Please welcome Ted Kosmatka to The Qwillery. The Flicker Men was published on July 21st by Henry Holt and Co.
TQ: Welcome back to The Qwillery. The Flicker Men, your most recent novel, was published on July 21st. Has your writing process changed (or not) from when you wrote The Games (2012) to now? What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Ted: Well, I wouldn’t say that my process has changed. I outline the books before I write them, but then the outline always changes halfway through, and by the time I get to the end, it’s usually a different book than I expected. The Flicker Men was no different. I actually ended up writing my way into a corner a few times and had to throw out a lot of material before I found the right path. The most challenging thing about writing is being okay with throwing out the stuff that’s not working. A lot of times, it seems like good writing, so there’s this resistance to just cutting it, but if it doesn’t serve the larger story, it has to go.
TQ: What do you wish that you knew about book publishing when The Games came out that you know now?
Ted: Honestly, my mother was a writer before me, published by Baen, so I had a pretty good idea of what the publishing industry was like before I broke in. There weren’t a lot of things that took me by surprise. My path to publication was different from hers, though, and I collected rejections for years before finally gaining a foothold with short fiction in magazines like Asimov’s and Fantasy & Science Fiction. It wasn’t until I’d been reprinted in seven or eight Year’s Best anthologies that I managed to sell my first novel. Our last names are the same, but I don't think a lot of people realized that my mother was my mother.
TQ: The Games, Prophet of Bones (2013), and The Flicker Men are thrillers grounded in science and science fiction. What appeals to you about writing in this combination of genres?
Ted: As a kid, I’d always been drawn to the sciences. I was particularly interested in genetics, anthropology, and physics, because these disciplines seemed to be asking the big questions. Who are we? Where do we come from? What is this life? When I got older, it was just natural for me to write stories based on my earlier interests. I recently stumbled across a story that I wrote in the second grade, and it stunned me, because I realized that it was exactly the kind of story I’d be drawn to write now, as a forty-year-old. I mean, hopefully I’d write it better now, but the subject matter still felt like something I’d be interested in. I haven't really changed. I also stumbled across this little clay Homo erectus skull that I’d made in middle school, so I put it on the shelf next to the museum quality replica of a Homo floresiensis skull that I’d just bought the previous year. It was so strange to see those two skulls side by side. Like the one had predicted the other. I guess you never really lose your obsessions.
TQ: Tell us something about The Flicker Men that is not found in the book description.
Ted: The book took me two solid years to write. To me, the whole thing is like this big, sprawling scientific proof, and I was struggling to make the equations balance as I wrote it. I had this feeling, almost, that that the story was something that had to be solved. My long-suffering editor, Michael Signorelli, was amazing, and deserves numerous editorial awards for all his advice, and guidance, and patience. He put up with a lot of different drafts and helped me find my way out of the weeds more than once.
TQ: Which character in The Flicker Men was hardest to write and why? Easiest and why?
Ted: The characters actually came fairly easily to me in this book. (It was everything else that was hard.) They were always right there at the tip of my fingers when I needed them. I loved writing Satvik, and Jeremy, and Point Machine. The main character, Eric Argus, was also pretty easy to get down on the page. I worked in a lab for a long time, so I understand what it’s like to function in that kind of environment. I could relate well to all the lab characters. The character Brighton was a blast to write. Writing different characters is a great way for me to argue with myself and figure out what I really think about a subject, and this book has a lot of opportunities for that.
TQ: Which question about The Flicker Men do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Ted: Well, I’ll tweak that question a bit, and instead of answering the question I wish folks would ask, I’ll answer the question that I’ve been asked over and over since the original short story “Divining Light” came out (and from which the novel was expanded). The question I always get is, where does the real science end and the science fiction begin? There’s a place in the book where I talk about the “stepping-off point,” and that’s actually the place where the novel ventures into unknown territory. I don’t know what would happen if that particular experiment in the book were run in real life. Writing the novel was my way of thinking about that experiment and coming up with one possible world where things take a dark turn.
TQ: Please give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery lines from The Flicker Men.
Ted: There’s a bit of dialogue that I really like.
“The more research I did, the less I believed.”
“In quantum mechanics?”
“No,” I said. “In the world.”
TQ: What's next?
