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Rich Christiano[Jeff Gerke]


Interview: Randall Ingermanson

[Randall Ingermanson] Randall Ingermanson (shown here with his first two daughters) is the author of Transgression and Premonition, and co-author of Oxygen and The Fifth Man. Transgression and Oxygen both garnered Christy Awards for excellence in Christian fiction. Randy holds degrees from Pacific Union College and the University of California at Berkeley, and did post-doctoral studies in string theory at Ohio State University. He, his wife Eunice, and their three daughters live in San Diego. He strenuously insists that, contrary to popular belief, he does not own a time machine. He took part in the list in December, 2003. Joel Peter Anderson, Diane Joy Baker, Shannon McNear, Greg Slade, Donita Tompkins, and Ann Totusek asked the questions, and here is an edited version of the question and answer sequence. You can learn more about Randy on his web site at www.rsingermanson.com.

GS: Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born in Salina, Kansas, where a large fraction of the world Ingermanson population lives. Literally dozens of them live there. I'm an Army brat and we moved to Augsburg, Germany before I became a sentient being, so that's my earliest memories. Before my fourth birthday, we moved to California (Fort Ord) where we lived until I was about seven. Then we moved to another foreign country... Kansas. Stayed there for almost five years, so I count Ogden, Kansas, population about 2000, as my hometown. When I was twelve, we moved to Frankfurt, Germany. I spent two years there and then went to a boarding school in California, Monterey Bay Academy, where I did all four years of high school.

GS: Where did you go to school, and what did you take?

I took all the usual suspects in high school and did abnormally well in chemistry and physics. I decided that physics was the coolest subject in the known universe, mainly because of all the great words like "quarks" and "gluons." I was raised a Seventh Day Adventist, and the SDA high school I went to was essentially a feeder school for an SDA college, Pacific Union College, so that's where I went.

I majored in physics and math. I think I took only one English class in college (Great Books – something very hard to escape at the college I went to.) I got a B+, mainly because I saved it till my senior year and didn't have much time to study for it because I was always taking four physics and math courses at a time.

For grad school, I went to Berkeley and did a Ph.D. in quantum field theory, which meant I finally got to learn all about quarks and gluons. After Berkeley, I spent two years as a postdoc at Ohio State University working on string theory.

GS: What is your family situation? (Married? Kids?)

I've been married to Eunice for 21 years. We've got three girls, Carolyn, Gracie, and Amy, who are 16, 13, and 9. So I now have two teenage girls in the house and they are delightful! They're more fun than they've ever been. I know the teen years can be difficult (they were for me) but we are all getting along pretty well. I blame the homeschooling. We also have one outrageously spoiled cat, Zephyr, who believes he is King Of All He Surveys. And he just might be right.

GS: What do you do to put bread on the table when you're not writing books?

I've worked in private industry in San Diego since finishing my postdoc. I spent 8 years in a defense contractor, Maxwell Technologies, and then realized I could make more money with less stress by branching out into software. I did that for a couple of years, went back to Maxwell when they begged me, then got an offer I couldn't refuse to work in a biotech startup company founded by my college roommate. So I'm still at the biotech company writing C++ software to do image analysis to automate the interpretation of microscope images of cells. It's all very interesting and I've learned a lot about biology in the process. One of my primary skills is object-oriented analysis and design, so I function as chief software architect, but I've also done some statistical work and general science-thinking for the company. Another of my skills is the ability to make very fast algorithms, which is important when your software is analyzing tens of thousands of images per day.

GS: What church do you attend, and why?

My family and I attend the Coast Vineyard in La Jolla, which is a Vineyard church. We like the Vineyard – we like the music and the casual atmosphere and the sensible approach to the charismata and the refusal to waste time arguing about theological minutiae. I also hang out at Kehilat Ariel, a Messianic Jewish congregation near my home, but my family doesn't go there with me. I started going there as research for a book I was working on in 1991. I finished that book a year later but by that time I was hooked on the music and had some friends there. I've kept going there ever since, and kept learning new things. I think the Messianic Jews have some key insights into the New Testament that have been missing from Gentile Christianity for a long time. While I've never sold the book that I was working on in 1991, I have sold two others that were birthed out of that book – Transgression and Premonition, and have two others on line for publication. I've been accused of having secretly traveled back in time to first-century Judea. Not true. I've done a lot of research, of course, but I've also borrowed some critical elements from both the Vineyard and my Messianic friends.

GS: How did you become a Christian?

I was raised "in the church but not of the church." Some would say I was raised in a cult – Seventh Day Adventism. I think there are some seriously cultish things about SDAs, but I would not class them with Jehovah's Witnesses or others of that ilk. The big problem with the SDAs has nothing to do with the alleged cultic ideas (Sabbath-keeping or heterodox ideas on death, resurrection, the Second Coming, etc.) The real problem with the SDAs is that they are legalists, and I was raised squarely in the middle of that.

I'm sorry to say I bought into it intellectually and I'm pleased to say I didn't buy into it emotionally. I just assumed that the "gospel" I heard growing up was the real gospel. It was not. But I didn't ever really enter into it emotionally. I never thought I was saved. I always knew I was not right with God. But I didn't like the deal with God that the SDAs offered. It just didn't smell right.

After I graduated from college, I went off to Berkeley, still pretty much dead to God and trying to figure out if I even believed there was a God. It was a pretty confusing time for me. I kept on going to the local SDA church in Berkeley, which was one of the deadest places on the planet. But there were a few students going there, and one of them convinced a few of us to go down to Monterey one weekend to a "Gospel Congress." I went because... I was the only one of us with a car. Dumb reason, but that's why.

Heard the gospel the first night. The real gospel, not the phony one I'd been raised on all my life. Liked what I heard. Renegotiated my contract with God. Got saved. Went home a very changed guy.

It was really that simple.

GS: Did literature ("Christian" or not) have any part in bringing you to Christ?

Sort of. It helped preserve me when I wasn't buying into the legalism thing. My sophomore year in college, I picked up a copy of The Lord of the Rings one Friday night just before I was supposed to head down for the required chapel service. Got hooked. Skipped chapel. Spent the whole weekend reading, and the next, and the next. And I smelled something in those books that captivated me. Something numinous. At the time, I didn't know Tolkien was a Christian. I just knew that the story was True, and that there had to be something beyond rank materialism.

Fast-forward a couple of years to my senior year in college, and I was taking the dreaded Great Books class. I had to read The Chosen, by Chaim Potok. Great book. It got me interested in Jewish stuff, an interest that's never left me. In grad school, I got a bunch more of Potok's books and read them and they helped broaden me a bit and also keep me thinking about faith and law and all that. I would say they helped prime me for the gospel.

AT: Boxers or briefs? (If it's thong I don't wanna know...) :-D

According to George Will, the Decline of Western Civilization As We Know It began when Bill Clinton answered that question on national TV. Since I'd like to reverse that decline, I'll, um, decline to answer. :)

DT: How did you first learn that you were up for a Christy? Does the publisher let you know? Did you go to the ceremony? What did it mean to you personally to get that recognition?

I heard about my nomination for Transgression more than a week before it was officially announced. An editor I know, who shall remain nameless, sent me an email in April of 2001 letting me know that he'd seen the list and I was one of the three finalists in the Futuristic category. Then I saw that I was up against Jerry Jenkins/Tim LaHaye (for The Mark) and Bill Myers (for Eli.)

I was shocked out of my gourd. Jerry Jenkins is a superstar in publishing. (I know many people criticize the Left Behind series, but hey, they've sold a zillion copies. They are hitting a nerve that I wish I could hit.) Furthermore, Bill Myers has been one of my favorite writers for a long time. I loved his Blood of Heaven series, and had recently read Eli and really liked that one too. So I just assumed I had no chance to win. The horrible thing was that for more than a week, I couldn't tell anyone about my nomination, because it "wasn't official yet." I didn't even tell John Olson, who I was collaborating with on Oxygen at the time.

Finally, word came out through official channels. Normally, the publisher tells you, but in my case, I told them. Anyway, nobody thought I had a chance to win, not even my editors, but I decided to go to the awards ceremony anyway. It was just before the CBA conference in July, 2001, and Oxygen had just come out, so Bethany House wanted me to do a booksigning. So I went to the awards banquet and got there an hour and a half late because there was a horrible traffic accident that blocked traffic for hours. Then when I got to the banquet, almost nobody even knew who I was except a few editors and a couple of writer friends. When I won, I really couldn't believe it. And neither could anybody else.

What did it mean to me? Well, for starters, it meant that I was legit, all of a sudden. Transgression really hadn't sold all that well. Too weird of a premise, maybe. Or maybe it was the marketing or the cover or Bill Clinton or whatever. Anyway, despite unimpressive sales, after I won the Christy, everybody in Christian publishing knew who I was. I was the nobody who edged out the Big Guys. And then suddenly a lot of editors wanted my proposals. It is no coincidence that in the six months after winning the Christy, I sold contracts for five different books, including three sequels to Transgression.

Winning a Christy for Oxygen in 2002 was pretty much the same thing, only more so. We didn't expect to win, so it was just a huge thrill to hear them call our names. And then I was really on the map, because at the time there were only two writers who had more than one Christy. One of them was T. Davis Bunn, who's a superstar. The other one was me, with my puny little lifetime sales. The bottom line is that those awards have turned a Nobody into a Somebody. I'm grateful.

DJB: One of the things I admire about your work is how you make the scientific aspects seem so natural and plausible. (And the dreaded "expository lump" seems not to be so noticeable.) How much does research play in your writing, and how much is just plain revising until you get the language right? How much is science, and how much is art?

There are four aspects to writing:

  1. Storyworld
  2. Characters
  3. Plot
  4. Theme

These build on each other in a natural progression. You do the Storyworld first, then populate it with Characters, whose interactions give you the Plot. Somewhere after it's done, you notice that there is a Theme to it all.

I tend to do a lot of research for my books, and it's critical in getting the Storyworld right (and to a lesser extent, the Characters and Plot.) I have about 100 books on my shelf about the first century, the history of Christianity and Judaism, cultural anthropology, theology, Hebrew, etc. I've been studying these for about 20 years. All that is background, it's grist for the story.

However, once you get the Storyworld down, research really needs to take a back seat. I hate books that seem designed to prove that The Author Did Lotsa Research. Big deal. As a reader, I want Story. The research had better be right, but it's just the backdrop, that's all. My rule is to do 100 times as much research as I need for the book, and then to put in only 1% of what I know. (Some will claim that I put in too many details into my books. Maybe so. Believe me, I held back.)

I'll note that John Olson and I did a lot of research for Oxygen and The Fifth Man. We went to a couple of Mars Society conferences. Met Robert Zubrin. Had to elbow James Cameron out of the way when he horned in on our interview with a doctor about the physiology of zero-g. We went to Houston and visited NASA and met the astronaut Shannon Lucid and read a bunch of books. I always feel like I haven't done enough research, but eventually you have to start writing.

DJB: Which SF writers (Christian or non) have most influenced you in life or in your writing?

I don't actually read that much SF. Shocking but true. I read thrillers and historical novels mostly. Before we wrote Oxygen, I read all the recent Mars novels I could find. And I've read some of the classics, like Ender's Game and Dune. But I'm more a technothriller kind of guy. I am more interested in the human aspects of the story than the science.

DJB: Which scientific publications do you use for research?

None. Zippo. Nada. If I need to do science research, I buy a bunch of books and read them. The real science rags, like Nature and Science and Nuclear Physics B, etc. just don't have enough useful information for a novelist. I do read Scientific American, but again, it's very hit or miss on info for the book I'm writing Right Now. So I hit the books and the web for info.

I have a book on quantum computing that I'm working on. For that one, I bought a few books on quantum computing. It helps to have a Ph.D. in physics, because that enables me to read pretty much any graduate level textbook in physics, even if it's not in my field, and understand what it's all about. Generally, you don't need to understand anything better than that (unless you're writing a technical paper on the subject). For a novel, even that is probably overkill.

DJB: Assuming you have time to read for pleasure, what do you read? The last book you read was...

Wish I had more time to read. This year, some of the notable books I've read were: The Da Vinci Code, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Speed of Dark, The Church Ladies, Blink, THR3E, Capture the Wind for Me.

I also have some notable ones on my shelf waiting to be read: Life of Pi, The Passion of Artemisia.

I've read a bunch more than these, but those were some of the best.

DJB: Who are some of your favorite Christian writers (outside SF)?

Bill Myers, Brandilyn Collins, Lisa Samson, James Scott Bell, John Olson, Ted Dekker, and a bunch more. Of course Lewis and Tolkien, but those are obvious.

DJB: How important is good characterization and how do you start to shape a character? Has a character ever just "shown up" on your doorstep and said: "Hi! I'm here! Deal with me."

Once I've got the Storyworld, the Characters are the fundamentals. It's an iterative process. I'll compost a bunch of ideas and the characters will start to come into focus for me. I'll have imaginary conversations with them. I write up character charts for them, detailing all the boring stuff about hair color and date of birth and all that, but it's mainly so I can stay consistent. I care more about how they think and talk. When I start hearing their voices in my head, then I know it's time to start writing. They tend to evolve through the first draft. About halfway through, they usually reach their full potential and I start believing they're real. I do have walk-on characters who take on a bigger role than I intended. Cathe Willison, who was a bit-player in Oxygen, was a walk-on. I wanted a different kind of engineer, and she showed up and did well. John and I rewarded her with a lot more air-time in The Fifth Man. I've had a lot of characters do that. I'll need a nobody to play a small part, some quirky character shows up, and I fall in love with them and end up giving them more to do than I had intended. Fiction isn't a science. Some of it just happens. The trick is to go back and rethread the story so it looks like you intended it.

DJB: When you write about historical figures (such as Paul) how much dramatic license do you take?

Paul is risky, since everybody has their own idea of what he was like. In Transgression, I just gave him a cameo role. Even so, he was a bit different than the guy most people hear about in Sunday School. I didn't hear any complaints, so I expanded on him a bit in my latest, Premonition. I've heard a few complaints that "Paul wasn't as Jewish as you claim", but I've got the texts to back up that he was, so I don't worry too much about that. Maybe I've just been hanging out with the Messianic Jews too much, but after you've sat through a few hundred Hebrew liturgical services, you start hearing the Hebrew rhythms in the New Testament text, even though it's gone through Greek and English and has been interpreted by Gentiles for 1900 years. I would recommend to anyone The Jewish New Testament, which is a translation of the New Testament by David Stern, a Messianic Jewish scholar, in which he uses many common Jewish words (Hebrew or Yiddish) to translate the New Testament. It's just stunning how Jewish the book is.

In Premonition, I expanded a lot on a character most people could care less about, James, the brother of Jesus. Trouble is, most people just blow him off as some sort of irritating but unimportant legalist. I don't see it that way. After a few zillion years with the Messianic Jews and after reading the scholars, I decided that James was both a cool guy and an important guy. But in order to make that come through, I had to use his Hebrew name, Yaakov. That let me immediately break the preconceptions that go along with "James" and it let me write him my way. Which I think is not too far from the truth.

Most of my other real historical characters are difficult to get a handle on historically, since there just isn't that much data for most of them, so it's OK to take more license. With one exception. The historian Josephus is a huge historical figure. We have hundreds of thousands of words that he wrote – even more than Paul. And yet there are some mysteries about him. We know little about his early life, and what we do know may well be a smokescreen. Did he really grow up in a Pharisee family, as he claims, or is he lying? There are several different takes on him, and different scholars give completely different pictures of him. I have tried to bring Josephus to life in Premonition and its forthcoming sequels, but I'm sure some people will disagree with my interpretation. He's not consistent in his own writings, and so it's just not possible to nail him down.

The bottom line is that the novelist has to do some creation for just about any historical figure. My rule is that I will choose a plausible interpretation based on the subset of facts that I believe, and I'll be consistent in that interpretation. But I promise you that there is some "fact" from some historical record somewhere that is out of line with each one of my historical characters. I'm sure some of my readers will come across these "facts" and will be sure they've caught me in a mistake. Truth is, it's impossible for all the "facts" from the historical record to be true.

GS: What prompted you to write your first book?

My first book was nonfiction: Who Wrote the Bible Code? I started working on it a few months after Michael Drosnin's abomination, The Bible Code, came out in 1997. My motivation was to decide for myself whether the Bible code was real, and the best way to do that was to write a book on it. So I did. The answer: there is no reason to believe in the alleged Bible code.

As for my first novel, which came out just a few months after my first book, I had been working on various attempts at novels for about ten years, all historical thrillers set in the first century. After reading Diana Gabaldon's killer time-travel novel Outlander, I decided it might help my chances to try a time-travel novel, since I'm a physicist, and the publishers might be more impressed with my Ph.D. in physics than my non-existent degrees in history. I had always liked The Day of the Jackal, by Freddie Forsyth, so when I came up with the premise for Transgression – a physicist goes back in time to kill the apostle Paul – I thought it looked like a winner. It's worked out pretty well.

GS: What made you decide on the publisher?

When you are just breaking in, it's more a question of which publisher will take you. I went to a writer's conference here in San Diego and met a guy named Chip MacGregor, who was then a new editor at Harvest House. He read five pages and asked me to send a proposal. I did. A year later, he called me to ask for the whole manuscript. In all that time, nobody else expressed interest, so I sent it to him with little hope. Six months later, he called to make me an offer. This was in the spring of 1999, and I'd been writing for eleven years, so I jumped at it.

A postscript: The editor soon thereafter left Harvest House to become an agent. He's now my agent and one of the movers and shakers in the CBA and a great guy. When Transgression went out of print at Harvest House, Chip sold the rights to Zondervan, making him one of the few people to ever buy and sell the same manuscript.

GS: What will be the next book to hit the stands?

I am just now polishing up the sequel to my recent book Premonition. (One reason I'm slow answering questions this week.) I've now been through about three titles, and Zondervan has approved my latest suggestion, so it's now official – the title will be Retribution. It covers the crucial last four years before the Jewish revolt in the year A.D. 66. This was a critical time in the history of the early church, and I tried to bring together everything we know from Josephus, the New Testament, the Mishnah, etc. into a coherent story. Retribution will be out next summer, probably July or August, but I need to check with Zondervan on exact dates.

GS: When Transgression is re-released, will you revise it (Transgression 2.0?) or will it essentially be the same?

I have already done some low-level revisions (fixed typos, changed some of Harvest House's edits back "my way", and fixed a couple of factual errors.) If Zondervan lets me do more revisions than that, I'd be happy to do it, but it's the publisher's call. They're the one investing the big bucks.

GS: What is your writing strategy? Are you one of those who go through multiple drafts, each increasingly filled-in, from plot outline to completed story, or one of those who just let the story unfold as it will, never knowing the ending until you actually write it? Do you "hear" the story, or "see" it, or work it out yourself?

I have a long writeup on my development process on my web site at: www.rsingermanson.com/html/the_snowflake.html

This is my infamous Snowflake process, and it's the most-downloaded page on my entire site. I do a lot of what I call "composting" first, just thinking about the story and maybe putting ideas at random down in a tablet of paper reserved for the book. At some point, I'm ready to actually write, and that's when I work through the ten steps of the Snowflake. The Snowflake helps me analyze my composted ideas and give them some structure. I then use it to produce a set of design documents, which I like to think of as the first five or six drafts of the book. Each step add progressively more structure to the story, and I'm free to go back at any time and fix earlier steps as the story gets clearer in my mind. When I'm done, the first draft is ready to write, and it usually flies off my fingers. I keep revising my design documents as I write the first draft, and then I update them again during the revision process.

A few comments on the snowflake:

  1. The process is a middle road between those who write by the seat of the pants and those who write an outline. I hate outlines. I don't think I could write by the seat of the pants. The Snowflake is a flexible compromise that works for me and a number of other writers.
  2. Based on the huge positive response I've gotten, I am talking with my agent about doing a book on the Snowflake. For the moment, the whole thing is spelled out on my web site, along with several other articles on writing.
  3. Not everybody loves the Snowflake, so if you are a writer, your mileage may vary. There is no paint-by-numbers method that will work for everyone. The Snowflake is just an organizing tool, and those who don't need it know who they are.

Now I'll answer the rest of Greg's question: I usually know approximately how the story will end, but I leave the details to be worked out while writing. This is why the Snowflake works for me – I like to know the big picture in advance and sort out the little picture in process. I will often visualize scenes in my head, but since I am a character-oriented writer, I depend on "hearing" the characters' voices. It sometimes takes a few chapters to start hearing them, but once those voices are locked in, the details of the story tend to write themselves.

GS: What is your writing method? Do you lock yourself away from distractions, or scribble on napkins whenever inspiration strikes? Do you surround yourself with things to put you in the right frame of mind to be in your fantasy world, or is it all in your head?

I have an infinite supply of distractions, and there's no escaping them. I have a day job, which I go to five days per week, though not a full 8 hour day. I have an hour or two in the morning to write or do marketing stuff. I have two or three hours in the evening to do the same.

When I'm on deadline, I get very focused and put in my four hours per day. It takes about an hour to write 1000 words, which is my average scene length, so if I have an hour, I write a scene. I don't write on napkins. It all happens at the computer, with my headphones on and the music turned up loud enough to wipe out the ambient noise. My "office" is a corner of the family room, and it's noisy. But if I can get into the storyline, then I forget the distractions.

When I'm off deadline, then not much happens. There is always marketing to be done, email to distract me, books to read, etc. So when I finish a book, I take a month and just get caught up on life. Then another deadline strikes and it's back to work. I think every writer is different and needs to work their own way. My way is to wait for a horrible deadline to strike terror into my heart, and then work like the devil to get it done.

JPA: It would also be terrific to know if your astronauts are going to get home from Mars... we need a third book here – is it going to happen?

Not anytime soon. John Olson has a two-book deal with Bethany House for some solo novels. The first of these, Adrenaline, just came out. I have my historical-thriller novels with Zondervan that I'm working through, plus a contemporary-science-thriller with Bethany House. So both of us have a full pipeline right now. Our own view is that the boys and girls are on a nice safe ship, heading home to earth, and what could possibly go wrong that hasn't already? We don't want to repeat ourselves with the same old disasters. So in our view, the story is done and they'll get home safely. However, a lot of people seem to have your view and think there should be a third book. We'll consider it if inspiration strikes and we come up with something new, but we don't want a repeat of Oxygen. There are only so many things that can go wrong on a mission. Apollo 13 hit most of those. They had a different flavor in Oxygen because of the length of the mission and because of the different mission architecture. If we want to be original for a third book, we'll need a new angle. (We are open to suggestions here.)

JPA: Any chance that Oxygen and The Fifth Man might get picked up by a mainstream publisher?

We would probably need to demonstrate really strong sales in the CBA market for that to happen. That's just the way the world works, unfortunately. At the moment, our sales are "pretty decent for an SF novel in the CBA." Which is to say, not very good. I would guess that just about every non-SF/F book Bethany House publishes has done better. Let's face it, the CBA is still dominated by a particular profile of buyer, and that profile doesn't have SF on its radar screen. Things are slowly changing, but it may take a few more years before sales pick up.

Of course, things might change. President Bush is expected to make an important space announcement on Dec. 17. If that involves a Mars mission, we might see a surge in sales, and then who knows what could happen. John and I are working on some new marketing ideas, but we are also pressing forward on our other books. If either of us hits a best-seller, then our whole backlist would get a big boost, and then we might see some action on Oxygen and The Fifth Man.

GS: You talk about some of the access you got while you were researching Oxygen and The Fifth Man. How on Earth do you arrange access like that? Can you seriously walk up to NASA and say, "Hey, I'm writing a book, let me in"?

That would work. That's not what we did, but it would work. The big break for us was that I had a fan, Holly, who had connections at NASA. She had a degree in aerospace engineering and used to work at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Her husband is an engineer there. She goes to the same church as Shannon Lucid, the astronaut who held the American record for most time in space until pretty recently.

Anyway, Holly wrote to me in March of 2000, right when John and I were starting work on Oxygen, and asked if I needed a proofreader for my next book. All I knew was that she lived in Houston, so I asked if she knew anyone who worked at NASA. Boy did she! After she told me who all she knew, she invited me and John to come visit Houston during the next Open House, which was at the end of August 2000. The Open House is huge – I think they had about 60,000 visitors the year we went. Holly and her husband took us around to various exhibits and helped us initiate conversations with various engineers. Not that we needed much help. I went with about 25 pages of questions, and whenever I found an engineer who looked like he could help us, I just told him we were a physicist and biochemist working on a Mars novel, and asked could he answer a few questions? Like what is the energy budget for scrubbing CO2 out of air? And what do you use to make an explosion in space? And if you needed to break into a space capsule, what tools would you need and how would you go about it? The answers to all these questions went into Oxygen.

One of the engineers we met pointed out a guy named John Connolly and told us he was one of the world's leading experts on Mars. So I went and started talking to him, told him what we were doing, and he volunteered to read the book for technical accuracy. We took him up on it, and he was very helpful in catching some detail errors, which we corrected. And of course, Holly also read the manuscript and was a constant source of answers to questions. She also finagled us a long Sunday afternoon conversation with Shannon Lucid and her husband Mike. Our main goal was to just listen to Shannon talk, because we wanted to learn to "think astronaut." Shannon agreed to read the manuscript for accuracy also. We were hoping to get some endorsements out of the NASA people, but there are rules against that, so they couldn't.

