A.C. Koch is a writer who has been coming up with stories since he was playing with Matchbox cars. Here he discusses his inspirations, his writing process, of which is only 25% is putting words down, and why writers should look forward to their inevitable rejections. Check out “Planetfall” 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?
A.C. Koch: Years ago, in an Art History lecture, the professor asked us to speculate when human civilization began. Some folks suggested the beginnings of agriculture in ancient Mesopotamia, or the invention of the alphabet, or the establishment of Babylon. All fine textbook ideas, but the professor had something else in mind. He pressed his hand in the chalk dust on the blackboard. “I think it was when this happened,” he said, pointing at the handprint he’d made. “When someone in a cave somewhere said, ‘Here I am.'”
That stuck with me for decades, and slowly germinated into this story: the idea that human civilization isn’t a collection of books or artifacts or social structures, but rather it’s something that each of us carries inside. My story “Planetfall” deals with an interstellar mission seeking to preserve humanity and safeguard the artifacts of civilization, but crisis happens when they’re faced with losing a vast chunk of the cultural archives. At a decisive moment, when one character twists the lever that jettisons much of that precious cargo, she’s moved to press her hand to the porthole, leaving a fading print on the glass. It’s a moment of crushing loss, but I think there’s also a pinpoint of optimism in the act: no matter how much we lose, we still carry everything we need within us.
AE: Is this piece part of a greater universe of stories?
ACK: Yes! “Planetfall” is part of a collection of interconnected stories about a generational mission to establish a new homeworld for humanity in a nearby solar system. (I’m currently seeking representation for this manuscript.) About a dozen story-chapters trace the journey of the Running Bear through three generations, from a hasty departure from an apocalyptic Earth to arrival at Tau Ceti 3, a hundred years later. Each chapter is self-contained, with a different character perspective. The protagonist of “Planetfall,” Captain Nadia, appears in other chapters as a small child, growing up as a semi-feral orphan on the ship, then as a rebellious teenager in officer training, and finally as an elderly woman living in an isolated habitat on a new world. I loved being able to visit my characters at different points in their lives, although the version of Nadia in “Planetfall” is my favorite. She’s at her peak, during the most difficult days of the mission, and she makes monumental decisions not only about humanity but about her own life.
AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
ACK: Carl Sagan for opening my imagination to the size and shape of the universe. Jennifer Egan for her astonishing command of form and pathos in A Visit from the Goon Squad, which gave me a template for the interconnected Running Bear stories. David Mitchell, Becky Chambers, Michael Chabon, Kurt Vonnegut, Joan Didion—each of these writers has embedded trace elements in my own voice and in my conception of an evolving human culture. My father, Robert L. Koch, is a novelist and teacher who set me on the same path. Ian Christopher Hooper is a lifelong friend who has been a writing companion and champion, whose critiques have helped me say what I really want to say.
AE: What is your process?
ACK: About 75% of my writing time involves looking out the window, walking in the park, staring at the ceiling or otherwise zoning out during work meetings, showers, cooking or other daily activities. Then, when I’m finally at the keyboard, the act of writing becomes more or less an act of typing, taking dictation from my mind which has already done most of the composing on its own. That other 25% is the element of surprise—an unexpected connection, or a character who says something in dialogue I wasn’t expecting, and which sends the story in a completely new direction. There’s nothing I enjoy more than that.
And here I want to give a shout-out to my favorite writing spot, St. Mark’s Coffeehouse in Denver, where the majority of the Running Bear episodes were written, including “Planetfall.” Open early, open late, always busy enough to keep me connected to this world even when I’m tripping through others.
AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?
ACK: I wrote “Planetfall” and the rest of the Running Bear stories during the last seven years, and my pessimism about the rise of inequality and autocracy in the US bled into my thinking about the kind of mission that humanity might be able to send to the stars. I had no faith that America would be willing or able to invest in such a high-minded and expensive project, and so none of the characters involved comes from an American background, with the exception of a handful of pioneering Native American engineers and astronauts. Instead, the crew of the Running Bear mostly hail from more socially and/or scientifically progressive places: Latin America, Africa, China. As someone who came of age in the 1980s, fears of nuclear armageddon also animated my vision of the future and the imperative for humanity to move beyond this solar system to survive, and that is a theme that is unfortunately as current as ever.
About 75% of my writing time involves looking out the window, walking in the park, staring at the ceiling or otherwise zoning out during work meetings, showers, cooking or other daily activities.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
ACK: A collection of short stories that might be classified as slipstream, centered around themes of time, regret and identity: The Wreck of the Wandering Spirit.
Music and lyrics for an opera about a rogue squadron of fighter pilots scheming to wipe out all the billionaires on Earth: Tomahawk Song.
AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?
ACK: Becky Chambers wrote an enchanting series of novels known as the Wayfarer Trilogy, starting with The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and I fell in love with the optimism, scale and beauty of her richly imagined worlds. Whether writing about aliens, sentient machines or humans, she infuses every character with a deep sense of personhood, where empathy is the most powerful bond. That is the kind of universe I want to live in.
AE: What are you reading right now?
ACK: I just finished John Scalzi’s gleeful romp of intergalactic palace intrigue, the Interdependency series, and enjoyed every profane, soap-operatic moment of it. That lead me to reread parts of Asimov’s Foundation series, which is so rewarding on a Big Ideas level but so sorely lacking in meaningful characterization or representation. Jennifer Wortman’s This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love. from Split/Lip Press features not only a fantastic title but also a bunch of witty and poignant short stories. Kyle Winkler’s story collection, Oh Pain, is fiendishly clever, creepy and swift, like the best Stephen King. Ditto Paul Tremblay’s Growing Things. Stephen Graham Jones blew me away and freaked me completely out with The Only Good Indians. Matt Bell’s Appleseed is jaw-dropping in form, language and imagination, with a fascinatingly bleak vision of humanity’s future that feels all-too possible.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
ACK: Look forward to your rejections. Because they’re coming, in an absolute onslaught, but they don’t have to mean the end of the road for any piece of writing. Rather, each rejection is another step towards eventual publication, as long as you keep honing your craft, reading widely, and sending work out. (My first rejection from Analog dates back to the last decade of the twentieth century, the first of about twenty before I finally landed “Planetfall.”)
AE: What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask?
ACK: My writing unfolds in parallel to my music—in fact, I wrote and recorded an album of songs about life on an interstellar spaceship before I actually started writing the story-chapters that eventually became Running Bear. When I got stuck in the writing, I’d go back and play the songs to get unstuck. Before all that, I aspired to be a cartoonist. But even before that, I invented stories and scenarios with my Matchbox cars and stuffed animals. No matter what instruments are in my hands, it’s the zeal for story that drives me, and it’s been that way since before I had language.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing? (IE: Social media handles, website URL . . .)
ACK: Twitter and Instagram: @henry_iblis
Webpage: https://ackoch.net/ and http://invisiblepony.blogspot.com/ Music: https://firstimers.bandcamp.com/ and https://chefandre.bandcamp.com/