Interview: Ted Chiang

The application period for the 2012 Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop at UC San Diego officially opened on December 1, and will remain open until March 1. If you’ve been thinking about applying, start tapping on those keys now. We’ve got a wonderful faculty waiting in the wings, featuring Jeffrey Ford, Marjorie Liu, Ted Chiang, Walter Jon Williams, Holly Black, and Cassandra Clare. Thanks to Clarion’s friends and supporters, there is scholarship money for those who need it. In addition to general scholarships, there are special grants for students of color, students who are affiliated with Michigan State University, and students who are affiliated with UCSD. Get further information on the web at

Most writers would like to be able to make a living at their craft but it’s more likely that they’ll need some kind of job to support their writing habit. You work as a technical writer now. Is that a field you’ve always worked in?

Yes, and as with a lot of people and their careers, I fell into it by accident. I majored in computer science at college, and assumed I’d get a job as a programmer. During my senior year I attended the usual informational meetings held by company recruiters, and at one a student asked, “Are you interviewing for technical writers?” and the recruiter said, “Sure, send us some writing samples.” I hadn’t really thought about it before, but it occurred to me that technical writing might be a good fit for me. Throughout college I had written some software reviews and programming tutorials for a small computer magazine, so I actually had samples to submit. I wound up getting hired as a technical writer, and have been in the field ever since.

Do you think there are any benefits to working within the literature field in some non-writing capacity, as a teacher, librarian, editor, etc., vs. a job that’s unrelated but may still be rewarding or stimulating in other ways?

Not that I can think of. If someone were interested in working as, say, a dog trainer, I certainly wouldn’t suggest looking for a job as an editor for the sake of one’s writing career. If your goal is to find a job that enables you to also write fiction, the primary consideration is to find one that pays tolerably well but doesn’t consume all of your time and mental energy; the field the job is in doesn’t matter that much. It may be that aspiring writers tend to have skills that make them well suited for jobs related to literature, but that’s a different discussion. (On a related note, some might suggest that a job in a wildly different field might be better because it’ll give you something to write about. I suppose that’s true, but again, that shouldn’t be a major factor when choosing a job. Plus, I would hope that most of a writer’s fiction will not be about her day job.)

The workshop experience isn’t for everyone. What do yo feel are the pros and cons of an intensive workshop like Clarion, or more specifically, what helped you decide that it was right for you, when you applied and attended in 1989?

It’s probably worth mentioning that many of the options that exist now for aspiring writers weren’t available back then. For example, there was no such thing as low-residency MFA programs, let alone ones which one would accept science-fiction writers. There were no online writing workshops, and even a local writers group was hard to find without the internet. That said, I would have applied to Clarion even if those other options had been available; the opportunity to learn from six writers whose work I’d read and admired was irresistible.

I think the advantage of an intensive workshop is that it provides you with an extended period during which your sole obligation is working on fiction writing. Even if you enroll in a full-time MFA program, you’ll probably spend a lot of time grading freshman composition papers. At Clarion, it’s just fiction writing, 100% of the time. The downside of an intensive workshop is that, to get the most out of it, you ought to be a fast writer. I’m not a fast writer, and I probably would have gotten more out of Clarion if I had been, but I got plenty out of it, so I can’t say it’s an enormous downside.

What advice, if any, would you offer anyone preparing to apply to Clarion?

If you’ve never had your work critiqued by other writers before, look for a writer’s group or a one-day workshop at a science fiction convention. It won’t be a perfect predictor of whether Clarion is right for you, but I think it’s a good idea to have some experience with receiving feedback on your work, face to face.

Ted Chiang is the author of Stories of Your Life and Others. He was born and raised in Port Jefferson, New York, and attended Brown University, where he received a degree in computer science. His debut story “Tower of Babylon,” won the Nebula in 1990. Since then, he has won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1992, a Nebula Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for “Story of Your Life” (1998), a Sidewise Award for “Seventy-Two Letters” (2000), a Nebula Award, a Locus Award, and a Hugo Award for his novelette “Hell Is the Absence of God” (2002), a Nebula Award and a Hugo Award for his novelette “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” (2007), a Hugo Award and a Locus Award for his short story “Exhalation” (2008), and most recently, a Hugo Award and a Locus Award for his novella “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” (2010). He lives outside of Seattle, Washington.


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