The End of Tao: Chatting with Wesley Chu

chuAs if from the head of Zeus, Wesley Chu sprung forth fully formed onto the genre scene in 2013 with the release of his debut novel The Lives of Tao, and it’s hard to believe it’s only been two years. He’s a convention mainstay, a non-stop tweeter, and he’s just released his third book, The Rebirths of Tao, the third and final chapter of the Tao story, with a fourth, Time Salvager, out this summer.

Somehow, he still found the time to answer a few questions about the Thunderdome path to publication; his shameful, farting trunk novel; and why you shouldn’t be an asshole.

When did you start writing stories? Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
I wrote my first story when I was seven years old. It was about the solar system and how all the planets used to run into each other and get into brawls. That was why they had craters all over them. Then King Sun got pissed off having to deal with their squabbling and put them all in their place with gravity.

My father, the English Professor, took a look at it and was like, “hmm…this doesn’t suck.” And if you know anything about traditional stern Asian parenting, if they say something doesn’t suck, you might be on to something. And that’s how my writing career started.

What book served as your entryway into the SF world?

My dad took me to the bookstore one day and told me he’d buy any book I wanted. Of course he tried to steer me toward Beowulf or Othello or something like that. And of course, I ran straight to the books with the pretty pictures. One of the books had a dude talking to a manticore and the other was an old man hunched over a glowing sword. Those two books were Pier Anthony’s A Spell for Chameleon and Lawrence Watt-Evan’s The Misenchanted Sword. If anyone is curious, I got up all the way up to Color of Her Panties before I quit the Xanth series [Editor’s note: Don’t blame Wes; that’s actually what the book is called.]

I didn’t really get into reading SF until my late twenties. Back then, like everyone else, I was waiting for Robert Jordan to finish The Wheel of Time when some young buck named John Scalzi came around and wrote a book called Old Man’s War. I’ve been hooked on SF ever since. I wonder what happened to John. That guy’s got talent. He has a bright future ahead of him.

You have an interesting publication story—can you talk a little bit about how The Lives of Tao came into being?

In March 2011, Angry Robot Books had an open submission for exactly one month. During those 31 days, 955 people submitted to the great metal overlords. It took AR a long time to whittle down the numbers as they promoted submissions up the chain. Finally, after four grueling rounds of manuscripts fighting each other to the death in cage matches (ok, that didn’t happen), they requested 65 full manuscripts at the editorial level. From those, 25 manuscripts made it to the acquisitions meeting.

In the end, five authors were offered contracts. I was one of those five. That is probably one of the more difficult ways to get published. The entire process took about a year and a half, and I remember very many long months of waiting and banging on my F5 key. I might have also developed a drinking habit during that time.

I like to call it the Thunderdome path to publication.

Are there pre-Tao novels in a trunk somewhere, scratching to get out an embarrass you in front of all of your cool new friends?
The Lives of Tao was my sophomore effort. My first attempt at a novel was this 180K monstrosity called Woes, Toads, and Crossroads. I kid you not. That was the title. And no I wasn’t on drugs. The book was a hot mess, and not in a good, sexy way. I made every mistake a first time author could make: it was too long, shallow, convoluted, and narcissistic. I even had fart jokes. Even now, I wear a cone of shame when I think back to it. It was textbook what not to do when writing a book.

It was also the most important piece of literature I’ve ever wrote. After the poor book was eventually trunked, I took a week to grieve, drank a lot of crappy wine, and began my next book, which eventually became The Lives of Tao.

When you want to ask someone how they succeeded at something, ask them about their mistakes. That’s usually the best way to learn.

Speaking of cool friends, you’ve become quite a visible presence in the SF community in just a few short years. What’s your secret? Is it bribery?
The short answer to this question is the same answer to many questions: don’t be an asshole. That applies to just about everything in the universe, except for maybe when leading a gaming guild. Sometimes, some assholess-ness in that situation is useful.

Look, when I’m at a con, I’m like a Labrador retriever: dumb and happy. I’m just chasing balls and having a great time. My very first convention and interaction with the SFF community was Worldcon 2012 in Chicago. Before that, I didn’t know they even existed.

For years, I was that creepy dude sitting in the corner of coffee shops, abusing the bottomless cup policies, toiling away at my manuscript. To discover that there were other people just like me, who loved the same things I did, blew my mind. And honestly, I’m just happy to be here. Not to sound cheesy (Can’t help it. I’m so cheesy!), but I think a good attitude is more than half the battle.

When you wrote The Lives of Tao, did you already have the sequels in mind, or was it a matter of “Yikes, they want to buy two books from me! Better come up with a sequel!”

