Interview with Joe M. McDermott

Recently, The Brazen Bull’s Charlie Chipman was fortunate enough to get the chance to sit-down with Tor’s author Joe M. McDermott, and talk about his upcoming book, The Fortress at the End of Time. Below is the transcript of the interview in its entirety. Charlie and Joe talk about everything from what is about the craft of writing that intrigues Joe to the so-called ‘Dream Salesman’ and their unfortunate customers. Joe’s newest novel is set to be published on January 17th, 2017. To pre-order a copy of The Fortress at the End of Time click here Pre-Order The Fortress at the End of Time, and to learn more about the book, Joe, and Tor, click here Tor Publishing. Enjoy!

(CC) First, before we dive into your book, FORTRESS AT THE END OF TIME, I want to know about you, the author. Tell me about yourself, who is Joe McDermott?

(JMM) I’m pretty sure I’m human. I’m a pudgy, middle-aged white guy from suburban Texas, mostly.

(CC) Why writing? What is it about the craft that drew you in? When did you realize this?

(JMM) I wish I had a good answer, but I don’t. I write because I don’t have the power to change the world. It’s either writing or standing on a street corner and shouting at passing cars. I don’t feel like writing is nearly as effective, but at least I don’t have to leave the house to do it.

(CC) When it comes time to write, what is the process like? Do you sit down at the desk, same time, every day and stick to a firm word count, or are you more laid back with your approach?

(JMM) Different processes produce different results. I don’t like to write the same book twice, so I work differently each time. It’s sort of both an intentional choice and an organic expression of the voice and tone the book requires. In this case, with my latest novel from Tor.com, I actually wrote the first draft longhand in a couple notebooks while working at a Christian Bookstore that’s, alas, gone out of business. I miss it. It was slow, though, and when the store was clean and the customers were served, I could sit at the register and scribble away.

(CC) Writing longhand – especially a work of decent length – is very interesting. What, if any, advantages did you find when writing an initial draft longhand versus typing it. What disadvantages?

(JMM) For me, the advantage was twofold. First, it slowed down the voice of the narrator into something that felt more mid-century European and confessional in nature. Second, it made it possible for me to work in places where I couldn’t otherwise work, like the desk at the bookstore, or the front bedroom if the only computer in the house was being used by my wife for her job. When I was transcribing the draft into the computer, I revised as I went, and one of the challenges in that is to stay mostly true to what is about to come next enough that your revisions don’t send you off into some interesting, but distracting, tangent. I did like how the slow process initially led to a much cleaner second draft, though, so I think it ended up saving time over some other methods I’ve tried. It helped that I had a clear sense of the outline inside my head, without too much room to wander. There’s only so much space available to explore in the claustrophobia of the Citadel.

(CC) Writer’s block, fact or fiction? Do you get it, and if so, what do you do about it?

(JMM) I think it’s hard for me to generalize about something so personal as everyone’s creative energy. Some people say it doesn’t exist, and for them, it might not. For others, I bet it does. Psychology is messy, after all. I don’t write if I don’t want to write. I figure if I force myself to write something, it’s going to feel forced to the reader. I’d rather write nothing at all than something shitty. If I’m not interested in it, you won’t be, either. So, I just write what interests me, when it is interesting to write it.

(CC) Writing when interested sounds like the way to go. Do you ever lose interest in a project (novel, short story, etc) before finishing it. and if so, what happens then?

(JMM) I absolutely do, and it ends up sitting in a file on a computer, somewhere, generally in a google doc, lately, and waits for me to come back to it. I have generously stolen material from failed projects for better ones. I have only had one instance where a novel just fell apart, for me, but I still believe I will come back to it, soon, and just need to figure out how the mechanics of the far-future world work a little better.

(CC) What are your top three biggest ‘writing’ influences, (authors or fictional characters) and what have you learned from them?

(JMM) In science fiction, the author that looms largest in my imagination is Maureen McHugh. I had been writing fantasy for years without any serious consideration of writing SF when I came across Of Mothers and Other Monsters, her early collection of stories from Small Beer Press. It was like a lightbulb going off inside my head, that there were writers of SF that had many of the concerns, narratively, that I did, that could feel so natural and unconventional at the same time. I love her work. My favorite of hers is MISSION CHILD, but HALF THE DAY IS NIGHT and CHINA MOUNTAIN ZHANG and NEKROPOLIS are all wrapped up inside my head with the way the aesthetics of science fiction is supposed to be, what it can be and do and feel like. Other than her, the largest influences are probably Lloyd Alexander, an author that I devoured all through my formative years, that really pushed me down this path of creative energy, and then there’s Larry Nolan, of OF Blog of the Fallen, who has a very specific role to play with this specific book.

