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[Interview] Kelp Journal Talks with Andy Weir, Project Hail Mary

Updated: Jan 14, 2021

by Leslie Gonzalez

From computers to the creation of Mark Watney in The Martian, Andy Weir is known for his deep love for science and exploring humanity’s need to push the boundaries of space and technology. Kelp Journal talks to Andy Weir about his new book Project Hail Mary and his movie deal, his writing process, his love for all things science fiction, and the inspiration behind his memorable characters.

[Kelp Journal]: Why are you so passionately invested in science fiction? What is it about science fiction that captivates you?

[Andy Weir]: I’m not sure. I’ve always been a science dork my whole life. And I like telling stories. So, I guess the two just go together.

[KJ]: There are many themes and sub-genres in science fiction. Do you have a favorite sub-genre? Where does your work fall?

[AW]: For me it’s definitely “hard sci-fi,” where the science in the story is as accurate as possible. That’s my favorite subgenre and it’s the kind I write.

[KJ]: How did you create characters like Mark Watney and Jazz Bashara without the science elements getting in the way? Were there real-life inspirations for these characters?

[AW]: Believe it or not, both Mark and Jazz are based on my own personality. Both are smart-asses. Mark is aspirational for me: he’s all the things I’m good at, magnified, with none of my many flaws. Jazz is more like the real me. She has several of my character flaws and limitations. You might not have expected an American, white, male author to tell you that his Saudi, Middle Eastern, female character is actually based on himself, but she really is.

[KJ]: As writers, we know that it is not taboo to write outside our gender or ethnic group, but it can still cause conflict for some readers. What kind of conflict or adversity have you faced when writing a female protagonist like Jazz? Do you plan to create any more female protagonists?

[AW]: I ran into a lot of problems with this. Interestingly, I got nothing but positive feedback from Muslim readers. They felt that the portrayal of Islam was respectful and accurate.

But I got a lot of backlash from female readers about Jazz not being a realistic woman. At the same time, I also got a lot of fan mail from other female readers praising Jazz as being “just like me!”

I came to realize that it’s not actually about how realistic a female character she was. I think I just made a character that wasn’t deeply likeable. A lot of people had a hard time rooting for Jazz because she had self-destructive and immature character traits. You have to make the reader like and root for the protagonist or they won’t like the story. I think Jazz’s abrasive personality drove a subset of readers away from the story. The male readers just shrugged it off as “I don’t like this character and I don’t like this story.” But many female readers in this age of identity politics decided it meant that Jazz was not a realistic woman. In reality, I think she was just a woman those readers didn’t like.

I deliberately tried to make a deeper, more nuanced character for Artemis. Mark Watney was fun but had zero depth. He was a guy who didn’t want to die. Other than that, what do you know about him? Nothing. But in my attempt to make Jazz complicated, I made her just a little too unlikeable. Like I said, she’s based on me and my foibles. I’m a flawed person. So, I guess I put a little too much of those flaws into her. Lesson learned.

[KJ]: What surprises you the most while developing your characters?

[AW]: I am an extremely plot-driven author. I have a very difficult time with character depth and growth. I know this limitation and I constantly work to get better at it. But the truth is it’s still very much a challenge for me.

I have found that the characters’ personalities develop as I write the story. They start off as sort of blank slates but then get more detailed personalities as I write. Then I go back to the earlier chapters and rewrite dialog and some of their actions to suit the personality they now have.

While it’s an interesting process, I hate it. I hate not knowing who a character is right away. And I worry as I write the book that the character will never come into form at all.

[KJ]: Will we see more diverse characters like Jazz in Project Hail Mary (PHM)?

[AW]: The short answer is: kind of?

Without giving too much away, the majority of PHM takes place on a spaceship with just a single person aboard and he’s a Caucasian-male American. So… not much diversity there. However, there are many flashbacks that have characters from all around the globe.

