Interview with Adrian Tchaikovksky

18 min read

Adrian Tchaikovsky is Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning author of Children of Time and Shadows of the Apt series. He was born in Lincolnshire and studied zoology and psychology at Reading, before practicing law in Leeds. He is a keen live role-player and occasional amateur actor and is trained in stage-fighting.

Interview conducted by Olivia Hofer - editor at Three Crows Magazine.

Olivia Hofer: For readers who might not be familiar with you and your work, could you tells us a little about both?

Adrian Tchaikovsky: I’m a UK writer, first gone into print in 2008 with my Shadows of the Apt series, which is kind of epic fantasy series with steam punk tech and giant insects. After which I kind of pushed the “giant insects” about as far as it would go with fantasy and science-fiction books with giant spider as the protagonists (I know spiders are not insects, so don’t @ me on that one).

Most prominently of course is the Children of time, of which I was extremely surprised when it won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2016. So, I’m still turning out fantasy and science-fiction in roughly equal proportions from a variety of publishers these days, in a full length and novella format.

OH: Where should a reader new to your work start to get to know your writing?

AT: I’ve got a number of books which are standalone, and Children of Time is actually getting a sequel, but at this moment is one of its kind. Dogs of War is the other sci-fi [novel] I would say would be a very good starting point, and it is one of my personal favourites. As for fantasy Guns of the Dawn is a good standalone, or another fantasy novel - Redemption’s Blade.

For people looking for something shorter, I’ve recently had a novella from TOR.com which is The Expert System’s brother, and I’ve got a novella from Rebellion – Ironclads, which is set in a considerably more likely future than when I wrote it, where the US invade socialist Sweden.

OH: That sounds interesting.

AT: It’s very odd – writing near future sci-fi and then seeing it [world] become closer and closer to the stuff you wrote.

OH: I can imagine that is sort of terrifying as well.

AT: Just a little, yeah.

OH: Which of the worlds you’ve created so far, because you’ve got like Shadows of the Apt, which spans ten novels, and you’ve got quite a few standalones, - where your thoughts return the most often?

AT: Honestly – The Shadows of the Apt world, which was long before I wrote the books that was the world I ran the roleplaying games in. And it’s the one that sticks the most. I mean, as well as the the ten books of the main series, there are three short stories, and there are also a connection with my later fantasy series The Echoes of the Fall books, so that is the world I know in sufficient detail to always return to.

OH: You’ve mentioned, that you’ve create in equal measure fantasy and science fiction and many authors choose pen names when they change genre or even get told by their publisher to use a pen name. And you work in both genres under the name of Tchaikovski, so what’s your experience so far? Do you have an impression that it hinders or helps your career? Have you come across any disgruntled fantasy fans find themselves reading about space ships and its absolutely not what they wanted?

AT: I haven’t had that, but I’m sure there were some, some people who loved Shadows of the Apt and didn’t get on with other fantasy work like Guns of the Dawn. Because people have narrower or broader preferences and they may be in the particular series for a something that is specific only to that series, - like say a particular character.

My agent and I did have the conversation of whether to go under a pen name when there was a step from the fantasy to sci-fi, especially from insects-based fantasy to spider-based sci-fi, was small enough that we figured it would do more good than harm to carry over the name – that’s basically what happened.

If I was to write romance, crime, or something like that, I think I would end up changing my name because I don’t think the fantasy cachet would help at that point.

OH: Are you considering branching out into more different genres at some point or are you quite happy where you are at the moment with SF/F?

AT: I’m very happy at the moment, but you never close the doors. For a lot of writers, especially fantasy and science fiction to crime, seems a very natural stepping point, the very “next door” to the genre as the genres go. Every time someone I know mentions that that’s what they are doing, I think “Oh, that’s an interesting point.”, especially if you can crack it – there is an enormous readership with crime. I think it’s (and I’m saying it entire from the top of my head) probably the biggest individual genre there is. Maybe it’s something I’d a crack with. But honestly, I don’t read crime, and therefore that is something I need to rectify before I wrote it, I think. I need to immerse myself in the genre, can’t assume I can leap into without any kind of prep.

