An Interview with Paolo Bacigalupi

Below is one of the interviews we conducted with the fabulous featured guests at Nerdcon: Stories 2015 in Minneapolis, MN. Originally, there was audio for all of our interviews but our engineer (Kal) is a schmuck and some of them didn’t turn out very good. So, transcribed here, is the text of our interview with Paolo Bacigalupi, which Kal was forced to type in a snake-filled pit as punishment. You can check out some of the interviews that *did* work elsewhere on the site or on iTunes @ The Just Enough Trope Podcast. Enjoy! (whip cracks) Keep typing, Kal! Asps! Very dangerous!

Mika: We’re here talking to science fiction author Paolo Bacigalupi. He has written books that span from the adult bio-punk The Windup Girlto the young reader book Zombie Baseball Beatdown. Welcome, Paolo.

Paolo Bacigalupi: Glad to be here.

M: You once said in an interview that “YA is where plot and story is celebrated”. Do you think that’s what makes YA stand out as a genre and why it’s had a huge burst of popularity, even with adults?

PB: Yeah, I do think that there are some things going on there, where you see…especially with adult crossover readers where they’re interested in fast-moving stories, they’re interested in characters with big hopes and dreams and big conflicts and all that stuff and so I think those stories provide a lot of genuine escape or the potential for it. Yeah, there’s definitely some core story tools that get used and celebrated in YA in ways that, when you look at something like literary fiction, maybe aren’t.

M: You’ve written for a wide range of readers from middle grade to YA to adult…is there a particular age group that you enjoy writing for most?

PB: I sort of think of all those things as being different facets of my own writing personality. There’s different toolsets that you use, there’s different ways you express yourself and the reality is that I think a lot of times writers will get sort of channeled into one particular zone. You’re supposed to be this kind of brand, you’re supposed to be this kind of voice and it’s really good from a product packaging standpoint but it’s terrible from a creative artist standpoint. You want to be able to play, you want to be able to stretch other muscles, you want to be able to crack jokes at one moment and be serious in another. You want to play with language in ornate usage in one moment and you want to just get to a point where you make things explode in another and all of those things are maybe contained inside of your artistic pleasures, but you don’t always have room to do that. So, for me, by splitting into those different genres, what I have is that opportunity to say “Now I can plot this aspect of myself or that aspect of myself”. A lot of times, it’s not so much that there’s a favorite genre or a favorite age, it’s more like “This is how I feel like being today; this is the kind of story I feel like telling today” or “This particular story will work really well in this particular age bracket” and that’s more what you’re looking at.

M: Do you write more than one book or story at a time?

PB: I have been, actually. A lot of times what I’ll have is a main project and then oftentimes I’ll have either a secret project or have short stories going at the same time. When I was working on The Drowned Cities, there was a point where I really bogged down and I couldn’t figure out what I was doing with it and so I sort of snuck off and wrote Zombie Baseball Beatdown to sort of do something else…and then came back to The Drowned Citiesand finally could see it and I was like “Oh! I see what’s wrong; I can fix it now” and it was great. But being able to take that break and go do something else instead of just staying in the groove and focusing on the single book…it was necessary and since then I’ve realized, in the very beginning at least, when I first started out writing, I always thought “If I start a book, I have to finish writing that book before I’m allowed to start another”, because I was so terrified that I wasn’t going to be a finisher. I know people who aren’t finishers and you’re not going to be a writer if you’re not a finisher. But then there was a point where I was like, “No, I *can* finish things. I will finish things! I’m not deluding myself”…

M: (laughs)

PB: …and then there’s this thing where you start thinking is “What I really need to do actually is be creatively alive”, especially when writing becomes your full time job, it’s not an escape anymore: it’s the core of what you do. Than you start thinking, “Ok, I need to have other things in my life for a balance of different projects” and so…I’ve started working on a smorgasbord of models…”I think I’ll take a little bit of that, a little this, maybe I’ll spend some time over here” and then deadlines get in the way and then you *do* have to focus in. When I was writing The Water Knife, I was also writing The Doubt Factory at the same time and that was actually interesting and useful for me to be able to set that one project down and start up another and go back and forth.

M: Your debut novel The Windup Girl won a Hugo in 2010. How do you feel about the recent controversy surrounding the Hugos and how books are nominated? And as a side question: have you ever attended one of George R.R. Martin’s Hugo Loser Parties?

PB: Yes, I’ve attended one of George’s Hugo Loser Parties…he throws lovely parties…

M: (laughs)

PB: You know, this is sort of an interesting thing…awards are really fascinating because they’re arbitrary. I remember that the year that I won, I tied with The City and the Cityby China Miéville, but as I recall, Cat Valente’s book Palimpsest was also on the ballot…I’m trying to think…there were other good books on that ballot and I remember thinking at some point, you’ve moved past the question of what’s good and moved into a spot of taste or affection for a writer or affection for a writer’s career or a sense that “Oh, this person is working and we want to recognize them and boost them up”. There are so many other things that go into that awarding process and some of it’s just “I really like ornate language” or “I really like things that explode”. There’s so many arbitrary layers there…you’re sort of grateful when that attention focuses on you and says “Hey, we like what you’re doing; keep going” and you feel really grateful for that. But, you don’t necessarily say “You know what? This makes me the *best*!”

M: (laughs)

PB: “This matters exactly in some larger sense. Thank you so much!” But it’s nothing more than luck in a moment, too. What’s interesting to me is watching…when I was growing up, I knew about the Hugos and it was one of those lifetime dreams to have won a Hugo, so it’s a really powerful thing but it’s really interesting to me that the idea became “Because someone else won a Hugo that takes something away from me”…I’ve been on the Hugo ballot enough times before I won with The Windup Girl…I’d been on it for short stories numerous times…

M: Sure.

PB: …and the interesting thing was at that time, what would happen would be that you’d get nominated and everybody else would take a look at that story and they’d be like “Oh no, we hate this” and you’d get voted to the bottom of the ballot and that’s where you say “It’s an honor to be nominated”. Some people like my work enough to support it and to put it up here and to all agree that this is neat. You’re delighted by that and then it’s interesting to see everyone else get a taste of it and say “It’s not my taste” and you’re like “Ah! Ok…fair enough”. And yet, none of the things where you get nominated or this story gets nominated or that story doesn’t get nominated or it won or it didn’t win…none of those moments had ever made me think “You know what? Someone’s out to get me!”

M: Right.

PB: “You know what? Someone’s trying to keep me out ‘cause they just don’t like my environmental stuff. That’s why I got stuck at the bottom of the ballot!” Never occurred to me. That’s the thing…when I look at the Hugo controversy stuff, it’s a group of people sat around convinced that there is a cabal of dislike that is organized and focused on them and not a bunch of people looking at stuff and saying “Not really my taste. Thanks; I’ll pass” or “Yeah, this is kinda cool but no, it’s not going to be the winner because I think *this* is actually much more hardcore. This is much more interesting; this is much more ambitious”, whatever those things are. Any of those people who decided to game the Hugos, never in their minds, apparently, did they sit down and think “You know what? Maybe I need to write a better story…”

M: (laughs)

PB: “Maybe I need to focus on myself and think about what worked. I got nominated; what worked? I got onto this ballot; that’s a good thing. What didn’t work? Apparently other people don’t like it. Hmm, maybe I should look at myself and think about what else I can do to make people unable to stop themselves from voting for me the next time. How can I be a better writer?” I think the only thing we authors have control over is what we write. We have control over writing the best possible thing we can and I think that there’s a real sickness when you start spending all of your time worrying about how you can get awarded, how many book sales you get, what kind of external rewards are out there because you do not control those things. That’s the thing that stands out the most to me about that whole thing is that these particular writers did not sit there and say “How can I make myself better, how can I do better craft, how can I make my readers more delighted?” That’s astounding to me.

M: Your books cover a wide range of topics from climate change to bioengineering to the meat packing industry and they also possess a lot of political themes. How do you approach starting research for a project and how did your interest or curiosity in environmental issues arise?

