Today, we’re chatting with Luc Reid, a writer, public speaker, and musician. Luc is the founder of the large online writer’s group Codex.
For somebody unfamiliar with the work of Luc Reid, how would you describe your fiction and which story do you think is the best introduction to your work?
The thing that drives me to write stories is a fascination with identity and choices. To me, fiction is a playground in which we can go through experiences that make us more aware or capable or balanced as human beings. Really good fiction helps us understand how to make good choices in situations we’ve never personally faced before.
The things people notice first about my work seem to be humor and a willingness to turn reality on its head. It’s a little odd, because I usually don’t set out to write humor (or attempted humor) into my stories, but often it happens without me intending or even realizing. For instance, there was my story in Abyss & Apex last year, RE: The Dark One, Should It Arise From Its Horrible Abyss. I thought of it as an increasingly disturbing interpersonal memo at a corporation whose business was dark magic, but whenever I get to play with ideas that don’t naturally go together, I seem to try to push them a little too far for a bit of fun. For instance, a line from that story: “My first advice to you in the very unlikely event It Arises is that you immediately sacrifice thirteen virgins. Virgins will not stop the Dark One, but they will slow it down. You won’t be eager to take this step, I’m sure, especially since Bernie down in Exhumation has already told me you’re dating one of the virgins.”
RE: The Dark One is one good place to start for anyone interested in exploring my writing, but if you want something more down-to-earth and have a bit of time, my novel Family Skulls is a good bet. It’s available for Kindle now, and I hope to have a paperback version out before long.
You started the hugely successful Codex Writers Group back in 2004. What prompted you to do that, and how did the name come about?
One of my great strengths, and probably my greatest weakness, is that I keep seeing things that should exist but don’t. This can lead to some great projects, but it also means I tend to take on far too much, because there’s no end to great stuff we human beings could put together given half a chance.
Codex was one of those things that should exist. In 2001, I got the chance to study with Orson Scott Card at his Literary Boot Camp. Less than two years later, I was a published finalist in Writers of the Future, Volume XIX with a story about a young Phoenecian girl who wants to build a ship that can sail over the edge of the world (which is clearly visible from her home). Both at Boot Camp and at the Writers of the Future workshop, I met amazing and wonderful aspiring writers like James Maxey, Ken Liu, Maya Lassiter, Joy Marchand, Judson Roberts, Steve Bein, and many others, and it frustrated me that these people didn’t know each other. I figured if I got some of the Writers of the Future winners talking with some of the Boot Campers, amazing things would happen. Et voilà!
It was Lawrence M. Schoen, a former college professor of mine whose writing career was just getting into gear when Codex started, who came up with the name. We needed something short, distinctive, easy to remember, and topical. Lawrence suggested “Codex.” I’m not the guy to come up with short names. Hell, I once wrote a flash fiction piece with a title longer than the story itself.
(Note: You can see Lawrence M. Schoen interviewed in the archived Novy MIRror video podcast here. – RN)
Looking back, did you ever imagine the group would not only have such staying power, but also become as influential in the SFF genres as it has become?
Of course that was exactly the kind of thing I was trying to foster, and from the beginning we joked about world domination, but no! I had never imagined we would grow to have so many successful, celebrated, and talented people in one place. It built on itself, though. If you get a bunch of people really worth talking to together, more people really worth talking to will often start showing up. All I had to do was get to know enough great people and then supply them with an easy means to start talking.
Over the past decade you’ve developed a keen interest in psychology and self-help. What drives this interest and what is your ultimate goal in this aspect of your life?
You can probably guess from some of the things I’ve said so far that I’m a little obsessed with potential, with making things better. At a certain point, I asked myself what I wanted to most see in the world, and I realized that it was for people to have more happiness and compassion in their lives–for that matter, for me to have more happiness and compassion in my life. I’ve had plenty of self-made problems in my life–business debts that grew because I wasn’t willing to face them, lateness, and badly chosen relationships just as examples. At a certain point I started learning things that helped me change, to become more productive and happy and unconflicted, and while changes like that are a long road, I started wanting to write about what I’d learned.
I soon ran into a road block, though: everything I wanted to share was about changing habits, and I didn’t understand how people could change their habits, and especially why it was so difficult so much of the time. So I dove into that, thinking I’d do a few months of intensive research and master the subject. Years later, I’m still learning, but a lot of my questions about habits and happiness have been answered, so I’m trying to spread the word on what I’ve gleaned so far.
You have a reputation for being a versatile musician. How many instruments can you play competently and which is your favorite (even if it’s not your best)?
Music is a much-neglected love of mine, but neglecting it has been a smart decision because there isn’t time to do everything I want to do in life. For years, though, into my twenties, I focused on music much more than on writing. I taught myself how to play recorder from a book when I was a kid, and when they wouldn’t let me play that in school I took up the clarinet (it was the one instrument we could easily afford: my sister had started playing but had given it up, so we had one), then bass clarinet. I taught myself guitar and flute, gradually learned how to play hand drums, took a few piano lessons, bought and learned how to play a saxophone, and kind of kept piling it on: mandolin, marimba, electric bass, fife, tin whistle, violin, trumpet … some I haven’t learned to play decently yet, though, like trumpet, piano, and violin. My mainstays are flute, guitar, and voice. In college I took the full course of music theory and composition classes, so I’ve done songwriting, formal composition, arranging, improvising, and other kinds of music-design work.
