University News

Faculty profile: Q&A with Brian Evenson

By
Contributing Writer
Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Professor of Literary Arts Brian Evenson has authored novels, short story collections and even a few video game-based books, all falling within the genre of horror and science fiction. He recently published a novel entitled “Dead Space: Catalyst,” the second book he has written based on the third-person shooter Dead Space video game. The Herald sat down with Evenson to talk about his new book and his work as a writer and a professor.

 

The Herald: I understand that your new book is a novel adaptation of a video game, Dead Space. How did you get the opportunity to do something like that?

Evenson: It’s something that I’ve done actually before. The video game is Dead Space, and I did another Dead Space novel about a year and a half ago, and they liked that enough that they asked me to do another one. I did a Halo novella as well for a collection of Halo short stories.

And you know, one of the reasons I wanted to do it was the game: I’m a gamer. I enjoy it a lot. But in addition to that, one of the reasons I wanted to do it was because I think that (for) a lot of people who read those books, it may be the only novel they read in a year. And so I kind of felt like there is a kind of outreach thing where I want – if they’re only going to read one novel a year – I want it to be an interesting novel. So it’s a way of reaching readers who otherwise might not be exposed to certain things going on in fiction.

 

Could you tell us a little more about the book itself?

The one thing about working with a video game novel is that you are working in a world that someone else has created. And so the world (of Dead Space) is the world of the video game, in which the world has run through all its resources and, as a result, is doing space exploration as a way of getting more raw material to work with.

(Man) has begun to destroy planets as a way of gaining material, and so the sense is that man really hasn’t learned that much from mistakes of our past. It starts with that as an idea, and then what happens is that they come across this weird kind of civilization, this marker, that they don’t know what it is, and it ends up having this effect of starting the destruction of the human race.

So I have to work within the format of that. … I decided to write a book, which is about two brothers, and the relationship of the two brothers as they are stumbling across things that may end up eventually destroying the universe.

 

How do you approach writing about a video game, and does that process differ from writing your other books?

I think that the first thing that you have (when writing a video game novel) is a kind of idea that is given to you – in the sense that you have a world that is there. You know you can do certain things within that world. And both with the Halo and Dead Space work that I did, what I found is that they’re really open to me doing kind of anything as long as it’s within the confines of the world itself. And so it is a little bit like working with a fixed poetic form in the sense that you have these constraints that you have to follow. But within those constraints you can do anything you want. … There are certain things directing you from the beginning, then it kind of opens up in a different way.

Whereas with my own fiction, I can go in any direction I want. I did have to get my ideas approved (for the video game novels). We ran through a bunch of things with the video game companies since video games are worth millions and millions of dollars in terms of the income they bring in. They’re very proprietary about them; they’re very concerned. They want the world, and they want any kind of product that’s associated with it to be something they really believe in and they support. We talked about different ideas and went back and forth. … I wrote an outline and moved forward from there. With my own work I rarely outline, but with this I have a pretty specific idea of where the story is going, and then I start actually writing.

For my own books, I think it varies from book to book, but it’s more organic in the sense that something like my novel, “The Open Curtain,” took about six years to do, and I had ideas about where it might go. But those (ideas) changed as it developed and changed according to the demands of the piece. Whereas something like (the video game novel) developed much more quickly, and a lot of the writing was done over the course of a couple of months. … My own work – I can kind of let it breathe. I can kind of enter into it in a different way and explore.

 

What has your journey of writing and publishing books been like?

It’s gone a lot of different directions. I’ve published at this point something like 12 books, I think. And a lot of them are kind of literary, and I’m kind of building up a sense of a voice. And then a few of them have been in this other direction, this kind of exploratory direction. I’m the kind of person who really loves to try something new, and so when I get asked to do something that I haven’t done before it’s very hard for me to resist it.

In addition to the Dead Space stuff, I did an Aliens novel based on the “Aliens” movie that Dark Horse Books published. And then I have (a book) coming out next year. I co-wrote a novel with Rob Zombie, which is kind of based on one of his films that’s also coming out.

I see things going on in horror or in science fiction that I feel like are productive and interesting … and then I try to think of ways in which I can inflect my literature with that. I try to find ways to write the work that I want to read. 

 

How did you figure out that you wanted to become a writer?

I knew at a pretty young age that I wanted to be a writer. My mother had published a couple of science fiction stories when I was a kid. And to give herself time to work on them she used to set all the kids up doing art or doing writing or some other project. I was the oldest – I was probably 13 when that was happening – and I just really took to writing, I really loved it. I didn’t know it would end up being my profession, but you know, I read a lot and wrote a lot and was really intrigued by it when I was growing up and was lucky enough to have enough success to be able to continue to do it and teach it.

 

How did you move from being a writer into being a professor as well?

I was actually doing a degree in 18th century literature and critical theory at the University of Washington. I did a double PhD … and I always thought I would teach academic subjects. And then as I was working on my PhD, I had my first book of fiction accepted, a book of stories called “Altmann’s Tongue.” And that kind of changed everything for me. That ended up moving everything in a new direction. So the first job I had I taught one or two creative writing courses, and then as time has gone on, it has become more and more central to what I do.

But I always thought I would teach, my father was a teacher – he was a physicist – and I think that I really liked that life. I think that there’s a lot to be said for (being a professor), it’s very rewarding to work with people on their writing. You can really, especially at the undergraduate level, see definitive progress with people … and it’s really rewarding and satisfying to see it. 

 

You teach LITR 0210A: “Fiction II” and Graduate Fiction writing. What are some of your favorite parts about teaching and why?

I think that the biggest part about the teaching is the students. It’s great to have students, it’s great to put yourself in a position where you can help students be better writers in the way they want to be. I think that the best creative writing teachers approach that with a lot of care. We’re trying to understand what the writer is trying to do and trying to help them do it better other than pushing them in directions they don’t want to go. So that, I think, is very satisfying to me.

I think there is something about the performative aspect of teaching that I like as well. It’s fun to be working with people on their fiction and being in a workshop where everyone has ideas and comments, and you’re trying to help the student kind of sort them out and push them in certain directions.

 

What would be your words of advice to students who are concentrating in literary arts and looking to get published themselves?

I think for those who are concentrating, I think you should be very thoughtful and careful about the classes you take. You’re really shaping yourself as a writer. As you do that you’re shaping your influences. … I think the most important thing for young writers is to read a lot and to read widely and to read in a way a writer does. And then you end up thinking very closely about what you’re reading and thinking about how it is achieving what it is achieving. … There’s no guarantee in terms of whether you’ll become a writer or not, but I think that you go into it in a serious way, and you have to be open to advice as well. But you also have to distinguish between advice that’s good and advice that’s not quite as good.