Edited Transcript from Write On! Radio Interview with Ian Graham Leask ~
IGL: This is the first book in a trilogy – what’s the ambition of it?
SM: The trilogy essentially follows Jeremiah Jones and a society on the edge of collapse due to religion and disease. The first book – The Devereaux Dilemma – examines the question of faith in society, religion and self and what happens when that faith is tested. This is essentially a quest story. Jeremiah has been sent to capture Walt Devereaux so that the president can determine if Devereaux has created the bio-weapons he’s been accused of making.
IGL: What inspired the book?
SM: It’s interesting. This book didn’t start as science fiction, but as a philosophical novel. I was curious about what would happen if someone proved there was no God. I thought that would be a fascinating question to explore. However, most of the people I discussed it with hated the idea of such a proof, so I was forced to re-think the concept and eventually I transformed it into a futuristic story about the nature of religion and its place in our society.
IGL: You pay a lot of attention to style and clarity. It’s not a literary style, not drawing attention to itself, but it’s very clear writing. I like that.
SM: I think science fiction writers sometimes focus too heavily on technology. By the same token, literary writers sometimes focus too much on style. There’s a middle ground where you try not to let the style get in the way of the story. Isaac Asimov and Orson Scott Card are good at that. You don’t want to come up with a flowery sentence that pulls readers out of the world you’ve created. You don’t want them to say, “Wow, that’s a beautiful sentence. Now, where was I?” You always want to keep the reader trapped in the story.
IGL: You don’t mess around too much with technologies. You use more implication and finesse. How long did it take you to get to that point?
SM: It took quite a while. I learned over time that devoting too much space to descriptions of technology turns off readers who aren’t fascinated with science fiction. And all the great sci-fi writers of the past allow readers to supply imagery – people like Frank Herbert and Robert Heinlein and C.S. Lewis. And I love that older science fiction, which I think my writing is closer to than the newer science fiction.
IGL: There are two kinds of science fiction – one that’s reality based and one that’s more fantasy – yours is more realistic. Why did you choose to go that way?
SM: I wanted to honor the laws of physics. It can be a little harder to do write in a realistic style in some ways because you don’t have inventions like ansibles that allow for instantaneous transmissions across light years. And those can be great because they allow the author to move the story along more quickly, but I also find them a bit distracting because they’re not reality based.
IGL: Do you have any feelings about where we’re heading?
SM: We have lots of potential problems – governmental and religious – that don’t seem to go away no matter how far we seem to progress. And we also see lots of disease-based science fiction. The difficulty is in knowing which obstacle will be the one that brings us to the brink of disaster. I chose to use a man-made virus, but there could be any number of other crises that could lead us toward Armageddon.
IGL: Talk a little about Susquehanna Sally
SM: She plays only a small role in The Devereaux Dilemma. But she (or he or they – we don’t know for certain who Susquehanna Sally is) is disgusted with humanity and wants to eliminate people from the face of the Earth. Her solution is to create a virus that will destroy the people who have been harming the planet.
IGL: Tell us about Jeremiah Jones
SM: He is the main character through all three books. What I like about Jeremiah is that, like me, he doesn’t claim to know what the answers are. He’s more concerned with the questions, whereas a character like Walt Devereaux believes he has the answers for humanity.
IGL: How do you write about characters that are unlike you?
SM: That can be difficult. But if you like the characters and feel passionately about them, it’s much easier to understand where they’re coming from and easier to put yourself into their point of view.
IGL: You set the book partly in Minnesota. What was the appeal of that?
SM: I placed it in a fictional area near Rochester. I thought it would be fun to set it in an invented area rather than an existing place. That allowed me to create a town (Crescent Township) that suited my needs without offending anyone or limiting myself with respect to the story I wanted to tell. The future books are not set in Minnesota. In fact, they get much more macrocosmic than this one.
IGL: You’ve also written a number of law books. Is there a carry over from that kind of writing to this?
SM: I’m always striving for clarity in my writing. The difference between the two is that in non-fiction, you always know where the story is going (what the court held or what the legislature enacted, etc.), whereas in non-fiction, I don’t know where the story is going to take me and that’s a lot of fun.