We are counting down the last three interviews in this series! This week we have Lucas Bale, who caters to the white-knuckle variety of sci-fi by writing thrillers. Enjoy!
Zen: How long have you been writing and what stage do you feel your writing is at now? What are your future plans? Do I recall you mentioning another pen-name?
Lucas: I already write under a pen name and there have been times recently when I toyed with the idea of using another for the next series I intend to write, as the style will be really quite different to that which most of my current readership might expect. I think my voice has developed as I have progressed as a writer. Beyond the Wall was very much an adventure story, the kind that might one day make a good television series, as Corey’s Leviathan Wakes did with The Expanse.
However, even now, as I write the closing book to that series, I feel I have progressed dramatically as a writer in these last twelve months particularly, and I intend to push myself further, teaching myself the process of writing in a slightly more literary style. My goals are different now – the genre I want to write in remains the same, science fiction, but the style is perhaps a little more thought-provoking and, possibly, even more driven by complex themes and social discourse. Science fiction is perfect for this – providing us with a forum to debate the past, present, and future in a way that is accessible and invigorating. Good science fiction offers potential insights into the future and in doing so force us to questions where humanity is going, where our planet will be in fifty or a hundred years, what choices we as individuals will be making. These are questions we might not ordinarily ask ourselves. Does what we do today really matter? Good science fiction allows us to consider issues of philosophy, theology, governance, and all manner of other matters while still reading thrilling fiction. And it shouldn’t give us the answers: it should only ever raise questions and give us the tools to answer those questions for ourselves. I want to be offering that kind of work and that will mean developing myself as a writer.
So, I haven’t settled on whether I will write in another name or not, whether this new style is simply a natural progression of my writing as many authors can be seen to progress from their early work and find their voice more fully, or whether in fact the stye is so much more ‘literary’ than I have used before that writing under a different name will make sense. One of the issues in respect of self-publishing today is that where before the early work of authors like Banks, Leckie, and Simmons would not actually have ever seen the light of day, or might well have been heavily rewritten after years of being published and learning the craft, self-published authors have their early work out there while they are still finding their voice. Is it a good thing? It allows authors to earn something of a living and keep writing, so in that sense it is, even if it might not be artistically.
Zen: You’ve described yourself as “something of an RPG fiend.” Which RPGs, and what kind of characters do you like to play?
Lucas: I certainly was! I don’t play anymore and I haven’t since my twenties, but there are times when I look back nostalgically and miss it, even now. One of the marvellous things about writing the science fiction I do is that it’s a different type of escapism, but for me the thrill and buzz is very similar. As to which games I played back then, well, I have them all on my bookshelves in my study, even now. They still give me satisfaction and sometimes I take them down to relive those fond memories. AD&D, of course, as well as the early D&D version – that was my first experience of the game, back when I was 14, I think. Long, dark nights sat in dimmed lighting around a small table, or in a bedroom as a storm raged outside. Too much Coke and chocolate, too many biscuits and crisps. Good times! We ran various campaign settings over the years – all of those commercially available, I suspect, as well as a bunch we had written ourselves in excruciating detail. Often, if a fantasy series didn’t have some kind of RPG available, we would crib AD&D and make one. We played Runequest too, along with MERPS (Middle Earth Role-Playing). Also White Wolf’s Vampire and Werewolf settings, Star Wars RPG, Aliens and Living Steel, Call of Cthulhu, Chill, as well as WFRP and a Warhammer 40k derivative we developed. There are more, Zelazny’s Amber for example, but those were the mainstays. Generally, I played warrior derivatives, although I had a few thieves too, and the odd mage. Generally, I tended towards heroic, but flawed. Cliches, I think, are what you would call them.
Zen: A lot of writers I know (myself included) got started writing because of RPGs. Why do you think this is such a common theme?
Lucas: The natural call for creativity and imagination, principally, as well as the thrill of telling a story. The ability to step out of the real world, and immerse yourself without fear in another, imaginary world and see its rich detail, feel it in a way that allows you to communicate it to others. Therefore world-building, and character creation and development, are learned skills that come organically with role-playing. Also the power of the descriptive narrative and story structure. RPG adventures shape all of those skills in some way. I’ve been told that world building is one of my most compelling skills, that the worlds I create, even in short-form literature, are detailed and rich. If that is the case, a lot of it probably comes from the detail I went into in my campaign settings and characters in my role-playing years. Playing a character for years, watching them develop, also gives a very detailed understanding of the nature of a character arc. In essence, it’s impossible not to understand something you’ve lived for a long time. You see how characters react to given situations, and understand that consistency of decision-making for a given character, even if you personally might have made a different decision, is the key to remaining ‘in character’. That understanding is critical to creating believable characters in fiction.
Zen: Which one of your characters are you most like, and why?
Lucas: If by that you mean characters in my books, I can’t point to any one of them and say I share characteristics of any of them particularly. I think I have probably spent more time than is healthy inside Weaver’s head, more certainly than in Shepherd’s which may surprise some readers who I imagine identify more with Shepherd than Weaver. Few of my characters are particularly heroic, at least in the overt sense, but certainly, like real people, they are capable of heroic acts. That’s how I see people – complex and unpredictable, but capable of great surprises.
