An Interview with Science Fiction Author and Soldier Brad R. Torgersen

I usually post author profiles every two weeks, but I am going to make an exception tonight for Brad R. Torgersen. It’s a big day for Brad, seeing as his first book, The Chaplain’s War, was released today by Baen Books.  The road to the publication of a full-length novel has been a long one for Brad, but I believe that he would be the first to tell you that the hard work has made him better as an author.  Even better, Brad is a reservist in the Army, where he serves as a Chief Warrant Officer.  For those of you that have never heard of Warrants, they basically combine the authority and administrative skills of regular Officers with the subject matter expertise and experience of senior NCOs to form a Voltron-esque amalgamation of hypercompetency necessary to fly helicopters, administer IT systems, operate radar sites, or oversee the maintenance of hundreds of heavily-armored vehicles.

These last few weeks, we have looked at successful self-published authors. Brad chose a more traditional route, publishing short stories in contests and anthologies and networking and collaborating with established sci-fi authors on a number of projects.  The road to publication may have taken a bit longer than some of the other authors that have been interviewed here, but no one can deny that the years of polishing short stories for submission to prestigious writing contests and collaborating with giants in the genre has paid off.  He writes well.  Really well.  He’s kind of like the literary equivalent of one of those crazy Russians that spends the better part of a decade in the Ural mountains punching bears and trees before flying to the US and signing a contract with UFC.  Most of his short stories are available in his two anthologies, Racers of the Night and Lights in the Deep.  In fact, two of those short stories were turned into the opening chapters of The Chaplain’s War.  I was in the field these last two days, but was able to get it on my Kindle this morning.  It was a slow morning and I’m about halfway done.  I am not expecting to get much sleep tonight.

Brad agreed to a very in-depth interview. His responses and experiences are a valuable read for any fan of science fiction or aspiring writer.

-For the readers who are unfamiliar with you and your work, would you mind describing your personal background and what influenced you to become a professional writer?

I came into science fiction as a pure child fan: watching programs such as Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica, and movies like Star Wars. I was very enthusiastic about Star Trek and Japanese animation like that on Battle of the Planets and, later, Robotech. My first science fiction novels I ever read, were the Brian Daley Star Wars books featuring Han Solo.  I began picking up the Pocketbooks Star Trek novels not long after, and eventually I got curious and started picking up original science fiction books too.  One of the very first was a novel called Fleet of the Damned, which led me to backtrack through the STEN series that Del Rey put out in the 1980s and early 1990s.  So the STEN books really were the “beginning” of my interest in original SF. I fiddled around with Star Trek and Mad Max fan fiction as a teenager.  In 1992 I had the opportunity to put my (very raw) talent to work for Scott Howard’s locally-produced community radio science fiction serial, called Searcher & Stallion.  Having done 12 episodes for the show, it occurred to me that Larry Niven (whose short fiction collections N-Space and Playgrounds of the Mind were engrossing me at the time) actually got paid for his fiction.  I wondered, “How much harder would I have to work, to be able to do what Larry Niven does?”  The answer was, a lot harder.  Now, 22 years later, I have a collaboration with Larry Niven hitting the shelves in November, (Red Tide, from Arc Manor books) and I’ve been on the Hugo ballot a couple of times, have won two readers’ choice awards in Analog magazine (the oldest, most widely-read science fiction magazine in the English language) and am publishing with Baen. As for direct influences, there is Larry (whom I named above) as well as Allan Cole and (the late) Chris Bunch, who did STEN.  I would also have to list W. Michael Gear (for The Artificact, as well as his “Forbidden Borders” trilogy) and Orson Scott Card, who needs no introduction.  For Fantasy, I have to say Stephen R. Donaldson.  All of these men had books in my “too read” pile when I was a teen, and I’ve re-read and re-re-read their works enough, so that their styles, sensibilities, and the themes of their books, tend to manifest in my own work in sometimes subtle ways.

-Please tell us a bit about your military service.

I joined the United States Army Reserve in 2002, as an E-3. Mostly because of 9/11/2001.  Since then I’ve gone through various Army schools (including WOCS, which bumped me up to Warrant Officer) and am presently a trainer and tech for a postal unit at Fort Douglas, Salt Lake City.  I consider myself a civilian “tourist” in uniform, mostly because I was never much of a spit-and-polish guy.  My intention when I joined was merely to participate in the defense of my country, in whatever meager ways I was able.  Being a soft computer geek, I had no illusions of becoming a Rambo.  I think the career to date has done a lot of good for myself and my family, and I’ve managed to do a few good things for the Army Reserve, and it’s been amazing meeting so many unique, talented, hard working, courageous, and outstanding individuals.

-How has your military service affected your writing?

I wrote some military SF when I was in my 20s. Then life got busy and I wrote very little from late 2001 through about 2005; at which point I’ve been in the Army Reserve for three years.  By the time I was an NCO I was pushing to get back into my fiction (at the behest of my wonderful spouse) but it was obvious to me that my early military SF was “cribbed” work.  Fiction which relied entirely on second and third-hand military folklore, as absorbed through books and movies and television.  So, writing military SF in 2014 I can write from something of an “insider” perspective, without being so completely immersed (again, I am a civilian “tourist” in uniform) that I can’t see the forest for the trees.

How has all of this affected my writing? I think I am both more admiring of individual soldiers and more cynical about the military as an organization.  This cynicism is evident in my forthcoming novel from Baen, The Chaplain’s War. Which is not to say I am cynical about the purposes of either the military, or soldiering.  I find nobility at the root of both.  I just don’t have the unknowing awe that I once felt, for all things military and military-related. I think this is good, mostly because it allows me to write books and stories that other military people can relate to.  Being a non-meat-eater (by training) also means I can tell military SF stories about all the many, many different kinds of men and women who go into making the military what it is.  Beyond simply doing stuff about steel-jawed front-line fighters only.

-What are you looking for your readers to get out of your books, and what tools have you found to be most effective?

My objective is simple: I want to give the reader a good time, period. If this experience can be additionally meaningful or uplifting, so much the better.  But this has to leak around the edges in non-deliberate fashion.  My stuff that’s gotten me Analog magazine awards and Hugo nominations has tended to be poignant, with characters who go through Hell, but I never strand them there.  At the end of things, I try to respect and uphold the values I most admire: work ethic, plain dealing, long suffering, and the trick of being able to creates purpose and meaning in the midst of chaos and despair. My tools?  I can’t say I have a “tool belt” for writing, as much as I have a semi-conscious compass.  Like a land nav course, I am making my way partially on compass readings, and also partially by terrain association.    Especially with my short fiction.  I sometimes tell newer writers (who become easily obsessed with “rule” following) that my best results are often achieved when I switch off my targeting computer (hat tip: Luke Skywalker) and act on instinct.  Which, of course, helps nobody.  Because every writer’s instincts are different.  There is no “royal road” to being a good storyteller.  At least I have not yet discovered such a thing. (chuckle)

-You have established quite a name for yourself in the genre already by writing numerous award-winning short stories for SF magazines and writing contests. Do you have any publications or writing contests that you would recommend checking out as either a reader or writer?

 I have to name the L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers and Illustrators of the Future Contest, as the premier contest (and publication) for new writers seeking to break into professional science fiction and fantasy publishing. Beyond that, I like to promote Baen’s new contests two.  There is the Baen Memorial Award, which offers publicity, publication, and money for writers who can do near-future science fiction that espouses the benefits of, and emphasizes the grandeur of, space exploration.  Baen also does a new heroic and swords and sorcery award, which is administrated much like the Baen Memorial Award.  I think the best advice I can give is that people read a lot of whatever it is you’re trying to do.  If you want to be an urban fantasy writer, read a lot of urban fantasy, talk to the authors being successful in that genre (such as Larry Correia) and become aware of who the publishers are.  Same goes for the other sub-sectors: high fantasy, dystopian SF, et cetera.  Know your field.  When I was still trying to get published I read a lot of Analog and the other magazines, and I read several recent installments of the Writers of the Future books too.  Great homework, for someone trying to be “old school” and break in with short fiction, before doing novels.

-What is the publishing process like for a new author once their book is picked up?

The fine details will be different from publisher to publisher, but the 10,000 foot level picture is like this. Either you or your agent have to sign a contract with a publisher (Baen’s contracts are both concise and clear enough for non-agented writers to understand them) and then your editor will decide if (s)he wanted you to make changes to your book.  You will get a marked-up manuscript, or at least some notes indicating what the editor would like to see done, and then you either a) execute the changes or b) argue in favor of leaving things alone.  Some editors will be more amenable to hearing an author out, than others.  My policy is flexibility and humor.  No book cannot benefit from an experienced editorial opinion. Once you make the fixes or modifications, and your editor declares the book “good” the book will go to the typesetters.  Which these days merely means turning your electronic file into an electronic galley (or proof) which is then sent back to you for your fine-tooth-comb inspection.  You notify the typesetters of any fixes you see (this is detail stuff, not plot stuff, or rearranging bit stretches, as happened with the editor) and then your book goes to the Advanced Reader Copy stage; either paper or electronic.  The ARC is a pre-book that can be sent to reviewers, given away as a promo, and lets the author have one more close look, before the book actually goes to market in a finished form. Then, your book is released into the wild.  If you’re lucky, you get a cover that at least somewhat matches the tone, theme, and characters of your book.  If you’re not lucky . . . well, sometimes even a “bad” cover can still attract readers. For some authors, this entire process takes as long as two years or more.  For others, it can take merely months.  My first book for Baen took about 15 months.

