So, last month he posted an interview with me, it was only fair that I get to return the favour! Of course, coming up with questions that weren’t carbon copies of his was harder than I expected.
Without wanting to sound too much like an asshole, the short answer is “interesting things.”
If I look at life and how it’s laid out, I want to have a set of good stories to tell at the end of it. Things I’ve done, and maybe a few things that have made the world a better place (or at least, not a worse place).
It’d suck to reach the end of your life and look back and have nothing but a few faded Polaroids and some bitter memories to show for it, so I’ve tried to do things Less Ordinary™. Prior to writing, I tried to climb corporate ladders, got a black belt in karate, and travelled a bit. Those things were cool, but I felt like something was missing.
A few years ago I had a sort of epiphany that went a little like this: I really like stories. Wouldn’t it be great if I could share some of the ideas kicking around in my head, and tell stories for others?
I’m kind of hedging with the Cheroke. “The world is full of stories, and sometimes they allow themselves to be told.”
A little while ago I read On Writing, by Stephen King. You can love or hate the man (I’m somewhere in the middle), but you can’t dispute that he’s a master of the craft. In that book, he talks about writing what you know – with specific references (if memory serves) to people like Grisham. As I interpret his point, the thing is you need to write from what you know, and what interests you.
The things that I know are people, and a little bit of kung fu.
- What I’d like to be able to do is tell you a story where someone, who is pretty ordinary – maybe a little bit like you, or me, or your kid, or that guy from work – has to overcome something pretty hard. It should have a happy ending, but that doesn’t mean riding off into the sunset.
- One of the ways I’ve figured to make journeys hard is to overcome obstacles. Those obstacles need to be relative to the protagonist; it’s not really gripping reading if the main character is 290 pounds and has to take over a child care facility. Unless he slips on a banana sandwich, he’s unlikely to be stretched in that situation.
Coupling those two things with my love of science fiction, martial arts, and bad action movies, the sorts of things I write about seem to follow a more visual style – almost a screenplay, ready for a movie (…and probably an action movie with a high FX budget). I’m not trying to give you the depth of Russian romantic literature: I’m trying to give you a really good time, an exciting read, with people you can identify with, root for, or hate.
For the most part, it seems to be working. I’ve asked people who they most identify with in Night’s Favour, and the answers are totally across the board. To me this sounds good: those people are different enough to be unique, and resonate in different ways with different readers. I love that.
For the most part. So here’s the thing: when I write, I kinda know what the ending might look like, but I don’t describe it too much. Just a rough outline – does the girl get the boy? Is the villain overcome? And how do I make this worthwhile for the reader to have come this far – how is the ending happy? But I’m never married to it; the ending that was written for Night’s Favour ended up being a little different to how it was originally planned.
I let the people in it tell their own story. I probably spend the most time up front coming up with the people, and what their motivations are; conversly, I spend the least time coming up with the plot. It’s a hard lesson, but I learned it: your people can’t be real if you tell them what to do. They can only be real if they interact with each other, and grow as the story progresses.
There’s a lot of mental energy used up when I’m writing trying to make sure that the characters continually talk. When I’m not writing, they’re all acting out scenes in my head – when I’m on the train, when I’m in a boring meeting, whatever. Most of those scenes never make it into a book, they’re like random what-if slices. But it’s not something I focus on – this shit just happens. I couldn’t turn it off if I tried.
Interesting factoid: my brain chemistry is at war with itself right now. I’ve finished Night’s Favour, and I’m happy where I left that story. Upgrade has its own people and that story is unwinding at its own pace. However, I have a sequel to Night’s Favour kicking around in my head, and Val and John and Danny and Carlisle keep talking to each other about it. Then Mason and Carter want a piece so they can save a dying planet (but they don’t know it yet). And I’ve also sketched out a new setting, a sort of steampunk-meets-A-Wizard-of-Earthsea, and the heroine of that is trying to get my attention.
After finishing Night’s Favour, I got sad for a while, because I felt like I’d got to know the people in it, and I likedthem. It was like leaving a group you hung out with for months, and putting them on the shelf. Their story was done, and it was the best I could make it, but the people still want to talk.
This is why I drink.
Yeah. Ok, there’s a few.
I love games for the stories they can tell, but not many of them do it well. There’s a million dudebro shooters that are entirely predictable. But I’m going to shout out to just three games here for what they delivered.
- Planescape: Torment. I love you because you made me cry (yes, really). I had to put this game down for a week before I could come back to it and finish it. My specific journey as the Nameless One had some pretty rough times, and when it becomes clear what an absolute jackass your character has been I had to take a breather.
- BioShock (the original). This one sucker punched me, because it used the medium of the game world as a mechanism for storytelling. Without wanting to give away spoilers, those of you who understand the significance of “would you kindly…” will get it. It’d be pretty tricky to tell the same kind of story, give the same impact, if you as the player hadn’t been complicit in the acts of telling that story. Also, plasmids. A special mention should be given to the real sequel, Infinite, because they tackled something a little mentally complex and it was a fun ride.
