Interview with Ian Tregillis (VO)

With only one novel, « Bitter seeds », Ian Tregillis became one of my favourite authors, and it’s a great pleasure for me to publish this long interview made by emails. Once again, thank you Ian ! Thank you for your time and your answers !

« Bitter seeds » has been published in 2010 in the US, there isn’t any french translation scheduled…

The book contains all the things I love, the things I love more and more : a mix of crime novel, spy novel, alternate history, fantastic and magic.

It’s the first book of the Milkweed Triptych, the story takes place during the World Ward II, Raybould Marsh is the witness of a strange and unusual scene in Spain, and find out that the Nazis have created some supermen, some men and women with special abilities, such as Gretel, a woman capable to see far far far away in the future… Back in England, Marsh convinces his superiors of the reality of this threat, and the secret services decide to bring in some warlocks to help them win the war…


Can you introduce yourself, for the french readers who don’t know you or « Bitter seeds » and « The Milkweed triptych » ? Your work, career…

I’m very fortunate to have any sort of writing career at all. I still feel like a phony most days ! In my « day » job, I work as a physicist. I studied astrophysics in school and wrote a thesis on radio galaxies. My fiction writing efforts take place during evenings and weekends.

I’ve written a few short stories, which have appeared in places like and Apex Magazine, and I’ve written for several « Wild Cards » novels. Most of my writing has been focused on my own novels, though. I sold a trilogy to Tor books in 2008. My first novel, BITTER SEEDS, came out in the U.S. in 2010. The sequel, THE COLDEST WAR, is coming out this year (it’s already out as an audio book), and the final book of that series, NECESSARY EVIL, will be out in 2013. (They’re also coming out from Orbit in the UK, in 2-month intervals from December 2012 to March 2013.)

And I’ve just sold a new novel unrelated to the others, SOMETHING MORE THAN NIGHT, though the ink hasn’t dried on the contracts yet so I don’t know when that will come out.

As for my writing career, I always sum it up for people like this : it’s better to be lucky than good. It’s best to be both, but if you can’t, choose luck ! It worked for me…

I grew up in the American midwest. Like most writers, I always felt drawn to writing, even from childhood. (For me, it’s the only form of creative expression where I show even the tiniest sliver of ability. I have no talent for music, even less for the visual arts.) But I was foolish, and for many years I thought that I would only be able to indulge my interest in writing when life gave me the opportunity. In other words I didn’t understand that writing is something you have to make time for ! So I wasted a lot of time, waiting until I finished graduate school to start writing. I took a new job that forced me to move over a thousand miles away from my friends and family. It seemed like the right time to indulge in a very solitary endeavor.

So I spent a couple years learning the nuts and bolts by trading critiques in an online workshop. Joining that workshop literally changed my life. From there, I learned about face-to-face writing workshops, and eventually I applied to the six-week Clarion workshop. One of my Clarion instructors was Walter Jon Williams, who, it turned out, lived relatively close to me. At the end of the six weeks, heinvited me to join his local writers’ group. I didn’t know that when I took my job I moved into the middle of a large group of professional science fiction and fantasy writers! I was extremely lucky to have so many amazing writers take me under their wings: Walter, Daniel Abraham, Melinda Snodgrass, Sage Walker, George R. R. Martin, S. M. Stirling…

You’re living in New Mexico, there’s an important community of sci-fi writers in that state, can you tell us more about it ?

I moved to New Mexico to take a job after finishing graduate school. Little did I realize that I had moved into the center of a very vibrant community of science fiction writers ! I was extremely fortunate to have Walter Jon Williams as a Clarion instructor. He’s the one who brought me into the fold, so to speak, and I’m indebted to him for that. Living just within an hour’s drive from my house are Daniel Abraham (who also writes as M.L.N. Hanover) and his writing partner Ty Franck (they write together as James S. A. Corey); George R. R. Martin; S. M. Stirling; Melinda Snodgrass ; Sage Walker ; Pati Nagle ; Jane Lindskold; Bob Vardeman; Walter Jon Williams… the list goes on and on. And I’ve probably overlooked several !

