Wait, where did November go?
No matter; it’s Monday, so it’s time for an interview! Today we have Chris Lodwig, the author of Systemic. Let’s get to it!
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I started writing when I was in high school, but I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was in college. I used to smoke cigarettes and hang out in cafés drinking coffee until 1 AM. I wrote a ton of bad poetry, a few short stories, a full-length novel called Heroes. The book was long on beautiful descriptions and twenty-two-year-old philosophy but very short on plot, or character development. It was a My Dinner with Andre meets Harold and Maude sort of thing about a guy who washed dishes at a fancy restaurant. A weird book. Not a good book. I had a couple other half-written novels lying around as well. Then I got a good job and a family, and I pretty much forgot about writing.
Fast forward twenty years and I was on the bus coming home from work. My computer died and my phone died, and I couldn’t work or doom scroll. Suddenly this image came into my head along with a bunch of interesting-sounding words to describe it. I remembered how much I used to love to write. So, I got out a pen and note pad and I started writing. On the way home that day, I wrote the first scene of Systemic. Then I just kept writing. Nine months later I had a book. Once you have a decent book it’s sort of silly not to finish it and make it a great book.
What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
I’m not getting as much writing done now as I once did.
Pre-Covid (and hopefully post-Covid)
6AM – Get up and get ready for work
6:50 – leave for the bus – listen to NPR, or Pod-casts, or audio books
7:10 – catch bus and write until I arrive at work (7:40)
7:50-8:30 – write in the cafeteria.
4:50 catch the bus and write until I’m home (5:30)
About half the nights I wake up and write for a couple hours in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. (it’s 3:24 AM as I write this)
2 – 3 hours on Saturday and Sunday
6AM – Get up and work out, take the dog for a long walk. Listen to NPR, or Pod-casts, or audio books
7:10 – 8:30 – write in the basement with a break for breakfast
A couple hours of insomniac writing in the middle of the night a few times a week.
Write about 2 – 3 hours on Saturday and Sunday
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I think my interesting writing quirk, if I have one, is that I often write on my phone. I find that opening up Google Docs or Word while I’m on the bus on my phone is actually really fast and flowy. It reminds me a lot of writing long hand. About 70% of Systemic was written with my thumbs.
What does your family think of your writing?
They’re extremely supportive and great. But I make it easy on them, since they almost never see me write. I wrote most of Systemic on the bus or at work in the mornings or in the middle of the night. So, to them it’s like a book just materialized. My writing time is pretty unintrusive.
My wife is great because she doesn’t tend to like sci-fi and doesn’t pull any punches. When we walk around the neighborhood, I’ll tell her some cool idea I have, and she never lets it stand on coolness alone. She asks me questions about the characters, and why this or that thing would happen. She calls BS on me a lot and I need that. So, when she read Systemic and told me it was good, not “for a sci-fi novel” but just good, it gave me a lot of faith in the book.
My daughter is a lot of fun to talk to about my writing, when she’s not too busy being a teen-ager. I’ll tell her something and she’ll say, “you need an old lady in this chapter” (turned into Eileen) or a dog (became Sadie) or a rattlesnake (Lem at the foot of the ridge). She also helped me develop some of the early ideas about the System by asking me how the AI felt.
Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
I love people and ideas and conversations. I find out a lot of new and interesting things about Systemic from my readers, things even I did not realize. So, I would love to talk to more of them.
I have a ton of friends who’ve read the book, and they ask me questions about it all the time, which is really fun. If Covid ever goes away I’ve been invited to talk to various book clubs which I’m really looking forward to. I get strangers reaching out to me to tell me they enjoyed it, which is exciting as well. Then there are the reviews on Amazon, Good Reads, and Audible which are consistently positive. That feels good.
I find there are two types of readers, first-halfers and second-halfers. First-halfers tend to comment on my descriptions, character development, and mood. Second-halfers tend to tell me that the pacing at the beginning of the book—when I’m setting up the characters setting and mood—was a bit slow, but get really excited by the twists and turns and action that ramps up in the second half of the book.
As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I remember thinking I wanted to be in the military because my father was, and that just seemed like the thing to do. As I grew up, it quickly became apparent to everyone that that was not really who I was going to be.
In high school I wanted to be an architect or civil engineer, but do to some pretty short-sighted choices my senior year, I didn’t do well on the math section of my SATs, which rippled across my future and put engineering to bed.
In college I decided I wanted to be a writer. I actually remember telling my parents that I was probably going to be a broke writer for the rest of my life. About two months after that I got hired by Microsoft.
Since then, I’ve wanted to be a teacher. I would love to do that. But they pay teachers such criminally low wages in the United States that I couldn’t afford it. Becoming a middle school science teacher would require me going back to school for 2 to 4 more years, incurring the requisite debt, then taking a ¾ pay cut. I couldn’t live in Seattle or feed my family on that. I’m going to stick with high-tech until I retire. I never would have predicted that for myself.
What is the first book that made you cry?
The Lovely Bones.
But mostly I cry watching movies, or TV commercials. My kid makes fun of me.
Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
I try to write a book that I enjoy writing. Then I go back and am pretty harsh on myself. I try to weed out things that are cliché or trite. I like to ask myself questions like, “Why not make the AI the good guy?” or “why wouldn’t the future of the world hinge on a non-descript building in a rural area? It actually makes more sense in a way.” I find those ideas interesting, and they are sort of original, but I don’t really strive for originality for its own sake, I got over that a long time ago. But I also don’t tailor my story to my readers. I don’t do research and figure out what sells or anything like that.
I have three friends who give me great book recommendations, my brother-in-law, my cousin, and my co-worker. I want to make those three people happy. If I do, then I know I would probably like my own book. At the end of the day, I just want my readers to enjoy what I write as much as I enjoyed writing it.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
I have a couple of friends who write. Critiquing their work puts mine in perspective. Beta reading and editing their work is really helpful. I have to ask why this or that doesn’t work, and I see the same things in my writing.
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My one real author friend is Ramez Naam. He wrote the Nexus series and a bunch of non-fiction stuff as well. He helped me mostly by being some random dude I used to work with and go to Burning man with who wrote a bunch of novels. He made me realize it was possible. Then he beta-read my book and gave me really good advice. He even wrote the blurb on the back of the book. He’s a generous soul.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Don’t try so damn hard. Write what comes easily to you because that’s what you’re truly interested in. If it’s crap you can edit it later. You can even throw it away.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Writing is a pretty inexpensive endeavor. Scrivener is one of the only writing tools I’ve ever bought. There were the tons and tons of books I bought and read. The University of Washington was also money well spent.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
In the Keep of Time by Margaret Jean Anderson. I don’t actually know if it’s underappreciated, but I’ve never met anyone else who’s read it. And when I was a kid I probably read it 5 times. I didn’t actually read much when I was a kid so that book had an outsized influence on me.
What are you working on now?
I’m about 350 pages into the sequel to Systemic. Untitled at the moment.
What do you have coming soon?
Soon? Nothing until I get the sequel done. It takes me a very long time to write a book.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Just my book, and all the things about it that I personally enjoyed. I like that Systemic is technically a sci-fi novel, but that the sci-fi is somewhat in the background serving the plot, rather than being the focus and obsession of the book. I like that it mostly takes place in wide open spaces and small towns rather than the crowded megalopolises standard to the genre. I love my characters and I feel for them. And lastly, I want to share that excited, “Oh, that’s a really cool idea!” feeling I got time and time again while the story was coming to me.
Thanks so much for dropping by today! I’ll put some buttons below for your fans to connect with you!
And now a bonus – from SYSTEMIC, a snippet from Chapter 4:
Lem watched the ghostly tatters of an ancient plastic bag tumble down the street. It slipped around the trunks of trees, signposts, and hydrants that lined the road, then looped and swirled in the invisible eddies the formed in entryways, near dumpsters, and around abandoned industrial machinery.
The bag was a rare sight—it must have been freed from a long-buried trash heap by wind, or water, or a scavenging animal. An updraft carried it along the face of a building where the jagged head of a nail abruptly ended its erratic floating dance. It flapped and writhed against the plywood sheeting with the panicked frenzy of an ensnared bird.
This canyon of gray-faced, hollow buildings had a haunted feel, and as Lem walked, the air settled heavy in his chest and weighed on his heart.
Potholes—worn down by time, weather, and the old wheels of industry—marred the streets like a range of volcanoes. They were dormant now, but they had once erupted their crumbled aggregate forth to mix with the gravel and soot of the pre-systemic age. Now their craters were filled with cinder-gray water, painted over with iridescent swirls of the ancient fuels and lubricants that would continue to seep up through the ground here for centuries to come.
He kicked at pebbles as he went, and they jumped down the pavement, erratically bouncing and settling at last into cracks or spaces between the sidewalk slabs.
Each time he came here, he made sure to take a different route. He would hop off the transit a stop earlier or later. At each block he would glance down at the hands of an old pocket watch he kept, taking a right if the second hand pointed right, and a left if it pointed left. He would continue straight if it pointed up or turn around if it pointed back. This trick kept his path random for a time, but always and eventually he would end his three- or twenty-three-minute walk on this same block, and he would turn down this same alley. He would fight the urge to look over his shoulder or straight overhead, knowing that the most important part of avoiding suspicion was to not appear suspicious. He would cringe before pulling on the handle of the steel door, which screeched open then groaned closed behind him.
The sunlight slanted into the old warehouse from a row of high windows and picked up shadows from a clutter of beams, rigging, chains, and runners. There was a sign affixed to a steel I-beam prescribing a “max weight of 15 tons,” so he assumed that the equipment had once been used in the lifting and shifting of heavy loads, but the building’s original purpose and that of its machines had been lost to time and disinterest. When Lem had found the place, it had been a long-abandoned squat. He had hauled away the soiled mattresses and broke-down furniture. He’d swept up the trash, the bird and rodent droppings, and the burned and bent copper Kumfort pipes. Sometime before the seekers had moved in, a small electronics company had set up shop here, which accounted for the Faraday cage, a copper-mesh cube—twelve feet to a side—which stood ominously in the middle of the room.
Halfway between the Faraday cage and the wall was a folding card table. A single portable induction burner and an empty pot crusted over with last night’s meal were on the table. Under the table were several gallon jugs of drinking water. Against the wall, an antique fold-out couch lay forever transformed into a bed with a sleeping bag crumpled upon its thin, limp mattress. An old wooden crate stained with rings and splatters of dark oil stood on its end for a makeshift nightstand. Several days ago, he had left a yellow-paged copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein lying face down, open to the last page he’d read. There was a lantern and an old mechanical alarm clock and a single picture in a stand-up frame.
In the picture, Lem was standing with one arm across the shoulders of a woman. The two of them were being tousled by the wind flowing over the prow of a boat. The woman’s suntanned face was half covered by her wind-whipped brown curls, revealing only the acute angle of her mouth, which seemed calculated to convey equal parts joy at being on the trip and annoyance at Lem for having the picture taken. That had been his beautiful and long-suffering wife—his sweetness and light.
Lem did not share his wife’s talent for tanning. In the picture, his face, usually fair, was blushing red from too much sun in too short a time. His hair was close-cropped and neat with premature streaks of gray that made him look too old to be next to such a lovely young woman, though in fact they were the same age. His smile was awkward and forced, and he looked uncomfortable and self-conscious in contrast to her radiance. There were the backs of a few other people who stood along the gunwale either taking photos of their own, or simply looking out across the ocean. The photo had been snapped on an island vacation. It was a perfect time for being young and in love. A time that now felt achingly distant.