10 Questions with Christopher McMaster
Christopher grew up in Northern California with a huge map of the world on his wall. When he got old enough, he checked himself out of high school, bought a backpack and travelled the Pacific and New Zealand. After 15 years in the UK and then Alaska—an incredibly beautiful place!—he returned in New Zealand with three passports in hand in a way only those circles tend to happen in life.
He currently teaches and crews on a double hulled voyaging canoe (waka hourua) teaching others to sail as he continues to learn, hosting school and youth groups. Recently, he accepted a post with the Ministry of Primary Industries in New Zealand as a fisheries observer, which involves monitoring fishing activities on the high seas.
Tell us a bit about yourself! Where do you call home and what do you write?
Home is on the East Coast of New Zealand, at a surfing beach called Wainui, but I don’t surf. Yet. I grew up in the mountains of California, but have grown very used to having the ocean out my back door. I really enjoy being on the water—on top of it in sail boats. I do some part time work on a waka hourua—a Polynesian voyaging catamaran, and just took up a post as a deep-sea fisheries observer for our Ministry of Primary Industries. That will mean weeks at sea, but also weeks at home.
I write mostly science fiction and speculative fiction. I recently wrote a short story using the team from a factory ship I worked on. I warned them (when they found out I was writer) that they would all end up as a combat platoon on a space ship. Such a wealth of characters! A deep-sea vessel is actually quite a lot like a space ship. It is a self-contained unit in the middle of a great expanse, with a single purpose, filled with outrageous characters. Hopefully this new work will help develop my craft.
2. What drew you to that particular style genre?
I grew up reading science fiction, especially Robert Heinlein, so I always looked up at the stars and wondered what was out there, traveling there through other’s words, and more and more in my own imagination. Growing up in Northern California meant sleeping outside a lot, with the milky way splashed across the sky. That’s a lot of space (literally) for the imagination to roam.
What I also liked about Heinlein’s writing, and the other authors I’ve read since, like Kim Stanley Robinson and even Peter Hamilton (for a couple examples), is that the worlds they create are plausible. I can see that kind of future unfolding, so I can relate better to it. It’s not a galaxy far far away, but something my great grandchildren might be involved in. I guess that gives me away as a Trekker rather than a Star Warser (what are they called?). I just finished book eight of The Expanse series. It is like that. Plausible. Possible. I aim for that in my writing.
3. What are you currently working on?
Last year I wrote a science fiction novel. My first novels were kind of on the speculative spectrum, and hard to pin down in some ways: alternate history/fantasy/something like that. My first degree is in history, so I finally put that to get use.
American Dreamer came out last year, published by Dreaming Big Publications, a small publisher in the US. Lucid dreaming involving time travel and manipulation by higher beings. It’s what the ancient stories and sags are all about, right? Tomorrow’s History should be out any time—it’s a kind of sequel (I wrote a trilogy of stand-alone stories), and God’s and Dreamers, the third book, will be published by year’s end.
But onto my sci-fi! It’s been fun writing. I set myself a goal of at least ten thousand words per month, a kind of ultra-marathon pace (you don’t sprint in those!) and by the end of a year I had a manuscript that had been beta read, improved, tweaked, all that stuff. Its title is MisStep and involves travelling across space through worm holes, and follows a main character who is one step ahead of the law and getting deep into an operation he has no clue about. Call it an inter-stellar drug deal gone very wrong. By the time he realises what he is being groomed for, the shit hits the fan and he has to use that training to … well, save the day, I guess.
I just finished the sequel, named Seeders, set twenty or so years in the future where a team sets out to find the original inhabitants of a planet they stumbled upon in the first book. I planned that out in my mind before Covid, so yes, it involves a pandemic, but I was not influenced by our current malaise. I gather some publishers don’t want to touch that subject. The planet the humans found was empty because a pandemic ripped through a thousand years before, which killed all mammalian type life. Some escaped in a generation ship, frozen in cryo-sleep. They didn’t have Step technology, but they did have other types of advanced technology, valuable enough to try to hunt down and find.
[Concept covers for MisStep and Seeders]
I’m playing with an idea for a book three. I want to write a war story. What if more of the original inhabitants managed to return and wanted their planet back?
The question was about works in progress and I talk about stories already written—but I haven’t quite decided what to do with them, and how to continue to develop them. Do I seek out a bigger publisher (which I would like)? Do I go through the relationship I already have with my smaller publisher? Do I self-publish and market? I’m still thinking about all that.
And while I am playing with ideas for book three, I find myself writing short stories and planning an anthology with a fellow traveller celebrating emerging writers in the spec-fic/sci-fi genre in Aotearoa. So stay tuned for a call for submissions.
4. What inspired you to write it?
I always said that the best way to get from A to B is to put A and B in the same place. Simply step from one to the other. My youngest daughter got tired of me talking about it and gave me the book Hyperspace by Michio Kaku. He’s a scientist that writes science for the lay person (or aspiring author). That was one inspiration. Another was actually working at sea with an insecure, bullying skipper. MisStep starts with our main character killing him (or at least being haunted in his dreams by the memory of doing so). I can’t say the desire to kill him and push him over board inspired me to write that sci-fi novel, but it may have been a log on the fire. If I ever see that guy again I will (if I don’t punch him) say ‘thanks for the inspiration’. I’ll most likely cross the street to avoid that interaction, because it probably wouldn’t play out in a polite way.
Another inspiration was drugs. Straight up. The main character finds himself part of an interstellar drug run. The drug is called Gods Living Room, or GRL. It’s kind of like DMT on steroids. It not only lets you experience a reality beyond any concept of reality, it lets you sit and relax in it. If that got back to Earth, and it was widely distributed … well … nothing would be the same. They wouldn’t just profit and be fabulously rich, they’d be considered prophets, our main character is told. I had fun researching.
5. Tell us about your writing process. Are you a plotter, panster or somewhere in between? How do you research?
I ain’t no panster. I let ideas percolate in my cranium, then start to draw pictures, then start to sketch scenes and chapters, drawing them on an A3 sized paper, then start to outline. Saying that, I also let shit happen. Sometimes I see that more is needed and I let that out. Sometimes I think I have planned a section, but things veer off. Maybe its like driving up a mountain road to Grandma’s house (she really did live in the mountains). I plot out the route, but there’s a tree fall, or a swollen river, or a huge plot hole that makes me detour or back track a bit. Does that make me flexible plotter? A plotting panster? A panting plotter?
And regarding research. I spent a lot of years as an academic researcher, which trained me to do that lit review first. But I will call on my assistant, Ms. Google, when needed, which is usually when writing. What does a 1970’s seedy bar look like? What line of the L do I take from this part of Chicago to that? I’ll also research experientially. I loved an article I read about a Minnesotan author who would try to experience what he was going to write. He wrote about the Mountain Man that was the subject of the film, The Revenant. The man had his legs broken and dragged his body for miles, eating whatever he could grab. Hell of a story, and Leo finally got his Oscar. This writer embarrassed the hell out of his kids as he spent hours crawling around the back paddock, eating bugs, whatever.
6. What’s the strangest or most interesting thing you’ve researched for your writing?
I am at the farmer’s market and I see a doctor I know. I stop him, and say I have a question. Listen, I say. I need to know what kind of drug to give to somebody I want make sleep for a very long time, like more than a full day, but not kill them, or make them so comatose that they wouldn’t even dream. How much of it would that be, by the way? And, wait, wait, I need to know what drug I would need revive them when I wanted to.
His wife will say hello when we pass each other at the market now, but he tends to avoid me.
7. What’s the most personal story/scene you’ve written and why?
I think it’s hard not to write the personal into story and scene. There’s one dream scene in American Dreamer that my brother will recognise, but not anybody else. I think a lot of characters are based on myself, people who have been close to me, or who I might have wanted to be. Most personal? I don’t think I’ve written it yet, but I will. As my skill improves, I can really see this creeping in. By exploring my own inner conflicts, my own doubts and dissatisfactions, unfilled needs or unmet dreams through my characters, wouldn’t they become more genuine? That might create a very fine line between self-indulgence or self-therapy and good writing. Maybe that’s why I say I haven’t written it yet. I can see the line, and I am not good enough, yet, to walk that high wire.
8. Who are your literary influences? In what way?
Now that you ask, I’m going to say Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski. They’re the devils sitting on that shoulder. My mom gently fed me authors from time to time, but I was always attracted to their bastard drunken and drugged children. Those guys didn’t self-censor, and they didn’t give a shit. I’ll never be like them, I sure don’t want that, but I will continue to aspire.
And cruising through Heinlein, maybe he’s on that shoulder too. His writing invited the reader to question what and why they believed what they did. “I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconception and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines,” he said about the book, Stranger in a Strange Land. It’s why I write—to shake loose and explore. I don’t think he would have had too much time for Hunter or Charles, but surely, he would have acknowledged the freedom of their minds. Faith. Culture. Belief. Reading, and writing, is dangerous to those. They are a very dangerous influence that allows us to question all of those.
9. What books are on your bedside table right now?
The Ministry for Primary Resources Observer Manual. Its there, but its so hard to pick up and read. Capsized: Jim Nalepka’s Epic 119 Day Survival Voyage Aboard the Rose-Noelle by Steven Callahan. I have a dream of owning a yacht one day and it will have a little library on board. This is one for that shelf. Outlaw Ocean by Ian Urbina. Oh my god, what a read. Its where I work now. Very scary. Also, great for that yacht library. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawkins. It’s kind of like Moby Dick. Something I always wanted to read, but, well, maybe soon. (Except that I finally finished Moby Dick, even if it took me almost 35 years). The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. A truly beautiful book, essential reading. Spend time with trees. Ask me yesterday and I could have added book eight of The Expanse.
10. Last and most important, where can we find your books/stories?
Check out my website, www.christophermcmaster.com, which will have links. My website is the building of my author platform, something that I am told is essential. Marketing is on the big ‘to do’ list. The big ‘how to’ list. Such a huge area! Can’t somebody else just do it? Build up an email list, they say. Sign up on my website and let me know what short story you’d like.