Q&A With Timons Esaias

Timons Esaias studied writing in college and found himself in carpentry after he left. Now he’s had six stories published by our current editor, and is more likely to find story ideas in 19th-century science magazines than today’s headlines. Read Esaias’s new story “Beachhead” in our [May/June issue, on sale now!]

Analog Editor: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
Timons Esaias: I’ve been working on a Warfare for Writers project for years, and that has included thinking about how amphibious operations have changed since WWII and Korea, which naturally led to thinking about how robotics and AI will affect warfare in general.
In most of the military SF pieces I’ve seen it’s the tools and weapons that get futurized, but not the people, except in the cases of clear cyborgs. I asked myself how the soldiers—the people themselves—might be improved, and the idea of mind-connecting clones came up, and then I had to play that out. (I had read a study that suggested that if we wanted to attempt memory/thought transfer, it would be wise to start our experiments with twins or close relatives. Which suggested the use of clones to make closely bonded platoons.)
As for the speed of development, I had written a few notes, including the use of the clone platoons in an assault company, and some weapon details, and those notes sat around for a bit. But when I sat down to take a stab at the thing, I was asking myself how this experience-sharing would actually take place and how many of the platoon would be connected live, and the mechanics of it . . . and the announcement line “I am (so-and-so) (number)” popped into my head and then the story basically just poured out. The line doesn’t occur at the beginning, but it comes in at the first transfer. Knowing the line was coming told me exactly where to start the narration, and the muse kept handing me the next round of ammunition, as it were, as I went along.
Easy to draft, tricky to rewrite.

AE: What is your history with Analog?
TE: Let’s see. Trevor has taken six of my stories (including “Sadness” which ended up in three Year’s Best anthologies) and one of my poems. I attended the 90th Anniversary celebration in New York, which was both fun and memorable. My office is partially insulated with old issues stacked against the walls.

AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?
TE: I have discovered that the news tends not to work for me as a real source of inspiration. A current event will spark a story or a poem, but the product tends to be too axe-grindy, too simple, too clunky. They’ve mostly ended up deleted.
An exception is when I was at an SF convention shortly after the cloning of Dolly was announced, and all the ladies were cackling about how men weren’t necessary (as if we ever had been) anymore. I got a good poem out of that.
On the other hand, I have found great inspiration from current events a hundred years or so in the past. One of my tricks is to leaf through bound copies of The Illustrated London News or Scientific American from the 1800s or early 20th century, and see what’s the same about the news, and what’s different. Then you can project yourself into the future and get SF ideas, by saying, “Okay, how would this event happen now, and how would it happen on Mars, or a hundred years from now, or a thousand?” The advertisements are great, too.
The main branch of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library has an extensive microfilm collection, with newspapers and magazines from around the country included. There’s nothing as idea-productive as looking at entire issues (especially Sunday newspapers) of decades-old periodicals for things that catch your eye. And your imagination.
I did a survey, once, about what the newspapers actually told the public about what happened at Pearl Harbor at the time (versus what we know now); and that was very illuminating. And then there was the guy who was building a rocket to go to Venus, in his Florida residential neighborhood.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
TE: Long walks or changing projects are good. But before I resort to actual physical exercise, I have a number of Inspirational Artifacts to employ. These are books that are filled with inspiration. A couple of them are collections of SF Art (Out of Time: Designs for the Twentieth-Century Future, and Visions of Spaceflight: Images from the Ordway Collection), reprint catalogs from the 1800s, antique maps, a collection of pages from Scientific American up to 1900, books of Victorian mansions and cottages, Frank Lloyd Wright drawings and photos. I have books showing wild and crazy tree houses from around the world. Books of maps of ancient cities, or histories of London and Paris and Constantinople in maps. Picture books of canals, railroads, old tools. Dürer prints. Photos of exotic cities along the old Silk Road. Just leafing through them is bound to produce an idea, a setting, something.

