R.A. Nelson: The Winding Road to Sci-Fi and Fantasy


R. A. NELSON is the author of Teach Me, a Book Sense Kid Pick, Breathe My Name (“Incandescent”—Kirkus Reviews), and Days of Little Texas. He lives in north Alabama with his wife and four sons and works at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. His latest book, which came out in January 2011, is Throat. Nelson stopped by Suvdu to ask – and attempt to answer – the question, “Why do writers write about the things they write about?” Visit him on the Web at RANelsonBooks.com.

Hello, Unbound Worlds! It’s wonderful to be here, and thanks for the opportunity.

Okay. Why do writers write about the things they write about? This is a great mystery. I have an online writing friend who grew up dreaming of writing towering fantasy novels like LOTR or The Silmarillion. But whenever he sits down to write, what usually comes out are beautiful concise little novels that are almost like poems. Novels without much action, but tons of emotion. Grief. Healing. Here and there maybe a tiny bit of magic that we are not quite sure is real. Novels with very few characters where all the “action” tends to takes place in one small setting. So what gives? Where are the Orcs and Ogres and Trolls? The castles and rivers and quests?

I asked him about this once and he said, “When I start to write, this is just what seems to come out.” Which makes me wonder … do our lives “bend” us, shape us so much, that whatever we thought we would become when we were very young is forever altered in the molding? I don’t know. As for myself, I’m a “Young Adult” author, and I didn’t even know YA novels existed when I was 12 or 15 or 18. Maybe they didn’t. I was happily reading books like H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds at the age of ten. I wallowed in Verne, Heinlein, Asimov, Clark, and Bradbury. At some point in time I “graduated” to writers like Theodore Sturgeon, Frederik Pohl, and Cyril M. Kornbluth (ah, check out his brilliant story, The Marching Morons and tell me the movie “Idiocracy” doesn’t owe a huge debt of gratitude to Kornbluth).

And then we come to Philip K. Dick.

I adored Dick. Practically worshipped him in high school. You know Philip, I hope. The genius behind the books made into all those movies – some wonderful, some uneven – like “Minority Report,” “Blade Runner” (which Dick called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), “A Scanner Darkly,” “The Adjustment Bureau,” and more. I wrote TONS of “Dickian” short stories and pieces-of-novels growing up. I dreamed of the Nebulas and Hugos I would hoist and SF conventions I would attend where I could do stuff like shake hands with Harlan Ellison, as I loomed over him, a foot taller. I was pretty much SF to the core. So what happened?

I’m not quite sure. My first published book is called Teach Me, and it’s about a student having an affair with a teacher. My second is Breathe My Name, which is about a girl who survived a mother who killed the girl’s sisters with a pillow and wants to finish the job with my main character. And then there’s Days of Little Texas. Okay, so this is a scary story about a child preaching prodigy who is haunted by the ghost of a girl he tried to save by “laying on of hands.” So we’re getting a little closer, right? So does that mean as writers that we edge ever closer to our ideals from childhood, like mountaineers slowly gaining the confidence (in a writer’s case, the authority) to scale ever larger mountains?

Again, I don’t know. I do know that Teach Me, despite being a story of love and vengeance, is also crammed with scientific references to everything under the sun: quantum physics, deep sky astronomy, space travel, etc. And my most recent novel, Throat, comes even closer, edging over into the borderland between fantasy and SF. This book is about a girl with epilepsy who suffers a grand mal seizure while being attacked by a vampire. Thus when she is “turned,” she becomes something quite different from a conventional bloodsucker: kind of a half-human, half-vampire who is able to go abroad in the daylight without fear of the sun and doesn’t drink blood. So she’s basically superhuman, right? Great, except there’s one catch … the other vampires want to kill her for it.

And my other vampires are different as well: One faction worships the sun – yes, the very engine of their destruction. Because they also know that the sun is a healer. For every few hundred years there is a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) that floods the earth with electromagnetic particles that “reboot” the personal electromagnetic field of a vampire, giving them a new lease on human life. This book is full of real science and most of the action takes place on a NASA base called Marshall Space Flight Center, where my main character Emma takes refuge in a siege against her murderous vampire brethren.

So am I swimming ever closer to my early love of SF/Fantasy? Maybe so. But mostly I just love doing something quite different each time I sit down to write a book. So who knows what might come next?

Anyhow, thanks for reading!

Follow R.A. Nelson on his blog tour for THROAT

Friday, April 29: Random Acts of Reading http://randomactsofreading.wordpress.com/
Saturday, April 30: Dangers Untold and Hardships Unnumbered