An Interview with Gareth L. Powell

Gareth L. Powell writes science fiction about extraordinary characters wrestling with the question of what it means to be human. He has won and been shortlisted for several major awards, including the BSFA, Locus, British Fantasy, and Seiun, and his Embers of War novels are currently being adapted for TV. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram.

Gareth kindly took the time to talk to IZ Digital about the new edition of his excellent field guide for aspiring writers, About Writing (Gollancz, 2022) and about a few other writerly things, too.

You can buy About Writing wherever books are sold from 7 July.

IZ Digital: Before you wrote the first edition About Writing for Luna Press, were you a big reader of books about writing by other writers? Did you have any favourites?

Gareth L. Powell: As a fledgeling writer, I read King’s On Writing, which I found useful, and it’s still the one I would probably recommend to someone starting out on the journey.

IZ Digital: How did this second edition come about?

Gareth L. Powell: Gillian Redfearn at Gollancz enjoyed the first edition so much, she asked whether I would be interested in an expanded hardback edition, and I jumped at the chance.

IZ Digital: What was it like revisiting that original edition and adding more material? Had you received a lot of feedback from readers? Were there things you were much of surer of in 2021 than you had been in 2018?

Gareth L. Powell: It was certainly an interesting experience. Most of the chapters in the original edition started life as blog posts, written as I learned each lesson. Looking back, my opinion on some of those subjects had evolved, and as a result, I’m sure I repeat and contradict myself several times during the book. But the main message of the book is that there isn’t one way that suits everyone; you have to pick and choose the advice and find the routine that works for you.

IZ Digital: You were doing in-person workshops with writers at Cymera Festival. What do you enjoy about working with writers in that sort of setting? Were there any interesting insights from other participants that changed the way you thought about your own process?

Gareth L. Powell: I’ve hosted workshops at conventions and literary festivals, as well as at a number of universities, and it’s always a delight to see so many keen and attentive faces – although sometimes it gives me imposter syndrome, and I think, ‘Who am I to be standing up here giving advice?’ But the attendees tell me they get a lot out of the sessions, so that’s good.

IZ Digital: In terms of your fiction, when did you find your voice as a writer? When you look back, was there a particular story where you felt certain things fell into place?

Gareth L. Powell: My second novel The Recollection (Solaris, 2011) feels like the place where I was first writing entirely as myself. I recognise stirrings of my voice in Silversands (Pendragon, 2010), but The Recollection is where I stepped away from my influences and just started writing as me.

IZ Digital: What are some of the most important lessons you learned writing short fiction? How is writing novels different?

Gareth L. Powell: The most important thing I learned was than novels are very different to short stories. A short story expresses an idea, whereas a novel explores a character or range of characters.

IZ Digital: Thinking about ideas versus characters, did you know when you wrote ‘Ack-Ack Macaque’ (Interzone #212, September–October 2007) that you wanted to do more with the character, or did the idea for Ack-Ack Macaque novel only come much later?

Gareth L. Powell: The novel came much later. I had no intention of writing anything else about what was essentially a one joke character; but then I was plotting the novel and realised I needed a non-human intelligence as one of the main characters, and there was Ack-Ack. He’d been hanging around in the back of my head for a few years waiting for his chance – and he went on to become a fascinatingly multifaceted character with a serious arc about growing up and allowing yourself to become vulnerable in order to be loved.

IZ Digital: Your Embers of War series is being adapted by television with Breck Eisner slated to direct. How does it feel to wake up knowing that your words are going to be transmogrified into something televisual?

Gareth L. Powell: I’ve read the pilot episode script and it’s great. But I’ve known about the TV deal for several years, but until a network signs on and the cameras start rolling, I won’t really believe it’s going to happen. I’m keeping my feet firmly on the ground.

IZ Digital: Could you introduce your latest novel, Stars and Bones (Titan Books, 2022)? What does it mean to you in terms of your evolution as a writer?

Gareth L. Powell: Stars and Bones takes everything I learned about space opera when writing my Embers of War trilogy and turns all the dials up to eleven. So, we have humanity living aboard giant sentient arks, a dash of cosmic horror, scout craft exploring the ragged edge of the unknown, abandoned Dyson spheres, and a talking cat.

IZ Digital: Who are the writers you’re most excited by at the moment?

Gareth L. Powell: We’re living in a golden age of science fiction. The authors that on my radar right now include Nnedi Okarafor, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Tade Thompson, Megan E. O’Keefe, Ann Leckie, Becky Chambers, Tamsyn Muir, Aliette de Bodard, Elizabeth May and Laura Lam, Martha Wells, Temi Oh, J. Dianne Dotson… and a hundred others.

IZ Digital: Stars and Bones is out now and is the first of a series [I think]. About Writing is published today [I’ll schedule this for 7th July]. What other exciting projects are you working on, and can you reveal anything tantalising?

Gareth L. Powell: I’m currently working on a loose sequel to Stars and Bones, and then maybe I’ll try a new space opera setting for the next novel, and perhaps a few novellas for variety…

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