Schlock Talks | Ken Liu

Copyright: Ken Liu

Ken Liu was/is a lawyer, a computer programmer, and a multi-award-winning author. His work has been published in various magazines and anthologies. He talks to us about what motivates him as a writer and what is in store for us readers and fans in 2015.

You’re the only writer to win three major sci-fi awards (Hugo, Nebula, WFA) for a short story (Paper Menagerie). How did that make you feel?

It was a great honor for my story to win those awards, and I was surprised and delighted with every announcement. I was particularly pleased and humbled by the outpouring of congratulations from other writers.

Continuing from above, you seem to have done it all, do you feel jaded? Any regrets?

My friend Tobias Buckell has a great blog post about the distinction between goals (things you can control: writing this story versus that one, sticking to a schedule, etc.) and milestones (nice things you’d like to have happen to you: winning awards, getting published, etc.). The awards referred to in the previous question are milestones and not within my control, so I can’t really be said to have “done” anything with respect to them. I was lucky.

It’s hard to be “jaded” when there are so many things with respect to writing I’d like to do that I haven’t done. I see my writer friends demonstrate techniques and effects that I’d like to master, and I read books that change how I think about writing and reading. With every story, I try to do something different.

One of the criticisms (mostly from io9) thrown at Paper Menagerie is that it ‘isn’t really sci-fi/fantasy enough’. How do you think the genre has changed over recent years, and do you think publishers have turned towards more subtle forms of the genre?

I’m not a historian of genre, and I can’t really comment on how things have changed over the years. I’ve also never particularly cared about genre labels, so I don’t get worked up about whether my story is scifi/fantasy enough when that was never my goal.

Ultimately, the only thing that matters to me is whether I find the resulting story satisfying. I often like to employ genre tropes to achieve my effects, but I don’t set out with the goal of reaching a “minimal genre threshold” of some sort.

Many of your stories deal with family life and relationships, is this something that you inadvertently focused on after the birth of your own children?

Oh, there’s nothing inadvertent about that shift. I write what interests me. After my wife and I started our family, I had to think about parenting and parenthood a great deal, and I discovered stories of interest to me centered on family relationships.

You are primarily known as a short fiction writer but you have three novels set to be published, with the first slated for 2015. Is this something you’ve been preparing for a while? Have you found it more challenging to write a novel?

I’ve been working on the novel series for three years. The epic fantasy world was created by my wife and me together, and it’s definitely taken a while to feel out the quirks and pitfalls of the form.

I wouldn’t say it’s more challenging to write a novel than a short story, but the kinds of challenges are different. When writing a novel, maintaining creative stamina is much more difficult for me than writing a short story. I’ve had to learn new ways to motivate myself and to develop short-term goals to ensure continuing progress.

You’ve done programming, law, and writing. Do any of these professions help with the others, or are they mutually exclusive?

All these professions involve symbolic manipulation under a system of rules to achieve a desired result, and so I don’t think they’re as different as non-practioners may think. I’ve sometimes tried to pull bits from law and programming into my fiction to show the similarities, and hopefully readers have enjoyed these attempts.

Any final words of wisdom for the Schlock readers?

Read lots of science papers (the actual papers, not mere reporting about them). Doing so has restored my faith in humanity.


Ken Liu’s fiction has appeared in F&SF, Asimov’s, Analog, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and Clarkesworld, among other places. He is a winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards. He lives near Boston with his family.

Ken’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings, the first in a fantasy series, will be published by Saga Press, Simon & Schuster’s new genre fiction imprint, in 2015. Saga will also publish a collection of his short stories.

You can read more about Ken and his work at his blog.

Look out for Ken’s story Cutting, to be republished in Schlock Magazine’s April issue.