Paolo Bacigalupi On Writing a Life-Changing Book, and What Comes After

paoloIt’s the debut author’s dream, to write a book that springs out of nowhere and achieves the literary hat trick: killer reviews, an avalanche of awards, and (lest we forget) monstrous sales. That it happened to Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, a grim, dystopic environmental sci-fi novel, surprised no one more than its author, who assumed he’d written a book no one would like. Six years, hundreds of thousands of copies sold, and a Hugo and Nebula award later, he’s been proven wrong.

On the eve of the release of his long-awaited second adult novel, The Water Knife, Night Shade Books is reissuing The Windup Girl in a new edition featuring two related short stories and a slick new cover design. We got a chance to speak with Bacigalupi about how he almost didn’t write the book that changed his life, the strange experience of living out a dream come true, and how sometimes being proven right can be a bad thing.

How has your life changed since the release of The Windup Girl? Did you (or Night Shade Books) have any inkling it was going to hit like it did? When did it become clear it wasn’t just your ordinary buzzed-about debut?
Well, I’m now a full-time writer, so that’s a huge change! As far as Windup Girl becoming a hit—none of us expected that. Night Shade was just hoping not to lose their shirts, and I had grown up hearing from everyone that science fiction didn’t sell, so all of our expectations were very low.

It wasn’t until we sold out of the first printing in two months, and then went back for a second printing, and then a third… Around then, we started realizing that something special was happening. Then Time named it one of the top ten novels of the year. After that, it felt like we were on a very fast train, going someplace none of us understood, but boy, the ride was fun. By the time the book won the Hugo… I think was I so surprised and stunned that it took almost another year for me to process what had happened.

How did you conceive the novel? Was it born out of the shorts or vice versa? What idea or image sparked the story?
Originally, The Windup Girl started as a short story—a very gnarly, complicated short story set in Bangkok that didn’t work very well. At the time, I had given up on ever being published as a novelist (I’d written four novels that ended up trunked), so thought of myself only as a short story writer. I showed it to my friend Michelle Nijhuis, and she commented that the story was so packed with material and characters and plots that she likened it to a dwarf star. She said, “I think you’re working on a novel.” And I remember that I just recoiled. I couldn’t bear the idea of doing another novel and having it rejected like all my others. So instead, I started pulling threads out of the story. I wrote “The Calorie Man” to explore the calorie economy, and I wrote “Yellow Card Man,” about Tan Hock Seng’s back story. There was so much material there, I could have kept writing short stories for years. Of course, eventually, my ego recovered enough to try another shot at novels, and there that big gnarly story was, still waiting for me to finally deal with it.

Your novel kicked off a new wave of environmentally conscious sci-fi. In this case, did the stark message of the kind of future we might be facing come first, or the story, or were they indelibly intertwined? Did you set out to write an environmental dystopia?
I really wanted to write a story that felt relevant to me. I wanted to write about questions that I have about our future. How do we deal with technologies like genetic engineering? What does it mean to be able to alter the natural world for profit? What happens next? Where does that take us? It’s the same with questions about where we get our energy, and how we use it, along with things like climate change. I think there are a lot of question marks, and they’re worth exploring. The fact that story is set in a broken future highlights a lot of my concerns about our willy-nilly approach.

What surprised you most about reader reactions to the book?
That they bought the book! I’m still astounded about that. When I finished writing it, I was sure no one would like it at all. I remember when editors at the major New York publishing houses were rejecting it, I didn’t even feel hurt. I found myself just nodding and agreeing with them.

The title, and in fact, Emiko herself, are in many ways tangential to the main narrative. Why did you choose to frame the story with her experiences? What role does she play in your mind?
I think there are narratives going on all the time that we think of as tangential—up until they turn out to be deciding factors in our lives.  I’m particularly interested in black swan events: unprecedented surprises that destroy the conventional wisdom about how the world works. Emiko is another black swan: dismissed and disregarded—until she becomes a critical factor in everyone’s lives.

How much research went in to developing your future world, from what nations emerged from the environmental disaster to the technological developments of bio-engineered food and gene-hacked animals?
Just enough research for me to tell a story; not so much that I couldn’t.

Some have argued that, from a conservation-of-energy standpoint, elephant labor makes no sense. I argue, sometimes a cool image trumps logic, even in sci-fi. How do you feel? Did you worry about justifying your world to every nitpicking reader, or did you rely on our appetite for a bit of the old sense-of-wonder, even in a stark near-future tale?
I think a cool idea trumps logic especially in sci-fi. Sci-fi has interstellar spaceships, after all. If that ain’t ridiculous, I don’t know what is. More seriously, the entire Windup Girl universe was really focused on a single concept: calories as energy. I wanted to make that metaphor as real and claustrophobic as possible. I wasn’t interested in creating an extrapolated energy future per se; I wanted an extrapolated calorie and genetic-engineering future. So you’ve got megodonts and mulies and cheshires and SoyPRO and HiGro and AgriGen.

Tell me what it was like to see your debut novel go on to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards, as well as some of SF’s other highest honors.
Surreal. I distinctly remember winning the Nebula, and just feeling…good. Which is something that doesn’t happen very often for me.  For three days, I kept looking at the trophy and sort  of pinching myself, and laughing, because it was so astounding.

And then I went back to doubting my ability and worrying about the next book.

I think all writers hunger for recognition. But I think now—with the perspective of having won those awards—that the puzzle of winning and losing is pretty much the same one: you still have to come back to the page, and write something new—just as you have to come back to the page and do new work after all of your work has been rejected by everyone.

My past self would have thought that awards and recognition and sales would solve the problems of the page, but they don’t. You still come to the page, and sit down, and wonder where your ideas are coming from, and how you’re going to make them work, and you still have to find some way to tell a genuine story, and it turns out that’s really hard. Every time you sit down to write, it’s hard. So you’re grateful for the recognition and praise, but that’s almost already a past version of yourself. You can barely recognize you. You can’t recreate that thing, no matter how much you’d like to. You have to go on and make something new and hope that it’s cool, too.

Environmentalism has obviously continued to be a lynchpin in your writing, from your YA to the forthcoming book The Water Knife. Do you see yourself writing something wholly different one day, or will you continue to explore these ever-more-relevant issues?
Well, if I suddenly decide that I have a burning need to write the next Fifty Shades of Gray, I’ll totally do it.

To be honest, I don’t really think of myself as an environmental writer, I think of myself as being interested in our present world, and our present world is riddled with big questions. A lot of those questions have environmental layers, because it turns out that it’s sort of handy to have a functioning and stable ecosystem to sustain us, but the angles that stand out to me vary from book to book. Sometimes I’m more interested in politics, as in a book like The Drowned Cities, and sometimes it’s about public relations, as with The Doubt Factory. And now, yes, I’ve written The Water Knife, which is very much about water, drought, and our rapidly changing climate.

At root for me, there has to be a knotty question or an idea that needs exploring. That’s what gets me going enough to push through with a story. When there’s a big question, it gives me a certain impetus. Crafting a story is great, but I’ve found that I want to leave the reader with more than just a beginning and a middle and an end. I want a reader to come away looking at the world differently. When a reader is both entertained and intellectually stimulated, then I think I’m doing my job right.

With California drying up and blowing away and Brazil’s largest city suffering from a severe water shortage, you books seem less like SF with every passing year. What is it like to watch your fiction become fact?
With The Water Knife coming out in May, I feel like my fears about the future are catching up to me faster than I can write them. I sort of think that’s a bad thing, actually. I want to be wrong. I want to be wrong about all the things I fear. I’m worried that I might be right.

What are your feelings on The Windup Girl, 6 or 7 years on? Would you change anything about it?
I’m grateful for it. I don’t think I’d change a thing. It was as honest a book as I knew how to write, and I left a lot of my blood on those pages. I don’t think you can really cut and paste and unthread something and have it be better. You can’t change one thing, without affecting everything else.  I think in some ways, the reason people respond to it is because it’s a genuine book. Some parts of it may be unpleasant, or difficult, or weird, or wrong, but at root, it’s as genuine as I knew how to make it.  I think that matters.

The new edition of The Windup Girl releases on May 5. The Water Knife hits on May 26, and is also available from Barnes & Noble in an exclusive signed edition.

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