[KJ]: Speaking of Project Hail Mary, do you have a logline for this project? Any fun or exciting twists or teasers you would like to share?

[AW]: It’s hard to give away any teasers without giving away huge spoilers, so I’ll just have to keep mum on that one.

[KJ]: In previous interviews, it seems like you begin hashing out your story ideas by posing questions, often out of curiosity. For The Martian, it was how to send a man to Mars, for Artemis it was figuring out ways to set up a lunar colony. What was your question of curiosity for Project Hail Mary?

[AW]: Again, I can’t really answer that without spoiling the story. Sorry.

[KJ]: Science fiction, I feel, is often reflected by our current state of reality, or is inspired by current events. Does this ring true for your work and will we see that theme in Project Hail Mary?

[AW]: Not at all. It’s not based on current events at all. It could just as easily take place a hundred years from now or a hundred years ago.

[KJ]: There are whispers of Project Hail Mary being adapted into a major film through MGM studios. What can you say about that? Are the rumors true?

[AW]: Oh, they’re not just whispers. MGM bought the rights for the film. They have Ryan Gosling attached to play the lead, and they have Phil Lord and Chris Miller set to direct it. Drew Goddard (who penned the screenplay for The Martian) is on-board to write the script. It’s a great team. I hope it gets greenlighted!

[KJ]: Books like The Martian and Artemis have this awesome balance between just enough science jargon and story, how much research goes into your novels? Do you ever feel daunted about the sheer amount of research that goes into your novels? If so, how do you combat the struggle?

[AW]: I do tons of research for my novels. But for me that’s the fun part! It’s not a struggle at all. I wish I could do just the research. It’s the actual writing that’s a pain in the ass. That’s real effort.

[KJ]: How long does the research process usually take? How do you know when enough is enough with research before you have a clear picture on what you’re writing about?

[AW]: I would say I spend roughly half my time researching when I’m writing a book. And I definitely go way down the rabbit hole when researching stuff—way deeper than I need to for whatever’s going on in the story. But often there’s something really interesting in there that I can build plot points out of.

[KJ]: World-building is essential in science fiction. How do you build your worlds and how do you gauge when it’s enough to paint the reader a detailed picture without losing their interests?

[AW]: It’s always a balance. Exposition is boring. Readers don’t like reading it and writers don’t like writing it. So, the world-building has to fit into the story. It has to be relevant to the story. Artemis had a lot of world-building because, in the end, it was about the society within a small town. But The Martian had basically none. It was 2035 and I didn’t mention anything at all about what life was like on Earth. Why should I? Who would want to read about the state of self-driving cars or advancements in artificial intelligence when there’s a dude trying to stay alive on Mars? Focus on what the reader is going to want to know.

[KJ]: With all the knowledge you accumulated in your research, what is it like to be embraced and praised simultaneously by the literary and science community?

[AW]: I feel utterly unworthy. I’m not a scientist, I’m just an enthusiast. It’s like if everyone gathered around a sports announcer and told him what a good job he’s going while the players on the field got ignored.

[KJ]: After your success with The Martian, do you ever feel pressured to produce something even more successful?

[AW]: All the time. All. The. Time. My god.

[KJ]: What are you reading right now? Are there any books or upcoming releases you’re excited about?

[AW]: The sad truth is I don’t read much at all. I just don’t have the time. The most recent thing I read was Recursion by Blake Crouch. Loved it! Also, I’m eagerly waiting for my advance copy of Ready Player Two. I’ve been pestering Ernie Cline about it regularly in emails.

Leslie Gonzalez is a writer, editor, and certified copy editor from Indio, California. Her work is published in LOCALE magazine, OK Whatever magazine, FLAUNT magazine, and History 101. She is a hardcore lover of all things fantasy and science fiction and has earned her BFA in Creative Writing from California State University, Northridge and earned her MFA in Fiction from UC Riverside Low Residency program in Palm Desert.


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