Andy Weir

8 Questions with Andy Weir

Sean:  Welcome. I’m talking to Andy Weir who wrote one of my very, very favorite books of last year. I think the book itself is older than that, but I got around to reading it last year. It’s the only book I’ve ever lost an Audie to. Actually that’s not true. Yesterday’s Gone lost to The Girl With All The Gifts, which also deserved it. But The Beam lost to The Martian and I was happy about that. I think The Beam is great, but I think The Martian is better.

I actually felt perfectly fine and happy. I saw The Martian trailer the last time I went to the movies, for the first time, and that was really exciting. I was like oh, Andy’s trailer, and I wanted to give it a round of applause.

Andy is author of The Martian and a really, really smart guy, and welcome to the show.

Andy:  Thanks for having me and thanks for all the nice things you just said there.

Sean:  My pleasure. So, we’re going to start with one of my very favorite questions. It’s a big question and because I’m guilty of…

Andy:  What is the one true religion?

Sean:  Try that.  Who built the pyramids? Who was it, Andy?

Andy:  Aliens.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made?

 Andy:  Like in my life or in writing?

Sean:  I’d say in writing, but if you want to say in your life. I like mistakes. I think mistakes make me smarter and stronger. So, it could be a mistake that you learn from, surely.

Andy:  Was not prepared. Okay, let me think.

What’s the biggest mistake I ever made in writing. I’ve written a lot of things that were crappy, but I don’t think of them as being there’s one singular error that made it bad. It was just like oh, well, I just didn’t do a very good job.

Sean:  That’s more like part of the process, right?

Andy:  Right, that’s the process. Whereas a single mistake – well, in The Martian, one big mistake I made that people keep pointing out over and over again is that there’s a math error in the chemistry of converting the oxygen and hydrogen into water.

I equated volume with – I did it wrong. I miscalculated the number of moles of oxygen that are in any given volume of liquid oxygen.

I had a lot of people call me out on that, and kind of angrily, sometimes.

Sean:  Did you have like an uncanny valley thing going on there?

Andy:  Yes.

Sean:  Because you did such a great job with all the research that if you missed something…

Andy:  People would accept a warp drive, right, but they…

Sean:  Right! That’s what I mean. That kind of sucks.

Andy:  And then also, at the beginning of the book, of course there’s the big sandstorm and that’s not realistic at all. In reality the winds on Mars don’t have enough inertia to do any damage to anything.

But that one was a deliberate concession I made. It’s not a mistake. It’s a thing that pisses some people off, but it’s not an error. I meant to do it.

But yes, I’m having a tough time coming up with some big mistake that I’ve made in writing, because when I make a big mistake, I delete it in editing before it ever gets out to the reader.

What about in the process of getting The Martian from early blog posts all the way to a successful book and an audio book and a film?

 Andy:  Well, while I was working on The Martian, I got my first pass at the orbital dynamics I got wrong, and I ended up writing most of the book with these bad numbers.

So, all the dates and times that things take place and the communication latencies and everything like that, turned out to be wrong. When I noticed the error, then I had to go back and change all of them.

So, I had to go back and say okay, I need to change like this would happen on this date instead of that one. Because it’s a different date, the communication latency between Earth and Mars would be different, because they’re in different positions in their orbit.

It was a big pain in the butt.

Sean:  That’s a good answer then. So, The Martian was probably more successful than you expected it to be, right.

Andy:  Much.

How has the success affected your follow-up?

Andy:  Well, it adds a lot of stress to it because my next book, it’s not a sequel, it’s a more traditional sci-fi novel that has aliens and faster than light travel and stuff like that. I’m working on it now.

Sean:  And new physics that you invented just for this book.

Andy:  Yes, of course. It’s made up physics, but it’s made up my way.

I made this one little kernel of bullshit – do you mind if I swear?

Sean:  No. I might be sad if you don’t.

Andy:  Well, no, some people want to keep their podcasts like PG so I don’t know.

Anyway, there’s this little kernel of bullshit that I’m like okay, here’s the bullshit, and then everything else is based on that.

I tried to do the minimally invasive change to real physics. And the bullshit is not in conflict with any real world physics.

Sean:  Okay. That makes sense.

Andy:  So, it’s like an internally consistent system.

Sean:  Do you ever wish that…

Andy:  I’m sorry, I didn’t actually answer your question. So, basically the new book that I’m working on, I feel a lot of stress because it’s very unlikely to be as popular as The Martian, even if I do a good job writing it.

So, I’ve got of course the standard thing. I guess a lot of people get this, impostor syndrome. I feel like I’m not really worthy of the response that I’m getting for The Martian.

Okay, my second book, that’s when everyone’s going to find out that I’m a fraud who just bungled into one book. I’ll be a one hit wonder, that I wrote one good book and everything else I write is crap.

That’s what I’m afraid of.

Sean:  So, is it tempting to go back to The Martian well?

Andy:  There’s really nowhere to go. I’d love to write a sequel to The Martian, but there’s nowhere to go with it. I mean are we doing spoilers?

Sean:  I think you should be able to just talk so…

Andy:  Yes. So, Mark gets home. Then what? It’s really unlikely he’d go on another mission.

And if he did, it would be really, really unlikely for him to get in trouble again.

Sean:  Right. It just becomes Speed 2.

AndySpeed 2. Right.

Sean:  It’s just too unlikely.

Andy:  And then if I have someone else in trouble, who he’s helping from the ground, like he works at Mission Control now or something like that, then it loses a lot of its punch because it’s not Mark in trouble, it’s some other character. It’s somebody else’s story.

I don’t know. I have not been able to come up with a plot that works, that matters, that is plausible.

Sean:  So, there’s no objection there. It’s just the fact that you don’t want to sell the story short, or the characters.

Andy:  Oh, no, not at all. Right.

Now a lot of people have pointed out that well, you know, technically at the end of the book you don’t show him getting back to Earth, they’re aboard Hermes.

Now there’s the whole trip back to Earth to deal with on Hermes, which is well past its maintenance dates and things could break down and you could have some adventure there.

That’s true, and it’s probably the best idea for a sequel, but it’s still not a good enough idea.

Sean:  Yes, it kind of has to sing to you, right?

Andy:  Right. It would be really derivative. It would be just kind of more of the same, and instead of being alone, he’s got a whole crew. And instead of being isolated, he has like all of NASA to communicate with.

He’s the lowest ranked member of the crew really, so it would really be more of a story about Lewis, which I’m fine with, because I like her as a character too but people would want more Watney.

Sean:  Have you considered turning Watney into a serial killer on the Hermes?

Andy:  Yes, but they get picked up by aliens halfway home from Earth.

Sean:  So, the danger there is yes, you have the audience for it, but you could end up bastardizing the original.

Andy:  Right. And it would also take away from the climax of the first book if people reading it in the future know that there’s a sequel about their trip home. It would detract from the accomplishment. It’s like well, he’s not safe yet, you know.

Sean:  Yes, that’s very true. Writers seem to be writing faster and faster all the time. The indie revolution has led to speed above all else, or along with many things.

But you have a very methodical way of writing, you’re very precise. The Martian is a very precise book. It’s one of the things I love most about it.

A lot of times when I’m reading a book I think I could do that. I did not think that when I read The Martian. I could not do this book, and I really appreciated it for that.

Andy:  Thanks.

Do you ever wish that you could write faster or do you ever think of concepts that oh, I’d like to do that because I don’t have to make up physics or do a lot of math?

Andy:  I really like the physics and math stuff. I actually enjoy doing that part of things.

I wish that I got things done faster. I feel that I’m not as productive as I could be.

So, yes, I wish that I could write faster, but I’m not willing to sacrifice any quality for it. It ends up being yes, if I can get this advantage without paying for it in any way, then sure.

Sean: But also it’s part of your process, the math and the physics and figuring that stuff out. It’s not just getting words on paper, it’s the world building and all that stuff which is part of it for you.

Andy:  Yes. But I tend to fall into the hole of doing too much world building. Because world building’s fun. It’s easy to just sit there world building till the day you die without ever writing anything.

Sean:  It’s so true. We started production on a new story today that I handed over the outline, the beats, the world building package to Johnny yesterday, and I ended up spending way longer on it than I expected. Like by at least double. He had to start today. And if he didn’t, I’d still be on it. There’s no doubt about it.

Andy:  You had fun doing it I bet.

Sean:  I had so much fun. Yes, I love the world building stuff.

Andy:  World building’s great. It’s so fun. You’re off in your own little world, literally.

Sean:  Yes, you’re making people up. You’re making their motivations up.

Andy:  Make up history. Like, oh, well, let me tell you about tribe of this mountain range. Isn’t this a story that takes place in the distant future? Yes, yes, but the early tribe…

Sean:  But it’s all important.

Andy:   And this is relevant.

Sean:  Right. There’s a whole long alternate timeline to this and I love that stuff. So, yes, I totally feel you. And you’re doing all of it. I’m making the back story and then passing it to Johnny, where you’re making up the back story and passing it to yourself.

Andy:  To me, yes. And it’s more fun to work on the back story than it is to actually work.

Sean:  Like getting the words on the page. That’s hard.

Andy:  It’s hard for me, yes, get my ass in gear.

Sean:  What was it like the first time you saw The Martian trailer? 

 Andy:  Oh, it was awesome! They sent it to me swathed in NDAs and all sort of other stuff so I could take a look at it. I had to keep it a secret and not show it to anybody.

Man, I just watched there and I just sat there giggling at my screen. I think I watched it like a hundred times that day.

Sean:  I can imagine.

Andy:  Play again, play again. Then I started to do the frame by frame thing. I’m like ooh, okay, I’m going to pause it here and I’m going to look at the set for a while, then pause it there, let’s see what that monitor has on it in the background.

Sean:  Have you seen the finished film or no way, it’s too far out?

Andy:  No, I have not seen it yet. They have had test screenings for test audiences and stuff. It’s not done, done. I know they’re still making some minor like, oh, let’s put this scene in front of that one instead of immediately after. Like small changes. And I think they’re still polishing up the special effects.

The test audiences liked it a lot, and I ‘m going to get to see it later this month. For listeners at home, this month right now as we record this is August. So, I’m going to get to see it in a couple of weeks and I’m really looking forward to that.

Sean:  From the trailer how closely do you feel like they captured your world?

Andy:  Oh, I think they really captured it. And what I was really excited by is just recently they released the second viral video, the second crew video. Have you seen that yet?

Sean:  No.

Andy:  Okay. Did you see the first one where it’s like Mark Watney holding the camera and showing you around Hermes and stuff like that?

Sean:  No.  I didn’t see that one.

Andy.  Okay. So, they have these videos of the crew about Hermes, or the crew in training and stuff like that, that they’re releasing as kind of supplemental marketing. These are not things that are in the movie. These are like, you know what I mean?

Sean:  Yes, that’s awesome.

Andy:  It’s to generate more hype for the movie. And the most recent one’s premise is each one of the six crew members are being interviewed after they’ve each completed their ten days in isolation.

It’s a test where they have to be completely alone in a sealed room by themselves for ten days and now each one of them is being interviewed by a psychiatrist.

That one is great. You can really see how well Matt Damon captures Mark Watney. It is absolutely perfect. I’m like yes, that’s it.

Sean:  Yes, he’s one of my favorite actors in the world and I think the casting is fantastic.

Andy:  Oh, yes, I think the casting’s great, but also just to reiterate, he is nailing the character. It’s just absolutely exactly how I imagined him anyway.

Sean:  That’s so awesome.

With your next book, with your follow-up, has the fact that The Martian is now a movie and kind of a juggernaut, is that influencing the way you write? Are you thinking in cinematic terms, like oh, what if this turns into a movie, or are you trying to put that in a corner and just focus on the book?

Andy:  I’m focusing on the book pretty well, I think. I always imagine things in the visual medium in my head. Deep down I’m writing either a movie or a TV show or something like that.

Honestly, Jack, that’s the book I’m working on now, would be more suited to be a TV show. I guess maybe in my mind I’m seeing a TV show.

Sean: I like TV show writing.

Andy:  Oh, I love TV. I think that people have this lowered respect threshold, or whatever, for TV. They think of it as like the minor league for movies, but I think TV is one of the best storytelling mediums that exists.

It’s a visual medium, so you get to show things. It’s kind of like a movie, but you have an infinite canvas. If you have a CD of a TV show, it’s like 22 hour long episodes, you can complete it all.

Sean:  Yes, the character work on that is insane. The Beam is very much our television show.

Andy:  Yes.

Sean:  That’s when Dave and I started, Yesterday’s Gone. These are TV shows in our head.

Andy:  In your head, yes.

Sean:  That’s the way we articulate.

Andy:  Or radio shows basically.

Have family and friends treated you differently since The Martian got all big?

 Andy:  Not family and friends. Everyone else, yes. No, they still keep me centered and don’t put up with any of my crap.

Sean: That’s awesome.

Andy:  Yes, for sure.

Are you more inspired by real life events, television, books, movies, any of that?

 Andy:  I guess I’m more inspired by real life stuff. Well, I don’t know actually. Inspired by. Ultimately all my stories start out as just daydreams by me. So, what inspires those daydreams? I don’t know. Probably a lot of popular media and then also some real world stuff.

I guess I’m kind of weaseling out of answering. I don’t really have a solid answer.

I come up with lots of story ideas that have nothing to do with science fiction too. It’s like ooh, what if I had this super power.

Is it hard to decide on what it is you’re going to write?

 Andy:  Yes and no. I mean there’s always several ideas percolating at the top of my head. But right now the book I’m writing is because I have a contract.

Don’t get me wrong, I pitched it. I was like I want to write this, and Random House is like okay. But actually the first thing I pitched, they rejected. Which was interesting. That shows me that they’re not just going to rubber stamp anything I come up with.

I pitched them a story, while The Martian was at its peak sales kind of thing, I was like all right, here’s my follow up and here’s what I’ve got in mind, I’m really excited. And they’re like yes, we don’t like it.

Sean:  Wow, that surprises me. I do think that’s interesting though.

Andy:  Yes, it’s good. It makes me feel good. It tells me that they actually like believe in the one – I pitched them another one and they liked the second thing I pitched them. It tells me that they actually believe in this one a little bit more, and they’re not just rubber stamping. That feels good.

Sean:  Yes, I would like that too.

What book or movie, or I guess TV show, do you wish you would have written?

Andy:  Let’s see. Not wish I would have written, but instead like wish they had given it to me to write. A few things maybe a little differently. Let’s see. I’d probably want it to be sci-fi. I think I could have done a lot of cool stuff if I had been able to write any of the Star Trek stuff.

Oh, actually, I’d love to write Doctor Who.

Sean:  That’s a good answer.

AndyDoctor Who, yes, for sure.

Sean:  My daughter just discovered Doctor Who.

Andy:  Good for her.

Sean:  She’s very excited.

Andy:  Tell her she’s got about 35 seasons of stuff to watch.

Sean:  Right. That’s kind of a bottomless well there.

Andy:  Yes. Well, you’ve got to really love the show to enjoy the early stuff. Production quality on that is like…

Sean:  It’s pretty low.

Andy:  ….community theater.

Sean:  With sock puppets.

Andy:  People in garbage bags shuffling forward.

Sean:  All right. My last question and this is my favorite question.

What do you want your legacy to be?

Andy:  I just – I would like it if my books kind of stood the test of time and people kept reading them, you know, distantly into the future. Kind of like Heinlein and Clarke and Asimov. Long after my death people will still be reading my books and saying that they’re cool.

Sean:  Considered classics.

Andy:  Yes.

Sean:  I think The Martian will be considered a classic.

Andy:  Maybe and maybe not, because it will eventually be kind of disproven or made redundant by real world science.

Sean:  Yes, but that doesn’t change like 2010, right.

Andy:  Yes, that’s true. That’s a good point, yes. We haven’t had an actual manned Jupiter mission yet.

Sean:  That’s true.

Andy:  But I see what you’re saying, yes. I was around in 2001 and I didn’t notice a Jupiter mission. I was around in 2010 and Jupiter’s not a secondary star yet, so.

Sean:  Yes, I think if you have something that strikes the right cord, and it becomes a classic, it doesn’t have to be disproven. Because where it resonates with the people who read it, you know, I’ll be speaking fondly of this to my children, right.

I think that’s the thing. How well does it do over time. I think proven or disproven is irrelevant. It’s how much does it tap into the zeitgeist.

I think the movie will have something to do with that.

Andy:  Yes, that’s a good point too, yes. If the movie goes over well, then it could be a classic and that could help sustain the book as a classic.

Sean:  Yes, forever. Anyways, congratulations on writing what is one of my favorite books, and I just enjoyed reading it so much and I thought you did such a great job. It’s so deserving of all that’s come it’s way. And thank you for answering all eight of my questions.

Andy:  Well, thank you very much.

Sean:  Do you have anything you want to say as we go? Any place people can find you other than Google The Martian?

Andy:  Yes, well, is the web site.

Sean:  Awesome. Thank you so much Andy.

Andy:  Sure thing.

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