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New Fantasy & Science Fiction

Interview with Edward Willett

Here is our complete interview with Edward Willett. It also appears in Challenging Destiny Number 23.

interview by James Schellenberg & David M. Switzer

CD: How does writing fiction for young adults compare to writing nonfiction?

EW: Fiction is more fun. While I've enjoyed writing my various science and biography books for educational publishers (and learned a lot in the process -- until I wrote Kiss the Sky, my children's biography of Jimi Hendrix, I had no idea The Experience once opened for The Monkees), my first love is storytelling.

CD: Do you need to switch back and forth?

EW: Usually I'm working on both at the same time, but I wouldn't say I need to switch back and forth. Better to say I like to switch back and forth.

CD: Does one strengthen the other?

EW: Well, maybe. To a certain extent, writing is writing: you have to put words together in a (one hopes) coherent fashion and communicate ideas by doing so. But the kind of nonfiction I've been writing doesn't allow for a lot of use of my storytelling muscles -- it's not what is sometimes called "creative nonfiction," nonfiction told using the techniques of fiction, but rather pretty basic educational writing, designed to communicate information in as straightforward a manner as possible.

CD: Do you read up on various theories of communicating with younger audiences or do you jump in and write what you might have wanted to read at that age?

EW: You mean there are theories of communicating with younger audiences? No, I've never read anything like that. What I usually say is that I started writing as a kid -- I wrote my first short story ("Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot") when I was 11, wrote a couple of novella-length stories in junior high, and wrote three novels in high school -- and although I grew up, my protagonists didn't.

CD: What kind of guidelines do you get from publishers for YA nonfiction?

EW: I'm occasionally told I write at too high a level, so I've been urged to break up long sentences, explain more terms, that kind of thing. It's tough to write, say, The Basics of Quantum Physics: Understanding Line Spectra and the Photoelectric Effect without writing at a reasonably high level, though.

Each publisher has a style guide they provide with hints about what they're looking for. I'm not sure I've ever read one all the way through. Partly that's because all my nonfiction has all been assigned. An editor contacts me and says, "We need writers for such-and-such series. Here is a list of topics. How many can you do?" They do that, presumably, because they like the books I've turned in for them in the past, so I just keep writing them the same way.

CD: How do you find time to write so much? What is your typical schedule like?

EW: I get up, get my wife to work and my daughter to daycare. Then, if I'm being good, I jog around Wascana Lake or lift weights at the YMCA. If I'm being bad/lazy or can come up with a good excuse, I go to Second Cup for an iced cappuccino and a cinnamon bun and read whatever book or magazine I'm currently reading. I come home and read blogs and news sites on the Internet for far longer than I should. Finally, late in the morning, I get started writing, and continue in fits and starts, with occasional venturing out for meetings, errands, etc., until it's time to pick up my daughter from daycare. I usually avoid working in the evenings, but if I'm way behind on a project, I might put in two or three hours after my daughter is in bed, which usually isn't before 9:30.

CD: Are you a fast writer?

EW: Yes. Years of newspaper reporting forced me to be. (I was a newspaper reporter/photographer at, and eventually news editor of, the Weyburn Review in Weyburn, Sask., over an eight-year period out of university.) . There's no time for writer's block with that news hole to fill -- even on a weekly.

CD: How much time do you spend researching a nonfiction book before starting to write? Does this compare to the research for a science fiction novel?

EW: My short educational books typically just take a few hours of research before I'm ready to begin. I really can't be more precise. My science fiction novels to date have not really required a lot of research, although I'll need to do more than usual for the new one for DAW.

CD: Can you give us any hints about your next DAW novel?

EW: Sure. It doesn't have a title yet -- DAW didn't like the working one I provided on the synopsis. I can tell you it's set on two worlds, Earth and an even more watery planet, as well as outer space, and it features a conflict between genetically modified humans and religious fanatics. Since I haven't written it yet, I don't want to be any more precise!

CD: Tell us about Lost in Translation. What is the book about? What kind of a story were you trying to tell? It was originally published in hardcover and now is coming out in paperback from DAW -- can you tell us how all this happened?

EW: Lost in Translation began as a short story which was published in the premiere issue of TransVersions in the 1990s. One review said something to the effect that it built a more effective space opera universe in just a few pages than many long novels had... which was impetus enough for me to consider turning it into a novel. Which I did: the short story is still embedded in it, for the most part, with a piece in the prologue and another piece in the middle, but a great deal more happens around it.

