AUTHOR INTERVIEW 103 – Chris Lodwig

Chris Lodwig

USA

Age 47

Chris lives in Seattle with his wife, daughter, dog, lizard, and an unlikely number of shrimp.
He’s been writing as a hobby since he was fifteen. He completed his first novel, Heroes when he was twenty three, then wisely consigned it to a shelf to be periodically thumbed through to remind himself how far he’s come.
Systemic popped into his head one day on the bus when his phone and lap top died, and all he had was a pen and paper.
He spent his younger years playing music, frequenting Burning Man, throwing art parties and parades, and clandestinely installing monoliths and soldiers in local parks.
He has spent the last twenty-three years at technology companies in the greater Seattle area.
He has degrees in both Comparative History of Ideas and Communications from the University of Washington.
For generations, a sentient AI has watched over the world and solved all of humanity’s problems. It was an era of objectivity, social equality, and ecological recovery.

It should have been a golden age.

Now, three strangers are on a pilgrimage through the arid lonely sagelands and underpopulated cities of the Systemic era on their way to the seemingly innocuous town of Prower. There, they will uncover the secrets that lay buried beneath the town and learn the truth about their half-remembered pasts. In the end, they must choose between their sanity or solving humanity’s final and most intractable problem.


What readers are saying:

Systemic is a new kind of AI story, that shows both the promise and peril of sentient AI. It manages to be both dystopian and utopian, big picture, and very, very human. This is a novel that asks important questions about what we as humans want – and invites you to answer them for yourself.
-Ramez Naam, Author of the Nexus Series

Systemic is a refreshingly optimistic version of an AI-fueled dystopian future. It’s like watching an episode of Black Mirror without having to drink yourself to sleep.
-Carly Jayne – Love Like Salt

Romelia: WHAT IS A SIGNIFICANT WAY YOUR BOOK HAS CHANGED SINCE THE FIRST DRAFT?

Chris Lodwig: The book has a lot to do with memory and the ways that memories work. How they tend to be more emotional than factual. At any rate, when I first started writing I had a lot to get out and so I just wrote like mad. I didn’t take the time to write dialog or give people names. I realized that all the folks who only existed in the characters’ memories didn’t have names. They were, Lem’s wife, or Eryn’s mother etc.  And there were no direct quotes. Just things like: They talked about why she had to leave, and how there was a whole life waiting for her in Prower. Things like that. It was accidental at first, but then I came to believe it was really clever. My editor informed me that, yes it was very clever, but it was also terrible and would drive people crazy. So, I gave everyone names—even though they aren’t actual names—and I gave them real words to speak. It made me very sad, but she was very right. 

Romelia: WHAT PERSPECTIVES OR BELIEFS HAVE YOU CHALLENGED WITH THIS WORK?

Chris Lodwig: There were two ideas I was interested in poking at with this book.

The first had to do with the idea of Dystopia itself. So much of the AI trope in Sci-Fi is about our horrible AI overlords getting loose taking over the world and enslaving humanity. I wanted to see what would happen if the AI got loose in the world and was actually a radical force for good. Would it still be a dystopia if our AI overlords are kind and give us everything we could hope for? In short, yes, but not for the reasons you might think.  Turns out we can make ourselves plenty miserable without the help of technology, thank you very much.

I’m also really obsessed with how the mind and memory work to construct reality.  There is an almost infinite list of factoids about memory I could point to as being mind-blowingly crazy. But just to poke at one: We think that we remember events and people as they occurred, but really, we remember the last time we remembered something. Every time we recall something and then put it back into storage when we’re done, we corrupt it a little. So, counter intuitively, the more often we recall something the less accurately we remember it. I had a lot of fun playing with concepts like that in Systemic.

Romelia: WHAT INSPIRED THE IDEA FOR YOUR BOOK?

Chris Lodwig: The idea for Systemic just emerged from the primordial soup in my brain. I can’t really say what the inspiration was, but I’ll tell you what was in the soup.

One of the main things was this psychology class I was taking through work. The classes were dealing with the ego and personality and intrinsic motivation. I found all that really fascinating.

At the time I was also obsessing about the vagaries of memory. Turns out, our memory’s job isn’t to record facts and play them back verbatim, but to find important things and play them back in useful ways. For instance, Brian Williams the news caster often told the story of being shot at in a war. Turns out that never really happened. But because it was dangerous and exciting, his brain made up a memory about how he was almost killed. When the truth came out, we all decided he was a liar, he lost his job. But your brain would do that too, so would mine. It does that so that the next time you’re in a war you’ll know to keep your head down. Memory is like that. It’s entirely untrustworthy, and yet we build our entire reality on it.

And of course there is the current political environment we’re suffering through, and the willful destruction of truth. I was thinking—and still am thinking—about whether and how we can ever get back to a place where we have a general agreement about facts. I tried to imagine something that could solve that problem; a generally accepted non-partisan arbiter of truth, and the System was born. Along with the many things that it does, is that it deep fact checks whatever you ask it to. In the book, “Systemic” is synonymous with “true” or “correct”, hence the title.

Anyhow, all of that was bouncing around in my head, looking for a way out. Then one day, an image popped into my head on the bus ride home. My phone and my laptop both died and I had nothing to do. I had recently driven home to Seattle from Yellowstone, and there were all these beautiful wide Montana river valleys, and then we drove through the Sagelands of Eastern Washington. I smooshed all that together along with a rainstorm that couldn’t quite reach the ground and a young woman hiking, and I was off to the races.

9 months later I had a rough draft of a sci-fi novel.

Romelia: HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR BOOK’S IDEAL READER?

Chris Lodwig: Systemic is more about characters ideas and mood than spaceships and laser beams. The book has a pretty big “What does it all mean!?” component to it.  So, an ideal reader would be someone who likes to think about consciousness and the theory of mind and ideas about human nature and society. If you like Philip K. Dick, or Black Mirror, or Tales from the Loop, this is a book for you.

The book has a slow build, so if you want a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants adventure, you won’t be sorry you read it, but you will have to be patient and wait for the second half of the book.

Romelia: HOW MUCH RESEARCH DID YOU NEED TO DO FOR YOUR BOOK?

Chris Lodwig: That depends what qualifies as research. I would say I do research continually in little ways every day while I’m writing. This involves looking up things like the various parts of a train, or the types of plants or rocks that exist where the book was set. I always have a google map open to judge times and distances. For the more technical aspects of the book, things like AIs, or chemical engineering, I speak to friends that are experts in those fields.  Not sure that any of that really counts as research. In the end, I probably came away with about thirty pages of notes.  I’m having to do a lot more research for my current book.

Romelia: HOW IMPORTANT WAS PROFESSIONAL EDITING TO YOUR BOOK’S DEVELOPMENT?

Chris Lodwig: Very. I had a wonderful editor. She was very kind but forthcoming about issues with the book. I guess I would call that supportive. I really didn’t know much about editing when I handed my manuscript off to her. She was great about telling me when things did or didn’t work, where the action lagged, when the character’s motivations didn’t make sense. All the hard block and tackle stuff that matters to composing a good story that I hadn’t ever considered. Not only did she make my story tighter, characters more believable and likeable, she probably taught me more about writing in the process than any book I’d ever read or class I’d ever taken. 

Romelia: WHAT WAS YOUR HARDEST SCENE TO WRITE, AND WHY?

Chris Lodwig: Probably the big reveal.  It’s such an important moment in the book, and so many threads all had to come together at the same time. Because I discovery-wrote the book, I was as surprised as anyone about the moment and what happened. It was easy to come up with it. But once I understood what was going on and why, I needed to support it. I had to continually go back through the entire book to reinforce the moment, laying the right hints to make it work, or developing the characters to make them believable, writing and rewriting the lead up, so I could get all the characters into the right place at the right time in the right frame of mind. It felt like remodeling a room in the middle of an old house.  Once I had that all figured out, I needed to get the pacing right to give it a sort of suspense movie feel with quick takes and accelerated pacing. Finally, and probably most difficult of all, I needed to write dialog that didn’t feel stilted and expository.  Getting that one scene to work probably took up 15% of my editing time. 

Romelia: WHAT CHARACTERS IN YOUR BOOK ARE MOST SIMILAR TO YOU OR TO PEOPLE YOU KNOW?

Chris Lodwig: I can honestly say that no character in the book was me, or anyone I know.  There are certainly traits of certain folks who remind me of aspects of my characters, but I didn’t base them on anyone in particular.

Maik is a little like me when I was in my early twenties. A little too quick to fall in love with random girls he meets at bars. When I was twenty, I did save up money by not eating on Monday’s so I could buy gas to drive down to Eugene Oregon to visit a girl I liked. My brother-in-law told me once that he stopped shaving to save money so he could be with a girl. Maik did both of those things.

I wanted Eryn to be awesome. There were a lot of funny cool independent young women I knew when I was in college who were tough and outdoorsy. I wanted her to be like them. So, she’s sort of an amalgamation of those women, the type of person who would be fun to go to Burningman with.

Lem is sort of every insecure paranoid thought I ever have smooshed into one self-sabotaging disaster of a person.

So, none of them are me, or anyone I know, but in another way, all of them are.

Romelia: HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO WRITE THIS BOOK?

Chris Lodwig: I wrote the first draft really quickly, or at least it felt that way to me. I have a more-than-fulltime job already, plus a family and many other things going on in my life.  So, the fact that I wrote the draft of a 530-page book in 9 months seemed pretty fast.

Then, I spent the better part of two years editing it and getting beta reader feedback.  All told, from first word to hitting the publish button, it probably took me two and a half years.

Romelia: HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE TITLE FOR YOUR BOOK?

Chris Lodwig: The AI in the book is called “The System,” which I was pretty embarrassed about for a while because it seems so cliché and silly. But the way the story played out, it was called that because, when it was in the lab that’s how the engineers referred to it. As an engineer myself, I can attest to the fact that we call our machines “Systems” all the time. So while it was definitely cliché it was also accurate, and fit the story really well.

One of the things the System excels at is telling fact from fiction. In fact, its ability to validate news and gossip is how it got a toehold in human society.  After a while the term “Systemic” came to mean “true” or “valid”.  So, I named the book “Systemic” because, within the novel itself it means “true.” I thought that was really neat, a cool sci-fi sounding word, that had a double meaning. It made a good working title, but I figured there had to be a million sci-fi books called Systemic, it was just too obvious. I looked. There weren’t any. It was almost too good to be true. I kept the name.

Romelia: WOULD YOU AND YOUR MAIN CHARACTER GET ALONG?

Chris Lodwig: I like them all quite a bit. Eryn is the one I would probably like to hang out with the most. She’s the most adventurous and funny. Thomas is wise, intelligent, fatherly, and hospitable. He drinks good whisky and reads books. Maik is cool, but he’s also a bit dramatic, but he’s passionate, and I respect that. I relate to him. Lem I would most likely go drinking with and listen to him complain about life. I would care a lot about him, but I bet it would be a one-way sort of relationship. It was hard to make him likeable, because I always liked him. Most people found him decidedly unlikeable at first.

Romelia: IF YOU COULD MEET YOUR CHARACTERS, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO THEM?

Chris Lodwig: You want to hear something crazy? I totally wrote you. Just made you up one day while I was on the bus. Let that sink in for a minute.

How does that make you feel?

Romelia: WHAT IS YOUR WRITING PROCESS LIKE? ARE YOU MORE OF A PLOTTER OR A PANTSER?

Chris Lodwig: For Systemic I was a discovery writer (pantser), which was really fun. I had no idea at first where the story was going. Writing felt a lot like reading, so every day was exciting, interesting, and surprising. But there were a lot of problems with writing that way. I had to go back and edit and restructure the manuscript to death once my beta readers and editors got a hold of it. There were just some parts of the story that didn’t work very well and the corrections had to be retrofitted in. The result is something I’m extremely proud of, but it took a ton of effort.

