Please welcome John P. Murphy to The Qwillery as part of the 2020 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Red Noise was published on July 7, 2020 by Angry Robot.
The Qwillery: Welcome to The Qwillery. What is the first fiction piece you remember writing?
John P. Murphy: Oh gosh. Does anyone have an answer to this that isn't horribly embarrassing? I wrote pretty much constantly when I was a kid, and it all kind of blended together. Some kind of generic epic fantasy thing, with airships. The airships bit, at least, I remember. I was a huge JRPG fan starting in the early 90s - we got a copy of Final Fantasy with Nintendo Power magazine, and I was absolutely hooked on it. I pretty much immediately started writing stories that were really very thinly veiled copies, driven mostly by people having cool names rather than personalities.
The first piece I remember letting people read was probably a one act play. I was really into theatre in high school, and we were allowed to write skits and short plays to put on for credit. I'm not sure if this was the first one, but I remember writing one about a writer who handcuffed himself to his desk to make himself finish on deadline, and all his terrible drafts were acted out in front of him. That was pretty fun; I hadn't thought of that in years.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
JPM: These days I'm a plotter. Part of that is that I have so little time to write, so that I spend time during the day planning out what I'm going to write, and can then generally speed through it. I don't often finish according to plan, though: if it's going an interesting direction, I keep at it, and then revise the plan. But what I need most is to know the ending, especially the emotional payoff - I need that north star if the plot is going to work, and for me I can't just pants that.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
JPM: Finishing! I pretty reliably hit a rough spot at about the two-thirds spot in almost everything I write. By that point I've hit most of the things I hadn't fully thought through, the shine of the idea has worn off, and I'm convinced that nobody will ever like it. I've abandoned a few drafts at that stage, but mostly it just takes a lot of energy and motivation to get through. I bribe myself with good whiskey and home-roasted coffee.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
JPM: This one had a lot of influences. I'm kind of a cultural magpie. I've been really enjoying some of the more recent space-based science fiction lately; I love the way Aliette de Bodard's science fiction paints a different kind of space-faring future than we're used to seeing. I read a lot of old-school noir in preparing for this, like Chandler and Hammett, and newer more horror-oriented noir like Cassandra Khaw. I was obviously pretty strongly influence by samurai flicks and the grittier style of Western - think Clint Eastwood, not John Wayne. A fair bit of anime, especially Cowboy Bebop and Planetes. Firefly, too. The Fallout games likely had an influence on the aesthetic. Heck, there's even a Dwarf Fortress reference in there, but if anyone gets that I'll be amazed.
TQ: Describe Red Noise using only 5 words.
JPM: Space samurai flick with explosives.
TQ: Tell us something about Red Noise that is not found in the book description.
JPM: So, if you'll just look over there at that fascinating bird, I'm definitely not re-reading my own book description right now. Oh, it flew away.
Maybe this is implied in the description, but I did want to say that the plot of Red Noise isn't so much about being a badass, as it's about being clever. The Miner possibly could take down all the baddies in a frontal assault, but I don't think it would be as fun a story if she did. I've always found Odysseus more interesting than Achilles; Loki more interesting than Thor. So she can fight, yeah, but it's more important that she can think.
TQ: What inspired you to write Red Noise? What appeals to you about writing Space Opera?
JPM: Well, to go way, way back, I was introduced to samurai films back in college, and then wrote essays on them during a study abroad in Japan twenty years ago. I just love that aesthetic. I'd watched a lot of Westerns growing up, since my dad was a fan, and they felt like both a missing piece and a distillation of the form. Yojimbo in particular struck me, and I did a paper on it and the later movies that were based on it, as well as going back and looking at its own antecedents, particularly Hammett's Red Harvest. I decided early on that I wanted to take my own stab at the genre, specifically in space, but it took the 2016 election and the use of social media to rile up so much of society against itself to really spur me to write it.
As for Space Opera in particular... It's such a wonderful sandbox for storytelling, and I think there are good reasons it has such overlap with Space Westerns. There's a tolerance for handwaving, for one thing. Readers will appreciate as much science as you feel like throwing in, but the focus is on the story more than on the tech. That's a comfortable place to be for someone like me, who can't help but geek out a bit but who still would rather write about Sturm und Drang than scribble out another doctoral thesis.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Red Noise?
JPM: Most of my research was non-technical, trying to get the feel right. I especially did research into how I wanted to write the action. I hadn't written much before, and I tend to dislike it in a lot of books that I read -- I find it too drawn-out, too focused on the wrong things. I watched a bunch of Westerns and samurai movies, and reread some books that I thought did action well. I found that the fights that worked best for me were short and punchy (sorry! sorry!) and at their best were pulling double-duty in illuminating character. I'm pretty happy with how the fight scenes turned out, and how they differ from the Miner's point of view versus someone like Screwball.
I also did some research into nuclear weapons, and I kind of wish I hadn't. Some of these things are hard to forget.
TQ: Does having a PhD in Engineering and a BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering help or hinder your writing of Red Noise?