- The Last of Us. Maybe the best game I’ve ever played, I dunno. The real power of this story comes from the relationship between your dude Joel and a teenage girl, Ellie. They’re both super real to me, and their interaction is perfectly realised. The thing that makes it is the difficulty of the journey, and standing alongside the two of them as they find their way into each others hearts. The ending is bittersweet and real, and I wish I could have the experience of playing it throuh again without knowing how it ends.
Having touched on my visual-ish style, I’d really like to try writing a screenplay for a movie. It’s still writing, sure, but the output is on a bigger screen, with some different constraints – the whole thing needs to be done through action and dialogue, and you can’t get insight into someone’s head through a character having a moment of introspection. I suspect constraints can lead to a more powerful story, if you don’t lose your vision and some pinhead doesn’t cut half the good stuff before it makes it out (the new Total Recall says hi).
For the same reason, I’d also like to give a radio play a crack, but I’m really not sure a market exists for radio plays with a high body count. There’s a couple podcasts that go in this direction, but I’m not entirely attracted to serialised content in quite the same way.
Hm. This is a different question to, “What are your five favourite movies?” Tricky. Let’s see how we go.
- Blade Runner for its insights into humanity, and what it means to be human.
- Amelie for how it shows you can be good and giving around the edges of an ordinary life.
- The Lord of the Rings (yeah, three movies, whatever) for how they describes friendship, loyalty, and doing the things that are hard because they are right.
- Iron Man for showing it’s possible to stop being an asshole and start changing the world.
- Finally, Unbreakable for showing there’s a hero inside all of us.
Special thanks to Cassie for finding the time in her hectic life to interview me. It means a lot – and I hope you found something to like in here.
Richard has passed along a fun story to give you a taster of his writing – if you like it, why not check out his novel Night’s Favour?
by Richard Parry
The deck thrummed, more feeling than sound. Jennifer felt it in her teeth. It was a harsh sensation, like using a mechanical toothbrush with a thrown bearing. She’d had one of those in Basic, the fluffy end finally breaking off mid-clean and leaving her with coffee breath.
It had been going on for three days.
Or close enough anyway. It didn’t seem to matter anymore. She’d stopped counting the days so precisely when McConnolly was found nailed to his bunk. That might have been yesterday. If it was the day before, well, the thrumming had been going on for four days. Hard to tell.
McConnolly, now that was a thing. It hadn’t looked accidental in any way. No sir, no one was trying to make his death look like some random act of fate. That would be easy around here, you could get cycled out an air lock, or caught up in the induction coils for the gate drive. Accidents happened all the time. No, this was definitely deliberate. Big industrial bolts had been fired through his limbs and into the metal sheeting that supported the bunk. The damndest thing was the look on his face.
He’d been smiling.
She’d done the post mortem herself, tox screens showing clear. He hadn’t been drugged, which probably meant he was aware of the rivets being driven through his arms and legs.
Running her hand through her hair, she did the mental math. How many sleep cycles had she missed? How many meals on the mess deck? Her eyes wandered to her console, papers and reports scattered on top. Empty packets of stims lay amongst dirty coffee bulbs. Ok, so probably four days.
Jennifer watched a pencil on the corner of her console. It shivered in sympathy with the deck plates, occasionally giving a tiny jump. The end of the pencil was chewed, teeth marks up and down the shaft. She could still make out some faded lettering, once proudly proclaiming a Staedler product in bright gold lettering.
The evening after McConnolly’s death, they’d found Munroe. He was in the mess hall, quite dead, a small pool of blood around his mouth. He’d managed to eat an entire teapot, including the small porcelain lid. He’d had to break bits of it up to get it all down, the jagged ends doing some nasty internal damage. He’d bled out internally through his stomach. She had collected all the teapot’s pieces into an evidence jar in her office. After putting them back into some semblance of order, she saw the pot had a Winnie-the-Pooh motif on the outside.
Perhaps it was a gift from one of his kids. Or for his kids. It didn’t matter much now.
He’d also been smiling – clearly not feeling the indigestion that had killed him. If Jennifer had been asked to describe the expression, she would have said, “Dreamy.”
It had gone on like that, crew members dying around her. Some appeared murdered, like McConnolly, and others appear to have developed habits that killed them, like Munroe. It didn’t really matter how it happened, but they all died smiling. The closest thing to tie it all together was the damn thrumming that went throughout the ship, shaking bolts loose, weakening pressure seals, and worst of all, giving Jennifer a headache she couldn’t get away from. The pain and the stims kept her awake.
Four days. It was enough to make anyone depressed. It’s just that they all looked so happy dead.
