Lawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, has been nominated for the Campbell, a Hugo, five Nebulas, and won the Cóyotl award for best novel of 2015. He’s a world authority on the Klingon language, operates the small press Paper Golem, is a hypnotherapist specializing in authors’ issues, and writes science fiction and fantasy about life, death, and the continua between the two.
Last month, after nearly 17 years, he left his position as director of research for a medical center in Philadelphia and is now a full-time writer. Apropos of this, he’s expanded the number of baskets he’s holding his fictional eggs in, and on July 1st became a “hybrid author,” publishing Invasion (http://mybook.to/VW1kin), the first part of a three book arc called VEGETABLE WARS, with co-author retired Marine colonel Jonathan P. Brazee. Books 2 and 3 come out on August 1st and September 1st respectively. Somewhere in the middle, on August 14th, Tor Books will release The Moons of Barsk (http://mybook.to/BarskMoonsHC), the sequel to his award-winning novel of far-future anthropomorphic science fiction.
Every Monday morning on my own site (lawrencemschoen.com) I have a feature called EATING AUTHORS in which each week I ask a different author the same simple question: what’s your most memorable meal. Here at Hawk and Young, you’re asking much harder questions. I’ll do my best, though it’d be so much easier to talk about that dinner in Reno when a major author asked me to pitch him novel ideas.
1) Where does your inspiration come from?
Talk about your loaded first questions. This one never made much sense to me because everything is a potential source of inspiration. I know that sounds glib, but understand that several decades ago I went through a doctoral program to turn me into a research psychologist. It was all about being analytical. It was an intense crucible that burned away and otherwise transformed so much of how I see the world. Everything — and I mean that, everything — now occurs to me as a question, ideally one that can be answered by careful study, construction of hypotheses, testing and replication. The downside of this is you lose innocence. You don’t get to just look at the world with simple awe and wonder. The upside is that you look at the world and automatically try to break it down in terms of how and why it works. Why is the sky blue? Why do so many people love Transformers? Why are squids better aliens than cuttlefish? When you go through life with a head full of questions, the world is full of endless potential and all of it can inspire.
2) When was that moment when you realized that language had power?
I was in fifth grade, taking a spelling test. The teacher stood at the front of the room, stated the word, used it in a sentence, repeated the target word, and we were supposed to write it down. Pretty straightforward stuff, right? And then the trauma hit. My teacher probably said something like this:
“Engine. The conductor couldn’t get the engine to move down the track. Engine.”
But I’d been reading Huckleberry Finn and so the picture that formed in my mind was of a recalcitrant Native American who had set himself (for reasons known only to him) upon the railroad tracks and would not budge, no matter that he was blocking a train from getting through.
And so I wrote “Injun.” And I was marked wrong. And I tried to explain to the teacher about the guy on the tracks and what his deal was and how he didn’t care about the train and how he wasn’t going to budge and… she refused to listen, didn’t accept that it was a meaningful homophone (a word I don’t think I knew yet), or maybe didn’t even believe that I was reading Mark Twain at eleven years of age. Maybe she just thought I was stupid. But that was the formative moment that marked me. Words. They’re everything. They’re the über tools, they’re the keys to the kingdom, they’re the things that grant you power to create and destroy and transform. That spelling test in fifth grade, it doomed me.
3) If you could sit down with one writer from any period who would it be?
I regret that I never screwed up my courage to reach out to Gabriel García-Márquez (he died just over four years ago). I am in awe of his ability to tell a story, to fold reality and fantasy, to take the simplest of things and reveal how they’re actually numinous. If you haven’t read One Hundred Years of Solitude, seriously, stop reading this interview right now and go get a copy. There’s a reason they gave this man the Nobel prize.
4) When did you know that writing was what you were going to make your life’s work? Or is it?
I’ve always been writing, always making up stories. I put it on hold for college, and then again for graduate school. I returned to it during my early professor years and started selling soon after. That was almost 30 years ago, but to be fair I’ve been a dabbler for most of that time, selling stories here and there. Then about 10 years ago I sold a novel to a small press, and then another, then a couple collections, and I started to think of myself as a writer, a writer who happened to pay his bills by working as a psychologist. A few years later I sold a book to Tor and everything changed, and the sequel to that book is comes out August 14th, two days before the start of the World Science Fiction Convention and two days after International Elephant Day (the book is all about anthropomorphic elephants, so I’m very happy with the release date). Last month I let go of the psychology gig and the plan is that from now until the day I die I’ll just be writing. Writing, writing, with a little more writing on the side (okay, and I’ll probably still do some publishing on the side, of other folks who are also writing). Writing, telling stories, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I just got sidetracked by a couple other things like education and a couple other careers, but nothing is wasted. No bit of human experience is wasted because writing all comes down to talking about behavior. Okay, maybe I look at it that way because of my background as a cognitive psychologist. Maybe.
5) Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
All. The. Time. Probably the most common thing I hide are jokes in the Klingon language (in case your readers don’t know, I’m the founder and director of the Klingon Language Institute and I’ve been promoting the language all around the world since 1992). It’s a very small audience and some items have not been discovered yet (or if so, no one’s told me). The best example I know of this sort of thing comes from J.R.R. Tolkien. Did you know that Florence Nightingale is a major historical figure among the elves? Seriously, it’s right there in the book. More recently, I have a friend who always gives a cameo to one or another incarnation of Dr. Who in all of her books. Me, I’m not that clever. I do sometimes slip in references to other books or characters I’ve written, whether they’re in the same universe as the current work or not. I also like naming characters after friends.
6) What was your hardest scene to write?
I don’t know what other people have told you in response to this question, but if their answers differ from mine they’re lying. The sole and totally true answer is and must be “the next one.” Because the unwritten scene is so full of potential, brimming over with difficulty, a formless challenge that is always looming, always demanding. And there’s no getting cocky, no saying “yeah, I nailed that last scene, woo hoo, I’m da man!” because there’s always a next scene just waiting to kick your ass.
Thanks for having me here, this was a lot of fun. Is there time for one more shameless plug? I hope so (not least because I don’t have the cushy psych job anymore and I need to move some product!). Check out Invasion, Book 1 of VEGETABLE WARS. It’s only $2.99 on the Kindle. Oh, and tell a few hundred of your friends. (http://mybook.to/VW1kin)