Q&A with Sean Monaghan

After years appearing regularly in the pages of our sister magazine, Asimov’s, Sean Monaghan’s writing can now be found in Analog [in our March/April issue, on sale now]. Sean took the time to talk to us about why “One Hundred” is an Analog story, the necessity of a Planet B, what he’s reading, and the importance of practice for a writer.

Analog Editor: What made you think of Analog for this story?

SM: I write a mix of soft and hard science fiction. Some of my stories play loose with physics and so on. The speed of light is an inconvenience if you want to have rapid travel between planetary systems. I’ve written about alien ecosystems and gigantic artworks and implant-enhanced musicians.

Many of these stories have appeared in the pages of Analog’s sister publication Asimov’s, which has felt like a good home for them.

With “One Hundred” the practicalities and solutions were very much to the fore. I hope that Analog’s readership will engage with that. I do feel that it’s still a character-driven story, but an important part is that the characters are dealing with problems of a plausible future.

AE: This is Analog’s 90th year—what does that mean to you?

SM: I’m thrilled. I was fortunate enough to be a part of Asimov’s 40th year, with a cover story, and that was pretty cool. I’ve been reading both magazines since I was young  (when I could get my hands on them) and it’s awesome to be a part of it now.

Ninety years is a pretty good haul. It’s wonderful that Analog remains relevant and interesting as times and tastes change. I’m honored that my little story will appear during this milestone anniversary year. I hope I’m able to submit something again in another decade for that next milestone.

AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?

SM: With this story in particular, there’s certainly a lot of influence about the viability of humanity setting up shop on Mars. One of the catchphrases I’ve noticed around the issue of climate change is “There’s no Planet B” (it took me a while to get the pun there).

The thing is, as I think Elon Musk had pointed out, we need to be a two-planet species as soon as we can. Planet B—Mars—is right there. Sure it will take a lot of work, but it’s awesome to see that work underway.

AE: What inspired you to start writing?

SM: I got my start aged thirteen, when I declared that I was going to be a writer.

I had grown up reading Silverberg and Heinlein, Simak and Asimov, and the like. I loved the worlds they created, and I simply wanted to create my own.

Naturally, my early attempts were little more than pale imitations. But that passion remained, and, as with anything, if you practice, you get better. I’ve been practicing for longer now than I care to admit, so it’s rewarding to see some results—my first story in Analog. That’s a thrill, to rub shoulders with some of the greats.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

SM: Some years ago my daughter, still aged in single digits, asked why I never wrote about her. She would see me writing so much; at the dining room table, in the lounge with the laptop on my lap, sitting in my writing nook in the office pounding away at the keyboard. So, with all these books, How come there was never a book about her?

Well, I fixed that. I wrote one. Blue Defender. A middle-grade sci-fi thriller with her as the main character. I did it secretly (with a placeholder for her name in case she happened to peer at the screen as I wrote). I indie published the book (using copy-replace to sort out that undercover name obfuscation).

I had the paperback mailed and gave it to her. It took a moment, but the look on her face when she realized what she was holding, was the kind of heartwarming moment every parent loves.

That was our nightly reading for a couple of weeks. When we got to the end, she said, “When’s the next one coming?”

Another heartwarming moment.

She’s a teenager now, and we’ve just finished the fourth book (and one short story), and she’s asked me when the next book is coming.

So, that’s my main project right now: the next book in that series. Writing stories for Analog and Asimov’s and others is very rewarding, but I feel if I’d never achieved anything else in my writing career, my books for her are achievement enough.

Naturally, my early attempts [to write] were little more than pale imitations. But that passion remained, and, as with anything, if you practice, you get better. I’ve been practicing for longer now than I care to admit, so it’s rewarding to see some results—my first story in Analog. That’s a thrill, to rub shoulders with some of the greats.

AE: What is the weirdest research rabbit-hole that working on a story has led you down?

SM: Music features in many of my stories (I’ve worked as a music librarian and one of my hobbies is making electronic music, so there’s a natural crossover). Usually my research is about ensuring that I’m getting my details correct—scale and key, whether a piece was by Brahms or Bach (that’s pretty important), how guitarists take care of blisters (nope, I’m not a guitarist).

So, following along that, I recently came across David Rothenberg’s book Bug Music, subtitled, “How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise.” It’s quite delightful, as Rothenberg tracks the emergence of various broods of cicadas around parts of the U.S. on their 17-year and 13-year cycles, and explores cricket and leafhopper music in Sweden. The author is a clarinetist, and there are sections with him playing his clarinet along with cicadas. Photos of him in a field, playing away, his sweater covered in dozens of the insects. Delightful!

AE: What are you reading right now?

SM: I tend to have a few things on the go at once. A mix of fiction and non-fiction. I find I dip into the non-fiction books a chapter at a time, but then sometimes will read a hundred pages of fiction in a single session. Different parts of the brain at work there, I suspect.

On the shelf right now is Charles Fishman’s One Giant Leap. I love all tales around the Apollo project. With the recent fiftieth anniversary there were a few more around.

Also there is Marc Randolph’s That Will Never Work, the story of Netflix and their approaches and adaptability. Fascinating stuff.

I just gave up on a fiction book that wasn’t to my taste (I like to get to know the character before they start beating up on people), so I’m just starting to read Martin L. Shoemaker’s The Last Dance. Analog readers will be familiar with his Mars Cycler stories. I’m looking forward to immersing myself in those. I’ve read a few, so I know they’ll be to my taste.

I also do a proofing/feedback exchange with another writer, so right now I’m reading her wonderful new novel. It’s exciting watching another writer grow and develop.

AE: Many of our Analog authors are interested in science. Do you have any scientific background, and does it impact your writing?

SM: I have a Bachelor of Science in Physical Geography and Geology. I subsequently trained as a librarian, and completed a Master of Philosophy in Creative Writing, so I haven’t ended up working in the geography/geology field, however I realize that a lot of my stories show that particular bent. I love volcanoes, and find many of my stories end up with ascents to summits and descents into deep calderas. My story “Ventiforms” from the January/February 2019 issue of Asimov’s was set in a huge canyon on a distant planet.

AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?

SM: I love James S.A. Corey’s “Expanse” universe. It feels very gritty and real. The characters are brave and walk to the beat of their own drum, doing what’s right in the face of politics and rules.

What I especially love about it is how it’s possible to get around the Solar System relatively rapidly, but it’s not easy. It still takes time, and you have to deal with the abuses of extended periods of high acceleration if you want to cross those distances.

Still, it would thrill me to get the chance to take a spin on the Rocinante.

AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?

SM: Write.

I was tempted to leave it at the single word, but it perhaps needs some elaborating. I suppose the thing is that, as with anything, it takes practice. If you want to play guitar, then sit down and play guitar. It might not sound great to begin with, but you’ll get there. Enjoy practicing. It’s fun. Have patience. Keep writing. Have fun.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

SM: My website is seanmonaghan.com, I occasionally post at facebook.com/seanmonaghanauthor and on Twitter as @seanmmonaghan. I blog once a week as one of a group of writers on prowriterswriting.com (my posts appear on a Monday).

Sean Monaghan writes from a nook in the corner of his 100 year old home in pastoral New Zealand. In his free time he manages the leaking roof, works on projection mapping multimedia exhibitions, talks robots to kids, and makes electronic music. A past winner of the Jim Baen Memorial Award, Sir Julius Vogel Award and Asimov’s Readers’ Poll, Sean is constantly surprised at the privilege of being a writer. He will be attending WorldCon 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand. If you spot him there feel free to say hello.

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