I’m not a prodigy on any one instrument, but my versatility comes in handy sometimes, and my disregard of normal, decent behavior has been a boon. Take the flute, usually played as a sort of sweet, twiddly kind of instrument. If you’re willing to mess around, you can get all kinds of percussive and breathy noises out of it: overblowing like Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, making popping noises with just the keys, using a kind of rolled-R breath technique that makes the instrument growl, or even simultaneously humming and playing. In another life, I would have focused on music early on and never emerged from the trance-like state I can get into while making it.
Which do you enjoy writing the most, fiction or non-fiction?
Yes, and which of my children do I love the most?
No, that’s not quite a fair comparison: in terms of enjoying, fiction wins (especially if we count the occasional stage play or screenplay). I just love making stuff up, especially when it surprises me as I’m doing it. However, as subtly meaningful as fiction can sometimes be, I don’t think it’s as transformative as non-fiction, and transformation is what I’m all about. This is why I can’t stop writing either: they both have value, but fiction is endlessly fun and non-fiction accomplishes goals.
What motivated you to begin public speaking and how does the satisfaction from doing that compare to the satisfaction from seeing your written work in print?
Well, I’ll tell you off the bat that it’s certainly more terrifying to speak in public than it is to see my work published. If someone reads a forgettable story, they’ll brush it aside and not remember much about it, but seeing someone make a fool of himself in public will stick in your brain. Screwing up while speaking has a much higher danger level.
But speaking is like non-fiction in that it can accomplish things. Very recently climate change has become far and away my most important concern outside the immediate well-being of my family, and what I’ve been doing to help with that problem has been setting up ways for people to more easily eat local, sustainable foods. You wouldn’t believe the amount of fossil fuels that go into conventional agriculture, along with storing, packaging, selling, and especially transporting food. Do we really need a carrot or a head of lettuce trucked across the entire continent?
Sorry, I’m getting off the topic. Anyway, I get chances to speak to small groups these days about local foods, and I hope to spread information and ideas more and more widely through a group I founded called Localsourcers (http://www.localsourcers.org).
I got excited about public speaking because a friend from Codex, Elaine Isaak, invited me to speak at her local Romance Writers of America chapter about all of the research and writing I’ve done on motivation for writers. I realized that face-to-face, I could tailor communication to my audience and learn what was and wasn’t working. I also really love connection based on meaningful exchange of information, so public speaking is energizing to me. It’s a different and more jittery kind of satisfaction than writing. For me, the two complement each other beautifully.
What writers were the most influential in forming your style over the years?
Orson Scott Card is certainly one. He writes about difficult choices and has this transparent, pragmatic style that helped me jettison a lot of nonsense from what I had been writing up until I got to know his work.
Tolkien is another, not so much in terms of his writing style as in his development of worlds. I think many writers reacted to Tolkien by using place and character names that sounded vaguely like ones he might use and by borrowing the specifics of the world he created, but for me Tolkien was a clear demonstration that worlds could be built from scratch if you were willing to put in the work, and so he’s always given me a high mark to strive for in imbuing my fiction with a depth that makes the world feel real, however different from our own it might be. It helps that I have some background in linguistics (as an amateur). Philip Pullman has brought me even further in that direction, as has Jonathan Stroud. Daemons on the one hand and demon-based magic on the other were brilliant premises and helped me understand what could be thrilling about a really good “high concept.”
Ursula LeGuin taught me the connection between mythos and character, and from Douglas Adams I learned a taste for absurd things stated matter-of-factly. For a long time I unsuccessfully tried to write humor like Adams, but I think the process of outgrowing that was what I needed to learn how to write my own brand of humor.
What projects do you have in the works or in the planning stages that get you excited?
How much time do you have?
No no, I’ll narrow it down. For starters, I have two non-fiction books that are both partly complete. One is a compilation of the best and most useful material on habits and happiness from my blog called Resistance is Useless: How to Make Hard Things Easier.
The other is about Schema Therapy, which is an incredibly useful and not-widely-known branch of psychology that can help us understand exactly where our worst behavior is coming from and what to do about it. My working title is Why You Keep Doing That Annoying Thing You Do, but the real title may turn out to be a little more down-to-earth. For that one, I’ll be including free access to an interactive Web application I’m creating for exploring and identifying mental schemas, whether for yourself or someone you’re trying to understand better.
I hope to have both of those books out by the end of the year.
My big non-writing project recently has been an online tool to help match people with their ideal Community Supported Agriculture farm at http://www.localsourcers.org/csa. CSAs let people get regular batches of fresh food directly from local farmers, often at a discount. Unfortunately, the site is only set up for the Champlain Valley of Vermont and New York so far, but I hope to expand it in future seasons.
Once those two non-fiction books are properly launched, I finally get to go back to writing novels, and am planning a novel about fighting climate change. It’s hard to choose which of two ideas (one adult and kind of practical, the other young adult and more flashy) to go with, but fortunately/unfortunately I have time to figure that out while I get other projects launched and out the door.
Thanks for this interview, Rick. You’ve touched on a lot of topics near and dear to my heart that I don’t often get to discuss.