OH: You mentioned you are working on a sequel to Children of Time, which I personally find very exciting because I love Children in Time, and I’m going to honest I didn’t think I would – the spiders did scare me a bit…

AT: …Well, I get that a lot.

OH: I loved it, though! Do you feel intimidated knowing how successful and acclaimed that novel turned out to be now [when] you’re writing sequel?

AT: Yes! I mean it was something I had to take a long run up to the sequel because of how well it was received I had an extra level of pressure. The people will be going in with high expectations and so it took me a long time to get the idea that felt worthy of doing and making that sequel, cause obviously a bad sequel is worse than no sequel at all. It did fell like a high pressure writing experience.

The end book will be called Children of Ruin, jollily enough, and I’m very happy with it. It carries on the setting and it carries on the themes of the original book, and I’m very pleased with it.

OH: So does that mean you’re actually done writing it?

AT: It is submitted, it’s gone through its first edits and its currently back with the publisher. It is expected in the early 2019 [May, 2019 in US (Orbit) in UK (TOR.com)].

OH: That’s exciting to hear! Were there any unexpected difficulties that you encountered writing a sequel. It’s a few years now since The Children of Time came out and you had a gap, unlike to the Shadows of the Apt where books cam one after the other?

AT: Yes, I pretty much churned the Shadows of the Apt books and they follow one another temporally, actually, there isn’t much more there than a few months’ gap between any two books in the series.

With the Children of Time, and anyone who read the first book knows that the epilogue sequence which takes place several generations after the main body of the book, and because I’m kicking off with that epilogue sequence, I didn’t feel I had a huge amount of continuity I needed to make sure I was on top of. Because I was really writing that future as it were almost fresh.

OH: I’m personally just assuming that you’re not afraid of giant spiders [Tchaikovsky laughs] …What are you afraid of? What is something that would really scare you?

AT: Weirdly, and I think I exercised it in the Shadows of the Apt series, I had a real thing about the wasps when I was a kid. When I was younger I ran over a buried wasps nest and lost about two hours of time in the ensuing panic. So that was my really big fear. I seem to have got past that and I don’t know whether it’s just because I made the wasps my own in my writing. And I’ve never really liked dogs. Now I’ve written about dogs. I think that’s possibly me using my writing for therapeutic purposes.

OH: Yeah, the dogs from The Dogs of War aren't exactly the kind I’d like to come and pet. Some creatives mentioned that in a couple years they’ve been paralyzed in a way by the news and current events – like you mentioned before that it is weird to write sci-fi and then see it in the real world. Would you say that news inspire or hinder you?

AT: I get exactly what they mean. I also get to the point where I have to drop out of the social media some days just because everyone is passing backwards and forwards the same sort of terrible stories about what’s going on. You do feel very powerless, you feel that even positions where I am very privileged globally, there isn’t anything I can do. But what I can do is to write. And so it does influence my writing cause it leads to books like Ironclads which is looking towards a potential future. And there is another novella I just finished which is Firewalkers, it’s partly sort of non-politics in the climate change.

At least I have that outlet, at least I have that reassurance that if I put something like this out it may influence someone. In the Children of Time, the main lesson is about empathy with things that are different to us. It’s obviously taking a rather extreme view on that, but the message is that it is better to live with than fight against.

It’s better to have that sort of diversity of outlook, I mean that there is the explicit mention in the end is that - if you get these diverse minds working together rather than trying to exterminate one another, they are greater than the sum of their parts. That is something I strongly believe in. And that is the core idea that is under threat at the moment, with everyone retreating to their very specific identities in the world, whether it’s national identity or gender identity, and trying to include those that are different – especially the minorities.

If I can write about things going the other way – that’s the little I can do.

OH: But there are days where you take the break from the news and social media.

AT: Yeah, because you get this kind of reinforcing cycle where everyone in your particular online clique is repeating the same news and you look out and there is no light in that particular tunnel. That’s why I tend to retreat for my mental health and come back on the next day to post pictures of kittens.

OH: You’ve mentioned the need for diversity and this topic in genre literature is obviously much discussed. What you think we can do to tackle that issue?

AT: There are two linked things that I think someone in my position, or basically anyone in the trade, can work on. There’s representation of characters in books and there’s representation of creatives in the industry. What I try to do if I see someone put up a request for some recommendations, I make sure I don’t give a barrage of white male writers who have all been in the game for the last fourty years. There are people who need cheerleading and there are people who are already well established.

And similarly, I try to write books which have a diverse cast. Because obviously seeing people like you represented - this is something we see more in film and roleplaying games these days which is encouraging. This has been more widely recognized and had a much more explicit demonstration of it in things like superhero films which started off as something very-very male-dominated, and white-dominated and now they are coming out of it in a big way.

There are a lot of things you can do as a writer. You can’t just go out there and necessarily change the world with your bare hands and alter the political spectrum. But you can contribute to the ongoing work which does seem to be moving in the right direction.

OH: Do you feel intimidated when you try to present a diverse cast in your books while not personally being part of any minorities?

AT: I’m always worried I can get something wrong and I’m sure that have done it and will do it. I hope that when someone does inevitably pick me up on it I’ll take the criticism with the relevant good grace. I do at least try to know people and talk to people of the relevant minorities am writing. And when you are talking about minorities that are non-white people, and if you’re writing about women rather than men – it’s not really a minority issue, it’s an underrepresented issue.

It’s always a problem and you don’t want to end up doing some sort of shallow cultural appropriation and thinking you’ve done a terribly good job of it. But I think it’s worth giving it your best shot and try rather than saying “Well, I’m terribly frightened about being called out, so I’ll just write about what white men cause I know about those.” Cause you’ve really got those two options – you rather try to be inclusive in your writing or you just bottle yourself up in your tiny corner of the population.

OH: Do you think that WorldCon handled the controversy they had authors complained that they have been excluded from panels for not being famous enough and etc. or you think they could’ve done something differently?

AT: I think that it was a shame that the situation arose in the first place. Because it was not a hard one to foresee, especially when you have a situation where, and I’m basing this on the scattershot of things I saw when it was going on, and it was as though some of the Hugo nominees were being told “You were not well-known or important enough to get on panels”. Which seem to be in fairly contradictory terms.

I think that it was then dealt with. I’ve seen at least one of the prominent people saying on twitter that they had a very good convention after all that. And it seems it was dealt with reasonably good grace – that’s better than not being dealt with and that’s what we see when people get called on these things and they just double down and insist that there’s no problem cause it’s not offending or causing a problem for them and therefore why is everyone else causing all the fuss. All these things we see from the highest political offices in the land all the way down to even small, local conventions can have these kinds of troubles. So it was raised and it was dealt with and it all worked out. I wasn’t at the convention and there are very large gaps in my knowledge regarding this affair.

OH: Let’s talk about the craft itself. Do you work with outlines or are you a discovery writer?

AT: I plan things to the hilt. The plan doesn’t always survive the contact with the actual writing process, but I always plan chapter-by-chapter, beginning to end. And frequently I’llbreak downn chapters into scenes. Sometimes I’ll sketch outlines of individual conversations to make sure all the information gets in the right order. I really wonder at writers who can do that simply wandering through their world and putting it together as they go. That is an amazing gift that I absolutely don’t have.

OH: Did your approach change over the years?  Would you say in the beginning you did it differently? Did it take a while to find the method that works for you or is it how you’ve been working since the start?

AT: It’s pretty muchthe same since the beginning, to be honest. I think the one tangible benefit it brings me in particular, is that it allows me to use my writing process with certain efficiency. I’m known as a fairly prolific author, but I don’t really write more words than most authors. I keep more words of that first draft. And if you’re not doing a lot of drafts, it does mean that, even if at a relative leisure writing pace, you can get a lot done.

I think that preferation is one of the reasons because of which I have a very good understanding where everything is going and I don’t end up in blind alley, so I don’t have to go and rewrite the odd sections.

