I met Tim at this year’s NCIBA (Northern California Independent Booksellers Association) Conference, and remembered his novel WILLFUL MACHINES from when it came across my library desk. It’s a great science fiction story, and a unique take on A.I. See for yourself:
In the near future, scientists create what may be a new form of life: an artificial human named Charlotte. All goes well until Charlotte escapes, transfers her consciousness to the Internet, and begins terrorizing the American public.
Charlotte’s attacks have everyone on high alert— everyone except Lee Fisher, the closeted son of the US president. Lee has other things to worry about, like keeping his Secret Service detail from finding out about his crush on Nico, the eccentric, Shakespeare-obsessed new boy at school. And keeping Nico from finding out about his recent suicide attempt. And keeping himself from freaking out about all his secrets.
But when the attacks start happening at his school, Lee realizes he’s Charlotte’s next target. Even worse, Nico may be part of Charlotte’s plan too.
As Lee races to save himself, uncover Charlotte’s plan, and figure out if he can trust Nico, he comes to a whole new understanding of what it means to be alive … and what makes life worth living.
Tim also answered some interview questions!
Let’s start on a happy note (pun intended). What is your favorite song from Les Misérables, and in what ways, if any, has music influenced your writing (or vice-versa)?
I have to admit I love pretty much all the songs from Les Miz, but the one I’ve probably spent the most time singing in the shower is “On My Own.” I also sometimes do “A Little Fall of Rain” and then fake-die. Of all the characters, I definitely vibe with Eponine most—which is probably a little sad, considering she’s such a tragic figure.
I do find music makes its way into my writing at times. When I write, I like to draw inspiration from all sorts of other art forms. For example, although music doesn’t play a big role in WILLFUL MACHINES, Shakespeare’s plays do. In my second book, TATTOO ATLAS, which comes out next year, music figures into the story in a fairly big way (as does painting, poetry, and, of course, tattoo art).
I love “On My Own,” and I can’t wait to see how the elements of music play out in TATTOO ATLAS. And while Shakespeare plays a big role (pun intended?) in WILLFUL MACHINES, you also find unique ways to explore artificial intelligence and its dangers. How did Charlotte come to you, and what do you want readers to take away from her and Lee’s story?
One of my goals in WILLFUL MACHINES was to turn the whole Terminator-style robot takeover scenario on its head. Instead of portraying Charlotte and the other A.I.s in the story as cartoonish monsters, I sought to make them as three-dimensional as any human character. And I wanted to question the assumption that machines, once they become sentient, will automatically want to obliterate mankind and take over the planet. I mean, maybe they will. I honestly don’t know. But in my story I wanted to take things in a different direction.
I also wanted to use the story to explore some other A.I.-related questions that have intrigued me for a long time. Namely, as machines get more and more sophisticated, how are these advances changing the way we think about ourselves as human beings? What, if anything, sets us apart from machines?
Not as much as we think, I’m sure! According to your website bio, you graduated from Boston University with a master’s in writing. In what ways did this help you grow as a writer, and what advice, if any, do you have for writers considering master’s programs?
I had a wonderful time at B.U. and learned a lot there, but I certainly don’t think having a master’s is a requirement for being a writer. For one thing, in the world of fiction writing, no one cares if you have a degree or not. For another, I don’t believe most aspects of writing fiction are necessarily teachable in a traditional, structured, classroom sort of way anyhow. Writing fiction is such a complex, nuanced pursuit, with a few guidelines but no fixed rules, and I think you mostly just learn by reading a lot, writing a lot, and getting as much helpful feedback on your writing as possible. You don’t necessarily need a graduate program for that.
That said, I do think master’s programs offer a few things for writers. One of those things is time. When I was at B.U., I appreciated having the time to focus on my writing without a job or anything else distracting me. Another is community. Writing is usually so solitary, and I loved having a group of other writers I could hang out with and talk about writing with. It kept me motivated. And thirdly, I learned at B.U. a very important skill: how to take feedback. Like a lot of writers, I felt really vulnerable whenever I gave my work to other people to read. Each story felt like a piece of my soul on paper. But after getting critiqued by my professors and fellow students week after week, I learned how to separate myself from my writing and not take it personally when someone else pointed out something that wasn’t working.
Sounds like an excellent way to approach craft. What are some of your current projects? Will WILLFUL MACHINES have a sequel?
As I mentioned, I have another book coming out next year, also from Simon Pulse. It’s called TATTOO ATLAS, and it’s a psychological thriller about a teen sociopath who receives an experimental brain surgery that gives him a conscience. Right now I’m working on finishing edits for that. And then … I’m not completely sure. I do have a story arc mapped out for a sequel to WILLFUL MACHINES, but I also have at least two other concepts I’m extremely excited about, and I’m not sure which of these projects I’m going to dive into next. I definitely hope to get back to Lee and Nico and the WILLFUL MACHINES universe at some point, though.
I hope so too! Thanks, Tim, for an excellent interview!
To grab WILLFUL MACHINES for yourself, click any of the links below: