Sunday, January 15, 2017

AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Dr. Ian Miller and 'Bot War

It's aways my pleasure to discover that former guests to Writers Alive are still productive and doing well. Dr. Ian Miller, from New Zealand, has been a correspondent for several years and I've talked to him in podcast form here and here with my former cohost, Marta Merjaver, from Argentina who accurately described him as a "Renaissance Man". What amazing technological times that we live in when we can share stories and experiences real time via the Internet. Please check out my review of Dr. Miller's latest science fiction book here at Amazon and enjoy his answers to these questions posted below.

Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre?  If 
you write more than one, how do you balance them?

I have always been interested in science, which is just as well since I am a scientist, and one of the important aspects of science is that it is based on logic. My feeling is that society these days is approaching some really difficult problems, and clear thinking by as many people as possible is desirable. What I try to do in my stories is show that the winners win by thinking out their problems, and not by sheer luck. In my dreams, I like to think I might influence some people in that way.
Regarding balancing genres, I have entered SF, thrillers, and in two books, historical fiction. The important point for me is that even if the book is hard to categorize, I try to make sure the whole book is unified. By that, I mean everything at the end follows naturally from what was introduced in the beginning. You can have different books with all sorts of differences, but I think it is important that any given book has a unity of purpose.

Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing/etc. 
come from?

I am not entirely sure. As soon as I learned to read, and found a local library, I seemed to be interested in reading. I was in Hokitika, then, and it gets 120 inches of rain a year, so there were always some days when I needed to entertain myself inside, and reading seemed the best from my point of view. At that stage there was no television where I lived, so that might have made it easier, but I still read a lot. The idea of writing actually started from when I was a student at University. There was the usual argument "arts versus science" with young women favoring arts. My argument was that at least scientists do, whereas all they did was criticize. (Leading with the jaw, as usual.) So there was a challenge. I could not come up with a plot. Next day I had one, just to prove they were wrong, then came the next challenge go write it. I did, it was a failure in that form, but later in life I asked myself, "Could I do better?" At least I had to try.

What cultural value do you see in 

One of the themes of many of my books is the question of governance. I rather suspect that around the world people are starting to get suspicious of the representative republic form we currently have, or at least of the politicians in it, so I think it is of value for readers to think about what could go wrong. Recently we have had an unexpected result in the US election, we have had Brexit, "fringe" parties in Europe are now challenging, and I think there is a common theme that citizens want change. Obviously, it is unlikely things could go wrong to the extent of my stories, but that is not the point. If I can get people to think a little more about what could go wrong, maybe they wouldn't.

What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do 
you feel you achieved them?

I have outlined some of my goals above, however the main goal was to entertain. My aim is to try to entertain, but leave the reader with something to think about. The author is usually the worst placed for deciding how well he achieves his goals because he is biased, so I don't want to comment on how well I achieve my goals.

What was the hardest part of writing this book?

I am not too sure about "hardest". I usually find the beginning difficult because while I have an overall concept, and I usually have a clear start, I also find that I get dissatisfied with that start and I start somewhere else, usually earlier in the story. In 'Bot War I had several starts, which is why a number of the early chapters start fresh streams. Once I can settle on what should be the first 25% of the story, I find writing becomes easy, albeit time consuming. The next difficult part is the editing, which has several levels. The difficulty here is it tends to be (for me) more boring, because it is not really creative.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

Every now and again, I find I can have fun scenes to write. These may be humorous, political, or just the ability to show some quirky aspects of a character or some frustrating situations. Usually the "fun" scenes are not the big ones ? they tend to be more serious and you have to get them right, but the "fun" scenes are those that don't really have to have any particular outcome as far as the story goes.

How did you get to be where you are in your life today?

