Despite Its Title, His Latest Novel is More Like a Geek Touchdown Than a Hail Mary
Andy Weir never thought a story he was writing as a serial and offering for free on his website would become a blockbuster movie starring Matt Damon. He figured it was too algebra-heavy and more nerd-centric to be mainstream; it was meant for nerds like him. However, in 2015, that free serial became novel that became a Ridley Scott-directed hit movie. Now that story, The Martian, is not only a blockbuster movie, but the novel is a New York Times bestseller, hitting the top spot three separate times for 19 total weeks.
We sat down with Andy Weir to talk about his career; his latest novel, Project Hail Mary (which released on May 5), and his advice for aspiring writers. There’s also a brief review of Andy’s new novel after the interview.
Scott (GNN): All right. What I always like to do in these interviews with any creator I talk to, I like to hop in the Wayback Machine or the DeLorean or your time travel device of your choosing…
Andy Weir (AW): I’ve got a TARDIS and a DeLorean up there (points to shelf behind him).
GNN: Oh man! Nice!
AW: And you can also see…the DeLorean is very difficult to see from here, but it’s there. And I’ve also got a Time-Turner from Harry Potter. So, I collect little time machines.
GNN: Okay. So that’s perfect for the first question.
AW: None of them work– none of them work so far, but.
GNN: Have you done what they do on The Big Bang Theory where you’re like, “If this time machine works, I’m going to come back and meet myself right…”
AW: Now! Well, I once had a conversation with my dad like that, and he said…I don’t know, I was like 12. And he says, “I can prove to you I’ll never have a time machine,” and I’m like, “Okay. How?”, and he’s like, “I promise, if I ever get a time machine, I will come back to right now and say hi.” Well, it didn’t happen. So anyway, later on when I was an adult, in my 20s or something, I said, “Hey, dad, remember that time you told me about, ‘If I ever have a time machine,’ and stuff like that? He’s like, “Yeah, sure.” I’m like, “What was the date and time that you said that?” And he’s like, “I don’t know.” I’m like, “So if I gave you a time machine right now, you wouldn’t know where to go, right. So, you could still get a time machine. You just don’t remember where you’re supposed to go, right.” And so, yeah. So, the door’s still open on that.
GNN: That’s a good point. I thought that that was an airtight argument. If I had a time machine, I’d come back to this exact moment and tell myself. But yeah, you’re right, I wouldn’t remember the exact date and time.
AW: You don’t know the date. So later on, Dad amended it to say, “I will go to my 35th birthday party.”
GNN: There you go.
AW: But then I said, later on, he’s in his 70s, like, “Hey, where was your 35th birthday party?” I mean, you know the date but where were you living? And did you have the party at home, or did you go out to a restaurant? What did we do? (Laughs) The time machine where you can only go back for like five minutes. You’ve got to get the location exactly right. So, I maintain Dad could still get his time machine.
GNN: That’s a way to keep your dream alive.
AW: That’s right.
GNN: So, back to jumping back in time a bit. I always try to do a little background research on my interview subjects, so I go to the place that’s never wrong…Wikipedia.
AW: Right, 100% accuracy rate. Yeah.
GNN: It’s a font of 100% accurate information. So, let me run some of the info by you. It said that you had…and I’m going to say this slow to get these job titles right, an accelerator physicist father and an electrical engineer mother. Is that true?
AW: Those are correct. It got all those words right.
GNN: They are true and I got the words right?
AW: They are true, and correct pronunciation and accuracy.
GNN: Yes. This interview is going awesome!
AW: Nailed it!
GNN: Now I’m reluctant to ask questions because I’m doing so well.
AW: You’re at 100%. Don’t blow it.
GNN: Right. So, it’s one of those things where I could see as a kid, you’re either going to get mad, crazy into science because of the influence, or go complete the opposite direction and join the circus or…
AW: Be a poet. Yeah. Right. Yeah. Exactly.
GNN: It’s kind of funny because you’re an author now and you’re a computer programmer and an author who writes about science. So, boy, did you seem to toe the line…
AW: Well, I was a computer programmer for 25 years. I always wanted to be a writer, but I also liked regular meals. So, I went into software. But yeah. And I mean, as I’m sure you know from your research, I kind of bungled my way into being a writer (laughs).
GNN: Yeah. I mean, as a kid were you writing stories? Did write as a kid?
AW: Oh, absolutely. So, when you were a kid, did you ever read the Beverly Cleary novels like Henry and Ribsy, and Beezus and Ramona, those kinds of books?
GNN: I was a big fan of Superfudge and Dear Mr. Henshaw and “Choose Your Own Adventure” books.
AW: Superfudge. So, Judy Blume, for you. So, Beverly Cleary was in a similar vein to Judy Blume. Her books were like that. And I wrote Beverly Cleary fan fiction when I was like seven (Laughs). And I think that’s some of the first stuff I ever wrote. When I was a tween and early teen is when I first started writing short stories, always science fiction stuff. And I wrote my first full-length novel in college. It sucked. Then I wrote another full-length novel in my late 20s. It sucked. And then I wrote The Martian.
GNN: So, were those early novels that bad? Could you revisit the premise and turn them into something? Were they that bad?
AW: The first one’s unsalvageable. It’s crap. It’s also really derivative. The less said about that, the better. I think the best thing about the first novel is that I wrote it before the Internet was really a thing. So, it’s not out there (laughs). No one will ever find it. Awesome. It only exists in physical print form. No one will find it.
GNN: Oh, but you kept it.
AW: No. I didn’t keep it. My mom kept it.
GNN: Wow, you really came back hard on that one! You’re like, “No. I didn’t.”
