Monday, December 16, 2013

Interview with Will McIntosh

I loved Will McIntosh's science fiction take on the romantic comedy, Love Minus Eighty and Will was kind enough to take the time to do an interview. We discussed everything from the genesis of this fantastic novel, to world building, internet dating and upcoming projects. It was very enlightening to get a look into the writing process behind one of the best novels I've read this year. Rather than waste time with a lengthy preamble, I'll just get one with the main attraction. I hope you all enjoy our conversation as much as I did.

52 Reviews: Tell us about your process for beginning Love Minus Eighty? I'm aware that you wrote a short story that touches on the Bridecicle program. How did the reception of that story influence the eventual novel and how did your take on the longer work change with more space to tell a more involved tale?

Will McIntosh: The people at Orbit Books actually came up with the idea of expanding "Bridesicle" into a novel.  My agent, Seth Fishman, approached them with a proposal for a novel based on the short story "Defenders", and Orbit's people asked if I might also be interested in expanding "Bridesicle".  They suggested writing it as an exploration of love and dating in the future, and I thought that was a terrific idea.  It had never occurred to me to turnn"Bridesicle" into a novel. It was such a claustrophobic story and didn't appear to have much room to expand, but once I was thinking of the cryogenic dating center as the center of gravity for a larger story, the story expanded fairly easily.  Initially, I was thinking about Love Minus Eighty as a futuristic version of the movie Love, Actually.  My original outline had about seven point of view characters whose lives were all intertwined to various extents.  As I started writing it became clear that was too many points of view, and Rob and Veronika quickly stood out as the best characters to tell the story I wanted to tell.  Along with Mira, the POV character from the original story, of course.

52 Reviews: I find it hard to imagine the story of Love Minus Eighty with more point of view characters. Did you just change those point of view characters to fit into the narrative of Rob and Veronika's story? What can you tell us about the characters and plot threads that ended up on the cutting room floor?

Will McIntosh: Looking back at the outline, there were four additional point of view characters with their own stories.  All of them ended up in the final draft, but with diminished roles:

Nathan (in the outline, we see him meeting and going out with various women)

Sunali (more about her work with the anti-bridesicle program, and much more about her own peculiar marriage to her grandson-in-law.

Lycan (we see him visiting the bridesicle center, talking to various women)

Nathan's father (in the outline, Rob's mother is still alive, and we witness his father learning that she doesn't really love him).

Most of the additional plot fit into the arc of the finished story.  My initial thinking was that the novel would have a more leisurely pace, with more relationship-oriented content.  But I got bored writing the first Sunali chapter, and if you're bored writing something, you have a problem.  So, I began weeding out POV characters.

52 Reviews: I can only speculate, but I feel certain that the tighter focus benefited the story. I found both Rob and Veronika to be easily to relate to and they seem to serve as an every man and every woman perspective on the trials and tribulations of the relationship rat race. Was one point of view more challenging than the other? What can you tell us about your process for creating characters that have such broad appeal?

Will McIntosh: Rob was definitely harder to write than Veronika.  Sometimes I have a particular person in mind when I create a character, and that was the case with Veronika.  I don't want to say who Veronika is based on, but because she was based on a real person I knew a lot about her before I began writing.  For some reason I couldn't come up with one actual person who would make a good Rob, so I had to build him from scratch.  I did a lot more rewriting of Rob's dialogue and thoughts, because he wasn't jumping off the page the way I wanted, and even afterward Veronika felt more three-dimensional to me when the novel was complete.  When I read comments from readers on Goodreads and blogs, most who express a preference say Veronika was their favorite character.  If I ever write a sequel (though I don't see this as a novel screaming for a sequel), I'd probably run with Veronika.

If I can think of a person to base a character on, either someone I know, or a celebrity like Mike Tyson, or Bill Gates, often I'll just drop that person into the story.  I'm not a good enough writer that I'm in danger of readers recognizing the person.  Otherwise, I just have to make someone up.  In that case, the character usually develops as I write.  I come up with new details about their past, their idiosyncrasies as the story unfolds, then I have to go back with what I've learned about them, and flesh them out.

52 Reviews: With the narrative focus on the dependence on technology in all aspects of our lives, especially in the realm of interpersonal relationships, one could make the argument that the moral of Love Minus Eighty is about reaffirming the importance of real world interactions and chemistry as opposed to compatabity scores and dating algorithms. Given the successes and popularity of dating websites and the like, what led you to this theme?

Will McIntosh: My own experience with dating websites when I was single.  They're an incredibly efficient way to meet people, and necessary if you live in a small rural town like I did.  In fact, I met my wife through a dating site, even though she worked about two hundred yards away from me on the same college campus.  But I found it incredibly depressing to scroll through those profiles.  It was tedious and exhausting.  During that time I was friends with a woman who was also doing the online dating thing, and the stories she told made my skin crawl.  Guys showing up at her door who were twenty years older than their pictures, guys who who had posted someone else's picture.  One guy confided to her on their first (and only) date that he was in trouble with organized crime.  That's not to say people don't have bad experiences with people they meet "in the wild", but online dating seems to exacerbate many of the negatives of dating.  That efficiency comes with a cost.

52 Reviews: I've seen Love Minus Eighty described elsewhere as a science fiction romantic comedy, which is definitely an unusual occurance in the genre. Considering how little stereotypical action scenes are in the novel, how did you approach the pacing in such a way to make up for the action long time genre readers might expect?

Will McIntosh: My instinct is to always keep the story moving, regardless of the content.  I get bored easily.  I think that was a good thing for this novel, because as you say, there isn't much action.  The characters' interrelationships served as the action, so I made sure something significant was happening in almost every scene.  I think there are writers who create wonderful genre books that are not action-packed using a leisurely pace, but I'm not one of them.  The other element that I think helped was the introduction of a ticking clock.  Winter was going to die, soon, if Rob couldn't figure out a way to save her.  That sort of time constraint can add a lot of tension to a story.

In the first draft, I gave the novel an action-packed ending to try to give the story more power.  All of my early readers despised that ending.  I had to hack off the last 1/5 of the book and do it over.

52 Reviews: Tell us a little about your world building process for Love Minus Eighty. The world of the novel is so similar to our own to be familiar yet alien enough to feel foreign, how do you approach such a fragile balance?

Will McIntosh: I wanted it to be familiar because I wanted the characters to look and sound pretty much like we do now.  Somehow creating contemporary-feeling characters who are walking around in an utterly unfamiliar world didn't seem like a good idea.  At the same time, you want the world to be interesting.  If Manhattan in the future looks pretty much the same except the buildings are shinier and taller, the world isn't carrying much of the fun "wow" factor that makes SF enjoyable to read.  I thought adding a second tier that blocked the sun from the poorer residents was a way to have the world underscore one of the themes of the book, while also providing a cool visual image that would be fun to work with.  I was honestly a little uneasy about creating a world that far in the future.  I wanted it to seem realistic, but the hard details of technology are not my strong suit.

52 Reviews: I personally find the hard science in some science fiction distracting, so your choice to keep the environment closer to our world than not definitely worked for me. Your creation of the "skin" version of personal computer/cell phone was most intriguing, I saw it like an armor of sorts that keeps everyone and everything at a comfortable and filtered existence. Was there a particular message imbedded in this creation or was it just an extrapolation of our modern fascination and reliance in our technology?

Will McIntosh: Honestly, I was just trying to think of a cool form for the technology to take.  As a group, SF readers have a remarkable awareness of the genre's history, so part of the challenge is to avoid trotting out futuristic technology that looks just like the tech they're read about in other SF books.  That being said, I'm woefully behind in my reading, so I'm sure I often come up with a detail that I think is relatively fresh when it's actually been used to death.

52 Reviews: I'm sensing a more nuts and bolts approach to story, character and world building and less focus on theme and meta. I find that surprising since so many of the details of the novel seem to dove tail into the themes so well. Is this something that happens during the editing process?

Will McIntosh: A lot of it happens on the periphery of my awareness.  Once I have my world and characters, I tend to live at the level of my characters.  The themes, the overarching story tend to unfold from that.  I'd say I'm intentionally an obtuse writer.  If I think too much about the meta aspects of a story, I end up with a bad story.

52 Reviews: It's time for my final question. This is a chance for you to talk about whatever you like. Tell us about upcoming projects, recommend other authors or offer a bit of sage writing advice for the aspiring writers out there, whatever strikes your fancy. Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. The floor is yours.

Will McIntosh: Let me tell you what's upcoming, and what's come before, and point out what a sad job I've done in writing a "type" of book.  I mentioned earlier that I get bored easily, and to some extent that applies not only to the quick pacing I tend to favor, but the sort of book I write.  My first novel, Soft Apocalypse, was (no surprise, given the title) an apocalyptic novel.  It fit cleanly into that subgenre, although it was unconventional in some ways.  My second novel was Hitchers, which some readers and reviewers categorized as horror, others thriller, others urban fantasy.  I think an argument could be made for any of those categories.  Love Minus Eighty is science fiction, but, as you pointed out earlier, there isn't a ton of action; it's about love.  Next up is Defenders, due out in May.  It's an alien invasion novel with a twist, and there is a lot of action (although there's also a decent amount of love).  Do you see the pattern yet?  No, I don't either.  I think readers who enjoyed Love Minus Eighty will like Defenders if they give it a try, but Love Minus Eighty features a lovely, lyrical, listless cover of a woman reaching from behind glass, and the cover of Defenders features a closeup of a fearsome, not-quite-human face, and both covers definitely do justice to what's inside.  Some readers of the former may not see the latter as their cup of tea.  After Defenders will (hopefully) come Faller, a wild near-future SF read with a strong post-apocalyptic aftertaste.  This is probably my first novel that bears some surface resemblance to what has come before -- it's a bit like Defenders and Soft Apocalypse, if they were mashed together and dropped into an episode of Lost.  To writers very early in the game, I'd advise against taking this all-over-the-board approach, unless you can't help yourself.  I think I've made it somewhat difficult for readers to know what to expect from me.  To those who have come along for the ride, I'm very grateful, and to anyone who gives one of my novels a try and likes it, I'd say, stick with me for a little while.  At their core, these novels have more in common than might be apparent at first blush.


  1. Great interview! Thanks Mr. McIntosh for such in-depth answers. Love Minus Eighty, which I read immediately upon release, is my favorite book of the year and I was thrilled when recording the SF Signal Podcast the other day that I was not alone in that assessment. It is one of those wonderful science fiction novels you can pass over to people who don't regularly read SF as they will connect with all the characters and the love story elements. I've really enjoyed giving this one away this past year.

    Look forward to Defenders!

  2. Thanks Carl, so glad you enjoyed it! And thanks for the insightful review you posted over on Stainless Steel Droppings.

    I had fun doing the Q and A with Matt. We went back and forth over the course of a week or so, and that worked well, allowing us time to reflect a little.

    I'll look forward to reading what you think of Defenders. I can't wait for release day.

  3. Thanks!

    May does feel like forever from now, but I imagine we'll look back when it arrives and wonder how we got there so quickly.