Established in 1965, the Nebula Awards are kind of like the Oscars of science fiction and fantasy. Nominees for the awards are chosen and then voted on by members of the professional organization for speculative fiction authors, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Past LDS nominees include M. Shayne Bell (1 nomination), Orson Scott Card (9 nominations, 2 wins), William Shunn (2 nominations), Dave Wolverton (1 nomination), and this humble blogger (1 nomination, 1 win). (Hat tip to Marny Parkin’s invaluable Bibliography of Mormon Speculative Fiction.)
This year, for the first time ever, two LDS authors have been nominated for the Nebula Award at the same time: Brad R. Torgersen in the novelette category, and Nancy Fulda in the short story category. The winners will be announced at the Nebula Awards ceremony in Arlington, Virginia, on May 19.
I decided it would be worthwhile to interview the two nominees. First up is Brad R. Torgersen, whose nominated story, “Ray of Light,” appeared in Analog Science Fiction & Fact. (The story is available as an ebook from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.)
Brad’s meteoric rise in the speculative fiction arena began in 2010, when he was a winner in the Writers of the Future Contest and had a story appear in Analog — which went on to win the magazine’s annual readers’ poll in the novelette category. Several more sales to Analog and other publications quickly followed. He serves as a Warrant Officer in the U.S. Army Reserve, and lives with his family in Sunset, Utah. His website can be found at bradrtorgersen.wordpress.com.
1. First off, congratulations on the Nebula Award nomination for your novelette “Ray of Light.” What can you tell us about how you came to write the story?
“Ray of Light” began life as a workshop assignment for a short story workshop I did in Lincoln City, Oregon, under the direction of Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, with editors John Helfers and Denise Little as guest lecturers. Attendees were tasked with writing stories about the end of the world. Not wanting to do just another zombie, post-nuclear, post-plague, or post-global-warming story, I looked around at the available concepts and remembered an article I’d recently read about “Snowball Earth,” where geologic evidence suggested that the Earth had completely frozen over at least once or twice in the very distant past.
I thought: how could I bring this catastrophe forward into the present day, and how could I tell such a story on a human scale? How would we realistically try to survive such an event, and what would the emotional ramifications be for the survivors? Once I asked these questions, the story quickly assembled itself. The reaction of the workshop was very good, and I was able to sell it to editor Stanley Schmidt at Analog magazine, to whom I’d sold several stories previously.
2. What role, if any, do you feel your LDS faith played in writing this story? Beyond that, what influence does your faith have on your writing in general?
It played a large part, mostly because I knew from past studies of prisoners-of-war that religion and faith were integral to the mental and emotional endurance of many survivors. And though “Ray of Light” doesn’t deal with prisoners-of-war per se, the plight of humanity is very much a prison, and I wondered: assuming that the majority of those who survive are secular or agnostic, would this automatically mean that their offspring would be similarly secular or agnostic? If you read the story, you can discover my answer. Suffice to say that I think nature abhors a vacuum.
More generally, I find that I have a very difficult time writing stories with down-beat or pessimistic endings. I think this is a direct result of being steeped in a faith tradition that is as positive as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day saints. To quote William Shatner as James T. Kirk, “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.” I also have a very difficult time believing in a thoroughly atheistic or secular future. Science Fiction as a genre tends to see humanity as forever evolving away from religion and faith. I think that’s unlikely. I believe religion and faith are integral to who we are as human beings, so much so that if we strip ourselves of religion, inevitably we will find our way back to it over time, and generations. So my stories tend to reflect these assumptions.
3. Who are some of the authors who have influenced you the most?
The three most influential writers I’ve ever read are Allan Cole, Chris Bunch, and Larry Niven. Mainly because these are the authors I was reading heavily in my teenage years, and their style, their type of fiction, resonates down into my own writing. Larry Niven is a Hugo Award and Nebula Award winning bestseller who wowed me with his ability to tell dramatic, engaging people stories while remaining super-rigorous about his science and the scientific underpinnings of his universes. Allan Cole and Chris Bunch are a writing duo who have done hundreds of television scripts, as well as bestselling novels. Their Pulitzer-nominated book, A Reckoning for Kings, is still (to my mind) just about the best Vietnam war novel I have ever read. It may even be the best war novel, period? Also, their vast and engrossing STEN series, featuring the eponymous protagonist, was an eye-opener. Prior to getting into STEN I was mostly a media fiction reader: Star Trek novels in particular. STEN showed me what was possible with an original concept, and I adore the STEN books to this day.
