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OBS EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: MICHAEL A. BURSTEIN

by Dawn, November 1, 2009

Science fiction author Michael A. Burstein has been nominated for ten Hugo Awards and regularly participates in Boston area science fiction conventions such as Arisia. Michael was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions for us.

Michael A. BursteinOBS: According to your website you classify yourself as a science fiction writer. In this day and age when the lines of genre fiction so often cross and blur what would you say qualifies something as science fiction?
MB: People have been trying to define science fiction for years; it gets even harder when you want to distinguish science fiction from fantasy (which I also sometimes write) or ponder what the more catch-all term “speculative fiction” means. Despite these difficulties, I’d say that a story qualifies as science fiction if a new development in technology or science is somehow essential to the story. (I almost said “essential to the plot,” but I think that might omit some good science fiction stories.)

Of course, I’m already willing to take odds with my own definition. For example, I’d classify alternate history as science fiction, and there goes my own definition. Perhaps I’d best leave the defining of terms to people far more qualified than I.

OBS: How do you incorporate your writing into your everyday life? For example do you set aside x amount of hours for writing a day?
MB: I try to set myself a word quota instead of a specific block of time. So I’ll try to write something like 500 words of fiction a day at minimum if I possibly can. That said, depending on what’s going on in my life, I will often find my word quota slipping away…

OBS: How did you get into writing? What are your first memories of it?
MB: These are actually two very different questions. Let me tackle the second one first.

Very early in my life I knew that I enjoyed writing, although it took me until my mid-20s to consider making a career out of it. My first memories of writing are of taping a bunch of loose-leaf papers together to form a scroll, and then writing some sort of Biblical-style story on the scroll.

The first thing I ever submitted for professional publication was a description of a new alien race to the magazine devoted to the role-playing game Traveller. I think I was nine or ten years old. They sent it back with a form rejection note, but the lines asking me to consider them for future submissions had been underlined in blue pen.

My first publication, as far as I have been able to determine, was a letter in the Jewish kids’ magazine World Over, published in their October 10, 1980 issue.

Now, as to how I got into writing: that’s kind of a long story. The short version is that I tried to publish stories when I was twelve years old, but didn’t get anywhere with them. I submitted them to various magazines, but the only editor who sent me personal rejections was George Scithers of Amazing Stories, and he sent everyone personal rejections. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I really started writing and submitting stories again. And I didn’t make my first sale until after I attended Clarion in 1994.

OBS: Who were some of your biggest influences and who do you currently read?
MB: Probably the writer that most influenced me was Isaac Asimov.

Currently, I read a lot more nonfiction than science fiction or fantasy. But writers whose work I enjoy consistently include Robert J. Sawyer, Paul Levinson, Robert Masello, Spider Robinson, Mike Resnick, Allen M. Steele, Jack McDevitt, Tamora Pierce, Jennifer Pelland, Leah Cypess, Melinda Snodgrass, and Mona Clee.

OBS: Can you tell us about your most recent publication and what you are working on next?
MB: My most recent publication was actually a reprint of my vampire story, Lifeblood in the John Joseph Adams anthology By Blood We Live. To help promote the book, I gave John permission to post the story online, so anyone who wants to get a taste of the anthology can go read it.

I just recently sold a new story, Hope, to Destination: Future, an anthology edited by Z.S. Adani & Eric T. Reynolds and coming out from Hadley Rille Books next year. They gave me a chance to play with two themes I’ve been wanting to merge for a while: time travel and generation ships.

I’m currently working on a sequel to the story Things That Aren’t, which Bob Greenberger and I published in Analog magazine. Bob and I are collaborating on the sequel, which is another science fiction mystery that explores the consequences of virtual reality.

And of course, there’s always other stories kicking around in the back of my mind…

OBS: You recently became a parent to twins. How has that affected your writing and do you have any advice for authors that are planning on having children?
MB: I should start by noting that being a new parent is a wonderful thing, and I deeply love my children. Because if I don’t say that, then years later they will come across this interview and ask me why I didn’t. 🙂

On the one hand, having children has definitely affected the time I have to write. As I noted in my recent blog post Traction, when you’re taking care of twins it’s hard to get anything else done. And I’m not just talking about writing; trying to do dishes or laundry, read a book, watch TV, or check email – all of that takes a back seat when a baby begins crying.

On the other hand, I find myself wanting to write about families more. I’ve already developed one idea for a fantasy story that I never would have come up with had we not been expecting children.

But on the third hand, I’m not sure how much I could take writing stories about children, since stories are about problems, and I don’t want to give children problems. Or their parents. (I mean I don’t want to give their parents problems, not that I don’t want to give children their parents. Oh, never mind.) Nomi and I watched the miniseries Torchwood: Children of Earth just before the twins were born. An essential component of the plot is the jeopardy that certain children find themselves in. Before I was a father, I could take such stories in stride. But now, I don’t think I could watch that show again for a while without being distressed by it. As a father, I think I would project and imagine my own children in jeopardy.

