Interview: David Liss
by Ernest Lilley
Review by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu.com ISBN/ITEM#: davidliss
Date: 01 September 2015
Links: Author's Website / Review of Random /
SFRevu: We loved the SF references throughout the book, and especially how Zeke's understanding of genre gave him a basis for understanding the physics as well as the polity of the Commonwealth. Editor Patrick Nielsen-Hayden once commented that fantasy was easily accessible to readers because everyone knew the basic settings...but SF required a familiarity with SF concepts. It seems to us that the basics of SF are pretty well established, as Zeke shows. What's your take? Do most tweens have the basics down, or is that a barrier to them as readers?
David Liss: I think it's all in how the author presents the material. Science fiction offers no shortage of possible complicated and abstract concepts to play around with, and some of those might limit a book's potential audience. In this book, I wanted to appeal both to readers who were already genre fans as well as those who weren't genre fans – yet. My approach was to explain certain concepts, including the rules of how they work, so that the challenges the characters face are clear and understandable.
That said, I think the concepts that I play around with in this book – FTL travel, advanced weaponry, even nanotechnology, have so saturated popular culture, that most readers will have at least bumped up against references to these technologies. I gave drafts of Randoms to test readers, including kids in the target age range who I knew weren't hardcore genre fans, and they responded very warmly to the characters and the humor, so they didn't initially push back against the science fiction. By the time they finished, they were genuinely interested in reading and viewing more science fiction, so, at least with those readers, I felt like Randoms functioned as a pretty successful gateway drug.
SFRevu: Speaking of readers, does Zeke read SF? With the exception of a brief encounter with The Hitchhiker's Guide..., it seemed to me that his exposure was limited to media. What did you do to get inside the mind of tweens and teens?
David Liss: I struggled with how many book references to include. I also mention Ender's Game in my novel, but the truth is that it's hard to know what books – other than Harry Potter – you can assume kids have probably read. It's much safer to reference comic book characters, games, film, and television if you want those allusions to be universal. I do make a Dune reference in the second book in the series – though I suppose since it's been adapted twice, you could say it's still a film/TV allusion, but that's not my reflex. As far as getting inside the mind of a tween, I did extensive research by living with one every day – and I was, a long time ago, a tween myself. Until I ran the book by my test readers, I had no idea if it would connect with that age group.
SFRevu: Although Randoms finishes at a logical place in the story, it also leaves several of the characters in less than desirable circumstances…how long before we get to find out what happens next? I hope it's soon, because I'm quite worried about Zeke's alien hacker (girl)friend.
David Liss: I, quite literally, finished the last tweaks on the final edits for the second novel in the series moments before starting this interview. I presume Simon & Schuster will release it in about a year, but I've done my part.
SFRevu: You’ve mentioned that Ernest Cline's Ready Player One was an influence, because it showed you that you could embrace your inner geek and make the world of science fiction part of the story, which totally works in Randoms. Although they're very different books, Cline's new book, Armada, has some unnerving elements in common with your book. The main character Zach/Zeke's father was on the trail of an government coverup/creator of a SF series before being killed in a mysterious accident.... Have you read Armada? Is your head spinning a little?
David Liss: I did read Armada, and the vast number of – ultimately superficial – similarities between the two books are really quite astonishing. That said, these overlaps are pretty trivial, and I feel like both books, while they could certainly appeal to some of the same readers, have very different stories, characters and tones. I’d certainly be happy if Randoms had as many readers as Armada.
SFRevu: How about reading science fiction in general? Do you remember the first SF title you read? Who do you admire in the genre?
David Liss: I'm pretty sure the first adult science fiction works I read were the James Blish Star Trek adaptations, and I think the first novel for younger readers I fell in love with was most likely A Wrinkle in Time. As far as contemporary science fiction goes, in recent years I've really enjoyed works by Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton, James S.A. Corey, and Iain M. Banks. I still think Dan Simmons's Hyperion novels are the best SF I've read in recent memory. I also tend to be drawn to writers who are often classified as producing literary fiction, but whose work contains science fiction elements – like Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, and Michel Faber.
SFRevu: In addition to novels and short stories, you have some serious comic book chops. Black Panther, Mystery Men, Jinrise, Spider.... As far as I can tell, your first comic was The Phantom Reporter in Daring Mystery Comics 70th Anniversary Special from Marvel (2010), a decade after your first novel was published. How did that come about? Where would you like to go with it?
David Liss: I started writing comics when an editor at Marvel contacted me and asked if I wanted to write for them. I was, of course, thrilled. I grew up a big comics reader, and I've enjoyed the chance to work in a very different medium, one that is much more visual and much more collaborative. As far as where I'd like to go, I want to consider producing comics – though I'm not interested in writing more than one or two issue a month these days. The obligation to work on both adult and children's fiction leaves me with less free time than I used to have.
SFRevu: Marvel had been doing a pretty good job with superhero movies over the past few years, at least if you don't count the latest Fantastic Four movie, which is a pity, as I always liked those guys. Still Guardians just won the Hugo this year, so that's good. What do you think of comic adaptation in film, and are you worried that it's wearing thin?
David Liss: Don't blame Marvel Studios for Fantastic Four – that was Sony, who still owns the film rights. I think one of the reasons Guardians did so well was because it was a fun, action-packed space adventure full of cool characters and snappy dialogue. There's been a real shortage of that kind of film in recent years. Most science fiction films now are alarmist and dystopian. They're all about how much the future is going to suck. People still like the idea of an optimistic future full of space travel and interesting aliens and, because there is always conflict, space ships shooting energy weapons at one another.
In general, Marvel Studios has done a great job of figuring out what is appealing about their characters and how to convey that appeal on the screen. Their movies have done well because, with a few exceptions, they've tended to be pretty good. And sure, there is always the risk of over-exposure, but I think they've been pretty clever thus far about having a vision and creating an extended universe that will grow and chance, and that could be its own draw if its done well.
SFRevu: You've written a lot of thrillers, and a fair bit of fantasy, and now you've dipped your toe into science fiction. Any thoughts on writing something aimed at older audiences?
David Liss: I do think that Randoms can appeal to older audiences. I see it as more of all-ages book than anything else. I haven't given much thought to writing science fiction specifically aimed at adults, but that may be because I haven't had a chance to come up with air for a little while. However, I've frustrated more than one editor by refusing to stick to a genre, and I like to think that, if nothing else, my track record proves that absolutely nothing is out of the question.
SFRevu: Thanks David.
Links / References