PB: I think I’m researching almost all the time, you know…your life is kind of a process of researching. You start seeing news items that are interesting, you start seeing little pieces of data that at some point will coalesce into something relevant. Something like The Water Knife, if I’m looking at that book, there were key moments that built up to me deciding that I was going to write that book. It wasn’t like I was doing research, exactly, but there were moments that would suddenly stick in my head. There’s this moment when I’m down in Texas in 2011, during their drought, and their drought was exactly like what climate models predict is going to be the future of Texas…and then at the same time, the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, was going around and praying for rain. In that moment, you’re thinking “Ah!” I was going down there for Armadillo Con, I didn’t think I was doing research. On some level, you’re like “That is a devastating drought; it looks really bad out here” and then you see Rick Perry telling everybody they should pray for rain…

M: That’s not really what you want from your elected officials…

PB: No, and when you think about the future, you think “That doesn’t lead to a good future, does it?” They’re in reality denial…and that’s the moment when you pause and you realize you’ve been collecting a lot of information in your head for a while, that you’ve seen a pattern. You see the thing that tells you, “That’s worthwhile. That’s interesting; I’m going to work on that.” At that point is when you start doing your actual research. That’s when you start hunting around for information about how the Central Arizona Project works, for maps about how aquifers are getting pumped out of the Phoenix basin, whatever the thing is. “How does the Southern Nevada Water Authority work?” You start with that seed moment where you’re gathering a lot of stuff and then you actually focus in on the details.

M: I read something briefly about how your book The Water Knifecame out earlier this year, right before it was well publicized that California was going through a drought, and the article said it was “perfect timing”…

PB: Actually, it wasn’t just perfect timing; Knopf (Doubleday Publishing) put a lot of marketing money into weather control. It was great!

M: (laughs)

PB: I feel like my publisher did great work there. We needed a timely book and they put it all into weather control to make it timely.

M: A lot of your books take place in the near future, where climate change has occurred and resources are scarce. Is there anything you think the general public can do to prevent such a bleak future?

PB: Yes. There’s something really simple we can do: we can tax carbon. We can put consumer carbon tax out there at the corporate level and the consumer level. I think the free market actually can solve a huge amount of problems; I really feel like marketplaces are great problem-solvers but you have to give them the right pricing signals in order for them to function effectively. We run in this idea that a free market in the US should function unfettered and that the wisdom of the markets is there. But instead, you set guidelines and fences around the free market and then it will charge in the direction you want it to go. Right now, Washington State is looking to put a carbon tax on their ballot and I’d really like to see more states that can do direct ballot measures to enact laws. That would be something people can do: start gathering signatures to get carbon tax on the ballot. We don’t have to wait for our politicians to decide, we don’t have to wait for Democrats and Republicans to duke it out one way or the other. This is stuff where there is direct actions and levers we can use and ultimately, the thing that terrifies governments and politicians more than anything is us enacting our own laws. That would start driving actual federal carbon tax policy. I think if we tax and make something like gasoline expensive, then it starts making us think much more seriously about all the other alternatives, because the pricing signals are correct. “This is expensive; this appears to be cheap. Where are we going to put our investments if we know that over the next 10 years, taxes on carbon will increase say, 10 cents a gallon per year?” Once you have a steady, clear, definitive set of price signals in place, we can plan on “in 10 years, gas will be *this* much more expensive.” If you know that, then you can start making different kinds of plans. Right now, we don’t have clear price signals in the marketplace, so you can’t make plans like that. Those are the kind of things I think you can do and have a lot of impact with.

M: Speaking of the drama of scarcity, have you seen Mad Max: Fury Road?

PB: I have.

M: What did you think of the film?

PB: I thought it was a really dumb movie…

M: What?! (laughs)

PB: I mean, this is a complicated thing, because friends of mine love this movie in many ways and I understand the juicy parts about that movie that they enjoy. To me though, it struck me as being another apocalypse with bad people roaming around in their cars with their guns…there’s sort of a stereotypical “apocalypse” trope which involves plucky bands of people being chased by gangs…

M: Right!

PB: …and it shows up again and again. This is the best and most beautiful rendition of this really dumb trope. Because, honestly, I’m fascinated again and again that our assumption about apocalypses is that as soon as an apocalypse happens, we all hunker down and get our guns and we all f*ck each other over. This is not typically how human beings succeed. Human beings typically succeed when we all work together and take care of each other. For me, the problem with something like Mad Max is that it’s working in a wheelhouse that I’m really focused on, the idea of resource scarcities, how that affects things. One of the things that broke it almost immediately was the idea that they have those huge water pumps…he turns on the water that pours down on the people and then he turns it off. If that water is scarce, that would sort of make sense even though his water distribution policy is really weird, because it’s not very efficient…

M: (laughs)

