Author William Shunn—whose poem “Telegraph” is featured on our website and in the current issue on sale now—sits down to discuss his experiences writing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry! Read on to hear about the first story he ever produced, his phenomenal memoir, The Accidental Terrorist, and advice he has for emerging writers.
Analog Editor: Bill, you are unique among writers in that you are experienced with fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Which of these provided your entrance into writing?
WS: My entree to writing was fiction. In the first grade I wrote a story called “Rattlesnakes and Cobras” for a class Halloween contest. When the teacher read my story out loud, it made a couple of kids cry. I took first place, and writing fiction has been my first love ever since.
That said, I tried pretty hard to write poetry in high school. The results are still stinking up a very sad box in the back of my closet.
AE: Do you find writing poetry and prose to be drastically different? Does your process differ?
WS: I find them very different. For one thing, when I write prose I usually know approximately where I’m going with it. There will be a few surprises along the way, but in general I know the route and the destination. With poetry it’s all surprise. I might have an idea or image in mind when I start, but I rarely know the shape of the poem or where it will lead until I arrive at the end.
I find poetry, also, to be a very different way of stringing words and ideas together. With prose, I’m always thinking about the most efficient or elegant way of saying something, and about how one sentence leads into the next to best convey a scene or a concept. Words are there to serve the story. With a poem, the words are the piece. Yes, they should convey some sort of meaning, but I feel much more free to follow the sound and rhythm of the words and see what that unlocks.
AE: To further complicate things, what different mindsets do you have to be in for writing nonfiction vs. fiction? Do you have different processes? What tricks help you for either genre?
WS: Fiction and nonfiction have a lot in common, at least in the ways I approach them. Both forms are about telling an engaging story, both require good structure and pacing, and both benefit from clear prose and a strong voice. What’s different about the mindsets required is that in fiction I can go wherever my imagination takes me. If I feel like bringing plasma-eating space worms into my story, then by gosh there are going to be plasma-eating space worms in my story.
My nonfiction, on the other hand, is all about sifting through actual events to find material that can be shaped into a compelling narrative. I’m constrained not just by what could happen in the real world, but by what did happen. The art comes in choosing which elements and events to emphasize, in ordering and arranging them, and in putting across my own interpretation of them.
If there’s any particular trick to fiction, it’s that writing with confidence and verve can make you sound like you know what you’re talking about. A little knowledge can go a long way if you write with authority. With nonfiction there is no such trick. You may not need a Ph.D. in your topic, but you do need to have thoroughly immersed yourself. My memoir, The Accidental Terrorist, for instance, braids the story of my adventures as a young missionary together with a biography of Joseph Smith, Jr., the Mormon prophet. The bibliography lists twenty-two books, most of which I pored over cover to cover during the writing. You have to make yourself an expert on your subject, even if the expertise is only temporary.
AE: When you sit down to write, do you know what you’ll be working on?
WS: Rarely do I sit down to write without knowing what I’ll be working on, and that’s usually a specific piece of fiction. However, in one notable instance I put aside the project I had planned to work on and dove into something new on the spur of the moment. That turned into a young adult science fiction novel that is now on its fourth draft.
Poetry is something I usually write in spare moments, without much prior thought or planning, although I used to approach it with more discipline. When I lived in Chicago, I hosted a monthly literary reading series called Tuesday Funk [http://tuesdayfunk.org]. I challenged myself to read a new, original poem at every show, which was great for my productivity. I kept that up for three years.
AE: What is the story behind this poem?
WS: Back in 2012, my friend Mare Swallow ran a Kickstarter to fund her brainchild, the first Chicago Writers Conference [http://chicagowritersconference.org]. She asked writers she knew to contribute various perks to the crowdfunding effort. One of the perks I offered was that, for a specific donation amount, I would write the donor a poem on a topic of her choice.
My friend Tina Woelke, the most avid reader I know, claimed the perk. The topic she gave me was “reading.”
AE: How did this poem germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
WS: It’s a daunting task to write a poem on an assigned topic! I must have come up with and discarded a dozen ideas for how to approach a poem about reading. Eventually I hit on the concept of writing and reading as a communications channel that transcends time and space. That opened up a flood of inspiration, and even gave me a chance to loop in some science-fictional imagery. (I was also able to indulge my fascination with cave paintings like the Great Black Bull of Lascaux, which I had tattooed on my right forearm a couple of years later.)
AE: What made you think of Analog for this story/poem?
WS: I was very fortunate with this poem, in that Analog thought of me! I’ve been friends with assistant editor Emily Hockaday for several years, and I’m an admirer of her poetry. Last summer I invited her to read with me during a segment I produced for the New York City Poetry Festival, outdoors on Governors Island. It was the first time Emily had heard my poetry, and she suggested I send in some of the pieces I had read. That’s how “Telegraph” ended up in Analog, and I couldn’t be more delighted. (Another of those poems, “The Golem,” will soon be appearing in Asimov’s.)
AE: Are there themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
WS: In my fiction, I often seem to return to scenes of humans interacting with powerful artificial intelligences. I think this comes from a Mormon upbringing that I left behind long ago, but which instilled in me a need to impose some kind of definable order on the universe. In the human/AI interactions I write, the human is inevitably trying to achieve some understanding of and control over an incomprehensible situation, which usually means cajoling or even tricking the more powerful entity into cooperating. This is probably a metaphor for the way I approach a world I wish I understood.
AE: How did you break into writing?
WS: I got serious about writing as a teenager. I made my first submission to Asimov’s at the age of fifteen. That’s also where I first read about the Clarion Workshop at Michigan State University, which I attended in the summer of 1985 when I was still only seventeen. One of my Clarion classmates was Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who later become editor of F&SF and bought my first professional story, “From Our Point of View We Had Moved to the Left,” when I was 24. I was pretty young then, but it still felt like the whole process from the time I started submitting took forever!
AE: Do you have any projects that you are currently working on or have recently completed? Please tell us a bit about these!
WS: I’ve done three drafts of a YA SF novel that is currently called Root. It’s about a group of friends in Chicago who develop magic gestural powers and their quest to understand how and why this happened. I’m trying to gear up for fourth pass on that manuscript. I’m also about halfway through a novel based around my Hugo- and Nebula-nominated novella “Inclination,” which originally appeared in Asimov’s. In addition, I’ve written a script for a short SF film I hope to produce, which takes place in a futuristic comedy club.
AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?
WS: The Culture, from the science fiction novels of Iain M. Banks, is the one universe I would dearly love to live in. Inhabitants of the Culture live practically immortal lives while free to travel the galaxy and pursue all the artistic and intellectual passions they want. And this comes in a society structured around the most inclusive possible standards of tolerance and respect for life. Who wouldn’t want that?
AE: What are you reading right now?
WS: As usual I have more books on my being-read shelf than I care to admit. Among those are: Meet the Austins by Madeleine L’Engle; The Hunter, Richard Stark’s first Parker novel; The Night of the Gun, an addiction memoir by investigative reporter David Carr; Burning Down Disneyland, a poetry collection by Kurt Olsson; and Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright, a book on the science of meditation. I’m also trying to stay on top of my favorite comics, like Saga, Paper Girls, and Deadly Class. In addition to all that, I’m always trying to read submissions for Line Break [http://linebreakseries.com], the monthly literary reading series I host in Astoria, Queens.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
WS: Hang in there. Rejection is an integral part of the publishing process, and it continues happening even to the most successful of writers. Everything you write isn’t right for every market. When you get a rejection, just send that poem or story or novel on to the next editor on your list. And once that submission is out there in the world, try to forget about it and just keep working on your next big thing.
AE: What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask?
WS: I made an unplanned guest appearance in one of Michael Ian Black’s standup comedy specials. You can watch the clip here [http://dogb.us/mikeandi], if you have enough “expertise” to guess the password. (Coincidentally, given the subject matter, this taping took place the day after publication of The Accidental Terrorist, my memoir about the experience I discuss in the clip.)
AE: What careers have you had and how do they affect your writing?
WS: I have a degree in computer science, and I’ve worked as a programmer for more than thirty years. I’m frequently inspired by problems I encounter in the course of my work to think about how hardware, software, and networking could affect our lives twenty, fifty, a hundred, or even a thousand years down the road. Some of my favorite stories have grown out of those thought experiments.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
William Shunn’s three dozen works of short fiction have appeared everywhere from Asimov’s to Salon, and have been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Sturgeon Awards. His memoir The Accidental Terrorist, which intertwines his youthful misadventures with an irreverent biography of Joseph Smith, appeared in 2015 and was shortlisted for the Association for Mormon Letters Award. He currently serves on the XPRIZE Science Fiction Advisory Council, and he hosts and produces the monthly Line Break Reading Series near his home in Astoria, Queens. Learn more at www.shunn.net.