Ransom, can you please describe your writing style. Who are you as an author?
When my first agent, Sarah Jane Freymann, read the manuscript of the first book I ever let anyone else read, she said, “I want more of your best and your best is the clear thought processes, the unique perspective of a physicist.” Since then, I have endeavored to provide unique perspectives. That first book would have been titled Fade to Pink: memoir of a single father. Sarah Jane loved it and so did I, but for reasons I’d rather not relive, it was never published.
Yet I carry Sarah Jane’s words with me all the time. In The God Patent I taught you enough quantum electrodynamics that you could make a simple step of faith, or not, that would determine whether you believed Katarina’s, the teenage skate rat character’s, model of the soul. All within the context of an atheist’s seditious take on religion.
In The Sensory Deception, I put you in the minds of endangered animals and did my damndest to portray how they (might, probably?) experience the world. At the time, I was cultivating an audience of people who read both fiction and popular science–the niche I was after. I made all the technology and science explicit, from how the Doppler effect affects the sonar that whales see with to how fires propagate through burning rainforests. Some critics though I went overboard. Looking back, I sort of agree with them, though the only thing I’d change about that book is a chapter that an editor asked for that I should have pushed back on.
One of the many things that Laurie McLean has taught me, perhaps the most important, is that complicated plots have their place but tend to carve out smaller audiences. I kid around with her and say things like “I’m never doing anything original again,” but the truth is, my mission goes back to what Sarah Jane said about offering perspective. That’s what makes my work special and sharing those perspectives is at once more important to you and me, than constructing plots unlike any you’re likely to have read before.
A long way of saying, as an author, I try to be the guy who alters your perspective on life, the universe, and everything. For me, that’s the buzz.
You have a book debuting this month:Too Rich To Die. Tell us about the Time Weavers series. How did you come up with these unusual characters? And is their technology real?
Everything I’ve written so far in the Time Weavers series, every bit and byte of tech, is totally possible with off-the-shelf parts. The only totally unrealistic aspect of the tech is how fast my characters develop it.
The Time Weavers came to me at the Vienna airport. I saw a befuddled-looking man in a rumpled gray suit and trench coat who I later named Simon Wentworth. He stood in the aisle of a little sundry shop hesitating over his choice of–I don’t know what–chewing gum, candy bar, maybe diarrhea medicine.
A little girl stepped into the aisle, looked up at him, and ran away terrified. I could see that the child’s reaction broke his heart. About an hour later I was standing in an elevator with mirrors on opposite walls. The infinite reflections looked like different versions of myself. I wondered how it would look to the befuddled man I’d seen before. Maybe he’d look at those reflections and think that one of those versions of himself might not have frightened the little girl. Maybe he’d wonder what it would be like if he could choose to be one of the reflections, someone much like himself but in a different reality. I put a note in the little book I carry around.
Months later, I wondered about that guy. In the olden days people who suffered mental conditions that gave them altered perspectives on life were sometimes revered as visionaries. What if the befuddled man were mildly schizophrenic or epileptic? That is, what if he suffered “episodes” or delusions in which he perceived conflicting histories, both past and future? What if he believed that he had the power to choose between those realities–not absolute power, of course, after all it is the limits of power that make for a good story. What if he had a beagle who drew him out of those episodes? I named him Simon Wentworth and made his life revolve around his dog companions, each one named after a season. The first was Spring, the Irish Setter he grew up with, and so on. It’s Winter in Simon’s life.
At about the time I was pondering how Simon and Winter would fit in a plot, I was reading Scott Lynch’s Fantasy series, The Gentleman Bastards, and loved the deep connections and “three musketeers”-like playfulness between them. I gave Simon two best friends, people who would look out for him. He’s a kind man, but the world is hard for him and he needs supervision. I thought of Fiona first. I knew a bartender at an out of the way, sort of pre-hipster bar in Fort Worth. She was an amputee from the hip, who maneuvered around her bar at an astounding speed. She also had the most positive attitude ever exhibited by a mammal of any genus. She wasn’t Australian, but she did leave her prostheses leaning in corner, and when she left the confines of the bar she managed quite well with her cane.
Volodya came from several Russian physicists that I worked with back in the 1990s, especially the organizer of a month-long physics workshop that I attended in Russia. His name was Igor and every morning he’d approach me–for some reason he thought I represented the American attendees, or maybe he was comfortable with me from all the late night vodka and acoustic guitar sessions–anyway, he’d groan, shake his head, look at the floor, and say, “There is a problem.” The name “Volodya” came from a physicist named Vladimir who I worked with at Fermilab. I kept calling him “Vlad” and he finally corrected me: “My nickname, it is ‘Volodya’.” He chuckled in that sandstorm-dry way, and added “Only Russian would add syllable to make name shorter.”
Eben Scratch, the troublemaker in Too Rich to Die, is of course stolen from Charles Dickens, except that my version, Eben, came from a man I saw crossing Mission Street in San Francisco: a finicky, self-absorbed looking fellow wearing skinny jeans that hung on his slight frame with creases as though they’d been ironed. He wore a hoodie that looked out of place as though it was an unwelcome uniform. The look on his face spoke of distaste, wide-ranging scorn, and he was wearing Google Glass–Scrooge if ever I saw him. (Due apologies to the gentleman that I actually saw, before my imagination converted him to Scrooge).
The key piece came from a nagging memory. Remember back in 2013 when a venture capitalist put up a notorious Facebook post? He said horrible things about the poor and destitute. The man I saw on Mission Street looked like the sort of guy who would do something like that, Scrooge certainly would. That’s where the plot came from: this guy needs redemption! My imagination ran amok the way it does when I’m plotting–I throw ideas at 4-by-3-foot sheets of paper and then connect some together, rinse, repeat, stir in the brilliant-but-wronged Allison, someone who really is needy, and let them redeem each other, but with plenty of historical twists along the way, this time surrounding the French revolution.
You have started writing book reviews under the moniker Ransom’s Reviews on Medium.com. How are Ransom’s Reviews different from any review on Amazon?
Like all writers, I read a lot of books. When I finish them, I look back and study them to try to glean some tricks of the craft. We have whatever talent we have, but we can always improve our skill.
I’ve spoken on a lot of panels and taught classes on the craft covering topics like effective dialogue, use of point of view, word usage, description, tension, suspense, and that sort of thing. I’m always sort of amazed how much people appreciate it when I offer insights. It goes back to what Sarah Jane said, “the clarity of thought of a physicist”–at once a burden and a blessing–anyway, I was thinking about ways to build readership and book reviews are a pretty standard technique.
Thing is, I have a problem with book reviews and criticism of art in general: whether a book is “good” or “bad” (beyond the simplest element of craft–grammar and clarity) is totally subjective, utterly meaningless! If I like a book, it’s good, no matter what the rest of the world thinks of it; and you too, damn it.
In Ransom’s Reviews, you can tell whether I like a book or not. I’m likely to leak some enthusiasm, perhaps even say it’s “awesome,” but the real point of my reviews is to share some insights of what that author did particularly well in that book. From the value of literature in society to a particularly clever way an author broke one of the many “rules” of the craft (BTW, I have a list of rules here: http://www.ransomstephens.com/the-craft.htm).
As a novelist, one of the things that I bring to this sort of book reviews is my own experience. I often choose books just to see how an author handles something difficult. I share that in my reviews and if I handled that in one of my books in a different way, I share that technique too.
What else do you want to say?
I think I’ve already said too much 🙂
Ransom brings a comprehensive understanding of how things work. Everything he does is rooted in the clear thought processes of a physicist. His novels include Too Rich to Die (StrangeFuse, May-2019), The 99% Solution (StrangeFuse Publishing 2018), The God Patent (47North), and The Sensory Deception (47North). His books have appeared on a variety of bestseller lists. His first full length work of nonfiction popular science, The Left Brain Speaks the Right Brain Laughs (Viva Editions) breaks the mold on science writing for lay audiences with humor and unique pedagogy. Ransom was awarded the 2017 Jim Williams Contributor of the Year ACE Award. He’s also a practicing professional physicist and technologist.