I had reached out to him and asked for a recommendation of something good to read, as I was in a reading rut. He suggested Dino Buzzati’s THE TARTAR STEPPE, which I loved, and which also led me to see THE OPPOSING SHORE by Julian Gracq on the Amazon recommended section of the Buzzati book. Both of these books are clear influences of the ideas behind my own book. Distant, unappealing military fortresses in imaginary foreign lands, with a mysterious enemy that never seems to come. It’s like Waiting for the Barbarians, except inside the bureaucratic machine of the military, exploring how that edifice shapes humans for the worse. It seemed like an excellent frame upon which to hang a story about deep space, and a closer look at what space warfare will really be like where time and space stretch out so much, and aliens are so alien, so unknowable.

(CC) What are some of your other non-writing influences, and what have you picked up from them?

(JMM) I like making things. I garden as much as I can. I grow a lot of fruit. Right now, I just finished a batch of Habanero/Jalapeno Pepper Jelly using peppers from my wife’s farm, and meyer lemons from the tree in our dooryard. This morning I ate the last of the frozen blackberries leftover from our summer harvest. I’ve got to go to the store and get supplies to make some green papaya relish, from the papaya trees in our yard.

I guess, one of the things that M. John Harrison has talked about with his rock climbing is the need to connect to something physical, and I feel that. I love stepping into my yard and seeing all the butterflies and bees accumulating at the Sweet Almond Verbena bush, and the passionvine. I love watching anole lizards amble along the rocks in the herb garden. I love knowing that the birds who have lost so much habitat, so much food, to our dead oak and grass lawns, have a refuge in the pomegranate trees, where they can build nests and find things planted to feed them.

My work has a strong influence of the idea of the wilderness, the unknown parts of nature, and I find a little bit of it in my yard every day.

(CC) Alright, now onto the book. Tell me about FORTRESS AT THE END OF TIME. What is it about?

(JMM) Imagine that you have been told that you will get to fly warships at the edge of human space, and you will clone out to other colonies, exploring the galaxy and making a difference. Then, when you arrive, leadership is brutal and indifferent, conditions are terrible with no improvement in sight, and the dream that you were sold will never come. If the enemy returns, the station will probably not survive the first volley. All you can hope to do is be ready to send back the warning of their return before the end comes for you and all you have built. What do you do?

Captain Ronaldo Aldo, for many years, tries to do the right thing and he is punished for it, has such bad luck. Finally, he decides to cheat.

(CC) I can relate to doing the right thing for a while and then feeling the urge to ‘cheat,’ where did this come from? Do you think that this type of thinking is inherently human, or is it inspired by an event/situation in your own life?

(JMM) I think it’s inherently human, and, to me, is tied into the question of nature versus nurture that has been a major focus of my novels, in particular. Kick a dog that doesn’t bite enough times, and someday you’re gonna get bit. Build a system that creates the best rewards for the bad actors in the network, watch even good people succumb to temptation. And, the conflicting messages fed to people in society mean that, in some respect, everyone loses, and everyone is cheating at some aspect of what they believe and value.<

(CC) How did you come up with the concept or plot? Do you prefer to plan everything out first, or do you write by the seat of your pants?

(JMM) This one really came from trying to combine ideas about deep space colonization, what I envision intergalactic warfare might actually look like to most people engaged in it – i.e. a lot of dull waiting and preparing with no actual war in sight – and the two different approaches to the problem presented by those existentialist European novels that Larry led me to find.

(CC) Do you envision intergalactic warfare often?

(JMM) I don’t, actually. Scarcity drives conflict. There’s a character in the book that explains how senseless it seems to have violence in space. Once interstellar, and even intergalactic travel open up, it makes no sense to me that anyone would want to fight over rocks, when there’s plenty more just over the horizon. I watched the reboot of Star Wars, the Force Awakens, and I had trouble getting over how ridiculous much of their combat was. Like, when the Millenium Falcon breaks through a shield barrier by traveling at light speed… Why not just send a bunch of little bombs through the shield at light speed? They don’t even have to be bombs. Big, heavy objects moving fast enough will be just like bombs. And, why fight at all? If the empire wants to be evil right there, just set the ship to go and take a nap for a while, and wake up far enough away that the empire is busy squeezing what they have. As casually as everyone hops around the planets, in the films, their combat makes no sense, to me. The only one that made sense was actually one of the worst movies of the bunch: The first prequal. Blockades make sense, to me. Sort of. It breaks, though, because the planet had a vibrant ecosystem and cultures that were proud and living in plenty. It was not crowded enough on the ground to make any sort of difference that no one could leave the surface or the sea. There was so much free space, so much farmland waiting to be tilled. The blockade would have been an inconvenience to the people on the ground, who would probably not be shouting for war if it meant dying over a few lines of exotic shipments. Data could still get through. How could they blockade data? The data is the true value of the intergalactic network, not the supplies. Anyway, I’m rambling, but the combat that I see in films, and read about in books is rarely sensible. I like Ursula K. LeGuin and Vernor Vinghe for visions of space combat that actually make sense, to me, economically and technologically.

