I’m so incredibly excited to include this interview in my new series as in all honesty, Ilsa is my favourite author and she is the reason I became a writer.
Ilsa J. Bick is a child psychiatrist, as well as a film scholar, surgeon wannabe, former Air Force major, and an award-winning, best-selling author of dozens of short stories and novels. Her work spans both established universes such as Star Trek, Battletech, Mechwarrior Dark Age, and Shadowrun and her original work includes the critically acclaimed ASHES Trilogy, Drowning Instinct, and, most recently, her DARK PASSAGES series: White Space (long-listed for the Stoker) and The Dickens Mirror. Currently a cheesehead-in-exile, Ilsa lives in Alabama with the husband and several furry creatures. On occasion, she even feeds them. Visit her at www.ilsajbick.com, or follow her on Facebook, Twitter (@ilsajbick), or Instagram (@ilsajbick).
Hi Ilsa, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
Well, that’s a pretty broad question, so let’s just say that I am a child psychiatrist, a film scholar, a former Air Force major, a wannabe surgeon (it’s a long story), and definitely old enough to know better.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I didn’t, really. I never wrote a lick of anything creative except for some really bad epic poetry in high school and one short story that was a blatant L’Engle rip-off. I didn’t start writing until much later, after I’d been a doctor for a while, studied psychoanalysis, and gone back to school to earn a degree in liberal studies with an emphasis in film. Then I started writing a ton of non-fiction stuff, scholarly articles on film and television and most of that science fiction. So I published and presented a ton, but I started getting bored after about five, six years. (Another thing: I bore easily.) That’s when the husband dared me to try fiction. I completely resisted, mostly because I was scared I would fail.
What were your ambitions when you started writing?
None other than to get something published and in print: a book or magazine or SOMETHING I could hold in my hand. That was it. I just wanted someone to like what I wrote. Eventually, someone did, but it took about fifteen trillion rejections and about a million bad words before I wrote seven thousand decent ones.
Well, okay, I also wanted to write Star Trek, mainly so Captain Kirk would fall in love with me. He didn’t, but I did. A Star Trek story was, in fact, my first publication–and also a grand prize winner.
Have those ambitions changed over the process?
Yes, and no. Every book is a struggle. So is every story. Writing is hard. Writing a bad book is hard, too–not because I’m so wonderful but because stringing together a coherent narrative takes a ton of work and a lot of misfires and blood on the floor. Mainly, I just want to write books that people will read. Would I love for my books to make it into film or television? Sure; of course because it means more people reading what I have worked so hard to do. But, mainly, I just want to write something and finish it and then have some editor think it’s not too shabby.
Could I self-publish? Sure. Will I? Jury’s out on that. I didn’t go into writing to run a publishing house.
Are you writing anything at the moment? Could you give us a little insight?
Yes, of course. Writers are either always writing or thinking about what they’re going to write next. But I don’t wanna jinx it. Just…something King-ish, I guess you’d call it.
Are there any quotes or mottos that inspire your writing career or your life? Would you share it with us?
Nope, not really, other than you’re responsible for your own career. Oh, and when you talk to editors? Put your ego in a box. Not every word you’ve written deserves to live.
Where do you find inspiration for your novels?
Pretty much where most writers do: reading other writers, trying to figure out how they did something nifty. Sometimes I write out of envy. Like I’ll read something cool and think, Crap, why didn’t I think of that? How can I do it better, or make it my own?
Do you consider yourself more of a plotter or a pantser? Do you outline thoroughly or see how it plays out?
I’ve done it both ways. I’ve plotted to the nth degree because that’s how I was taught when I was doing work for hire (Star Trek, Battletech, Mechwarrior, Shadowrun). I even know when my guys take a crap. But I’ve also winged books. Not many because there tend to be a lot of detours and needless bloodshed and wasted time.
Having said that…I’m kind of winging it now. I had a completely crappy eighteen months prior to now. Started and trashed five different books, but I guess losing a publisher and then moving to a place I’d kind of rather not be will do that to a person.
Then I wrote this big honking outline in a month’s time only to figure out when I actually began writing that I’d already done a book that was just too close. I’ve never been into wash-rinse-repeat. So I chucked it and just started this one. Don’t even ask me how I came up with the idea because I don’t know. Just popped into my head and I’ve been doing hand-to-hand combat with it for about the last two months.
How often do you write during a week?
Do you have a set word count that you try to achieve each session?
Yup. Used to be a set number of pages, but–you know–if you’ve got a lot of dialogue or short sentences, you can hit 8-10 pages easy. Now I go for word count: at least 2000 a day. A really good day, I can hit 4-6K, sometimes more. But then my butt’s sore for two days after, and I’m all tuckered out unless it’s near the end of a book and then it’s like you’re on a stallion heading for the barn.
