Author Interview: Stephen Gaskell

Stephen Gaskell chats about the spec fic writing life, the inspiration for his

Scape story ‘The Terrarium‘ and offers some advice for new writers.


1. What was the inspiration for ‘The Terrarium‘?

My subconscious probably has another explanation, but as I recall the inspiration for the story was the arresting image of a boy disgorging a beetle from his mouth. Where this image came from I have no idea. Once I had the image I asked myself why somebody might be heaving up a creepy-crawly, and decided that maybe the beetle represented one of the boy’s fears that he’d overcome. I think this came partly out of a desire to make my fiction less abstract, more tangible. The rest came from drawing on some of my memories of my school years, particularly the general sense of ennui that school-life can engender, plus the difficult social relations that the school yard can foment. Or, to say it better, although I was never bullied, I had an awareness of it happening around me and I wanted to write about that.

2. The way you simultaneously capture Sam’s innocence with his understanding of his world is integral to the story.  Do you find writing for YA any different to writing for adults?

Although bullied and a bit introverted, Sam’s a strong character in the sense that he doesn’t buckle easily to social conventions. That’s difficult to do at any age, but perhaps more so when you’re a teenager. I don’t consciously write my YA fiction any differently to my adult fiction, but if I analysed it I would say the primary difference would be capturing the mindset of the viewpoint character. I think YA readers can handle complex plots, difficult ideas etc as well as any adult reader, but where they differ is in there identification with the main character. When I (rarely) write YA fiction, I’m focused on a narrower scope of psychological outlook and preoccupations. That doesn’t make the writing any easier though!

3. You’ve got a background in IT and science. Does your education inform your stories?

Fortunately, my background in IT was limited to four years of working life after I graduated. The straitjacketed requirements of writing compilable code just wasn’t for me. The literary equivalent of a bad program is writing a half-decent story, only for your word processor to refuse to save it because a few of the words aren’t quite right. Luckily fiction writing is more forgiving. Sort of. Saying that, information theory, programming languages, and the suchlike, are a rich vein of ideas for me. Authors like Peter Watts, China Mieville, and Ted Chiang exemplify these ideas much better than I can at present, but that’s what I’m aiming for.

As to my education, I have degrees in physics and “biologically-inspired” A.I., and both of these subjects continue to astound, fascinate, and inspire me. I think a lot of my fiction concerns the wonder and power of the natural world, and an effort to place humans in that context rather than apart from it. On a more structural level, I love stories that work through the logical implications of something (technological or sociological or whatever) in a rigorous and enthralling way. That appreciation is probably partly based on the insights I learnt during my years of study of science; things like the connection between the ideal gas equation and kinetic theory blew my mind.

4. You’re a graduate of both the Writers of the Future and Clarion workshops.  What did these experiences mean for you?

In terms of my “writing life”, the two workshops are probably my most enjoyable experiences as a writer. They shaped the way I approached my writing career in so many different ways that I could probably write an essay on the topic, but what they meant most was in giving me an exposure to the day-to-day life of a working writer. This encompasses all manner of disparate activities from undertaking research to honing technique to face-to-face goofing, and, of course, writing. I think the biggest lessons I took away from the workshops was that (a) being a writer is something that is best committed to as completely as possible, (b) it’s a helluva lot of fun and beats being a code-monkey ninety-nine days out of a hundred, and (c) maybe I could do it.

5. It’s been a busy and successful few years for you, with credits in publications as diverse as Nature to Clarkesworld.  But you can probably remember what it was like embarking upon that journey. Any words of advice to new writers?

Well, I was a fairly naive soul at the beginning of my journey. After knocking out a few, in hindsight, rickety stories, I thought I’d sell a few of them to the genre magazines which I was painfully unaware of at the time. After some basic research, I remember thinking that two or three sales to Analog or Asimov’s and the suchlike would give me enough income to get by in Budapest where I was living at the time. I didn’t make a single sale for over a year, and realized I’d have to re-think my strategy.

Advice for new writers? Well, unless you’re a born genius, you’re probably going to have to do a fair amount of legwork before you write a professionally publishable story. All the usual stuff applies: read widely, study your technique, embrace life. I think a lot of being a good writer involves a lot of stuff that you don’t get through sitting at a desk stabbing a keyboard trying to write a publishable story. One thing I would say is that whatever stage of your writing trajectory, your ability to come up with original ideas is probably roughly constant. At the start, the difficulty comes in matching your vision with your technical skills; therefore a big mistake is to compromise your creative ideas when those stories don’t fly. Unless you’re re-hashing Neuromancer for the nth time, your ideas are probably good–but maybe your implementation isn’t. There is no secret handshake. Believe me, I’ve tried to find it.

6. You’ve recently transitioned to writing full-time, a leap that many emerging writers would love to take.  What factors did you consider before making this decision?

I deliberately didn’t consider too many factors! They would’ve scared me off the whole enterprise.

More seriously, the full-time nature of my writing life is more a commitment to working on all the elements that comprise being a successful writer than a financially secure reckoning. At present I don’t make my living from writing, but with the videogame scriptwriting work I do that’s becoming a more realistic proposition in the future. After making sure I wasn’t going to be destitute by not doing a nine-to-five job, the only factor I considered was how strong my desire was to be a writer and live a writing life. I found that feeling was rock solid, so I arranged my life around that.

7. What’s next for Stephen Gaskell?

First off I’m going to get myself a copy of Brad Beaulieu’s debut novel The Winds of Khalakovo which has just been published by Night Shade Books. Brad was one of my Clarion classmates, and as well as a being a fine human being, writes compelling, unique fantasy.

My next big project is to kick-on with my first novel that I began planning and writing last summer. It’s a near-future SF thriller set in Lagos, Nigeria. Once I’ve written a little more than the first chapter I might tell you more…

Stephen Gaskell has fond recollections of the school dinners of his youth, and hope’s his Scape tale hasn’t put you off yours. A Careers Advisors’ worst nightmare, he has been employed as a computer programmer, barman, social research interviewer, and English-language teacher, but is currently trying to make a living as a full-time writer. Publishing credits with Interzone, Escape Pod, and Clarkesworld, amongst others, suggest this isn’t entirely in vain. He is currently working on his first novel, a near-future SF thriller set in Lagos, Nigeria. He blogs, erratically, at