Thanks to the high density of SF writers, and an equally vibrant group of fans, we have a terrific annual science fiction convention in New Mexico. It’s a really wonderful community, and I’m very lucky to be a part of it. My entire social life outside of my « day job » revolves around writing, or springs from it.

How does a scientist like you end up writing sci-fi books about alternate World War II and british magicians against nazis supermen ? How did you get the idea of « Bitter seeds » ?

I have always loved science fiction. It started when I came home from my very first day of school. My mother plopped me in front of the television, and there before my eyes was a rerun of the British SF show « Doctor Who. » I was never the same…

Not long after I started trying to write seriously, I read a magazine article about a very strange chapter in the Second World War. The British Admiralty called it Project Habakkuk: a plan to build aircraft carriers out of a ice. Special ice, but still… What a wonderful concept !

Unfortunately (or fortunately ?) the project never made it past the prototype stage. (I believe they got so far as to build a small prototype on a lake in the Canadian Rockies.) But I couldn’t shake the mental image of vast iceberg-ships plying the North Atlantic. So I started to wonder, gosh, what if the project had been successful? What if these impossible ice ships had threatened to change the course of the war ? And the answer hit me like a bolt out of the blue: Obviously, Ian, the Axis would have sent a spy to sabotage the shipyards. A spy with very special abilities… Once I imagined that spy, it was a short step to imagining the project that created him, and all the other progeny of that project. Among them, but sort of in the background, I imagined they had a madwoman who could see the future. I wrote a short story about that spy and the ice ship. It wasn’t very good, and was never published. After writing it, I turned to other things. But my imagination kept returning to World War II andthese secret superheroes working for the Third Reich. I started to wonder, what if the Allied spy agencies learned about this secret project? What would they do ? I was particularly interested in the idea of an ordinary man, somebody with no special abilities at all, whose job is to thwart enemy superheroes. And that’s where Milkweed came from.

When you wrote the three books, « Bitter seeds », « The coldest war » and « Necessary evil », did you have all the story ? Did you have the plan of the whole narrative ? Or did the story come as you were writing it ?

With the help of my writing group, I had the entire trilogy outlined before I started writing anything. It had to be done that way, because of Gretel, the mad clairvoyant ! I originally thought this would be a single novel, and that I would write it strictly for practice. Our writing group at the time had monthly meetings, and one rule : in order to attend a meeting, you had to submit a piece of your own writing. That ensured everybody there was serious and dedicated. But I got tired of scrambling to come up with a new story each month, so I decided I’d spend a year attempting to write a novel.

But I was a little nervous about it. I was afraid the group would tell me it was a silly idea and not worth the time. I timidly presented the group with a brief summary of the idea (World War II, Nazi superheroes, British warlocks, spies, explosions, blah blah blah…) But instead of telling me it was a dumb idea, they were very enthusiastic about it. And they immediately convinced me the story didn’t fit in a single book. And they were right about that, the idea I brought to them was an embryonic form of what eventually became THE COLDEST WAR, the middle book of my trilogy.

So in the course of about 15 minutes this simple, self-contained practice novel I had envisioned turned into a much larger and much more complicated story. And thanks to Gretel it immediately became clear that the entire story would have to be outlined ahead of time. I decided that I wanted her to be able to peer very deeply in to the future. But that meant she could read the future across multiple books in a series. And that meant that if I wanted everything to hang together in a satisfying way, I had to dissect her plan, and work backwards from there.

So the entire group got together one Saturday afternoon and, using colored markers on a large dry-erase board, we plotted out the trilogy over the course of about 8 hours. In the end, oddly enough, the final books show very little similarity to the original storyline we sketched out. But that marathon plotting session gave me a starting point, and it enabled me to refine the plan as I went along.