An interesting question! I think the first point is I have always been something of a skeptic. At the same time, though, I am happy to change my mind if I see evidence, but if the evidence goes against the usual thinking, I am happy to stick my head above the parapet. Of course, this is not the route to fame and fortune. As an example of what I mean, in my PhD, I did some work that contradicted what was to emerge as the standard answer to a certain problem. There was one other chemist of about my age that published a similar result. I kept on for a while, making the case more substantial, but that was largely ignored. The other chemist abandoned the field and worked in something more "approved". He became well known, and " recognized as important"; I did not.

Who are some of your favorite authors that you feel were 
influential in your work?  What impact have they had on your 

I probably got into SF thanks to John Wyndham and Fred Hoyle. I read quite a bit from both of them, and of course Fred Hoyle was a leading cosmologist. Hoyle's novels were based either on sound science, or what might be and was in accord with the scientific method, and the stories were interesting, so that tended to inspire me into my writing goals. I also like Michael Crichton, and these in particular show the value of good plots. I also went through a phase where I went through whatever I could get of Leo Tolstoy, and this inspired me to write Miranda's Demons, which is my attempt at a different "War and Peace". I am not suggesting I am as good as Tolstoy, but I still consider that book as the favorite that I have written.

What did you find most useful in learning to write?  What was 
least useful or most destructive?

I am convinced the most useful aspect of learning to write fiction is to read better writers, and to think about what you have read. It is important not to try and parrot them, but you should be able to learn some important guidelines. For me, the most destructive could well be a writing class. I have never tried one, but when I was a student I was also interested in music, and while doing my PhD I was encouraged to do something culturally, so I did some music courses, one of which was "Composition" (an honours course!) What I found was that most of the few there had zero creativity, so the course had to be organized by giving the class a "starting point", usually some horrible notes. I did rather poorly. Then one week there was no starting point for the exercise, but I forgot about it until the last minute. I knew I had to show something, so I sat down about seven minutes before I had to be at the course and dashed off something. Unfortunately, this was selected to be looked at, and the teacher praised it. I looked outright puzzled, and I probably gave the wrong impression. The teacher probably thought I thought it should have had more praise, but in fact I would have graded it F-, i.e. formulaic crap, although I could hardly admit that either. This experience has persuaded me that there is no point in trying to learn something involving creativity unless you can find a teacher/master who you admire for their creativity. That does not mean the author should not listen to criticism. Listening and taking notice when relevant is not the same as being required to follow a specific path.

Are you a full-time or part-time writer?  How does that affect 
your writing?

Definitely part time, largely because a lot of my time seems to be taken up on activities involving promoting my writing. That includes my writing of blogs. I am also only semi-retired, and I still have two commercial projects in which I am reasonably involved from the chemical point of view.

How do you feel about ebooks vs. print books and alternative vs. 
conventional publishing?

I self-publish ebooks, largely because I am determined that my writing should not become a financial hole. In fact, my literary efforts last year made a profit. Not a big profit, but I am a net tax payer, and my income more than covers expenses, such as covers. Self-publishing print books would be, in my view, too big a financial risk, and also it would impose too much of a load on my time regarding the marketing. I have also taken up self-publishing in part because I had written a number of books before I started, and at my age there was the danger that if I left it to conventional publishing I would be dead before they were published. However, if I were young I may well have followed a different strategy, even to the extent of trying to write a book solely for the likelihood of it being picked up for publishing.

What do you think is the future of reading/writing?

I am reasonably convinced that there will always be books. The reason is that books permit the author to explore thoughts in a far deeper way than in any other medium. (The fact that many books do not take advantage of this is beside the point.) This is not to run down other forms of entertainment, and there will always be competition. It is just that I think the future will always have variety.

What projects are you working on at the present?

My primary project, right now, is to complete my Guidance Wave theory of the chemical bond. Hardly likely to be a hot seller, but I feel it is something that I would like to complete. I have also started a novel that is intended to be a financial thriller. I have a few scenes thought out, but the ending is unclear. I have a few choices, but exactly which way the story goes has yet to be decided.