In the Author's Universe: Interview with Sci-Fi Author Andy Weir
The author of 'The Martian' takes on the Moon...
Andy Weir rose to fame with the publishing and subsequent film production of his debut novel, The Martian, published in 2011, but, as his dedicated fan base knows, his writing career began much earlier.
He was born in 1972 in Davis, CA, a suburb of Sacramento, to a particle physicist father and an electrical-engineer mother. He grew up reading science fiction, and starting at the early age of 15, worked as a computer and video game software programmer for a variety of companies.
With a mind fluent in science and an itch for writing, Weir delved into comics, short stories, and other writing projects through his twenties and thirties. His first published work was a short story titled The Egg, published in 2009, setting him on his path as an author. He developed an online fan base, and though rejected by the traditional publishing industry, Weir persevered with his writing.
The Martian was initially a serialized story published free on his website and drew interest from a burgeoning reader base, including scientists, eager to suggest solutions as to the "how" of a human marooned on Mars. The serial was a hit, and with fan pressure, he self-published the novel on Amazon Kindle for 99 cents, and The Martian quickly rose to the Kindle bestsellers list.
With proven sales, Weir was approached by a literary agent, then picked up by Crown Publishing Group, and the print version of the novel debuted at #12 on The New York Times bestseller list. The Martian film, based on Weir’s novel, was produced by 20th Century Fox, directed by Ridley Scott, with Drew Goddard adapting it into the screenplay. Starring Matt Damon as the affable and self-reliant Mark Watney, the film was released in 2015 to rave reviews—and changed Weir’s life.
Weir’s latest novel, Artemis, is a near-future thriller set in a small colony on the Moon at the end of this century, with a female protagonist snagged into a nefarious web of corruption, and launches in November of 2017.
K.E. Lanning Interview with Andy Weir:
K.E. Lanning: What are the primary influences in your writing, such as authors you’ve read, or significant events in your life?
Andy Weir: I grew up reading my dad’s sci-fi collection. So I read a lot of Baby-Boomer sci-fi despite the fact that I’m a Gen-Xer. So my idols and role models are Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur Clarke.
What led you to become an author? Was there a specific epiphany you can tell us about?
I never had any specific “aha” moment. It’s just something I always wanted to do. But I didn’t think I’d be able to make it against all the competition, so I went into computer programming instead. I did have a three-year sabbatical where I wrote a book and tried to get it published, but I didn’t get any traction. So I went back to programming and wrote as a hobby. That’s where The Martian came from, and I ended up able to follow that dream after all.
Can you give us some insight into your writing process?
I like to set myself a word-count goal. I know, it’s a beginning-writer thing to do, but remember I really am still a beginning writer. One success doesn’t suddenly make me a wise old sage.
I’m a fundamentally lazy person, so my biggest challenge is motivation. I have to force myself to write and get stuff done, or I’ll put it off and put it off. I write in my home office, which means there are all sorts of distractions around that I would much rather do. I’m into woodworking and my garage is just 20 feet away. I have cats that love attention. That sort of thing.
So I make “rules.” Like “No woodworking until I’ve made my 1000 words.” And “No TV or YouTube either.”
The science fiction genre is broad—your writing seems to be more on the traditional science fiction end and not as much on the social commentary/speculative end of the spectrum. Can you discuss this?
I dislike social commentary. Like… I really hate it. When I’m reading a book, I just want to be entertained, not preached at by the author. Plus, it ruins the wonder of the story if I know the author has a political or social axe to grind. I no longer speculate about all possible outcomes of the story because I know for a fact that the universe of that book will conspire to ensure that the author’s political agenda is validated. I hate that.
I put no politics or social commentary into my stories at all. Anyone who thinks they see something like that is reading it in on their own. I have no point to make, and I’m not trying to affect the reader’s opinion on anything. My sole job is to entertain, and I stick to that.
To that end, I also don’t talk about my personal political opinions publicly. I don’t want readers to even know, honestly. I don’t want that in the back of their minds as they read my stuff.
I totally respect your personal views, but you had also mentioned Heinlein, Asimov, and Arthur C. Clark as influences. Heinlein in particular delves into social commentary in such books as Stranger in a Strange Land. And there are many classic sci-fi novels in which the author creates dystopian universes to comment on the human condition, such as Brave New World, 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, etc.
Yeah, I didn't really like the political message aspects of those stories. Not that I disagreed with the political point. Just that I didn't like the political points being there at all. Now, those writers are so good they make compelling and addictive stories *despite* the political messaging. But that's often not the case with other stories and other authors.
