By Paul Goat Allen
BlueInk Review sat down with David Ebenbach to talk about the publishing industry, the advantages and disadvantages of putting labels on novels (and writers), and his upcoming science fiction debut How to Mars—about a reality show on Mars gone wrong—which is already in its second printing weeks before even being released!
BIR: David, first off thanks for taking the time to chat, especially considering that your debut SF novel How to Mars is just weeks away from being released.
DE: It is my sincere pleasure! This is a fun way to cap off a long journey.
BIR: So, most would consider you a literary guy, right? You teach creative writing and literature at Georgetown University and have a robust bibliography that includes award-winning literary fiction (Miss Portland, 2017), collections of short stories (Between Camelots, 2005), and poetry (Some Unimaginable Animal, 2019). Colson Whitehead and Margaret Atwood are just a few names from a laundry list of literary writers who have found commercial and critical success writing genre fiction. A few questions here—first, what drew you to this particular storyline, what excited or inspired you to write science fiction?
DE: I think that’s a fair assessment, that literary label. But of course labels are just labels, and what I’m ultimately about, regardless of the label, is trying as hard as I can to write something worth writing and also worth reading. As it happens, that usually starts with me being baffled by something.
In this case, what happened was that, in 2015, I became aware of the strange story of the Mars One Project. The idea of this project, which may have been a fraud from the start, was to send volunteers on a one-way mission to Mars, funding the trip via a reality show about the volunteers. Everything about this story baffled me—people living on Mars, the reality show as a foundation for a serious scientific enterprise, the idea of a one-way trip, the fact that a lot of people apparently did volunteer to leave this planet behind forever in order to go on this dubious mission. The whole thing was mind-boggling, and that’s what got me writing. And then consider that the Mars One Project had one rule: the Marsonauts, for safety reasons, would not be allowed to have sex on Mars. Well, that gave me my first line: “This is how I find out Jenny is pregnant on Mars.”
BIR: Great opening line, by the way…
DE: Honestly, though, until my agent started submitting the book, it didn’t really occur to me that the book was science fiction. It is, obviously, but I didn’t go into it thinking I want to write sci-fi. I went into it thinking that I wanted to understand a person who would volunteer to leave everything behind forever, and what it would be like for a bunch of wanna-be-escapers to live together. The setting—Mars—was just a really convenient place to do that.
BIR: Ever since I can remember genre fiction has had this stigma about being thematically lightweight—having little literary merit—but from my experience as a book critic, I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, I think writing genre fiction makes it easier for writers to examine deep themes, share political and social commentary, and explore speculative ideas and concepts. As a writer who has written both literary and genre fiction, what are your thoughts here about this perceived divide?
DE: I definitely agree that the divide is misleading. First of all, there are ways that things can go wrong on both sides of the purported line. There’s bad genre work that’s formulaic, that sacrifices depth for surface-level inventiveness; there’s also bad literary fiction that sinks under the weight of its own self-seriousness or that forgets about the needs of the reader. And then there’s great stuff that’s called genre and great stuff that’s called literary—work that captures the reader, one way or another, and delivers something meaningful and powerful.
At the same time, perceptions matter. So, even if there isn’t really a meaningful line between these types of fiction in terms of what they contain, page by page, the fact that people believe there’s a line has an impact on the world. There’s the stigma issue you raised. And there’s also the question of audience. What I mean is this: simply because my novel is called “science-fiction,” it’s being talked about on blogs and by readers and in journals that have never noticed me before. For the science-fiction-reading world, it’s like this is the first thing I’ve ever written! So maybe the disdain (or at least disregard) goes both ways between the genre/literary camps?
BIR: Continuing along those lines, How to Mars is a great example of how writers can subtly convey commentary to their readers. Keeping the premise of a reality television show in mind, what were you trying to say about humankind?
DE: I hope the book has a lot to say about humankind; I went to Mars to study people, after all. In terms of the reality TV show, I’m definitely interested in voyeurism—our eagerness to watch each other’s drama—and also the way money drives things it shouldn’t. As in: science, discovery, human growth and potential. The idea that we might need a reality TV show in order to reach another planet feels gross but all too plausible.
On top of that, I’m interested in the way we view other people who we only see in curated glimpses. A reality TV show is heavily edited, so we develop narratives about the people on the show based on that editing. But our normal, everyday, in-person encounters are also extremely curated; there are some people we only see in the workplace, other folks we only see in our neighborhoods, or on public transportation, or in particular cities, or wherever. We only see a slice of their lives. And we develop narratives about them based on that. Yet people are a lot more complicated than those narratives. So I wanted to look at that.
But the main aspect of human experience I was looking at in this book was this willingness to leave Earth forever—who would be willing to do that? Who would be eager to do that—and why? And if you were leaving in order to escape your past, could you really escape it, even on Mars?
BIR: You’ve explored your faith in short stories, poetry, and in nonfiction (The Artist’s Torah: A Spiritual Guide to the Creative Process, 2012). How could space travel and colonizing planets impact faith-based existences? And how fascinating was it to dive into this speculation, as one of your main characters is Jewish?
DE: I find this subject completely fascinating. I actually have a blog post coming out about this sometime soon on the Jewish Book Council’s Paper Brigade Daily. The fact is that Judaism is deeply tied to location and time. Location in that certain parts of this planet traditionally have special significance in the religion; time in that holidays are bound to particular Earth seasons, and also in that we launch important days at sundown. (Well, all days, actually, but most of us don’t notice the sundown thing unless there’s a holiday.) So how do you do Jewish if you’re far away from the geographical touchpoints? How do you do it if you’re on the moon, which has no seasons or sunset? Or Mars, whose year is so much longer and where it’s hard to call any of its seasons spring?
But religion is one of the things that people turn to in order to find meaning, and we’re never going to stop needing meaning. So religions will have to change in space. And of course that’s what they’ll do. Two thousand years ago, the Israelites worshipped at a central temple and sacrificed animals. Two thousand years later, we don’t do that anymore, and yet Judaism is thriving. (And the animals are probably happier, too.) So I think we’ll do the same thing we always do when confronted with change: we’ll grow.
BIR: This may seem like an off-the-wall question but bear with me for a second…. So genre is very much about community, finding your people and your place in the literary landscape. Romance writers I know have found success, in large part, because of the enthusiasm and devotion of their readers. The extended romance community is, for the most part, very welcoming and supportive. Same goes for horror—writers, readers, publishers… it’s like an extended family. So my question is this: has your experience promoting How to Mars (to a much different audience than your literary offerings) been significantly different in any way?
DE: It really is a different audience. You can see that most easily on my social media feeds, which have evolved significantly as I’ve connected with new folks—writers, readers, publishers, media outlets, all who see themselves as primarily engaged with speculative fiction—and on places like Goodreads. There’s this large, very active group of people that I’m encountering mid-conversation, and honestly, I feel like folks have been very welcoming.
It’s also just been a more successful experience so far. Just judging by the response the book has gotten so far—more response before the publication date, I think, than any of my other books got before and after—it feels like the audience for sci-fi might be bigger. There’s a lot more chatter and energy. Though the Mars factor may also be at play—thanks to Perseverance and Ingenuity, Mars is on folks’ minds right now. And beyond all that, the publisher, Tachyon, has thrown themselves so completely—and so effectively—behind the book. So maybe it’s not the genre, or not only the genre.
BIR: What part of publishing a novel is your least favorite? And, conversely, what brings you the most fulfillment?
DE: I have to say that I absolutely can’t stand revision. Can’t stand it. And of course there’s a ton of revision in the initial writing process, but then there’s even more once my agent sees the manuscript, and again when the publisher has it. I hate pretty much every bit of all that revision. But I do it, obviously, because revision is how a piece of writing becomes its best possible self. I can’t allow my misery to get in the way of that.
Other than that, I actually like most of the publishing process. But I guess my favorite part is reaching readers. Finding the folks who maybe needed something like the book I wrote. I mean, I needed it—that’s why I wrote it. But more amazing is when you hear from a reader (or discover their thoughts in a review or on a blog or on social media) who says, “Yes—this is what I was looking for.” That’s amazing.
BIR: Knowing what you know now about writing and the publishing industry in general, what would you tell the David Ebenbach still in high school?
DE: Kid, you’re going to need to be tough—it’s a long road with lots of ups and downs. So be ready for trouble and be ready to push past it. And celebrate every good thing that happens along the way.
BIR: So we know now that labels aren’t all that significant for you—it’s ultimately about story, as it should be. That said, could your next novel be a romance or a post-apocalyptic thriller or another science fiction story, or are some categories just not in your wheelhouse?
DE: You know, I hope that I can, if I work at it, figure out how to write whatever I want to write, regardless of category. Not that it’s easy. But why should it be easy? My usual habit is to take on projects that I don’t know how to write when I’m starting out, in the hopes that I’ll work it out along the way.
That said, I’m not so sure I’ll ever get around to post-apocalyptic fiction; I don’t think that our current obsession with our own destruction is doing us much good. Sure—the world is in trouble. (And I like zombies as much as the next person.) But, as Kendra Pierre-Louis recently argued, relentlessly repeating stories of apocalypses might convince us to give up on ourselves and thus make the collapse more likely. And so, as she says, “Maybe we should start telling ourselves a different story”—a story in which we find a way to stop the trouble and create something better. A story to aspire to.
Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the fun of science fiction, so I can see staying with it for a long time. The novel I’m currently working on, for example, is sci fi—parallel-universe stuff. Stay tuned!
BIR: One last question before I let you go. You’ve given your younger self some solid advice. Any advice for aspiring writers or indie writers who are struggling to create traction for their novel? It can be a brutal business, especially for a self-published writer who has to somehow get their release noticed.
DE: Folks, you’re going to need to be tough—and persistent, and creative, and energetic. I am fortunate to have a great press behind me, in Tachyon. If you don’t have that kind of engine driving your publicity, you’re going to have to do a lot yourself. And that means social media, and readings (when we get back to those), and blogging, and giveaways, and all sorts of stuff that you haven’t even thought of yet. Could you do some cross-promotion with an indie bakery whose name is similar to the name of your book? Should you give away candies where the wrapper features the title of your very sweet romance novel? Should you walk the streets in one of those The-End-Is-Near sandwich boards in order to promote your post-apocalyptic masterpiece, in spite of my concerns about post-apocalyptic fiction? Should you read one paragraph of your novel per day on YouTube? If you want to get the book out there, be as creative and active as you can.
But, if you truly want to see your work welcomed warmly, there’s something that has to happen way before any of that promotional stuff. You need to be a good literary citizen. Spend your time on social media and in your book groups and e-newsletters promoting other folks; help your writer friends and talk them up when you get the chance. Being a good literary citizen is its own reward—that’s the main reason to do it—but it also means that you’ll build relationships and good karma and goodwill that will be very helpful when your own book comes out.
BIR: David, thanks so much for the chat—this was great. And best of luck with How to Mars!
DE: Thank you so much!
Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program.