Please welcome Lawrence M. Schoen to The Qwillery. Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard was published on December 29th by Tor Books.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Lawrence: I think I started writing at about age seven or eight. I used to spend every weekend working with my father at the swap meet. We were regulars, same stall every week, different merchandise depending on whether my father owned a clothing store or was just turning over other stuff to make ends meet. I did this every Saturday and Sunday from age five to eighteen (when college set me free). It probably started out as babysitting but turned into education, both in learning to sell and to understanding psychology. Anyway, after set-up and in between customers, I would sit in the back of the open van, take out a spiral notebook bought that morning, and write stories.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser, or hybrid?
Lawrence: I used to be a panster, but I’m a born-again outliner now, with maybe a touch of throwback because before I start blocking out every freaking scene from start to finish, I first flesh out in my head who my characters are. For me, all stories start with characters, which was probably why I started out as a panster: I’d have a cool character in a starting place, and an idea for a transformed and even cooler character at some ending place, and then had to forge ahead until I wrote myself a path from point A to point B.
But by outlining, I’ve learned to step back and address the logical concerns of the plot, fold in the needed elements of pacing, so that my route is focused and serves the story, rather than just hoping I get lucky and arrive at my destination.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Lawrence: Facing down the need to do better than I did the day before, when the proposition of doing so, day after day, makes me want to run and hide. Seriously, it’s a crazy way to approach the craft.
TQ: Describe Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard in 140 characters or less.
Lawrence: DUNE meets THE SIXTH SENSE. With Elephants. In Space!
TQ: Tell us something about Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard that is not found in the book description.
Lawrence: Without actually calling it such, I play with “time travel” in a way that I don’t think anyone has before. I have a character from the past who travels forward through the use of prophecy and telepathy, and other characters who travel back in time by conversing with the dead. No one actually “goes” anywhere, but information passes both ways. I think it’s kind of cool.
TQ: What inspired you to write Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard? What appeals to you about Science Fiction?
Lawrence: Some of the books I read in my youth fell into the “sense o’ wonder” camp. Characters and plots and concepts would frequently leave me gobsmacked. SF like that is a powerful and highly addictive drug and I still can’t get enough. It’s not simply the awesome ideas, it’s the way in which they transported me to other worlds and times, and allowed me to bring a little of that back to my own circumstances after I turned the last page.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard?
Lawrence: I bought a membership to the Philadelphia Zoo (America’s first zoo, by the way). I spent a lot of time there, sometimes going four or five times a week and just sitting watching the animals for hours at a time. I spent so much time in the elephant house that the residents came to recognize me as an individual and would greet me with a wave of their trunks when I arrived — something they didn’t do for other visitors. Naturally, I learned to hold an arm in front of my face and wave back. Sigh. I miss those guys.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Lawrence: More than a few people have pointed out that my protagonist, Jorl, is semi-autobiographical (except for the part that I’m not an anthropomorphic elephant). That made him pretty easy to write. I’d put him in a scene and simply ask myself what I would do in that situation. The hardest is something of a tie between the Matriarch and the Senator, probably because in many ways they have the same mindset and credo. They both believe they’re doing what’s best to serve the greater good as they see it. And both are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals, without so much as a blink about the consequences along the way. And of course both shared the risk of becoming two-dimensional characters, villains with no conscience. Putting them center stage as POV characters ensured that they were more than their plans, and forced the characters around them to see them as fully realized as well.
TQ: Why have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard?
Lawrence: It’s hard to imagine writing so much as a scene that isn’t influenced by social issues. A character eats a BLT; huh, who picked the lettuce? A different character walks into a laboratory to acquire some gear; huh, why are all the lab techs male (or female)? Social issues are all around us and if you’re on the wrong end of the privilege stick you can’t move without bumping into them, just as if you’re at the other extreme it’s easy to blithely and obliviously walk on by.
The real question is, how do the characters respond to these forces, how does the world react to their choices? In Barsk, the most obvious social bit that I examine is tolerance. I have a race of people who have been scooped up from planets all over the galaxy and forcibly relocated to a world no one else wanted, simply because they don’t look like everyone else. And yet, on that same world, these same people are seen practicing a terrifying discrimination of their own, one which is not shared by the people who put them there in the first place. The challenge was to show both sides without getting too heavy-handed or allegorical.
TQ: Which question about Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Lawrence: Do the trees and rocks and waves and the very moons of the planet Barsk really speak to Pizlo?
