Monday, March 03, 2014

Q&A: Kelly McCullough

Kelly McCullough writes fantasy, science fiction, and books for kids of varying ages. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats. His novels include the Fallen Blade and WebMage series (Penguin/ACE) and the forthcoming School for Sidekicks (Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan). His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. He has also dabbled in science fiction as science education with The Chronicles of the Wandering Star (part of an NSF-funded science curriculum) and the science comic Hanny & the Mystery of the Voorwerp, which he coauthored and coedited, with funding provided by NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope.

Looking at the year ahead, what do we have to look forward to from Kelly McCullough?

I’ve got one new novel coming out this year: Drawn Blades at the end of November from Ace, which is the fifth book in my Fallen Blade series. I’m working on the follow-up, Darkened Blade, right now, and hoping to get things sorted out for three more in the series soon. I should also have my first short story in a couple of years as part of an anthology set in the worlds of Roger Zelazny. That one’s being edited by Warren Lapine and Trent Zelazny. The story is called “Keeper of the Keys,” and it’s set in the Changeling/Madwand world. My first book for kids, School for Sidekicks, will be out in spring 2015, and I’m really excited about that because I’m cracking three new genres: it will be my first novel-length science fiction, my first superhero story, and my first middle grade. Oh, and I almost forgot, the WebMage books will start coming out in audio this year, as will Broken Blade.

Any other projects on tap besides the writing? What are you up to these days with your frequent coconspirator in cool-and-fun-science-stuff, Matt Kuchta?

I’m hoping to arrange some more slow-motion-photography hijinks this spring with Matt, who shot the Narnia pics and the snow-motion video. I’m also exploring the idea of maybe doing something booklike with the Dragon Diaries, as well as possibly putting some of my unsold backlist into press indie style.

Your daily word count—which is a matter of public record on Facebook—is prodigious. How do you do it?

Mostly it’s a case of the draw of a fortunate card. I’m not sure who originated the idea of the cards-you’re-dealt theory of writing, but I stole it from Jay Lake. There’s a school of thinking about writing that talks about the hand you’re dealt, in reference to the talents that you get out of the gate. So one writer might start out with a natural talent for prose and decent character. Another might get plot and theme. I got fast writer, steady writer, and world building. Also, my wife has had a good steady job with benefits, so I’ve had the luxury to focus on my writing to a degree that many people who are starting out in the field haven’t.

What’s a day in the life look like? How do you balance your hard work and extraordinary productivity with everything else?

Get up. Caffeine. Stagger to hot tub. Caffeine. Raise core temperature to operating levels. Caffeine. Administrivia and Web noodling. Caffeine. At that point it’s either slip out of the house to borrow a dog and some woodsy trails from Neil Gaiman or write. Depends on what time it is. If it’s elevenish, I’ll probably go work out. If it’s noon or one, I write and then squeeze in a workout around three-thirty. I normally knock off around five when my wife gets home. I also mostly don’t work on the weekends. Basically I treat writing and related work as my nine-to-five job. The only time that changes is if I’m on a crazy deadline. For example, with Drawn Blades I ended up having to write a novel in eighty-eight days.

Do you see a definite relationship between exercise/fitness and your writing output?

Absolutely. If I’m not working out regularly, I am a much less happy camper, and I don’t write as well unhappy. For that matter, I love working out, especially outside, and I can use it as a carrot to help me get started when I’m having a slow day. When I keep active, I’m happier, healthier, and more productive.

Who’s your first and best reader?

My wife, Laura, typically reads along as I’m writing, catching up on a daily or, at most, weekly basis as I’m going, and she provides me with a good sense of whether something is working, as well as enormous encouragement. The Wyrdsmiths are usually my second readers, and I get tons of great stuff from them, especially on the early chapters in a novel. I also usually have six to ten beta readers for any book, because reading piecemeal as Laura and the Wyrdsmiths do doesn’t really map well onto the way readers actually experience a book, and it’s important to get some fresh eyes on the big picture. I find the process terribly valuable, though I probably get less out of it now than I did at the front end of my career. These days I have a much better idea of where I’m going and what I’m doing with a book before I even start, so it is less shaped by other eyes.

How about the cats? Helpers or hinderers?

Yes? Mine certainly impede typing when they’re lying on my forearms, but I think that having that companionship at what is a fundamentally lonely pursuit more than makes up for it. They give me someone to ask questions of or complain to when I’m having a hard day at the word mines.

Your first series, WebMage, remains in print and popular with readers both old and new. Do you think you’ll ever revisit Ravirn’s universe?

I walked away from WebMage because I was feeling incipient burnout, and I didn’t want to be the writer who kept writing a series past the point where it was fresh for him. That said, I do know what the plot of book six looks like. But, at the moment, I don’t have the time, and it’s not something that I think my editor is interested in revisiting anytime soon. Mind you, if someone wants to plonk down a good advance for the thing, I’m probably back to a place where I could write Ravirn with real enthusiasm again. Is that wishy-washy enough of an answer?

What does your personal library look like?

We have four major sets of bookshelves with something like three thousand books total in them. They are alphabetized within category and all of them are entered in a database. What’s that? OCD you say? Maybe a little. Well, more than a little, actually.

Are you a rereader? What books do you come back to over and over again?

Very much so. I reread when I’m too intellectually drained to pick up new stuff but still want to be transported. My core rereads are Tolkien, Tim Powers, Martha Wells, Pratchett, H. Beam Piper, and a scattering of books from other writers including Gaiman, Norton, Rowling, and Emma Bull.

What’s the last book that made you laugh? Cry?

My most recent laughing book was Unbound, the third book in Jim Hines’s Libriomancer series. It should be out next year sometime, I think. Crying … hard to say. I cry at the drop of hat in terms of books. Any heroic sacrifice will usually do it.

You and your wife travel a fair bit. What’s your favorite destination or recent trip?

My favorite destination ever is probably Edinburgh, where my wife and I got married—we visit Scotland often—or Kauai, which is almost a second home. New Zealand is a definite contender, too. I just got back a few weeks ago, from my first trip there, and my wife and I are already trying to figure out when we can make it back again. I would love to return to Oxford as well, but that’s a slightly lower priority. But then there are all the new places we’ve never been ... It’s tough.

Readers of your novels will be familiar with the precision of your spatial descriptions. How high are the ceilings in Bag End?

Heh. Depends on which version and who it’s scaled for. The original is probably right around five feet—quite high for a hobbit hole. Jackson’s versions range from four to seven feet, I think. The one that’s implied by the door at Bag End in Matamata, New Zealand, is about seven feet.

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