PB: …so already it’s dumb, it’s like “ha ha! I’m using water to abuse you!” Except you’re thinking, “Wait…why would you do that? I don’t understand…” Because he’s already got a monopoly on military power and on violence…if you’ve got a monopoly on violence, why would you use water to control people? You’d use the water as efficiently as you can; violence is what you’d use to control people. You beat the sh*t out of them with your war boys! And then, at the very end of the movie, they open up the water gates and it turns out that there was no scarcity. This was just a guy arbitrarily holding on to the water that he had. He just had control over it and when they opened up the gates at the end, it breaks entirely because for me, the thing that really stood out is that this was a crazy psychopath who is willing to go across the desert chasing beautiful women and that *they* were a scarce resource to him. But it’s like, if he was really obsessed with women that much, he probably would have just let the water flow and let lots of people have babies and then more people would have had beautiful children and then he would have had a chance to have more beautiful women!

M: That’s true!

PB: His resource maximization policies were wrong! They made no sense. Even for a psychopath, it’s just too dumb…

Kaliban: Do you think…I don’t want to get too topical…do you think the religious aspects were a commentary by the filmmakers in that? Because he has a religion in terms of the V8 thing and their religion of violence…do you think it reflects our current political landscape? As you pointed out before with the Rick Perry thing, “Why are we letting these people run things?”, but it’s because we believe they’ve been “chosen” by someone or other…

PB: You know, it’s possible. Honestly, I think that there are certain…someone just recently suggested that I should watch Fury Road again…

M: (laughs)

PB: Fury Road was probably already spoiled for me before I even saw it because I saw Twitter light up and people that I know and love, they *love* that movie so much and I was like “OK!” I was going in looking for a religious experience myself at that point. I think my expectations were already screwed up as I was going into the movie and so I felt really remote from it as I watched it and not really connecting with the characters. I could see everything going on visually but at the same time, I was pulling it apart already intellectually…which isn’t a fair way, honestly, to engage with almost any art. You should be immersing and saying “Here I am; wash over me.” Instead I’m going in like *pick pick pick*…

K: That was my exact experience with Interstellar.

PB: Ok, yeah. What you’re trying to do is see the thing on its terms and do your picking afterwards, but I was so primed to be overwhelmed with love for it that I was too set already in a way to see what was so amazing.

M: You were hyped up…

PB: “Is this amazing? Is that the amazing part? I don’t know…” At some point, I was like “Oh, it’s There and Back Again…it’s the Hobbit. That’s what this is.”

M: (laughs)

PB: I have the wrong brain in my head already as I’m going into the movie…and it breaks my heart because my whole tribe loves this movie SO MUCH and I’m like “Why am I so wrong? The water wasn’t scarce…it’s a terrible dystopic police state but it wouldn’t be this one!” It’s my wheelhouse; I do obsess over “Why does a terrible society get constructed?” and “What is the logic that underlies it?” and that’s not necessarily where cinema focuses. Cinema focuses on visuals and excitement and adrenaline. There are lovely moments but it doesn’t quite hang together for me.

M: If you could only read either William Gibson or JRR Tolkien for the rest of your life, which would you choose?

PB: Oh, it would be Gibson. I feel like every time I read Gibson there’s more there, there’s another layer. Sometimes I’m astonished at the layering he goes through to fill his books; it’s extraordinary. When I read one of his books, I’ll think I’ve got it all and later I’m reading it again and I’m getting new information about design or about technology and there’s something really cool about that.

K: Something that I appreciate about him, which I’m sure you can appreciate being an author, is how he’s remained relevant and I don’t think it’s any particular strategy of his…he’s the guy who invented ‘cyberspace’ or at least divined it as it was happening…that guy could try to write *that* book over and over again and he certainly didn’t do that. Something that I think is crazy about how he writes is that he wrote in the far future initially but, as his books have gone on and our present gets closer to that, he’s gone the other way and is writing in the modern day now and yet still ahead of the curve.

PB: Yeah; you’re looking for those writers who are constantly curious and are constantly looking at the world and I think Gibson is one of a very few number of writers who are actively looking and trying to say “What does this mean? How do I pull all these things together?”

M: Thank you so much, Paolo, for taking time to talk with us today. Where can people find you online?

PB: Online, I’m at I’m also on Twitter as @paolobacigalupi.

M: Thanks for joining us, Paolo!

PB: Thank you.

Paolo’s latest novel, The Water Knife, as well as his previous works, can be found on Amazon and anywhere books are sold.

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