OH: Which of your works would you love to see adapted into a TV show or on the big screen?

AT: [Laughs] Well, if someone from the industry came I’d say that I’m not choosey, you know. I mean there is an option on Children of Time at the moment, but I think that is a quiet possibly a hard one to adapt. I’d love to see a Guns of the Dawn sort of pseudo-historical work, as Outlanders did it very well. Dogs of War would be a phenomenal visual treat – with all the bio-engineering animals romping around on the screen.

OH: I must admit that the Children of Time gets my hands sweaty trying to imagine that cinema visit.

AT: If anything come of it, I’ll be intrigued to see how they present that, cause yeah, you do have that visual problem when you’re reading the book (not a problem I would have), but expect this problem a lot of people have with spiders. So, I always saw the spider sections like a nature documentary myself, but who knows.

OH: Do you have a dream cast when you’re writing your books, when imagining them being adapted? Or is it something you do not think about?

AT: For most characters – no, but every so often, a particular actor gets stuck in my head for no particularly explicable reason. And I know that a particular character is that actor. So, there is a minor character in the Shadows of the Apt books – Destrachis, a spider kinden surgeon, he is the English comedian Rob Bryden in my mind and I have no idea why but he just seems to fit. Every so often I tend to do and what I’ve done with a number of my books – on my blog after the book has come out I would put out a dream cast for the non-existent film or TV show. I’ve done that most recently with the Redmption’s blade a few weeks back.

OH: Is there something you wish you’d known when you writing your first book?

AT: As a sci-fi writer I tend to approach questions like that very logically and becomes a time-travel paradox: if I’d known then what I know now - would I’ve written the books that got me published? So, I mean I didn’t go to any conventions before I got published, I didn’t go to any writing courses or anything like that, I went into it the hard way through the sweat of my own brow. I didn’t have any industry connections or other things that people talk about when they talk about the secret to getting published.

And I rather have a feeling that this is certainly better looking back in my unpublished work Shadows of the Apt if I had got some sort of leg up, somehow, by contacts or by meeting someone in the bar who drunkenly agreed to take my manuscript or anything like that, it might’ve gone very badly. Honestly, the stuff I got published was some of the earliest stuff that was of publishable quality. And looking back at my earliest books, there are a couple books I end up salvaging and beyond that my style was so immature that it would be more work that it is worth saving those books. Maybe the path I ended up treading, is the only path I could’ve had to get me where I am today.

OH: You’ve got a drawer somewhere with novels we will never see.

AT: And believe me, if you’d seen them you’d be happy that you never have to see them again.

OH: 2018 has been a very busy year for you, several books out – third book in the Echoes of Fall series, The Hyena and the Hawk came out this spring, the Redemption’s Blade that was already mentioned, which is the first book in the After the War series, which is going to be written by several authors?

AT: Yes, Justina Robson is taking on the next book which is out very soon, I think. I’ve also had The Expert System's Brother – the novella I wrote over in the States and later this year at FantasyCon at Chester, in the UK we’ll be releasing the final Tales of the Apt volume which is the companion series to the Shadows of the Apt – a series of short stories by myself and other authors who’ve been kind enough to write in my playground.

OH: Is 2019 going to be as prolific?

AT: As well as Children of Ruin, which is gonna be the big one, I have a sci-fi book called Cage of Souls which the “Head of Zeus” publishes coming out also relatively early in the year. That’s two full novels. I may also have a novella Walking to Aldebaran which is one of my favourite pieces of short fiction so far because it’s effectively a terrible black comedy about an astronaut who gets lost in an enormous alien tomb.

OH: Sounds terrifying again. I feel like I’m gonna be encountering many fears by reading your work.

AT: [Laughs, knowingly]

The audio of the interview is available at our site – threecrowsmagazine.com

Adrian Tchaikosky's sequel to Children of Time is out in May 2019.

Follow him @aptshadow and read his blog at http://shadowsoftheapt.com/shadowsoftheapt.com.

Follow Olivia at @Vinjii and read her reviews at www.booksinblankets.com

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