For the sequel, I decided to be a plotter and outline the whole thing and make sure all my characters had believable motivations, backstories, etc. I think that the sequel will be a better crafted story, but I do worry that it might lack some of the sense of wonder that made its way into Systemic.

One of the things I like to talk about when discussing process are the tools I use and the ways that I use them. There are different stages of writing, and different styles of prose within the body of the work. I’ve found that some tools may be better suited to a given task, so I switch between them continually.

Here are all the different tools I use and how I find them most useful.

Writing by hand, produces flowing beautiful prose. It’s also good for getting at nagging ideas that have slivered their way deep into my cranium and need to get worked back up to the surface.

Writing on my phone is my second favorite way to write. Oddly, it’s almost as flowy as writing by hand. I wrote probably 70% of Systemic on the bus using my thumbs. Since both Word and Google Docs are in the cloud, you can work on your story on your phone while commuting, then hop on to your computer the second you get home and all your changes are already there.

I also use dictation a lot because it’s very fast. I described a huge portion of the outline of my new book aloud just to get it down as quickly as it was coming to me.

Right now, I’m fleshing out the outline of the sequel to Systemic.  There are lots of characters inhabiting different places and timelines, and there are at least three major story arcs. I have a massive glossary of terms, and descriptions of world building, and character sheets. I use Scrivener to keep all of that straight since it has a million different useful features for novel writing. 

Once I’m happy with it, I’ll output it to a Word doc, do another editing pass to smooth it out. Then I’ll read the entire book aloud to my wife. I have always been of the opinion that the written word should be read aloud as part of the refinement process. Your ear will pick up on unnatural phrases and reused words etc., that your eyes never will. I also have begun using Word’s “Read Aloud” feature for this same purpose.

Romelia: WHAT DO YOU NEED IN YOUR WRITING SPACE TO HELP YOU STAY FOCUSED?

Chris Lodwig: Not much really. I write all over the place. I often write on the bus, or while I’m walking or in cafes or in one of several room in my house.

I mostly just need no one to talk to me. Noise cancelling headphones help.

Romelia: IF YOU WERE TO WRITE A SPIN-OFF ABOUT A SIDE CHARACTER, WHICH WOULD YOU PICK?

At the risk of giving away too much of the story, the vast majority of side characters aren’t real. So it would be fun to pick one of them, Lafs for instance (the woman that Maik falls in love with) and explore what it’s like to be a completely constructed idea of a person. 

Romelia: IF YOU COULD SPEND A DAY WITH ANOTHER POPULAR AUTHOR, WHOM WOULD YOU CHOOSE?

Chris Lodwig: Ramze Naam would be fun, but that’s because I happen to know he is truly a ton of fun, and is a wonderful human being. That’s sort of cheating. I think Gareth L Powel would be neat. Not only because I love his books, but because he seems like a kind intelligent guy who mentioned that he wants to go get a sandwich at Katz’ Deli in New York. I also want to do that. We seem to like a lot of the same music.  So we’d probably have at least a meal’s worth of interesting conversation between the two of us.

Romelia: WHAT IS YOUR SCHEDULE LIKE WHEN YOU’RE WRITING A BOOK?

Chris Lodwig: I’m not getting as much writing done now as I once did.

Pre-Covid (and hopefully post-Covid)

  • 6AM – Get up and get ready for work
  • 6:50 – leave for the bus – listen to NPR, or Pod-casts, or audio books
  • 7:10 – catch bus and write on the bus until I arrive at work (7:40)
  • 7:50-8:30 – write in the cafeteria.
  • 4:50 catch the bus and write until I’m home (5:30)
  • About half the nights I wake up and write for a couple hours in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep.
  • Write about 2 – 3 hours on Saturday and Sunday

Covid

  • 6AM – Get up and work out, take the dog for a long walk. Listen to NPR, or Pod-casts, or audio books
  • 7:10 – 8:30 – write in the basement.
  • A couple hours of insomniac writing in the middle of the night a few times a week.
  • Write about 2 – 3 hours on Saturday and Sunday

Romelia: HAVE YOU EVER TRAVELED AS RESEARCH FOR YOUR BOOK?

Chris Lodwig: In a way yes, and no. I’ve found that the settings in Systemic came from various places I’d been. For example, there is a hotel I go to every year in Priest Lake Idaho with my buddy when he and I take our kids skiing. Last year I showed up and was surprised to find that it was the template for the Prower Hotel. And all the small towns like Hamer Falls are places I’d driven through in the western United States. But I didn’t travel specifically to write about those places. The closest thing I’ve ever come to that, is my wife and I drove out to Monroe Washington and back so I could take pictures of the highway so I could describe the journey for my next book.

Romelia: WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE WRITING SNACK OR DRINK?

Chris Lodwig: I only ever drink coffee while writing. Sometimes—if I’m lucky—I get to eat an omelet or a nice pastry in a café.

Romelia: HOW DO YOU CELEBRATE WHEN YOU FINISH YOUR BOOK?

Chris Lodwig: I started on my next book the very next day.

Romelia: WHAT RISKS HAVE YOU TAKEN WITH YOUR WRITING THAT HAVE PAID OFF?

Chris Lodwig: There was never a time when I said something like, “They told me chocolate would never go with peanut butter, but I knew in my heart it would be great!” That said, dedicating as much of my time, emotions, and brain power to an image that just popped into my head on the bus one day felt like a risk.  Letting other people read what I’d written, soliciting feedback, getting an editor and taking the whole thing seriously. Letting the story wander around where it wanted and trusting that something brilliant would pop out of it, that was a risk too.  Each of those things were scary, and each of them paid off.

Romelia: WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU GOOGLED YOURSELF AND WHAT DID YOU FIND?

Chris Lodwig: A link to my book on Amazon, Good Reads, Audible, my various social media profiles. Lots of interviews. Pictures of some guy who shares my name.

Romelia: WHAT IS YOUR KRYPTONITE AS A WRITER?

Chris Lodwig: Donald Trump. I’m serious. That guy took up so much of my headspace for so long. I just felt hopeless and outraged all the time. My phone would buzz and there would be some news alert about some new outrage or existential horror that he was promulgating, and I just couldn’t think straight.  The day after he left office, my writing throughput jumped 300%. I’m not kidding.

Romelia: TELL US SOMETHING FUNNY FROM YOUR ADULT LIFE.

Chris Lodwig: I mean it when I say, that most of my day is spent laughing or making someone else laugh, but for most of it you would have to be there for it to make sense.

Here’s an example.  There is a card game my wife bought me for Christmas called Poetry for Neanderthals. It’s a simple game. Your job is to make your partner guess the word or phrase on your card, but you can’t say the word, and you can only use words with one syllable.  Also, it helps if you use a cave man voice. It’s right there in the rules.

So, we’re playing this game with our friends. The wife is a gem, but she has always struck me as a bit proper. She’s from the Southern United States. She went to finishing school. She looks comfortable in long white gloves.

Anyway, we’re playing this game and it’s my turn to be the cave man. I get “Money.” I decide that “the root of all evil,” is a good clue. If that doesn’t work, I figure “in my wallet” will be a dead giveaway. Of course, “evil” and “wallet” both have more than one syllable. That is how I found myself yelling at a southern belle in my best caveman voice informing her that, “the root of all bad, is in my pants.”

Like I said, you had to be there.  Bourbon helps too.

Romelia: describe yourself in a few sentences. Tell us something we do not know about you and something you hate about the world.

Chris Lodwig: I live in Seattle with my wife, daughter, dog, lizard, and an unlikely number of shrimp.

I have spent the last twenty-three years working for technology companies in the greater Seattle area.

I spent my younger years playing music, frequenting Burning Man, throwing art parties and unsanctioned parades, and clandestinely installing monoliths and other art in local parks.

I have degrees in both Comparative History of Ideas and Communications from the University of Washington.

As far as what I hate in the world, it is how predictable the outcome of the prisoner’s dilemma is.

CONTACT DETAILS:

Author Website: http://chrislodwigauthor.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ChrisLodwigAuthor

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ChrisLodwig

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