Author Shane Halbach is back in the pages of Analog with “The Last Squirrel Keeper,” on sale now—a touching tale featuring a familiar furry creature. Read on in our Q&A to hear about how Shane balances writing with parenthood and what he’s reading now.
Analog Editor: How did ‘The Last Squirrel Keeper” come about?
SH: I had a couple of stories in Analog between 2015 and 2016 (“The Story of Daro and the Arbolita,” “O What Freedom, This Great Steel Cage,” and “Alexander’s Theory of Special Relativity”), and then for absolutely no reason I just immediately stopped writing science fiction. I write a wide gamut of speculative fiction, including fantasy and horror, and I usually just write whatever stories my brain feels like writing at the moment; there have only been a handful of times when I’ve targeted a story at a particular magazine. So, for whatever reason, I was writing fantasy and all sorts of other things, but I sat down one day and I said, “It’s been a while . . . I want to write an Analog story.”
I decided I wanted to write something science fictional that had an alien culture, that was expansive, and something that touched on big important ideas like what it means to be human. With these parameters in mind, I immediately experienced one of the worst writer’s blocks I’ve ever dealt with. I felt like those general parameters weren’t TOO restrictive, but as I said, I usually write whatever comes to mind; my subconscious did not appreciate these rules I was placing on it! I just got totally stuck. I couldn’t find a story to write in those parameters, and I felt like writing something else instead was a failure of some kind. Totally shut me down.
I spun my wheels for a couple of weeks, and finally I was talking it through with my wife and I had a breakthrough. I don’t remember the conversation exactly (I remember it mostly being her idea!), but I came away with a really strong image of a man with a zoo containing nothing but a single squirrel.
For me, that’s nearly always what inspires a piece: a single scene or image or line of dialogue that just sort of lodges in my head. Especially for dialogue—that’s usually what really drives the voice of the piece. I often repeat it to myself before I sit down to write, kind of how voice actors sometimes have a “key phrase” that they use to get an accent right.
The irony is that I often don’t end up using the scene or dialogue that was the inspiration in the first place. (Those darlings are always particularly difficult to kill!) But in this case I certainly did, and I had the further gratification of Trevor agreeing that I had indeed produced an “Analog story.”
AE: What is your process?
SH: Don’t laugh, but I write all of my first drafts out long hand in notebooks! It’s not so much because I prefer it, but because I have three young kids; I have to take my writing in tiny snatches when I can get it! It ends up being mostly on the train to or from work, which is very frustrating because it is a very short train ride. So I’m usually just starting to hit a rhythm when I have to stop. But hey, the alternative is not getting any writing in at all!
I am very much an outliner; I cannot put any words to the paper until I have the entire story basically mapped out. So the first part is always just a lot of dreamily staring into space while my brain works out the moving pieces. The result of all of that is an outline, which is often more of a “zero draft,” sometimes with dialogue. After that I do my first draft long hand in the notebook, and this is super messy, with lots of notes in the margins, arrows, brackets where things need to be filled in later, text crossed out, and giant question marks. My notebooks look like something out of “A Beautiful Mind.” When I fill a notebook I toss it in my closet, so when I die someone’s going to find a whole closet full of what is apparently the ravings of a mad man!
When I finally get around to typing it all in, I revise and clean it up as I go, so the first “official” version is really about my third draft. Most of the time that is the version I send out, but occasionally I’ll get beta readers at that point, which usually results in at least one more draft. But the one I put into the computer is usually pretty much ready to go at that point.
AE: Many of our Analog authors are interested in science. Do you have a scientific background, and does it impact your fiction?
SH: Well, I am a software engineer by education and trade, so I think that gives me a certain bent or technical understanding in the science fiction I write. I’m not sure that it impacts my fiction so much as my interest in science drove me toward certain pursuits both artistically and career-wise.
For example, I went from being a child obsessed with space to working on space systems for Lockheed Martin, which was a dream come true. After that, I spent almost a decade working at Argonne National Laboratory, surrounded by scientific history and in an atmosphere heavy with scientific curiosity and exploration.
So I do enjoy immersion in those sorts of environments and naturally seek them out, and it also makes me naturally inclined to write about them. It’s funny because I mostly read fantasy growing up, but when I sit down to write it’s usually science fictional ideas that are clamoring to be written.
The only time I remember specifically setting out to write something inspired by my professional life was my story “Human in the Loop,” which won the “Intelligence in Fiction” prize from the Machine Intelligence Research Institute. So I guess that did ultimately work out for me! Maybe I should do that more often.
AE: What are you reading right now?
SH: I recently finished, “Children of Time” by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Actually, it hits all of the points that I mentioned above: SF, alien culture, expansive, and dealing with Big Ideas regarding the debt we owe our creations and the debt, if any, they owe us. I definitely recommend it.
In fact, I just saw on Twitter than there will be a sequel, “Children of Ruin.” (Who says Twitter isn’t good for anything?) I have no idea where it could go after the first one, but Adrian is a phenomenal writer, so I have full confidence it will be amazing!