I am not what you would call a man with foresight. I’m like that dumb noob in World of Warcraft that does all the quests one by one instead of grouping them together. I had one thing to plan at my wedding and I almost screwed it up. Okay, I did screw it up. Heck, I never used a calendar in my life until last year.

So the answer is no, I did not have a sequel laid out. I had some high-level direction that I wanted to take the series in, but the sum of all my ideas at the time could be written on a napkin. I remember signing that deal and thinking, “A’ight Wes, it took you three to five years (W.O.W. raiding intermission in-between) to write Lives. Now you are contractually obligated to be creative and write the sequel in a year. Let’s see if you have what it takes to be a career writer.”

I aged a lot that year. I think that was the time my acting agent moved me from the “young & hip ’20s” category to single parent roles.

Though you have another book in the pipeline, your Tao trilogy has ended (the right of passage for any genre writer: TRILOGY COMPLETION UNLOCKED). How does it feel to be leaving these characters behind? Would you ever return to this story in the future? OR THE PAST? (Because your next book has time travel, get it?)
Not gonna lie; letting go was rough. I didn’t expect to be sentimental; I’m not usually unless it involves ’80s cartoons. However, the night before The Rebirths of Tao’s release, I cracked open the book and read the epilogue. It was kind of my way of saying goodbye to Tao, Roen, and all the characters (that survived).

To be honest, I’m not much of a prequels guy. I think I explored enough of Roen and Tao’s journey. Next year, I’m releasing The Rise of Io, which is based in the same universe, but set a decade later. The new book will introduce a new awesome character named Ella Patel, a scrappy and competent con-woman living in a slum town. She will be inhabited by Io, a Quasing of breathtaking incompetence who has made many of the worst decisions in history.

What has been the most surreal part of your author’s journey thus far?

One of most surreal things about an author’s journey is when you begin to mingle with the authors of books you read as a kid. Last year, I ran into Raymond E Feist at San Diego Comic Con and we chatted about his Empire trilogy, which I frigging adored as a kid. It was one of the first SF/F books I’ve ever read that had an Asian setting.

At Loncon, I was put on the Wheel of Time panel and sat next Harriet McDougal, Robert Jordan’s widow and editor! I got to look her straight in the eye and demand she explain how she could allow Bela to die. (Sorry, minor spoiler–the horse dies).

This whole journey has been a trip. There’s still days where I just randomly break out into a stupid grin because I can’t believe I’m doing this, and you know what? It’s only the beginning. My two-year publication anniversary is coming up in May, and by the end of next year I’ll have six books out. How crazy is that?!

What part of becoming a published author were you unprepared for?
Before I paint too rosy of a picture, let’s bring things back down to Earth: being a writer is a damn tough job, and it doesn’t get easier. In most careers, people get more confident in their work with time and experience. That doesn’t seem to be the case with writing. It actually feels harder now than when I started off. Given, every book is different and poses different obstacles, but every book I’ve written feels like the hardest one I’ve ever written. There’s been so many damn nights where I go to bed dead sure that I’m a complete hack.

At first, I thought it was just me. Then one day I had lunch with the esteemed and awesome Kate Elliot (her new book Black Wolves is amazing), who is the author of something like 20 books. She tells me she sometimes still feels this way. Hell, so does Neil Gaiman. Bottom line, it never goes away.

What’s the last SF book that really knocked your socks off?

It’s not SF, but Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs is fantastic. I hate the jerk for being so talented, but it is a brilliant novel. Another book that will knock your socks off is Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings. I hate him too.

Actually they’re both super cool guys but, man, those two talents. Such wow.

If you could will any book into existence for the simple pleasure of reading it, what would it be? (The new Ice & Fire, an undiscovered Heinlein, one last Terry Pratchett, etc.)
I would give a kidney to read William Goldman’s unpublished sequel to The Princess Bride. And if it doesn’t exist and you’re reading this, Mr. Goldman, let me write it. Please! I’ll do you proud. Wait, let me take that back. I won’t be able to do it justice. I’m not worthy!

Did you just see that entire spectrum of emotions I just went through in about five seconds? That’s a life of a writer, folks!

What are you working on now?
I have the summer off. Huzzah. Actually, by summer off I mean I’m not writing a contracted book. I’m working on two novel ideas right now: The Recovered and A Pet Named Charles.

I can’t say much about either (it’s sooper sekrit!), but I got the idea for The Recovered after an overdose of ramen and the idea for A Pet Named Charles while summiting Kilimanjaro in February.

The complete Tao trilogy is available now.

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