Well, yes and no. He’s a weird little kid, but he’s not psychotic. He’s precognitive, and has been for as long as he can remember — which given that he’s only six isn’t all that long — and because he’s never had anyone explain this stuff to him, this is the metaphor his unconscious came up with to explain what he experiences. It’s probably also a manifestation of his longing to have someone, anyone, talk to him, because being a cultural abomination he’s not exactly overrun with opportunities to converse.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery lines from Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard.
“I don’t want to be dead. But it’s like complaining about the rain. We don’t get the weather we want.”
“I do not need your consent, but I do require you to be fully conscious. Can you tell me your name?”
“Words are precious things. Don’t waste what might be the last ones you have.”
TQ: What's next?
Lawrence: I have proposals for two sequels to Barsk sitting on my editor’s desk. I’ve barely begun to explore this planet and these people and I have quite a bit more to say. I’m also developing a new series of books that deal with lost cities and the rediscovery of one of them from the mid-fifth century. And I’d like to return to writing the lighter novels and novellae of the Amazing Conroy and his alien companion animal, Reggie. On the Klingon front, I anticipate publishing a translation of Sun Tsu’s The Art of War by late summer.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Lawrence: It’s been my pleasure. Let’s do this again. Seriously, for every book! Okay?
Barsk: The Elephant's Graveyard
Tor, December 29, 2015
Hardcover and eBook, 384 pages
The Sixth Sense meets Planet of the Apes in a moving science fiction novel set so far in the future, humanity is gone and forgotten in Lawrence M. Schoen's Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard
An historian who speaks with the dead is ensnared by the past. A child who feels no pain and who should not exist sees the future. Between them are truths that will shake worlds.
In a distant future, no remnants of human beings remain, but their successors thrive throughout the galaxy. These are the offspring of humanity's genius-animals uplifted into walking, talking, sentient beings. The Fant are one such species: anthropomorphic elephants ostracized by other races, and long ago exiled to the rainy ghetto world of Barsk. There, they develop medicines upon which all species now depend. The most coveted of these drugs is koph, which allows a small number of users to interact with the recently deceased and learn their secrets.
To break the Fant's control of koph, an offworld shadow group attempts to force the Fant to surrender their knowledge. Jorl, a Fant Speaker with the dead, is compelled to question his deceased best friend, who years ago mysteriously committed suicide. In so doing, Jorl unearths a secret the powers that be would prefer to keep buried forever. Meanwhile, his dead friend's son, a physically challenged young Fant named Pizlo, is driven by disturbing visions to take his first unsteady steps toward an uncertain future.
Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard is an outstanding novel that deftly explores issues of racism, prejudice, power imbalances, rain forest medicines and more all wrapped up in a captivating story of sentient animals with the focus on the planet Barsk. The population of Barsk consists of two types of Elephants, Eleph and Lox, who are collectively known as Fants. They are widely reviled throughout the Alliance of many planets, which are all inhabited by various sentient animals. All of these animals are more than sentient - they are anthropomorphic with opposable thumbs and all. They work as would humans and are historians, officers in the military, Senators, doctors, scientists, etc. Anything a human could do they can do. And like humans some of them are good and some of them are bad.
Even within Barsk, there is prejudice against certain individuals. This is brought to life in the character of Pizlo, an albino Fant born before his parents were officially bonded. Children born before the bonding ceremony are always different, reviled and ignored. Pizlo's parents chose not to do that to him, but with the exception of Jorl (an historian and Speaker to the dead), no one even acknowledges Pizlo's presence, which often works to his advantage.
The novel turns around the desire of some to control koph, the drug that allows Speakers to speak with the dead. It is only created from natural resources on Barsk, which is protected by a Compact with the Alliance.
The novel brings together the major characters in unexpected ways. Jorl begins a quest to discover why he can not summon the recent dead. They have gone silent. Prophecies come into play that are truly susceptible of different interpretations.
Jorl, Pizlo and all the main characters are wonderfully realized and deeply relatable. Schoen has created a story filled with twist after twist that are exquisitely logical. There are moments of joy, sorrow and even horror as events unfold to bring the novel to a remarkably satisfying conclusion. Barsk is fascinating, moving, and beautifully written and will stick with you long after you've finished reading. Bravo!
Lawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics. He’s also one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Klingon language, and the publisher of a speculative fiction small press, Paper Golem. He’s been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award, the Hugo Award, and the Nebula Award. Lawrence lives near Philadelphia. You can find him online at LawrenceMSchoen.com and @KlingonGuy.