Author Interview: Steven Popkes
Interviewed by Phyllis Irene Radford
Steven has brought a scientific mind to the Book View Café. He began his volunteer work with us with a beautifully researched blog on how the human body evolved. Now he works behind the scenes formatting and beta reading other peoples’ books, as well as writing some stunningly thought-provoking books of his own.
Have you decided yet what writing means to you?
I don’t know about other writers. For me, writing is more a compulsion. Something that defines the day and marks time. E.g., look: it’s been three days since I put electrons to storage. Better get to it. I’m not sure what, or who I would be if I didn’t write. Probably someone who didn’t sleep for the stories in my head.
What do you hope to get from writing? Money? Security? Immortality?
I think, for me, writing arises from a deep need to communicate a point of view. My point of view. I gave up making money at it a long, long time ago.
How important to you is success, (for example) And do you know what kind of “success” you are seeking? Is the writing enough justification in itself? Do you hope to be able to write exactly what you want, and still find an audience for it? Or is the writing what it is, and its own reward?
For me, success == readership. Since I left traditional media publishing, my goal has been 1000 readers. That is a nice round number that suggests someone out there is interested in what I have to say.
Where did this book start for you?
House of Birds, curiously, came out of reading an interesting article about child abuse. The article’s idea was that even though the children were hurt by the parent(s), there was still love. How does love survive that sort of thing? What does it mean if it does? Is it love or delusion? I’m not sure there’s a single answer for people in general or any person in particular.
That and Martyn Fogg’s book on terraforming.
Have you explored all of this world yet? Could there be more stories in it?
House of Birds is the fourth book of what I’ve come to call the Howard Cycle. I’ve written two others and I’m working on another. The full cycle has around fourteen books. So, I’m not quite half way there.
Why writing to communicate your vision, and not art, drama, etc?
I’ve dabbled in drama and comic writing. They’re interesting but in both cases, the work is dependent on the expression by others. In fiction writing, I need depend on no one but myself. It stands or falls on my efforts. It doesn’t help that I don’t have any fine art or acting ability.
Do you think your “voice,” the thing that stamps your writing as uniquely yours, changes from book to book, story to story–or can you already see themes that reoccur in your work?
Every work has unique constraints. I like playing with narrative structure. My second novel, Slow Lightning, was told backwards. House of Birds is, essentially, three linked novellas. God’s Country is a sprawling work that I intended as an homage to John Dos Passos.
My work drives from the character outwards so my view of people may give rise to a common voice.
What do you like about writing fiction?
I like watching the work come alive. At some point, the work takes on a life of its own beyond my conception of it. I love that.
If your creative brain told you tomorrow to “take a sabbatical” what would you do other than write? If this was a long sabbatical, would you enter a new profession? If so, what? If not, why return to what you did before you wrote fiction?
Apparently, for me writing is a prerequisite for sleeping. If my creative brain said not to write, I’d have to dedicate myself to a life of insomnia. If my brain were that recalcitrant, I’d hope it would say it’s time to quit on this series and write something else.
Do you intentionally change your style and voice for each story, each world you create? Does voice follow the world, or a particular character?
I write a lot of “studies” before I settle on a “take” on the work. The take informs everything else: whether it is first or third person, the nature of the prose, the number of characters, etc. Each work seems to demand its own approach. House of Birds required the linked novella approach. Jackie’s Boy needed a tight, single point of view, third person narrative.
Short fiction and long fiction have different constraints. There are things one can do in short fiction that I don’t think are practical in long fiction. I wrote a story years ago called Agent of Change which included transcripts, websites, news reports, etc., to tell a particular story. That approach doesn’t scale. But on the other hand a 3,000 word short story can’t have a dozen points of view—or at least, I can’t do that.
Has writing taught you anything you didn’t expect?
Every time. There’s always a point in the writing where the author is just hanging on for the ride. I live for that moment.
Some people jump into fiction, taking a character or an idea that interests them and simply start writing. Others research like mad before they start, and still others have a character tap them on the shoulder, and then they start researching.
Material is always available. Interesting characters, curious situations, odd behaviors, bits of science, folklore, myth. It’s always shoving itself in one’s face. I collect it.
I look for what I call a “take” on the subject. Something that intrigues me that brings the material into organizational focus.
I tend to research as I go—finding out what I need as the work progresses. This can involve a lot of backtracking but if I do too much, the work stalls.
The take for each story—short of long—is different.
What kind of fiction are you drawn to write? Has a particular style caught your fancy?
It is nearly always science fiction. That medium seems to have the paintbrushes I most need.
Whose fiction do you love to read?
Cordwainer Smith. Clifford D. Simak. Philip K. Dick. N. K. Jemison. Algys
Has anything in research surprised you? Changed the original course of the work?
Yes. More than once. One finds an idea and runs with it but then finds it doesn’t work. I had to scrap a sailing idea when I realized the prevailing winds of the location spun the wrong way.
Has the idea of joining a writing group occurred to you?
I’m a founding member of the Cambridge SF Workshop (www.cs-fw.org) operating continuously since 1980.
Have you also researched Pod casts and blogs?
I’ve been blogging for close to twenty years.
How did you become involved with Book View Café?
Madeleine Robins invited me.
Let us know how we can find you? Do you have a website, twitter, facebook fan page, etc? What are your public links?
www.stevenpopkes.com. I have a facebook page but don’t use it much.
What has been your most recent work? Or what is about to come out? Do you have any interesting stories about writing it? (did you write it on the backs of envelops with a pencil clasped in your teeth because both arms were broken at the time? No? Darn! That would have made a great anecdote!)
Upcoming: A New World where Christopher Columbus reaches the New World and discovers intelligent dinosaurs. Most recent novel: House of Birds, where deities compete for terraforming resources.
Tell me a little bit about you as a person? What are your hobbies? Favorite tv shows? Interesting facts about you (were you a former Rockette?)
I like working with my hands. We have an extensive garden. I do woodworking but not any particular type. I’ve been learning ceramics and glass flameworking.
Do you have any pets? Have they ever found their way into your work?
We have a dog, a cat, chickens, and we breed turtles. And yes.
At the Book Veiw Cafe you can find Steven https://bookviewcafe.com/bvc_author/steven-popkes/