Flash Fiction Online welcomes Lawrence Schoen, author of Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard
First of all, congratulations on the release of Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard.
Before we get to Barsk, let me say yl’el, which I hope means “welcome” in Klingon. It was either that or “My hovercraft is full of eels.” My translation skills are questionable. But yours are not! I’m fascinated by your mastery of Klingon and the subsequent founding of the Klingon Language Institute. How did you become a Klingonist?
I was a psychology professor at a small college in northern Illinois that had been going through a period of declining enrollments. It got so bad that they decided they needed to terminate four faculty positions and unfortunately for me, I was the newest hire in the largest department on campus. But academia is funny; I basically had a full year as a lame duck to look for other jobs and wait to hear back. I’m not good at waiting, so I went looking for a distraction, and I stumbled upon a copy of The Klingon Dictionary. I’d grown up hanging out with people who studied Tokien’s Elvish languages, and it struck me that I could play with Klingon for a few months, maybe even pull together some other interested folk. Then the media found out about what I was doing and it all exploded!
I know how enthusiastic Star Trek fans can be, but your work translating Shakespeare into Klingon is staggering to a casual fan like myself. As such, the amount of detail you put into world building Barsk makes perfect sense. Still, how did you go about it? Do you have a time honored process — a note card wall or a staggering character bible?
Full disclosure, I’m not the one who translated (or as we prefer to phrase it, “restored”) Shakespeare into Klingon. Hamlet was done by Dr. Nick Nicholas and Andrew Strader. And Nick also did Much Ado About Nothing. I handled the physical production, the layout and design of the books. I was the upper management on the projects, but other very talented people did the linguistic heavy lifting, not me.
With respect to worldbuilding in my fiction, I typically start with a character, and I work backwards from there. What sorts of things must exist in the character’s world that made him become the man he is? What factors were missing that led to her making the choices she did?
In looking at your biography — hypnotist, psychologist, psycholinguist, Klingonist — I could only feel that Barsk is a culmination of all these. That in order to achieve the level of world building, of social and political upheaval, with the emotional depth that you’ve achieved with such challenging characters, it would take a “Renaissance” author of sorts. Tell us how Barsk came to be, and if it did build upon your earlier experiences in a culmination of sorts.
Barsk started on a whim, a joke really, when the roommate of one of my students invited me to take part in a RPG based on an anthropomorphic animal comic book. The heroes were cats, the villains were rabbits. He said I could play any animal I wanted and for some reason I said “elephant,” but it turned out that wasn’t among the options in the rules. I didn’t care, I was off and running, spinning some nonsense about a planet the furry races didn’t want because it never stopped raining, and on and on. That was the start of Barsk.
We never did play that game, but that student was running a zine, and I promised to write him a novel based on that world and the elephants. I don’t know why I said that, I’d been writing a while, but I’d never had anything published yet. So I wrote a couple chapters, and he published them, and suddenly I was writing a novel!
I didn’t know much about writing, but I’d heard the phrase “write what you know,” so I started putting everything I knew into the story. Most of it didn’t stick. But I remember one piece very vividly that I should share. I wrote a scene in which a character dies by his own hand. He deliberately throws himself from a great height, from the canopy of a rainforest in fact, and falls to his death. It was a nicely visualized scene, but it felt flat. It lacked emotional depth. So I went back and rewrote it making one small change. I had him set himself on fire before he jumped. Suddenly, the thing had gravitas. But the difference wasn’t the fire. It was that instead of imagining someone committing suicide, I was channeling my experiences from earlier that academic year when one of my students killed himself via immolation. That’s when I came to understand what “write what you know” really means.
We often get story submissions here at FFO with non-human characters, and from long experience, we know it’s hard to write a convincing yet relatable character alien. Not only in Barsk but in your earlier works including The Adventures of the Amazing Conroy, you succeed in giving us entire worlds of anthropomorphized animals and alien cultures. What’s your advice in writing as “the other” like this?
For me, writing “the other” is a lot harder than writing “the alien.” There’s no comparison really (he said and then went on to make a comparison) because “the other” is some reader’s “me” and “the alien” by definition won’t ever be. Writing “the other” means I need to get inside another culture or gender or orientation or race or religion, and I need to get all the bits right, both the conscious ones that are objective and in theory researchable and the unconscious things that everyone who is a part of that “other” knows without thinking about because it’s just part of the identity. And you’re always, always, always going to get parts wrong. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, I believe you should. I think every writer has an obligation to try to write characters who don’t look and feel and sound and act like them. And when you fail, great, look at why you failed, and do it better next time. This is part of growing as a writer. Writing “the alien” is easier because you start by saying, okay, I’m going to pick some trait or perspective or biological quirk or cognitive process that is different in most humans and make it critical to the identity of my characters. Once you’ve worked out what that thing is, you just wind up the characters and let them loose, same as you would for human characters. If you’re writing humor, you play that difference for laughs. If you’re writing drama, you have the plot turn on it. If you’re writing tragedy, you play it for poignancy.
In Barsk, the Fants have a drug that allows certain users to interact with the recently dead. Both relationships and how we are remembered, including not at all, are important themes in the novel. Is this something that resonates for you on a personal level? Or in your work as a psychologist and mental health care provider, do you find the need to be remembered something that resonates with all of us?
I find death completely unacceptable. Not in terms of a physical ending, but rather the idea that a life of experience and thought and creation vanishes because the meat we’ve been walking around in hits an expiration date. This is a theme in a lot of my fiction, and one that I was oblivious to for years.
So in Barsk I invented a new branch of physics and tied it to cognitive psychology and explained how memory works, not just during our lives but afterward. Basically, the concept is that in life the thing which makes each of us completely unique as individuals is the vast collection of organized information that represents our memory and experience. So I offered an explanation for how that survives after corporeal death. Once I had that worked out, the fun part was positing a way that some people could still access that information, and in so doing effectively “speak to the dead.”
What advice, if any, would you give to aspiring writers?
Make mistakes. Don’t play safe. Try to write things you know you don’t know how to write. Fail, and when you do (and you will!), go back and figure out where you failed and why. Then do it again. You’re likely going to fail again, but you’ll also probably get a little further. You’ll learn how and why things work in your writing and more importantly, how and why they don’t. And you’ll get better.
Where can our readers find you on social media?
Lawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics. He spent ten years as a college professor, and has done extensive research in the areas of human memory and language. This background provides a principal metaphor for his fiction. He currently works as the director of research and analytics for a series of mental health and addiction recovery facilities in Philadelphia.
He’s also one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Klingon language, and since 1992 has championed the exploration and use of this constructed tongue throughout the world. In addition, he’s the publisher behind a speculative fiction small press, Paper Golem, aimed at showcasing up-and-coming new writers as well as providing a market for novellas. And too, he performs occasionally as a hypnotherapist specializing in authors’ issues.
In 2007, he was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. He received a Hugo Award nomination for Best Short Story in 2010 and Nebula Award nominations for Best Novella in 2013, 2014, and again in 2015. Some of his most popular writing deals with the ongoing adventures of a space-faring stage hypnotist named the Amazing Conroy and his animal companion Reggie, an alien buffalito that can eat anything and farts oxygen. His latest work is a very different kind of book, an anthropomorphic SF novel that explores prophecy, intolerance, friendship, conspiracy, and loyalty, and a drug that lets you talk to the dead.
Lawrence lives near Philadelphia with his wife, Valerie, who is neither a psychologist nor a Klingon speaker.