter. It may not solve the problem, but it sure lightens the load.

5) You’re a writer. What else are you? What are your interests? Hobbies?

Husband and cat-wrangler are probably at the top of the list for other self-identifiers. My wife and I are coming up on twenty fantastic years together and over that time two cats became three cats, became four cats, became five. I love to read and play video-games. I’ve got a Gaiman, a Pierce and a Blaylock on the active books pile and I just finished playing Portal and Drake’s Fortune. I also like hiking and biking, and since it’s spring, I’m at the front end of the annual garden madness.

6) Did you have to do any special research for this book? What did you need to know in order to write it that you didn’t know before? Do you have some special preparation you do for your writing?

I didn’t have to do a lot of new research for this book. After finishing two novels set in the Greek gods plus computers reality of the WebMage I have a pretty good grounding in this world, and I really only needed to touch up my memory of a couple of the myths involved in this specific story. On a more general note, I read non-fiction voraciously. I just finished a great book on plants in traditional Hawaiian culture as part of a Hawaiian history and mythology kick. I read several science and technology magazines on an ongoing basis and I’m looking around for some good references on the Canadian Maritime provinces in general and on Halifax in particular.

7) I see a lot of computer and programming stuff in the WebMage series. Is that something that really interests you? Or is it more driven by the needs of the story?

Mostly it’s the needs of the story. I love my laptop and the web and I tend to be a technology early adopter if I can afford it, but I’m not really much for programming or hacking. While I have been immersed in computer culture from a very early age since my mother became a bug-checker when I was about ten and has been working as an analyst and programmer ever since and because I’ve got a lot of close friends in IT, it’s not something I’m much involved in outside of writing the books.

8)  Ravirn displays a lot of physicality, constantly getting himself into life-threatening situations and back out of them in ways that involve all sorts of death defying action. I’m guessing that’s not something you the writer have an enormous amount of experience with. How do you make that convincing? Do Ravirn’s solutions reflect the sort of things you might do in a similar situation?

I’m much more of a thinker than Ravirn, especially as I’ve gotten older, but I’ve got to admit to a certain amount of speaking from experience when I have him do something big and physical and stupid like climbing a building and then jumping off. It’s not the sort of thing I’d do now, but when I was in my late teens and early twenties I was something of an adrenaline junkie. I was into martial arts and mountain climbing and all sorts of things that are moderately safe when done responsibly and less so when done the way I did some of them. From fifteen to twenty-two I averaged two trips to the emergency room a year, and as I’ve gotten older that’s led to things like a couple of knee surgeries and other corrective measures.

9)  What are you writing now?

A couple of things. I just sent off book proposals for a fifth WebMage and for two books that I would like to write as a successor series to the WebMage/Ravirn books. I’ve also got a YA I want to work on–the second in a series that my agent is shopping around now–because I’m in love with the story and the world. That’s the main front burner stuff. But I’ve got five complete novels and nine proposals out with various editors and any of those could get moved up the list if they sell. I’m pretty busy at the moment, and I love it that way. There’s really nothing I’d rather be doing with my life than what I’m doing right now.

10) How did you become a writer? Is this what you saw yourself growing up to be? Or did it take you be surprise?

Short answer: I quit theater. Longer version. I set out at the age of eleven to be an actor and was well on my way when I met the woman I would eventually marry. At that point, I realized how incompatible theater was with having a long term relationship and I went looking for something else to do. On something very like a whim I wrote my first novel and fell head over heals in love with writing. Now I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.

11) Do you have a writing routine? Talk process for a moment, how do the words get on the page?

I write between two and eight hours a day five days a week. On a typical day I get up around eight in the morning, stagger downstairs and collect a unit of caffeine–could be soda, could be tea, it doesn’t really matter since it’s a delivery system. Then I hop on the treadmill and websurf and read email and the like for an hour or so. At that point I’m mostly awake and I do things like respond to the email or other writing and life maintenance tasks. That can take anything between twenty minutes and two hours. Then I write. Less than a thousand words is a bad day. More than two thousand is a good one. Oh, and, I use a laptop so that I can work where the whim takes me.

12) Office? Closet? Corner of the living room? Do you have a set place to write?  A favorite? How does the environment you write in affect your production? Your process?

In summer I write in a second floor screen porch. It has a gorgeous view over the park that abuts our backyard, and that sort of near outdoor setting is my preferred setting for writing–I’m hoping to have a more permanent solar built to replace the porch soon. Until then, my winter office is our upstairs sitting room which gets southern light and is a pretty comfortable substitute for my screen porch.

13) Is there anything you especially like to work on in a book? Anything you hate?

I love world-building and plot-twisting. Figuring out how a system of magic might work and then figuring out ways to game that system fascinates me. And yes, I was a rules lawyer back in my role-playing days, why do you ask? Likewise building a plot and then coming up with ways to add twists or bits of misdirection is a joy for me. I don’t really have any hates. There are things that I used to find more difficult, character chief among them, but I’m getting a steadily better handle on the whole process and I just love writing. I even love rewriting, both the sentence level stuff and the bigger more complex story edits.

14) This isn’t your first book; tell us a little bit about what else is out there.

Well, primarily it’s the WebMage stuff. WebMage, Cybermancy, and now CodeSpell with MythOS finished and forthcoming and a proposal in for SpellCrash after that. On the novels front, as I mentioned above, I’ve got five more books and nine proposals out, so that could change at any moment. I’ve also had a number of short stories published, including an illustrated collection as part of a big middle school physical science curriculum that’s been adopted by several states. But that doesn’t make an enormous amount of sense outside the classroom setting it was written for.

15) Do you see fiction as having a purpose? Generally? How about your own work?

Transcendence. I think that human beings need story. We need myths and legends and tales that lift us out of ourselves and that fiction supplies that need. That’s another reason I do most of my work in fantasy-if I’m going to be a mythmaker for a living I might as well write the truly mythic.

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