Two days ago the 2011 Nebula Awards Nominees were announced. Two stories by Ken Liu, one of my favorite short fiction writers, were nominated: "The Paper Menagerie" in the Short Story category and "The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary" in the Novella category. Shortly after reading these news I contacted Ken Liu and he kindly agreed to answer some questions about his work.
Odo: Two of your stories have been recently nominated for the Nebula Awards (in my opinion, this is something fully deserved, since you published a lot of wonderful stories in 2011). What was your reaction when you first knew about the nominations?
Ken Liu: When I got the call, I was absolutely floored. It’s a huge honor to be nominated, and I didn’t think it would ever happen to me.
Odo: If my data is correct, you published 16 stories in 2011 (and have already published 3 in 2012). That's truly impressive. What is your secret?
Ken Liu: Thank you. I used to have a habit of obsessing over just one story and getting discouraged when it was rejected. Instead of writing a new story, I’d revise the old one again and again, trying to figure out what was wrong and not succeeding.
I changed my approach starting in 2010. I forced myself to read more nonfiction (such as scientific papers and history books) and to try to write new fiction based on what I was reading. I tried to produce new work regularly instead of only revising. It turns out that the more you write, the easier it gets, and I feel I’ve improved as a writer.
Odo: Many of your stories focus on the impact that some fantastic elements or some new technologies have on normal people's lives. Why do you choose to focus on the average person? Do you think it makes for more interesting stories?
Ken Liu: My preference is for writing “human-scaled” stories. A lot of speculative fiction (very good speculative fiction) is epic in scale, but I think it’s difficult to keep the human element at the forefront in such cases. Certainly some writers can do it, but I feel that my own writing is better if I keep to the details and trace out ordinary lives.
|"The Paper Menagerie" |
is included in the March/April 2011 issue of F&SF
Ken Liu: Not really. I think both science fiction and fantasy work through the logic of symbols, of making metaphors literal. The difference is more about tone.
Both give me excuses to do research though, which is my favorite part.
Odo: What kind of research do you do for your stories? You've mentioned "scientific papers" and "history books". What have you been reading lately that has caught your attention?
Ken Liu: I’m reading 100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, by Sonia Arrison. It’s a very interesting book, and I’m playing around with some story ideas that I hope work out.
Odo: You are American of Chinese descent. Would you say that your heritage has influenced your writing?
Ken Liu: Yes, I would say so. I think writers always put bits of themselves into their stories, and my Chinese identity and culture show up in my work in ways both obvious and nonobvious.
My knowledge of Chinese has also allowed me to read some fantastic works of fiction by Chinese authors. Thus, I have the benefit of being influenced by a literary tradition and culture very different from the American tradition that I mainly write in.
Odo: I think that some of your stories (for instance, "The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary") can be compared to Ted Chiang's work, another favorite of mine. Is he one of your influences? What other writers do you admire?
|"The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary" |
is included in Panverse 3
There are too many writers I admire for me to do them all justice in a short summary. Every book that I read teaches me something new about the craft of writing.
Odo: So far, you have mainly published short stories but now you're working on a novel. What can you tell us about this project and how is it different from writing short fiction?
Ken Liu: I’m collaborating on this novel with my wife, and it’s a work of epic fantasy. Given what I said above, the genre does not come naturally to me. But both my wife and I really believe in the story, and I think we’re doing something unusual and interesting in it. I can’t wait till we’re finished.
Odo: You also translate genre fiction into English. Unfortunately, that is not very usual and the fantasy and science fiction markets are clearly dominated by works originally written in English. Do you see this changing in the near future?
Ken Liu: I think English-speaking readers are actually very interested in works from other cultures, but the infrastructure to support the translation and marketing of such works in English-speaking countries is not very developed. It takes time to build up the infrastructure, to make connections between publishers, translators, authors, and readers. I think that’s happening, albeit slowly.
Odo: You work as a computer programmer. What are the differences and the similarities between writing fiction and writing code?
Ken Liu: Clarity is important in both, and also the hardest thing to learn for beginners. I also find that the satisfaction of finding the right expression for a feeling or concept is very similar to coming up with the right algorithm for a problem or interface for a class.
As for differences: it’s much easier to tell if you have working code than if you have a story that works for the reader.
Odo: Where can we learn more about you and your work?
Odo: Any other thing you would like to add?
Ken Liu: Thank you very much for the interview!