AE: How did you break into writing?
TE: My 8th Grade “Language Arts” teacher, Peggy Usher, required us to write a poem. I put it off until about 5 a.m. the day it was due; and having no idea what to write about, did a poem on the books in the shelves above the desk I was writing on. Peggy (she became a lifelong friend) gave it an A, and had me enter it in a contest, which it won. Then she made me submit it to a magazine, and it got published.
Yes, this taught me the lifelong lesson that one should write about what’s right in front of you. What is interesting, or confusing, or wrong, in this picture? Go.
That experience got the hook into me. Peggy then put me on the school newspaper staff, and also got me writing and submitting fiction (in the guise of a news column in the church newsletter).
Basically, I was doomed before I even got into high school.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
TE: My spreadsheets tell me I have (gulp) 66 stories in some stage of creation. There’s a novel on the drawing board, along with some essays and articles. But the bulk of my time is now committed to that Warfare for Writers project I mentioned. It’s time to put all the talks I’ve been giving onto the page.

AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?
TE: Supercar.
No, no, actually what I need is a Lazy Gun (Iain Banks’s creation). I promise not to tinker with it. Really.

Being a writer, after I got out of college I became a renovation carpenter and general contractor, and then moved on to building maintenance. This really did teach me to think about the importance of the people who do the real work, who keep the whole enterprise of civilization running, and the people who pay the real prices of historical events and breakthroughs.

AE: What are you reading right now?
TE: An issue of McSweeney’s, an Eliot Pattison Inspector Shan mystery, the Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, a book of the De la Bourdonnais vs. McDonnell chess matches in 1834, and the second volume of the Penguin edition of Orlando Furioso. I’ll be taking Lavie Tidhar’s The Escapement on my trip next week.

AE: What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask?
TE: You forgot to ask me why I lived in a museum for eight years. The answer is that I made a joke at the right time.
It was 32-room mansion, in a 4.5 acre park, with three libraries in the building. The place had been built in the 1840s when St. Louis was still near the frontier, as a Jesuit headquarters and seminary. The walls are locally quarried limestone, about three feet thick at the bottom, and the interior walls were locally fired brick. All of the original wood was walnut, because the area had been a walnut jungle at the time. The lathe behind the plaster was walnut. So were the floors, but that didn’t work out.
I got the gig (rent free) because I had grown up in Protestant parsonages, so I was used to living in church property. Eventually I got married, and my wife took me away from all that.

AE: What careers have you had and how do they affect your writing?
TE: Being a writer, after I got out of college I became a renovation carpenter and general contractor, and then moved on to building maintenance. This really did teach me to think about the importance of the people who do the real work, who keep the whole enterprise of civilization running, and the people who pay the real prices of historical events and breakthroughs. I write a good number of stories about mechanics, secretaries, coders, builders, dragon walkers, and maintenance people.
I’m pretty hard on bosses and billionaires.
I’ve been teaching novel-writing for twenty years, and that also influences my use of creatives and academics. But I usually don’t go for the top-level professionals. The more interesting story, for me, is with the first-responder to the Problem, whatever it is. And that’s usually someone new to the field, someone junior, someone away from the center of things.
It’s no surprise, as I look at it now, that I left the generals out of this military story, and only dealt with the foot soldiers.

AE: Are you in fact involved with, or the subject of, a secret military cloning experiment?

AE: Is it true that you are surrounded by disaster?
TE: Go to the lower end of my block. First right, first left, Fern Hollow Bridge. Go to the other end of my block. First right, first left, four blocks, Tree of Life Synagogue.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
TE: Well, I suppose they could tag along as I walk to various coffee shops and libraries (assuming the pandemic keeps winding down) but my website is www.timonsesaias.com and I’m also on FB, though they should drop me a note along with the friend request, because I get too many Russian trolls and unknown Natashas.

Timons Esaias is a satirist, writer and poet living in Pittsburgh. His works have appeared in twenty-two languages. He has been a finalist for the British Science Fiction Award, and twice won the Asimov’s Readers Award.

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