Having said all of that, I hope readers find the trilogy hangs together. I gave it my very best effort… but in the end it’s not for me to say whether the end result is successful.

« Bitter seeds » takes place during world war II, « The coldest War» in 1963, will the third book be later too (I’m curious, I know…) ? Why this flashforward in the second book ? It’s really interesting by the way, that allows you to explore a whole new era and come back on the consequences of what happened in the first book in retrospect.

Aha ! That’s a very good question. The third book is a direct continuation of the story : the first chapter of NECESSARY EVIL picks up immediately after the end of THE COLDEST WAR. Back when I thought I would write just a single book in this setting, the original idea was for a story set during the Cold War. Perhaps inspired a little by John LeCarre, I wanted to tell the story about a retired spy who gets dragged back into a secret world against his will. That’s the story I proposed to my writing group. But they said, « This entire novel is built upon a complicated backstory where you have World War II and superheroes and black magic… You can’t skip all that! Are you crazy? » So before I could get to the part of the story that really fascinated me, I first had to write an entire novel set in the 1940s. But I’m glad they convinced me to do it this way. It’s fun to think about the long-term consequences of people’s actions, and to play with how certain decisions might snowball into new problems many years later.

In your heart, in your mind, do you consider the Milkweed books as the story of Raybould Marsh or the story of Gretel ?

Another good question ! I have always thought of the Milkweed books as Marsh’s story. All of the characters are (I hope) changed and affected by the story that envelopes them, but to me it’s really the story of Marsh’s life. But the lives and fates of Marsh and Gretel are so closely intertwined that it’s difficult to separate them. Gretel is the axis around which the entire story spins. But Marsh is the poor guy who has to deal with her…

In « Bitter seeds », the magic is not a Harry Potter’s kind of magic, or Patrick Rothfuss’ « The name of the wind »’ kind of magic, there’s an alchemy side in the magic, a dark side, can you tell us about it ? And how you got the idea of this kind of magic.

I often tell people that the magic practiced by the warlocks in BITTER SEEDS is really just a form of demonology with the serial numbers filed off… A long time ago, I read THE DEVIL’S DAY by James Blish. That was my first exposure to the concept of demonology, the idea that magicians could petition malevolent supernatural beings to violate the laws of nature. I always found that intriguing. (In theory. Not in practice !)

I’ve also always been interested in linguistics. I’m not particularly good with languages (although I enjoyed studying Spanish for many years) but I find the whole field of linguistics endlessly fascinating. One of my friends is a linguistic anthropologist. It just happend that around the time I was brainstorming ideas for this trilogy, she told me about a great legend that she came across in her studies :

The story goes that a very long time ago, the ancient Greeks started to wonder about the oldest culture in the world. They reasoned, fairly logically, that the oldest culture in the world would be the culture that spoke the oldest language. So if they could figure out which language was the oldest, they could identify the oldest culture, and thus find the origin of mankind. Or something like that. But how to find the oldest language? Well, they decided that the oldest language would be the language that people spoke naturally, in the absence of other influences. So, according to legend, they took some newborn children out into the country so that they were raised without hearing any language at all. And sure enough – also according to legend – after a few years the children spontaneously started speaking, oh, I don’t know, Sumerian or something like that. I doubt that’s actually what happened… But as soon as I heard this legend, I thought, wow ! I immediately knew the basis of my magic system.

In reading up on this subject I learned that for many centuries there was great scholarly interest in Europe in trying to reconstruct the « original » language of mankind, to recover the language spoken in the Garden of Eden, prior to the Tower of Babel. So I wondered what if it wasn’t the ancient Greeks who tried this experiment with children, but medieval scholars ? And what if it worked ? Because clearly the oldest language of all, the language of Creation, the language of Let There Be Light, couldn’t possibly be a human language…

How did you write the three books ? Did you make a lot of research ? I mean, « Bitter seeds » is quite realistic and documented about the world war II, the german army, or the british MI6 and MI5 or SOE.