-You have already coauthored several books with the likes of Larry Niven and Mike Resnick. What are the major differences that you have observed between collaborative writing and solo writing?

Larry’s adage is: always pick a boss. I think someone in the collaboration has to have a final word on things, and both people (or all three, or more, for multiple collaborators) have to agree to respect the boss’s decisions.  And this needs to be established right up front.  Working with Larry and Mike it was obvious who the “boss” was in each instance.  I found both experiences to be useful, instructive, enjoyable, and humbling.  The chief difference (from solo) being that I was splitting the income.  Which is probably still the greatest single reason to write independent work on your own.  Because each collaborator still winds up doing 70% to 90% of the book, while collecting half (or less) of the profit. The best collaborations are done because the collaborators work well together and enjoy the synergy, and/or because each person brings a very specific skill to the work that the other person (or people) don’t have.  So that the story (as created) becomes greater than the sum of its parts, to use the particular phrase.  My novelette with Alastair Mayer (for Analog magazine) was like that.  “Strobe Effect” is not a story I could have written alone, without Al’s help.  And I think Al feels the same way.

-How would you describe your path to publication (i.e. agenting, self vs. traditional publishing, ebook sales, whatever you feel to be relevant)?

I’m very “old school” in that I broke in with short fiction, the way most science fiction writers did from the 1920s up through the late 1980s. Beginning in the 1990s it became more and more common for writers to come into the field directly through books.  These days most writers break in with a book, not a piece of short fiction.  So I am retro in this regard. Likewise, I am retro in that most of my work has been “traditionally” published in the pages of Analog, and through publishers like Baen.  Though I am working with what I call a “consortium publisher” in the form of WordFire Press.  WordFire combines the flexibility and market rapidity of indie publishing, with some of the perks and market diversity and penetration of traditional publishing.  I think it all boils down to each and every author deciding where (s)he fits best. As an admirer of the “old school” I am proud of having come up through short fiction in a venerable publication like Analog, which got me interest at a house like Baen, and then I even did a “fix up” book as my first novel; which is taking short fiction previously published elsewhere, and using it as the basis for a book. The Chaplain’s War is therefore built much the same as some of Larry Niven’s first novels.  And I like this. It obviously is not a path that will be preferable, or work, for everybody.  I think new authors have to know themselves well enough to decide which path(s) work best for them.  Again, there is no “royal road” in this business.

-Is the SF genre in any danger of being relegated into obscurity? What changes in genre culture do you see as necessary to preserve it without ‘selling its soul?’

I think literary SF’s biggest problem is that it is perpetually fine-tuning itself for a smaller and smaller audience. Movies and television don’t have this difficulty nearly as bad, because movies and television are still trying to speak to the total marketplace.  Literary SF almost disdains the total marketplace, as a rule, and prides itself on being niche.  With more and more stories and books being only accessible to readers who are a) deeply experienced already, in the genre, and b) have academic sensibilities.

What do I mean by “academic” sensibilities? I mean readers who are tuned into the literary academic community that is concerned with being “important” in a social and cultural context, versus merely commercial.  It’s not that you can’t do both.  It’s that literary SF seems to be turning away from commercial to such a great extent, that many former readers have turned away too. Because the books and the stories have stopped being fun. I am hardly the first guy to notice this, and I am definitely not the only guy trying to counteract it with his own work. But the literary SF sphere may be the proverbial Titanic passenger, rearranging the deck chairs.  You can’t “save” people who prefer to go down with the ship. And that’s OK, because now there are no gatekeepers preventing people from being commercial.  You just have to write a sufficiently entertaining product and put enough of it in front of readers, that you pick up traction.  My friend Annie Bellet recently got some jaw-dropping attention via Amazon.com for one of her series.  It’s tough to argue with five-figure monthly income.  And there are non-academic writers in this field doing even better than that. So while “literary academic” may be content with taking the written SF genre into obscurity, I think there are plenty of people who just want to give readers a good time, and who will keep writing science fiction and fantasy that suits a wide range of tastes.

So maybe what I am really saying is, the days when science fiction and fantasy could be called a singularly coherent sphere or bubble, are ended. Now we have fifty different “bubbles” all flying around in different directions, and their fan bases are doing likewise.  No person need pay attention to any particular bubble, and no single editor or publisher can wield total power over the field the way a John W. Campbell did in the 1940s or 1950s, or the way Del Rey did in the 1970s and 1980s.

And this is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your point of view.

I happen to think it’s a good thing, and I hope I can continue to write books and stories that give readers a good time. Not a hard time.  A good time.

-You seem very comfortable with portraying religion positively in your SF writing. What type of feedback have you received in light of the fact that most SF seems to either ignore religion or portray it negatively?

Most of the feedback so far (from the big audience) is positive. The word I see often in reviews is “refreshing” because I am not using a sledge hammer on the readers’ sensibilities, either pro, or con.  I think the difficulty with tackling religion in SF/F is that many of SF/F’s practitioners and editors are refugees from various faith traditions, so SF in particular (and occasionally fantasy too) takes a dim view of what might be labeled “traditional” religious belief.  At least here in the United States. My chief contention goes like this: if we in our era of space satellites and gigabyte iPhones and instant internet knowledge, still need and use religious practices and beliefs (even the most conservative estimates say 3 out of 5 humans on Earth subscribe to some form of religious or spiritual system) then it’s likely that people of the future will too.  Even, the very far future.  Perhaps, because of the far future? Consider the bestselling SF novel of all time, DUNE. It’s a book that portrays a high religious society which, while being very self conscious of its religious and mystical framework (in the form of the Bene Gesserit order, the Spacing Guild, even the Mentats to a certain degree) does not try to deny the value of religious thought.  Even if such thought is meta-framed from a secular point of view.

I think reading audiences (as a whole) can appreciate a science fictional approach to society-building that does not simplify to the point of placing “progress” on one side, and religion on an opposite side. This is a common trope for many writers and editors (again: refugees) but I think it’s unrealistic in the long run.  Whether you yourself believe or not, there is a great deal of reason to think that others do, and will continue to, and that this is not a bad thing.  I emphasize again: this is not a bad thing!
The Star Trek future of a thoroughly secularized human race may be appealing to a certain number of individuals, but it is neither the most probable long-term outcome, nor even the most desireable. So I try to factor this into my stories and my books.  Because I think this merely does dignity and justice to the truth.  Not what someone people wish. But the truth.
-How would you describe your writing process?

Seat of the pants for short stories, and more structured for books. In each instance I usually have to wait for several ideas, characters, settings, etc., to coalesce organically before I know I’ve got the makings for a solid product.  This can happen at any time.  I usually have more potential for material, than I actually have time for material production proper.  So I (in one example, with Baen) try to run several kernels for potential books past my editor, and ask the editor “What do you think looks most interesting right now?”  A book is a lot of work that can consume six months to a year of effort.  I try to hedge my bets by molding my novel production to what my publisher is more likely to buy. For short fiction, I think I’ve honed in on what makes a good Ansalog story, so while I generally don’t run something past Trevor Quachri before writing it, I think I am solid enough of Trevor’s “wavelength” (and Stanley Schmidt’s “wavelength” before Trevor) to know what I am doing about 70% of the time.  Very seldom does anything I send to Analog get rejected these days.

As for merely sitting and typing, I try to have a workman’s approach, though I am still far to prone to letting mood (and exhaustion) take their toll. This past year was very stressful for me because all three of my careers simultaneously demanded a lot out of me (thus I was often robbing Peter to pay Paul) and this resulted in a lot of production slowdown.  Which I am trying to rectify as I get back up to speed, heading into 2015.

In the end, I trying to emulate my friends and mentors whose careers I admire most. Production is king.  (S)he who can be productive, can have the largest audience, and make the most money.  Which usually means, have the most enjoyable career.  Not always.  But usually.  I am fortunate to have fallen in with a loose cohort of writers who are all very good at being productive, even when they don’t feel like it. I try to keep my end up as a result, though this year (again) it’s been frustrating.

-Do you have any future projects that you would like to tell your fans about?

For books, the project I am working on right now (with Baen in mind) is a somewhat YA, somewhat Hard SF project that involves megastructures: giant alien ring-shaped spacecraft that are like hoop-shaped, because this is how the aliens generate the effects of gravity, without actually having gravity.  It’s a concept Larry Niven first exposure me to in one of his articles from Playgrounds of the Mind. Mixed in is an alien first-contact drama, as well as some human political drama, as well as precocious alien and human youngsters both working together to try to overcome the mistakes being made by their elders.  I like to think it’s the kind of book that adults and teens alike could read and enjoy, and it’s got three planned parts, so it might wind up being three separate (but linked) books.  First chore now is to finish the first installment, and send it to Toni Weisskopf and Tony Daniel at Baen. If the books meets with their approval, I will proceed from there.

For short fiction, I owe several stories to various editors who are putting anthologies together. And I am working on several sequels to stories which have appeared previously in the pages if Analog. Not to mention some original pieces I’ve had kicking around in my imagination for the last three years, and which are bubbling to the surface and demanding attention.  All science fiction.

Well that’s it. Again, congratulations to Brad on his first of what I am sure will be many outstanding books.

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