Many of our writers have interesting day jobs, but perhaps none as many as C.L. Schacht. Read about his unique past along with his latest story for Analog, “Starlite,” which appears in our [November/December issue, on sale now!]
Analog Editor: How did this story germinate?
C.L. Schacht: A focus in my current fiction is not in how the climate crisis will challenge us, but in how we might emerge from the other side. Part of this is because I can’t focus too much on all the wildfires and ocean acidification yet still function in my daily life. That mindset makes writing dystopian climate fiction, with flooded cyberpunk cities and countries vying for resources, well out of my emotional wheelhouse. Instead, I find energy in imagining a world that is rising rather than declining.
This story took many years of partial drafts and note-taking before solidifying. My original draft was from the boy’s POV. In those early versions, he lives in the mountains with his mother, and a “crazy” old lady nearby gives him the Starlite. Over the years, his mom, seeing technology as the downfall of civilization, breaks the toy every so often. The boy then figures out how to fix it, establishing an interest in the very thing his mom is trying to discourage.
The trouble with this draft was that, thematically, I was trying to wrestle with regret about the past and hope for the future, but doing so through a kid’s perspective. And an eight-year-old can’t give you much on the regret part. Or, if he’s going to develop it, you have to see it over a decade, and now the story is novella length. As it became longer and longer, I got bogged down and said, screw it, this story should happen in one day. That led to switching the POV, which led to thinking more about the parents’ jobs, which led to more research and imagination regarding the science of the story. For me, it’s a good example of how giving yourself parameters (story must happen in one day, story must be under 5k words) can spark new creativity.
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
CLS: In the sense that my two main characters are parents and I’m childless, I don’t relate to them at all! But Raul and Riley represent two sides of me in how they look at the climate crisis.
Raul has a negative view, depressed by the destruction caused by generations of inaction and resentful of people who might tell him to cheer up and look on the bright side. I can fall into the same mindset. Living in Colorado, I love to go hiking, but find myself cataloging all the degradation as I walk: trees dying, trails eroding from overuse, a reduction in wildlife.
Riley is my other side. She sees technological advances as a way forward. She sees imagination and ingenuity as bottomless resources, the best thing that humans can offer our world. As an educator, I get to see promise in my students every day, and am continually amazed at their energy and drive to create solutions. In turn, I see possibilities for them that are not dour, but hopeful and attainable.
AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
CLS: I have often reached a point in a story where I know what’s supposed to come next yet can’t compel myself to write it. I’ve done enough reading and writing to understand what the next beat in the story is supposed to be, but I can’t hit that drum. It could be that I’m in a bad mood or distracted, but as the days drag on I come to accept that the reason I can’t write the next part is because I don’t want to, and I don’t want to because it’s not interesting to me. If I can’t stay engaged as a writer, how will my readers stay engaged? So I reject that direction and look back through the story for where I can insert a new direction. That moment is a relief because I’ve absolved myself of the obligation to write something boring, and exciting because it’s an opportunity to reimagine my story and find a new path forward.
AE: What is your process?
CLS: My process lately seems to be throwing out an entire finished draft then rewriting the whole story from scratch. For example, I attempted to write a riff on “The Cat Came Back,” but instead of a cat it was a man’s octopus-shaped sex toy. In the original draft, the man was trying to get rid of the thing because it was embarrassing, and the tone was absurdist-comedic. But in the last few paragraphs I switched to the toy’s POV, and in doing so, realized this was actually a sad story about a form of intelligence that humans abused through lack of understanding what they created. I rewrote it from the toy’s POV, and the subsequent story, “Dream of the Tako,” was published in LandLocked. I am now going through the same process for another story (though I’m keeping the first page and half this time).
My many jobs have become a running joke among my coworkers. We’ll be talking and I’ll say something like “so back when I was fueling planes at a small town airport” or “when I was giving geology talks at Canyonlands National Park . . .” or “I once met a meth dealer while delivering room service at Embassy Suites.”
AE: Many of our Analog authors are interested in science. Do you have any scientific background, and does it impact your fiction?
CLS: I started college thinking I’d be a biology major and go into ecology, but after one semester of lab I said, I’m out. Instead I took an interest in environmental history, which led me to various internships as a natural history tour guide, and later doing ecologically-sound landscaping.
One thing I learned at that time was that many laypeople see science as labeling, or breaking things down to component parts as a way of showing intellectual or cultural dominance over it. Tourists always asked “what’s that rock” and “what’s that lizard called” (we always replied “that’s a fence lizard,” and they would nod like we dispensed some great wisdom).
However, what I see from scientists, and what I appreciate about science, is the connections it creates. The name humans give to a prairie grass is inconsequential compared to knowing how that grass contributes to a prairie ecosystem. I can’t tell you what PFAS is short for, but I can tell you (thanks to students at my college who study it in Southern Colorado) about its presence in waterways and how it damages human health. In all these cases, labeling and dissecting are not an end to themselves, but necessary steps on the way to creating understanding. And with that understanding, maybe science can create new ways for us to interact with the world. Science is constantly giving us new stories, new POVs on old stories, and changing how we interact with stories.
AE: What careers have you had and how do they affect your writing?
CLS: My many jobs have become a running joke among my coworkers. We’ll be talking and I’ll say something like “so back when I was fueling planes at a small town airport” or “when I was giving geology talks at Canyonlands National Park . . .” or “I once met a meth dealer while delivering room service at Embassy Suites.” Bumming around in those early jobs taught me a lot about people and how drastically personalities vary.
More importantly, those experiences taught me that real people have real jobs, with specific duties and responsibilities. Our jobs are so much a part of our lives that I find it’s difficult to create a believable character if you don’t know what they do for a living. Sometimes that’s directly addressed in the story, and sometimes that may be something only the author knows, but I think it’s essential in giving a character weight and depth. This is not to say that a person is what they do. Rather, I’m saying that what a person does for 40 hours per week is going to tell us something about who they are and where they’re at in life.
AE: What are you reading right now?
CLS: I’m almost caught up on Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, which I’ve been reading both on paper and via audiobook (Kevin R. Free’s narration contains all the sass and internal conflict I hear in my head when reading). My book club chose The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin for our next discussion, so I’m excited to revisit that one. And I’ve been reading the Hunter S. Thompson essay collection The Great Shark Hunt on and off for the last few years. His handwringing and doom-saying during the Nixon administration give me a modicum of hope that our current political strife will turn out okay.