Paonia author builds on learned persistence, success
In the mangrove swamps outside Washington, D.C., in a drowned future America where battling warlords’ armies are staffed with child soldiers, a monstrous alligator lurked among the mossy roots of water plants.
A wounded soldier named Tool, genetically designed for war, stumbled into the water as his pursuers neared.
He sunk deep and stilled his breath, then “watched the alligator, measuring this new variable in the equation of his survival. He felt no brotherhood with this beast. Reptiles, if they were any part of his blood design, were deeply buried in the helixes of his DNA. This creature was nothing other than an enemy.”
Who knows how long Paolo Bacigalupi lingered among the mangroves, considering the still surface of the pond, knowing Tool and the colossal alligator were beneath it. Tool, though superhuman, eventually would need to breathe. The alligator was hunkered into the mud, lurking; it would sense any movement.
How would this impasse resolve?
Eventually, Bacigalupi left the swamp and re-emerged into his downtown Paonia office, standing before his computer. The drowned world, though, continued to grow. Tool was battling the alligator and a vicious army was approaching Banyan Town, threatening orphaned friends Mahlia and Mouse.
The book may have taken two years to complete, but that was the part Bacigalupi, 39, loved: building the world, meeting the people who live in it, creating the story, then mapping the paths through it.
Bacigalupi’s recently released second young adult novel, “The Drowned Cities,” is one of his milestones in more than 17 years of writing (and literary experimentation, and rejection, and frustration, and persistence, and, now, much-appreciated success).
It has been met with enthusiastic reviews. A Los Angeles Times critic wrote, “Bacigalupi’s imaginative detailing of the chaos that ensues when modern technologies collide with human desperation in a degraded landscape is powerful.”
The novel, though not a direct sequel to his National Book Award-finalist young adult novel “Ship Breaker,” exists in its ruined world. It takes Mahlia and Mouse through excruciating survival situations and the possibility for moral decline, and doesn’t flinch away from the brutality in human nature.
Bacigalupi, who lives in Paonia with his wife, Anjula, a teacher, and their 8-year-old son, said he initially tried writing a direct “Ship Breaker” sequel, but it just wasn’t working out and he had to abandon it.
It’s a vivid lesson he’s learned, often painfully, in almost two decades of serious writing.
“Try something, fail, learn, rinse, repeat,” he told an audience of teen writers during a June seminar at Mesa County Libraries’ CentralLibrary. “If you have the stamina for going through that cycle, your path as a writer will be easier. It’s not like the universe provides.
“Yeah, if you work really, really hard for it you might be successful, but really, the only thing you can control as a writer is whether you’re sitting down and doing the work.”
Bacigalupi, who grew up in Colorado and graduated Colorado Rocky Mountain School before moving on to Oberlin College to study Chinese, began writing seriously as an escape from a web development job he hated.
His mother, Linda, sent him a copy of “The Weekend Novelist” by Robert J. Ray and Bret Norris, and he began doing writing exercises from the book.
“I realized writing was the only thing I liked in my life,” he said during a recent espresso break in Paonia.
A lifelong fan of science fiction, he soon began working on a novel. He even quit his job to write it, finished it, found an agent and quickly learned that publishers didn’t want to publish it. (It’s called “Core” and nobody will ever read it, he said; one editor told him, “As a mother, this disturbs me.”)
A few publishers, however, did tell him that he could write. So, he got another job and wrote another novel, a literary action-adventure. And nobody wanted to buy it. A third novel — he was really proud of it — followed, and his agent rejected it.
One more novel, one he wrote in less than a month and deliberately made commercial, and every publisher rejected it. People felt sorry for his wife. His mother-in-law raised an eyebrow. He felt like a loser.
So, he got another job and, unwilling to quit writing, tried short stories instead.
Almost immediately, they sold and won awards. His story “The Calorie Man,” published in the Oct./Nov. 2005 Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, won the 2006 Theodore Sturgeon Award. His novelette “Pump Six” won the 2009 Locus Award.
“So eventually, my ego, which has never been small, got back in the game,” he recalled, laughing.
Over the next three years, he wrote a new novel and, even with a new agent, all the major publishers rejected it.
But Night Shade Books, a tiny publishing house in San Francisco, bought it and did a small initial printing.
Then Time Magazine named that novel, “The Windup Girl,” one of the top 10 novels of 2009. It won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards, the Compton Crook Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.
What seemed like overnight success from the outside became the culmination of years of work. Finally, he could write full time.
“Ship Breaker” and “The Drowned Cities” followed, and next up is an adolescent book called “Zombie Baseball Beat-Down,” about a half-Indian, half-American boy living in Middle America who has to confront, well, zombies.“I started thinking about my own son, who’s half Indian,” he explained. “I though about what are this kid’s problems? Well, he’s mixed-race living in racist America. Then, my wife has a student who says he wants to read about zombies. So, I thought about this scene where zombies are coming from the meat packing plant, and this kid and his friends are literally having to beat them back with baseball bats.”
Bacigalupi’s writing often focuses on dystopian futurescapes — a world that’s run out of oil and whose biozones are drastically altered because of global warming.
He said he remembers buying gas in Denver about 12 years ago, back when it was close to $1 per gallon, and musing as it pumped on what a world where it was $20 per gallon would be like.
The worlds he builds often begin from a seed of idea like that: What would the world be like if ...?
In “The Windup Girl,” set in 23rd century Thailand, mega-companies control the food supply through “genehacked” seeds, and plagues are common as a result. In “The Drowned Cities,” Washington, D.C., is flooded by rising seas and Virginia resembles South Florida.
He scours the news and lives with it — the excesses, the short-sightedness, the corruption — until he can’t anymore: “I’d go crazy,” he said. “Sometimes you just can’t think about it.”
And then he writes. He continually builds and grows the world, spends time inside its characters, then lays it out for his readers, treading a fine line between his craft and his essential need to move the story forward and make it interesting.
“You can become so fetishistic about the writing that you lose sight of what’s the juice I’ve giving my reader at this moment,” he said.
He gives his readers a lot of credit, and his style is not one of over-explaining because “you can make a reader fill in so much if you leave some space for them,” he said. “They build a world that’s more lush than you’ll ever build.”
He has ideas for a dozen projects down the road, perhaps more about the “Drowned Cities” character Tool, plus a sequel to that book, as well as more adult novels. He thinks in multi-media, in graphic novels, in worlds beyond worlds.
And he slips back into the swamp, to the edge of a pond, where a colossus and a monster are raging, and considers what might happen next.