Describe your latest book.
My last book was The Traitor Baru Cormorant
, which comes out on November 29 in paperback! My elevator pitch has always been Game of Thrones
meets Guns, Germs, and Steel
— but if you like to get specific, it's also Queen of Attolia
meets Code Name Verity
Baru is a bright young girl on the island of Taranoke when the Empire of Masks arrives to colonize her home, outlaw her parents' marriage, and disappear one of her fathers. Being a very Machiavellian little girl, Baru decides there's only one thing to do — enter the Empire's schools, join their civil service, prove herself as their finest operative, and destroy the whole Masquerade from within. Baru proves herself. But the Masquerade doubts her loyalty, so they send her to the distant province of Aurdwynn with a hideous bargain. If she wants to gain the power she needs to save her own home, she must destroy Aurdwynn's rebellion... a task that gets more complicated when she begins to fall for the woman leading the uprising.
I always wondered what would've happened in Star Wars
if Luke actually went on to the Imperial Academy like he'd planned, instead of joining the Rebellion. Would he have been able to make a difference from within? What would it have cost him? Would the compromises required to keep his cover eventually have driven him to become like his father?
I also really wanted to write a protagonist who gets to do all the fun villain stuff. Protagonists try to stop villains. Villains get the world-shattering plans, the spy networks and legions of soldiers, access to all the forces that actually alter history. Villains are the ones trying to change the status quo. Baru needs that power if she wants to save her home.
What was your favorite book as a child?
Probably Startide Rising
by David Brin, a novel about a starship full of uplifted dolphins that discovers a hideously ancient alien artifact. It’s kitchen-sink space opera full of magical technology and histrionic aliens, dazzling in its scope and energy. But it also has a streak of deep loss and melancholy — characters are forced into decisions that draw them farther apart, both physically and emotionally, and eventually you realize there’s no way they’ll all make it back together in time to escape…
When did you know you were a writer?
Oh, as long as I’ve been conscious, I think. My elementary school had a "publishing night" where students read stories aloud to the parents. I tried to end mine on a cliffhanger and sell the rest. For a long time my writing was actually tied up with LEGO blocks! My brother and I would build spaceships and I’d write stories about their adventures in an intergalactic political milieu.
What does your writing workspace look like?
I spend a lot of time at a very bland chain coffee shop in Manhattan. It has high ceilings — I don’t know why that’s important: maybe some kind of imaginative airspace? More importantly, though, I’ve been there so much that the staff just stopped billing me for coffee.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
What a good question! I was trained in school as a research psychologist — not the kind that listens to your problems, unfortunately, but the kind that tricks you into behavioral experiments while recording your pupil dilation and brain state. (We always got consent.) Even after leaving the program, I've thought a lot about the ways in which our lives are influenced by subtle rules and prejudices we’re not quite aware of. Miscommunication and misunderstanding is so fascinating to me. We spend so much time arguing with each other — about our personal lives, or the political world, or morality — and yet most of those arguments just harden our positions and drive us further apart. Why? What makes it so hard for two of us to agree on the basic facts of the world?
If you were to cut one statement out of a conversation and unpack it, unbury all its roots, draw it out, you’d find so much beneath it. Tentacles of causality spread through the genome and the brain and language and human history. I care about that underneath.
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
Oh god. I have a humiliating number of Star Wars
X-Wing Miniatures: it’s this wonderful tabletop game you play against a friend. You set out your little plastic toy spaceships and secretly assign them maneuvers, and when everyone’s ready you reveal all the maneuvers and move the ships accordingly and then they all shoot at each other. Continue until someone’s won. It’s like chess in that each ship has its own characteristic set of moves, some flying right at the enemy like pawns, "bishops" and "knights" maneuvering nimbly around, "queens" loaded down with equipment and weapons that can attack in any direction but ruin you to lose. But of course it’s more casual than chess (fly casual, they say), and you get to make laser noises while you play.
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I was once assigned to help analyze a data set gathered from cocoa farms in Ghana, to ensure they met fair-trade standards. I made an error in the spreadsheet and accidentally multiplied the average number of machete wounds sustained by children in a certain province by a factor of 10,000. Fortunately I caught the mistake before we sent the data in!
I think the strangest, though, must have been writing for Bungie’s video game Destiny. How do you write one sentence describing a helmet when you know that sentence is guaranteed to be read by millions of people? You want something crystalline, perfect, a sentence that doesn’t break when hammered on a few hundred million times. Mostly you fail.
What scares you the most as a writer?
Oh, myself, absolutely. There are days or months when I can’t write, for no reason I perceive: and then one day I go in and do all the same things and the words pour out. Whatever mechanism determines when and how well I write, it is diabolical and I loathe it. I wish I had the formula for a good writing day. I want to make a life out of this!
Also: to work in psychology, to watch hundreds of people run through the same experiment, to see their decisions altered by subliminal cues and tiny prods they’re not aware of — and then to write a book, and to consider how much of the meaning in that book you may have recorded without ever knowing you meant it, that’s horrifying too.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Baru jokes, at one point in the upcoming sequel, that her memoirs will be titled A Log of Good Decisions
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
"And, taking the small, spare, worn face in her ageless hands, she drew their two painted mouths together, and breathed a long soft breath into her, ache and dissolution, fire crossing a field. The moment under the sky where the wind rises all around you, and you can’t speak for fury that you won’t have it for ever. Her heart leapt and settled and grew warm, a candle in a cup. The old terror of deep water. The unspeakable, necessary waste that is nearly everything in a life, isolated sparks in the sea of ash. She couldn’t see the Handmaid now, or the Denizens of the Ring, or anything at all. She tried to hold out her hand to look at, for data, for something to receive. Don’t stop talking, world, even now. She saw for an instant like a backlit leaf the thin dark bones almost blotted out by light, and then those too had gone."
From a work of fanfiction, "Watch the Roots," by a writer named lionpyh.
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
“In these recent months when she lived deep in the bloodhot jungle and stalked the innocent across contested ground it seemed to her that her transfiguration had become complete and she would never again recognize herself by any name. Her sign would be the glistening smile her machete cut on the throats of boy-soldiers. I am this, this mortal act.”
Describe a recurring or particularly memorable dream or nightmare.
When our family would go to Cape Cod to visit our grandparents, we’d cross a long suspension bridge. I’d dream of it, and inevitably the bridge would collapse or we’d drive off the edge and fall. Each time I’d think, I can’t believe it. After all those dreams, it’s finally happening!
In college I would often wake up and for a moment a nightmare would overlay itself on the room. The shelf over my bed would have teeth, the walls would breathe, and the blankets would turn into a tongue.
Do you have any phobias?
I went to school at a tiny 60-person elementary school in the woods of Vermont. During the winter we’d compete with each other, in little cliques, to build the best fortresses out of the snow that the plow mounded up around the driveway. One day I was digging a tunnel and it collapsed on me. Ever since I’ve been terrified of crawling through tight spaces, especially if my arms are pinned at my sides.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
I love awful pop music. I like to listen to this awful pop music while I waste my life playing multiplayer video games. I think games are maybe the easiest way to achieve a flow state — that psychological trance where your whole mind is absorbed with the task, you’re challenged but not overwhelmed, and victories seem to happen magically, without effort.
I used to listen to a lot of Madonna while I played Titanfall, a game about parkour and giant robots. I don’t know why those went together. Lately I’ve been scrounging YouTube for awful remixes while I play World of Warships and exploiting the economy in Elite Dangerous to make billions of credits by shipping hydrogen and human biowaste.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
When I was 17, a friend I’d met through a website (where we wrote collaborative stories about LEGO spaceships, of course) tipped me off to a young writer’s workshop in Pennsylvania. The deadline was 12 hours away. I barely got a story in on time, barely made my flight six months later (I had to climb on board on the tarmac), and barely got to the workshop in time for the opening! I met my partner there and we’ve been together the past 10 years.
What is the central problem of building a good, just, fair society?
I think everything comes down to the prisoner’s dilemma — or, put differently, the great challenge of all good works, from the law to the human body, is forcing the individual to give up their short-term gain for the long-term betterment of the whole. Societies and bodies both succeed to the extent that they can align individual self-interest with the global good.
This sounds absolutely inane, but think about it. What is cancer? A cell loses its laws — the laws designed to make it a useful part of the whole — and starts pulling resources from those around it to feed its own growth. It does very well for a while, and then the whole "world" of the body ends, and it dies.
Politics is the same. We design laws and systems of government in the name of the common good. But eventually, individuals realize that they can use elected office to access resources for themselves — they learn to game the rules we meant to benefit the whole. A government is "good" when it can align the individual’s desire for power with efficient, fair, democratic behavior.
The environment is the same. We can, for example, force companies to reduce their carbon emissions. Let’s say we succeed, and the status quo becomes "sustainable carbon emissions." Now any given company can say, "Everyone else is limiting their emissions, and the world is in better shape. We can gain a slight competitive edge by cheating and it won’t really hurt anything." And the whole thing falls apart because everyone starts cheating.
Isn’t this what we’re all afraid of? People who seem good but who are in fact just playing the game of goodness in order to get ahead? People who seem to admire or love us, but in truth just want to extract some utility from our connection?
Even games face this problem. Players seek to exploit a game’s rules to get easy wins. A game is good when the best way to play is also the most fun way to play. A game fails when a player can use tactics no one enjoys to win.
A game designer, a civilization, a friendship, and a body all face the same challenges.
Five books with language I adore:
These novels or collections blew me away with their sentence-level writing. Whether you share that admiration probably depends on whether you also share my taste in language, but here goes!
by Hilary Mantel
Thomas Cromwell, once the battered son of a blacksmith, becomes chief fixer-of-intractable-problems to the King of England. The story winds between past and future, from the calm practicality of Cromwell’s political maneuvering, through the surprising warmth of his family and inner circle, into his melancholy recollections of the past.
Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I think the mark of exquisite writing is that it constantly does the unexpected and unpredictable, and yet in retrospect it all feels obvious and inevitable. I’m fascinated by the way Coates deploys his periods and commas: the microtechnicalities of his structure. But there are also sentences in this book of thunderous impact, all the more so because Coates has no bluster. He’s just speaking, calmly, and what he says falls upon you.
Conservation of Shadows
by Yoon Ha Lee
This collection of Lee’s science fiction and fantasy short stories is a catalogue of predilections and obsessions, but the whole work coheres into a single impression: scalpel-sharp, cold, arcane and numinous in the manner of high mathematics, a little ruthless, a little sad, a little playful. In particular seek out "Ghostweight," a story of space warfare and high revenge that shares nothing with the pulp joy of Star Wars
or the dismal machismo of so much military science fiction. Science fiction can be more.
Use of Weapons
by Iain M. Banks
A man is hired by a utopian Culture to carry out the miserable, violent, warlike tasks that the Culture itself considers necessary to help others. He excels at them. This book is like the accretion disk of a black hole: chaotic, star-hot, whirling towards an inevitable convergence that is also an impenetrable void. Who is Cheradenine Zakalwe? How did he become himself? Why is he so terrified of chairs?
by Indra Das
I think this is going to be a contentious pick, given that this book smells like a pack of wild dogs and grapples with repression, violence (sexual and otherwise), and the beasts within us. But I loved it, and it stayed on me, probably because it makes so much beauty out of the foul — a physical, lush, musky book about shapeshifters in Calcutta, full of cigarettes and butter and stories recorded on parchment of human skin. It made something lyrical out of the profane and the inhumanly ferocious. Never has a book made eating your mom so cheerful.
÷ ÷ ÷
's short fiction has appeared in Analog
, Strange Horizons
, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies
, among others. He is an instructor at the Alpha Workshop for Young Writers, winner of the 2011 Dell Magazines Award, and a lapsed student of social neuroscience. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. The Traitor Baru Cormorant
is his first novel.