Erik Johnson discusses his writing background, his love of Jack McDevitt’s fiction, and the empathy he shares with the characters in his latest story, “Gardens of Titan,” which appears in our [January/February issue, on sale now!]
Analog Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
Erik Johnson: Ever since the first hazy images came back from Voyager I, I’ve been fascinated by Titan. How could a moon, so far from the sun, have a thick atmosphere—what could lurk below the clouds? I wrote “Gardens of Titan” a number of years ago while I had been diving into the Cassini mission’s findings of Titan and had also just finished a book of Jack McDevitt’s short stories. I wanted to write a story grounded in new space discoveries, and space technology. Titan seemed the most logical location for serious human development, being literally composed of the makings of rocket and fusion fuel.
The muse took hold, and I wrote “Gardens” in a single (very long) writing session on a Saturday. Not long after, I workshopped it at NASFiC—my first writing workshop experience. I learned a great deal from the pro authors, and felt encouraged that my writing wasn’t summarily ejected out a metaphorical airlock. I began to suspect I might have something good in the story. Ironically, Jack McDevitt himself participated in the same workshop, although he wasn’t in my group.
I’m not entirely sure why the story ended up so melancholy other than it was written on a rainy day and the frigid, hazy landscape of Titan didn’t lend itself to a cheery tale. The extreme distance from Earth and the isolation of the outer solar system also contributed to the mood. Being so isolated, you couldn’t just pick up and leave, so the feeling of being unable to return after a devastating event became a central theme.
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
EJ: I understand what they are going through. That may sound trite, but aside from being on Titan, I’ve experienced the same sudden, tragic loss and being left wallowing in grief. I also had people I am eternally grateful for to help drag me to the other side of despair. In the end, it turns out to not be so much about the tragedy, but the rebuilding, and how much you can help others who are also struggling.
Common writing advice to “write what you know,” is not often possible for hard science fiction, but if you write the emotions and feelings you do know, it transcends the setting.
AE: Is this piece part of a greater universe of stories?
EJ: It will be, although it wasn’t originally intended to. I have other tales in mind that would fit well in the same universe. Stories leveraging a plausible near future, or “NASApunk”, is a fascinating playground and there’s a lot there to explore.
AE: What made you think of Analog for this story?
EJ: Analog has always been the apex of the science fiction field for me. To think that my first professional story appears in the same market in which Asimov, Clark, Dick, Heinlein, and Zelazny published their early works still astonishes me. In the early 90s I submitted a story to Analog, and got a handwritten note from Stanley Schmidt in the margin of the rejection form, “Please try again with a different story.” In addition, Carl Frederick who has many stories published in these pages was in the workshop to which I brought “Gardens” and encouraged me to clean it up and send it to Analog. Sorry it took so ridiculously long, Stanley and Carl!
AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
EJ: Like many Analog readers, I grew up on a steady diet of science fiction magazines and novels my father read, especially from the Science Fiction Bookclub. I cut my teeth on names like Fred Pohl, Larry Niven, Robert Heinlein, and Issac Asimov.
However, the writers who most inspire me to write are:
Roger Zelazny for his elegant and poetic writing style. With the publishing of his collected works, I’m dazzled by a plethora of his early writings. I always dearly wanted to meet Roger and it’s a pity I will never be able to now.
Stephen King’s writing style of small but evoking detail and characters who are everyday people you would meet in a grocery store (as long as there’s no fog), as well as his many essays of no-nonsense advice on the craft have also been a huge influence on me.
Gene Wolfe—although I discovered him embarrassingly recently, he quickly skyrocketed to the top of my inspirations. Simply reading his words is a pleasure to roll around in my mind and I’ve never before been so moved to despair that I will never be able to tell stories as achingly well written.
And of course, Jack McDevitt who is a master of writing realistic, everyday characters who manage to overcome (usually) the most unexpected situations. The vast emptiness and cosmic loneliness of our local cluster, and the ordinary people who traverse it, greatly inspired “Gardens.“
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
EJ: I love stories with ambiguous events that leave you thinking long afterward. Does intuition presage events, or does our mind find a way to fit events into our preconceived notions? Perhaps it’s a little of column A and a little of column B. When I workshopped “Gardens,” one of the questions asked was “So what happened? Was it X or Y?” (No spoilers here!) My reply was, “I don’t know—a lot of unexplained things happen in life.” This answer did not go over well. I got feedback about playing fair with the reader, and how a writer should always know what happens behind the scenes. I thought long and hard about this and decided that it did indeed need improvement. So I made it even more ambiguous. It seems to have done the trick—it sold! I have no shortage of ideas that explore cause and effect being intertwined in strange ways.
