Daniel H Wilson's Talk at Willamette Writers 2011/7/5

Daniel H. Wilson, author of Robopocalypse and How to Survive a Robot Uprising spoke in Portland, Oregon at the monthly meeting of Willamette Writers. Wilson's novel Robopocalypse is being made into a film by Steven Spielberg.

I'm particularly interested in Wilson's Robopocalypse, because it is so similar in theme to my first two novels, Avogadro Corp, and AI Apocalypse. (Notice that slight naming similarity there?) They all explore humanity's reaction to the emergence of artificial intelligence. By comparison, many other great authors, such as Charles Stross, will zip right by that point of emergence. 

Robopocalypse explores a war between AI and humans from the viewpoint of about six different characters, jumping to different key inflection points.

My notes from his talk about below. As usual, I apologize for any errors I've introduced in my note taking. "Me" and "I" below should be taken as from Wilson's perspective.

  • Written 6 other books
    • smaller, non-fiction
    • "people tell me they like to read them in the bathroom"
  • robopocalypse, first adult fiction
  • a future in which people are trying to survive when technology stops working and starts to attack them
  • starts at the end: the protagonist finds a black box that records some of the most significant parts of the the war
  • the structure allowed me to tell the story from the perspective from six different characters
    • who have very different backgrounds, cultural stuff
    • different relationships with technology
  • structure allowed me to pick and write only the best parts. by definition, they would be only the most important parts.
  • lots of myself in the book. a robot walks into a yogurt store and just starts to kill people. i worked in a yogurt store, and i worked with that guy, and i had those experiences (minus being killed by the robot)
  • grew up in oklahoma. i'm part cherokee. i grew up seeing how these two governments had to coexist.
  • always thought that if the shit hit the fan, these smaller, more compact, more nimble societies exist in miniature. 
  • all the scenes with the human soldiers following the spider robots (walking tanks) were really based on his grandfather's experiences fighting in WW2, working with half-tracks.
  • i'm not unique or great in any way, but i do know a lot about robots, and have thought a lot about robots and people. and that's what is unique.
  • i wrote stories as a teenager… lots of short stories, and submitted them. they were awful.
  • so i went and got a computer science degree. then i realized you could study artificial intelligence and machine learning.
  • studied robotics at CMU, got a PhD in robotics.
  • although i never got to study english, i did have to do a lot of writing.
    • crazy amounts of grant proposals
    • technical papers
  • get very familiar with people ripping your stuff apart in the academic environment.
  • nobody makes you do anything in graduate school. no one makes you go to the lab, do your work. so students build up competitiveness and self-loathing/guilt to get themselves to go to work and do your job when there is no one there to make you do it.
  • robotics is a field at the intersection of a lot of different fields.
    • consumer robotics: roomba
    • industrial robotics
    • medical robotics
  • building up a catalog of experiences and ideas: this is great, but wouldn't it be even greater if… [it could do X, if it could kill you, …]
  • worked on a machine learning algorithm to detect and eliminate bathroom noises from cellphones.
    • spent  a summer recording bathroom noises
  • got to ride in an automated car
  • got to see Honda's ASIMOV
  • it wasn't my personal experiences that sold robopocalypse, it was my passion for robotics.
  • first book i sold was how to survive a robot uprising. it was as a grad student.
    • thought i could just interview different robotics professors and ask them what they would do if their robots would attack them.
  • sent query letter to editor
    • editor said: what the heck are you doing? go talk to one of these agents, and gave list.
    • agent said send me a proposal, and then said: what the hell is this? this is how you write a proposal.
    • then one day got a phone call: hey, i am your film agent, and i sold robot uprising. would you like some money?
  • fish food theory
    • when you have an idea for a book, short story, whatever...
    • when you drop your nugget of fish food into the tank, you aren't trying to get just one fish, but you are hoping for lots of little fish to come and nibble at your pellet of food.
  • besides writing 5 non-fiction books, was writing for popular mechanic, wired, etc. got invited to host a television show.
    • i would write anything if you would pay me.
    • meanwhile, i am getting to talk to roboticists, staying current in the field, etc. 
  • got two book deal…
    • sold bro-jistu. wrote down martial arts moves he did on brother, and gave it a clever name.
    • then publisher asked him to if he could do something else instead the planned second book
    • then published allow him to write a middle reader. it was terrible. rewrote it four times from scratch. took more than a year. and it was still terrible. editor would say "do you just want to call it quits? we don't have to do this?"
    • other book about boy and his robot. smaller publishing house. no one knows about it.
  • Questions
    • Q: Are you afraid that Robopocalypse will have an anti-technology message?
      • A: when people think of robots, they think of robot uprisings. that's inevitable. it gets people to show up to the book.
      • People who study robots are inspired by all sorts of robots in pop culture. they like terminator just as much as Robby. it doesn't have to be a positive portrayal of a robot to be inspiring.
    • Q: what changes to writing to make change from non-fiction to fiction?
      • when interviewing people, learned to listen for the nugget. they always have some kernel that is really cool. used that for fiction writing: what is the really cool thing?
      • Needed to focus on plot, on getting across what is happening. Need to make sure the way I am describing things is unique, really is gut-punching.
    • Q: Next book?
      • Amp: Near future, when people start integrating technology into their bodies. Parents have to make that decision for their kids.
    • Q: Biggest science fiction influencers?
      • Philip K Dick Asimov, Clark, Heinlein, (more, couldn't get all names)
      • Sea of Glass - favorite book, about computer watching over mankind, and building models of human behavior.
    • Q: A sequel to robopocalypse?
      • don't want to pigeon hole myself, write myself into a corner.
      • Amp deliberately doesn't have any robots
      • want to write about the way humanity intersections with technology
    • Q: what is your process of writing? what do you do when you get stuck? how do you pull yourself out of it?
      • outline a lot. need to have a target.
      • when i get stuck, i have conversations with my wife...
      • or i walked about in circles with my headphones or sit in the shower.
      • if none of that is working, i have to go read some non-fiction books.
      • read the writer's journey
      • my writers group… sometimes it's just "tell me the answer!"
      • outline
      • write for 3 hours at coffee shop
      • come home
      • have lunch
      • try to write after that. (not so successfully.)
    • Q: control of film? do they ask you anything?
      • they would send me visualizations, and i would give them pages of feedback. not creative, but as a roboticist.
      • no control over screenplay. all that is what you sell.
    • Q: how did you find writer's group?
      • went to dinner party
      • met mark [someone]
      • got invited
    • Q: how many words are in the story? what is your pitch for robopocalypse?
      • words: 100,000 or a little more.
      • Amp will be shorter, about 80,000.
      • pitch:
        • cool image on the front: just steal the coolest image you can find. robot walking down the street in ww2. change the font to a 1942 underwood font. 
        • explained the concept. why he was the perfect person to write it. why everyone was going to want to read it.
    • Q: who is reading it?
      • reaching a wider audience. marketed as a techno-thriller as well as a science-fiction. weird thing that: biggest movies are sci-fi, but sci-fi novels are considered niche.
      • sci-fi fans as well as mainstream are reading it.
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