Douglas A. Van Belle is an award winning New Zealand science fiction and fantasy writer who is known for bringing his extensive academic research background into his work. From flash fiction to feature films, his eclectic work mixes drama, humor, science, and speculation on the human universe to produce unpredictable stories. I am pleased to be able to interview him here on No Wasted Ink.
When and why did you begin writing?
The flippant answer is: Very young and because I could.
There’s actually a lot of truth to that, but a more serious answer is that I was a voracious reader from well before I even started school and writing always seemed to be part and parcel of being a reader. There is one moment that stands out in my memory. When I was about six or seven, I saw someone’s Hugo statue on display at the local public library, and I became just a tad obsessed with winning one. The librarian (who is a story in and of himself) told me that I had to read, read, read, read first, so I read every bit of science fiction and fantasy that I could get my hands on, including a lot that was absolutely inappropriate for my age, and not too long after that, I started writing. I enjoyed the writing even more than the reading, and over the years I have kept writing simply and solely because it was something I enjoyed.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
Always and not quite yet.
To be honest, there wasn’t really a first moment. I could point to key events along the way to the big book contract that includes my latest novel, Breathe. I published my first article in the local paper when I was a teenager, wrote a commissioned piece not long after that, my first research article came out when I was in my early 20’s, followed a few years later by my first book. My first serious attempt at fiction was a novella that was published in 2006, my first novel came out in 2010, and I sol my first feature film in 2013, but the truth is that I have always been a writer.
I also don’t really think that I am a writer and I kind of hope that I never do. I still spend several hours a week working on odd little writing exercises, and experimenting with style, form and other aspects of the craft. I don’t really need to do any of that anymore, but I also suspect that the moment you stop thinking you need to learn, refine and improve your craft, you lose something.
Can you share a little about your current book with us?
The premise of Breathe is that the catastrophic failure of the first base on Ganymede leaves nine people trapped in an emergency refuge that can only recycle enough air for four. As you might imagine, it doesn’t end well.
However, even with that setup, I can guarantee that the story goes places that you absolutely will not expect. No matter what you think you are seeing in the first third of the book, it will almost certainly turn out to be something different that it seems. That is particularly true in regards to the elements relating to gender and sex. One of the key story elements in the book regards the clash between intellect and the human animal, and some of the set up in the first third of the novel looks like stereotypical, old-school gender BS. The book is old-school hard science fiction, but not in that way. It’s a setup and I doubt if you will expect where it goes.
What inspired you to write this book?
Funny story there, but I never really imagined Breathe as a novel. It started when a TV producer in New Zealand asked me if I would adapt some of my short fiction for the screen and write some original short films for a Twilight Zone style show. Breathe started as one of those short films. As is usually the case, the TV show died a slow and gruesome death while “in development” but a short script for Breathe was so popular among everyone who helped try to get the show off the ground that I just couldn’t let it die.
The first attempt to turn it into a feature-length film was an absolute atrocity and the project was abandoned, but about six months after that, I started asking myself questions about how such a catastrophic failure of the base might occur. I wrote about a third of a feature film script, discovered the real story wasn’t what I thought it was. That process took about three years, but once I discovered the story, the novel itself only took a couple of months.
Do you have a specific writing style?
Yes and no, and this one isn’t a flippant answer. The former is the reason for the latter.
Treating writing as a verb, so that style refers to the way I approach the process of writing, then yes, I have a clear and defining style. I write primarily as an act of discovery. I grab a story idea, a character, setting, situation, or anything else that might serve as a starting point and just start writing. Breathe actually started with the producer saying he wanted a story in a single room of a space ship so he could reuse a set from one of the other stories in the TV series. I played with that a half dozen different ways until I had the husband, the jilted wife and the mistress trapped in that room, then I stopped and outlined the story that became Breathe.
I do the same with just about everything. Write until I discover the parts I need, then outline the story. It’s messy, and I throw a lot of what I write away, but I also end up with stories that go in directions I would have never imagined if I started with a plan or an outline.
Treating writing as a noun, so that style refers to the stylistic elements of the stories, novels, and films I write, then no, I don’t have a style and that is because of the way I write. The style of the story is one of the things I have to discover. As is the form, the narrative voice, details of the point of view and everything else.
How did you come up with the title of this book?
It was the working title for the short. I slapped on there just to identify it and keep track of the files and it turned out to be just too perfect to change.
Are experiences in this book based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
A lot of my academic research focuses on the human, social and political aspects of disasters, so I draw from that and I draw from the years I spent working in construction prior to becoming an academic. The base is a construction site and the combination of people reflect the collection of imperfect souls that would end up building a base out at the edge of human civilization.
What authors have most influenced your life? What about them do you find inspiring?
Pick a science fiction author, or to a lesser degree a fantasy author, and there is probably something they have written that influenced or inspired. I could toss out a few names, such as Larry Niven, James White, Or Ursula K. LeGuin, but given the eclectic combination of stories that emerge out of the way I write, it would be a bit disingenuous to single out one or even a handful.
If you had to choose, is there a writer would you consider a mentor? Why?
I wouldn’t. For most of my life I wrote fiction simply for the fun of it, and as a result I didn’t start engaging the social and professional side of the community of science fiction writers until fairly recently. By the time I started attending conventions and meeting fellow writers I already had two novels published and I was reasonably well established. I do get some wonderful advice and feedback from other authors. This is a tremendously generous profession, but it isn’t what most would consider mentoring
Who designed the cover of your book? Why did you select this illustrator?
Jeff Fennel, a friend out of California and probably one of the most underrated artists around. He does a lot of translucent paint on metal pieces and they are absolutely fabulous. I was talking about Breathe and he said he had a great idea for a cover. Turns out he had a dozen variations on a great idea and my publisher is using several of them as a way to help Jeff showcase his work.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Yeah, nothing that you write is precious. Every writer has to find a balance between discovering the story as they write and the structured, outlined and planned writing of a story. However, if you think that anything that you write is precious, you will never be able to find that balance. My rule of thumb is that I should throw away at least as many pages as I keep. You may end up keep more or less, but you MUST be throwing some away.
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Yeah, nothing that you write is precious. Every writer has to find a balance between discovering the story as they write and the structured, outlined and planned writing of a story. However, if you think that anything that you write is precious, you will never be able to find that balance.
Douglas A. Van Belle
Kapiti Coast, New Zealand