(CC) What was the process like—did you have to overcome any hurdles to finish FORTRESS, or was it all sunshine and rainbows?

(JMM) It was just work. One does the work until it is done. Each book is different. Some days it comes easy, some days it doesn’t.

(CC) War and conflict, both literal and metaphorical, are a big part of FORTRESS. What are your experiences with war?

(JMM) Personally, I have no experience whatsoever. But, I do come from a military family. My parents met in the army. My father is a retired Lt. Col. Three of my four grandparents served in the military in a time of war. My grandmother is buried in a military cemetery. My brother was a Marine MP and retired as a Lance Corporal. My sister went to West Point and is a decorated veteran of the Iraq War, and her resume is, frankly, presidential. One thing that I noticed with the stories I’ve heard around the kitchen table, compared to what I read in fiction and see in movies, is that there is a real disconnect between what is sold to us in the media compared to what is actually experienced. Very, very few soldiers actually fire a weapon in the direction of an enemy. The vast majority of soldiers never so much as look down the gun barrel at an enemy combatant. They, instead, work inside a giant and oppressive bureaucracy that wears the shell of warfare in a facade. Administrators shout HOORAH before an eight hour day preparing powerpoint slides and filling out paperwork. They play the game of soldier. Very few will actually be asked to do any soldiering. With all the military service in my family, including people in combat jobs, no one has any story to tell about actually going out and engaging the enemy, or defending against them. Thank god! But, in media, we are sold this very exciting, very important and intense vision of military life, when a better representative of this life, I think, comes from my mom’s story of what happened just after she gave birth to me in a military hospital in Heidelberg. She had just given birth to a nine pound child that was believed to have been twins in a time before ultrasounds and who was a month late. She was in a room with a very tiny Vietnamese-American woman, probably a war bride, who had also just given birth. The orderly came by with fresh sheets, and placed them on the edge of the bed and said. “Today is the day we change the sheets.” The orderly left. The women who had just given birth were expected to change their own sheets. It was not a request, either. They were not permitted to opt-out. This is, I think, a better reflection of the insanity of what can be experienced in service. The bureaucracy has its own rules, its own way of operating, and it runs upon a shell of the warrior, toughening every aspect of life. Much of military fiction and military science fiction is engaged with the exciting stuff – jumping out of planes and going to battle against “bad guys” – but the actual lived experience of the military is not well-reflected in the literature, where most service members live, trying to carve a life for themselves in a community that commands them to do things that make no sense and may even be actively harmful to them. Hoo-Rah.

I was discouraged from military service by my parents who knew the very things that make me a pretty good writer also make me a poor candidate for the army. I ask questions. I think. I can’t shut up and be tactful when I feel something is wrong.

With my latest book, I tried to capture the way the dream of service, the glory and the jumping out of planes and being a hero, intersects with the day-to-day lived experience of service, where you are at the whims of an indifferent, occasionally actively-malicious bureaucratic system that simply does not line up with the dreams that you were sold.

And, outside of the service, in life, one jarring trend I see that needs addressing: The people and institutions who sell you dreams tend to blame you when those dreams don’t come true.

(CC) Do you think you were successful in depicting the spot where dream and reality collide? Now, reflecting on the finished work, is there anything else that you would like to add or change to accentuate this reality even more?

(JMM) I don’t know. We’ll see. Initially, I didn’t think there was a need for a sequel, but I think there’s two more stories to tell in this world that I might get around to telling. Every Inferno is followed by Purgatoria and Paradisio, after all.

(CC) Why do you think it is that the ‘Dream Salesmen’ blame their customers when everything doesn’t work out?

(JMM) For some, it is because they are unscrupulous liars who always know, deep down, they cannot make enough money on the sale if they only allow the future successful ones to buy in.

I have an MFA, and my professors knew and repeated the knowledge that there is no guarantee that anyone will “make it” from the program, only that the students would leave the program better writers by some measure of quality, more well-read, or something. They knew that part of what they do in the program is sell the dream of the bestselling author. I know, when I teach college, that I am also guilty of selling the dream of success. At the end of the day, though, I cannot promise it. I can watch the students take out loans and do the work and all I can tell them is that it will probably make them a better human at being human, and there may not be the magical job at the end of the tunnel. They will likely be in the same dead-end job, just with more debt, now.

As for the military, it is hard to express what I have seen among my family members, and what impact it had on their lives, to take that path a while, and shout hoorah and run and shoot and prepare for war, in their way. And, the dream of the military career is a lie that is ingrained as a culture unto itself, with massive edifices of administration present to confound all hope of something different, more true to the dream.

That’s all folks! To learn more about Joe M. McDermott, his newest novel, The Fortress at the End of Time, or Tor/Forge publishing, click here: Tor Publishing and to pre-order a copy oh his newest novel now, click here:

The Fortress at the End of Time.