Lost in Translation is set in far future in which an interstellar, inter-species Commonwealth has recently stepped in to end a war between humanity and a race of somewhat bat-like flying aliens called S'sinn. Humans started the war by inadvertently killing S'sinn without realizing they were sentient. The S'sinn were not happy about the Commonwealth ending the war, and neither were some humans, so conditions are ripe for a resumption of hostilities.

The Commonwealth is held together by the Guild of Translators, natural empaths whose abilities are augmented by a universal nervous system interface -- an engineered symbiote that Translators take into their body and allows them to link with each other, establishing a telepathic connection that enables them to provide absolutely honest, absolutely accurate translations among some very alien species.

The main characters are Kathryn, a human Translator whose parents were killed by the S'sinn, and Jarrikk, a S'sinn Translator whose young friends were killed by humans in the incident that started the war. Nobody has more reason to hate the other race than they do, but they must work together, in a highly unorthodox and dangerous fashion, to somehow stop a new war from breaking out.

I suppose the story I was trying to tell is that old cliché of people learning to overcome differences and find a peaceful solution to their problems. It may not be an original sentiment, but it still seems a worthwhile one.

CD: On top of all the writing, you also act and sing. Tell us about this part of your career.

EW: I've enjoyed acting since I played the role of Petruchio in a one-act adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew in junior high. I was involved in drama and musicals through high school and slightly in university. When I returned to Weyburn from university I was one of the charter members of Crocus 80 Theatre, a new community theatre group (formed in 1980, hence the rather odd name -- Crocus, of course, was W.O. Mitchell's fictionalized version of Weyburn). Over the next few years I acted in several plays, directed two, and served on the executive. When I came to Regina to take on the job of communications officer of the Saskatchewan Science Centre in 1988, I became much more involved in musicals, specifically with Regina Lyric Light Opera Society.

Over the years I'd always sung -- my father taught at Western Christian College, then in Weyburn, now in Regina, a private high school/junior college/Bible college affiliated with the churches of Christ. The churches of Christ practice a cappella congregational singing -- no choirs, no instruments. I grew up in that church, and sang soprano, alto, tenor and bass as I grew up. Then, in high school, I sang in my Dad's chorus, and at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, where I studied journalism, I sang in one of the finest choruses anywhere.

I brought that background to Regina and gained a modest reputation as a local singer. When I became a fulltime freelance writer in 1993, leaving the Saskatchewan Science Centre in October of that year, I did so partly because I had an offer of eight weeks of professional theatrical work with Prairie Opera out of Saskatoon, going on a school tour. (I'd sung in a couple of Prairie Opera and Opera Saskatchewan productions already by that time.)

I did that tour for three years, and in the meantime auditioned on occasion for Susan Ferley, then artistic director of Globe Theatre, Regina's professional theatre company. In 1998 she hired me for her production of On Golden Pond, her last production at Globe. That earned me my Equity card. Since then I've done occasional professional roles in Regina and Saskatoon and other places in the province. However, my usual outlet for performing and directing continues to be community theatre. For instance, this year I directed the classic thriller Rope for Regina Little Theatre and played the lead role of Voltaire/Pangloss in Regina Lyric Light Opera's production of Candide.

Allow me to immodestly mention that there are a number of samples of my singing, and singing by some of the choirs I've been in, online at

CD: How do you go about getting work as a freelance writer? You seem very busy -- do you just start digging into something? Did you make a lot of contacts when you were starting out as a writer? Do you spend a lot of time on self-promotion?

EW: I had a few contacts as communications officer of the Saskatchewan Science Centre that I parlayed into work early on, but essentially, I auditioned for the nonfiction books just like I'd audition for a role. My first book was Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 95, from the computer-book publisher Que. I frequented a forum on CompuServe where nonfiction publishers occasionally posted, looking for writers. Que posted, I responded, they had me write a sample chapter, I got the contract. My editor there moved to what is now John Wiley & Sons (before that it was Hungry Minds, and before that it was IDG) and hired me for some more work there, which led to additional books. I similarly auditioned for Enslow Publishers, for whom I've written more than half a dozen books, including my recent children's biographies of J.R.R. Tolkien and Orson Scott Card, after I read online somewhere that they were looking for writers. Ditto McGraw-Hill, for whom I wrote Genetics Demystified.

Rosen Publishers, for whom I do a lot of work-for-hire, first hired me when Josepha Sherman was (briefly) an editor there. I noticed her appointment to the position -- I think it was in Locus, though I'm not 100 percent sure -- and contacted her because she had come very close (as she said publicly at the Winnipeg WorldCon) to buying my YA SF novel Star Song for Walker and Company when she was there. (The publisher died just at that time and the new guy didn't want any more SF. That book remains unpublished.) It so happened she was looking for an author for a book called Careers in Outer Space. She hired me, and after that, her successors continued to hire me.

I don't spend a lot of time on self-promotion because I've got just about as much work as I can handle right now! But I do try to keep my website ( up to date (it's been around now since 1994 or 1995, so its quite venerable) and I do try to keep track of what various publishers are looking for in the nonfiction field just in case something really jumps out at me.

One self-promotion thing I do is make my weekly newspaper science columns available for free to anyone who wants to give me an email address. I have a couple of hundred subscribers now (maybe more, I haven't counted recently) from around the world. Whenever I have major writing news to announce -- a new book coming out, that sort of thing -- I append that to the column.

You, too, can subscribe to my weekly science column! Just visit All of my past columns are available online on my website at that same URL.

Elsewhere, I post photos, story excerpts, reviews, and all that kind of stuff. I guess that's all self-promotion.

CD: Blogging seems to be the thing to do for a writer. Is it a job-related task for you or something you would be doing anyways?

EW: I'd blog no matter what, I think. I actually keep four blogs: my main one, Hassenpfeffer, at, one called The Willetts on Wine where my wife and I blog notes about the wines we drink, at, the SF Canada news blog, with members' latest news, at, one I post too very very rarely called Walter Twiddle's Twiddlepated Rhymes, which I go to when I have an urge to write doggerel. (I'd never ever call it poetry!) It's at (Walter Twiddle is, of course, an anagram of Edward Willett.)

CD: Andy Nebula felt like it had everything a science fiction novel could possibly have. How did you fit it all in? Also, does American/Canadian Idol really scare you that much?

EW: Did it? And here I thought I left out the Singularity, nanotechnology, virtual reality and three-breasted green-skinned Martian Amazons.

I just wrote. It fit itself in.

Seriously, Andy Nebula came about because an exhibit at the Saskatchewan Science Centre on how memory works cross-pollinated with a news story I read about one-hit teen pop wonders in Japan who were washed up at 16. The former gave me my aliens, whose memory doesn't work the same as ours, the latter gave me the music-scene setting and the idea of Sensation Singles. The rest... I have no idea. Stuff came to me, I wrote it down. It's been more than 10 years, so it's hard to remember anything about the process.

CD: Are you writing the sequel to Andy Nebula?

EW: It's written. Alas, Roussan, which published Andy Nebula, went belly-up. My agent doesn't think he can market Andy Nebula. So right now, Andy Nebula: Double Trouble remains unseen by anyone. I'm toying with the idea of turning them both into ebooks and giving them away for free on my website and blog.

CD: What is your favourite nonfiction topic to write about?

EW: I don't think I have one. I find any topic becomes interesting once you dig into it. Recent favorite topics have included Orson Scott Card, major engineering projects in Saskatchewan, genetics, the element neon, and Jimi Hendrix.

CD: You write a lot about science and scientific developments. What new things are most exciting to you?

EW: I'm fascinated and astonished by the pace of change in medicine, where we're learning new things about how our bodies work every week, it seems. My book Genetics Demystified was out of date before it could be printed, it seemed to me. I'm also excited -- and slightly alarmed -- by new developments in nanotechnology, and just plain thrilled by all the private space activity we're starting to see. I'm still hoping the daVinci Project, which failed to win the X-Prize, turns Kindersely, Saskatchewan, into a spaceport at some point. And I'd buy a Virgin Galactic ticket in a minute, had I the money.

CD: You've been involved with SF Canada. Tell us about that.

EW: I was just a member for a long time, but I took over the website (which was designed by Karl Schroeder) in the 1990s and then a few years ago agreed to become the administrative assistant, which means I handle membership renewals and applications (though we have a committee to which I pass applications I can't make a solo judgement on). The website has a new "issue" every three months (well, that's what I aim for, anyway) featuring fiction, articles and interviews. It used to be I just updated members' news every three months, too, but now that's done as a blog which is updated as soon as I become aware of some newsworthy item -- books sold, awards won, readings scheduled, that sort of thing. It's made the site much more timely and it really is a great place to find out what's up with SF Canada members, who range from writers just breaking in to established pros. There's also a SF Canada Bookstore, with links for recent books by members (not just SF books, either; it includes romance, nonfiction, historical novels and other works by our members from outside the boundaries of speculative fiction, whatever those boundaries may be).

As far as the organization itself, it's very widespread, just like the country, and thus most members know each other, and interact with each other, via the listserver, which I also maintain (but not moderate; it's unmoderated). The listserver is open only to SF Canada members.

Last modified: August 11, 2006

Copyright © 2006 by Edward Willett.

Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Issue #23 | Interviews