When you owe someone a drink, it’s usually pretty easy to set up a meeting with them. Recently, I sat down with Steven Brust and Skyler White (Skyler, I guess I owe you a drink, too) to discuss their new book, The Incrementalists, out on September 24th. (You can pre-order it on Amazon here) Of course, this is a convenient fiction. I sat down at my computer, and they sat down at theirs. However, I was drinking while I did it.
In any case, The Incrementalists is a fabulous tale about a group of immortal personalities who’d like to make the world a better place just a little bit at a time. When one dies, they choose someone new to inherit the memories and persona of the deceased, and the work continues. The fact that this may not be an uneventful procedure is central to the book, but apart from that, I wouldn’t want to spoil you. Except to say that I’ve read the book; and found it to be incredibly engaging and enjoyable. I hope you will too. With a concept this broad in scope, there are any number of questions to be asked, but this had to be an interview that would fit neatly in a blog post, so I stuck to just the best ten questions that occurred to me (I was tempted to ask seventeen). Skyler, Steve, feel free to answer jointly, take turns, or give separate answers - whatever works best for you. If my questions are asked in the wrong order to give smooth answers, feel free to flop ‘em around. And thanks for giving me the opportunity to do this. I’ll get you those drinks. Really. Ever tried baijiu?
1. Why did you decide to collaborate on this project? Who started it? Which came first, the notion that you should work together, or the notion you’d be working on? Please pretend this is all one question.
Steve: The idea for The Incrementalists had been hanging around for years, ever since Tappan King suggested it to me. Sitting around with Skye one evening talking about Art and Craft and such, we got to talking about collaboration, and putting the two together was kind of obvious.
Skye: Yeah, I think I’d been griping about missing the collaborative aspects of theater and Steve said something like, “So why don’t you co-write something?” Mind=Blown. I had no idea you could do such a thing.
2. How was the collaboration process different from writing the book alone? (Wow, that’s a little broad). Er… how did you find that working together changed the way you’d looked at the novel, and what sorts of things did your co-author add that you could never have throught of on your own? Brag about each other for a moment.
Steve: God. Where to begin. Every time I’d get a section I’d drop everything and read it. I mean, seriously, I’m glad none of my kids had to go to the ER just when an email from Skyler arrived. It always kicked me--I don’t think I ever knew what was coming, and I don’t think I ever had to think for more than a few minutes about where it should go next; even though I hadn’t had a clue before reading that section. The story simply unfolded in front of me, each new twist and turn and surprise feeling natural after the fact. Above all, in addition to plot twists and symbolic Easter eggs (some of which I’m just now picking up on) I think Skyler added grace, sensuality, and nuance of characterization.
Skye: When Steve and I started working together, I’d published two books and knew exactly enough about writing to thoroughly screw myself up. I was working on a huge, near-future YA whose ideas and characters I loved, but the execution was killing me.
I’d learned enough to recognize my mistakes as I was making them, but not enough to stopping making them. It was like once, in a ballet class, mid tour jete, I forgot what foot I was supposed to land on – you have to understand what a horror an irate ballet teacher can be – and my mind went, “Left foot? Right?” and my body went “Face!” Every sentence I’d start, I’d stop midway because something wasn’t right -- I was telling, not showing; there was -- oh, god!—an adverb; I’d head-hopped; I’d slipped into passive voice; that analogy was cliché. I was a cliché – the sophomore slumped, writer’s blocked writer.
But Steve is nothing if not original and he writes with such glee, with such love, that it’s contagious. He taught me how to loosen up and fix the oopsies in edits. Working with him allowed me to out-source the judge. He lent me his confidence. I wanted to be a better writer and the only way I know how to be better is to work harder, but I was working so hard I was in danger of killing the love. He taught me how to play. Sharing the work, borrowing his confidence, leaning on his strengths to cover my weakness, allowed me to give the work enough space that the love could breathe. Cause there’s no point in being a better writer if you hate writing.
3. There’s a lot of finnicky worldbuilding involved here, especially when it comes to the Garden. I didn’t know how to describe it briefly in my summary. Can you say a few explanatory words about what the Garden is and what it means to the Incrementalists?
Steve: Oh, but, man, that would ruin it. I mean, one of the fun things is discovering that, letting the information seep in. One of the great joys of science fiction is how revealing the world to the reader happens as part of the uncovering of character and the movement of the plot. They go together to make Story.
Skye: The garden = Werner Herzog’s ‘Cave of Dreams” + David Chalmer’s “The Extended Mind” + Steve & Skye + whiskey.
4. What, exactly, was the original driving notion of the story, and how did it develop into the intrigue and romance that we’ve got now?
Steve: The original driving notion was, simply, a group of immortals who have been around since the invention of symbol, who want to make the world better. The framework and mechanics were, for the most part, created by following up on that premise and, as Sturgeon would say, asking the next question. And then having friends try to pick holes in it, and then plug those holes. You were a part of that process as you recall. The rest of story simply told itself; we discovered it as we were writing it, and wanting to tell each other the next cool thing. Then, of course, there was going over it all to make it look like we’d known what we were doing all along.
Skye:Yeah, that really is about it. Tappan King had this charmingly optimistic idea that, if you consider how improbable, fragile and stupid we are, it’s stunning we’re still around. Things could have been, really should have been, so much, much worse. Maybe there’s a secret cabal helping us out. On the other hand, things certainly could still be better so obviously they’re not divine or even super-human. So what would they be? What could they do and not do? Why would they do it? And we were off.
5. Why would a group of immortals organize themselves in this way? While there’s certainly a lot of dissension, overall they’re a remarkably harmonious group of people, I think. What lead them to become Incrementalists as we see them now?
Steve: I really believe that there is a drive in many people to make the world better. I believe there is also frustration that, in the real world, there is so little an individual can do. The next step is wish-fulfillment--what if we, as individuals, really could make a difference? And the step after that is: examine the consequences.
Skye: I think part of it is how lonely immortality would be. To a certain extent, they are all they have. Incrementalists have only their relationships with the others in the group and their relationship with the world for as many lifetimes as they get. Everything else, to them, would be fleeting. There’s altruism, but there’s also a simple utility in trying to get along as well as you can with that which is with you through multiple lifetimes.
6. Of all the fantastical (or science-fictional) conceits in the story, which is your favorite, and what would you say is most central to the tale?
Steve: Good question! (“Good question” is code for, “Fuck, I have to think about that.”) I think my favorite is the precise means of securing immortality--that it requires the cooperation of the recruit, and that there are no guarantees of survival. What is most central to the story is the meddlework itself, and the moral ambiguity inherent in it.
Skye: Yeah, and I love that it’s the mechanism of that transfer which they, the remembering ones, forget.
7. The Incrementalists prefer to stay behind the scenes, but they’ve been shaping human history for centuries. Would you care to give some examples of events they meddled in for our benefit? Bonus points if they’re not mentioned in the boards or in the novel itself.
Steve: The Incrementalists had a hand in bringing Nixon down, and getting FDR elected. They were involved in organizing the IWW and the CIO. They had a hand in ending apartheid in South Africa and ending Jim Crow in the USA, and in bringing down the Shah of Iraq. They influenced Vikings in Britain to settle, rather than continue to destroy. They were, in part, behind the Third Servile (Sparticus) Uprising in ancient Rome. They encouraged the search for knowledge during what we call the Dark Ages, and helped bring about the Enlightenment.
Skyler: In 1928, an Incrementalist convinced Anita Berber to go sober, but it was too late, and I’m pretty sure Maud Allen and Margaret Gage were Incrementalists or meddled with by one. I feel like there was probably some serious meddling at work in the discovery of the dead sea scrolls and the tomb at Sutton Hoo. The lawyer Theodor Niemeyer was an Incrementalist and so was Olympe de Gouges.
8. Likewise, one of the great aspects of this story is that anyone throughout history could have been an Incrementalist. What historical figures do you imagine as having been part of the group? What historical figures definitely weren’t, but had an incrementalist sort of jogging their elbow to make things turn out better?
Steve: Very few of the well-known historical figures were actually Incrementalists, but there was a great deal of elbow jogging going on. I think there was some influence on Andrew Jackson when he fought to remove the property requirement for voting. They helped give Madam Curie room to carry out her work. They worked on William Wilburforce to end the British slave trade. Martin Luther King had an Incrementalist nearby, as did Susan B. Anthony. They certainly meddled with Tom Paine. I’d say Robespierre was meddled with a bit. I have a suspicion that Simon Bolivar had someone behind him. And more than likely Ghandi.
Skye: I sorta rolled this question and the previous one into one and answered it above.
9. So i kind of know the answer to this one, but let me ask it anyway. What comes next for the Incrementalists? What other plans do you have in this world?
Steve: I have a short story coming out from Tor on September 25th. Skyler will have one later. I’ve written another, and we’re working on a sequel to the book. I would very much like it if this universe opened up and other people wanted to write Incrementalist stories. That’d be cool.
10. My favorite maybe-helpful, maybe-pain-in-the-ass way to end an interview. What question haven’t I asked that you wish I would? (and what’s the answer?)
Skyler: All Incrementalists appear to fall somewhere in the political spectrum from the Left-central to the far Left. Why is that?
Steve: Because I cannot believe in a character who is simultaneously intelligent, compassionate, knowledgeable in history, and Right Wing. Any three of those I’ll buy, but not all four at the same time.
Steve: What’s up with all the pirates?
Skye: We’ll never tell!