AW: I did not keep it. My mom has the only known copy. The second book could absolutely be revisited. I think the second book had a…in fact, I’m considering it. The second book had a very solid plot, and good characters, and stuff, but I still had a lot to learn about prose, just wordsmithing, writing, and pacing. And I was still not very good at the writing part of writing, but the story on that one was pretty solid.
GNN: Okay. So, you did a novel. It stunk. You did a second novel. It got a little better.
AW: It stunk less.
GNN: Stunk less. And then, bang, The Martian. Holy crow. What changed? Did you take classes? Did people just edit you well and give great feedback?
AW: No. Just a lot of writing in between those events because I wasn’t just writing novels. I was also writing a lot of short stories and I was writing…so, The Martian was a serial when I originally wrote it. It was a serial. I posted a chapter every month, month and a half, to my website, and I was also working on two other serials at the time. So, I just kind of post what I wanted, and I would write short stories. And also before that, I made a webcomic for many years, and you don’t think of webcomics as being deep, intricate writing, but it is still…the concept of webcomic…making a webcomic was good practice for me because things have to happen all the time. There always has to be something interesting going on. You can’t have page after page after page of nothing interesting, and so it’s like that helped me learn a lot about pacing.
And other than that, though, really, by the time I started writing The Martian, I had accumulated a reader base of maybe 3,000 regular readers, according to the size of my mailing list, which is respectable. but it took me 10 years to build that up. So, not exactly a meteoric rise. And they’re all hardcore nerds. All of my stuff, my sci-fi, my short fiction was always science-fiction, or fan-fiction of science-fiction, like Doctor Who and stuff like that. Although, I did write some Sherlock Holmes fan-fiction, too.
AW: Thank you. And also, my webcomic was a very nerdy kind of nerd humor webcomic. So, I had like 3,000 hardcore nerds that were my regular readers, and so I wrote The Martian for them. I had no idea it would have any broad appeal. I mean, if you look at it, the whole book is just a long series of classroom algebra questions. (Laughs) And I still, to this day, don’t fully understand why it got so popular. People just really liked the narration style. It’s a very humorous, very snarky, smart-alecky, it has a very positive message about kind of humanity and people just really liked the main character.
GNN: Nice. I’m getting that from Project Hail Mary. You have a great ability to have me saying “Man, this has got a lot of science,” but then just when it gets to where it seems like it’s too much science, it comes back to the guy who’s pretty relatable, for lack of a better term, schlubby science-teachery smart guy. And I’m like, “This is funny.” It goes right up to the border of being too much science but then pulls me back into the action.
AW: Oh, thank you.
GNN: So far, I’m really digging it.
AW: Thanks. I hope you like the rest. Yeah, that’s the trick. So, my particular brand of storytelling is…I like hard sci-fi, right? I tell stories where the science is real or whatever violations of science I do are these tiny little changes and then I work from there, and I really like doing that. But it also means I have to educate the reader on all these scientific principles, and nobody wants to just kick back at night and read a Wikipedia article, right? Well, I mean, I do, but I’m really abnormal, (laughs) so I don’t want it to be boring. So, that’s the biggest challenge for me, is exposition-ing all this information. The reader has to understand this much of the science to understand the plot and why this is a challenge and understand the solution and why this is all cool. So, the deep, dark secret I’ve learned that surely no other author has ever thought of is that the reader will forgive you any amount of exposition if it’s funny. So, if you make them laugh, they’ll read your exposition all day long and they won’t bitch about it. But exposition is such a pain in the ass. Writers don’t like writing it. Readers don’t like reading it. It’s like, “Look, you have to learn this stuff so that you can understand the story. Let’s just put our heads down and get through it.” But you’ve got to sneak it in here and there when you can.
GNN: Yeah, I design training for a living, so I read boring stuff all day. When I’m reading, I just want to enjoy a dumb fun book. If someone recommends a non-fiction book that’s a biography of some Native American’s view of the French and Indian War,” that’s not happening.
AW: You’re like, “Nope.”
GNN: Nope, not happening. I don’t care about the guy who created William Howard Taft’s bathtub. I don’t care. I want to read stuff that’s fun and interesting. And Michael Connelly, I have a feeling I would like to interview him and ask him. His Harry Bosch books. I think he wrote Harry Bosch a daughter simply so she could do the technical expositions to him because he’s an old-school cop who doesn’t understand that stuff, so she explains it.
AW: Yeah. Well, it’s like in the Austin Powers movies. There’s Michael York, his character’s name is Basil Exposition.
GNN: You’re right! (Laughs)
AW: And yeah, you often have to know…well, I often call that character, although it’s in reverse for the Bosch books, I often call the character Timmy. It’s like, “Well, Timmy. Let me explain.” Timmy is an eight-year-old kid. “Golly, Doctor Science, what’s going on?” (Laughs) “Well, Timmy, let me explain.” And the thing that drives me crazy, and I mean, I sometimes have to do it, but when two people both know all of this information talking to each other about it so the reader can get it. If you have two nuclear physicists discussing the really, really basic details of nuclear physics with each other, it’s like, “Why would they do that?” It’s like if we lived in a…if the United States was fictional and it was just part of a book that nobody had ever heard of before, I’d be like, “So, Scott, as you know, we live in a country with a bicameral legislature. And senators are elected for six years.” You’re like, “I know. You know. We know. Everybody knows. Why are we talking about this?” (Laughs)
GNN: So, based on all that you’ve said, I still haven’t heard other than what you learned in your English classes in high school and all that, how did you learn how to write? You didn’t take any extra English classes? You just learned through your own process and people saying, “Hey, this stinks. Hey, this is good.”?
AW: Yeah, pretty much. Well, it’s like any other skill; you just keep doing it, and you’ll get better. I did a lot of writing that wasn’t very good before I started doing writing that was kind of good. (Laughs)
GNN: It’s funny. I interview a lot of artists and creators because we have MegaCon and a lot of other conventions in Orlando. I live 30 minutes from Orlando, which is kind of a creator’s hub with Disney and Universal.
AW: You’re close enough to get their stray bullets. That’s good.
GNN: Yeah, I know. Right? Don’t even get me started on that. So, I asked an artist once, “Can art be self-taught? Or are there people, no matter how you try to teach them how to draw or paint, they just can’t get it?” He thought about it and at first, he thought anyone could learn, but then he thought about it some more and said, “You know what?” I know of a specific example, no matter how much this person tried, they just couldn’t get it.” How do you feel? Can the creative process be taught?
AW: I mean, I can’t speak to visual art, so I don’t know anything about that. For writing, I would say that’s maybe true, I mean. But I would say it’s 10%, whatever, built-in, and 90% work.
GNN: Right, right. I try to support local authors and I buy books at conventions and sometimes they’re really good, but sometimes they’re awful and I can’t finish them. I remember one example where the author was trying to explain how tall the character was and the line was something like, “He used his very long legs to climb the stairs two at a time…”
AW: “He stood as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree…” (Laughs)
GNN: Exactly! I’m like, “If you just told me he took the stairs two at a time, I could extrapolate that he has long legs.” It was just a lot of language that was awkward…things were described so long and painstaking.
AW: Well, that’s similar to the problems I had in my first couple of books. It takes a while and a lot of practice to learn how to do prose well. It’s like there’s the story that’s going on and then there are the means by which you convey it. And those are two different skill sets. You’ve got to come up with a good story and then you’ve got to be able to describe it to the reader in a way that doesn’t distract them.
GNN: Right. That makes sense. So, you’re saying you developed yourself as an author. How do people get over the George McFly Syndrome, which is,” I think I write well, but I don’t want anyone to see it because they’ll think I’m no good.”
AW: That’s interesting because I’ve never had that exact problem.
AW: I think a lot of writers are like me. We have a desire for an audience. We want people to experience the stories that we have made, so I guess that comes down to self-confidence. And speaking as someone who has very low self-confidence (Laughs), I think what it is, it’s a means by which you’ll get some external validation. So, for me, it helped. I’d be like, “Okay, I’m going to write this story. I’m going to put it out there.” And the Internet is a good place for that. And usually, it’s like you think of the Internet as being this roiling mess of negativity, but for the most part, if somebody…if it’s just straight-up narrative fiction, it takes time and effort for people to read it. And the sorts of people who will go out of their way to actually read your narrative fiction are generally not the same types of people who are just like, “You suck. Kill yourself,” right? So, they’ll give you real feedback and they’ll generally be fairly positive oftentimes. And, of course, there are plenty of…there are countless writing communities where people…you can post your work and have it analyzed by other people and get real feedback.
And the other thing is for people who are new to it and you’re just starting out and you’re like, “Okay, I wrote this thing, but I’m afraid that it sucks and I’m afraid that people are going to tell me it sucks.” Well, it probably does suck. (Laughs) But that’s okay. There are very few people, probably none, honestly…you know how there are those people out there who are just unbelievably talented artists for no f***ing reason? (Laughs) They didn’t do anything. They could just pick up a pencil and draw something that’s absolutely gorgeous or a near-perfect representation of what reality is, and you’re just like, “How do you even do that?” So, there are people like that in the physical art world. I don’t think there are that many people who are like that in the narrative world in terms of words on a page. I think you have to just practice, and you have to suck. It’s like the first time you play golf; you’re not going to do very well. Yeah. The first time you do anything, you’re not going to do very well. You just need to practice. So, I guess the thing is, if you’re worried, “What if this sucks?” Just accept that it probably does. But if you put it out there to the right kinds of people, they’ll tell you why and how it sucks, and then you’ll learn from that and move on. I can’t even tell you how much stuff I’ve written that’s just abominable that I will never show anyone. (Laughs)
GNN: I like that word…abominable. That’s just bad.
AW: Yeah. And I guarantee you, it’s the same for everybody. I guarantee you. Whoever your favorite author of all time is…if you love Stephen King, I bet you he’s got stuff back there that…in fact, I think that there are stories that Stephen King had written 25 novels before he got his first one published.
GNN: Oh, man. I don’t know if I could take that.
AW: And he had given up. His wife sent it in. And I think it was Carrie.
GNN: Oh, wow.
AW: Yeah. So, I don’t know what happened to those other 24, but I bet you a lot of them are really bad, and I bet you Stephen King would tell you that himself. You got to suck before you get good.
GNN: Yeah. So, speaking of getting good, you wrote The Martian, and it started, like you said, as a serial on your website that you were offering for free. All right. Some time goes by, and then it takes a small leap to the New York Times bestseller list.
AW: Acceptable. Yeah.
GNN: And then another tiny little leap to this small independent film with some actors that nobody’s ever heard of.
AW: Right. Yeah. (Laughs) The Martian is the success story that every author dreams of, and it’s just like a fantasy come true. It still seems really surreal to me. “Did that really happen?” And then I look at the checks, and I’m like, “No. Yeah, that happened.” (Laughs) But, basically, yeah. I posted to my website and then when I was done, I was like, “Okay. I’m done. I’m moving on to other things.” And then people said, “Hey, I like your book, but I hate your website,” which is fair because my website was just text on a white background with hyperlinks that are left-justified and blue.
GNN: Yeah, that sound like a boring website.
AW: It’s the Soviet tractor factory version of a website. Right? So, they said like, “I like reading your book, but I hate reading it on your website. Can you put it in e-reader format?” So, I did. I said, “Here you are. It’s ePub and MOBI. Download them here.”
