I interviewed science fiction writer and playwright Ted Kosmatka back in 2009. Since then Kosmatka has had three critically acclaimed science fiction novels published: The Games (2012), Prophet of the Bones (2014), and The Flicker Men (2015), all of which are available on Amazon.com. His work has been reprinted in many Year’s Best anthologies and translated into many languages. He’s also been a Nebula Award nominee. Most importantly, he continues to be an all around nice guy and someone I’m honored to call a friend.
Ted Kosmatka has been called one of the “new writers to keep an eye on” by Gardner Dozois, who was the editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine for twenty years. Kosmatka has stories in three science fiction anthologies this year: Seeds of Change and The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Two, both reviewed by StaticMultimedia, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection. His story “The Art of Alchemy” has been translated into Russian and “Deadnauts,” available for free on his website http://www.tedkosmatka.com/, will soon be published in the Polish anthology Kroki W Nieznane.
Tell us a little about writing for John Joseph Adams anthology Seeds of Change. How were you approached to become a contributor?
I think he sent me an email. It was shortly after my sale of “The Art of Alchemy” to F&SF. John Joseph Adams is the Slush God there, and told me he’d really liked my story. Then he asked if I had more like it at home. I said, Well, as a matter of fact…and sent him “N-words”, which he immediately bought. Working with John was great. He’s a very dedicated editor who puts a lot of thought into everything he does.
In his introduction, Adams says he asked the contributors “to write about paradigm shifts,” to “speculate on how they might evolve in the future, either for better or worse.” In your story, you show us a world where no matter how much things change, the world stays the same. Is this your prediction for our future?
I’d like to say no, but it does seem to be human nature to repeat the mistakes of the past. I’d like to think we will learn from history and make smarter choices in the future, but I don’t see that happening.
Do you think fiction can be a catalyst for change?
Sure, why not? The world could do worse.
You write both science fiction and literary fiction. Do you prefer one genre over the other? If so, why?
To me, there is no bright white line between genre and literary fiction. A lot of what I write straddles both traditions. My literary fiction tends to have a lot of science in it—maybe too much—but in most cases, the stories aren’t about the science. So maybe that’s the main difference.
My science fiction tends very much to be about the science. I think my best science fiction stories work almost as thought experiments. My story “The God Engine” is me talking to myself about the nature vs. nurture argument. I designed the story as a way to compare and contrast both sides of that age-old scientific battle. In “Deadnauts” I was asking myself questions about cryogenics and Judgment Day. That story was very much a thought experiment as well. If cryogenics were possible, what would happen to your soul while you were frozen? What if you were frozen forever, undead? Could you miss Judgment Day? To me, this is an important question.
Religion and genetics reoccur as topics in your work. What is it about the relationship between religion and science that intrigues you?
I sometimes joke that I’m what happens when a Catholic school kid grows up to be a scientist—and then goes on to be a writer. There was a time, early in my life, when I was massively conflicted. I remember as a child considering the thermodynamic implications of the transubstantiation of bread into the body of Christ. I had no problem believing that the host could make this physical transformation on my tongue, but I did have a problem believing it could happen without the release of energy in the form of heat. There are things you have to contort your mind to believe literally, so either logical thought or literal belief falls away at some point. When you start looking at things as metaphor, it begins making more sense. But then where do you stop? I’m beginning to suspect reality itself is metaphor, and there are some aspects of quantum mechanics that seem to bear this out.
You’ve described yourself as a lab rat because of your day job. Do you consider yourself a scientist first and a writer second or vice versa? Why?
I’m a writer first. A writer before anything else. That sounds like a confession, and maybe it is. I haven’t made much money at it, and I’d starve to death if I tried to support myself with my writing, but still…. I’m one of the unfortunate souls who have to write to stay sane. Pity me.
In both “N–Words” and “Deadnauts” you wrote in first person as a woman character. Why did you make this choice?
Well, most people don’t know this, but I’m actually a woman. Okay, not really. In “N-words” I knew I wanted the story to be the wife’s story. I knew I wanted it to be her story of loss, and strength, so I didn’t really have a choice about the gender in that case. The other option would have been to tell the story from the husband’s perspective, but since he was already dead by the first sentence, this would have been difficult.
“Deadnauts” kind of surprised me. I had this opening scene and a rough idea where the story was going, and then as the sentences accumulated on the page, the character just gradually revealed herself as female. Nobody was more surprised than me. I actually wrote “Deadnauts” before I wrote “N-words”, so it was my first time trying to write from the female perspective, and my first thought was, I can’t do this. But to change it after that first page would have been an act of cowardice. So I gave it my best shot, and I think the story was stronger for having a female lead.
Do you read within a wide spectrum of fiction?
Actually, I read everything. In addition to literary novels and sci-fi, I’m also big on science journals and How-to books. I also love the classics. I’m also big into maps. It may seem strange, but I love reading maps. All kinds of maps. Old maps, maps to nowhere, maps that are just plain wrong. There’s probably a story brewing somewhere in my subconscious, but if so, it hasn’t decloaked yet.
What authors have influenced your writing?
Ben Bova was an early influence, as well as Orson Scott Card. Mathew Stover came later along with writers like Jack Skillingstead, Samuel Delany, Nancy Kress and an awesome literary writer named Jeff Manes.
How would you describe your routine as a writer?
Honestly, it is a mess, the way I do it. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, but it is the only way that works for me. To me, writing is exactly like creating a clay sculpture. First you give the work its structural form, and then you refine from there. This makes for very ugly first drafts. My first drafts often look like they were written by a schizophrenic off his meds. There might be whole pages I end up scrapping. Every time I write something, I’m convinced I don’t know what I’m doing, but then oftentimes I’ll get to the end, and the story will circle back around to something I dropped in there at the beginning, and I’ll wonder if I knew all along I was going to do that.
You’ve been a member of a few writers groups. Have such groups been helpful to you? If so how?
I’m a member of The Highland Writer’s Group and a less formal group of friends who call ourselves the Mean Group. We’d all been to writers’ groups where everyone listens to what you read, makes nice comments, tells you how great you are, but there is no criticism. So our group was founded on the principle of total honesty. If something sucks, we tell each other. The group includes Michael Poore, (a great writer you’ll be hearing from) and Mary-Tina Vrehas, (a filmmaker whose first film just played in Cannes this year) and then there’s lovable Josh. Who hasn’t done Jack. (Yeah, Josh, I know you’re going read this, so get off your butt and finish something!) See, I told you it was the Mean Group. We’re all nice, really; our meanness comes from a place of love.
What’s the best advice and worst about writing and being a writer that you’ve gotten?
Advice? That is difficult. The best advice I can think of is to just write and keep writing. You have to keep writing even when nothing is selling, which will be most of the time. You have to write even after you’ve given up hope of ever selling anything. Keep writing because it is in you to write. Write for yourself.
Do you have any advice on how to get published?
Be a genius. Other than that, I don’t know. I still get rejected all the time, so if there was some piece of advice I had to offer, I’d be using it myself. If I have made any progress in my “writing career” (and please picture me using very exaggerated air quotes to go along with the literal ones you just read) it is because I’m just too stubborn to give up.
What personal insights do you have for other writers about writing?
Personal insights? One thing that I’ve learned is that it is harder to break in than you would believe. The odds are stacked against you. In order to sell to most magazines you have to write a story that is better than several hundred other stories that are sitting in the same pile as you. And if you do manage that trick, if you do sell a story, great, but can you do it again? And again? And again? Can you write one story after another that is consistently better than the hundreds of other stories sitting in that bottomless slush pile? You have to be crazy to want to be a writer. If I ever go sane, I’ll quit in a heartbeat.
You have completed novels, though none have yet been published. What are they about?
I do have two complete novels. The first one is a starter novel. It has a lot of the typical mistakes you’ll see in a first attempt at the long form. The most important thing about that book is that I reached the end. I proved to myself I could do it. That one will stay in my trunk.
The second novel is called THE HELIX GAME, and that one I still really like a lot. The elevator pitch is that in the future, genetic engineering becomes an Olympic event. A powerful new supercomputer is used to design gladiators that fight to the death—but unbeknownst to the powers that be, the computer is both sentient, and as it turns out, insane. The computer designs both a god and an Armageddon.
Do you have any upcoming publications or future projects?
A new story called “Escape He Done” is coming out in Cemetery Dance sometime this year.
Right now I’m working on a novel length version of “The Prophet of Flores” where I take the next step and show what happens after Paul leaves the island. This is the story I really wanted to tell when I first started writing it and before I realized I’d need a lot more room than a short story would give me. That’s what novels are good at, giving you room to spread your legs a little.
If there were able to go back in time, of all the great stories other fiction authors have written, which one would you have loved to have written and why?
Wow, good question. I don’t know. I have a lot of respect for a great number of authors, but I don’t usually focus on their work in a way that translates into wishing I’d written it. I have a stack of story ideas in my drawer that is larger than the number of years I’ll be alive to write, so I’d probably just wish I could spend more time at the computer, and less sitting in traffic.