Interview: Andrea Johnson, Reader Primus

I met Andrea Johnson at Legendary ConFusion and over the course of a couple of days at the convention we had some exceptional conversations mostly about things science fiction. It turns out she blogs about science fiction, and I mean all of science fiction, starting with the really old stuff ranging up to the latest releases being considered for awards right now. After our impromptu introduction in the convention bar I went and read a handful of her reviews and let me say, if there can be such a thing as an expert opinion in Science Fiction, here she is.

So, it has been a few weeks since Legendary ConFusion and I’ve had some lingering questions I’ve wanted to ask. As an author I came away from ConFusion invigorated and ready to write another big chunk of words and those conversations with Andrea, or Reader Primus, had a lot to do with that.

I really hope you enjoy this interview with Andrea and when you’re done with it head on over to her blog Little Red Reviewer and see if you get inspired to read something new. Andrea has a lot of insight into the genre and some very good ideas.


MT Your biography makes me believe that you are sometimes in awe of other people’s prodigy. Yet your book reviews, I’ve read a few, lead me to the conclusion that you have a special aptitude all your own. I’ve started using your reviews to help me find new books to read and rethink some books I’ve previously read. What inspired you to become a book reviewer?

AJ I am completely in awe of other people’s prodigy. Anyone can come up with an idea that sounds cool, but it takes a talented writer to take that idea and mold it into a story that works. Thanks for your kind words about my reviews, when I first started my reviews were not very good! Reviewing is like anything – practice makes better. I’ve always been a big reader, I always had a paperback in my bookbag, always had library cards. And I wanted to talk about the books I enjoyed. A lot of my friends and co-workers read more mainstream fiction, so where else to talk about all the weird science fiction and fantasy I enjoy but online? I was part of a few scifi/fantasy forums for a couple of years, but found the reviewing blogosphere seemed a better fit for me. I wanted to be able to coherently and successfully talk about the genre, what I liked and didn’t like. I’d never been a good English student in high school, so writing reviews started as a sort of enforced practicing of applied research and written communication. Only way to get good at something is to do it a lot, right? Wow, when I put it like that, it sounds really boring! But it’s been very fun. I’m happy you’ve been enjoying the reviews.

MT It is no secret I am a huge fan of science fiction. There is a short list of authors that have inspired me to write in this genre. Who are your top three favorite science fiction books ?

I can only choose three?

DUNE by Frank Herbert – I read this for the first time in high school, and have been a Herbert fan ever since. I’ve read the entire series once or twice, and plan to do a reread (with reviews!) in 2014.

SIDESHOW by Sheri S. Tepper – Such a strange and wonderful story! There are aliens and conjoined twins and prophecies and dragons, and gods. Tepper’s newer books haven’t done much for me, but her older stuff I just adore.

USE OF WEAPONS by Iain M. Banks – I only recently discovered Banks’ Culture novels. He took space opera to a whole new level, and this particular one packs one helluva punch.

MT Why are these books important to you?

Those three books in particular pushed the envelope of what I thought was possible in science fiction. DUNE was probably the first adult science fiction book I read, so on nearly every page I was like “I didn’t know you could do that in a book!”. In my 20s I read that Tepper title for the first time, and it was the same reaction “I didn’t know you could do that! that’s awesome!”, and same again, for reading the Banks in my 30s “You can *do* that? Wicked!”.

And that’s what science fiction is all about – pushing the boundaries. That’s why I love it!

MT What are you reading right now that you enjoy?

AJ I just picked up ANNIHILATION by Jeff Vandermeer. I’ve been looking forward to this one since I first heard about it. Vandermeer is one of my favorite authors, I’m about half way through the novel and loving it. No one writes New Weird like Vandermeer, no one. Seriously, if you see his name on a book, pick it up!

I’m also reading The Book of Apex Vol 4, which is all the original fiction published in Apex Magazine during their fourth year. I don’t seem to do so well with magazine subscriptions, so finding these yearly volumes is just wonderful (Clarkesworld does one too). Apex publishes deliciously weird stuff, like you bite in and you think it’s going to taste like chocolate, but it tastes like apples instead. Suffice to say, I’m really enjoying this collection. Short fiction is wonderful, I can read one or two stories when I have 15 or 20 minutes here and there, and not feel any pressure to rush to the end of a chapter or worry about a cliffhanger.

I also have Gene Wolfe’s newest novel, THE LAND ACROSS, sitting here, and I’m looking forward to cracking it open when I finish the Vandermeer.

MT I met Andrea at Legendary ConFusion in January of 2014 where I had a great time and learned a lot. I’m curious to know, was there anything special that you took away from the convention? A unique experience, a great book, some inspiring words?

AJ It was great to meet you at ConFusion, wasn’t the con just a ton of fun? It’s the great secret of the midwest! I love their literary programming tracks, there’s always about 50 panels I want to go to, and realistically I can only go to maybe ten.

This was my third ConFusion, and every year it just gets better. In the past, I was always the “fan” who shyly wanders up to the author’s autograph table and mumbles all in one breath “Hi I love your books will you sign this oh my gosh you’re so cool” and then wanders away with a dazed look because I just got a super hero’s autograph. We’ve all be starstruck, we’ve all been there. This year I was still pretty starstruck, but I’d finally grown past being a goofy-fan. I’d finally turned into that person who can have completely normal conversations with authors, because they are like, completely normal people, who are also fans and enjoy talking about books and movies they liked. Being allowed to be part of that social scene was pretty amazing for me. I feel like I’ve snuck into a private club without an invitation.

MT Are you planning on going to any other conventions this year?

The plan is pretty ambitious, we’ll have to see how far the bank account can stretch:

AnimeMidwest is in Chicago in early July, and then DetCon1 is a little later that month in Detroit. I had a marvelous time at ConText in Columbus OH last September, so am hoping to attend that one again. We’re hoping to attend either Origins or GenCon as well. I write the Convention Attention post over at SFSignal, so the more varied conventions I can learn about, the better.

MT It takes a lot of effort, a fair amount of time, and some cold hard cash to attend conventions. Why is convention culture important to you?

AJ I recommend not looking at your hotel bill or debit card statement after attending a convention. But seriously, there’s a reason I stick to conventions that are close to where I live, because this hobby ain’t cheap! I actually wrote an article on tips for budgeting for convention trips a while ago.

Convention Culture is important to me because it’s often the only way to get face to face interactions. Communicating on twitter or over e-mail is great, but nothing beats face to face. Conventions are very casual meeting places, panel discussions often go off on the most fascinating tangents and continue later, everyone is welcome, and everyone is there to have a good time and talk to people who enjoy the same genres. I feel like everyone is on equal footing there. You can just strike up a conversation with anyone about D&D, or Redshirts, or Doctor Who, or Game of Thrones, or costumes, or whatever. I’ve had the most amazing conversations perusing the “free stuff” table and giving and getting book recommendations. I can’t think of a better way to become active in the genre community than attending a local convention. Many of them offer workshops for writers as well.

MT At ConFusion I heard you say something similar to “I’m not a writer, I’m just a blogger.” Is there a distinction between the two, if so what separates these labels?

AJ There is a distinction, and I’ve been thinking about this for a while. In casual conversation at another convention I attended, it dawned on me that I was the only non-writer in the group. Everyone was talking about short stories they’d sold, novels they were working on, discussions with editors, etc. And then it came around to me, and I said “oh, I write stuff, but I’m not a writer.”

Writers are the creators, bloggers are the sometimes critics, the sometimes gatekeepers, we’re a feedback mechanism of sorts. You create the magic, we just observe it and often pass judgement on it. Your name is printed on a real book that people will see, my name is just electrons in WordPress’s server. Writers are the ones taking all the risks, they’re the ones sitting at the typewriter and bleeding. It’s important to me that I differentiate myself as a “non-writer”, because I’m not putting myself out there, I’m not making myself vulnerable. I got the easy gig.

MT As an independent author I routinely hear and read about all the “trash” that Indies are putting out there. Your review resume contains a sizable collection from both the Indie and traditional side of publishing world. Do you think that this judgement is a fair representation of this publishing dichotomy?

AJ It’s not a fair judgement, as traditional publishers put out plenty of garbage too. But I do need to correct you: the majority of my review list is traditional published works, with perhaps 10% or less being small press or self published.

Self publishing is still very new, and I love that it’s now going both ways: traditional publishers are signing authors who did very well as self published, and traditionally published authors are self publishing titles their publisher doesn’t want to buy. It’s very unfortunate that self published works got a bad reputation for a while for being badly edited and formatted, but I feel this has vastly improved in the last few years. A paradigm shift is always frightening for the old guard, so it’s understandable to me that plenty of people are nervous about indie authors. But I’m happy to see more and more book bloggers out there who specialize in reviewing indie books. there’s a great database of such bloggers here: http://www.theindieview.com/indie-reviewers/

MT Do you have favorite cover artists? Any particular cover you love? If so, who are they and what about their cover work appeals to you?

AJ Recently I fell hard for Julie Dillon’s cover of SILENTLY AND VERY FAST by Catherynne Valente, Todd Lockwood’s cover for A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS by Marie Brennan, and while the books haven’t really done it for me, I’d love to have poster sized prints of Donato Giancola’s cover art for Elizabeth Bear’s ETERNAL SKY books. Couldn’t tell you specifically what drew me in to these pieces, but when I see them, I can’t help but touch them. The Dillon and the Giancola especially, I feel like I could fall right in.