If by RPG characters, I suspect I see myself as honourable and willing to protect those I love, standing by them emotionally and physically when they need it. I think most of my characters had something of that in them, regardless of how much I tried to play something different. It’s much easier to write complex, flawed characters even if you’re not particularly that way yourself than it is to role-play them. Heath Ledger’s tragic death might be a demonstration of what it’s like spending too much time in the head of seriously flawed people. I doubt it’s possible to avoid taking away something dark when you spend all your time trying to become darkness, even temporarily.
Zen: Do you have any book ideas you’d like to write, but fear it wouldn’t sell?
Lucas: This might be foolishly naive, in fact it almost certainly is, but I haven’t really ever written to market. There are authors who have made that work spectacularly for them, right down to the perfect combination of what to put on the cover and who to create that cover for them. I don’t have the will to write that kind of work. I think it would be pretty average too, as I wonder how much of me would actually be in it. So I tend to write what I want to write at the time and I’m less concerned about whether it will sell or not. I’m no artist, so I don’t have some desperate urge to create something magical that will bless readers with divine insight, but only reach a limited audience for whatever obscure reason, but equally, I don’t much feel like writing another military space opera. The Forever War did that brilliantly, as did Heinlein, Scalzi, and more recently Marko Kloos and others. There are projects I want to start but can’t, because I have other more pressing commitments, but that’s nothing to do with it not selling – I just have other things to finish first.
Zen: What’s the hardest thing about being a self-published author, for you?
Lucas: I spent fifteen years defending and prosecuting serious crime in England and Wales. That work was stressful, the stakes were high, and it was often quite lonely. You have to rely on yourself, your own decision-making processes, and have confidence in what you are doing. You have to keep yourself organised and up to date, and have a network of professional friends you can rely on to run ideas past. In essence, being an author, and self-publisher (two different jobs), both require the same kind of skill set, but I don’t see the stress or stakes as being similar in any way. Yes, there is stress as an author and as a publisher, but I’ve learned to deal with it, so mostly I find this enjoyable. It’s unpredictable, the market I mean, and prone to change. Often it’s not really obvious to me what I can do to market my work effectively, although I have been reasonably successful so far – but again, this is similar in principal to a jury trial, so I have learned to deal with it. If I do get despondent, I imagine what my life was like before, the high-stakes stress of court work, and remember I get to write science fiction for a living. Then I go read something great, an SF Masterwork or something like that, and I’m soon smiling. Also, I have so much to do to focus on improving myself, pushing myself forward as a writer, that rarely do I have time to get stressed or despondent.
Zen: What’s your favorite science fiction franchise?
Lucas: I don’t really go for franchises, I don’t think. I’ve been disappointed by the need to eke out as much as possible from old works, instead of creating new things. Star Wars was great as a trilogy, and everything since has fallen somewhat flat for me. Terminator too – the first two films did a great job, everything afterwards felt like milking the cash cow. I don’t play computer games either so Mass Effect and Eve and things like that which I have seen advertised simply don’t attract me. If you can call Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series a franchise, I have something like twenty of those on my bookshelf. If you mean television series, there really hasn’t been anything breathtaking for a while in the realm of science fiction: Firefly was wonderful, of course, and I enjoyed Game of Thrones hugely. Mr Robot was clever, but flawed, and the recent Netflix Stranger Things series was very good. I’ve been disappointed by other shows like Dark Matter and Killjoys, but fresh takes on SF themes by Black Mirror, Orphan Black, and Sense8 have been excellent. I think that might be the point, rather like my taste in music – I don’t go in for franchises, or music styles, I tend towards single artistic items or songs I like, but I have quite wide tastes.
Zen: What are you currently working on?
Lucas: I tend not to say too much in public, as ideas change and I am quite private about my works in progress. Suffice to say my main project for the next few years will be a space opera in the literary style – Cherryh-flavoured, if you like (I think I might be stealing Ann Leckie’s phrase), or similar to Iain M. Banks and Ann herself, maybe even Vernor Vinge and Dan Simmons. More expansive than Beyond the Wall, more strongly-themed and which raises the kinds of questions I talked about earlier on this interview. An entirely new setting, far more detailed, and standalone books that are linked by setting and an overarching story arc which covers thousands of years. I have been working on the setting itself, what I am trying to say with it, as well as the outlines for the first three books in the series. I doubt I have ever been more excited by any project.
I like to finish up with word association. Think fast, and say the first thing that comes to mind! (Today’s words provided by an episode of Pokemon, which my son is watching while I work.)
Lucas Bale writes the sort of intense, gripping science-fiction thrillers which make you miss your train. Stories which dig into what makes us human and scrape at the darkness which hides inside every one of us.
His bestselling debut novel, THE HERETIC, is the gateway to the award-winning BEYOND THE WALL series, an epic hard science-fiction space opera about the future of humanity and the discovery of the truth of its past.
He wasn’t always a writer. He was a criminal lawyer for fifteen years before he discovered crime doesn’t pay and turned to something which actually pays even less. No one ever said he was smart, but at least he’s happy. He blushes when people mention him in the same sentence as Banks, Heinlein or Martin, bless him.
If you’d like to hear about new releases before everyone else, get advance review copies of those new releases and every short story he ever writes for free then subscribe to INSIDE, his semi-regular newsletter, here: www.lucasbale.com/inside
If twitter is your thing, you’ll find him at @balespen