Interview with Robert Maas

What started you writing science fiction?
I always loved science fiction. As a child, living in the English countryside, I had little access to bookshops and even libraries of any size. I bought my earliest novels from jumble sales. The first science fiction book I bought, maybe when I was eight or nine, was an old first issue paperback of the Michael Moorcock-edited anthology "The Traps Of Time", with the reaching hands on the cover. I hadn't even started on juvenile fiction and there I was wrestling with this thing. It's still the most mind-blowing anthology I've ever read. That was when the lightbulb switched on for me. Later I settled into more obvious golden age works, including Arthur C Clarke of course, who was born not far from where I was born. But the next time I had the same lightbulb moment with science fiction was when I was maybe twelve, and I found Edmund Cooper's "The Overman Culture" in a town library. It dropped the bottom out of my world. Cooper isn't much remembered now, and he wrote a lot of inferior work, but I'd argue "The Overman Culture" is still powerful and unique. It spoke directly to that paranoid solipsism everybody goes through as a kid. My only disappointment was the ending, when Cooper explained everything as part of a rational nuts-and-bolts reality. I hated that. For me, "The Overman Culture" would have been perfect if the last couple of chapters had simply been ripped out of the book. I've been trying to write "The Overman Culture" without its last couple of chapters ever since: that sense of unfocused menace and isolation that is never resolved, because it never is in real life.
Has living in Japan had any impact on your writing?
It's certainly colored my thinking, simply because my life is now that of an outsider in a country with a largely homogenous society. Unlike the US or England, where a constant interaction between cultures produces energy and creativity, Japan is overwhelmingly one race, one outlook on the world, one way of doing things. Indeed, it encourages this kind of uniformity. There is no way, no matter how proficient my Japanese becomes, or how hard I try to settle into Japanese norms of behaviour, or how integrated I feel, that I will ever be considered part of this country by the vast majority of people around me. That gives you a certain sense of alienness toward yourself. It puts you in a mental space conducive to writing a certain kind of science fiction, I think. Indeed, it feeds right back into that "Overman Culture" separateness. But after saying that, I could be anywhere. It's not Japan itself that provokes this feeling, it's myself.
So there's no specifically Japanese influence in your writing?
If you mean, am I inspired by manga and anime, by Akira and Asimo, then the answer is no. I'm not a fan of Japanese science fiction, and since I've been here a while, I don't feel the place to be exotic. It's no longer ahead of the curve when it comes to technology, and people here don't live in the future anymore. In other ways, you can't avoid the influence. For example, this country has a controversial history, as all long-lasting countries do. It went through the bullish colonial stage, just as Britain and America did. But here, there's an uncomfortable legacy that I needed to confront before fully giving myself up to my wife and family and home here. I get the feeling that for most Japanese, the door hasn't been shut on what happened: the door simply doesn't exist. I've confronted that invisible door obliquely in my novel "Biome", and more directly in my novella "A Thousand Years Of Nanking."
You wrote them purposefully to explore these feelings?
No, both were started a long time ago. "A Thousand Years Of Nanking" evolved out of part of my novel "The Music Of The Rending Of The Night", which I wrote in the early 1990s, before I'd first come to this country to visit. I planned out "Biome" in screenplay form in 1998. When it came to write the novel, it grew to epic length -- 240,000 words -- because that suited the story. I wrote it during my first few months living here, in 2008, when I was kicking around in my wife's apartment in Tokyo, immersed in my alienness, waiting to get my job transferred to the local office, and I needed to do something to occupy the time. So a lot of the things I was exploring came out in the writing, and they also suited the story. Indeed, they're a sort of hidden driver for much of what happens, and the conclusions my characters draw about their own species. After all, the novel itself purports to be an exploration of an alien habitat, but it's actually an exploration of our own. That's the "me" in "Biome."
Ten years is a long time between conception and writing.
Not really. At least, not the way I write, which I'm sure is the way many science fiction authors write. I've never been short of ideas -- I don't, thankfully, suffer from writer's block. Ideas pour out constantly. Generally they get filed away on the computer in a long list of ideas folders, and they sit there and they germinate. A year or two later I may stumble on something that fits with one of the ideas on file, and then I'll open the file and jot down the new notes. This will happen over and over for every file. Slowly the ideas turn into story concepts, and plots, and they're often worked into standard three-act screenplay format, since it's quick to read and amend, and gives you a strong sense of character development, momentum and structure. Even then, I have hundreds of them, hundreds of novels or stories I will never have time to write. So I might pick something that is ten years old to develop, or older still, simply because I've lived with it longest and the plot is well bedded and the characters have become familiar. The current ideas -- well, sometime in the future a few of them will accumulate themselves into future novels, too.
How do you find the time to write?
Writing is a luxury I work for, like a glass of wine. Writing is the reward to myself after everything else in the day has been done. It helps that Japanese TV is terrible, so I don't get that distraction. I write fast, but then I tend to write long novels. "Biome" took about four months to write. However, the actual writing is the easy part. It's the hours and hours of revision that I find taxing. First drafts have a liveliness that I'm scared of losing, but first drafts are riddled with mistakes and inconsistencies. When you're down to the point at which you're fretting that you used the same word twice on a page, then it's time to save the file and move on.
Is your science fiction hard or soft?
I greatly admire Stephen Baxter. I wish I could write with that surety. I do have a background in physics, but I also have a background in theology. It just means I'm sceptical about both of them. So if it suits the plot, I'm happy to seriously bend or simply ignore the laws of the universe as we currently understand them. In my novel "Residuum" I created a whole series of new particles and, with them, a whole new cosmology, simply because it got me around the speed of light barrier while creating an interesting set of problems for my characters. Who knows -- they may be something we simply haven't discovered yet. I also invented an annulus of solar debris at the heliopause, which we also haven't discovered yet. I don't feel constrained by the beliefs of my time. Of course, that doesn't mean I write fantasy. I mean, I've never written anything about time travel -- you have to ground your work in the plausible! As for soft science fiction, well, people are always at the heart of what I write.
Your writing can be fairly extreme in terms of body shock.
At times. "Residuum" is about a group of people whose genetic makeup has so deteriorated that we'd hardly recognize them as human anymore. "The Music Of The Rending Of The Night" is a love song to self-mutilation. One of the great things about science fiction is that it frequently goes out on these edges -- indeed it's done so ever since "Frankenstein" -- though it's rarely acknowledged as the true horror fiction it is, the dark mirror to our helter skelter technological world. Greg Bear's "Blood Music" is much more terrifying to me than any Stephen King paranormal or demonic thriller. But some of my other writing doesn't have that body shock at all. I haven't found a way to work it into my juvenile fiction, say, and I find the standard teenage tropes -- vampires and zombies -- to be laughable.
So the themes of your juvenile novels are different?
They come from the same pool of ideas, they're just handled differently. I feel that juvenile fiction, particularly juvenile science fiction, is in such a poor state that it almost demands that any writer capable of doing it puts something into that market. Young people have been let down all along the way, in particular by traditional publishers. Many of the works they should be reading -- among them "The Overman Culture" -- are out of print and buried in obscurity. Now they're being encouraged to read more of the same as whatever was the last success. Boy wizards in fashion? Game-playing dystopias? Right, give them twenty more of those. For me, writing juvenile fiction is fun. It's demanding in its discipline, but it's highly rewarding, and I hope it gets read. I have various secret agendas in my juvenile fiction, too: I have a young son growing up in Japan, so it's nice to connect him with my language, with my own childhood experience in England, and to offer a few life lessons, at least as I perceive them. The moral of "Receiver" is to think for yourself and come to your own conclusions about science and religion. Nobody else can tell you what to believe, and nobody has the right to limit your potential. "The Mael" warns you to distrust your elders. These are pretty good lessons, I think. When he's old enough to read them, I hope my son will take them to heart.
What do you have in preparation right now?
I have three novels half written, which may get completed within the next couple of years, and a handful of ideas I'm desperate to start work on -- both full-length novels and books for juvenile readers. If those take priority, the older stuff will get shoved back. I don't build worlds and write serials in them, or map out trilogy novels. Everything's purposefully standalone, as it forces you to keep creating interesting characters who don't necessarily need to survive to the last page. Writing is all about pushing yourself as much as pushing the figurative pen. If you stop doing that, you're just playing to the gods, writing for money, or writing to please your fans, and I don't want to be that predictable. Each of my three published novels is completely unlike the others, and takes you on a quite different journey. I don't see myself selling a huge number of books, and that's not the motivation: I do that in my day job. Outside of fiction, I'm working on three separate works of music journalism, which may or may not ever be completed, and a manual for companies that might want to do for themselves what I currently charge a lot of money to them for in my day job. The sheer joy and satisfaction of bringing ideas to life is the thing that keeps me going. I'm always furiously busy, and I hope that never changes.
Published 2013-09-01.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author, publisher or reader.

Books by This Author

The Billows
Price: $1.99 USD. Words: 62,860. Language: English. Published: June 30, 2014. Category: Fiction » Young adult or teen » Thriller and Suspense
A standalone thriller novel by the author of “Constant” and “Hiding Place”. At first Lankin is a mystery to Julia, one she’s determined to solve. Who is he, and why is he hauling her across the English countryside toward an unknown destination they never seem to reach? But then she realizes she’s looking in the wrong place. For the greater mystery is herself.
Forgotten Tomorrows
Price: $1.99 USD. Words: 82,070. Language: English. Published: June 23, 2014. Category: Fiction » Science fiction » Short stories
The first volume of short stories by the author of “Residuum” and “Biome”. From SF thrillers to dark fantasy, from a new creation myth to the disturbing instructions on how to use your new anti-abuse device – these are stories designed to amuse, horrify and anger you.
Tessellation Row
Price: $0.99 USD. Words: 28,600. Language: English. Published: April 14, 2014. Category: Fiction » Science fiction » General
Physicist Richard Marsh, discoverer of an entirely new type of subatomic particle, has been posted to the International Space Station to investigate the ramifications of his breakthrough. But no matter where he runs, his demons follow him—and only some of them are flesh and blood.
Hiding Place
Price: $0.99 USD. Words: 51,430. Language: English. Published: February 16, 2014. Category: Fiction » Horror » General
Six criminals hole up for the night in an abandoned subway station in Boston. As the hours pass, they begin to realize something else is down there with them – and the perfect crime is about to become the perfect nightmare.
Price: $1.99 USD. Words: 57,420. Language: English. Published: October 17, 2013. Category: Fiction » Young adult or teen » Sci-Fi & fantasy
Constant is a standalone science fiction novel for ages 9-14. A young girl struggles to create meaning and permanence in a world where everything—even her own death—is denied her. Guaranteed to contain no vampires, wizards, kids with psychic powers, or superheroes.
The Mael
Price: $0.99 USD. Words: 50,780. Language: English. Published: August 1, 2013. Category: Fiction » Young adult or teen » Sci-Fi & fantasy
The Mael is a standalone science fiction novel for ages 9-14. It doesn't contain vampires, wizards, kids with psychic powers, or superheroes. It does contain monstrous aliens, horrible torture, and acts of desperate heroism. This may be a dystopia, but they're certainly not playing games.
Price: $0.99 USD. Words: 51,040. Language: English. Published: August 1, 2013. Category: Fiction » Young adult or teen » Sci-Fi & fantasy
Receiver is a standalone science fiction novel for ages 9-14. It doesn’t take place in a game-playing dystopia, and it is guaranteed to contain no vampires, wizards, kids with psychic powers, or superheroes. Instead, it is a pure adrenalin-rush sense-of-wonder seat-clutching alien monster science fiction horror thriller.
Price: $2.99 USD. Words: 117,350. Language: English. Published: July 25, 2013. Category: Fiction » Science fiction » General
Residuum is a brutal science fiction novel about life on the edge. It is 400 years in the future. A crippled spacecraft hurtles toward the dust ring on the rim of the solar system. Its survivors are leaderless, dazed by their long journey, unable to make sensible decisions. They're almost out of air. They're spinning wildly. There's no response from Mars. And they don't expect rescue.
The Music Of The Rending Of The Night
Price: $2.99 USD. Words: 90,790. Language: English. Published: July 23, 2013. Category: Fiction » Literature » Transgressional
The Music Of The Rending Of The Night is a dark fantasy. An extreme horror novel. A spiraling into moral, spiritual and physical depravity. A headlong spin into nightmare with no possibility of awakening. A one-way journey to the bone room.
A Thousand Years Of Nanking
Price: $0.99 USD. Words: 28,430. Language: English. Published: July 23, 2013. Category: Fiction » Science fiction » General
Aaliyah knows where she is, what she is, and what she carries inside her. She's on the Kinzua, a multi-generation starship drifting through the long void on its 1,000 year journey to the stars. She's a woman of Nubia, the ship's long-abused manufacturing class. And she's carrying the gift of life.
Price: $2.99 USD. Words: 254,320. Language: English. Published: July 7, 2013. Category: Fiction » Science fiction » General
Biome is an original standalone science fiction novel of 240,000 words. Ruth Shannon knows all about inner demons. After the blunder that put her daughter in a coma, she's been searching for 12 years for a way to gain absolution. Now the military is offering her one last chance: to join a secret scientific mission to an alien habitat on Venus. But the biome has hidden demons of its own.