Interview with Andy Weir
Steve Davidson for Amazing Stories: Welcome to Amazing Stories Andy.
In interviews elsewhere, you mention that you’re a science fiction fan. When did you start reading science fiction?
Andy Weir: I started back when I was a kid. I don’t remember any time in my life when I wasn’t a fan.
ASM: Could you mention a few of your favorite authors or particular works that you found compelling?
AW: The classic authors of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov were my favorites.
ASM: Do you attended conventions?
AW: I have been to lots of conventions. Some were focused on a specific show (like Star Trek or Dr. Who) while others were general SF gatherings. Also I go to boardgaming conventions, which tend to have a lot of overlap with fans.
ASM: You seem to prefer Dr. Who to Star Trek or Star Wars. Is there a reason for this preference or is it just one of those things?
AW: It’s just one of those things. I started watching Doctor Who when I was about 11, and I really got in to the mythos. Also, I’ve always loved time travel as a concept. It’s probably my favorite SF plot.
ASM: You’ve also stated that you’re a space nerd and did a fair amount of research into orbital mechanics, astrogation, systems, etc. Your Mars Mission profile largely follows the Mars Direct plan*. You seem to feel that such a mission profile is our best chance for exploring Mars. Why that approach and not another, such as the Mars One mission?
AW: Yes, Mars Direct (with a few changes) is the only plausible way we could have a manned mission there.
I don’t take Mars One seriously at all and I don’t understand why it gets so much press. For starters, their plan is to strand people on Mars in a living space worse than prison. More importantly, the funding concept is ludicrous.
ASM: You did make a few changes to the mission profile. Could you detail those?
AW: I made several changes:
I added a separate Earth-Mars transfer ship. I think it’s unrealistic to expect a single craft to serve as both transfer and lander. The transfer ship has to be large to accommodate the crew on their long mission, and can be reused for more missions in the same series. A lander just has to keep them alive for the trip from orbit to the surface. There’s a separate ascent vehicle, so the lander is a one-use item.
I have the Earth-Mars transfer done via ion engines.
ASM: Would you volunteer for Mars One – do you want to go to Mars?
AW: As I mentioned I don’t take Mars One seriously. If there were a real manned mission in the planning, I would love to be part of it. But not as an astronaut. I’m not brave enough and I don’t have The Right Stuff. I’d rather be one of the thousands of hardworking engineers who make spaceflight possible.
ASM: Do you think that human exploration of the solar system is necessary – or should we be doing it all with robots?
AW: It’s hard to justify risking human life when you can just send a robot. Robots can sit in an inert shell for eight months on their way to Mars. Humans have to be kept alive.
While I enjoy writing about astronauts, I don’t see a compelling reason to send them to other planets. There is one good way of looking at it, though. You have to consider it a national luxury. Something that isn’t strictly necessary for anything other than society’s enjoyment. Like the National Endowment for the Arts. To this day, we still consider the Apollo landings to be among the greatest accomplishments in human history, and Americans are proud of it. We wouldn’t feel nearly so proud if there had simply been a series of well-executed robotic sample-return missions.
So the question becomes: What price do you put on national pride? Or, if it’s an international effort, what is the value of that global sense of accomplishment and cooperation among nations?
ASM: Apollo was, in the final analysis, a political action. Barry Malzberg is considered to be quite the prognosticator for having predicted that the missions would end once the US was considered the “victor” in the cold war. It sounds as if you are largely in agreement with Malzberg.
AW: Yes, I think national pride is reason enough. And not for flag-waving patriotism. Just for the simple reason that it makes people happy. Like I said, we’re still proud of the Apollo program. And when we talk about it, we don’t say “It was a great day for America because we beat the Soviets!” We say “We had people walking around on the Moon. How freakin’ cool was that!?”
ASM: What was your intention – to write a ‘novel’ or to write a ‘science fiction’ novel?
AW: I guess “write a novel”. I was focusing on what could be done with the technology we have right now. So I wasn’t thinking too much about speculative technology or anything like that.
ASM: Other interviews have invoked Heinlein in reference to The Martian. Were his works particular favorites of yours?
AW: Yes, his earlier works were. Especially Tunnel in the Sky and Have Spacesuit Will Travel and Starman Jones, just to name a few.
ASM: Would you care to weigh in on the current “fad” of criticizing Heinlein as a war-mongering, fascistic, womanizing misogynist?
AW: I think it’s unreasonable to compare someone from the past to modern morals. He started writing almost 70 years ago, when ideals were different. Like it or not, what we consider misogyny was normal treatment of women in that era. As for war-mongering, a lot of his books were written in the middle of the Cold War and the Red Scare. So, while those beliefs have no place in our modern world, you can’t get mad at him for not having ideals that hadn’t even taken root in society yet.
I do, however, find it annoying when an author uses a novel as a pulpit for political ideologies. When I read a book I want to be entertained, not preached at. So there are some of his books that I didn’t like because they had heavy handed political messages. Notably The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
I’m not saying I agree or disagree with any of Heinlein’s ideas, I’m just saying I’d rather read about a guy shooting at space pirates than a plodding explanation of economic libertarianism and group marriages.
ASM: In some respects, The Martian is fairly “Heinleinesque”; you feature a “competent man” in your main character Mark Watney; there isn’t a lot of literary fluff nor dwelling on deep emotional analysis and most of the other characters are somewhat stereotypical of their type – astronauts, administrators, technicians. Was that just the way the story wrote itself or some kind of emulation of a Heinlein-like technique?
AW: It’s just how the story came out. My ideology is simple: At all costs, prevent the reader from putting the book down. Make them stay up late reading and then only stop because they had to sleep.
I can’t speak for other readers, but I am extremely impatient when reading. I don’t like flashbacks, long periods of exposition, or deep character analysis. For the most part, I don’t care what the character’s motivations are. And I definitely don’t want to read a ten page description of a mountain range. I just want something interesting to happen.
So all I can do is write books the way I’d want to read them.
ASM: Did you watch the Apollo moon shots while growing up? There are a few scenes in the novel, a docking sequence, the “mutiny”, that seemed to be close analogues to the film of the Apollo 13 mission; did you crib those from the movie?
AW: I was only six months old when the last Apollo mission took place. So they were never a live event for me. However, I’ve been a space enthusiast my whole life. I definitely used events from the real space program as inspiration for plot elements. Especially Apollo 13.
ASM: Apollo 13 was described as a “successful failure”. The Martian seems to take that kind of situation and turn it on its head a bit: The Apollo 13 astronauts certainly had a direct hand in effecting their own recovery, but The Martian emphasizes the work and solutions of the astronaut over the contributions of the ground crew and others. Was this a deliberate inversion of the relationship between astronauts and mission control?
It wasn’t as deliberate as all that. The efforts of NASA were critical to the story. Though, for drama purposes, I wanted to have it be one man vs. Mars all by himself, so I engineered a way to make that happen. So it did end up being mostly an effort by Mark, but that was for storytelling purposes.
ASM: Do you think that astronauts ought to be given more autonomy while in space?
AW: They’re the ones with their lives on the line. I think the final decisions should rest with them. Consider how air traffic control personnel interact with pilots in an emergency. The pilot makes all the decisions, and that’s how it should be. I think in practice that’s already how it is with astronauts. But for non-emergency situations, I definitely think NASA knows best.
ASM: You took a not common trajectory to publication publishing the novel yourself . Why didn’t you leave it as an indie work?
Because a publisher offered me a bunch of money for a print deal. I’ve always wanted to get a book published in print and I’m a big fan of money.
ASM: What is your opinion (if any) of the divide that’s been experienced between indie and traditional publishing? Should would-be authors continue to try the traditional route, or go it themselves from the get-go?
AW: Indie publishing has removed the barriers to entry in the publishing world. Now, anyone can write a book and put it out there for people to read. If it’s good, it’ll sell well. If it isn’t, well at least they got to try. I think it’s fantastic.
That being said, I consider self-publishing to be a starting point, not a goal. It gets you in to the industry, but I don’t think you should stop there. I definitely prefer traditional publishing. Publishing companies have centuries of experience in how to market and sell books. Whether you’re motivated by money or motivated by accumulating readers, traditional publishers are better at making either one happen.
If you go it alone, you have to be your own marketing and publicity department. Some people are good at that (Like Hugh Howey, who is a good businessman as well as an excellent writer). But I just don’t have those skills. I’m happy to have professionals take care of all of that for me.
ASM: Do you think that partnering with a traditional publisher directly contributed to your novel making it to the NYTimes best-seller list?
AW: Absolutely. There is no way it would have happened otherwise.
ASM: Did your previous e-book publication help it get there?
AW: I don’t think those numbers counted toward the total. However, the prior publication did get me a lot of readers who then turned around and bought the hardcover as a show of support (pretty awesome, eh?). That drove up sales, I’m sure.
ASM: Did you make any substantial changes between your original e-book version and the one published this year?
AW: No, the main plot points remain unchanged. It was all polish, fixing awkward sentences, adding depth to minor characters, etc. I did change the final scene. But again, no changes in plot or resolution.
ASM: Did you use any first readers or hire an editor for your original version?
AW: I initially posted the story chapter by chapter to my website as I wrote it. I had a few thousand regular readers so you could say there were a lot of “first readers”. I hired a copyeditor to make a pass before I posted it to Kindle.
ASM: Did you find working with an editor at Crown to be beneficial to the process?
AW: The Crown editor, Julian Pavia, was the first person to make serious editorial comments and request changes. I definitely think the process with Julian was beneficial to the book. It’s a lot more polished and much better than it was when we started.
ASM: You were very clever with Watney’s solutions to problems, but I suspect that you had to give Watney a couple of ‘gimmes’ – such as shipping actual potatoes to Mars . Where there other similar gimmes that were necessary to move things along?
The RTG was probably the biggest “gimme”. It was extremely useful and solved a number of mundane problems that wouldn’t have been interesting to narrate. Most notably, it saved an enormous amount of energy because Mark didn’t have to deal with keeping the rover warm. I had a plot idea at one point where he has to abandon the RTG because it started leaking. But I just could not find a way for him to survive without it, so I had to give up on that plot.
(The RTG is a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator – Ed.)
ASM: Another technical question: wouldn’t mission control normally have the ability to override the Herme’s systems from the ground and prevent or abort their course change?
AW: Definitely, and that was covered in the book. The Hermes crew talks about it when they decide to “mutiny” and Johanssen reprograms the onboard computers to disable Houston’s remote control.
ASM: Once Mission Control learns that Watney is still alive, they choose not to tell the other mission astronauts as they believe the psychological toll will be too great. This is reminiscent of Glenn not being told the condition of his heat shield during his Mercury orbital mission. Do you think that “He’s a pilot. You tell him the condition of his craft” is correct? (The Right Stuff).
AW: A pilot needs to know everything about his craft so he can make informed decisions. But the psychological effects on the Hermes crew of knowing Mark was still alive are an entirely different thing. Knowing wouldn’t help them in any way and would serve only to ruin their already low morale.
ASM: A lot of the novel is reminiscent of the CO2 scrubber scenes in Apollo 13: ‘we’ve got to make this work with this using only these (parts)’. Did you start with a list of equipment and materials for the Mars mission, set your problems up and then work through them? Or did you back-end things, having the solution in mind and figuring out the tools and materials that would have to be present in some form?
AW: I started with the problem and then worked out the solutions. If I couldn’t figure out the solution, I just wouldn’t have that problem come up, or I’d adjust the problem to something that could be solved.
ASM: As I was reading (and the book is quite the page turner) I was confident that Watney would manage to survive – until I got about three quarters of the way through. Then I began to suspect that he’d come really, really close but not quite make it. Was that deliberate pacing on your part? Or merely a consequence of trying to increase the tension right up until the very end?
AW: I’m surprised at how many people weren’t sure if he’d survive. I’m glad people were that on the edge about it and that the ending was so exciting for them. Despite the dire circumstances, it’s a light-hearted story without much seriousness in it. So I figured people would just assume Mark will survive and I focused on making how he does it the main focus.
ASM: You’ve remarked in other interviews that Watney’s ascerbic sense of humor is largely your own. Do you think you’d actually be thinking those same things under similar circumstances?
AW: Mark has my smart-ass personality, but none of my flaws. If I were in Mark’s situation, I would not be able to handle the stress. I would crumble under the pressure and probably die. Mark isn’t me, he’s more what I wish I was like. He has the bravery and courage under fire that I’ll never have.
ASM: If Watney makes it back to Earth, what would be the first thing he would do?
AW: First thing he’d do would be get a hamburger, pizza, or some other delicious food he’d been denied for so long. Also, he’d want to spend some time outside in the sunlight. And he would have no desire to ever go in to space again.
ASM: So what’s next?
AW: I’ve quit my day job and am taking a shot at being a full-time writer. I’ve worked up a pitch for my next novel and I’ll be sending it to Crown soon to see what they think. If they like it, I’ll write it. If they don’t, I’ll shop it around or work up a different pitch.
ASM: Thank you very much Andy. Good luck with the possible movie and with your next novel.
Andy Weir’s website can be found here.
*Mars Direct is a proposal for a manned mission to Marsthat is designed to be both cost-effective and possible with current technology. It was originally detailed in a research paper by NASAengineers Robert Zubrinand David Bakerin 1990. (Wikepedia entry for Mars Direct.) The plan hinges on return vehicles that make their own fuel from the Martian atmosphere and on utilizing Martian natural resources to reduce the supplies that must be shipped to the red planet.