Do you have to do lots of research for your novels?
Depends. I know a lot of science stuff already, so not necessarily when it comes to medicine or pure science. Did I do a lot of hands-on stuff for the ASHES trilogy? Oh, yeah; you can’t write about Isle Royale unless you’ve hiked it, and you don’t understand how hard it is to build a shelter that won’t leak in a rainstorm until you’ve tried. Historical fiction–something that’s part fantasy, part real, like THE DICKENS MIRROR–I did a whole year’s worth of prep work as I was writing the first book and finishing up the ASHES trilogy, and I was still looking stuff up as I went along. It just all depends. Writing a contemporary, something very now like DROWNING INSTINCT or THE SIN-EATER’S CONFESSION . . . no, there’s no real research involved. I do tend to read other, similar books, though. I’m always curious about how other people handle a similar plot device or trajectory.
What is the hardest thing about writing for you?
Oh, gosh, it’s all hard ,but I guess the toughest is not to be so negative about my own abilities. All writers think they’re crap and the ones who think they’re great are deluded. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t have to get out of my own way.
Do you ever get writers block? How do you overcome it?
Well, I wouldn’t have believed I would have until this past crappy year and a half when I have DEFINITELY run into more brick walls and given myself more bloody noses than you can imagine. Mainly, I just kept on keeping on. I know that some people will tell you to take time off, take as long as you need, not fight so hard…but I’ve never been a quitter. Frankly, I’m afraid that if I gave myself permission to fall down, I might never get back up. You just can’t do that.
What books are you reading at the moment? Do you have any favourites?
Oh, I’m looking at a whole bunch of books at the moment, and I like or get bored by them in equal measure. I usually tell folks what I’m reading on the blog. I think it’s . . . what . . . The Last Town now? But it depends; I put that down a few days ago and picked up something else that was more interesting.
I don’t have any favorites per se, but I can say that if you’ve written a thumpingly good book, then you’re my favorite author of the moment.
If you put a gun to my head, I’d guess Stephen King. I still go back and look at Secret Window, Secret Gardenbecause, other than the end, that’s just a masterpiece of misdirection–and he plays fair from the very first page.
If you couldn’t be an author, what other career do you think you would like to do?
Well, I’ve had another career, over twenty years of it. This is my second. If I had to go back to medicine, I’d love to work ER. I like to get in there and fix things and go on to the next problem.
I’m a big fan of ASHES and it is my favourite book, where and how did you come up with the story line?
Gosh, I honestly don’t know how I came up with the actual story line. I read a book that I liked–an apocalyptic kind of thing–but it was very tame and somewhat unbelievable. Everyone was so bloody polite and decent, and you know, if civilization crashes, all that nice altruistic stuff goes out of the window really, really fast.
So I thought, Well, I can do better than that. The hardest part was to come up with a scenario where you take out civilization in a hurry and it’s not a plague or virus or aliens or something. I wanted my scenario to be as realistic and scientifically plausible as possible. So I did all kinds of reading on how to make an EMP weapon and all that; I’m sure I’m on the NSA watchlist somewhere. But once I figured out how to tank the world, the rest just sort of happened.
In terms of traditional publishing vs self-publishing – which did you choose and why?
I chose traditional because that’s what was available at the time and I wanted to write Star Trek. Until this past year and a half, I would’ve said I don’t regret it–and I don’t. But traditional is tough; publishing houses are consolidating; there’s less to go around; authors are expected to do a ton more; and you don’t necessarily earn a decent living. But I also think there are problems with indie-publishing. I have a lot of friends who’ve gone that route–and God bless them. I’m just not sure I’m ready to do that quite yet. I like the idea of controlling my own destiny–but I’m not sure I really want to have to take complete responsibility for every single step.
So we’ll see. I may or may not go hybrid; I’ve put up two stories on Amazon a while back, kind of just to see how it was. It was okay, but I still needed to hire someone to do the actual setup, find the artwork and all that. You know, if you’re going to do self-pub, you need to be in a position, with the cash reserves, to do it.
What sort of a routine do you have around your writing? Do you make coffee every time? Or write stream of consciousness before starting a story?
I get up early; I caffeinate; I have either written an outline or I outline the chapter(s) that need to be done that day–and then I screw my butt in the chair and do them. Or fritter away time and then get pissed and settle down to work. Some days are awful; you just can’t get up a head of steam. But I manage to put down stuff just about every day. Just have to set goals and stick to them. This is where the discipline of having gone through medical school is very helpful. You will not pass if you do not do the work, period.
Do you have any advice to the aspiring writers reading this?
Read a lot and then screw your butt in the chair and finish what you start. Actually, I wrote a whole blog on this:http://adr3nalin3.blogspot.com/2012/01/so-you-wanna-be-contender.html