Q&A With Brian Nelson
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Q&A With Brian Nelson
After a brief stint as a Systems Engineer for General Motors, Brian Nelson set off for the University of Arizona to study creative writing, and now is an acclaimed, bestselling author. Brian’s published books include The Silence and the Scorpion: The Coup Against Chavez and the Making of Modern Venezuela, and the Course of Empire Series which includes The Last Sword Maker, Five Tribes, and his latest novel The Great Unmaking which was released in March of this year.
Q: Would you like to tell the readers of the blog and I a little bit about The Great Unmaking and where the concept for the book series came from?
A: The Great Unmaking is a new take on the apocalypse story. Instead of a plague or an invasion or evil robots or zombies, I was interested in how different AI systems, that are technically doing what they are supposed to do, might inadvertently cause a collapse. A collapse, I might add, that ends up erasing most of the world’s existing technology.
The series was inspired by the classic sci-fi books that I loved as a kid, such as The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. These early sci-fi books were called Scientific Romances because they relied on the cutting-edge technology of the day to extrapolate into what might be coming next.
In this case, the “what’s coming next” was how the military might combine different new technologies like AI, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology. The first book in the series, The Last Sword Maker, is about an arms race between the US and China as they try to be the first to combine these technologies into something that’s akin to a programmable life form. One country succeeds, of course, and that’s when things get very interesting.
Q: So, did you always know that being an author was what you wanted to do, or did you realize this while you were a Systems Engineer for General Motors?
A: Part of me always wanted to be a writer, but the more practical part thought that was a dumb idea and certain financial suicide. In college I stuck to the pragmatic stuff—Economics and International Relations. It was only after I’d been successful in business and computer work that I had the courage to say, “Hey, why don’t you try that thing that you loved but thought you couldn’t do?” Looking back, I suppose things had to happen that way, and that I needed that first “win” to commit to being an author.
Q: Where do your ideas for your books come from?
A: I’m a serious research nerd and I often find myself staring off into space as I try to link my random thoughts together. This combination (which would likely get me fired from most jobs) is pretty useful for a writer. Usually, it doesn’t take long before these random thoughts coalesce into a storyline.
I also like to challenge myself with themes and locations for each book so that I make sure I learn something new. For example, I didn’t really know much about China before I wrote The Last Sword Maker, so I did a great deal of research on its history, government, and its relationship with Tibet for the book. In Five Tribes, I initially thought only the first few chapters would take place in Africa, but I found the history of the San tribes of Namibia so intriguing—and such a fascinating juxtaposition to the technology-based world of the main characters—that it morphed into being the main setting for the book.
Q: Are you currently writing your next novel, and if so, is it too early to say what it’s about yet?
A: No, it’s not too early. It’s going to be high-fantasy, which I’m having a lot of fun with because you get to do research on a lot of history plus the myths and legends from different cultures. It’s much more world building than I’ve ever had to do before because I need to create whole cultures and religions and bits of language that sound consistent with a given group of people.
It’s a good challenge, and I’m certainly beginning to understand how hard it is to do fantasy correctly. Every year I pick up a dozen fantasy books hoping that I’ll find a good one, but most of the time I’m disappointed. Usually that’s because of the language. Suddenly an elf or wizard will start talking like a modern teenager and I’ll be completely taken out of the story and end up tossing the book in the large “unfinished” pile.
Q: Was it easy transitioning from being a Systems Engineer for General Motors to being an author? Have any of the skill sets required transfer over to your writing process
A: Well, it was definitely hard going from an IT salary to a graduate student stipend. The most dangerous part was those seductive student loan offers that seemed to come every day in the mail! So tempting.
Seriously, there were quite a few skills that I learned in IT that carried over to writing. Probably the most important one was how to manage a large project with a long time horizon…and not get intimidated or lose steam. Just like a novel, a large IT project is iterative. I can still picture the diagram they gave us in my head. It was like a clock, cut into four sections—Gather Requirements ==> Design and Implement ==> Test ==> Evaluate
Then you start the cycle again.
This can be applied to a chapter of a book or the whole book. And as long as you keep doing it, eventually you’ll get the project done.
Q: How long does it typically take for you to write a book? Any tips you can share to help other writers stay on track to completing their manuscripts?
A: Probably the best way to answer this is with a visual aid. One ‘X’ equals one year.
The Last Sword Maker:
The Silence and the Scorpion:
The Great Unmaking:
As you can see, the more you write, the better you get at it. But the first two book projects can be a bear.
Many (er, most) writers don’t publish their first books and often don’t publish their second books (and sometimes their third)…I think Brandon Sanderson wrote 13 novels before the first one got published.
Although the thought of working so hard on a novel and not getting it published might sound seriously depressing, not getting your first book published might actually be a good thing since, in the end, it may mean less time. Sometimes it’s better to fail quickly and move on. I often wonder if I had started a new project earlier if it might have been a quicker road to publication.
But the trick is a combination of two things: 1. persistent revision and 2. a critical eye when you reread your own work.
As a young writer it’s often very hard to see what is wrong with your own work. When I was in my 20s, I thought everything I wrote was totally amazing. It just takes time to see what’s good as opposed to what has to go. And if you don’t have that, then you can revise all you want and things will not improve (which definitely happened to me for a while).
Q: Does the entertainment industry have the rights and interests in your work? Hollywood needs new ideas again.
A: There has been some interest in Hollywood—with my nonfiction project getting optioned—but nothing that has gone into production. Unfortunately, one producer told me that the Course of Empire series will have an uphill battle in Hollywood because the first book, The Last Sword Maker, goes in depth into China’s human rights violations in Tibet.
China’s influence in Hollywood has become enormous and the government has become extremely interested in using film to rebrand China to the rest of the world. As a result, there is a mixture of actual censorship (Chinese officials demanding changes to any film shown in China) and self-censorship (American studio executives preemptively changing films to ensure they don’t offend the Chinese government). One of the more prominent examples was the 2012 version of Red Dawn starring Chris Hemsworth. The film was originally shot with China as the force that invades America but was digitally reworked in post-production so that the enemy became North Korea. For the Marvel movie, Doctor Strange, the hero’s mentor was supposed to be a Tibetan monk but was changed to a caucasian woman.
Since my book includes some rather horrific details of China’s human rights violations in Tibet, it would definitely not pass the Chinese censors.
To learn more about Brian Nelson, visit his website at: