I am so excited to have Eric James Stone with us today. I’m pretty much a fangirl, so I was thrilled when he agreed to this interview. In college, I took a writing class from Brandon Sanderson, and he had Stone come talk to us about writing short stories. I started following him then, and later he was the editor for a short story anthology that I was published in. I’ve stalked followed Stone’s career and loved his short stories for years, so I was thrilled when his new novel came out. His book, Unforgettable, is like if the perfect science-fiction novel and the perfect spy thriller had a baby, and that baby was smart, fast-paced, and fun. You should definitely check it out. And now, let’s get to the interview!
Tell us a little about yourself and what made you decide to become a writer.
When I was growing up, my dad had a large collection of old science fiction books. One that particularly fascinated me was The Early Asimov, a collection of Isaac Asimov’s early short stories. I loved the stories, but I also loved the interludes between the stories, where Asimov would talk about his life as a writer. That’s what made me think it would be interesting to be a writer. I took some creative writing classes in college, but after a couple of rejections I decided I wasn’t cut out to be a writer, and I made the mistake of giving up for over ten years. Then in 2002 I felt a sudden urge to write an epic fantasy novel, and that led me to seriously focus on writing.
You have an interesting history! You went from politics to law to web design, correct? How has that background influenced your writing?
Lawyers have a terrible reputation for obfuscatory scrivening, but my law school classes actually emphasized writing clearly. Later I wrote press releases and op-eds for a lobbying group in Washington, DC, a form of writing that places a premium on clarity and brevity. So when I got back to creative writing, I had a lot of experience in writing clear prose.
You’ve also been an editor in many different capacities. What have you learned about your own writing from those experiences?
The most important lessons I learned from reading submissions are the importance of starting the story with an interesting character doing something interesting, and of providing a satisfying ending. I still need to remind myself of those points when I’m writing my own stories.
One of the things that I find particularly interesting about you is that you were a successful, award-winning short story author before the recent publication of your novel. I remember you saying that you enjoyed short stories and weren’t sure you could ever write enough words to make a full novel. You were probably joking, but here you are!
I’d love to know about your process for making the jump between short stories and novels, and how writing in the two different mediums is different and similar.
The longest story I wrote for my creative writing classes in college was 4000 words. At that time, I didn’t know how I could ever write a novel. However, when the urge to write an epic fantasy finally struck me, I wrote a 7000-word prologue over the course of two nights. The first draft of that novel ended at 150,000. It’s filled with clichés and flowery language, so it will probably never see the light of day.
When I wrote Unforgettable, though, I was so used to writing short fiction that some of my early readers said it felt more like a short story than a novel, because it lacked the depth of detail people are used to getting from novels. Revising and extending the novel to fix that was a lengthy process.
At QFT, we publish short stories, so what advice would you give specific to short story writers?
Keep the focus tight, and cut whatever doesn’t need to be in the story.
Do you feel that writing short stories was a springboard for developing your craft enough to focus on a novel? In what ways?
Yes, I learned a lot about storytelling from writing short fiction. It gave me practice on crafting satisfying endings, writing snappy dialogue, and various other aspects of the craft.
Let’s talk for a minute about Unforgettable. I just finished reading it, and I loved it! It’s brilliant and funny and has a really unique premise. What was your inspiration for the story?
I got the idea for the protagonist after watching the movie 50 First Dates. In the film, Drew Barrymore’s character suffered brain damage in an accident and can’t form long-term memories. That makes it difficult for Adam Sandler’s character to form a relationship with her. I started wondering what would happen if someone had the opposite problem: no one could remember him. And the character of Nat Morgan sprang from that idea.
This book seems to play with genres more than your other work does. I’ve always taken you for a hard SciFi/fantasy guy, but Unforgettable feels almost like a parody of spy movies and thrillers in some ways, even though it’s based on quantum physics. Was that intentional from the start, or what were the ways the story evolved during creation?