MT Do you prefer paper books, audio books, or ebooks? What about this particular medium important to you?

AJ Paper all the way. I have a kindle and have read a few novels and anthologies on it (I mostly use it for slush reading), and I enjoy short story podcasts, but yeah, paper all the way. Reading is a fully sensory experience for me. Ingrained into my experience of the story is the weight of the book, the texture of the pages, if it’s an old fragile book that’s falling apart, or if it’s a brand new book where the ink comes up on my fingers and I’m using the purchase receipt as a bookmark. When I think about books I enjoy, I can’t help but also think about my physical interaction with the book in which the story was contained. With e-readers, I lose that sensory experience. However, have you *seen* THE WEIRD COMPENDIUM edited by the Vandermeers? That thing is ridiculously massive! no question about it, e-readers were made for things like that. How else am I gonna read it in the bathtub?

MT I’m curious to know when we can see some stories from you. Do you have anything in the works? Ideas contentedly bubbling on a back burner? Is there a story that you would like to read, but don’t want to write?

AJ Probably never. I’m not a writer, remember? 😉 I don’t see myself as disciplined enough to start that project and finish it. That said, there is a funny little idea that’s been swimming around in the back of my head for the last year or so. I’ve always had an affinity for trees, and I went through a difficult period in early 2013, when I lost two people in quick succession who were important to me. The  story is a strange mash up of trees, and mourning, and hopefulness, and ritual. In the culture of some planet somewhere, when you die, you are buried with a tree sapling in your mouth. The tree grows, and takes your cells with it as it grows tall. These aren’t magic trees or anything, there are no ghosts, no one has any illusions about what’s going on, but the planet is covered in these beautiful forests where people go to visit their dead relatives. The forest is the cemetery, but it’s so full of life – trees, birds, animals, a whole ecology that’s only possible because people die. When the tree eventually gets really big it’s cut down and furniture or small art objects are made from the wood, and given to the descendants so they can take a piece of great-great-great-Grandpa or whoever with them when they leave the planet. The residents of the planet always come home to die. Kind of melancholy but romantic – maybe a chess board is made from the wood of the trees of a couple who were married for a hundred years. Maybe the four legs of a table are all made from siblings. I don’t see it as morbid, I see it as one way a culture could honor their dead.

Is there a story I would like to read, but don’t want to write? That one. Because while I think it’s a pretty idea, all I have is a static idea. I have absolutely no idea what actually *happens* in the story.

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Oh I am Happy with This Bit

Low Muscle Glycogen. Yep, I just completed a chapter which focuses on the endurance demon that ends all races. And wow, is it good. Even if I do say so myself. And I do.

Write what you know? Have you ever bonked before? Why yes I have. And after reading this bit I’m guessing that even if you have never been in the situation where your body literally gives up — while your mind screams “lift that leg, yes, one more time. Now that one, you can do it” — you will feel that pain. That sweet, sweet pain which narrows your focus and will inevitably prove to anyone who matters, to yourself, to your only competition, that you are the only God of this damned temple.

The Conversation We Never Have

Here’s my life. My lovely and patient wife wakes up at the crack of dawn, usually the semi-predictable perturbations of our toddler, and the two of us claw our way to the kitchen where we split coffee duty (yes, Tess I know you make it most of the time lately). There are discussions held around the table while we try and stuff food into our child’s mouth. Then we break, I usually go sit with Aral on the potty (it is toilet training time) and she’ll go take a bath and get ready for the day.

By the time she is walking out the door, headed to her solid job with good benefits and reasonable pay, I’ve either packed up the kiddo and headed out to the Rec Center where I will write for a while or am ensconced at my desk writing up a storm. Time is limited and soon I know I’ll have 16 kgs of squirming three year old hanging off my arm or climbing up my back. He will be ready for adventure.

So, I am fully aware of the special position I occupy both in my family’s financial and home life. My wife brings home the bacon, while I’m working out the details of being a successful writer. Fake it until you make it, right?

This blog post is in response to a really well written piece I encountered earlier today by Ann Bauer. In “The Conversation We Never Have” she describes a couple of instances of people, authors who have achieved some level of success and notoriety, but are completely oblivious the advantages they have had along the way. And I think she makes a most excellent point when she writes “In my opinion, we do an enormous ‘let them eat cake’ disservice to our community when we obfuscate the circumstances that help us write, publish and in some way succeed.”

It is important to recognize the support system that allows us to move forward, making incremental progress day after day; I know this because it has not always been this way for me. The difficulties along the way, the challenges and distractions, all kept me from writing when I was younger even though the stories were all there to be written.

