Driving through a Cloud with Pat Cadigan
Used to be that Pat Cadigan could “do anything in five thousand words or less,” but these days she’s running a little long. Her stories are bumping up closer to ten thousand. Not much else has changed. Her work remains relentlessly unpredictable, and simultaneously forward-looking and retro-flective.
It’s been easiest for critics, reviewers, and fans to label Cadigan a cyberpunk writer and then offer a variety of caveats. Indeed, she has written and continues to write about the many and varied intersections of technology and biology, but once you try to put Cadigan in a category you rapidly find more exceptions to than confirmations of the rule.
Cadigan is driven to write.
“The same thing that compels me to live [compels me to write],” she said. “It’s just what I do, and I’m always doing it, even if I’m not at the keyboard.”
There is often an undercurrent of dark humor and the looming shadow of dark past in her fiction; occasionally there’s even nagging feeling that someone is pulling one over on you while also being deadly serious.
Cadigan can dodge any bullet the future fires at humankind, it seems. She speculates around corners and sees into the shadows of even the darkest possibilities. Her vision of tomorrow is kaleidoscopic.
Author of the novels Mindplayers, Synners, and Fools, as well as numerous stories and novellas, Cadigan has been nominated numerous times for the Hugo but it wasn’t until this year that she finally won the award, along with the Locus Award for the novelette “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi.” Orbiting Jupiter, humans opt to surgical modify themselves to be like marine lifeforms such as octopuses. She recently released a holiday story, “The Christmas Show.” Additionally, “Chalk,” tells a story of two friends who a private place to be creative away from the prying eyes of adults only to discover magic.
What do these stories all have common beyond their author? They’re all different.
Is there ever a limit to the “exciting possibilities and dangerously unpredictable” aspects of writing?
The only limits are those the writer sets, either consciously or unconsciously. I am primarily a fiction writer but twenty years ago, I ran away with a carnival sideshow so I could write an article about it for Omni magazine. Well, I didn’t really run away. I had been GOH at a convention in Calgary, Alberta, and they brought in Scott McClelland’s Carnival Diablo to perform. It was wonderful. After the performance, I got to know Scott and the other performer Ryan Madden and we kept in touch.
Later that year, the sideshow had some dates to play in British Columbia and I decided that it would make a great article. So I pitched it to then-editor-in-chief Keith Ferrell, who gave me the go-ahead and I traveled with Scott and Ryan and Julianne Manchur who had joined the show. It was a total departure for me. Travelling through the Canadian Rockies in a van in December can be exhilarating but it can also be scary. I remember when we drove through a cloud—we were high up and the clouds were that low. I’d thought it would be like driving through a patch of fog but it was decidedly different. It wasn’t an easy trip but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
I’ve since written two nonfiction books—I lucked into an assignment to write the book about the making of the Lost In Space movie in 1997 and I was able to write it because I’d learned how to write nonfiction with Carnival Diablo. The next year, Universal re-made The Mummy and I was lucky enough to write the making-of book for that one, too. After the book came out, Mike Resnick told me I had done a very good job. I felt like I’d gotten an Olympic medal; Mike has traveled extensively in Africa and has forgotten more about Egypt than I’ll ever learn.
And just FYI: I was in my mid-to-late forties when I took on those making-of assignments. You don’t have to be a young person to try something new.
Are there any stories in which you feel as though you got it “wrong” or took a misstep? And, conversely, what are some of the stories that helped you turn corners or take leaps forward? And why?
Well, I had to make a late correction in the galleys of my first novel, Mindplayers. When I started the novel, there was no way to signal someone who was in the middle of REM sleep, to tell them they were dreaming, without waking them up. By the time I turned the novel in, a method had been developed to do that, so a person could receive a low-level stimulus to tell them they were dreaming, so they could dream lucidly—i.e., they know they’re dreaming and they take charge of the action. I had to change that part of the novel in which I stated it wasn’t possible.
Conversely, Synners isn’t as science-fictional as it used to be. Some of the technology is now possible. The technology that isn’t possible has not been proved to be impossible yet.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on the novel based on/inspired by/taking off from “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi,” working title: See You When You Get There. I also have several other novels simmering on the back-burner as well.
Without getting into content, how are you moving from “The Girl-Thing” to See You When? Are you adding on, launching off, what?
“Girl-Thing” will not be part of the novel, which occurs a few hundred years after.
How has it challenged you so far?
I’ve had to learn even more nuts-and-bolts about the solar system, interplanetary travel, habitats in space, and all kinds of other stuff I won’t go into right now because I don’t want to spoil the surprise.
How much of what you do just happens and how much is planned out beforehand?
That depends on what I’m working on. Sometimes an idea arrives whole; other times I have to write my way through it and keep slogging. When I work at novel-length, I always have a roadmap—I know where I’m starting out from and where I want to go, and I know the major milestones I’ll hit in between. But it’s not so mapped out that there won’t be surprises. I like to leave room for spontaneous combustion/generation, not to mention the occasional detour/side-trip/scenic overlook.
You’ve been doing this now for a good while, has your process changed much? If so, how?
I’ve been a professional writer for thirty-four years; for the first thirty-three, I simply wrote whenever, however I could. These days, I lounge on the sofa with my iPad and my Bluetooth keyboard, often with the cat curled up on my lap and music playing. I start early in the morning and go until I’m dry. At some point in the late afternoon, I put on the TV, even if I’m still working. As the quintessential American teenager, I did all my homework in front of the TV and I still do.
After years of having built in time limits and restraints, responsibilities as a caregiver, how do you keep from just . . . you know, watching the TV without doing the writing?
All these years, I haven’t been making time to watch TV, I’ve been making time so I can write. I’m never not connected to my writing. That’s just how it works for me.
Is there a part of a story, long or short, that tends to give you the most difficulty?
Yes. There are difficulties inherent in every part of a story. Which will give me the most trouble depends on the story. They’re all different. It just depends on the story.
Do you feel more at home in the short form or the long form?
For the last ten years, I’ve been writing short fiction because caring for my elderly mother was so demanding it was impossible to find enough time and space to think at novel-length. She passed away just before Christmas in 2012 and now I’m able to plan novels again.
The short story is my first love because that’s where I started out. Well, technically, the novelette, according to SFWA word-counts. Back when I was working a full-time day job (and looking after a new baby), I could do anything in five thousand words or less. It was all I had time for. My first novel was actually a fix-up of a few novelettes and a short story, with added interstitial material—Shawna McCarthy, who was at Bantam then, had read the stories and thought they’d make a good book. My second novel, Synners, was actually the first novel I wrote from beginning to end without any pre-existing material (it sort of jumped off from my short story “Rock On,” but the story wasn’t part of the novel).
Since then, I’ve been wordier—my shortest fiction seldom runs much below eight thousand words, and it’s usually closer to ten thousand words even after rigorous cutting. Ellen Datlow taught me how to trim the fat and kill my darlings. (Although I don’t really kill them—I cut them and put them in an out-takes file. That way I can have my cake and eat it, too.)
Generally, the story, whatever it may be, tells me whether it’s the start of a novel or a stand-alone piece of short fiction.
How do you KNOW?
That’s one I can’t answer. I don’t know how I know. I recognize it when I see it.
“The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi,” which won a Hugo in 2013, (please pardon my immodesty for bragging), was meant to be a one-off. It was only after it came out—in Edge of Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan—that I consciously began thinking about a novel.
I was definitely working outside my comfort zone with “Girl-Thing.” I had never written this kind of story before and I had to do a lot of research to get all the nuts-and-bolts right. It was hard but it was also great fun figuring out what the characters could and couldn’t do, what could and couldn’t happen. These things are not a matter of opinion and I knew I had to be really careful because, as I have pointed out elsewhere many times in the past, science fiction readers are smart. If you don’t know the difference between centripetal force and centrifugal force, if you don’t know the difference between weight and mass, if you don’t know how things like angular momentum, orbital resonance, and gravity boosts work, you’ll look like a moron. The readers will tell you and you’ll feel like a moron.
And incidentally, now I’m sixty. You’re never too old to try something different or learn something new.
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. He is the Staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly and Booklifenow.com. He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006. Jones lives in Upstate South Carolina with his wife, daughter, and flying poodle.