A few months before I came up with the idea for the novel, I was talking to Joshua Bilmes (who was not my agent at the time, but he is now). He mentioned that he wished he could represent more thriller novels. So when I was trying to figure out a plot to go with my forgettable hero, I decided a science fiction thriller might be the way to go. Plus, if I recall correctly, I was binge-watching Alias at the time.
Your fiction seems to focus on themes a lot—not in a heavy-handed way, but as a way of exploring the what-ifs of life. What is it that draws you to writing speculative fiction, and were there any particular themes in Unforgettable that you were excited to explore?
I rarely have a theme in mind when I write a story, but sometimes a theme emerges as I write. I write speculative fiction because that’s what I most like to read. Unforgettable does deal with themes I consider important, such as free will, but it’s not so much that I designed the plot in order to allow me to explore the themes, but rather that when I came up with the plot I realized it gave me the chance to explore those themes.
I hear Unforgettable has been optioned for a possible movie/TV series. Congratulations—that’s amazing! If you were in charge, which actors could you see playing Nat and Yelena?
It was under option for a while, but that lapsed. It’s currently being shopped around to various studios. As for who I’d cast . . . I don’t know. I’m not really all that familiar with up-and-coming actors in their twenties. I can say that I think cover artist Kurt Miller did a good job of portraying Nat and Yelena (see HERE), so maybe I’d look for actors who look like the people on the cover.
You’ve mentioned growing up reading your father’s science fiction books. So, I’d like to go into what I like to call the shotgun portion of the interview. I shoot off questions, and you shoot off answers
Favorite book: Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
Favorite author: Orson Scott Card
Book/s you’re currently reading: I just finished The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. I’m in the middle of Servant: The Dark God, Book 1 by John D. Brown. And I just started an advanced reader copy of Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith, an anthology of speculative fiction that deals with Christianity.
Top three favorite movies: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, X2: X-Men United
TV shows you enjoy: Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel, all Star Treks, Firefly
Things you do for creative inspiration: Read science news stories, participate in prompt-based writing challenges, daydream.
To finish up, I’d like to ask a few writing-specific questions.
Plotter or Pantser?
I can write a short story without an outline, but not a novel.
What are your writing routines?
There have been times when I’ve had a regular writing routine, usually consisting of “Write X number of words before going to bed.” Unfortunately, more often than not I don’t have a routine, and it’s more like “The deadline’s coming up, so I need to finish this.”
For you, what is the hardest thing about writing?
I find it almost impossible to turn off my internal editor and just write, rather than constantly tweaking what I’ve just written.
What is the easiest thing about writing?
There are times when I feel like I’m “in the zone” and the writing just flows. That’s when I love writing.
Do you work on multiple projects at once or focus on one at a time?
I generally focus on one project at a time, but I can work on a short story while taking a break from working on a novel.
Can you tell us a bit about what the querying/agent hunting process was like for you? Any tips for writers at that stage of the journey?
I queried a lot of agents about my epic fantasy but didn’t find representation. I’ll admit it was discouraging. When my queries for Unforgettable didn’t garner any interest – probably because at that time, the novel was under 70K words, which is generally considered too short for an adult novel – I gave up and decided to self-publish it. But then one of my novelettes won the Nebula and was nominated for the Hugo, so Joshua Bilmes decided to take a chance on Unforgettable (and me). So my main tip for writers looking for an agent is to just keep plugging away because you never know where your break is going to come from.
What’s next for you, now that Unforgettable is out?
I’m working on the sequel. And I have a short story, “Crowdfinding”, coming out in Analog Science Fiction & Fact in the near future.
Best piece of advice for aspiring authors?
Best piece of advice for life?
Be excellent to each other.
Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t included?
My collection, Rejiggering the Thingamajig and Other Stories, contains 24 of my short fiction pieces, including my Nebula-Award-winning novelette. The e-book version is on sale for only $3.
Thank you very much for your time, Eric. We look forward to continuing to watch your writing journey!
Get your copy of Unforgettable here: