I recently read Ferrett Steinmetz’s urban fantasy debut, Flex, and was completely addicted. [my review]
In Flex, obsessions can be transformed into reality-bending ‘mancy, and ‘mancy can be distilled into drugs. The story centers around the Paul Tsabo, an insurance agent and secret bureaucromancer, and his quest to stop a ‘mancer serial killer.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to ask the author a few questions.
First off, can you say a little about your inspiration for Flex?
It came down to the idea of selling magical drugs.
I was having a weird discussion with some friends, positing some destitute wizards who would turn to drug-dealing to make ends meet. And I joked, “Hey, if I’m a wizard who deals drugs, I’m dealing magical drugs!”
And I went: “Why not write a book about dealing magical drugs?”
So I thought about making drugs, and why that would be hard for a magician. Can they just conjure drugs out of nowhere? What exactly does a magician do that he wouldn’t be rich, merely by dint of being able to summon up a pallet full of $20 bills?
I eventually decided that magicians needed a reason why they wouldn’t all be rich and successful. And what I settled on as a reason was that magic was created through obsession. If you loved something deeply enough, and madly enough, eventually you’d be able to do magic related to that relentless focus. So if you were a Crazy Cat Lady, and you loved your house full of cats with enough derangement, eventually you’d fall through the event horizon and start doing Crazy Cat Lady magic. (Or, as it would be called in the world of Flex, “felimancy.”)
But as we all know, Crazy Cat Ladies don’t care about money; they care about cats. And so they’d have these weird protective spells for their cats so the cats would all be clean and well-feed, and the felimancer would be eating cat food and covered in sores.
The life of a ‘mancer is not necessarily a happy one. Nor does it get any better when it turns out the universe is actually very offended by the presence of magic – it’s gone to all this trouble to set up these rules of physics that apply to everyone, and dislikes the way ‘mancers bend them. So for every act of magic there’s a countervailing force called “flux,” where the universe rains bad luck down upon your head until the odds are mostly evened out.
This explains why ‘mancers might need to do drugs. If you’ve fallen in love with, say, the paintings of Titian, that might let you do some wonderful illustromancy but you couldn’t afford the entry fee to the museum.
And after I’d come up with all of these worldbuilding answers, I needed someone to tell a story about. So I found a nice man with a magic that carries a lot of responsibility – a bureaucromancer – and gave him a child that he loved dearly. I had that child burned in a hideous fire, created by a terrorist ‘mancer hell-bent on burning the city down. I had his insurance company reject her claims. And because the nice man doesn’t have a whole lot of experience with his paperwork magic, anything he does to try to save her risks the flux injuring her even worse.
So of course he has to team up with the terrorist ‘mancer to learn how to brew drugs, and to get better control over his magic.
Things do not go particularly well.
Gamemancy and magical drugs are fun, but I absolutely adored the bureaucromancy. Is there a story behind your creation of DMV-paperwork-fueled magic?
Is there really a Universal Unified Form somewhere out there?
The power of bureaucracy stemmed directly from my sick sister-in-law.
See, I’d always been brought up as a nice Connecticut liberal: you went to the government when you needed help, and good people voted for more government assistance. And I’d always thought that paperwork was a pain in the butt, but ultimately a good thing – the world was complicated, and we needed to keep track of ALL THE THINGS so that we could run reports and analyze the data.
But my sister-in-law was poor, with her only insurance being from her trucker husband – and when she came down with an obscure kidney disease, we discovered the flip side of paperwork.
Because the insurance company did not want to pay the quarter-million dollars it would take to get my sister her life-saving surgery, and they pulled every crappy trick in the book to get out of it. They denied claims we made, saying they were the wrong form, when that was literally the form they’d sent us. They delayed payments on her drugs, piling up IOUs until all the local pharmacies refused to give her her medicine and we had to drive half an hour just to find a place that she could get her painkillers. They basically did everything they could to get her to give up and die – and if it wasn’t for the fact that she had us, two relatively healthy people, to do the full-time job of wrestling with this cut-rate insurance company, she would have passed on.
So when it came time to write Flex, I wanted someone who would be able to stick it to that insurance company – a sort of super-powered Radar O’Reilly, a meek man who was awesome with paperwork. And that became Paul Tsabo, bureaucromancer, who honestly believes that paperwork is the way we wrest justice from tyrannical corporations and governments.
There is no Universal Unified Form. But as a web programmer, who is forever writing different shopping cart programs that all need the same things – login! Email! Password! First name, last name, address! – I sure wish there was a usable central warehouse of data I could refer to. (Not Facebook – which, sadly, is as close as we get.)
Do you think you’d be a ‘mancer? If so, what type of ‘mancy do you think you would have?
I’d definitely be a writomancer. The story behind Flex is that I wrote novels for – I kid you not – thirty years before finally cracking the market with one. There are seven dead novels that’ll probably never be published, my path strewn with rejections, and I never was able to let it go.
(If you’re stuck like I was, I would strongly suggest trying to make it into one of the writers’ workshops – you have to pass the audition by sending in stories, but going to a place like the Clarion Writers’ Workshop (there are two, West and East, but either are as good), or Viable Paradise, or Odyssey, will help unstick you.)
My problem was that I was fundamentally lazy, and thought I could get away with “decent” writing. Problem is, if you ever take a job as a slush reader, you’ll see that most of the writing in the pile is decent; you need to be so exceptional that they can’t forget you. So I had to learn to aim much, much higher, and to polish my work until I either couldn’t see any remaining flaws or I didn’t know how to fix ‘em.
There are a lot of colorful characters in the novel, from Paul's headstrong daughter to the guy who uses donut choices as a personality test. Was there a character that you enjoyed writing about most?
Valentine was super-fun to write. She’s a snarky, chubby, sexy videogamemancer, who is filled with such confidence that she dresses in skimpy outfits because she thinks she looks awesome, and she doesn’t give a rat’s patoot what you think. And she’s filled with all of these fun flaws – she chooses boyfriends based on their compatibility with her kinks rather than their actual personality, she lives in a Hoarders-style hole of an apartment, she has very little impulse control.
That “very little impulse control” allows me to write the best zingers for her, because Valentine tends to use heavy sarcasm as a defense mechanism: if her scathing words don’t push you away, you must be a friend. That… hasn’t worked so well. And part of the joy of this book is watching her and Paul – who is kind of a lovable stiff – slowly circle each other, trying to figure out whether they’re going to be friends or kill each other.
Killing each other is actually not off the table at any point in the book.
Did you find it challenging to write from any of the characters' perspectives?
Paul was challenging in the first draft, but that’s because initially I wrote him as an ambitious ex-cop who was angry that his injury – he lost his right foot in a magical firefight – had put the kibosh on his political career. And I was having such problems having sympathy with this angry dork until I wrote a scene about 50,000 words in where Paul fights some invading buzzsect-demons from another dimension…
…and Paul was so offended. Sure, killing him was one thing, but these demons were upsetting the nice neat laws of physics that he’d lived in all his life, and he was actually more outraged at the fact that they were neutralizing the laws of gravity than the fact that they were, you know, eating him alive.
At which point I realized Paul’s inherent fussiness, and rewrote the opening of the book to suit him. Which is good, because Paul loves suits.
What's your favourite type of donut, and what would Kit say that indicates about your personality?
I myself am a maple log fan, and Kit would doubtlessly say that my fondness for maple speaks well of me, as it indicates a grounding in the natural world that says I can be realistic… but wanting the messy largeness of an éclair is slovenly and says that I need to focus on my self-control.
(I do not claim that Kit’s constant schtick of “using donuts as a psychoanalysis took” is correct, but Kit is a very smart man. I’d probably listen to his donetic prophecies, were I you.)
Do you have a favourite fantasy novel? Game?
I do not have a favorite fantasy novel, alas. There’s too dang many of them out there, and they are all my favorite depending on what I’m in the mood in. I generally tend towards books with a wide and disparate cast of characters who slowly become friends, which probably explains a lot about Flex.
As far as a favorite game, I am overly fond of games with a lot of dialogue and character choices, and the summit of that is Planescape: Torment, an RPG created by Bioware back in the late 1990s. I replayed it last fall, and it’s every bit as good as it was back then; it’s just so vibrant with grand concepts and sweeping emotions that it’s better than most fantasy novels, period.
I noticed that there’s a sequel already listed on Amazon. (Yay!) Can you say anything about that?
I’m putting the final touches on it, and the feedback from my beta readers is that if you liked Flex, you’re gonna love The Flux. I can’t give away the plot, because it deals with the ramifications of some of the climactic events of Flex, but The Flux includes:
- A refuge for wayward ‘mancers that threatens to tear Paul and Aliyah apart;
- Magic revolving around Pokemon and Scribblenauts and origami;
- Showdowns with the entirety of the New York City police force;
- A truly insane ‘mancer based upon the works of Chuck Palahniuk, or so the ‘mancer claims.
Do you have any other upcoming projects?
I’m working on a science fiction novel that’s an odd sequel of sorts to my Nebula-nominated novelette “Sauerkraut Station,” about a boy who comes of age in a three-star Michelin restaurant set in, of all places, a space station. And I have another novel of mine making the rounds at publishers; we’ll see how that works.
But mostly, it’s working on The Flux, and polishing that until it shines.
Thank you so much for your time!
Flex on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Flex-Ferrett-Steinmetz/dp/0857664603
Publisher page: http://angryrobotbooks.com/books/flex-by-ferrett-steinmetz/