Thanks to the exciting reach the internet brings us authors and fans of literature are connecting in ways never seen before. What once was relegated to a letter sent across the ocean in the vain hope that it would be read, let alone replied to, is now done in under 140 characters almost instantaneously. The world of literature fandom has changed, for the better, and one such change is the growth of fan-made tributes; websites, forums, and podcasts.
Host of one of genre-fiction’s greatest podcasts, Tom Merritt has the sort of life some could only wish for. Host of the internet’s most beloved technology podcasts (Buzz Out Loud and now Tech News Today), member of the Frogpants Network, author, host of FSL Tonight (the only place for FSL rundown and news), and co-founder of the Sword and Laser bookclub on Goodreads that has spawned its own podcast and YouTube video show on the massively popular Geek and Sundry channel.
I’ve been a fan of Tom Merritt for years now, ever since I first heard him many years ago on Buzz Out Loud, and this weekend I got the chance to communicate with him, and the opportunity to ask him some questions.
Joshua S. Hill for Amazing Stories: Just so there is no confusion, are you the Sword or the Laser?
Tom Merritt: I am the laser. Though both Veronica and I like both genres. But I’ve learned a lot more about fantasy literature since we teamed up and I’d like to think Veronica has learned a lot about Science Fiction.
ASM: The first Sword and Laser episode was published back in February of 2008. How has running a book club affected what you get to read?
TM: It’s mostly had a good effect. I read more than I did before the show. But I do find it hard to read things that aren’t in the book club. Audio books have helped in that regard.
ASM: What are you reading then?
TM: I still read genre fiction most of the time even when it’s not strictly for the book club, because I find out about so many awesome books doing the show. When it’s not genre fiction it’s almost always non-fiction related to political science, history or sociology. I also read Scientific American cover to cover every month.
ASM: The Sword and Laser Bookclub has somewhat restricted you from reading books that begin a series; have you read many series? If so, what ones?
TM: I do read series, I love them. I’ve read Dune, Song of Ice and Fire, Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards, The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercomrbie and all the side novels, The Kingkiller Chronicles by Pat Rothfuss (so far). And I’d like to read the Old Man’s War novels. I’ve read the first two.
ASM: Do you think you and Veronica will ever pick up someone like Steven Erikson?
TM: Yes? I mean we never really know what we’re going to pick until we pick it. But our goal is to try to pick things that expand our own horizons and thus, the horizons of the audience. It’s just plain math. There are so many good writers out there, we just don’t have enough time to pick them all, so there will always be a deserving author that gets left out. Unless the Singularity happens.
ASM: You’ve made it quite clear that ‘The Man in the High Castle’ by Philip K. Dick is your favourite book: When did you first read it?
TM: I read it in college after it was referred to in an article about Bladerunner I had to read for a film class.
ASM: What about it has so resonated with you?
TM: Alternate reality has always fascinated me because I often wonder what things are culturally dependent and what things are universally human. I also think in the US people have an utter lack of understanding just how lucky we were not to have to fight World War II on our own soil. A lot of presumed US advantages came from that stroke of luck. So a novel that investigates what aspects of our national identity would survive occupation is quite fascinating to me. Of course, there’s also the “what would have happened if the Nazis won” aspect that has been treated many times, but Dick set his novel in Japanese-occupied America, which again, felt much more interesting.
ASM: Honestly, do you ever want it adapted for TV or cinema?
TM: Of course! I don’t want it adapted poorly, but I’d love to see it in action.
ASM: While it might be a somewhat generic question, who are some of your favourite authors and what are some of your favourite books?
TM: Besides Philip K. Dick, some of my favorites are Frank Herbert, J. R. R. Tolkien, Douglas Adams, Evelyn Waugh, Patrick Rothfuss, Kingsley Amis, Douglas Coupland, George R. R. Martin, William Gibson, Stanislaw Lem, James S. A. Corey, C. S. Lewis, John Scalzi, Cory Doctorow, William Shakespeare, P.G. Wodehouse, Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Robert Anton Wilson…. I should stop now, shouldn’t I?
Favorite books? I’ll attempt to keep this shorter so in no way treat this as definitive. Sword of Honour Trilogy by Evelyn Waugh, Dune by Frank Herbert, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub by Stanislaw Lem, The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien, The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, Clans of the Alphane Moon by Philip K. Dick. I have to stop.
ASM: You’ve had the opportunity to interview some pretty big-name authors: Who was your favourite to interview?
TM: Well I hate to pick a favorite and hurt any feelings so I’ll just say that recently I really enjoyed interviewing Trudi Canavan. And I’m not just sucking up to the Australians when I say that [Author’s note – the interviewer is Australian]. I wasn’t very familiar with her work when Veronica suggested her. She not only writes fun stories but she was an absolute pleasure to talk to. All the best interview we’ve done have a moment where you forget you’re interviewing and you just feel like you’re having an interesting chat.
ASM: Who was the most daunting to interview?
TM: Without a doubt George R. R. Martin was the most daunting. We’re HUGE fans of course, to begin with and he’s known to be a bit of a curmudgeon. We even had a short list of questions we were advised against asking, because he was tired of hearing them. Things you could guess like “When are you going to finish your book?” and “Where did you get your ideas?’ In the end, we calmed down, he warmed up to us (we think) and we had a great conversation, involving nerddom and Ant Man.
ASM: If you could interview any one author from any period in time, who would it be?
TM: H.G. Wells. Of all the classic Scientifiction writers Wells always seems to hold up the best over time to me. I want to find out if he actually was a time traveller.
ASM: In what ways has the Sci-Fi and fantasy genre shifted since you started reading?
TM: I’m not sure. I don’t read in the order books come out, so it all seems frozen in time. I guess Fantasy has seized the upper hand in the last few years.
ASM: How have you seen it change since starting the Sword and Laser podcast?
TM: The only thing I’ve noticed about genre fiction since the podcast started is that Urban Fantasy became so popular that people began to hate it to be cool. Also fantasy has moved into a lovely gritty and dirty phase. And science fiction suddenly started to get treated as an underdog, though I don’t really know why.
ASM: What did you not know that you do now about the industry that you’ve learnt by means of the podcast and the opportunities it has presented?
TM: That authors by and large have absolutely no time to read anything. I’ve also learned that most authors are actually very friendly and fun people to talk to and not at all mean or scary.
ASM: You and Veronica are embarking upon creating your own anthology of short stories for Sword and Laser. What was the impetus behind this?
TM: It was Veronica’s idea, but the community has been pushing for it for awhile too. Our listeners and members are also in a large numbers aspiring writers. Every year Veronica and I take part in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I think we see all the great stories out there and what to give our audience a place to have their writing seen. It gives us a chance to see what they can do too.
ASM: Will you be including any of your own writing in it? If so, can you tell us a bit about the story?
TM: Maybe? I haven’t decided which story yet, if I do. Ha ha. To compensate you for that lack of answer, I have been editing up one of my NaNoWriMo books which is about a star system entirely occupied by a mining corporation that arrived on a generation ship years ago. Company offices are hereditary and the story is around a COO of one of the mining satellites who dies and reveals a surprise heir. The CEO of the system wanted his son in that position and a struggle ensues.
ASM: What value do you think anthologies have for the industry?
TM: It’s a great way for people to sample writers they might not be willing to take a chance on if they had to try a whole book. It’s also a great way to get some George R. R. Martin to read between books. Or any writer for that matter.
ASM: Can you let us in behind the scenes for a moment? Will you and Veronica be reading all the submissions?
TM: We’re splitting up the work and we have some other freelance editors that will read through as well. Once we’ve narrowed it down to potential finalists, we’ll all read them and reach a consensus.
ASM: You have self-published your own work a couple of times already. Can you give us a brief rundown on what you have written and why you chose those subjects?
TM: Yeah that’s a hobby. I like putting it out there and getting feedback. It makes me a better writer. Because I really don’t think I’m quite there yet.
One novel is called “Boiling Point” about the breakup of the United States into separate countries. It was inspired partly by the fall of the Soviet Union and partly by reading a book called “The Nine Nations of North America” by Joel Garreau.
My other fiction is called “United Moon Colonies” about the end of a war on Earth and how the Moon helped end the war but a plot to assassinate the Moon’s President, threatens to allow the defeated idealogues to possibly ruin the peace. It’s a pretty straight analogue to World War II with the Moon in the position of the US. North America as the UK. China as Russia, etc…
ASM: When did you start writing creatively?
TM: The first time I ever attempted to write a novel was in High School. I wrote it in a Return of the Jedi notebook.
ASM: Do you remember what the story was about? Are you brave enough to share?
TM: It had to do with a group of people on a spaceship and an asteroid. There was a crisis on the ship. The asteroid was grey. That’s all I remember.
ASM: From your experience, what value does self-publishing give the up and coming author?
TM: I like self-publishing because it lets you try things flexibly without too much risk. You don’t sink anything but time into your book and if it sells, great! If it doesn’t sell, nothing really lost. It lets you get a wider net of feedback. A lot of authors also say it lets you make more money and gives you more control over your own work.
ASM: Is there any advice you can give to authors about self-publishing?
TM: I totally self-publish recreationally so I am the absolute wrong person to give advice to anybody who wants to be successful at self-publishing. I guess all I would say is to treat it seriously, even if you don’t think you’ll sell many books. Because the more serious you take it, the better chance somebody may really like it and tell their friends.
ASM: To finish up, what’s next for Tom Merritt?
TM: We’re planning to bring back a video version of Sword and Laser, and I’m also pursuing some other side projects along with continuing to do Tech News Today and Frame Rate on TWit.tv. One project is a comic book I’m writing with Len Peralta called “TenState” It’s about 10 people picked for a reality show to represent conflicts in the US, and after they get locked in a biodome a crisis happens outside and they’re stuck in there. We’re funding that through Kickstarter. I’m also Kickstarter-ing another project called FSL Tonight. It’s an audio podcast about teams playing an imaginary sport. The teams are made up of characters from fantasy and science fiction. we follow the teams through a ten week “season” and playoofs. This year the New York Avengers and the Vulcan Velocity are looking good!
ASM: Thank you very much, Tom!