Jeff Carlson

Jeff Carlson


Jeff Carlson’s short fiction has appeared in venues such as Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Fantastic Stories, and Writers of the Future XXIII. Plague Year is his first novel. He lives with his wife and sons in California.

Jeff Carlson

Jeff Carlson



When did you begin writing? Where and when do you write now?
For me, it started with reading. A dangerous habit! Books teach you to question and think, and writing can be five times as bad.

My father read The Hobbit to my brother and me when we were kids, probably eight and ten years old. Big mistake. Putting words together is addictive. By the time I was twelve I was reading James Michener and Jean M. Auel on my own, The Source, The Clan of the Cave Bear, all of those giant, wild, absorbing epics. Then I got into Heinlein and Haldeman and the short stories of John Varley… and those writers seemed to cover even more ground in books that were only a quarter as long as Michener’s doorstoppers. I was ready for it. My pace was increasing. And eventually I decided I wanted to play, too.

I got serious about my writing in college and made my first pro sale about ten years later. Maybe it wouldn’t have taken forever except that I heard the siren call of Hollywood and took a major detour. I spent several years chasing around Los Angeles before I got smart and returned to my real love, prose fiction. Don’t get me wrong. A good movie is an incomparable experience, and I still walk out of theaters like a wide-eyed kid. Ask my wife. You don’t want to go on a sushi-and-a-movie date with me unless you’re prepared for a grueling rehash of the story afterwards. As I write this, we recently saw the third Pirates of the Caribbean. Hilarious. It’s just that any given time there are 30,000 other hustlers in L.A., and I didn’t want to hustle, I wanted to write. I do have a few hot film concepts up my sleeve. We’ll see.

As for where I write, these days I work in a home office plastered with maps, notes, schematics, and newspaper clippings. Diana says it looks like something straight out of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS after Dreyfus has lost his marbles, but I like to surround myself with the places, gear, and terminology of whatever I’m working on. Of course, that’s usually at least three projects at any given time, so, again, it resembles the psycho ward unless you’re in there studying it every day and you know how all the pieces fit.

Before your upcoming novel Plague Year, you mostly wrote short fiction. What are some of the differences in writing novels versus short stories?
I have to mention Varley again. Famous for good reason. I’ve read every story in his collections The Barbie Murders and The Persistence of Vision at least ten times. Wow. Short stories are an excellent place to hone your craft. It’s a real trick to wrap up a plot and a character arc in the space of twenty pages, much less introduce a sub-plot and a smart bad guy. (I love smart bad guys.)

Short stories are also a good place to experiment. If it fizzles, you’ve only lost a week or three. If it works, you make a nice sale. Either way, you learn something.

Plague Year takes place in an apocalyptic near-future, with humans resorting to some very desperate means to stay alive. What was it like to put yourself in these characters’ heads and decide how they would react? How did you research this world?
The setting was easy—being trapped at 10,000 feet elevation because of the nanotech plague and looking at the tallest mountains around the world not only as remote peaks but as islands. I’m a lifelong backpacker and snow skier, which is where the idea first came from. My brother and I had had one of those life’s best powder days among the cliffs and trees of our local ski resort, but we had to leave because we both needed to get to work the next morning and I thought “What if we couldn’t go home again?” We’d been snowed in before, but I thought “What if we could never go home?”

As for how the survivors react, well, that’s just straight out of the headlines. In a crisis, some people will fail. But there are always others who rise to the occasion. Any occasion.

Human beings are the smartest, toughest creatures on the planet—but it’s given us a blind spot, too. It works against us. We’re the cause of all of our own problems, and yet at the same time, we solve every bind. To me, that’s fascinating.

With Plague Year, I was able to explore all of the classic elements of story: Man against nature, man against man, and man against himself.

The environment is lethal.

The people are killers.

And everyone has to find a way to live with what they’ve done.

I’m very pleased with the incredible tension of the story. The heroes are dealing with problems in every direction, both external and internal, from the large-scale conflict across the Rockies to the very personal struggle for survival among the smallest islands of safe ground in California.

Nanotechnology plays a huge role in Plague Year. What kind of research did you do into this field?
To succeed, an end-of-the-world thriller like this needs all kinds of cool features and I like to think Plague Year has it all—new world maps, world war, the space station, mad scientists, commandos, and weird things like evolutionary stresses and niche species break-out.

I’m fortunate that I have a lot of experts at hand. My step-brother is a major in the Army Special Forces and has been deployed in Afghanistan and Columbia. My father is an engineer and former division head at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where they do space defense lasers and other stuff right out of Men in Black. Both of these guys were topnotch sounding boards.

As for the nanotech, there’s a lot of eye-popping material being published right now, and I also made a point of attending talks on the subject and then mercilessly pestering the speakers afterward. Thank God for email.

Plague Year is not a text book by any means. Most of these ideas come at you like race cars and are gone—Zing! Slash!—but it’s all real. That’s the scary part.

What is your favorite word?

What do you do to relax after a long day of writing?
We have kids. We don’t relax. Seriously. Being a family is outrageously cool because the boys are so curious and energetic, and being a father has made me a better person (and a better writer), but if Diana and I get out by ourselves once a month it’s a miracle. No relaxation in the Carlson house.

Who are your favorite writers?
I’m all over the place, I’m afraid. In sci fi, Joe Haldeman continues to produce superior work, and I’m also a big fan of Richard K. Morgan. I especially thought Broken Angels was moving, dark, and wonderful. Robert Charles Wilson’s SPIN deservedly won the Hugo last year.

At the same time, I’m a great admirer of writers like John Irving and Amy Tan, and if I glance at my book shelf, some of the All-Time Greats As Jeff Has Picked Them include The Monkey Wrench Gang, Little Big Man, King Rat, The River Why, Catch-22, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and On the Beach. That’s alphabetical by author if you want to look them up. ;)

I also like detective series and suspense by writers like Robert Crais, Janet Evanovich, and Nelson DeMille. Unfortunately, I don’t read as much as I used to. We have kids. Did I mention that? My free time isn’t zero, but it’s definitely not more than .0015%.

What’s your best advice to new fiction writers?
Be involved. Work at it. Think like William Goldman, which means you have to realize the competition is relentless. Every day there are other writers improving their skills and vying for ink, so if you don’t make time for it every day, you’re falling behind just by standing still. That’s not very encouraging, I guess.

How about this: Read a lot, too. Study what you like. And persist.



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