As for advice to writers planning to have children, I’d say try to figure out as early as possible when you can carve out your writing time, and don’t beat yourself up (metaphorically speaking) if you find your productivity drops for a while. The rewards are well worth it.

OBS: If you could recommend only one book to someone (other than one you’ve written) what would it be?
MB: That depends on what they’re looking for. Most of the time people ask me to suggest books on writing fiction. There are many excellent books out there, and I own quite a few of them. But if I could only recommend one book on writing, it would be Telling Lies for Fun and Profit by Lawrence Block.

If you want to write science fiction and you want to read a novel that shows you how it’s done: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein.

OBS: You attend a lot of science fiction conventions and are involved in science fiction fandom. Can you tell us a bit more about that? How did you get into it and what keeps you there?
MB: I wish I had discovered fandom earlier, like when I was in high school. I kind of knew it existed, but I really wasn’t connected to it. Nomi was the one who brought me into fandom. We started dating in 1991, and in 1992 she brought me to my first convention, Arisia. I still remember sitting in on panels, listening to all the discussions, and thinking where has this been all my life?

We got involved with NESFA for a while; we were on the committee for Boskone in the 1990s and I even served as Vice-President for two years. We’ve cut back since then, but we still try to attend Arisia, Boskone, and Readercon every year; in fact, we were at Readercon the weekend before our kids were born. Sadly, though, I’m not sure how feasible conventions will be for the next few years, given the aforementioned kids. We’ll see what we can manage.

As for what keeps me in fandom: the camaraderie and intellectual stimulation.

OBS: Do you find that the internet helps and/or hurts you as an author and in what ways?
MB: On the one hand, the Internet is a valuable tool for everyone, not just writers. We can do research and business a lot more quickly now that communication with the rest of the world has gone retail and frictionless.

On the other hand, given that the same tool on which we write is the one that connects us to the Internet, it can be a powerful distraction. It used to be that writers hungered for community. Now we’ve got community coming out of our ears. When I surf the web, it seems like everyone I run into is either a writer or an aspiring writer. I sometimes wonder where the aspiring readers are.

OBS: Is your writing style very strict or fluid? Meaning do you create an outline and stick with it or do you jump around depending on what ideas hit you at the moment?
MB: I tend to be a non-linear writer, meaning that I will sit down and write whatever bits and pieces of scene come to my mind: dialogue, description, character action, whatever. This means that I will jump around in my active story file as I write. So during one session of writing, I might write parts of the beginning of the story, the middle, and the end. I leave a row of asterisks to remind myself where I need to go back and fill in things. Eventually, I just stitch the whole thing together.

But I find that in order to write my natural way, it helps to know where I’m going. So I will outline almost everything I write first, even the shortest of short stories. That also helps when I’m collaborating, especially when I collaborate with a more linear writer such as Shane Tourtellotte.

OBS: How do you get your ideas?
MB: Ah, the perennial question. I myself have committed the sin of asking this question of other writers.

Ideas come from all over. In general, I read about something or pick up a phrase in a conversation that sparks an idea. If I become obsessed with it, I eventually write a story about it.

It’s easier to answer this question with a few examples. I got the idea for TeleAbsence when someone suggested in the early 1990s that by 2000, the whole world would have email. I wanted to show that technological improvements might not reach everyone.

I got the idea for Kaddish for the Last Survivor when I read Deborah Lipstadt’s book Denying the Holocaust. In one sentence, she pointed out that one day, all the witnesses will be deceased and that it will be even easier for people to deny history. It was inevitable that I’d write a story about the last survivor of the Holocaust.

I got the idea for Paying It Forward when I visited the website of a recently deceased writer and discovered a link to send him email. I wondered what would happen if I emailed him; would I hear back?

I hope this will give your readers an idea of where my ideas come from.

OBS: As an author does the current state of the publishing industry concern you at all? Has it affected you and if so, how?
MB: I don’t think there’s ever been a time when the publishing industry wasn’t in some state of flux. It’s just more pronounced right now because of the types of changes we’re going through.

The current changes haven’t affected me that much in my role as a writer, and I suspect that most writers won’t be affected that badly. At the lowest level, we’re still doing what we always did, which is writing stories that we hope people will enjoy. How those stories get delivered to our readers, whether by print magazines or electronic media, is irrelevant so long as a market still exists.

The real problem isn’t the industry, but the market. Are there still enough readers of short stories out there, for example, to make it worthwhile to write short fiction? There’s been a lot of talk recently that writing short fiction is going to become a labor of love.

The problem is that editing short fiction looks like it might also be moving in that direction. There are some very good webzines out there whose editors don’t earn a living from their editing, and as long as part of their philosophy is to make sure that their writers do in fact get paid a professional rate, people seem to be fine with it. But an editor serves as a gatekeeper, an arbiter of taste, and you can’t just find good fiction by randomly visiting websites. And like writers, editors need to eat. My hope is that the more things change, the more they will stay the same.

Today marks the one year anniversary of Michael’s short story collection I Remember the Future.

I Remember the Future by Michael A. Burstein

You can find Michael on the web at his website and on Livejournal.

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