Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Interview: Alex Shvartsman

Alex Wallace sits down with Alex Shvartsman, author of Kakistocracy.

What made you start writing?

I’ve been a voracious reader from an early age, and my escapist drug of choice was science fiction. Growing up in the USSR I read everything I could find in translation. I wanted to be a journalist when I grew up, as well as to write stories of my own. However, my family immigrated to the United States and I spoke no English, so I gave up on that dream.

For decades I never thought my English would be good enough to write publishable fiction (I suspect there are still a few acquisitions editors out there today who believe this to be the case), and this caused me to begin my writing journey much later in life than I would have otherwise – in my thirties. I’m very glad I overcame the fear and self-doubt to finally get started on something I’ve wanted to do for almost my entire life.

What books have been most influential on your writing?

There are so many! Off the top of my head I’d name The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, Birthright by Mike Resnick, and the collected short fiction of Fredric Brown, but if you ask me this question every day for a year I will probably come up with a slightly different list every time.

What inspired the Conradverse?

I wrote my first Conrad Brent story well over a decade ago and it was one of my first pro sales. The initial idea behind it was inspired by Simon R. Green’s Nightside novels where an arcane version of London was practically a major character. “What would a story look like where Brooklyn plays as important a role as London does in Green’s books? What sort of stories would I tell in such a setting?” Then came the idea of Conrad as a magical Batman—someone who could use various artifacts and interact with magic but had none of his own.

I ended up writing only two Conradverse short stories. In his true trickster fashion, Conrad hoodwinked me into writing novels about him instead.

One of the best moments in my writing journey was getting a blurb from Simon R. Green on the first book in a series, bringing the initial inspiration for it full circle!

Did the choice of a real city as the setting pose any challenges? Was writing the sections in New York different from those in other realms?

I don’t think it’s ever been an impediment for me. On the contrary, New York has so much arcane lore and larger-than-life personalities to inspire storylines, it only made my job easier! I love the city and have lived here for nearly 25 years now, so I could draw from personal experiences, too.

What was the trickiest part of writing Kakistocracy?

There are a lot of different challenges that Conrad is facing in this book. This was by design. So often the characters of a story are laser-focused on the Big Bad at the expense of everything else, but real life rarely works that way. All the issues and troubles facing a person don’t go away just because there’s an even bigger bit of trouble looming. So I wanted to force Conrad to be working on many different things concurrently.

The tricky part was to make all of it feel organic and seamless. The problems needed to intertwine and play off each other just enough, but without it feeling convenient and contrived. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide whether I succeeded, but I certainly put in the elbow grease!

What was the experience of writing a sequel like, compared to writing a standalone?

The second book is often the weak point of the series, and I really wanted to avoid that. You’ve got the setting explained and the pieces set up on the board, but now you have to deliver a solid story while keeping things from getting stale. If the voice of the first book felt original or the setting did, you don’t get as many points for repeating any of that. You have to keep earning the reader’s attention over and over, and that means finding the proper balance between what made them come back to the series in the first place and serving up something fresh.

Shifting gears, you are also known as a translator of stories from Russian. What made you start translating science fiction?

Initially I simply wanted to geek out about the really awesome stories I could read that most of my SF/F-loving friends couldn’t. So I translated a few short stories on a lark (with authors’ permission, of course) and was blown away by the response. Top SF/F short fiction markets wanted them! Readers and reviewers paid attention! There is quite a bit of an appetite for stories from outside the Anglosphere. So I kept at it, until eventually the “real” translation jobs found me—I’ve worked with TV and movie studios, publishing houses, video game companies, etc. But I still love finding short story gems and sharing them with new audiences.

Does translating science fiction specifically pose any challenges?

In many ways, translating speculative fiction is actually easier than translating other genres. You don’t have to work as hard or to dumb things down; the speculative reader is already trained to accept unfamiliar settings and cultures. If they can accept all the background lore of The Lord of the Rings they can surely cope with an occasional new-to-them custom or real-world setting they encounter in a translated story!

I’ve found crime and historical fiction both to be more challenging as they require extensive knowledge of slang and copious amounts of research respectively.

In your experience, does Russian-language science fiction differ from English-language science fiction?

Some of it does, and some of it is a carbon copy of American and British stories (usually from 20+ years earlier.) The trick is to find stories that are unique and are in some way informed by the language and culture of their authors. What would be the point in translating a story that feels and reads just like it was written by an American? There are already plenty of those available. So I try to find the ones that stand out. And since only a tiny fraction of Russian language literature has been translated, almost everything I find worthwhile I can usually get permission to translate.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m in the process of writing a standalone novel that is a space opera retelling of Voltaire’s Candide in the vein of Douglas Adams and Futurama. I’m having a ton of fun with this and if all goes well I should be able to finish this book in early 2024. Then it’s on to the third Conradverse novel!

I also have an anthology I spent much of 2023 editing coming out in November. The Digital Aesthete is a collection of stories about the intersection of AI and art, which is a subject that’s been much discussed in our community. The book mixes stories by headliners like Ken Liu, Jane Espenson, and Adrian Tchaikovsky with many translated works from across the globe (including several from Ukraine!)

There are exciting news on the translation front and short story sales as well that I hope to be able to announce in coming weeks.


POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.