"On the Other Side of That Vast and Blinding Desert" - A Conversation with Ted Kosmatka
Omnivoracious recently caught up with Ted Kosmatka, author of the debut science fiction thriller The Games, our top pick in March for Science Fiction & Fantasy. Both Publishers Weekly and Booklist gave the book starred reviews, and made comparisons to Crichton (we asked him about that below).
"Blends the best of Crichton and Koontz." --Publishers Weekly (Starred review)
"Very like something Michael Crichton might have written...An outstanding debut novel; expect big things from Kosmatka." --Booklist (Starred Review)
-- Omni's interview with Ted Kosmatka --
Omnivoracious: How do you describe the book to people?
Ted Kosmatka: I think of The Games as a "what if" story where science and culture have intersected in a kind of perfect storm. In short, genetic engineering has become an Olympic event. Technological expertise is a matter of national pride, and countries across the globe invest massive resources into the competition, producing bizarre gladiators who fight before an audience of billions. The only rule is that no human DNA is allowed; so these are beasts fighting to the death in the arena, not humans. The Games produce enormous revenues, which feeds technological advancement and provides the veneer of moral justification that is required for society to embrace the bloodsport. When the world's newest supercomputer is brought in to help design the next U.S. gladiator, the result is science run amok.
Omni: Where did the idea come from?
TK: I had been thinking about artificial intelligence and all the ways that humans and computers might misunderstand each other in the future. The novel started out as a short story idea about the world's first virtual reality supercomputer. From there I grew interested in the kind of man who might create such a thing, and over the course of a few weeks, I realized that I'd need to write it as a novel if I was going to get everything out. Once I realized that the computer was involved in the creation of genetically engineered life, the rest of the plot fell into place.
Omni: I've found myself describing The Games as "a really good monster story." On some level, is that what you set out to write?
TK: I never have any idea what my stories are when I write them. It's more of a feeling that I'm chasing. I write as a way to figure things out. Looking at the novel now, I can see that there is certainly a monster aspect to it, and that's something I think the story embraces--huge genetically engineered creatures fighting to the death. Blood sport writ large. But in some ways, I think that's just the box it comes in. On a deeper level, it's not a Frankenstein story so much as story about what monsters the monster Frankenstein might himself have created. It's also a story about fathers and sons and the things we leave behind us when we're gone.
Omni: Is Silas (the scientist/protagonist) based on anyone?
TK: Legally I'm supposed to say no, right? Actually though, seriously, no. I like writing about characters who are different from me so that I get to walk around in new pair of shoes for a while. Silas, as far as I can tell, was just made up out of whole cloth. He just sort of materialized on the page. One thing I will say--and here I have to be careful of spoilers-- is that I wrote a fairly in-depth back story that related to his childhood; and during the time when the manuscript sat in editorial slush piles, events transpired in the gulf that oddly mirrored certain aspects of his father's back story. So now anyone who reads it will assume I based the back story around those historical events. Really, it was just a coincidence though. I thought I was being fairly original and then reality came in and it actually happened.
Omni: A few reviews have compared The Games to Michael Crichton. You’ve been generally labeled as a literary writer up to now (of award-nominated short stories). How do you feel about the Crichton comparisons?
TK: I have a lot of respect for Michael Crichton's work. I remember reading a lot of his stuff back when I was in high school and college, so the idea that somebody would think to compare me to him is a huge compliment. We both write near-future science thrillers, so I can see why the comparison might pop up.
Omni: How is writing novels different from writing short stories? How has writing short stories informed your novel writing?
TK: Novels are much harder to write than short stories. I think you have to be a crazy masochist to write novels. Really, I mean that. Something has to be wrong with you for you to want to sit at a computer for thousands and thousands of hours, talking to yourself. And to do it when nobody is paying you to do it? (as is the case for most first-time novel writers like myself) That's just crazy. I mean, how do you tell your wife or husband, hey, don't bother me for a year, I have to lock myself in a room and write down my thoughts.
I say all this after having done exactly that, and now I've come out on the other side of that vast and blinding desert, and I can't wait to do it again. Another difference between novels and shorts is that you can't hold a whole novel in your head. Or at least I can't. When writing a short story, I can kind of see it all in front of me by the time I get to the end. With a novel, it's just too much. It's huge, a whole world, a hundred thousand words or more, and the most I can see at any one time is just a chunk of it. You have to learn to trust yourself when you're writing a novel. You have to trust that you knew what you were doing when you wrote the stuff you can't remember the shape of anymore, and it all will work out in the end.
Omni: This is a debut novel. How would you describe the experience of having a novel published?
TK: My experience has been utterly schizophrenic. I thought writing novels was difficult, and then I tried to get them published. That's when I learned what difficult really was. My first novel actually languished in slush piles for years. It had birthdays in slush piles. Novels can grow old just waiting to be read; they can go from being science fiction to historical fiction. You know the whole steam punk movement? People don't realize that the first steam punk story was actually written as realistic future science fiction. By the time an editor excavated the manuscript from the slush pile and blew off the bone dust, the future it portrayed was suddenly quaint. Instant literary movement.
I was rejected for a long time, and I won't say that I was too tennacious to quit; that would be putting too positive a spin on it. I quit over and over again, but it never really stuck. No matter what, I kept returning to writing. Eventually, I was lucky enough to start selling my short fiction, though my luck with my longer works still hadn't changed. A bit later, I got an email from an agent by the name of Seth Fishman who had heard of me because of my short stories. He asked if I had written any novels. I said I had, but told him that my best one had already been rejected, so he probably wouldn't want it. He said to send it to him anyway, so I did. Two weeks later, he had several offers on it. I pretty much owe my novel career to him contacting me. After all the years of trying, it was an email out of the blue that changed everything.
Omni: Tell us a little about your writing process. When do you write? Where?
TK: Since I have a day job and small kids at home, the only time I have to write is late at night after the kids go to bed. I usually get home from Valve around 6:30 or so, then grab dinner and hang out with my family until I put the kids to bed around 9:00. I can usually start writing my own personal fiction around 9:30, and then I'll write until after midnight. After that I go to bed, wake up, repeat. It's nice to have the freedom to do that. For years I had a swing shift job, and that made writing very difficult because I was always working different hours; so working a steady work week feels like heaven to me.
Omni: What do you do for Valve and how has that informed your writing?
TK: I'm a writer at Valve. I've been there about two and a half years, and I work with a lot of insanely talented people. My favorite thing about Valve is the collaborative nature of most of the projects, so in that way it is very different than writing short stories, or novels. Nothing is decided in isolation. You work in constantly fluctuating teams, and together you come up ideas and content that hopefully gets used for the games. It's an amazing experience working in the game industry and I'm incredibly thankful for my opportunity to do so.
Omni: What’s next from Ted Kosmatka?
TK: What's next? I'm really looking forward to Valve's release of Dota 2. Beyond that, I'm looking forward to the release of my next novel, which I just finished the first draft to.