by staff writer Laura Davis
As the crowd settles in for John Scalzi’s talk at the L.A. Times Festival of Books 2013, Richard Kadrey begins his introduction, “John Scalzi, [session number] 2064, Richard Kadrey…”
Scalzi interjects, “Isn’t there a video game, Robotron 2064, something like that?”
“Twenty EIGHTY four!” comes from the audience.
“Shut UP!” Scalzi retorts, laughing. “Forty seconds in and I’ve already been nerd corrected! Can’t take you kids anywhere!”
And so it begins.
John Scalzi is a Hugo award-winning Sci-Fi writer, journalist, business writer, script and game writer, and author of the blog, Whatever. His style of not pulling punches yet delivering them with a wicked sense of humor makes for very entertaining reading. Last fall, his satirical post, “A Fan Letter to Certain Conservative Politicians,” signed “Just Another Rapist” triggered a tidal wave of responses, both by fans and by those who do not understand the concept of satire.
Earlier this year, a troll began attacking Scalzi online, inciting his followers to flood Scalzi’s blog with hateful commentary. Scalzi’s response? In a post entitled, “Solving My Racist Sexist Homophobic Dip[$#!t] Problem,” Scalzi pledged to put $5 into a fund every time the troll mentioned Scalzi’s name (or a nickname for him) on his blog. Fans monitored the troll’s blog and kept account. The fund (Scalzi offered up to $1,000 of his own money) would be divided among charities serving women, people of color, and the LGBT community. As Scalzi’s fans asked to join in the fun, they raised over $50,000 for these charities, and succeeded in really infuriating said troll. That’s how Scalzi rolls.
His talk at LATFOB covered a lot of ground, beginning with Scalzi’s early years as a writer. He graduated college in the middle of the recession, in 1991, and, he explains, “blithely assumed I could get a job, height of arrogance, I decided I wasn’t going to apply for any newspaper that had a circulation under 100k, AND was more than 50 miles from a beach. Out of 25 newspapers, 24 rejected me.” The twenty-fifth was the Fresno Bee, which offered him a job as movie critic. “I was completely unqualified,” he adds.
Still, he succeeded at it, by dint of hard work, skill, and luck. His star was on the rise. He describes his early career, “At age 22, I was the youngest full time movie critic in the country, at 24, I was a syndicated columnist, you could not tell me I was not the Golden Child. My career just always seemed to have this upward arc. Then I got to AOL, I was there for 2 years, and this upward arc just went BAM!… I got laid off. And it was a lay-off of one, which really meant I was fired. I invested so much of who I was and who my ego was in my job, and how I was doing my job, Suddenly, there was this crushing mound of doubt about what I was doing with my life.”
“It was the first time it really came down to me,” says Scalzi of this crisis test. He and his wife talked their options over, and decided to go ahead with the house purchase they’d planned before he was laid off. “We made it work. That’s when I started doing the freelance thing. Oh, and a week after they fired me, AOL realized they weren’t getting writing done, so they hired me back as a consultant, for twice as much money with half as much work… Before, I was really precious about myself, but at this time, I was like, No. I’m a working writer, and my ego is in doing the work and feeding my family.”
Richard Kadrey adds, “Something writers know, but not necessarily writing students, or people who want to be writers: It’s not necessarily talent that’s going to get you there. Sometimes, it’s just being the last son of a bitch standing.”
Scalzi sums this stage up, “Yes, I am a good writer. Yes, I have good business sense, but one of the prime drivers for where I am now was luck. All these other things matter, but let’s not pretend luck didn’t have something to do with it. As with many things, luck favors the prepared mind.”
Like when he sold Old Man’s War to Tor Books, and they asked if he had a second book he was working on.
“And of course, I didn’t, so said, ‘Well, yes. I do!’ and I pitched them ‘man solves diplomatic crisis through use of action scenes and snappy dialogue.’ And they bought it! That was Android’s Dream.”
Kadrey moves the discussion moves along to games, and Scalzi becomes even more animated. “I’m a big gamer, ever since Atari. And I’ve always been a big believer in monetizing your interests. So, in 2000, I actually created a video game site called Game Dad. This was before the video game ratings were really a thing, so I started this website where I could tell parents all the bad things that were in these video games. So, I not only got to play all these games, but I got to play them like a ten-year-old boy. A ten-year-old boy is going to try to break the game no matter what you do. So, I would get, say, The Sims, and the very first thing I did with Sims was I put a Sim in a box, just to see him spin around and dance. Why would you do that? Because that’s what a 10-year old boy would do!”
He describes how he became involved in writing and supervising the development of Industrial Toys’ forthcoming first-person shooter game and graphic novel project, Morning Star. “Alexander Seropian, who founded Bungee and did HALO called me up – he lived in my dorm in college – and asked me if I wanted in on it, and I was like, ‘the dude from HALO wants to know if I want in on his thing. I think I might do that!’” Good call.
“There’s this new understanding that a story that is told well doesn’t have to necessarily have to be told in a single medium. Multiple media can augment and add to the enjoyment of the whole universe… We can say things and do things in the graphic novel that we can’ t necessarily do very well in the video game, and vice versa… This is an opportunity to say, ‘This is a new platform. Why don’t we create to the strengths of the medium,’ and do stuff nobody else is doing yet, because if you get there and you make it and you hit, then it’s yours. You will always have been the first man on the moon.”
Scalzi’s latest book is a serialized digital novel, The Human Division. It uses some of the Old Man’s War universe. Scalzi says he swore he wouldn’t go back to that work unless he had something new to say, and, in this new project, he found the opportunity to do more with the characters of Harry Wilson and Hart Schmidt, and to add onto the body of work in a way he found satisfying. “Now I had this story that I wanted to tell, which was the possible collapse of the colonial union. But I had a new structure that I thought lent itself to that particular story. It would have been incredibly difficult to do this, to have serialized this in print.”
It’s obvious that both Scalzi and Kadrey are excited about the creative possibilities opened up by expanding technology and re-combining existing technologies to come up with new experiences. They both look like little boys on Christmas morning at this point.
“Publishing now,” Scalzi reveals, “is where film was in the late 60’s and early 70’s, where the old model was beginning to crack and collapse, and the studio collapse … and nobody knew what was going on. They just heaved these huge pots of spaghetti up against the wall to see what was going to stick. Nobody knew what was going to work… Before, the studio would say, ‘Why would we do that?’ But now, [film makers] were saying, ‘We don’t know. Why don’t we try that? We made a million dollars? Great, let’s do that again!’
“We are in the same place in publishing right now. The publishing industry literally does not know what’s going to work and what’s not. In one sense, that’s really panic-inducing because you’re like, I don’t know where my next dollar is coming from. One the other hand, it does mean we’re going to try this thing.”
There’s a great deal of opportunity and risk available in the publishing world right now. Scalzi concludes, “The curse is ‘May you live in interesting times.’ The simple fact is that interesting times are when the interesting work happens. You might as well take a flyer…you might as well just go ahead and put something up by yourself, because you know your audience better than a publisher, and can service it better. You might as well try this episodic thing, and maybe in another 5-10 years, it will all shake out. We’ll see, but for now? Damn good to be in interesting times!”