Ted: More books, hopefully. I have another novel that I’m in the early stages of now, trying to figure out where it goes. I also have four new short stories forthcoming. Two at Asimov’s magazine; one at Lightspeed magazine; and one at Fantasy & Science Fiction. I let myself write short stories between novels, so it’s been a nice burst of activity, but I think it’s time to get back to novels again soon.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
The Flicker Men Henry Holt and Co., July 21, 2015 Hardcover and eBook, 352 pages
"If Stephen Hawking and Stephen King wrote a novel together, you'd get The Flicker Men. Brilliant, disturbing, and beautifully told." -Hugh Howey, New York Times bestselling author of the Wool series
A quantum physicist shocks the world with a startling experiment, igniting a struggle between science and theology, free will and fate, and antagonizing forces not known to exist.
Eric Argus is a washout. His prodigious early work clouded his reputation and strained his sanity. But an old friend gives him another chance, an opportunity to step back into the light.
With three months to produce new research, Eric replicates the paradoxical double-slit experiment to see for himself the mysterious dual nature of light and matter. A simple but unprecedented inference blooms into a staggering discovery about human consciousness and the structure of the universe.
His findings are celebrated and condemned in equal measure. But no one can predict where the truth will lead. And as Eric seeks to understand the unfolding revelations, he must evade shadowy pursuers who believe he knows entirely too much already.
Ted Kosmatka was born and raised in Chesterton, Indiana and spent more than a decade working in various laboratories where he sometimes used electron microscopes. He is the author of Prophet of Bones and The Games, a finalist for the Locus Award for Best First Novel and one of Publishers Weekly's Best Books of 2012. His short fiction has been nominated for both the Nebula and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Awards and has appeared in numerous Year's Best anthologies. He now lives in the Pacific Northwest and works as a writer in the video-game industry.
Prophet of Bones St. Martin's Griffin, July 22, 2014 Trade Paperback, 368 pages Hardcover and eBook, April 2, 2013
Ted Kosmatka's sensational new thriller, Prophet of Bones, thrusts readers into an alternate present.
Paul Carlson, a brilliant young scientist, is summoned from his laboratory job to the remote Indonesian island of Flores to collect DNA samples from the ancient bones of a strange, new species of tool user unearthed by an archaeological dig. The questions the find raises seem to cast doubt on the very foundations of modern science, which has proven the world to be only 5,800 years old, but before Paul can fully grapple with the implications of his find, the dig is violently shut down by paramilitaries.
Paul flees with two of his friends, yet within days one has vanished and the other is murdered in an attack that costs Paul an eye, and very nearly his life. Back in America, Paul tries to resume the comfortable life he left behind, but he can't cast the questions raised by the dig from his mind. Paul begins to piece together a puzzle which seems to threaten the very fabric of society, but world's governments and Martial Johnston, the eccentric billionaire who financed Paul's dig, will stop at nothing to silence him.
The Games Del Rey, January 29, 2013 Mass Market Paperback, 416 pages Hardcover and eBook, March 31, 2012
Jurassic Park meets The Hunger Games in this stunning new high-energy, high-concept tale from first-time novelist Ted Kosmatka, a Nebula Award and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award finalist.
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
Brilliant geneticist Silas Williams oversees U.S. selections for the Olympic Gladiator competition, an internationally sanctioned bloodsport with only one rule: No entrants may possess human DNA. Desperate to maintain America’s edge in the upcoming Games, Silas’s superior engages an experimental supercomputer to design the ultimate, unbeatable combatant. The result is a highly specialized killing machine, its genome never before seen on earth. But even a genius like Silas cannot anticipate the consequences of allowing a computer’s cold logic to play God. Growing swiftly, the mutant gladiator demonstrates preternatural strength, speed, and—most chillingly—intelligence. And before hell breaks loose, Silas and beautiful xenobiologist Vidonia João must race to understand what unbound science has wrought—even as their professional curiosity gives way to a most unexpected emotion: sheer terror.
Please welcome Ted Kosmatka to The Qwillery as part of the 2012 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Games, Ted's debut novel, will be published on March 13, 2012 by Del Rey.
TQ: What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
Ted: I tend to get very caught up in the rhythms of the sentences and the specific structural composition of the story, not just as scaffolding for the conveyance of ideas but also, to some extent, as a physical image on the page. At least for short stories, I’m always trying for a certain aesthetic balance, and if I lay the pages out on the floor end to end, I can get a sense of the shape of what I’ve written. It’s not until that moment that I can understand the story as a whole, rather than as a series of discreet scenes that may or may not gel into a single rhythmic piece. It’ all madness, of course, and I have no idea to what extent it actually serves the writing, but walking the story on the floor is sort of this ritual thing I do, so that’s certainly a quirk of mine. I also tend to revise and revise and revise; and the end product is always shorter than what I started with as a first draft. It’s a horrifying moment to realize that you’ve made progress on a story by cutting out two thousand words.
TQ: Who are some of your favorite writers? Who do you feel has influenced your writing?
Ted: I can’t get enough of Will McIntosh’s writing right now, and I’m always first in line to read China Mieville’s latest. I think Jack Skillingstead has been producing great stuff for years, as has J. A. Pitts, Eric James Stone, and Camille Alexa. I recently started reading George R.R., just to see what all the hype was about, and now I wonder where he’s been all my life. His writing just sings. There’s a newer writer Kelly Swails who has written stories I really liked a lot. I wish I wrote as well as Daryl Gregory. People who like my stuff should go read him instead. Rachel Swirsky has had another great year in short fiction. It’s also nice to see David W. Goldman getting recognition. Two excellent writers I’d love to see more from are Joy Marchand and Lon Prater. One of my favorite short story writers is Michael Poore, and his first novel UP JUMPS THE DEVIL is coming out in a few months. I was lucky enough to read an advance copy, and it’s amazing.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Ted: I’m a combo platter. I pant the beginnings, just to see if anything interesting develops. If the beginning is good, I’ll then panic and realize that I have to actually turn it into a story somehow, and then the logical, plotting side of my brain kicks in and starts putting up walls and support pillars, trying to actually build something useful out of what I’ve already laid down. I couldn’t imagine pantsing an entire story.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Ted: That has changed over the years. It used to be not having enough time to write because of my job--having to work swing-shift and double shifts. Always being sleep deprived. Years ago, there was even a time when the lack of a working computer put a serious cramp my progress. Now my biggest challenge is probably still time management, but I no longer have a seventy-hour work week that gets in the way. My work hours at my day job are now very reasonable. Instead, the main competitor for time is the two pre-school age children at home who miss me during the day and want me to spend time with them in the evening. It is still all very much a juggling act. In regard to challenges more specific to the writing itself, I will admit that I’ve come to accept that there are certain aspects of writing that I’m just not good at, and will never be good at. I’m no grammar ninja, for example. It’s embarrassing to admit. It’s like being a physicist who was a C student in math. The details and terminology of high-level grammar just won’t stick in my brain. What’s a gerund, you ask? Or a dangling participle? I have no idea. I’m actually kind of impressed that I remembered those terms, if only to identify them as a grammar words I can’t remember the meaning of. I have to keep reading The Elements of Style every six months, and still I tend to ignore it, or forget it, and allow my own personal grammar to shape the stories, sacrificing everything for a line that sounds right to my ear. I pity my editors.
TQ: You are also a writer in the video game industry. How is writing a novel similar (or not) to writing for video games?
Ted: They’re totally different. The kind of writing that writers do at video game companies is extremely varied, but almost none of it is in the same wheel-house as novel writing. It pulls from different source in your head. Game writing involves a lot of idea generation, and meetings, and collaboration. There is a lot of writing that doesn’t end up in an actual game. And nothing is done in isolation. There is a team of smart people who have your back on everything you do, and most of the time they’re coming up with better ideas than you could think of by yourself anyway. But with novel writing, it is totally different. It’s just you and the blank page, and it’s all about the disgorgement of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of words that somehow get laid down in a way that doesn’t repel a reader. With a novel, you’re on your own, and the medium you’re working with is intrinsically, by its nature, boring as hell. It’s just letters and marks on a white background, after all. Somehow the writer has to make the reader want to sit there and stare at that for hours on end. It’s an almost insurmountable obstacle, and every time it happens, and the reader keeps reading, it is a little miracle, I think.
TQ: Describe The Games in 140 characters or less.