Today, I am essentially sponsored by the woman who shows up at the dinner table every evening. We exchange our tales-of-the-day and kvetch about the little nuisances that we’ve encountered. We also spend hours talking about what I’ve written and what I might write. That is my favorite part about all this, working with my best friend on ideas.

I just completed my first novelette and am up to my neck in other writing projects (two novellas and a full length novel). I’m writing happily and quickly, averaging about a thousand words a day, because I have the time and funding to support me. Also the encouragement and good reviews are a big boost. I get much help from my wife and family, and my cover art from an old Army buddy. Without these advantages I wouldn’t have stacks of editorial work to dive into. Sure, there is still a lot for me to work out, a lot to learn. But without all this help I wouldn’t be creating.

OK, there’s mine. Now show me yours.

Attention

I’m sitting at a table in the North Boulder Recreation Center, my iPad opened up before me, with a pair of reasonably priced headphones plugged into my ears. Bon Iver is playing “Holocene” for me via my favorite streaming service and that unique blend of steel strings flat picked over a haunting melody keeps interrupting the thought process I’m trying to have. I’m trying to reconstruct some thoughts I had about what I was going to write, but my mind keeps running along with the music.

Multitasking, in practice, is so stinking difficult. I can do two things at once, but can do nothing well unless I do it on its own. Focus is a requirement. It occurs to me that when I write I need to remember how difficult it really is. My characters need to walk into a room and wonder what the hell they were going to do there. A smell, or sound, needs to transport them away from the moment, leaving them stranded temporarily in enthralled in memory. Consciousness is an unruly bitch as likely to be working against one as for us.

My attention is becoming more focused now. The album has advanced to “Towers” which, while it is a beautiful song, does not grab my heart in my chest demanding I pay any attention. Today the I’m going to put my focus on developing “Up Slope”. The project is coming along nicely.

NaNoWriMo 2013

Some very awesome news nerds! I just won my first NaNoWriMo. Right now Counterfeit Horizon is 50,103 words long and 233 pages (formatted for submission). As a novel its not complete, but its a functional rough draft of an amazing story written on a pretty tight timeline.

So I’m going to high five myself around the house for the rest of the evening. I might pour myself a glass of the vino. I might turn on my television and watch someone else’s work for a little while.  Really boob out for a bit.

The book is close to being complete, December may be more than enough to finish the story. I’m having fun with it, but I’m also really looking forward to ending it. I’m super excited for myself, as a writer. I can do this kind of work. On a timeline.

A special round of thanks

My Ever Lovin’ Wife

You, dear woman, are the deserver of some serious kudos. You’ve stood by my side through thick and thin and even listened to my crack pot ideas and hair brained schemes. I feel expansive gratitude to an unresponsive universe for putting me in the right place at the right time. And — as if meeting you were not enough all on its own — somehow, somewhere I found the magic words that got us together.

Thanks for being my friend, the mother of one of my kids, and my closest of my editors.

My Ever Lovin’ Family and Friends

You guys are the best. You read my stuff when its rough. I mean rocky, boulder-field rough. And I know that your smiles are largely contrived and you may chuckle about those manuscripts in bed late at night, but as part of the process, you are indispensable. I could not do this without you. When I’m a best seller, spending my evenings swimming in a J.K. Rowling sized swimming pool of money I will remember you and give you a reason to smile.

You’ll find your ARCs in the mail.

Tobias Buckell

Dude! You probably do not have a clue how much a part of this little success you are. Seriously, I hope someday to meet you, face-to-face, so that I can shake your hand. Buy you a drink. Back in 2012, while I was struggling through a series of life and health problems you responded to an email I sent you with what became some pivotal words. You helped me decide to take this path and you’ve inspired me since to keep on writing.

Thanks for your work, Reginald is still your best (IMO). Thanks for being an example and inspiration.

Would The Real Mock Turtle Please Stand Up

Below is a TEDx presentation given by Henry Evans. After suffering a “stroke like illness” in 2003 this man became a mute, quadriplegic. I cannot understand the scope of the suffering this man has endured, but if there is one thing I’m now well aquatinted with its the loss of control that must limit him.

Watch the video, its well worth your time.

My current NaNoWriMo project is ostensibly about a near future where humanity continues to get it wrong. Counterfeit Horizon details a world where a lot of clever people fail to solve some basic and pervasive problems with some very powerful and innovative technology.

This presentation filled me with some hope, because Evans, despite his physical limitations seems to be spearheading these kinds of solutions.

Now take the rudimentary interface that Evans is working with and imagine a neural harness, similar to a Cochlear implant, that could be used to translate (area 4) motor cortex impulses into goal-directed movements in robotic systems such as a quad-rotor aircraft craft. Or take that scenario another step further where the driver’s body is located within an autonomous robotic vehicle that would, at least in part, allow guys like Evans some free range.