Then, I got a lot of people emailing, saying like, “Okay. Well, I love your book. I hate your site. I see you have e-reader versions, but I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how to take a thing from the Internet and put it on my e-reader. Can you put it up on Kindle or something?” So I’m like, “Okay.” So I figured out how to do that. It’s pretty easy. You post it up online. You don’t have to pay anything. They just take a cut of your sales. So, I did that. I’m like, “Okay, everybody. You can read it for free on my website. You can download the e-reader version for free from my website, or you can pay Amazon a buck to put it on your Kindle for you, basically.” You can set the price to whatever you want. I set it to the minimum, which is 99 cents. Amazon won’t let you charge less than that. So, I’m like, “Here you go,” and people would buy it.
Anyway, it started to make its way up in the list of Amazon sci-fi sellers and that got more and more popular and it started moving a lot and getting good reviews and working its way up on the charts. Number three on Kindle bestsellers and Kindle sci-fi bestsellers and so on. And so that that got the attention of a literary agent who said, “Hey, I see this book you made is selling really well online. I think I might be able to get you a print deal.” And I’m like, “Okay, you’re my agent.” And then he got me a print deal with Random House.
GNN: Who would be dumb enough to buy a print copy of a book you get for free? [Writer’s Note: I did.]
AW: I know. I don’t know what to tell you. Well, you can’t get it for free anymore (Laughs) because once I sold those rights they said, “We’re going to need you not to be giving that away anymore.” But yeah, and then it became a New York Times bestseller. And then the film rights got sold and they made a movie. And I’m like, “I don’t know what the hell happened. I’m just a nerd who wrote a book for nerds.” I thought the addressable audience on this would be 0.001% of the population, people who actually want to stop in the middle of a fiction story and see the algebra explained. And I never had any idea that people who aren’t interested in that level of detail would like the book. And what I learned was that people…it’s weird. The readers, they’d be like…my favorite kind of review or email to get is when people are like, “I don’t normally like science fiction, but I liked your book.” That’s my favorite. I love that. And what I found out is that the people who don’t really care for that level of stuff, they just skim those sections. They’re like, “Yeah, okay, there’s math. I’m skipping through that to the next thing.” And at first, I’m like, “Hey, I wrote that.” It took me a long time to write it. It should take you a long time to read it, come on! (Laughs) But then I realized that, no, this is the best possible scenario. This means I’ve built up a level of trust between me and the reader, that the reader is just assuming all that stuff is correct. The reader just goes like, “Yeah, I’m sure this is all correct. That’s fine. I’m good. I accept this.” And you can’t buy that. I mean, that level of trust with a reader who’s not even really…the suspension of disbelief is not even an issue anymore, and yeah, and that’s just fantastic.
GNN: Yeah, that’s really cool. Speaking of the science, do you have a network of other science folks that help you, or is that just your own, you just go on Wikipedia or wherever, as you said, and go research it yourself?
AW: I research it myself. I do it, yeah. People think I have like this Rolodex, or for your younger folks, a contact list, full of NASA engineers, astrophysicists, and stuff like that. And I actually do now have all those phone numbers and stuff that I can call or email addresses that I can send to. But I still don’t use them because Google’s faster. I mean, if I want to know, “Oh, I need to know how to figure out how quickly thermal conduction will go through this much brick,” or whatever, it’s so much faster just to look it up online, so yeah. But also, I really like that. I love doing the research. That’s my favorite part of writing a book. It’s doing the research. So that that pesky, annoying part where I have to put words into my word processor, that’s a necessary evil. But the research is the part I love. So, going down that rabbit hole is fun. And usually, I’ll find out, of all the stuff that I carefully work out and calculate, maybe 5 to 10 percent of it gets into the book in front of the reader’s eyes. (Laughs) The rest of it…I’m just like, “Okay. This is there. And it works.” And if some nerd emails me challenging me on it, I’ll be like, “All right. Sit back, son, because check this out!” (Laughs)
GNN: Nice. That’s awesome! Now, I’m finally going to ask a question I’ve always been meaning to ask an author…
AW: Okay. Okay. I know what you’re going to ask. When a mommy and a daddy love each other very much…
GNN: No! No! (Laughs) Since you’ve had your book made into a movie, here’s what I’ve wanted to know. On one side, you have a book-to-movie like Misery, which for the most part stays relatively faithful to the source material. Then, on the other side, you have Max Brooks’ book World War Z, which had pretty much no correlation with the film. I can’t believe they didn’t go back to him and say, “You know what, dude? If you want to sell this to someone else, we really only use the zombie thing. Beyond that, it’s not even close.” I was thinking it would’ve been better as a Netflix series…
AW: Yeah, it would’ve been good as a series…as a not-quite-anthology, right?
GNN: So, in the case of The Martian, how faithful is it to the book? I’ve seen the movie but haven’t read the book.
AW: It’s a very faithful adaptation. It’s very good. Yeah. It’s great. Drew Goddard wrote the adaptation. And he stuck to the book really tightly. The only differences are things that had to be omitted because otherwise, it’d be a six-hour movie, right? There are some things missing and some very minor changes here and there. The ending of the movie is different than the ending in the book in a lot of ways. But the general concept is the same. And by the way, if we’re going to talk…you mentioned Misery…if we’re going to talk about Stephen King books that got very well-adapted, I would say the number one of that is The Green Mile because that was like word for word almost. It was almost exactly identical to the book. I mean, it was right on it.
GNN: Are you sure that’s not because you were reading the book based on the motion picture? (Laughs)
AW: No! I read the book first! (Laughs)
GNN: Okay. Okay. So, another thing I found interesting in my research is that you’re not a big fan of flying and most of the outer space scenes were filmed overseas…is that correct?
GNN: So, once you sell the rights to the book, are you kept in the loop at all, or…?
AW: Well, on The Martian, my main job was to cash the check.
GNN: (Laughs) That’s a pretty good job.
