Q&A with Grey Rollins

In a previous incarnation, Grey Rollins figures he was “the guy who told stories by the fire.” Luckily for us, in this incarnation, he prolifically publishes stories with Analog instead! Below, he discusses his most recent tale for us, “Trial and Error” [in our current issue, on sale now], his history as a writer, tips for tackling writer’s block, and why his scientific background doesn’t factor much into his work.

Analog Editor: What is the story behind this piece?

GR: “Trial and Error” follows hard on the heels of the events in “Trial by Ordeal” (which won an Anlab award—thanks, folks!) and details Paul Walker’s efforts to prevent hostilities between humans and the Bennat (an alien race) from escalating. The idea of an anwabi interests me, and I’d like to use the concept to explore a number of issues. “Trial and Error” just happened to be the next one out of the gate.

Incidentally, there’s no relation whatsoever between my character Paul Walker and the actor Paul Walker. At the time I was writing “Trial by Ordeal,” the actor Paul Walker’s breakout role in The Fast and the Furious was still several years in the future. This might lead those with a speculative bent to ponder whether Paul Walker would have made a good casting choice to play Paul Walker in a hypothetical movie. Sadly, we’ll never know.

AE: How did this story germinate?

GR: This story’s gestation was abnormal for me, in that I usually get hit in the head by a figurative 2” x 4” of inspiration, at which point I sit down to write in an attempt to get the story to leave me alone. For better or worse, writing “Trial and Error” was a process of . . . er . . . trial and error, so to speak. I knew what I wanted to say, but the story kept stubbornly not working. I made at least three separate attempts and while they all had their merits, things just weren’t coming together properly. Eventually I sat down with the idea that perhaps if I looked at it as a jigsaw puzzle, I could assemble a more coherent story. I took some of this and some of that and got about a third, maybe half, of the story put together, then wrote the rest as fresh material.

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?

GR: I always try to have the titles for stories in a series suggest a link to previous stories. For instance, the first Victor & Martin story was called “To Victor Go the Spoils.” That led naturally to “Victor Victorious,” “The Victor,” etc., with a scattering of other titles that also suggested that Victor was involved, such as “Spoiled Rotten” (referencing to Victor’s food preferences) and “Tongue Tied” (hinting at Victor’s extremely long tongue). In the present case, I needed a title that would hark back to “Trial by Ordeal” and that led me to “Trial and Error.” I’ve already got several other “Trial” titles in mind and plots to go with them so perhaps we’ll hear a bit more from Paul Walker.

AE: What is your history with Analog?

GR: I’m tempted to begin by intoning, “When dinosaurs ruled the Earth . . .” in that portentous narrator’s voice, but my first story wasn’t quite that far back. As it happened, cave men discovered fire the week before my first story, “Out the Window,” showed up in the September, 1989 issue. Mercifully for everyone involved, I hadn’t had to knock on the door too long prior to making my first sale. Once Stan Schmidt (Analog’s editor at the time) got it clear in his head that I was going to keep pestering him with stories, we negotiated a truce where I would scribble something, he’d buy the story, and I’d leave him alone for a month . . . maybe two if he was lucky. He kept buying piecemeal peace of mind in this manner for a remarkable period of time—quite tolerant of him, actually. Eventually, I got sidelined by the whole kid thing. That took a while to resolve, as squabbling young ’uns are not conducive to concentration. Still aren’t, for that matter, but at least I don’t have to feed them from bottles. Nowadays, throwing a hunk of red meat at them will pacify them for at least twenty minutes. Anyway, I’ve managed to sneak out a story or two that met with Trevor’s approval, so I’m up to . . . uh, forty-seven stories in Analog now, I think.

I’ve also written articles on electronics for EnjoyTheMusic.com and an article on how to make mead for Bee Culture magazine. I’ve got my eye on other fields, so there’s a remote chance that I might make it into print in another guise if only I can pester another editor into submission. Time will tell.

Writers’ block, it seems to me, occurs when someone is trying too hard. They’ve been told that they have to write a thousand words a day or three pages, or whatever their particular mentor might have demanded, and they’re attempting valiantly to do as they were told. Harrumph! They should jettison that stupid voice in their head.

AE:  Is this piece part of a greater universe of stories?

GR: It’s not linked to any stories other than “Trial by Ordeal” . . . yet. There’s nothing preventing me from writing a story to bridge it to another series, but for now I’m content to let these two stories exist in their own time and space. I have ideas for more stories that I’d like to write, but I’m finding that the Covid isolation is hampering my writing. I need absolute peace and quiet to write and that’s been difficult to arrange with everybody at home and underfoot! I promise to get to it as soon as possible, but can’t predict when that will be.

AE: What is your process?

GR: The word “process” sounds so . . . I don’t know . . . like something you’d hear in a writing class. I’ve been to conventions and authors’ functions where I was seated with other writers who clearly regarded themselves as artists (note that this must be pronounced “ahhhrtist” with heavy emphasis on the “h”). Huh! I am not an “artist.” I’m an ordinary, garden variety storyteller and proud of it. Although I’ve been seen in public in a suit—even a tie on rare occasions (yuk!)—I’m most comfortable in a flannel shirt or T-shirt, depending on the season, and blue jeans. Come to think of it, I might have a sweater with suede patches on the elbows that I inherited from my uncle . . . maybe I should see if I can find it.

Anyway, the way I figure it, I was the guy who told stories by the fire in a previous incarnation. It kept the tribe from worrying about the fanged beasties out beyond the pool of light.

With that in mind, I approach stories as, well, stories. Novel concept, that. I enjoy wordplay and have been known to crack the odd pun now and again. I wait for inspiration to strike, which never seems to take long, then go find a quiet corner and sit down to write. Frankly, I’ve never understood how people cannot write. It’s just a matter of letting the story tell itself. My job is to edit and fiddle with commas, but for the most part I just try to stay out of the way and let things happen.

AE:  How do you deal with writers’ block?

GR: Writers’ block, it seems to me, occurs when someone is trying too hard. They’ve been told that they have to write a thousand words a day or three pages, or whatever their particular mentor might have demanded, and they’re attempting valiantly to do as they were told. Harrumph! They should jettison that stupid voice in their head. After all it’s the characters in the story who should be talking, not some bossy supervisor. Let the story speak. I can’t say that I’ve never hit a brick wall—hell, the difficulty I had with “Trial and Error” is proof of that—but the thing is, if one story isn’t working for me, I go write a different story. Easy-peasy. My mind is positively infested with story ideas. I just pluck a different one out of my mental vault and start writing.

I keep a file on my computer cleverly called . . . wait for it . . . IDEAS.DOC that’s full of recipes for doughnuts. Um, okay, you caught me; my recipes are in a different file. Actually IDEAS is full of little snippets of information, plot concepts, snatches of dialogue, and other such oddments as I thought might be interesting at various points over the years. Fifty-nine pages (I just checked) of wildly varying, random, boring-to-cool-to-red-hot notions that I wrote down so I don’t have to keep track of it in my head. The boring parts get to stay because they’re useful as little throwaway lines to fill out a scene. For instance, I’ve got an idea for earrings that’s so microscopic that you couldn’t even base a short-short story on it, but it’ll make a great detail in a larger scene. Things like that keep writers’ block at bay; if I’m thinking that I’m in danger of stalling, I go look in IDEAS and see if there’s something useful. Like as not, there is.

AE: How did you break into writing?

GR: There’s an annoying old cliché that says something to the effect of “Anyone can become an author. All they have to do is write a million words as practice.” Uh . . . don’t tell anyone, but I got a discounted ticket. I only had to write a hundred thousand. No . . . seriously. I wrote what I thought would be the beginning of a book. It fell apart after about seventy thousand words or so because there wasn’t enough plot to keep it afloat. After that I decided to write shorter pieces so as to be able to get from Once upon a time . . . to . . . and they lived happily ever after more efficiently. Once I had a completed story in hand, I decided—foolish me—to submit it to a magazine. In the end, my sixth submission sold. Hah! Free money! So I did it again . . . and again, and again, and again . . .

What can I say? I like telling stories.

AE: What inspired you to start writing?

GR: Well, it’s like this . . . I like to read. I hit a point where I had read everything available by my favorite authors and decided, purely as a lark, to try writing, just to pass the time. As a way to use surplus time, it was a raging success, but there was this incidental discovery that made me come back to it: I enjoyed writing. When a story is going right, when the characters are taking shape, when the plot is coming together, there’s no better way to describe it than to say it’s a rush. If, like me, you’re a musician, think of the times when you’re playing music and everything is perfect and it’s just an all-consuming moment. Yeah. That. Only you don’t have to have pesky problems like the drummer being late. It’s just you, your (computer) keyboard, and the story. It’s a wonderful feeling and quite addictive.

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

In my case, I double-majored in geology and psychology. Okay, let’s have a show of hands. All those interested in plutons? Hmmm . . . no takers. How about pegmatites? Still not seeing any hands. So . . . how about how diamonds are formed? I think I saw one or two hands in the back, but the lights are in my eyes, so maybe I imagined it. Oh well, let’s face it, when it comes to minerals and rocks, people pretty much only care about the finished product. They want to talk about cell phones, not the minerals that were mined to make them. I like going to mines and knocking about, but I’m in an infinitesimally small subset of the population. Psychology rates a little better on the popularity scale, but for various reasons I’m averse to making it the core of a story. If nothing else, psychology is a soft science and anything you write today runs the risk of being reversed five or ten years down the road, becoming the butt of one of those snarky “. . . contrary to what we now know to be true . . .” critiques, although that can itself become a plot point if you want. I’ve put a little geology in the background of one or two stories, but so muted that it’s barely noticeable. Psychology has featured a little more prominently, but if you’re waiting for me to psychoanalyze an alien, don’t hold your breath. It’ll be a while. I like pretty much all the non-biological/organic branches of science. The biological ones are more iffy for me, but I do keep an eye out for factoids that twitch the needle on my Weird-O-Meter.

Incidentally, I had figured out that dinosaurs would have feathers all the way back in the ’80s, but didn’t get a story written in time. Bummer. Now my fluffy T-Rex would be a yawn, so that story will probably remain shelved. That’s okay. I’ve got other story ideas.

Grey Rollins has been reading science fiction since he first figured out that little ink hieroglyphics could convey meaning. Not just science fiction, but mysteries, vacuum cleaner owner’s manuals, cereal boxes, and pretty much anything else with words on or in it. SF remained top o’ the heap though, culminating in a competition between Tom Swift and Valentine Michael Smith. Both won. Actually, Grey won, enjoying them and myriad other characters and story lines along the way. Once the harebrained notion to try writing occurred to him, it was science fiction he turned to . . . primarily because there were fewer rules and it was more interesting than vacuum cleaner manuals. Grey has an uneasy relationship with online media but can be found under his own name on Facebook. No, his name isn’t a nom de plume . . . that’s really the handle his parents hung on him at birth. Life is weird, sometimes.

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