You're not mis-reading me, though. I deeply dislike social commentary. For instance, as a lifelong Star Trek fan, it's always bothered me that there is a presumed "responsibility" within Star Trek shows to talk about social issues. I just want to watch Romulans and the Federation shoot at each other.
I'm not saying anyone else should hold my view. Many readers select books specifically for their social commentary. There's no "wrong" way to enjoy a book. But in the end, as a writer, I can only do my best to write books that I would enjoy reading. So, for me, that means no politics.
It’s very effective, but why did you choose the first person, journal format to write The Martian?
The Martian required a huge amount of exposition to work, and there’s no way that could happen without humor. I had to have someone explain it in a funny way or it would read like a Wikipedia article. Also, since Mark was alone, there would be no other way for the reader to know what was going on in his mind unless he told them.
Mark Watney’s character in The Martian, reveals a heroism and humanity at the deepest level. How did you develop his character?
Mark is basically me. But he’s the distilled, idealized version of me. He has all the qualities I like about myself and none of my many flaws. And he’s better at all the things I’m good at. He’s what I wish I were.
The thread of exploration and colonialism is common in both The Martian and your new novel, Artemis, which is set in a colony on the Moon. Can you flesh out this theme?
Artemis takes place in the late 21st century, maybe 70 years in our future. The titular city is humanity’s only city on the Moon. I put a lot of work into figuring out why there would even be a city on the Moon and how their economy works. It’s a frontier town with a heavy emphasis on the tourism industry.
I tried to be realistic on what kinds of people would be there, and how their society would gel.
Can you give us a preview of Artemis, your novel launching on November 14th?
Jazz Bashara has lived in the lunar city of Artemis since she was six years old. She’s a bit on the shady side, augmenting her meager income with smuggling. She gets an offer from a local business magnate to do a very illegal sabotage job and the payoff is too big to ignore. Of course, things go wildly awry (wouldn’t be a heist story if they didn’t) and Jazz finds herself in mortal danger as the very powerful people she angered come after her.
How did you develop the character of Jasmine Bashara, the protagonist of Artemis?
I came up with the city itself first. The economy, the technology to make it, how it was built, etc. After that, I set about inventing a story to take place there. In the first story idea I had, Jazz was a very tertiary character. I needed a smuggler, so I picked a fairly random country for her to be from (I ended up with Saudi Arabia) and rolled with it. Jazz was kind of a funny side character, but that was it. However, that story concept didn’t work out well and I abandoned it.
Then I came up with a completely different story idea, and this time Jazz was more prominent. She was still a secondary character, not critical to the plot, but was interesting. That story also fell flat.
I realized that the most likable thing about both of those concepts was Jazz herself. So I took a stab at writing a story that revolved around her personally. And that’s what became Artemis.
Since the launch of Artemis, there have been some critical reviews of your main character, Jazz. Can you comment?
Jazz is a complex, very flawed person, who often makes bad life decisions. It's a fine line you have to walk when making an anti-hero. You need them to be "bad" but not so bad that they lose the audience. It's easy to alienate the reader from the protagonist if you do it wrong. Many readers had a hard time rooting for her. I can understand that, and I'll learn from the experience. I pay very close attention to the feedback I get - I'm always trying to get better at what I do.
However there is a minority of people who view everything through a lens of social issues. And they're more focused on Jazz's gender then they are in any other part of the story. Many consider it wrong of me not to focus on social issues in the book - as if simply having a female lead means I had some responsibility to make it about her gender. That's not how I write, so I don't think there was anything I could do for people who want that kind of story.
And finally, there's feedback about my portrayal of a woman. It was a challenge for me to write a female protagonist, and I did my best. But there are certainly going to be places where it doesn't quite ring true. Some critiques of the book point out those parts and I try to learn from them. However, there are also female readers who assume Jazz should think and act exactly like they do, and get mad when she doesn't. The challenge is separating the legitimate critiques of the female voice from people who can't accept that a woman who grew up on the moon in the late 21st century might have different attitudes than a contemporary American woman would.
How has your success as an author changed your life and what’s next on the horizon for you?
Well, I have a lot of money now. So I moved into a nicer house. :)
But other than that, not a lot of change. I’m still the same me, with the same friends and hobbies. I plan to continue writing as long as people keep buying my books. I would love for Artemis to become a series. We’ll see if it’s received well enough to warrant sequels.
My sincere thanks to Andy Weir for graciously agreeing to my interview and to Sarah Breivogel of Penguin Random House for all of her help.
Best of luck, Andy!