Knight Writer

Neal Stephenson, Time-Traveling Author

By Matthew Halverson December 13, 2010 Published in the January 2011 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Ryan McVay

FUN FACT ABOUT Neal Stephenson: He owns about 20 swords, many of which he bought from two local swordsmiths named Tinker and Angus. Seems like an odd thing for a best-selling author to collect, but then Stephenson isn’t exactly your typical best-selling author. One of the longtime Seattle resident’s latest projects, The Mongoliad—which follows a band of battle-hardened monks hell-bent on beating back the Mongol hordes that are sacking Western Europe in 1241—is a self-published, serialized collaboration with six of his best friends. (They spar between writing sessions.) Oh, and it’s an online-only, multimedia kind of thing, souped-up with behind-the-scenes videos. So much for the pen being mightier than the sword.

I use a Gillette Mach3 Turbo, if you must know. A friend of mine became fascinated by the idea of shaving with a straight razor, so I went out and did a lot of research on sharpening technologies. It seemed like too much work for me, so I just get what I need at Bartell’s.

Fiction is a pop culture medium. It’s not a fine art. It can be; there’s nothing wrong with producing fiction that happens to be a fine art. But originally and up until a few decades ago, it was the pop culture medium, just like movies and television shows are today. So if you go into it with the point of view that you’re there to entertain people and elicit a number of emotions—which can be fear or humor or sadness or joy—then I think the storytelling decisions kind of make themselves.

There’s a certain element of sleight of hand going on. Not that we don’t do research and learn a lot of stuff, but I think that writers—particularly writers of historical novels—get good at finding what they need quickly and getting it on the page in an efficient way. If you don’t, you can gather so much information that the book becomes infinitely long, which is an accusation that’s been leveled against several of my books. But we’re not trying to create a scholarly document. In the end, we’re trying to tell a ripping yarn.

It’s good to have something like an outline so you know where you’re going, but you always have to be open to changing things. The minor character who shows up in chapter three and suddenly becomes the most interesting character on the page, that’s a sign from the muse that something is happening. You ignore that kind of thing at your peril.

We have two modes of entertaining ourselves: vegging out and geeking out. Vegging out is just mindlessly sitting on the couch and playing Halo. Geeking out is reading the Halo novels and going on the Internet and learning all of the historical details of the Halo universe. I think the reason that this kind of work is so popular among a big segment of the audience is that it gives them the ability to do both.

I like working with publishers. So I’m not feeling any desire to get out from under the heel of the publishing industry. This is more about looking for ways to innovate than it is some kind of maliced attempt to do away with the industry.

I think there’s a big advantage to working behind the curtain and not sharing everything. If I were to do a behind-the-scenes video for one of my solo books, it would be, “Well, I was sitting on my ass in front of my laptop and was thinking about how to write this part, and eventually I figured it out and I wrote it.” It doesn’t make for stellar interviews.

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There are many things I’ve done in the name of research for books, but few things have I stuck with the way I’ve stuck with sword fighting. It gives me a reason to exercise, so I’m in better physical condition than I have been in the past. It’s historically interesting. I’ve met some new friends in pursuing it. And like many other guys, beating the crap out of my friends is something that I can’t really be happy without.

No, I was born in the right era. The first thing you learn when you study this stuff is that sword fights typically lasted for about one second and generally ended with people dying in really unpleasant ways. So I’m very happy to live in a time when we have tetanus shots and appendectomies.

I like to write. I don’t need to motivate myself. That’s like asking an alcoholic how they motivate themselves to mix a martini. If I’m really having a hard time, I might take that as a sign that I need to take a break or take a day off. But by and large I just keep pounding it out, for better or worse.

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