Transcript: Andy Weir and Louise Erdrich

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SHOW INTRO – JENN:

This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. This week we’re joined by Andy Weir, who picked Small Gods by Terry Pratchett:

ANDY WEIR:
I’ve always been a science fiction guy. Fantasy was kind of new to me. I never thought I would like it; but Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett is just such a fantastic writer and his stuff is so funny. It’s just … It has appeal to anyone who likes to laugh.

JENN:

And Louise Erdrich, discussing Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen:

LOUISE ERDRICH:

What it really does so beautifully is talk about the growth of a young woman and her betrayal by an older woman.

JENN:

Andy Weir was a software engineer until the runaway success of his debut novel, THE MARTIAN, allowed him to pursue writing full-time. He’s a lifelong space nerd, and his newest novel Artemis follows the adventures of Jazz Bashara, a smuggler on the Moon. When she sees a chance to pull off the perfect crime, she also stumbles into a conspiracy for control of the city of Artemis itself.

WEIR:

My name is Andy Weir, and ‘Small Gods’ by Terry Pratchett is my recommended.

‘Small Gods’ was first recommended to me by my friend, Derick , all the way back in college. It was the first Terry Pratchett book that I ever read. It just completely hooked me.

The thing I loved most about ‘Small Gods’ was how it set up a convincing setting and genre where … that explains how gods work. They actually exist by the … based on the belief of humans. Gods are very interested in keeping as many humans as possible believing in them. I just … I had never seen like a kind of … explanation of how gods work in a genre, in a setting before; and I just thought it was fantastic.

That led me into just a massive binge of all the Terry Pratchett books in Discworld that had come out already, and then just a lifelong fan from then on.

I’ve re-read ‘Small Gods’ probably about five or six times in various intervals. That’s very rare for me. Usually I don’t re-read books. I tend to be a one-and-done kind of book consumer.

I usually re-read it as part of a general Pratchett binge. Every five to ten years, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, it’s been long enough that I’ve forgotten the details of a lot of these books. Time to go reexperience them.’

Prachett’s sense of humor definitely affected my writing style. He taught me that basically any genre can be told in a funny way and still be a serious story; and it gets like ten times more entertaining. I really took that to heart. There’s a lot of humor in ‘The Martian.’

I’ve always loved science fiction mainly because it tells you all the cool stuff that could happen in the future. As I went into writing science fiction, I followed that same trend of like, ‘Hey, what kind of neat stuff might we have going on in the future?’ I guess I try to focus on the positive aspects of it because I’m kind of a … I try to be a positive-minded guy. I try to show the cool stuff that could happen, rather than dystopian misery.

I don’t imagine I would ever write a fantasy story. I mean I’ve had a few ideas here and there, but they always end up sci-fi. One way or another, I always start with fantasy, and then I start working out, ‘Well, what are the exact details of how the magic works?’ I basically end up with my own physics model, and at that point, it’s kind of science fiction again. I guess I’m not wired for writing fantasy, but I can enjoy fantasy written by others.

When I try to come up with a fantasy setting, I’m like, ‘Okay, well, there’s magic, and there are wizards, and , and witches and stuff. Okay, well wait. How do they … What are the limits of the magic? Well, how does this work? Okay, where does … How do you maintain conservation of energy when someone launches a fireball? Okay, wait. Okay, but wait. How does this work? Why is it that some people can do it and other people can’t? Is it a … configuration of neurons? Are they affecting probabilities on some quantum level?’ I start going down that rabbit hole and try to come up with a scientific analysis of how magic works.

I can read other people’s fantasy. It doesn’t bother me at all. It’s a weird thing.

In science fiction, if you say, “Oh, here’s a ship that can travel faster than light.”

People say “How? Why? What is the mechanism by which that happens?”

In fantasy, if someone says, “Here’s a guy who can just snap his finger and send a fireball off to kill enemies.”

Everyone’s like, “Yeah, okay. Sure.”

Some of my least favorite sci-fi tropes are the … Well, it’s fresh on my mind lately because I’ve got my next book coming out, which is about a city on the moon … are the explanations for why humans live on the moon, or mars, or whatever. They always seem to fall short for me. They’ll be something like, ‘Oh, we have a big … We have thousands of people living on the moon because it turns out there’s something valuable that can be mined there.’

