Edward Willett on Marseguro, Cover Polls, and the Writer’s Life

A few days ago, I posted the results of the cover poll that included Edward Willett’s Marseguro. Willett was a good sport putting up with comments about the cover of his book from my blog’s readers, and I thought it only fair to give him a forum here–about his book, about his career, and his thoughts on the cover poll.

I think you’ll find that you most definitely can’t judge an author by a book cover, because Willett is definitely much more than “just” an SF writer–he’s also an actor and singer, a children’s book writer, and a writer of nonfiction. Really fascinating answers below, including what he has to say about selling his novels.

You can learn more about Willett from his website.

Jeff

Almost everyone in the covers poll thought your book was military SF. Are they right? And can you tell us a little more about the novel?

I don’t think of it as military SF, but I suppose it depends on definitions. I can certainly see why people made that assumption based only on the image. However, all those explosions on the cover happen in a single scene, and it’s not a battle: it’s an essentially genocidal attack on a (supposedly) helpless civilian population. And when that population fights back, there’s very little shooting involved (though there is some).

I should point out that cover art you posted is actually a preliminary version: the book itself has a tag line above the title, which reads “Can the hidden colony of Marseguro survive rediscovery?”, which might have altered people’s perceptions slightly.

Briefly, Marseguro takes place on a water world to which a brilliant geneticist, Victor Hansen, fled with the Selkies, a race of genetically modified amphibian humans he created, when a religious dictatorship called The Body Purified took over Earth. The Selkies and a smaller population of non-modified humans have been living peacefully on the planet for 70 years, but now The Body has found them and come calling–with the help of, and accompanied by, Richard Hansen, Victor’s grandson. His worldview is in for some serious readjustment once he’s been on Marseguro for a while. The girl on the cover is one of the Selkies, EmilyWood, who goes from being a self-absorbed student to one of the central figures in the Selkies’ attempts to fight back against the Body.

Another interesting thing about the book I like to point out is that it began as two sentences written as an exercise in writing openings in Robert J. Sawyer’s course in writing science fiction at the Banff Centre in 2005. During the week in Banff I attempted to turn it into a short story, but it kept getting bigger and more complicated, so I set it aside. When the time came to present a new idea to DAW, there it was, ready to go! (Those original two sentences, by the way, don’t appear in the finished book, but that’s how it started. So never let anyone tell you there’s no value in writing exercises!) I named an important geographical feature in the book Sawyer’s Point in Rob’s honor.

You have a very rich and varied career, writing nonfiction and children’s books in addition to the novels. Can you tell us more about your other projects, and how do you balance it all?

I began freelancing in 1993 with the long-term goal of being a fiction writer, but with the knowledge that I’d have to be willing to write just about anything to keep my head above water. My first published books were actually computer books (“Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 95” was the very first, if you must know) and I worked on lots of those for a few years. When I started freelancing, I took with me a newspaper science column I’d started writing in my previous job, as communications officer for the Saskatchewan Science Centre, and that made science writing a natural area in which to look for work, so when I saw that an educational publisher (Enslow) was looking for someone to write children’s science books (for a series called Diseases and People) I applied and got a contract there. I’ve since written several books for them, first on various diseases, then branching out. I’ve recently been writing biographies for a series called American Rebels: I’ve done Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, and this year I’ll be writing biographies of Johnny Cash and Andy Warhol. I also wrote two author biographies for a different series, one on J.R.R. Tolkien and one on Orson Scott Card. I do some writing for another educational publisher, Rosen, and I also work on local projects: I wrote a history of engineering and geoscience in Saskatchewan, and this spring I have a book called Historic Walks of Regina and Moose Jaw coming out. I’m still writing the science column for the local paper, too.

On the fiction side, Marseguro is my second adult novel: my first was Lost in Translation, also published by DAW. Before that I had four young adult fantasy and science fiction books published by very small–in one case, now entirely non-existent–publishers.

I’m also a professional actor and singer–I spent the December playing several roles in a professional production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast–but that comes up so infrequently I think of it more as a sideline. Most of the time I confine my acting and singing to local community productions. How do I balance it all? Badly, most of the time. I’m a terrible procrastinator. But somehow it all gets done in the end.

What was your reaction to the covers post, and did your impression of it change over time?

I thought it was very interesting. Obviously not a scientific poll, since those responding are a) the kind of people who read your blog and b) the people who respond to polls like this. But it was intriguing to see how people’s perceptions of what’s in a book are influenced by the cover–and how often they get the wrong idea. I actually like the cover of my book very much, but there’s no question it’s designed to appeal to the kind of reader who’s looking for a straight-ahead science fiction adventure story. Nothing “slipstream” about it, that’s for sure! I hope you’ll do more of these. Next time I may weigh in myself.

How tough is a writing career, in your opinion? What are the toughest things about it?

I think it’s very tough if writing is the only thing you’re doing to make money. In particular, it’s very tough to focus on just the kind of writing you want to do. I’d love to do nothing but write fiction, but I’m not there yet. So I have to do all these other kinds of writing, and fit the fiction in around them. I suspect I’d be a better writer if I could just focus on one thing, but I’d probably also be a much poorer one (although, in my case, I have a safety net, thanks to my most brilliant career move of all, one I recommend heartily to all writers: after freelancing for four years, I married an engineer. Lawyers and doctors are good, too.)

The other tough part about writing? Forcing yourself to actually, you know, type words. The Internet is wonderful for research and marketing and networking and all that stuff, but when you’re writing, it’s also a constant, time-eating distraction. I tend to do all my fiction writing on my PDA or laptop, disconnected from the Net, for that reason.

How did you get started? (Especially, how you made your first novel sale.)

As I mentioned, my first few novels were young adult novels sold to miniscule places. My first adult SF novel, though, Lost in Translation, is what really got me started in this field in any noticeable way. And its publication by DAW was literally a bolt out of the blue.

Lost in Translation was written in the mid-1990s and shopped around fruitlessly first by me, then by an agent who, unable to place it, promptly quit being my agent. I’m pretty sure DAW rejected it at least once, and maybe twice, during that time. Then, in 2005, it was picked up by Five Star, which publishes hardcovers strictly for the library market: no bookstore distribution. The Five Star SF line is packaged by Martin H. Greenberg’s Tekno Books. I was toying with the idea of trying to see if I could use the Five Star publication to tempt an agent into taking me on to sell the paperback rights, but hadn’t actually acted on the notion, when one morning the phone rang and Helfers was on the line. He told me Greenberg wanted to talk to me.

Greenberg told me that DAW, with whom he’d worked on various anthologies, had contacted him because they had a “hole” in their publishing schedule, and wanted to look at some of the books he’d packaged for Five Star to see if any of them would work to plug that hole. He sent them several…and they chose Lost in Translation.

I used that offer from DAW to get a new agent, Ethan Ellenberg. We sold Marseguro to DAW on the basis of a synopsis, and I was off and running. Er, typing.

What are you currently working on?

The sequel to Marseguro, tentatively titled Terra Insegura, which should be out about this same time next year. Plus I’m finishing up a book for Enslow on the mutiny on the Bounty and then I’ve got those Warhol and Cash biographies I mentioned.

I’m also working on raising a daughter, currently six years old, which is a fairly major project in its own right.

13 comments on “Edward Willett on Marseguro, Cover Polls, and the Writer’s Life

  1. Steve Oerkfitz says:

    I know I probably overlook some good books because of bad or misleading covers.I’ve always avoided Baen Books due to their terrible covers.

  2. Cheryl says:

    Point well proved, I think.

    Although I suspect that it doesn’t help that these days the major publishers have corporate marketing departments that tend to be staffed with people who are not SF readers. I fear that these people may assume that all people who do read SF are the sort of people who would be attracted by the Marseguro cover.

  3. Cheryl, that’s definitely not true at DAW. It’s still a small independent publisher, though it’s distributed by a giant (Penguin), run by the daughter of the original publisher, Donald A. Wollheim, and everyone involved with it are most definitely SF readers. The poll has been interesting to me because outside of it everyone I’ve shown the cover to has really liked it!

  4. Cheryl says:

    Edward, that’s good to know. Obviously some publishers are better than others. I’ve had friends at other publishers complain that they have difficulty getting any marketing budget for their SF lines because the marketing people want to concentrate on the sort of books that will get on Ophrah (or in the case of the UK Richard & Judy).

  5. Mirtika says:

    Hey, I liked this interview. Thanks, Jeff.

    This is what I originally wrote about the cover–without any knowledge beforehand of the author or novel:

    #2 sci-fi. Aimed at both women and men (action scene in back and skin-tight outfit makes me think “catch the male eye”, while the strong female with weapon makes me think “Buffy” tough). I’d rather not read this in public, but I wouldn’t cover it up. The outfit is odd enough and the weapon clear enough that she looks tough rather than cheesecakey.

    Hope you follow with more interviews/insights into the other books/covers you had us analyze.

    Thanks,
    Mir

  6. science fiction books is the thing that i always read because it stirs my imagination “

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  8. reading science fiction books is the stuff that i am always into. science fiction really widens my imagination “.-

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