AW: And I did that. I got it done! Everybody was very satisfied with my performance on that issue. No. So, when you sell the film rights, as a rule, unless you’re a big shot, if you’re like Stephen King or J. K. Rowling or something like that, then you end up being also an executive producer or a producer on the film. And then you have a lot of say over the minutia and the details of the film. When you’re me, you sell the rights, and that’s it. They give you money, and that’s the end of it. They don’t have to include you at all. But on The Martian, they chose to include me, which was cool. I served as sort of a technical adviser. They would have some technical questions. Drew Goddard was on the phone with me a lot when he was working on the screenplay. He’d ask me questions about this or that or the other thing.
Sometimes, Ridley Scott would ask me questions about…it was always technical stuff like, “Oh, hey, so you mentioned there’s hydrazine fuel at one point. One question Ridley asked was, “He needs to move hydrazine from one container to another out on the surface of Mars. Can I show them just pouring it?” And I’m like, “No, it would evaporate. And Mars’s atmospheric pressure is so low, the hydrazine would just boil off.” And so, in the movie, when you watch that, you see he hooks up a pipe to then transfer. And it’s that level of stuff. It’s not like Ridley Scott needs my creative input, right?
AW: But it was cool. They didn’t have to do any of that. They could have just ignored me entirely.
GNN: Sure. So, they didn’t say, “We’re going with Matt Damon. What do you think of that?”
AW: Yeah, well, I mean, they didn’t ask me. They just said, “Hey, it’s Matt Damon.” And I’m like, “Ha ha ha, yay!” (Laughs)
GNN: You weren’t pitching more of a Buscemi?
AW: Yeah, Steve Buscemi! Yeah, come on!
GNN: So, when you first saw the movie, what’d you think?
AW: It’s weird. Because when I first saw it, it was in a viewing room at Fox, right? It wasn’t at the theaters or anything. I saw it, and it didn’t have most of its special effects in it. So, in the background, there’s this grainy JPEG of Mars and stuff like that. But that’s okay. And it’s weird, because the first time you watch it, you’re like, “Well, this isn’t really how I imagined it in my head,” right?
AW: But then, once you see it a couple of times, you’re like, “Oh, okay. Now, yeah. It’s coming together in my head.” It’s weird because everybody else is seeing it. They’re experiencing it for the first time. They’re good. But for you, the author, you lived with these characters in these settings. So, I’m like, “Well, that’s not how I imagined the ‘Hermes’ looking.” Or, “That’s not how I imagined the ‘Hab’ looking.” And so, there’s this kind of disconnect at first. So, the first time you watch it, there’s a lot of kind of reconciling this.
But, man, the best thing for me was watching it at the premiere, which was in Toronto at the Toronto Film Festival. And then all the effects were done. Everything’s ready to go. There’s a huge audience. All the stars are there. That’s where I started to get tears in my eyes just because it’s just this amazing experience. I’m like, “Holy crap. I dorked around on my computer for a while. And now, this is happening.” And I’m like, “Wow.”
GNN: Nice. That is awesome, man. That is cool. I design training, and the second time I watch anything I’m already sick of them. So, I can’t even imagine watching something that’s actually big and cool coming together.
So now, here’s the real question. The Martian is done. Now, you’re the guy who wrote The Martian.
AW: I’m the guy.
GNN: Right? You’re the guy. So, clearly, everyone thinks, “Okay, well, clearly now, you’re on top of the world.” But there’s got to be some pressure that comes along. Now, you’re the guy that wrote The Martian.
AW: Yeah, exactly.
GNN: So now, every book you write, I mean, people are thinking you could crap out The Martian 2 on the toilet, right?
AW: I mean, I could. And it would probably sell well. But there’s no story. “The Adventures of Mark Watney. He runs out of beer, but the store is closed.” I mean, “And he’s home,” spoiler. But, yeah. So, I felt a huge amount of pressure when working on my next book, which was Artemis. I was like, “I know everyone’s going to compare this to The Martian.” And they did. And my goal for Artemis, I was like, “Okay, I could write 50 more books in my career. And every single one of them will be like, ‘Guy who wrote The Martian,'” right? This other thing. So, yeah, Artemis, a lot of people were like, “Well, I didn’t like Artemis because it wasn’t as good as The Martian.” And then, when pressed, they’re like, “But what do you think of it as a book just on its own?” They’re like, “Yeah, it’s all right. It’s good.” So, what I was shooting for was people saying, “Not as good as The Martian; still pretty good.” That’s kind of what I got, so there. Now, Project Hail Mary, though, the early buzz on it, I’m getting a lot of people saying they like it more than The Martian, or comparable to The Martian. So, if that holds up, then I’m going to be feeling great.
GNN: Yeah. I do have a few questions I will definitely ask about the new book, but you mentioned Artemis, but I thought I read there was another book in there…
GNN: Yeah. I read that it got “back burner-ed.” Will it ever get “front burner-ed?”
AW: No. It’s gone. So basically, after The Martian, I could have done anything I wanted. And I said like, “Okay. I have this monumental science-fiction epic saga in my mind that I want to write, and it’s called Zhek.” And the publisher is like, “Sure. We don’t give a sh*t…whatever you want to do.”
GNN: Because you’re The Martian guy!
AW: Yeah. They’re saying, “If it has your name on the cover, it’s going to be profitable, so we’ll do whatever you want.” So, I spent a year working on Zhek. And it was going to be like, “This will be book one.” It’s like that sort of thing. And I got 70,000 words in. For reference, The Martian’s a little over 100,000. And I’d worked on it for a year, and I was like, “Oh, there’s a little problem with Zhek. It sucks.” I was 70,000 words in. The story wasn’t really that interesting yet. I was still in the first act, so I’m like, “This is going to be some mega-tome.” I mean, no disrespect to Robert Jordan, but you know what I mean. It’s going to be some gigantic tome that’s a boring read. The characters aren’t that interesting. There’s like one character in there that’s kind of interesting. And it’s just not working. So, I’m like, “All right. There are some cool elements to it, but it’s just not working.” So, I asked the publisher, “Hey, can I back burner this and work on a completely new story? I’ve got this idea about a moon base.” And they’re like, “Sure. Go ahead.” And I’m like, “Can I have another year on my deadline?” They’re like, “Sure. No problem.” And the reason they were so accommodating is that they’ve been reading my chapters on Zhek, and they also knew it sucked. So, yeah.
However, there were a couple of elements of Zhek that were really good ideas. And one of them, basically, became the astrophage for Project Hail Mary. And the other one…the one character that I thought was really interesting in Zhek…she became another character in Project Hail Mary.
So, basically, Zhek will never happen as a book, but I did use it for parts. And I took the things that I thought worked really well.
GNN: All right. So, like you said, Artemis, it seems a little more “adventurey” than The Martian was.
AW: Yeah. Artemis is the tale of humanity’s first city on the moon, the first city that’s not on Earth, and the main character is a woman who grew up there. So, this is her hometown, and she’s a smuggler. So, she basically smuggles contraband into the city. That one, I think a lot of people didn’t like her very much because I wanted to make her very flawed. Mark Watney [from The Martian] is just this kind of like really awesome dude. Doesn’t have a lot of character depth. All you know about him is he didn’t want to die, which can be said for most people.
In Artemis, the main character’s name is Jasmine. Everyone calls her Jazz. And Jazz, I really wanted to kind of push myself and say, “Okay. I think I’m doing good on plot and situational-based stories, but I don’t have a lot of character depth. I want to work on character depth.” So, I made her very flawed, nuanced. There are layers and stuff like that. And I think I made her a little too self-destructive and flawed. And a lot of people had a difficult time rooting for her because she was kind of the agent of most of her own problems. And so, I kind of went a little too far in that direction, so learning lessons there. I liked her.
And the fact of the matter is…Mark Watney is…I honestly believe that every main character is someone that the author either wants to be or wants to have sex with. That’s it. Right? So, I kind of wanted to be Mark Watney, not have sex with him, and Mark Watney has all the aspects of my personality that I like and admire, magnified. I like that I’m technically skilled. He’s that times 1,000. I’m a smart ass. He’s that times 1,000. And he has none of my flaws. He’s not neurotic. He doesn’t have these phobias. He doesn’t have all my problems. Right? He’s the idealized version of me, what I wish I were.
Jazz is more the real me. I said I want character depth, so where do I go? I’ll go internally. I spent my life constantly…this is a theme in the book. I spent my life constantly being told that I wasn’t living up to my potential. All my life as a kid, they’re like, “You’re really smart. You should be doing better at everything.” And I’m like, “I don’t want to.” So, Jazz is a lot more the real me. And what I’ve learned is that the real me isn’t as likable as I’d hoped. And, yeah, she’s a woman, and she’s of Saudi descent and stuff like that, so people think, “Well, this can’t possibly be a self-insertion character. She’s very different from you.” I’m like, “No. Aside from physical attributes, she is exactly like me,” but she’s the more real, the flawed parts of me and stuff like that. And I guess if you get to know me really well, I guess I’m kind of hard to root for! (Laugh)
GNN: Oh, man, come on. I feel as though we’ve known each other for 100 years and I don’t think that!
AW: We’ve known each other for just minutes upon minutes now!
GNN: And you’ve only mildly pissed me off…
AW: Only mildly! (Laughs)
GNN: Yeah! Now, it’s funny. You’ve mentioned how you’ve designed your characters. It seems as though your character, Dr. Grace, in your new book, which is releasing in May, Project Hail Mary, seems to be a good blend of a person who doesn’t want to die and a person who’s got some depth. I don’t want to spoil anything, but he seems a good blend.
AW: Thank you. Yeah, well, so I consider, as a writer, just because I’m commercially successful doesn’t mean I’m good. And I want to improve myself. And as a writer, I still think my greatest weakness is character, character depth, and personality, and stuff like that. So, for Grace, I really tried to have a more nuanced approach and some depth. And you haven’t gotten to the end yet, but you learn more about him that…I don’t want to spoil it for you, but you learn more about him. And I tried a slightly different tact for him. He’s not really based on me. There are a lot of aspects of him that we share, but also, he’s got this naivete, almost. He’s kind of a Boy Scout in a lot of ways. He’s a little bit too innocent for the world that he lives in, and that’s something that I played with. And the reason I did that was I’m just like, “Okay. I want some depth. I want my characters to be interesting and to undergo change,” and all the stuff that they teach you in Writing 101. I don’t want to just stagnate into a purely plot-based author. And there’s only so many times I can write a story about an isolated scientist, right?
GNN: I don’t know, man, they’ve gotten like 15 movies out of Die Hard. And that’s the same thing about a guy who gets stuck somewhere where there are terrorists…
AW: Yeah. It’s different, though. You can do that. The best is if you’re writing a murder mystery because you can have your detective solve a new murder in every book and nobody questions it. Nobody even questions it. You know what? I think the FBI should go investigate Cabot Cove, right? Because that’s where Murder, She Wrote takes place.
GNN: I was always suspicious about Jessica Fletcher!
AW: It has the highest homicide rate of any city on earth. If you do the math on it, they have a few thousand people and they’ve had hundreds of murders. I mean, you’re safer in Mogadishu than you are in Cabot Cove!
GNN: Has anyone checked Jessica Fletcher’s basement?
AW: This is what I’m saying. I think Jessica Fletcher is a serial killer/hypnotist, okay? Hear me out! Anyway…
GNN: We’ll have to table that investigation for later. Let’s get into the new book. Tell us about Project Hail Mary. What’s it about?
AW: Oh, yeah. That thing. Well, I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but basically, a man wakes up aboard a spacecraft. He very quickly realizes he’s aboard a spacecraft. He has been in a coma for quite some time. There are two dead crewmates with him. And over time he comes to realize he has complete amnesia. He has no idea who he is, where he is, or why. And over time, he comes to learn that it is his responsibility and his responsibility alone to, literally, save Earth from an existential threat. So, no pressure.
GNN: No, none whatsoever. So, as you said, you mentioned the astrophage, which we won’t talk about too much for the risk of spoilers, that came from an earlier book. Was there anything else that spawned this book? Anything that inspired you for this novel?
AW: It’s weird because, oftentimes, novels come whole cloth. Like, “Oh, a guy stranded on Mars. Oh, that’s an interesting concept. Let’s think about that.” “Oh, a girl who grew up on a moon base. That’s interesting. Let’s think about that.” This was a bunch of different pipes and story ideas that I had that ended up fitting together well. So astrophage is a concept I’d come up with that I thought was really cool, but didn’t really know what to do with it. The character Stratt was stolen, basically, from Zhek. The idea of someone who has this secret, but monumental, authority is just sort of an interesting concept. And this total no-nonsense attitude, which I loved. And then, finally, I had this idea for quite a while about a guy who wakes up with amnesia aboard a spaceship and like, “How would he even figure out he’s on a spaceship at first and so on?”
So, all these pieces started to come together. And then, once I realized the original concept of astrophage, I was just like, “Oh, it’s a substance that absorbs light and turns it into more of itself. And it’s converting things into mass, and that can be used in spacecraft fuel.” But then, when I came up with the life cycle of astrophage and realized, “Oh, it could actually threaten the sun. It could actually cause a problem for the sun.” Then I’m like, “Oh, okay, well, that would be a problem for the earth. And oh, okay.” And then, things started to really fall into place. And so, when you read the story, hopefully, it looks like the story where everything logically leads to the next thing. But for me, it was like a bunch of tubes that I put together. And I’m like, “Oh, that worked great!” (Laughs)
GNN: I mean, I’m a little over halfway done and, so far so good!
AW: I mean, everything we’re talking about here is all just in the first act. You are well into the second act now, where there is a fairly significant twist that I’m hoping not to give away.
GNN: Yeah. We won’t even get into it…no spoilers!
AW: Yeah. But also, one of the main themes that I wanted to hit in this is like The Martian…a story of survival, right? Artemis is actually sort of a story of redemption. You haven’t read it yet, but this is a story about friendship.
GNN: Well, I’m looking forward to finishing it and I think people, especially sci-fi fans, will enjoy it. Now, let’s hit some quick topics before we wrap this up. One thing I ask content creators is about the advice they’d give people getting started. So, let’s have one piece of advice for writers that begins with “do” and one that begins with “don’t.” And don’t try the nonsense where you just say, “Do try hard, and don’t not try hard.”
AW: Yeah, yeah. Okay. All right. Do write. In order to be a writer, you have to actually write. You can’t just imagine how cool the story is going to be in your head. Figure out exactly what the heraldry looks like on the king’s guards uniforms. And it’s really easy to world build and comes up with how often things are. But until you actually write, until you’re actually either putting words on paper or into your word processor, whatever your process is, you’re not writing. You’re daydreaming. So, “Do actually write.”
GNN: That’s me, and a lot of people, in a nutshell. I have so many great stories, and I have to start writing…
AW: Yeah. And it’s when you start writing that you immediately start finding the problems. That’s why it’s not fun, because you start writing it down and you’re like, “Oh, crap.” You’re like, “Oh, crap. None of this is going to make sense if I don’t explain the previous 10,000 years of worldbuilding that I just came up with. How am I going to do that?” or, “Where do I start this story?” or, “Wait a minute. This is f***ing boring.” And, so, this is where you find the problems. And that’s when you’re actually writing.
So that’s my do. My don’t here is a very difficult thing. Don’t tell your story to your friends. Don’t tell them about it. Don’t tell them to your friends, or family, or anything like that. Most writers are, not all, but me, certainly, are driven by a desire to have an audience experience their story. If you tell people your story verbally, it satisfies that need for an audience and it saps your desire to write. So, even if the people are interested…and it’s particularly hard when they’re saying, “Oh, tell me more. That’s cool.” Don’t do it! Don’t tell them! Make a rule for yourself that says the only way people experience this story is by reading it. You can write a chapter and hand it to your friend and say, “Hey, if you’re interested, please tell me what you think.” So, you can get that sweet, sweet validation that you crave. But don’t tell it to them verbally.
GNN: Okay. That’s one I’ve never heard. That’s very interesting. And it makes a lot of sense, though. Yeah. Another question I have is about the process. I’ve heard some authors tell me, “Just sit down and write. No plan, just write. If you hit a speed bump, put a space there and just keep going.” Then there are some people that are like, “Well, it’s good to have an outline. Put the skeleton down and write.” And then, one author told me he likes to plot out the whole thing and by the end of that, the story’s almost totally written…
AW: They synopsize.
GNN: Yeah! And he’s like, “By the time we’re done, we’ve basically figured everything out, and then we just write.”
AW: Okay. So different versions of that work for different writers. So, there’s no one answer. You got to do what you want. Me, I have a kind of a mental outline of the main story beats in my head. I’m like, “This is going to happen. This major thing is going to happen, then this major thing is going to happen, then this major thing is going to happen, and then this is how it ends.” That’s what I’ve got. But from there I just start writing.
So, I don’t get into the minutia in my mental outline, because I’ve found that, while I’m writing, I’ll come up with cooler ideas and I’ll deviate. And one of the things you said…I would highly recommend against any author during the thing you were saying, where if you hit a speed bump, just put a note to yourself and then come back later. I very strongly recommend against that.