I’m like, “Well first off, no, there isn’t. Literally everything on the moon is on earth. Second off, more importantly, if you want to mine the moon, send robots to do it. They’re a lot easier to keep alive than humans, and nobody minds if they die. So why would you do that?”

Then the next explanation is often like, “Oh, well there’s population problems on earth; and so they go to the moon.”

I’m like, “Well, it is considerably easier to colonize remote areas of earth than it is to colonize the moon. So before you colonize the moon, you should colonize the Sahara, the ocean floor, antarctica. I mean literally every single location on earth is easier to live on than any location on the moon.”

Then the next one is like, “Oh, well, earth’s ecology got destroyed and we had to flee to the moon.”

I’m like, “Really? If you could build a moon base, just build that moon base on earth and you’re isolated from earth’s ecology.”

Then there’s, “Oh, political strife. We left because of political strife. We left because we were being oppressed.” Well, if you can go to the moon, your oppressors can go there, too. If you have like 400 billion dollars necessary to build a lunar society, you’re not oppressed. I’m sorry.

As a writer, I get asked all the time like for book recommendations. To people who have an interest in fantasy, I always recommend ‘Small Gods.’ Which is interesting, because it’s not the first book in the Discworld series. The first book is titled ‘The Color of Magic.’ That’s also very good, but I like ‘Small Gods’ because I think it’s a better book and it’s also self contained. You don’t have to know anything about the Discworld setting or anything. You can come into it completely blank. I think it’s just a great entry point into the series, or saga, or whatever; even though it’s not the first.

Pratchett does one thing that I really love, which is he has so many books that take place in the Disc, but they’re not a serial. They are different stories with different sets of characters. Sometimes characters from one book will show up in another. There are kind of within it. There’s a bunch of books that all follow this one guy named Rincewind around. There’s a bunch of other books that follow around these three witches. There’s other books that relate to the city watch in this one big town, this big city. He does have like kind of a different serieses of books, but … the overall thing is he made this over-arching consistent world that all these things take place in. After you read 30 books of you, you believe in this world. The world is so solid and so tangible to you. You know all these little details. I really loved that and I took that to heart.

‘Artemis,’ which is my book that’s coming out soon, as of the time we’re recording this, takes place in a city on the moon. I love to write more books that take place in that same city, but not necessarily serials; like not necessarily with the same set of characters. Other people doing other things in that city.

Well, it depends on how well ‘Artemis’ does.

If people don’t like I’m not writing sequels.

JENN:

Thanks again to Andy Weir for joining us and recommending Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods. His novel Artemis, published by Crown, is now available wherever books are sold. You can follow him on Twitter at andyweirauthor.

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JENN:

Louise Erdrich is the author of fifteen novels as well as volumes of poetry, children’s books, short stories, and a memoir. Erdrich has received the Library of Congress Prize in American Fiction, the prestigious PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. She lives in Minnesota with her daughters and is the owner of Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore. Her newest novel, Future Home of the Living God, follows a young woman fighting for her life and her unborn child against oppressive forces that manifest in the wake of a cataclysmic event.

ERDRICH:

My name is Louise Erdrich and The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen is my recommended.

It may have been a recommendation from a book seller or another writer or maybe I just picked it out of a used book bin, or book store. Because it’s a book that my book has been republished in 1978 but let’s see, the original was copyright, was 1938.

I have so many pieces of the book that really I’ve underlined, my book is completely wrecked. It was a beautiful hardcover, kind of. But it’s really wrecked because I have read it every few years for the past twenty years.

So it’s set in that time in London when the after effects of World War I are still being felt, but there’s this gathering storm that is going to become World War II, and yet there’s a quiet calm about it.

So Portia has been left to her brother in a will and she’s transported from Switzerland when her mother dies, to London. And she’s immediately plunged into this very cold, unemotional household and as she’s growing up there is this sort of truth in her, this immense power in her that she doesn’t know how to name. She doesn’t know how to name her power. But it’s the power of wanting to love and be loved. And she’s in a loveless household.
It starts with the revelation that the woman who this girl, Portia, who is just sixteen, has come to stay with, Anna, has been reading her diary all along. Now in this day and age, you know, we throw our feelings and thoughts, and young people do, right out into the text universe. I mean, it’s out there, right? Everything is out there. But a written diary, locked up, ones special thoughts. It’s interesting to go back to a time when those thoughts were crushingly private and as the book goes along you find this young woman Portia, finding her own feelings and beginning to name her own feelings and that I think is universal.

She searches to define herself and to find some emotional resonance in other people. There’s a hilarious best friend who walks through the world like a goddess and every time she makes a gesture, it seems to hang in the air. Lillian, and she’ll take off her hat, then they had more complicated hats, and she’ll take it off in a long, flowing gesture and place it down precisely and everything she does is done in a really theatrical way. So this is Portia’s counterpart in a best friend, and that’s wonderful as well. Every single minor character is perfectly drawn.

That’s why I love it. It’s in some ways, a perfect book of its time. But it is interesting to me to see how these, to see how it is. That we still treat the written word, like a written diary, it still feels like a tremendous exposure of someone who’s to find a written diary and read it. And yet, we throw out all the same information practically, it’s all online somewhere, in some cloud. So, you know, it’s all out there.

As a young person, I had the same experience where I kept what I thought was, I look back now and there’s nothing in it at all upsetting, but when someone read it without my knowledge, I felt exposed in a way that it’s hard to describe. I do keep diaries but I’m very careful only to write positive things.

Yeah because I don’t want someone to read it the way Anna reads Portia’s diary and says, you know, she says “you’ve taped us” I think that means in those days, you’ve figured us out, in a way. And it’s very unpleasant to them to be described and figured out in writing. Her writing really upsets everyone around her, her private writing.

I have other books that I read over and over but this one is the one I always return to somehow.

Partly it’s the betrayal. This very cold woman who, she’s very hard to read, and yet young Portia has got her down perfectly in the diary and she knows she’s been discovered somehow by this young person. I really love the portrayal of not evil, maybe this is an old word but dastardly character. I love the dastardly character, and she’s so well done.

I have a book store. So we always keep it in stock. And it’s one where there’s a note by it that says, “please read this,” and why. And I do try to give it to people. I think if I see a certain something in a person, then I will suggest it. That something is, is hard to tell. I was just trying to think what do I see in that person? And maybe it’s a kind of openness because it’s not a hard book to get into, it’s not written in a complex, forbidding way at all. But it demands a willingness to explore those unmanageable emotions that a young person has, that I remember I had. We still all have them but by little by little, we learn to name and manage our feelings.

You know, I read absolutely everything all over the map. I love WG Sebald. I love, right now I’m also reading The Austerlitz and The Emigrants again. So I love WG Sebald. I love Chimamanda Adichie and have read all of her work and Lydia Davis and Francine Prose. I don’t have a real, I don’t have a niche for my reading. It can be almost … anything can grab me. I do have a feeling for certain books and right now I’ve been reading these books, I don’t know why, I’ve been reading books that are about young people and their growth. I mean I have a sixteen year old daughter that could be part of it.

Somehow this book, it runs from teen literature to very adult literature because again, it’s so precise, so beautiful and sometimes it has a hint of strangeness in some of the characterizations and there’s no horror, there’s no murder, there’s nothing in it that drops you into some other dimension. It’s all in this dimension of emotion. And each character who comes into this story figures, it’s put together like a puzzle, an emotional puzzle. And each character assumes the weight of, a moral weight, cause there’s a moral question at the heart of this and that is: does this young person deserve to have her privacy? And lots in her life? Does she deserve to have her own emotions? That’s a question for all time.

JENN:

Thanks again to Louise Erdrich for joining us and recommending The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen. Her novel Future Home of The Living God, published by Harper, is now available wherever books are sold.

Thanks to Fierce Reads for sponsoring the show on behalf of The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater. Be sure to check out the Recommended Season 1 giveaway at FierceReadsRecommended.com.