Interview: Alexander Jablokov

JablokovAuthor Alexander Jablokov will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey workshop. Mr. Jablokov writes science fiction for readers who won’t give up literate writing or vivid characters to get the thrills they demand. He is a natural transition for non-SF readers interested in taking a stroll with a dangerous AI or a neurosurgeon/jazz musician turned detective, while still giving hardcore SF fans speculative flash, incomprehensible aliens, and kitchen appliances with insect wing cases. From his well-regarded first novel, Carve the Sky, an interplanetary espionage novel set in a culturally complex 25th century, through the obscenely articulate dolphins with military modifications of a Deeper Sea, the hardboiled post-cyberpunk of Nimbus, the subterranean Martian repression of River of Dust, and the perverse space opera of Deepdrive, his last book, Brain Thief, a contemporary high-tech thriller with a class clown attitude. He has recently written a YA alternate-universe adventure novel.

His day job is as a marketing manager. He does his writing during the mornings, and on weekends. It took him several years to figure out how to get any writing done at all, particularly since he hates getting up early and hates working on weekends, but has somehow managed it.  Visit http://www.ajablokov.com to learn more about the author and his books.


Once you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first piece?

I was inspired by an older friend in college. I had never thought of actually writing for publication, and he had actually written a novel. I thought,“If he can do that, so can I.” Despite this somewhat competitive attitude, my friend was encouraging on my first few stories. But it was quite a few years before I finally sold something. Graduate school and my first job intervened.

Why do you think your work began to sell?

The writer is the last person to be able to answer that question effectively. My first published story was a takeoff on a Jorge Luis Borges story, “The Lottery in Babylon,” combined with some notion I got from a story in a magazine I read in high school at the grocery store where I worked (and where I was supposedly cleaning up). My second story was inspired by the Paul Fussell book The Great War and Modern Memory. So I suppose a somewhat self-important literariness might have distinguished my earlier works.

You talk about how long it took to write Brain Thief after you became a father. How did you maintain commitment to your writing? What advice do you have for people struggling to make time for writing?

I’m an okay example for someone in that situation, but not an overwhelmingly good one. I am frequently depressed, disappointed, and despairing. I work for months on something that one day I jablokov brain thiefdecide I hate and drop. I write myself into corners, or, worse, off into some endless literary Rub’ al Khali, where I wander looking for water or a palm tree. Still, I keep doing it. It is an important part of my life, and a significant part of my self-identity. I try not to compare myself with others, and take each sold story as an unprecedented blessing.

As far as advice, we can give advice on everything but what really matters. I once read a discussion about how to get up early in the morning. There were all sorts of processes, procedures, and rules listed. Then someone said, “That’s all very well, but what about if you just can’t wake up?” You can make things easier, but you can’t make them easy.

So my advice, for what it’s worth, is to get up early. I hate getting up early. I always swore I wouldn’t do it. But that is pretty much the only un-colonized part of your life. It comes before the demands, the children, the job, the shopping, the first glass of wine, the TV show or the book. You have to work before the rest of your life has woken up. You can generally give that fresh flower of your mind to your writing, because your job or other responsibilities rarely require it. But if you wait until evening, it is already losing petals, no matter how you’ve taken care of it.

Plus, when you get to work, you can have a smug sense of having accomplished something no one else there knows about.

Well, I guess I gave some advice after all. YMMV. [Your mileage may vary.]

Do you write for your day job as a marketer? How does that affect your fiction writing?

I do write in my day job. I describe markets for pharmaceuticals and medical devices. Not large quantities—marketing is all about saying less. And those interesting questions about heart valves in China or TNF-alpha inhibitors actually are fun. And the corporate voice can be useful in certain circumstances. Remember, I have given the fresh flower to my work already that day, and this writing certainly does not require it. On the other hand, no one would recognize any such ailment as “marketer’s block,” another useful idea.

Your “voice” has a tongue-in-cheek feel, with a nice dose of realism. Was it difficult to find your voice? Can you offer some advice to writers still searching for their voice?

jablokov deep driveWell, thanks. Do you hear my voice above? I suppose you do. I’m an engineer, a writer, and a bit of a snark. I like to be funny, and I like sharing oddball facts. So my writing does too. Imitate others, by all means, but use their tricks to say what you want to say. If you’re writing a novel, you’re going to spend a lot of time with it. No one else will ever spend as long. If you’re not enjoying it, it’s not really worth it. But I’m not particularly complicated. Some people adopt a voice that is not their own, almost like it is written by an imaginary playmate. The first and most important act of imagination for a writer is imagining that you are the writer. It’s worth taking a step back and really recognizing that that is a true act of imagination. It’s worth working through.

You categorize some of your writing as “higher space opera,” which is an intriguing label. Can you describe the elements that define space opera for you and what would categorize a work as ‘higher’ space opera?

Jeez, I knew someone would finally ask. Is drama “higher melodrama?” Think of it as late-stage space opera, written by someone who is no longer young. Spaceships, adventures, weird aliens, all that, but with some nice sentence structure, some odd bits of characterization, and a generally less-than-impressed-with-self attitude.

As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?

You’ll meet really well-known, successful writers. And you know plenty of non-writers. Then there are people like me, who keep plugging away, sometimes meeting some success, sometimes not. There really is a middle ground. It won’t make you rich. But it will be something really worthwhile, something that makes all the other pains of your life somehow worth it.

What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?

I’m trying to sell a YA alternate-history adventure that I am quite proud of, but not having much luck in today’s disordered market. I do want to write a historical mystery. It’s always nice to try something new.

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