Ted: My elevator pitch you mean? Here goes: "In the future, genetic engineering becomes an Olympic event, and the decision to trust a rogue AI has disastrous consequences." I think that’s less than 140 characters.
TQ: What inspired you to write The Games?
I’d written lots of short stories where the ideas were based around these little twists in science that allowed me to explore one idea very deeply. But when I thought of the premise for The Games, I knew that this was different. It was a bigger idea that I could take my time in exploring. I wanted to look at the idea of bloodsport from several different angles and explore ways in which science and sport might intertwine. Also, I’m very interested in the concept of artificial intelligence. I’ve been reading for years about future AI’s that seem now to be inevitable. But a part of me wonders if it isn’t more interesting to ask, once we’ve created them, what might they create?
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Games?
Ted: Like most writers’ first novels, I think my whole life was research for this book. Every class I ever took in school. Every interest I had as a child. I studied biology in college and spent a lot of my free time reading about genetics. So all of that went into the book. I even bred mice for a while as a kid as way to sort of dip my toe into the idea that one can do more than study genetics as a system; one can be a practitioner of it. All of that worldview found its way into the book.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? Hardest and why?
Ted: The easiest character to write was Evan, for some reason. I think he represents that selfish facet that I imagine exists within the mind of anyone who cares deeply about some intellectual pursuit—the part that wants to allow yourself to become obsessed with your interests to the exclusion of all the other aspects of your personality that make you human. The hardest character to write was Ben. He was funny and witty; and those funny, witty characters are hard to write unless you happen to be one yourself, and I’m not. (though that doesn’t stop me from trying to be; my lame jokes are legend in my family)
TQ: Without giving anything away, what is/are your favorite scene(s) in The Games?
Ted: There was a scene that I wrote very late in the process of editing—and I mean very late—after the book had already been accepted, and I was doing a final clean-up of the manuscript, where I suddenly understood something about Baskov that illuminated his entire character and motivation for me. It struck me like a bolt, and it was suddenly there, and it came out in a really short exchange between him and another character. Just a few sentences. But those sentences explain everything to me about Baskov. So that is one of my favorite scenes. And then, of course, there are the fight scenes. Some film directors are in love with big explosions, but I’m in love with creatures fighting. Huge, unnatural beasts smashing together in impossible violence. The bigger the better. The bloodier, the better. I just love action scenes set against a scientific backdrop.
TQ: What's next?
Ted: I’m working hard on video games. I'm also almost done with a new novel called, for now, The Prophet of Bones. It’s an alternate history where science has proven that the Earth is only 5,000 years old.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Ted: Thanks for having me. I appreciate you taking the interest in my work.
The Games Del Rey, March 13, 2012 Hardcover and eBook, 368 pages
This stunning first novel from Nebula Award and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award finalist Ted Kosmatka is a riveting tale of science cut loose from ethics. Set in an amoral future where genetically engineered monstrosities fight each other to the death in an Olympic event, The Games envisions a harrowing world that may arrive sooner than you think.
Silas Williams is the brilliant geneticist in charge of preparing the U.S. entry into the Olympic Gladiator competition, an internationally sanctioned bloodsport with only one rule: no human DNA is permitted in the design of the entrants. Silas lives and breathes genetics; his designs have led the United States to the gold in every previous event. But the other countries are catching up. Now, desperate for an edge in the upcoming Games, Silas’s boss engages an experimental supercomputer to design the genetic code for a gladiator that cannot be beaten.
The result is a highly specialized killing machine, its genome never before seen on earth. Not even Silas, with all his genius and experience, can understand the horror he had a hand in making. And no one, he fears, can anticipate the consequences of entrusting the act of creation to a computer’s cold logic.
Now Silas races to understand what the computer has wrought, aided by a beautiful xenobiologist, Vidonia João. Yet as the fast-growing gladiator demonstrates preternatural strength, speed, and—most disquietingly—intelligence, Silas and Vidonia find their scientific curiosity giving way to a most unexpected emotion: sheer terror.
Ted's work has been reprinted in eight Year's Best anthologies, translated into a dozen languages, and been performed on stage in Indiana and New York. He's been nominated for both the Nebula Award and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and is co-winner of the 2010 Asimov's Readers' Choice Award. He lives with his family in the Pacific Northwest, not far from the water.