Author interview with Lawrence M. Schoen


Interview with Lawrence M. Schoen

About the author

Lawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics. He’s also one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Klingon language, and the publisher of a speculative fiction small press, Paper Golem. He’s been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award, the Hugo Award, and the Nebula Award. Lawrence lives near Philadelphia. You can find him online at LawrenceMSchoen.com and @KlingonGuy.




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Hi Lawrence, welcome over to The Book Plank and for taking your time to answer these few questions for us.

LS: Thank you, it’s a great pleasure to be here. But enough about me, let’s talk about me!


BP: First off, can you tell us who Lawrence M. Schoen is? What are your likes, dislikes and other hobbies besides writing?

LS: The simplest answer to that is that I’m an author. I’m also a research psychologist, a small press publisher, a hypnotherapist, and a Klingonist. I drink copious amounts of Diet Coke, but never coffee or tea. I like Chinese food, but I’ve worked hard to eat less of it than I used to. In recent months I’ve taken up geo-caching, in part to get more exercise and in part to spend more time out in Nature. I have a fascination with the way languages work, but despite having studied more than a dozen of them, I’m actually not very good at learning languages and struggle to do so.


BP: You have been writing fiction for a long time, what made you decide that you wanted to pick up the pen in the first place?

LS: I don’t recall a time when I wasn’t writing. As a child, every weekend I had to go off with my father to work at the swap meet. We were regulars, same spot every week. After we’d set up our stand, I’d go off to another of the regulars who sold school supplies. I’d buy a spiral-bound notebook and spend the rest of the day sitting in the back van and filling that notebook with stories. For good or ill, none of those notebooks have survived.


BP: Your new novel "Barsk: The Elephants Graveyard" was released in December, what gave you the inspiration behind this story?

LS: The idea for the world and the elephants who live there began as a gag reply to the roommate of one of my students when he invited me to play a “furry animal” RPG in the late 80’s. Basically, it created an opportunity I wanted, to try my hand at writing the kind of “sense-o-wonder” book that I grew up loving.


BP: "Barsk" is a full length novel;, you have been writing a lot of short fiction, was it difficult to change to a full novel?

LS: In graduate school, after you’ve written your Master’s thesis, there’s a tendency to think the Doctoral dissertation will just be more of the same, but longer. Believe me, it’s not. Similarly, I suspect a lot of short story writers approach novels with that same strategy, and then experience a very rude awakening.

Fortunately for me and my readers, Barsk is not my first novel. I had two previous books from small press Hadley Rille, as well as a trio of novellae, so I’m no stranger to breaking past the short story word count. But I do believe it’s something that takes practice and you get better the more you do. It also helps that I had some great teachers along the way, and this looks like a good spot to name-check them. Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress, I’m talking to you!

But back to your question, no, it wasn’t difficult. Difficult would be -- pardon the expression -- easy. Writing at novel-length is different. Not better or worse, just different. All the rules for what works and why are still there, they just don’t operate quite the same way.


BP: If you would have to sell "Barsk" with a single sentence, how would it go?

LS: DUNE meets THE SIXTH SENSE, with Elephants (in Space)!


BP: Now that "Barsk" is published, would you if given the chance to change a scene or chapter do so? If yes, which part and why?

LS: First, let me say that I’m really happy with the way Barsk turned out. But that said, there’s something that happens (at least to me) in the process of writing a novel. The experience makes me a better writer, so by the time I reach the end, I could go back and rewrite large swathes of the thing differently.

There are a couple things near the end of the book which, while quite satisfying in their present form, could use another few thousand words to tell it a bit differently and make the protagonist’s struggle more intense.

But that’s something I only see in hindsight, and the book is done. There’s a point where revising has to stop, or nothing would ever get published.


BP: Did you encounter any difficulties when you were writing "Barsk"?

LS: Oh yeah, where to begin? In one sense, Barsk is the sixth book I’ve had published. But it’s also the first book I ever wrote. It’s full of some ambitious ideas that I originally attempted to put down on paper more than twenty years ago. The problem was I didn’t know very much about how to write. That didn’t deter me, and I finished the novel. But it was horrible. Every mangled mistake that a new writer can make I’m sure was in that book. In my utter ignorance I of course thought it was brilliant and began shopping it around. Luckily, no one bought it, and I eventually realized it was critically flawed and I didn’t have the skills yet to tell the story the way it needed to be told. I put in a drawer and went off to learn how to be a better writer. A million words later, I had grown into the craft and took another shot at Barsk and got it right.


BP: Besides the difficulties that accompany writing, which chapter, scene, or moment did you enjoy writing about the most?

LS: That’s a brutal question; so many scenes come to mind and I don’t doubt my answer would change if I sat down to write this tomorrow. But okay, at this moment in time, I’ll say the scene where Pizlo comes crashing through the window of Jorl’s house, with a crudely painted aleph on his forehead, and tries to bluff his way through having been given the mark much like Jorl has, and thus is allowed passage to any place he wants to go (even if it means flying in via a closed window).

There’s something so heartwarming about that scene, that speaks to a young boy’s hero worship of his father’s friend, and a mentor carefully correcting a misunderstanding without crushing the dreams that have created it. The entire bit is character-driven, and that’s the sort of thing I enjoy most.


BP: You co-wrote "A kippled meal" with Daniel Polansky’ how is that related to "Barsk"?

LS: I don’t know that it is. I suppose it could be, but the real truth is that an editor at Tor.com seemingly looked around and said something like “hey, we have two authors who write about talking animals, let’s put them in a room together and have them write something.” Prior to that, Daniel and I had never spoken, and we still haven’t actually met. I think we deliberately left the text open enough that diehard fans could convince themselves that the story fit in either universe.


BP: Now that "Barsk" is published, do you have any other projects that you wish to pursue in the near future?

LS: I’m embarking on a new series about the spirits that are created by the rise of cities beginning about 5,000 BC, and how these entelechies are responsible for the advancement of civilization and humanity. It lets me hop around in time and play with lost cities and I think it’s going to be great fun to write.

As Barsk garners attention, I’m hoping I can parlay that into a deal to repackage the Amazing Conroy novels and novellae and stories with a new publisher and get a contract to continue the story arc I started back with a small press. There are at least four more books in that series, as well as a couple of spin-offs.

So, yeah, 2016 promises to be quite busy. My goal is to write at least two books, and possibly three, as well as at least one novella that already has a publisher waiting for it, and maybe even a couple short stories.


BP: "Barsk" has already received a lot of praise, do you have plans to turn it into a series?

LS: Oh boy, howdy, do I ever. I have plans for a number of other books set in the same universe as Barsk. Some are direct sequels to this book, but others deal with some of the other races that we’ve encountered, branching out to explore other cultures and societies than what we’ve seen from the Elephants’ point of view. The people who have already read Barsk seem to be really happy with the elaborate worldbuilding. I am too, and I’d very much like to keep mining it for years to come. There’s certainly no shortage of stuff to work with there.


BP: Everyone enjoys science fiction and fantasy in their own way, what do you like most about it?

LS: I like the immersive aspect of it. It’s a thing I first encountered in the work of Alfred Bester, where you take one thing that’s different, one SFnal idea that you make real. You clearly define it and then wind it up and let it loose in the world. It immediately ripples through every aspect of culture and society and it’s reflected in everything your characters do. Bester did this with things like Teleportation and Telepathy, but we can see it real life by looking at how smartphones or the internet have completely changed the world.


BP: Can you give us your top 5 favorite books that have inspired you during your writing?

LS: I really can’t. I read a lot, and I’ve been doing so for more than forty years. Ideas come and go, resonate for a while, become more elaborate as I see how different authors play with the same or similar concepts, and get filed away in my unconscious. I’ve been running a small press for the last few years, and that’s allowed me to look at things that I normally would never read or attempt to write, and to see how these authors make this effect work or that plot device come to life, and I marvel and a light bulb goes off in the back of my writer’s mind. Even the bad stuff I read, the mistakes I find in my own other author’s work is useful if I catch it; it’s a shining example of what not to do and why and opens up new doors to what to do instead.


BP: To which music did you listen when you were writing "Barsk", does it reflect in the story?

LS: Okay, this may shock you, but I almost never listen to music. Not when I’m writing, and rarely any other time (sometimes on long car trips, but even then it’s iffy). I think this is because I grew up being told I was tone deaf (turns out, I’m not) and so my focus went in other directions. On the other hand, I have a friend who’s an insanely talented pianist and composer (think child prodigy caliber) and she read an early ARC of the book. She’s been scoring the book, and the pieces I’ve heard are brilliant. Listening to her music allows you to see the scenes!


BP: And lastly, can you give a sneak preview of what "Barsk" is about?

LS: I had postcards made up some months ago as part of the build up to the release of Barsk. They list some blurbs, really nice things that some phenomenal authors have said about the book. But they also contain the following words which is the closest I’ve ever come to summarizing what the book’s all about:

Prophecy. Intolerance. Loyalty. Conspiracy. Friendship.
A Drug for Speaking to the Dead.
Also Elephants, in Space.


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