Lately, I find I’m interested in—obsessed with, really—story structure as a part of the story itself. Events being presented out of order, misdirection by way of subverting expectations, themes bleeding into the ‘meta’ of the story, even word count, are all great fun to play with and satisfying to write. This doesn’t play a part in “Gardens” but count on it in future stories!
AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
EJ: I don’t believe in writer’s block. That’s not to say I don’t think writers get stuck—I’ve been stuck plenty of times myself. But I think people get the wrong source of the trouble—that they are blocking themselves. This is important to recognize—if you don’t admit that you are the problem, then you are less likely to overcome it. You wring your hands, tear your sackcloth, and blame your muse. Your muse doesn’t deserve that.
When I have a hard time writing, there’s usually something my mind needs to work out. Whether it’s a plot point, or I can’t visualize a scene, or perhaps I’m writing something a bit too big for my skill, I try to work out the kink before continuing. If I can’t, I may go on to something else that’s fresher in mind, but the danger there is never finishing anything.
The best thing to do—which has worked for me—is to sit down and type. Anything. Gibberish. It doesn’t matter if it’s coherent—just hit keys in roughly word-like patterns. After a paragraph or two my mind will say, “Hang on, if you’re dead set on doing this, at least write something that’s not just junk.” And away we go.
Every time you write, you get better. It’s inevitable. Writing skill doesn’t fades when unused like a language, or a musical instrument—but it does take effort to develop. Keep learning new things. Read everything. Experiment with techniques. Ignore advice. But most of all, be brave and submit stories. Anywhere.
AE: What inspired you to start writing?
EJ: I’ve been passionate about writing as long as I can remember. Longer, really. My mother found a picture I drew in kindergarten that was “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It was me as a writer. I have no recollection of drawing it. Although, I don’t put too much stock in that—in the next grade I drew a picture of me driving a road grader. (If only I could figure out a way to combine those . . .)
I’ve always written stories seriously or not, and I’ve taken runs at being published a few times in my life, but this time it seems to have stuck. Even if I’m never again published (please universe, don’t listen!), I will continue to write. I have no choice.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
EJ: I have a couple stories on the market—one I’m very excited to find a home for, since it plays with narrative structure and how it can be an integral part of the story itself, and I’m finishing up a story exploring the very human ways that we’ll develop learning systems, robotics, and technology. I’m halfway through writing a not-cyberpunk novella which posits that the future isn’t chrome, but rather physiological and will double down on human exploitation. I also have a mind-bending hard sci-fi horror story that is not so patiently waiting for me to get enough time to do justice, that I look forward to writing.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
EJ: I can’t adequately express how unqualified I feel to answer this question, but I also feel the need to so.
Writers, you know the common advice—write as much as you can, and read as much as you can. It’s pithy, it’s ubiquitous, it’s annoying. People will tell you there are no shortcuts, that there is no magical formula. I have bad news for you—it’s all true. Just like any skill, there’s no shortcutting past doing the work. If you pick up a guitar for the first time and expect to sound like David Gilmore, you’re just going to be disappointed.
But don’t despair! There’s also good news. It’s not a race. You have as much time as you want to learn. After I sold “Gardens,” my first thought was Holy crap! I must have slipped into an alternate universe! But then my second thought was Why didn’t I do this sooner? But that’s not important—it happened when it happened. I’ve gone back and read my early work and what I used to think was good, is now cringe inducing. That’s okay, my writing has just matured over the years.
Every time you write, you get better. It’s inevitable. Writing skill doesn’t fades when unused like a language, or a musical instrument—but it does take effort to develop. Keep learning new things. Read everything. Experiment with techniques. Ignore advice. But most of all, be brave and submit stories. Anywhere. I believe in you. Keep at it. Never give up. Never surrender.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing? (IE: Social media handles, website URL . . .)
EJ: I have a website—erikmjohnson.net and an email—firstname.lastname@example.org. Other social media linked from the website.