A Collective Pseudonym and an Expanding Universe: A Conversation with James S.A. Corey
Authors contain multitudes. They encompass many worlds, characters, images, intangibles, and emotions. But sometimes an author literally contains a multitude. James S.A. Corey is one such author.
James S.A. Corey is the collective pseudonym of Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank. They are the minds behind the blockbuster series The Expanse, which has been adapted for TV by Alcon Media and the SyFy channel. Eventually encompassing nine books, the series mashes up genre styles with rip-roaring space opera adventure. There’s political intrigue, military action, noir style mystery, and so much more.
Released by Orbit on December 6th, their newest book, Babylon’s Ashes picks up where Nemesis Games left off. The powerhouse team behind James S.A. Corey has been nominated for both the Hugo and Locus awards and won the 2014 Locus Award for Abaddon’s Gate.
The Expanse books feature aspects of various genres from noir to military SF and more. What genres can readers expect you two to play with in this new book?
It’s always our hope to have the books feel a little different from one another, whether that’s playing with genre expectations like noir and western or making different formal decisions about point of view the way we do in Nemesis Games and Babylon’s Ashes. Babylon is a war story, and so there are ways that it’s bigger and more sprawling than what we’ve seen before in the series.
I know that The Expanse series originated as an idea for an MMO video game and was adapted into a pen and paper RPG. Ty once mentioned, “games make terrible books.” What are some of the challenges you faced adapting the game universe into a series of novels?
The biggest challenge is not trying to keep the moments from games that don’t translate into a story. One of the things that we’ve had to pay attention to not just moving from game to books but also from books into television, is the way that the strengths of each medium mean you have to approach the story differently to get the same (or similar enough) effects.
Since The Expanse universe grew out of an MMO and tabletop game, did you find that running through it as an RPG campaign helped to flesh out the universe?
Yes, most of the worldbuilding was done bit by bit over years between the original MMO conception and the books.
How did playing through the world as an RPG influence the book? I heard some of the noir elements crept in because of the way Daniel played his character in the game.
Daniel played Detective Miller in the game. And some other characters in the books were played by other people. Some were NPCs. Certainly when we started plotting out the first book, we were coming into it from the perspective of a mystery novel in part because of the kinds of stories we’d imagined in playing through the game.
Daniel, you’ve talked at length about how the books are planned and outlined but evolve as you two write. Have any of the novels gone in a completely different and unexpected direction far removed from the original plan as you wrote your way through the story?
We’ve always been very good at leaving ourselves enough room to find the most awesome thing. We’ve never had a whole story pivot in the middle of writing and become something else, but we’ve had a lot of “Ooh! You know what would be even cooler?” moments, and we pretty much never turn away from those if we can help it.
Have you ever argued about who gets to write a character or scene?
No. I think we’re always quite willing to let the other guy do more of the work if he wants to.
Who is/was your favorite character in the series to write?
They’re all kind of our favorites when we’re writing them. It has to be that way to work. But there are a few who are specific. Ty always has to write the last pass on Amos’ dialog. Daniel has Avasarala’s and Miller’s voices most clearly in his head. But everyone gets good lines, and everyone has moments that are emotionally interesting. They’re all your favorite at one point or another.
In the past you’ve mentioned that you “don’t like to let science get in the way of the awesome.” Was there any bit of interesting science you had to toss out because it overly complicated a story?
There was one really difficult question in Nemesis Games that took a long time to figure out. Basically, if you’re in a ship accelerating at a constant 2g and a thruster put you into a spin, what does it feel like inside the ship? Is there some sideways pull from the spin? Are you pressed against the wall? Does your perceived weight change? It took a lot of conversations with actual physicists to really get our heads around it. But explaining it would have broken the pace of the scene, so all that conversation got boiled down to half a line of dialog, and we moved on. The science is all in there, but you have to squint really hard to see it.
How does it feel to have the images that were originally in your head while writing The Expanse book series translated onto screens around the globe?
It’s great, but it’s also really more of a testament to the team that Alcon put together than anything particular of ours. The books started off as a collaboration, and it’s really just gotten to be a bigger and bigger one, with hundreds—maybe a thousand or two—people putting in their skills and talents. It’s great seeing what that larger team does, though, and it’s great to be part of it.
You both have been involved in writing for The Expanse TV series. How does your writing process differ when writing for the screen rather than the page?
Writing a novel is the last step between you and the audience. Writing a script is totally different. A script is a set of design instructions for maybe half a dozen different departments—props, effects, scene designers, construction, costuming, actors, directors, lighting and sound and . . . It boggles the mind, really. And the script has to give them enough information that they know what to work with. So in a book you can say “the light glimmered off the evil-looking pistol” but in a script, you’d better be ready to say what “glimmered” means and what makes a pistol evil as opposed to a morally good or neutral pistol. And, in addition to all that, the script is also a document that the development company and the network can use to drum up interest and faith in the show. Going between having just one audience to dozens has been hands-down the hardest part of that process.
Has working on the TV show impacted the way you’ve been working on the upcoming novels?
Not really. We’ve got a lot of habits and practices for the books that have been working pretty well, and the books are so far ahead in the story, it really feels very separate.
Have either of you jumped out of the writer’s room on the TV series and found yourselves in costume as extras?
Just once. We have a joint cameo in season one and Ty appears in a small and deeply-transformed way in season two.
How does it feel getting closer to the end of the book series? It’s a huge undertaking!
It’s exciting. We’re at the point right now that we’re looking at how much story is left and how many pages we have to tell it, and it feels like we’re coming in right about where we wanted to be. Nine novels and a collection of short stories will end us at a little over a million and a half words, and I don’t think we could really have done what we’re doing here at a shorter length.
What is one writing lesson you learned from working with each other?
Ty was the one who brought in how to do effective action scenes. That was really his. At the beginning, Daniel was much stronger with descriptive passages. But after this many years working together, our literary toolboxes look much more similar than they did at the start.
What are some projects that you two are working on separately?
Daniel has just finished up the five-book epic fantasy The Dagger and the Coin. Ty’s been doing some work in video games.
What’s next for James S.A. Corey?
Well, in the immediate future, we still have three books and two novellas that we’re committed to. That’s actually more job security than most writers get. Beyond that, there’s a list of ideas and prospects—some prose, some scripts—that we may be able to talk about at some point down the road.
Do you still get together to play pen and paper RPGs? What is the most recent game you’ve played?
Less RPGs and more console and computer games at the moment. We get a lot of our imaginative workouts done at work right now.
What does James S.A. Corey look like? I’ve heard you guys like to imagine him as an old guy at the Worldcon bar.
Like Larry Niven’s less-handsome cousin.
Chris Urie is a writer and editor from Ocean City, NJ. He has written and published everything from city food guide articles to critical essays on video game level design. He currently lives in Philadelphia with an ever expanding collection of books and a small black rabbit that has an attitude problem.