Thank you for saying that. I hope it’s reasonably realistic, or at the very least that it carries a thin coating of historical verisimilitude. I tried very, very hard to do as much research as I could. Whether I succeeded, of course, is not for me to say. I would never claim to be an expert in history, not by any stretch of the imagination. But in the course of writing the books I amassed an entire bookshelf worth of research materials. Names and dates were the easiest things to research, that’s what history books are for. Much harder to research were details of everyday life in London in 1940 : how did people dress, how did they talk to each other, how did they laugh and cry and eat ? That took a lot of digging, but I did find some invaluable reference works.

« Bitter seeds » reminded me a little, of the book from Tim Powers « Declare » or Charles Stross’ « The atrocity archives », because of the alternate history, or secret history involving nazis and spies and demons, do you know these books ?

I am a huge Tim Powers fan. I think he’s a mad genius. As I always tell people, if magic really worked, it would work like it does in a Tim Powers novel !

Coincidentally, I just read DECLARE a few weeks ago. It probably won’t surprise you that it’s my favorite work by Powers. I know many of his fans prefer some of his other books, but that one pressed all of my buttons. It could have been written for me. It’s sadly underrated, in my not very humble opinion.

I first heard about Stross’s « Laundry » novels when I was near the end of the first draft of BITTER SEEDS. Not wanting to get « cross contiminated » I waited until I’d finished the second book in my trilogy, THE COLDEST WAR, before chancing a look at the Stross books. (I figured I was safe by that point because the storyline of the final book was pretty tightly locked down by the previous two novels !) After I submitted THE COLDEST WAR to my editor, I picked up THE ATROCITY ARCHIVES and absolutely devoured it. I love the Laundry novels and can’t wait for the next one.

Did you ever think about writing some hard-science-fiction books, like Kim Stanley Robinson, or Greg Egan, you being a physicist ? or do you consider writing as a way to escape from your work ?

I would write a hard-SF story or novel if I had an idea that really grabbed me. I’ve written one or two such short stories, but for some strange reason my imagination tends to run more toward magic than science. Or, maybe I should say that the writing part of my imagination leans in that direction. As a reader, I love straight-up science fiction and will gladly read as much as I can get my hands on. I love good space opera, for instance.

Hard SF, in particular, is something I tend to avoid in my brainstorming. I think it’s exactly what you describe, writing really is my escape from my day job (although writing novels is a lot of work, too !) So if I were to start working on a writing project that required making everything scientifically rigorous, with calculations and so forth, it would quickly begin to feel like I had taken my job home with me. My writing life and my day job are totally separate halves of my life and I try to keep it that way. (Even though it sometimes makes me feel like I’m split into two different people.) Writing magic is hard in its own way, because it has to be internally self-consistent (or appear that way to the reader). So there’s a lot of work there, too, but for some reason that work appeals to me more than trying to work out, say, future technologies.

Can you tell us about your new book, his genesis ?

For me, ideas slowly accumulate over a long period of time. Little random bits of trivia, interesting words, cool ideas I come across while reading… They all get jotted down on scraps of paper, and the scraps go into a file. And the tidbits that really grab me usually end up rattling around in the back of my mind for a long time, maybe years on end. Once in a while a couple of these unrelated pieces will bump into one another and stick together. Like snowflakes locking together, rolling downhill to make a snowball. Eventually, if I’m patient, the snowball is large enough to contain a book…

The seed for SOMETHING MORE THAN NIGHT came about before I had the idea for the Milkweed books. For a long time I’ve wanted to someday write a fantasy mystery novel with angels. That was the starting point. And then, just for fun, I started reading some classic noir detective novels, works by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. And I discovered that I really enjoyed those books… so I started wondering if I could combine elements of a 1930′s noir novel with the angel project. And it started to click. And then, while I was writing the Milkweed books, I became aware of certain skills I’d like to improve in my own writing. So then I thought about how to shape the new book such that it would give me a chance to stretch myself and try new things…

On your website, there are some reference to Lovecraft, is he an important author to you ? What’s your favourite novel or short story from him ?

People always look at me funny when I tell them my favorite Lovecraft story is, « The Colour Out of Space. » It’s not his best story, but it’s just so… weird. I mean, a dangerous alien color ? It’s hard not to be influenced by Lovecraft, especially once you start playing around with the idea of vast ancient entities whose concerns and motivations are incomprehensible to puny humans… Although I tried to make them reasonably unique, the Eidolons of BITTER SEEDS owe more than a little to the Cthulhu Mythos.

What kind of books do you read ? Who are your favourite writers ?(crime novel or sci-fi) Is there a special writer who made you think : « Wow, that’s what I want to do, I want to be like him » ?

There are so many writers whom I admire. Tim Powers I’ve mentioned. I’m also a great admirer of Roger Zelazny and Peter S. Beagle. If I could write magic like Powers, while combining the powerful first-person narrators of Zelazny with the breathtaking poetic prose of Beagle… well, I could die happy if I achieved just a sliver of that. But hey, it’s good to have impossible goals, right? I also wish I could write with the sensuality of Sage Walker. Outside of science fiction, one of my favorite writers is Raymond Chandler. I love the Philip Marlowe books. He could write like nobody else. In terms of sheer wit, Dorothy Parker might surpass him, however.

Do you know if a french publisher is interested by « Bitter seeds » ? Orbit will publish it in the UK, and we have some Orbit books translated in french…

From your lips to God’s ears ! I would be over the moon if the Milkweed books eventually found their way into a French translation. It was a wonderful surprise when Orbit bought the trilogy for publication in the UK. As an American writing about British and German characters during World War II, I had always taken it for granted that my books would never see print outside the United States…

Thanks to you and your website I discovered G.R.R Martin’s « Wildcards », I bought almost all the books except a couple of them, I didn’ read them yet, but I know I will love them… Can you tell us about the story of « Wildcards » ? And how you ended up in the team ?

I hope you enjoy the books ! I’m glad I was able to finagle you into exploring the madness that is Wild Cards… ;-)

Wild Cards is a very long-running « shared world » superhero universe. »Shared world » means that the books are written by a communal group of writers who share the world and the characters. But the books aren’t anthologies of short stories, they’re actual novels with a definitive plotline that runs from cover to cover. Sometimes the books are broken up by chapter, with a different writer covering each chapter, usually with different point-of-view characters. And some books in the series – what we call the « mosaic » novels – have writers trading off between every scene.

Writing a Wild Card novel is a lot of work, for both the writers and the editors, George R. R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass. George and Melinda created the series. The idea is that an alien virus was released on Earth in the 1940s. The « wild card » virus kills 90% of the people who contract it. Of the survivors, 90% are deformed into what we call « jokers ». And the few who survive but aren’t deformed – that lucky 1%, the ones we call « aces » – obtain superpowers. The novels are an exploration of what the world would be like if superpowers were a common everyday thing.

I ended up in the Wild Cards consortium through a lot of luck, and being in the right place at the right time. It just happened that right around the time that Walter brought me into the New Mexico writing community, George and Melinda were looking to re-start the Wild Cards series after a long hiatus. As George puts it, he wanted to do « Wild Cards : The Next Generation. »

And to launch that he wanted to bring a cast of newer, younger writers on board. I’d been attending writers’ group meetings for a few months when he asked Melinda and Daniel Abraham if they could think of any new young writers who might be a good fit. And they both suggested me. My luck continued when I joined Wild Cards, because it was through that experience that I met my wonderful agent.


Update in october 2017 :

Ian Tregillis has published since this interview another great trilogy : « The Alchemy wars », and an amazing « roman noir » with angels : « Something more than night ».

Links :

Ian Tregillis website

Ian Tregillis on Fantastic Fiction

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