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AUTHOR INTERVIEW: BLAKE CROUCH
Feature by Jena Brown
Thrillers have always been my jam, but add a twist of realistic sci-fi to the mix and that’s a recipe guaranteed to keep me reading all night long. Science is both fascinating and terrifying, with the potential to do both good and evil, and one author who pulls off this incredible combination with vivid storytelling and compelling characters is Blake Crouch.
In his newest book, Upgrade, Crouch explores genetic modification and the horrifying ramifications that might arise when we attempt to create superhumans. It’s an intimate story told within the scope of humanity at large. What would you do to hide from your past? To erase your mistakes? To ensure mankind has a future? Logan Ramsay has to answer all of these questions and more. He knows why his genome was hacked. And he knows the planned future for humanity. But what if the thing that can save the world will also destroy it?
I knew when I closed the cover of Crouch’s book, Dark Matter, several years ago that his books were going to be my new obsession. Several books later, I still can’t get enough. His books are addicting for a number of reasons. The science is mind-bending, and the plot lines are so tense they’re practically vibrating off the page. But what I love most is how Crouch infuses realism and humanity into his high-concept tales. You’re likely to recognize yourself within those pages, asking what you would do and sitting with the uncomfortable reality that this fictional future may not be so fictional—and not so far away. I was thrilled to sit down and talk with Blake about his writing process, what it takes to research each novel, and what authors have shaped him as a writer.
JENA BROWN: Hi Blake! I’m so excited to chat with you today. Can you introduce yourself to our readers? When did you get started writing and why?
BLAKE CROUCH: Hi, I’m happy to be here. My name is Blake Crouch and I write what I call emotional speculative fiction. I actually started writing around elementary school. I’d come up with these scary bedtime stories to tell my younger brother. These stories got more and more involved, and I continued writing them well into middle school. In high school, my love of writing kept growing and I wrote a lot of short stories and poetry. Finally, late in my senior year of high school, I began writing a novel. It took me until my first year of college to finish, and then I queried it extensively. It didn’t get picked up, but that was my first big step towards becoming an author, and it helped me get my first agent later on.
JB: It sounds like you’ve always leaned towards the thrilling side of writing. When you first began your career, it was more straightforward thrillers. When did you start adding more science fiction elements into your novels? And why you are drawn to these complex theories in storytelling?
BC: I realized pretty quickly that writing straight thrillers was really, really difficult. All of the plot lines I was coming up with ultimately came down to pretty basic elements of kidnapping, heisting—that sort of thing. I really wanted another element that would give me something more to talk about with my readers. When I started learning about all of the amazing breakthroughs that are happening in the fields of genetics, physics, and medicine, I was fascinated, and it struck me that we are sort of already living in the future. I realized that this was what I wanted to be talking about. And yet, I don’t think I write science fiction. I just write about now, and now is also the future.
JB: How do you manage to maintain the concrete realism of some of these very hard science topics—multiple dimensions, time travel, the potential of the human genome—while making them accessible to the reader?
BC: I think part of it comes from that the fact that I am not a scientist. I’m just an English major with a creative writing minor, so I think I’m dense when it comes to a lot of this stuff. So it’s easy to put myself in the role of the reader. I want the science to be distilled enough so that both myself and my readers can grasp the concept. It does take a lot of effort for me to take these really difficult concepts and make them into understandable, bite-sized chunks that fit with the plot and characters, but that’s my job.
JB: How do you decide what topics you want to explore? How do you weave them into a compelling story arc?
BC: The science that comes first. That happened with Dark Matter. I knew I wanted to write about quantum mechanics. With Recursion, that started with me wanting to write about memory. And with Upgrade, it started with me wanting to tackle genetics. So, for me, I start by asking what’s the science field that I want to write about now. From there, it’s a lot of reading. I have magazine subscriptions to Scientific American, Nature, and Science. I read until something piques my curiosity, and then I start journaling. Sometimes I journal for months. I started journaling for my current work-in-progress in December, and I’m still taking notes on it. It’s through the act of journaling that I start to see plot threads and
characters. I come up with the plot next. My brainstorming sessions may end up taking months, but during that time, I’ll start to develop an early outline, usually up to the midpoint of the novel. After that, things get pretty fuzzy, but if I feel like I have a good idea of what happens through the midpoint, I naturally start to formulate what comes after. Oddly enough, character for me comes last. They’re the last element that comes into focus for me. I wish my process started with the characters, but that does not appear to be how I conceptualize my books. It’s usually around this point in the journaling stage that I feel good enough to start writing.
JB: Which do you find harder to write—the depth of emotion or the intricacy of science?
BC: The emotional arc is always the hardest part. It takes careful nuance to craft thoughtful characters with meaningful emotions, motivations, and trajectories. That’s not to say that the science is easy, but for me, understanding the science is just about putting in the time. Characters need be inspired, and sometimes that means waiting for a breakthrough.
JB: What was your most challenging book to write and what made it such a challenge?
BC: It always feels like the most recent book is the most challenging. Both Recursion and Upgrade were really difficult, but they were difficult in different ways. Recursion was hard to plot, because I kind of wrote myself into some corners, and I had to try to figure a way out of those problems. I was dealing with time travel paradoxes, so inevitably you’re going to run into the kind of mind-melting stuff that they create. The plot in Upgrade is more linear and straightforward than Dark Matter or Recursion, but to write a character who is undergoing such an extraordinary transformation and having to show those details on every page—that gets complicated. Plus, I was writing a character who is becoming super intelligent, which felt like an impossible task. On every page, I had to prove to the reader how smart the character was, which meant I had to be ahead of the reader in ways unlike anything I’ve written before.
JB: How long does it take on average to write a book? How much of that time is dedicated to research? Has the length of time varied per book?
BC: With a lot of books, I find that I had been thinking about them for years already. But the time it takes to write each book varies. Dark Matter took about a year and half. Recursion took around two years. And Upgrade took about two and half years. Six drafts seems to be my magic number. It’s kind of a messy process, honestly. Sometimes I have to go back to journaling, even if I’m already deep in the book. I have to go back to the drawing board whenever I need to figure something out, or if the science isn’t really meshing the way I had hoped. That means trying something new, reading a bit more, or asking subject matter experts for help. I wish the process went a bit faster, but it’s hard because of what I’m trying to accomplish with these books. They’re not just thrillers and they’re not just science fiction. I’m trying to do several things with genre, while also trying to write about real people who are thrust into these crazy situations. I think if I was writing a series of straight thrillers, the books wouldn’t take this long. But the books I want to write demand more. I always say that I’d like to write something simpler the next time, but that never seems to happen.
JB: I think it’s safe to say that we’re all happy you’ve stayed with these complex narratives. Of the books you’ve written, do you have a favorite? What about a favorite character?
BC: I really like the character of Letty Dobesh in my novellas and short stories. I think she’s such a fun character, and she represents one of the rare instances in my writing where the character came before any of the plot. Picking a book is tough. It’s always easy to say your last book because it’s the freshest, and it always feels like that’s the one you worked the hardest on. But there are different things about each book that I really, really love. So, I don’t know. I don’t know that I have a favorite book. That’s too hard.
JB: What authors or books have influenced your writing?
BC: Cormac McCarthy is a big influence. So is Thomas Harris, with Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, in particular. I think he’s an incredible writer. Michael Crichton is an exciting and terrifying writer, and the way he incorporated science into popular fiction was obviously really inspiring to me. I love, love, love Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Those are probably the pillars of my reading influences.
JB: Do you have a favorite genre that you tend to read the most?
BC: My favorite genre is the kind of stuff I write: emotional speculative fiction. It’s my favorite genre to read, which is why I write it. Writers are always told to write the kind of books they want to read, so that’s what I’m doing.
JB: Apple TV is adapting Dark Matter, and Shonda Rhimes and Matt Reeves are tackling Recursion. Are there any production updates that you can talk about?
BC: They’re all in various stages of development, so I’ll just say, as far as I know, everything is moving forward. I’m writing the adapted script for the Amblin project with Upgrade, I’m working on Dark Matter, and we’re progressing with Recursion.
JB: Is the adaptation experience different from writing and selling a novel?
BC: It is. With my books, I have an editor who I’ve worked with since Dark Matter in 2014, and I love and trust them. This makes selling a new book project a lot easier and more straightforward. When it comes to the film and television side of things, the process is a lot different. People in these industries are constantly changing jobs and positions, so it’s a bit like the Wild West. This makes it more difficult to find the best home for my work.
JB: Before we go, let’s have some fun. Tell us something about you that would surprise your readers.
BC: Hmm. I guess that depends on their assumptions about me. Let’s see. I don’t read a lot of hard sci-fi. I think that would surprise people. I find it generally very cold and sterile, and I have a hard time connecting to it.
JB: That is actually quite surprising, but it just goes to show that reading and writing are very personal experiences. Last question. Any exciting new projects that you’re working on?
BC: I’m journaling for my next book right now. No hints, though. I have to protect the idea.
JB: I know I’m not alone when I say I very much look forward to seeing what you come up with. Thank you for your time today!
Upgrade (Ballantine Books) is now available wherever books are sold.*
*Purchase a signed copy of Upgrade from VJ Books, the best place to buy signed books online, by visiting their website: vjbooks.com.