JPM: A little of both. As a background thing, knowing the shape of how things are likely to work is a huge help. Understanding how systems interact and how they break helps me fill in the little details that make the world feel a little more real, or rather more realistically broken. Plus having all this miscellaneous knowledge, like how listening devices work or how robotic systems operate. A bigger benefit is knowing how to research, how to come up to speed on new things quickly.
On the other hand, I don't have a lot of interest in writing hard SF. I don't really read it much either, and anyway most of what passes for hard SF narrowly focuses on getting just one field right at the expense of dozens of others. But still I worry a lot about expectations: Are people going to pick up the book knowing I have a PhD and expect all the science to be spot-on? Most of the time I try not to write stuff I know is absolute nonsense, but sometimes I have to shrug, quietly apologize to my professors, and move on. That's part of the appeal of space opera as a genre, that lessened expectation of rigid correctness.
TQ: Please tell us about the cover for Red Noise.
JPM: The cover process was fun, and Angry Robot was so good about it. It's very abstract, just that foil sword piercing the title, with stars in the background, pulled off brilliantly by Kieryn Tyler. I put together a Pinterest board of all these things that I loved in visual design, that the book made me think of. The Criterion Collection DVD covers for Yojimbo and Seven Samurai, for example, even sumi-e paintings. I really enjoy the effect of black and white and red. Kieryn took all that amorphous mess and really ran with it.
TQ: In Red Noise who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
JPM: Takata was the easiest to write, and Angelica the hardest, for the same reason: they're the two characters who are most like me. Takata is off to the side, and he gets to pretty much just react to what's going on. His role in the story is to be opinionated and provide a little bit of an outside moral compass. And boy, I can talk. So he was easy to write.
Angelica, on the other hand, has to act and antagonize. To write her, I had her mostly do what would come naturally to me - but as a result, she tended to blend into the background in the early drafts and just sort of exist; then when she acted it would seem to come from nowhere. Forcing myself to double back and think through and make her motivations as clear as the others, especially when she doesn't have that much page time, was hard.
TQ: Does Red Noise touch on any social issues?
JPM: Several of them, some intentionally, some not. It doesn't take much reading to see political parallels, but I'll leave those for the reader. In a way, it's a poor book that doesn't touch on anything important to the author. One of the big questions of the book, though, is the point of argument between Takata and Herrera: what has to come first, justice or peace? The argument is explicit sometimes, but that question was on my mind a lot when writing. It reads differently to me in the summer of 2020 than it did when I handed in the manuscript last year, and I'm pleased by that. I expect it will read differently next year, too.
TQ: Which question about Red Noise do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
JPM: "Tell us about the food in Red Noise"
Also JPM: I'm glad you asked! Eating and drinking is a big part of world building, and I'm such a foodie that I always enjoy those parts of books. Station 35 is way out in the middle of nowhere, muddling through with a combination of local production and cheap shipped-in stuff. After six months of fighting, what's left in the pantry is weird - and kind of prophetic of what's left in my own pantry after a few months of avoiding grocery stores. Staples bought in bulk, the "maybe later" frozen food, and home-grown vegetables that maybe don't look so great. The Miner mostly lives on emergency rations (partly inspired by my own experiments with that Soylent stuff), but one of the characters is trying to run a restaurant, and the other is the universe's worst bootlegger.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Red Noise.
“How bad are these nurses?” “I caught Skeeve doing what he thought was cocaine off a bedpan.” Mills struggled with that sentence and landed on, “Skeeve?” “Technically ‘Other Skeeve’ but nobody’s seen Original Skeeve in a while, and if he’s dead, then Other Skeeve feels he inherits because ‘a man has rights’.” Joff’s expression grew haunted. “That is a sentence that has come out of my mouth. I can’t take it back, Arun.”
“You ever killed anybody?” The Miner glanced sideways at her, but couldn’t read anything but idle curiosity. “Some.” “How come?” She shrugged. “You can’t like everybody.”
TQ: What's next?
JPM: I'd been working on a near-future thriller, picking up some of the themes I'd been writing about in my novella Claudius Rex (about an AI private detective) but near-future is a bit rough writing these days. I've got a couple short stories in the works, and a fantasy legal thriller that I've been tinkering on for a while now.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
JPM: Thank you for having me! This has been fun!
Angry Robot, July 7, 2020
Trade Paperback and eBook, 448 pages
Caught up in a space station turf war between gangs and corrupt law, a lone asteroid miner decides to take them all down.
When an asteroid miner comes to Station 35 looking to sell her cargo and get back to the solitude she craves, she gets swept up in a three-way standoff with gangs and crooked cops. Faced with either taking sides or cleaning out the Augean Stables, she breaks out the grenades…
John is an engineer and writer living in New Hampshire with his partner and two ridiculously fluffy cats. His previous work, The Liar, was shortlisted for a Nebula Award for Best Novella in 2016. He was a SFWA Director-at-Large until 2018 and is now the Short Fiction Committee Chair. He has a PhD in Engineering and a BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering.