Monday, December 20, 2010

Author Interview: Leonid Korogodski

Today we learn a little more about Leonid Korogodski, author of Pink Noise. Come back tomorrow for an insightful guest post from him about world building!

Jennifer Walker: Tell us about Leo the writer. How, when and why did you get started writing?

Leonid Korogodski: Jennifer, thank you for the chance to talk about myself and my writing.

I may have written a poem or two as a very young child (who doesn’t?), but I didn’t really start writing fiction until my thirties. English is not my native language. I was born in Ukraine, then a part of the Soviet Union. I spoke Russian best, and Ukrainian less fluently. But writing fiction in either language didn’t cross my mind. In the Russian intelligentsia, there is a decades-old polarization between “physicists” and “lyricists.” With my interest and then career choice in science, I considered myself firmly in the former camp.

In 1992, I came to the United States as a graduate student at M.I.T. I had problems understanding spoken English even at normal speed; TV was nigh incomprehensible. During my first year, I took an obligatory course in English as a Second Language, getting a C. I had tried to make a formal essay too poetic, which was one of the reasons for the low grade. But even now, definite and indefinite articles are my Achilles’ heel.

Several years later, I found myself participating in a computer role-playing game. I noticed that it was like a story but with a bare-bones, impoverished content (admittedly, by necessity, since it boggles the mind how much text one would have to write to cover all choices a player can make; interactive fiction is still a largely unexplored field). As part of a bet, I set out to put more meat around the adventures of my character, following the game’s events; the story was a short novel in the form of a diary. Overall, it wasn’t good by my current standards, but I’m glad my standards at the time were lower. The author’s judgment is subjective, but something told me I could do it. I could write a story of my own.

I took an online course in writing science fiction and fantasy, given by Marta Randall. I joined the Online Writing Workshop (or OWW). I took part in a novel-writing workshop by Kij Johnson and the Viable Paradise workshop on Martha’s Vineyard.

The latter was especially memorable. One week of a super-intense writing experience with two Tor editors, several bestselling authors, as well as a beehive of enthusiastic writers like yourself—and hardly any sleep—during a quiet period on Martha’s Vineyard, post high season. Even now, every year they announce their next submission period, I think of returning. I keep going to every VP alumni meeting at conventions that I attend, in order to recapture even just a little bit of that experience.

Pink Noise, incidentally, began as a writing exercise offered at the 10th anniversary reunion of VP graduates, during the last two days of that year’s workshop—exactly one year after I attended myself. The theme was “Fairies and Flamethrowers.”

Jennifer Walker: Is sci fi the only genre you're interested in writing?

Leonid Korogodski: I also write fantasy. One of my works in progress is a low-magic epic fantasy series, which I brought to Viable Paradise. It is set in an alternate world with two cultures in focus, one modeled on ancient China of the Warring States Period and the other on ancient Israel at the time of the appearance of Christianity and the Jewish Wars. The two meet in such a way that this alternate China plays the part of the Roman Empire. But, instead of being an empire, the alternate China has a feudal pyramid; while instead of being a kingdom, the “Israel” is an ancient republic, with elected judges. To complicate matters, the early Christianity meets, and is influenced by, not ancient Greek philosophy but the “One Hundred Schools” of the most philosophically active period in Chinese history. A host of complex characters on all sides (there are more than two) are thrown into this boiling cauldron of political, ideological, and very personal conflicts. This otherness, more so than what little magic is added to the story, is what makes it fantasy.

I like science fiction and fantasy because they allow one to create situations that are impossible in our world and/or that drive the test of character to the extreme. Despite being set in a posthuman world, where an entire mind can be “uploaded” into a digital format and where cyborgs rule (though I opted for a less dehumanizing term “parahuman”), Pink Noise is ultimately about what it means to be human. The extreme environment is there to serve as a foil, in order to lay our consciousness bare, to unveil the aspects that are hard to get at otherwise.

I don’t believe in a hard divide between science fiction and fantasy on one side and literary fiction on the other. I think there is a continuous scale of suspension of disbelief required from the reader in order to enjoy a given story. Some call for more, some call for less. But some suspension of disbelief is always needed; after all, anything fictional is, by definition, not true. I think that the center of gravity of modern fiction has been inching slowly but steadily toward the fantastical side. It may not be called fantasy or science fiction; some critics are incredibly skilled at maneuvering themselves out of applying these labels when they like a story, and even the author may go along with them. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale is 100% pure science fiction, and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife is as good an example of slipstream as anything I’ve seen. But while some lament the impending “death of the novel,” I say to them: of the realistic novel, maybe; welcome to the other world!

Jennifer Walker: Tell us about Leo the person. What is your day job, tell us about your family, non-writing interests, etc.

Leonid Korogodski: I am a single father, which probably already tells a lot. My daughter Anna is now 18, a senior in high school. She has been taking classical ballet since she was four. But dance is not her only passion. She’s now applying to colleges that have good nursing programs.

I left academia not long after getting my Ph.D. in Mathematics. Since then, I’ve been working in the software industry, most recently in the field of web access control. If you use online banking, more likely than not you’re using one of our products.

As you can probably tell from Pink Noise, I find enjoyment in learning many different fields of knowledge. I am quite passionate about some controversial science used in the story, the most radical being the Plasma Universe, an approach to space sciences that is opposed to the currently ruling gravity-dominated dogma. And I love history.

But, above all, I enjoy researching, learning something new. A famous Soviet mathematician Israel Gelfand lived to 96, merrily jogging a mile almost to his death. He liked to say that one only begins to grow old when one decides that there is nothing more worth learning. I’d put it like this: a dog is only old when it won’t learn new tricks.

Jennifer Walker: Pink Noise is way out there compared to other sci fi I've read (I almost hate using that term because I'm afraid of cheapening your work). It's incredibly imaginative and technical. Tell us about how you got this story and brought it to life. Are you trying to pass on a message to your readers through the book?

Leonid Korogodski: A famous science-fiction author Theodore Sturgeon said that 95% of anything is crap. Science fiction is no exception. But I’m glad that you have placed Pink Noise in the top 5%.

As I said before, the story is ultimately about what it means to be human. More specifically, it focuses on the subtle but fundamental differences between analog and digital intelligences (brain versus computer). What makes us different? Can computers completely replace our bodies? And what would happen if someone tries it?

Pink Noise is far from being the first story that asks these questions. The idea of the Technological Singularity (or simply, the Singularity) was first proposed by Vernor Vinge, a science-fiction author and mathematician, although he didn’t write much about it himself. The Singularity-related fiction knows such authors as Charles Stross, Peter Watts, Karl Schroeder, Greg Egan, and many others.

But, in the best traditions of post-cyberpunk, their stories typically feature non-conscious intelligent entities that have surpassed the humankind, which has to eke some living in their shadow. While I was already working on Pink Noise, I came across Blindsight by Peter Watts. This story, better than any other, argues that a non-conscious intelligent mind is not only possible but it is optimal. According to Blindsight, our consciousness is a random fluke, offering no evolutionary advantage. Not only does Peter Watts introduce an alien species as an example, but he also shows how a humanoid species could have evolved on Earth, reaching the same or higher intelligence than us but without developing consciousness.

Blindsight is a brilliant story, conveying a sense of despair deeper and more profound than anything I’ve ever read, science fiction or not. I voted for it for the Hugo Awards (alas, a happy story won that year). But I believe that it’s conceptually wrong. I say this not in any sort of adversarial spirit; I know Peter personally and we argued rather loudly about this. At least in part, Pink Noise is a response to Blindsight, the kind of response that brings about not a fight but, hopefully, a dialog in which authors speak through their stories—the kind of “fight” in which the reader wins.

Jennifer Walker: The edition you sent me for review is a piece of art in itself. The glossy illustrations, textural details on the cover, inside formatting--very elaborate. Tell us a little about what went into the design, as well as the decision to put so much into it. Will there be a paperback edition any time soon?

Leonid Korogodski: Originally meant to be a short story, Pink Noise grew into a novella. In the science-fiction field, it is impossible to publish a novella as a standalone book through a major publisher. They simply don’t publish novellas, period. (I didn’t even try.) Small press publishers, however, do publish novellas. So I set out to look for one. But it didn’t take me long to realize that, instead of looking for a small press publisher, I could become one.

I suppose it started as a tentative question in my mind. But as I began looking at what is involved, I discovered that I quite enjoy designing books. The feeling was comparable to the one I had when I discovered that maybe I could write. So I decided to make Pink Noise the first book published by my own small press company, Silverberry Press. (I have a silverberry tree in my front yard. The berries are edible and red, not silver; what is silver is the underside of the leaves—hence the logo, with the red globe at the center and the green and silver arms like those of a galaxy.)

Usually, small-press publishers print limited editions. Instead of using scarcity to increase value, I decided to produce a book with a deluxe design and also illustrations, thus adding perceived value in the eyes of the customer and compensating for the shorter length. That probably was a mistake, since the book is currently being sold mostly online, where one can’t see—and feel—the actual design. I admit that there probably was an element of pride in this too: I must have wanted in my heart to design something like that.

As to the paperback edition, that depends on how the book sells.

Jennifer Walker: Tell us about your artist. How you met him, his background, what went into the illustrations.

Leonid Korogodski: I met Borislav Varadinov (aka Guddah) on There were many interesting, capable bidders for my project. But I felt that Borislav wanted to do it not just for the money but also out of his love for science fiction in general and science-fiction illustration in particular.

Since then, we have become friends. And, as I learned during the course of work on the illustrations, that Borislav too had been in a coma once: as he was walking on a sidewalk, he was hit by a speeding car. So something very personal must be reflected in his Pink Noise illustrations.

Borislav is a native Bulgarian living in Belgium; he recently obtained the Belgian citizenship. He now works as an art teacher at the prestigious St. John’s International School in Brussels.