The alarm shrieked, causing her to jump in her armchair. The red emergency lighting spun shadows and confusion around her cabin. At least the noise was a distraction from the thrumming, giving her something to focus on. Jennifer got to her feet, armchair rolling back on its casters. She was unsteady at first, her hip bumping into the console, knocking papers to the floor. The pencil jumped, hit the floor, and rolled under the console.
She’d get it later. Maybe after some sleep. She grabbed another stim pack from her locker, popping the top and sucking back the sickly sweet fluid. After a few moments, the grittiness in her eyes seemed to lift, and she could focus on things again. The text on the stim pack announced another fine Pharmac product, and encouraged her to not exceed two units between sleep cycles. The shaking in her hands didn’t stop. She tossed the empty pack to her bunk, and shrugged on a shirt from the pile on the floor. It was clean enough for an alarm.
No, no sleep today. Jennifer wasn’t going to sleep until this was all squared away. Heck, she could sleep when she was dead, either way.
Facing the door to her cabin, she pushed her shoulders back and crammed her cap on. Time to act like an officer. She opened the door, heading down the narrow passage, boots clanking against the deck grating. She nodded at the sentry posted at the end of the corridor.
Fenson came to attention, her right arm snapping up to salute. Career soldier, as near as made any difference. She’d enlisted fresh out of Port Amber, right from the front lines of the conflict. Jennifer noted the crisp lines of Fenson’s uniform. She was probably sleeping better than Jennifer if she still had patience to iron. “Ma’am. Yes ma’am. Fire alarm started seconds ago. We think it’s from inside the morgue.”
Jennifer eyed Fenson from under her cap. “You think, private?”
“Ma’am.” She cleared her throat. “Rupert is going down to take a look.”
“Ma’am. There’s… There’s no one left. Else, I mean. There’s no one else.”
“Private. Follow me.” Without looking to see if Fenson was following, Jennifer broke into a jog towards the morgue. A fire in the morgue would be highly unusual. There wasn’t anything in there to burn.
She could hear boots behind her. Fenson. Good.
As they got closer to the morgue, Jennifer could smell the smoke. It was oily, like too much fat on barbequed bacon. She could also hear a sound, strangely rhythmic. As a child her mother had wanted her to play an instrument. Jennifer was having none of it, preferring to play outside with her brothers. After much reflection in the music store, she’d chosen the clarinet because the sound of a poorly blown reed was sure to drive her mother crazy and end practice very quickly. This sound had that same high-pitched edge to it, a shriek starting to build from some terrible pain, and then stopping again.
Jennifer rounded the corner leading to the morgue, and saw Rupert standing in the doorway to the morgue. He wasn’t moving, his face registering shock. The smoke was thick here, black sooty clouds coming from the door to the morgue. She could tell from where she stood that tears were running down his face – from shock or the smoke, it was hard to tell. Same song, different music. She’d seen a man like that in the field once, watching as the enemy had started eating one of his squad mates, just before being topped himself. Regardless of why, Rupert was stunned, immobile, and ineffective. Jennifer grabbed an extinguisher from the wall and ran up beside him to look into the morgue.
The Texas carried all kinds of supplies. It was a big starship, designed to spend years on a mission. All the comforts of home, right here in space. They even had recorded TV shows, all re-runs but something at least to lean against in the cold of space. Feeding a hungry crew was vital, and the needs of the kitchen were paramount. A well-fed crew was a crew marginally less inclined to mutiny. So they had the usual, powdered eggs, flour, all kinds of proteins and frozen vegetables. Stacks of them, down in the hold. Heck, they made cakes on Christmas. For that they needed the usual supplies.
And sugar. Big barrels of sugar.
One of those barrels had been wrestled up here into the morgue, the top popped off. Jennifer guessed some kind of incendiary had been used to start the fire – probably a welding torch. And then – by the looks, only a quick glance so far – Specialist Wallace Simpson had thrown himself on top of the blaze.
He was making the noise. There wasn’t much left of his face and probably not his throat either. He just sat in the fire, not moving at all, the smoke pouring off him in big black clouds. His orange jumpsuit was charred, a long taffy streamer of melting plastic stretching down from his thigh.
Jennifer pushed past Rupert, bringing the extinguisher up. She squeezed the release, great gouts of white foam hitting Simpson’s torso. The flames gutted down while she played the extinguisher over him and the barrel of sugar. Stepping forward quickly she planted a boot in Simpson’s chest and pushed him backwards out of the path of the flames.
His body hit the floor, soot and flakes of something – better not think about it – puffing out from his back. She continued to play the stream of foam over him until she was sure he was no longer on fire.
The sugar barrel was still on fire though. She grabbed a surgical tray, tossing medical tools across the room, and pushed it over the top of the barrel. Starved of oxygen, the fire would go out quickly. Jennifer dropped the extinguisher on the tray, then turned to Rupert.
Rupert seemed to notice her for the first time. “I, uh.”
“Ma’am!” Rupert seemed to come out of his shock then, body coming back into attention. “I arrived here just before you. I, uh. Specialist.” He cleared his throat. “Specialist Simpson was already, he was, the barrel. Uh.”
Jennifer scuffed something off the boot she’d pushed Simpson back with. “Go on.”
Rupert tried again. “Specialist Simpson was in the barrel. No. On the barrel. In? I think he was on the barrel. The barrel was on fire.” He looked down at his feet. “I didn’t see anyone else in here. Ma’am.”
Nodding, Jennifer turned to Fenson. “Get a medical crew down –”
“Christ!” It was Rupert. The shot rang out, harsh and loud in the metal cage of the morgue. Jennifer spun back to him, taking in his unholstered sidearm. “Fucking Christ!” He fired again.
Simpson sagged back down, all the air going out of his ruined lungs in one final breath.
“Dude.” Fenson’s voice was strained. “You just shot Simpson.”
“He was dead! He couldn’t have still been alive! The fire!”
Jennifer looked at Rupert. “Private. Surrender your weapon.”
Rupert’s face turned desperate. “I had no choice! It was coming for us!”
Fenson spoke again. “Listen to the boss, Rupert. She knows what she’s doing.”
Rupert’s eyes went from Jennifer’s face, down to her outstretched arm, and to his sidearm. His elbows unlocked, the tension leaving his shoulders, and he spun the grip towards her. “Ma’am.”
“Very good, private.” Jennifer put the weapon in her back pocket, turning back to Fenson. “Belay that previous order. Get a clean up crew down here. Leave Simpson. I’ll do the autopsy later. Just,” and here she looked at the small doors arranged in a grid against one wall, “Put him in the fridge until I get back.”
“Ma’am. Rupert?” Fenson nodded towards him. He seemed to be back in shock, shuffling slowly towards Simpson’s body. Maybe the lack of sleep was getting to them all. She’d known Simpson, not well, but well enough to nod at him in the tight corridors of the Texas. A good man, had a family back on Titan. She’d played chess with him last week. He was a lousy chess player.
“The brig.” Jennifer rubbed her temples. “God damn it all. This fucking noise.”
“Ma’am? What –” Fenson was interrupted by Rupert.
“Christ! Fucking Christ!” He’d bent down over Simpson’s body. “He’s put the fuses for the fucking extinguisher system into his eyes!”
“What?” Jennifer looked at Rupert, who pointed at Simpson’s head.
“Here. His eyes! He’s put the fuses in his eyes. His fucking eyes, man!”
Jennifer looked at the emergency console on the wall. Sure enough, it hung open, loose cables dangling from it. That explained why the fire suppressant system hadn’t come on with the alarm. She was pretty sure losing at chess wouldn’t make a man do something like this.
“Ma’am.” It was Fenson again. “What noise?”
Jennifer turned back to Fenson. “Private. Can’t you hear it? I can even feel it. Through my feet.”
Rupert nodded from his position. “All the time. I hear it when I sleep.”
Fenson looked at both of them, backing towards the door. Her weapon came up. “You’re crazy. Both of you. It’s you! You’ve been killing everyone!”
Jennifer kept facing Fenson, her hand sliding towards the sidearm in her back pocket. “Private. Stay frosty. We can work this thing through.”
“People are dead!” She shouted the last word at Jennifer. The gun trembled in her grip. A small trickle of sweat was making its way down from her hair line.
A sound from came from behind Jennifer. The moment hung, as if time was taking careful steps not to trip up. Jennifer drew the sidearm from behind her and up in one smooth motion, the weapon level and steady on Fenson’s face. Fenson’s weapon was pointing at Jennifer, the barrel black and without compromise. Both of them held that pose for as long as a heartbeat. Then Fenson squeezed the trigger, the shock of the shot going past Jennifer’s shoulder. She felt the nick of the bullet against her cheek, bright as a hornet’s sting.
Fenson’s head whipped back, her body pinwheeling into the door frame. Jennifer’s eyes focussed on the barrel of the sidearm in her hand, smoke making a lazy rise towards the ceiling. Damn. She didn’t even remember pulling the trigger, hadn’t felt the pull and buck of the weapon. Just like that, Fenson was gone.
Her ears were ringing. She remembered when she’d been posted as a member of a riot squad. A flash grenade had been let off too close to her, some rookie mistake. The noise had been hot and white, feeling like mercury in her head. That’s what this felt like, blood trickling from her ear after her eardrum burst.
Jennifer lowered the sidearm, turning to see Rupert lying on the morgue’s floor next to Simpson. Fenson’s bullet had taken him in the throat. He was gone too. She looked at the weapon in her hand. Only four days.
She was going to need more stims.