AW: Yeah. Because then, well, there’s a couple of reasons why that’s problematic. One is then you will end up with just a bunch of crap you don’t want to do all left over to do, right? There’ll be just as miserable slog portion. But number two is I have to write linearly. When you’re going forward, that’s when you say, “Oh, and now I can smoothly transition to this and smoothly transition that.” It’s a lot more work to say, “I have to start from here and get to here and put this in there.” And yeah, it’s just making life really difficult on yourself if you leave gaps. Just gut it out. Gut through. Another piece of advice I always give to writers is this, sometimes you’ve got great flow. You’re just zooming along, no problem. Other times, every word is a f***ing slog, right?
AW: But here’s the cool thing that I’ve noticed. When you go back later and look at the writing, you can’t tell the difference between what you wrote when you had good flow and what you wrote when it was a slog. So, when it’s a slog, you’re still turning out the same quality of work as when it’s good flow. When it’s a slog, just tell yourself, “I’m still making progress that’s just as good. I’m going to gut my way through it. This sucks, but I’m going to get through it. And when I do, it will be just as good as everything else.”
GNN: Have you ever had to go back a certain amount and go, “Oh, you know what? This is cooler, but what I’ve written these last 20 pages really wouldn’t make sense.” Have you ever had to go back and redirect?
W: Of course. Of course. Yeah. No, I’ve definitely had times when I came up with a better idea after I’d already written a distance into the first one and went like, “Oh no, that’s way cooler. All this is going away. Except for this part of it, I can reuse.” And so on. Yeah, that’s just writing. You can’t look at every word you ever put down as some sort of sacred cow that can’t be removed. You have to be ready to change stuff.
GNN: That’s a good point. That’s a good point. So, do you have anything else in the works? I read in 2019 you created Cheshire Crossing, which seemed like a pretty damn cool concept that that had been optioned.
AW: Oh, as a film. Yeah, it got optioned as a film. I don’t know if that’ll ever happen, but the comic is out there. You can get it.
GNN: Yeah I am, definitely. You are definitely going to be on my reading list. So, any other big projects coming up? Anything that you’re allowed to talk about?
AW: No, I mean, I am working on my next book, but it’s going really slow, and I don’t talk about things until I’m sure that that’s going to be the thing.
GNN: Right. Quick questions now. First, who’s on your sci-fi Mount Rushmore?
AW: Asimov, Heinlein, and Clark. And I guess for a fourth, I’d go for…he’s not as well known…but, Clifford Simak.
GNN: Okay. All right. That’s excellent. Dream project?
AW: Dream project…
GNN: If someone could come to you tomorrow, Netflix series, movie, what do you want to do? Anything.
AW: I’d love to write an episode of Doctor Who.
GNN: Okay. That’s awesome. That’s pretty badass.
AW: I would love that.
GNN: Come on, man. You’re the guy who wrote The Martian!
AW: Yeah. Right. No, I have proactively taken steps. I’ve contacted them, had my agent contact them, say, “Hey, I want to write an episode of Doctor Who. If you’ll let me, I’ll do it for whatever the minimum payment is. I just want to do it.” But so far, no action.
GNN: And this is because you’re the guy who wrote The Martian. What are you geeking out on? Especially during the pandemic and we’re not going out, what good television, movies, books? What are you geeking out on right now?
AW: I know I’m the guy who wrote The Martian, but I’ve actually been geeking out on Bridgerton. It’s great.
GNN: My wife’s doing the same thing…she loves Bridgerton.
AW: Bridgerton’s really good. I mean, I’ve already finished bingeing it. What else have I been watching lately? Oh, WandaVision is really good.
GNN: We have to get Disney+; it’s killing me. I guess we’re going to have to get it.
AW: I get all of the things.
GNN: Well, Andy, I’m enjoying the book and I hope to enjoy your other books and the movie. Thanks for taking the time.
AW: Thanks. Thanks for having me. Have a great day.
GNN: Good luck with Project Hail Mary. I hope it does well for you.
AW: Me too! Bye-bye.
Brief Review of Project Hail Mary
Truth be told, I’m not a huge sci-fi fan. I enjoy some sci-fi novels (John Scalzi’s a personal favorite), but by and large, I’m more of an action/thriller/suspense kinda’ guy.
That being said, I actually enjoyed Project Hail Mary quite a bit. Weir definitely writes for not only a sci-fi crowd but a sci-fi crowd that is heavily invested in the science behind the story. Sometimes, it was a little too dense for my liking, but Weir has a unique talent for walking right up to the “too much science” line without crossing over it, instead of ending a long scientific explanation with a humorous or humbling comment by one of the main characters.
As far as plot, the basic plot of Project Hail Mary sees a potentially apocalyptic event threatening Earth. The main character wakes up in some sort of spacecraft with no idea who he is, why he’s there, or what he’s supposed to be doing. Weir does a great job meting out information about the nameless protagonist (including his name) and his quest as he explores his limited surroundings. I don’t want to give much more information for fear of spoiling things, but there are definitely some great story beats, characters, and twists woven in the science.
Overall, if you absolutely hate science and math, this novel is certainly not for you. If you’re willing to read a book that might be a little more science than fiction at times, this book is certainly worth a shot. If you simply love science and math wrapped in a fun story that has a well-written cast of characters and a really good story, you’ll love Project Hail Mary.
I’d give the novel a B+. I’ll freely admit I skipped some of the longer science bits, but I really enjoyed the overall story. It was funny, had some well-written characters and dialog, and the pacing and plot were well done (with the exception of a few spots where the science slowed things down). I enjoyed the novel, but I would’ve enjoyed it a little more if the novel were 10% shorter.