Jennifer Walker: How much research and preparation went into Pink Noise?

Leonid Korogodski: A lot. I have a whole library of books at home that I read just for Pink Noise, not counting the articles in science journals. From cosmology to nanotechnology to molecular biology to network science to far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics. “Soft” sciences too: I read much on the Zulu, Malayalam, and Irish cultures, since all three are intertwined in the story. I began to learn the Zulu language (my coworkers must have been amused to hear me practice the clicks), the martial arts of South India, the lore of the banshee (I didn’t realize that, contrary to the popular image, the real Irish banshee is a kindred spirit). And you can safely bet I have another library at home for that epic fantasy of mine.

I don’t write about what I know. I write about what I want to learn.

If learning prevents one from growing old, I must have stopped my aging for a while. Although the book production part—and now, the selling part—may have brought that even.

The book had to be printed in Asia, since the cost would have been prohibitively high otherwise. I had no experience in dealing with overseas companies, nor with the customs officials. For example, I should have anticipated that, being a first-time importer, my cargo would be selected for inspection at the port of entry. Since I didn’t, the books arrived to my distributor’s warehouses barely in time before the publication date.

Just one small detail of the pre-printing process. A curious thing happened to the pearlescent varnish mentioned in the print edition’s colophon (though not in the ebook edition), since it’s not found on the cover (it should have been applied over the shiny parts of the weapon). The printer in India didn’t have it available. An ink manufacturer in the same city was shipping their pearlescent varnish overseas but not to the domestic market, citing no demand. So I ordered some in the States and had it shipped to India. Someone must have made a mistake, adding a zero to the declared price, making it go over some threshold that made it necessary for the printer to pay a duty, which he obviously didn’t want to do. Explaining things to customs didn’t help. Indian customs have the grip of a lion standing over its prey. They actually bargained over the duty price. Eventually, they confiscated the varnish. The printer suggested we wait until they put it on auction and get it real cheap (for the same “no demand” reason). But it took so long that I decided to go without the pearlescent varnish.

Jennifer Walker: Tell us about your writing process. Do you outline in advance, randomly start writing, or something in between?

Leonid Korogodski: I use an outline of sorts, but it’s in my head. It’s a major pain to put it down on paper, for two reasons. One is it’s non-linear in nature. And the other one is that the landscape of the mind is a dynamic thing. I’d say the story (or its outline) is boiling somewhere in my subconscious until ready to surface. But even when it does, it still keeps simmering and changing as I bring it into focus. Sometimes I see a new way it could go.

Usually I start by selecting the research materials and studying them while letting the subconscious process go on, occasionally peeking in to bring this or that character out in the clear, this or that plot element—essentially, meditating on them while doing research. I begin putting words on paper (or rather, into a computer file) only when the story is almost crystallized. I feel the time is up when researching becomes a chore and I am anxious to start writing.

Jennifer Walker: Tell us about your next writing project.

Leonid Korogodski: I have that humongous epic fantasy I mentioned, which I had to postpone working on to finish Pink Noise (at the time, I thought it wouldn’t take too long to write what looked like a short story). Now it seems I’ll have to postpone it again to write a prequel to Pink Noise. At some point, I got an idea of how Pink Noise could be expanded into a novel, but that would require introducing a character so complex, with such rich history that it called not for just one but several prequels.

With the working title of Foiled, the story will be set in the same world as Pink Noise. But where Pink Noise concentrated on the inner psyche of very few characters, Foiled will concern itself more with the parahuman society. It will be easier to get into, too, through the eyes of an outsider character: an Amish boy whisked to Venus by a peculiar set of circumstances. There, he gets caught up in a complex intrigue, making some unexpected friends his age and very powerful enemies.

Jennifer Walker: Who are some of your favorite authors to read? Have any of them influenced your own writing?

Leonid Korogodski: I see you left the hardest question for the last. When I was a little child, I received Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as a gift, in Russian translation. Here was a story that talked about fantastical beings, like elves, orcs, dwarves, yet not like in a fairy tale. The fact that the world of the story was presented so completely and so seriously, as if it were real, with politics (where do you see politics in a fairy tale?) and all its complexity—this fact was a major discovery for the young me. Without it, perhaps I’d never have started that first novel many years later.

Stylistically, I still see some influence of Guy Gavriel Kay, at least the poetry in prose. Also, the idea of creating alternate worlds based on our existing cultures, with little magic involved, first came to him. Of his work, I like Tigana and The Lions of al-Rassan best. But I’m yet to read his latest work, set—drum roll, please!—in alternate China. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, besides being an excellent read, motivated me to start that epic fantasy. I already talked about Peter Watts’ Blindsight. But I would like to add Karl Schroeder’s work, both his Virga series and the early novels (Ventus, Permanence, Lady of Mazes). I have only discovered them recently, so they didn’t have much time to influence me yet. But they gave me food for thought. So time will tell!

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