GS: Do you really think that the "Mars Direct" mission profile is a smart idea, or did you just choose it as likely given Congress' propensity for gutting NASA projects while they're in progress?

Actually, we chose the Mars Semi-direct mission and made some slight modifications after reading the Caltech Mars Society proposal and NASA's own documents on their mission architecture. But Robert Zubrin's basic idea, which goes into both Mars Direct and Mars Semi-direct, is to use the Martian atmosphere to make fuel. And it's brilliant. It's far superior to the NASA 1990 proposal to spend $400 billion to go to Mars. Zubrin claims you can go to Mars for $30 billion, which is a little low, but not by more than a factor of 2. We could step on Mars ten years after we decide to go, and it would probably cost $50 billion, total. The NASA budget is around $13 billion per year, and for that money, we send up people to go around in circles.

The key thing is to get there quickly, before the administration changes too many times. Kennedy set us on the road to Mars. Johnson kept it up because it was good PR for the Cold War. Nixon gutted the program. There were about ten good years. My hunch is that the US has a shorter attention span now, and Congress would try to cheap out after a few years. Hence the storyline of Oxygen.

GS: I never went past Physics 12, so my "suspension of disbelief" threshold is fairly low when it comes to the technical stuff (although I have had authors complain otherwise.) I didn't notice anything amiss with your wormhole mechanism in Transgression (well, except that I seem to recall that real wormholes are supposed to have pretty intense tidal forces.) Nevertheless, I've read some snide comments in the reviews on Amazon.com about your physics there. Is that one of the things you'd change if you could? (And would I even notice the changes?)

I honestly don't know what you're talking about, so let me just blip on over to Amazon to check out the snideness...

OK, I just read all 27 reviews and I still don't know what you're talking about. Most of the readers loved it. I notice that Amazon has turned my own Author Comments contribution into a zero-star review, which is dragging my average way down. There were a couple of folks who didn't care for the plotting. And there was one guy who didn't understand how you could have modern clothes and guns and bullets in the first century. Guess he didn't get that it's a time travel novel.

I got most of the time travel ideas from books which I quoted as epigrams – Kip Thorne's book and Michio Kaku's book. Both guys are well known and very respected theorists. Thorne actually brought wormholes back into favor in the late 80s, after talking with Carl Sagan about how you might do space travel across the universe. Thorne gave him an idea and then realized it would work for time travel too. The only real problem with wormholes is that they are quantum mechanically unstable, but big deal. It's fiction. Both Kaku and Thorne have pictures in their books of wormholes with people going through them, so they don't seem too concerned with tidal forces. I wouldn't change a thing in the physics.

GS: Which books from your Mars research would you recommend to writers working on interplanetary travel stories?

Bob Zubrin's book The Case for Mars for sure. It covers the fundamentals of why you would want to go and you how you would get there and what you would do while there.

Bryan Burrough's book Dragonfly is also really good. It covers the Mir space station and how it nearly turned into a disaster. It was interesting to see how different astronauts reacted to the environment. Shannon Lucid loved it. Some of the others hated it and couldn't seem to get anything done. We used some of that in The Fifth Man.

Among Mars novels, the series Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson is unparalleled. Great research. Robinson is a bit arrogant about religion, and the storyline is pretty depressing. I couldn't get past Red Mars, myself.

The novels Mars Crossing by Geoff Landis, and The Martian Race, by Greg Benford had some interesting ideas, but I didn't care for the writing that much. I read several other Mars novels which I enjoyed even less, so maybe I'll not give their titles.

It's also a good idea to understand the history of NASA and space travel in general. I liked The Right Stuff best of the several books I read on that.

Finally, a great textbook is Human Spaceflight: Mission Analysis and Design, which is hard to read, but when you need facts, that's the book to go to.

GS: Which books from your "-ion" research would you recommend to writers working on time travel stories?

In my opinion, spending a lot of time researching the physics of time travel is a mistake. Backwards time travel may very well be impossible. I read a few books on the subject, but in the end, just boiled it all down to a few paragraphs. The point of a time-travel novel is to inject a modern viewpoint character into some historical time period so you can experience the culture shock first hand. So your research time is better spent on books on the history, theology, culture, etc. of the time period you're visiting. I probably went overboard on my ion books. In Premonition, because I knew there would some serious questions raised about some of my facts, I included a bibliography with a couple of dozen of my favorite books, but my bookshelf is a lot wider than that. The danger in doing a lot of research is that it's tempting to worm in all these neat facts that nobody cares about – "see how much research I did." I have tried to avoid that, unless the storyline required it. For example, there really was a solar eclipse on the date given in Premonition, and it really was 91% visible in Jerusalem. I have been through two solar eclipses with that level of coverage, so I worked in what that was like, but I did that because it had an impact on the storyline.

DJB: Are you familiar with Stephen Barr's Modern Physics and Ancient Faith? I read that one recently and it's terrific. Part of it anyway; I had to return it to Interlibrary Loan (with 3-4 chapters and appendices unread – they don't allow renewals, sniff.) Great "science intersects with faith" book.

I have it on my shelf waiting to be read. It looks great. I think it was Bill Bader who recommended it to me, so I snarfed it from Amazon, but . . . those dratted deadlines have kept me busy on my next book, Retribution, which is the final, official title to the sequel to Premonition. (For a while, it seemed like that book had a different title every month.)

DJB: How much of the story do you "see" as you write? Do you have any particular images that "haunt" you? (i.e. Martian landscapes, the look of the ship, any particular scenes in the Holy Land, the way things looked when the accident happened in Transgression?)

For me, it's not so much seeing things as feeling things. I try to get inside my characters' skins. Kind of like method actors. I'm basically a character-oriented writer. If I can be my character, then I can write the story. I do visualize some scenes pretty carefully, especially things like fight scenes. I'm always asking if this or that fight scene could actually happen, since a lot of fights I read are just physically impossible. I had a strong visual image of the trek across Mars to get the rover in the post-landing scene in Oxygen. Of course, I had a great book by the Pathfinder people with a ton of images of Martian landscape, so that helped a lot.

DJB: Since you enjoy techno-thrillers, do you think you might write one (a la Joel Rosenburg's The Last Jihad or his sequel The Last Days, say, rather then the LaHaye-Jenkins eschatological books?)

Well, I haven't read either of Rosenburg's books, so I don't know. I can pretty much guarantee I won't write an eschatological novel anytime soon. I think my misspent youth in an apocalyptic cult/sect/denomination/whatever has left a bad taste for eschatology. I think the Second Coming is a clear New Testament teaching. It's just that the details seem pretty murky to me, and I'm skeptical of all the folks who seem so sure about exactly How Things Will Work Out. Especially since they all seem to contradict each other, but who knows, maybe they're all a hundred percent correct anyway. Oops, sarcasm starting to leak out of my fingers. Red alert!

All right, gotta run. Retribution was due to my editor yesterday, but it ain't done yet, and I need to wrap that up, or I'll be getting a dose of retribution myself.

SM: If there's anything I want to say to Randy, it's to thank him for posting the proposal for Oxygen at his website, which I pored over when building the proposal to mine this past summer. It was invaluable, and I received many kind and encouraging comments about my efforts.

You're welcome! Glad I could help. I will note that John Olson and I prepared the way for that proposal in March of 1999 by verbally pitching it to Steve Laube, then an editor at Bethany House. Actually, John pitched and I sat there nodding wisely. John's better at pitching than I am, but I do a mean head nod.

Anyway, Steve told us that Kathy Tyers had set the bar pretty high, and we'd need to give him a strong proposal. So we spent 8 or 9 months writing the proposal. We read a ton of books over that summer and went to the Mars Society Conference in Boulder that August. We invested a lot of time and money in that proposal and finally sent it in just before Christmas. By the end of January, Bethany House made us an offer. Steve told us it was just a killer proposal and it sailed through the committee with no problems. We included the first three chapters of the book with our proposal, and those are pretty close to the final published chapters.

Last year at Mount Hermon, Steve taught a course in nonfiction, but when he gave the lecture on how to write a proposal, he showed the Oxygen proposal. For any writers out there, you can check out a PDF of the proposal at: www.rsingermanson.com/assets/pdf/O2Proposal.pdf

I will also note that I have several useful pages on writing and how-to-get-published at www.rsingermanson.com/html/on_writing.html


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