Paolo Bacigalupi has made a name for himself as a science-fiction writer
The tight-knit community of Paonia is home to a science fiction writer whose work recently caught the eye of a Time magazine reviewer.
“The Windup Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi was named one of the Ten Best Novels of 2009 by Time, and it reached No. 10 on the science fiction best-seller list on Amazon.com in mid-February.
“The Windup Girl” and Bacigalupi’s other novels and stories come to life in his small office on the second floor of a former bed and breakfast.
A bookstore now occupies the main part of the first floor, and its owner, Stephanie Latourette, rents the second floor office to Bacigalupi.
The decor is spare. Short, homemade bookshelves line two corners and a comfy papasan chair takes up most of a third corner.
In the fourth corner, a laptop sits on a seemingly rickety office table with a large inflatable ball parked in front of it. Bacigalupi doesn’t do much sitting even while clicking away on his laptop.
“I mostly stand, actually. I work here pretty much every day, five, six days a week. If I could I’d be here more,” Bacigalupi said.
The science fiction genre can be consuming, and Bacigalupi’s interest in it began as a boy. He read “Citizen of the Galaxy” by Robert Heinlein when he was a third-grader.
“I’ve read it probably a dozen times since then,” Bacigalupi said. “My father had always been a big science fiction reader. I think when I sat down and started thinking I wanted to write stories, I was a science fiction reader at heart.”
Bacigalupi was born in Colorado Springs, and his family moved to Paonia when he was about 6 months old.
He attended Lamborn Valley School, then, after his parents divorced, he moved all over Colorado, from Fort Collins to Pueblo before he finally landed at Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale. That was where he learned to write.
“I had a teacher named Hal Langfur, and he taught a senior writing class. He had been a journalist, and he was an astonishingly good writer, and he just sort of laid out how to really make your prose solid. It was great. I still use the things I learned from him today. I didn’t learn it in college, I didn’t learn it anywhere else,” Bacigalupi said.
“I mean the fiction stuff was mostly self-taught, later, but the actual ‘just using words,’ that all came from him. It was really cool. Without that, I think it would have been a much harder row to hoe,” he said.
Bacigalupi attended Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, and studied the Chinese language because he “had heard that it was a challenge, and felt it was important to learn a foreign language.”
He traveled to China during his sophomore year of college to study the language, and, the summer after his junior year, he was enrolled in an immersion program in Beijing.
After he graduated from Oberlin College in 1994, he taught himself HTML and graphic design and jumped right into what was then an easy moneymaker, Internet development.
For almost a year, he lived in Asia working for a market research and management consulting company.
After he moved back to the United States, still working in Internet development, Bacigalupi started to write in earnest.
“I started writing when I was about 24. ... It was just a way to escape the day job that I didn’t really enjoy very much. I was working as an Internet developer for a Web company out in Boston, and I didn’t like the work, I wasn’t really inspired by it, so I started writing as sort of a ... weekend escape thing.
“Over the course of several months, I started thinking more and more that writing was the thing I liked to do more than anything else. Eventually, I quit my day job, and I basically used up all my savings trying to write a novel,” Bacigalupi said.
That first novel failed, as did a slew of others that followed in its wake, ranging from literary fiction to a mystery/western.
“At that point, I just gave up. I was so exhausted with the idea of writing books that I just completely gave up on the idea that writing would ever be a serious profession for me,” he said.
Bacigalupi moved to Denver, and was married in 1998. He and his wife now have a 7-year-old son.
He moved to Paonia, as a break from the relative hustle and bustle of the Front Range.
Bacigalupi still had the writing bug, though.
He landed a job at High Country News in Paonia as their Web editor. He started writing short stories, which gave him creative satisfaction.
“You’ve got a lot of room to do whatever you want, and the short story markets in science fiction and fantasy are really quite extraordinary in the range of material they’ll take. And it turned out that was actually quite a good fit for me,” Bacigalupi said.
He had a number of short stories published, including “The People of Sand and Slag,” “The Calorie Man,” “The Fluted Girl,” “The Gambler,” “Yellow Card Man” and “Pump Six.”
His first short story, “A Pocketful of Dharma,” was published in 1999 by the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which has printed most of his other short stories.
Eventually, Night Shade books, a small publishing company out of San Francisco, compiled most of his stories into “Pump Six and Other Stories.”
Finally becoming a published writer felt “odd,” Bacigaulpi said.
“It felt like ... you’ve done this work before, you’ve got years and years and years of work that you’ve been doing, and most of what it felt like was just a relief. That you weren’t nuts. That the stuff that you were doing was actually worthwhile, and that a story that you crafted and that you felt was finished or that it was as done as I could do it, would go out, and that I would get all this recognition, was really heartening,” he said. “It was a signpost that I needed in order to keep going on.”
He received multiple nominations for Nebula and Hugo awards, two science fiction awards. He won the Theodore Sturgeon Award early in 2006 for “The Calorie Man” and the Locus Award in 2009 for “Pump Six and Other Stories.”
In February, he was nominated for two Nebula awards in two different categories: “The Gambler” was named in the novelette category (first published as part of the anthology “Fast Forward II” in 2008 by Pyr Books), and “The Windup Girl” in the novel category.
“I sort of went from being a complete unknown while I was writing novels, and just kind of completely irrelevant, to this recognized short story writer. To the science fiction community it felt like an overnight thing, like ‘where did this guy come from?’ because I suddenly started writing all these short stories and started getting all this attention,” Bacigalupi said.
“The Windup Girl,” however, took years to write and made Bacigalupi feel as if he was “in over his head from the start.”
He uses the phrase “astonishing trauma” to describe the life-altering events that inspired “ The Windup Girl.”
One of those events was becoming a father for the first time, and another was being in Thailand when SARS hit. “Those kinds of things really hang with you,” he said.
The book was rejected multiple times before Night Shade books picked it up.
“They seemed to have an idea about what they’d do with the book, and they had a vision for it. So, their faith in this book was instrumental,” Bacigalupi said. “If we only had the giant publishing houses, the book wouldn’t have sold.”
Bacigalupi’s books are available at bookstores across the country and online.