4. What got you into writing science fiction?
I was a science fiction and technothriller reader from the time I was ten years old. Few things excited me like a good contemporary or near-future war novel, likewise I was enraptured by the works of Stephen R. Donaldson, W. Michael Gear, and Orson Scott Card. I was reading a lot of Larry Niven when, in 1992, I had the opportunity to write some radio play scripts for Scott Howard’s Searcher & Stallion science fiction action-adventure series that was broadcasting locally in Salt Lake City, Utah, on KRCL-FM. I wrote 12 episodes from September through December, 1992, and when it was all over I found I enjoyed the experience so much, I should try to become a professional. After all, the Searcher & Stallion work had been unpaid. But Larry Niven was getting paid a lot of money.
I thus set my sights on trying to emulate Larry, and some of my other author heroes, such as Allan Cole and Chris Bunch. Men who had successfully forged very successful careers for themselves despite the fierce competition. I am glad I had a spouse who wouldn’t let me quit, too. Because it’s finally paying off, for both of us.
5. So far, you’re mainly known for your short fiction. Do you have a novel in the works?
I’ve got a series of novels in the works, actually. Well, make it at least three series? I am a compulsive what-if scenario churner, such that I never find it difficult to conceptualize. The hard work is in laying those concepts out as compelling human dramas that aren’t just tours of ideas. Giving the readers characters and human situations they can care about is a big challenge. The world-building and other details? That’s playtime!
6. What advice do you have for would-be writers?
I think a lot of very-young writers who are approaching writing in their teens or early twenties may not realize that sometimes you have to go out and live life before you can correctly and insightfully render it on the page. So don’t beat yourselves up if you’re young and you’re getting a lot of rejection slips, or your Kindle and Nook books aren’t taking off. I had to grind through 17 years and almost 900,000 words of unpublished fiction before I finally broke in. Life’s been good for me ever since, and I’ve been selling a lot and getting some nice attention; like the Nebula nomination. But before that I had to just go through things. It was a lot of work. Along the way I grew up and had my share of triumphs and heartaches in other arenas: marriage, fatherhood, my civilian career, my military career, et cetera. Try not to be in such a hurry for success and publication that you fail to appreciate your own learning and growth process. And above all else, just write a lot. Writing is homework and you can’t get better, or have success, without homework. Your first stories and books won’t be awesome. It’s okay. That’s true for all of us. Nothing wrong with it. And the more consistent (and persistent) you can be in your efforts, the more quickly you will move through your proverbial first million words and reach a point where you can render prose that readers find engaging, and characters they can relate to.
Also, I would highly suggest to new or would-be writers that they don’t let themselves stay stuck in a bubble. It’s true that the process of writing is solitary. But to fully understand and grasp the business world of writing, you have to get out and meet people. Go to conventions. Sign up for workshops and seminars. I didn’t do my first professional workshop — taught by professionals — until 2009. That was also the same year I finally had my first professional sale. Coincidence? I don’t think so. There are a variety of options, some costing more, some costing less. Look at who is on panels or lecturing. Are they pros? Learn at the feet of people whom you most want to emulate some day, whether it’s commercial success, critical success, or both.
7. What question should I have asked you, but didn’t, and what is your answer?
The question I like is, “What were your mistakes?” To which I could reel off many answers.
I expected too much too soon. I let the disappointment of not getting what I wanted when I wanted it get me down, so that my production through my first million words was often slow and haphazard. I let myself be solitary for too long, and I let my fear of public exposure keep me from participating in conventions and workshops, where these things can be enormously useful. I also fell into the trap of re-writing things to death. I firmly believe that endlessly re-writing something can be destructive. I know it was for me. You can grow so sick of the same story or the same book, that your eyes cross and you literally can’t view it objectively anymore. Thus you’re not improving anything. Not your craft. And certainly not the work in question; it’s usually getting worse. So give yourself a practical limit on how much you re-write or revise a thing, before you simply conclude that it’s finished, and you can send it out to an editor, then move on to something new. As the old saying goes, it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to be complete.
I would also caution against falling into the trap of trying to please your writing group. Few things worth reading were ever written to a committee standard. What one person in your writing group hates, another person may love, and if you’ve trying to please those polar-opposite tastes you’re going to drive yourself crazy. For that matter, I would also caution against becoming too reliant on writing groups. Public critique and feedback is good. It really is. Especially for new people who are still deep into their first half-million words. But past a certain point, you must learn to fly solo. You might locate or foster a select few first readers whom you trust to know and like your style, and to offer constructive feedback. But writing groups can become as harmful as they are helpful, so don’t become a slave to the group. Over time you will trust your own voice, and your voice is a large part of what will make you stand out with editors and readers alike.
I’d like to thank Brad for answering my questions. My interview with Nancy Fulda will be in next month’s SF&F Corner.