Interview: Milo Behr
Winner of Book Pipeline’s inaugural season (2014), Milo Behr’s Beowulf: A Bloody Calculus pulls the reader deep into a noir future with heavy commentaries on social construction and the politics of violence and criminal justice, yet all wrapped in a surprisingly fun, nuanced genre narrative. Milo’s multifaceted background continues to shape the subject matter of his writing and further carve out a niche all his own.
Obviously we’re a fan of your writing in Beowulf: A Bloody Calculus, and we’re not alone—the book has had its fair share of critical praise. How did the concept come about and what were the driving forces behind its (many) layers, both in terms of the narrative and the style?
It did land well critically. Thrilled about that (Best Sci-fi at IPPY, IPA, London, and Beverly Hills, and most importantly, ahem, Grand Prize Winner at Book Pipeline). It’s impossible to know for sure why that was—a lot of brilliant work goes unrecognized—but I’m convinced it’s owed to what I was trying to accomplish.
I didn’t set out to write a sci-fi adventure. I’m a sci-fi guy. I read it, I write it, so it’s a natural direction. But I set out to explore ideas, and push the envelope of grammar and punctuation. But the audience for that sort of thing (on its own merits) is limited, so I deliberately couched this in the contexts of sci-fi, adventure, and pulp violence.
I’m fascinated by mob mentality and groupthink, and the new ways they emerge in today’s society, the new tools they use. Men in Black put it perfectly: “A person is smart; people are dumb.” Cyberbullying and social shaming are two ways we’ve grown worse rather than better. The Beowulf books look at the logical extremes of this trend: social media as the backbone for social interaction and even criminal justice. For the last couple of decades we’ve seen a growing erosion of due process in favor of guillotines in the public square. What does it look like if we continue along that curve, and guilty verdicts are all passed down by a Facebook group? That’s the reality within the pages of Beowulf. And interestingly, though I thought I’d written a dystopia, I’ve had some readers call it a utopia.
I’m also exploring contextual violence. Bloody Calculus depicts violence from priests and politicos to see how differently people would react, and hopefully inspire a sense of unease at how comfortable we’ve grown with violence—so long as it comes from its “prescribed” sources, those we’ve built in to our expectations and stereotypes. The next book shows us violence against publicly reviled figures, to see how people might react differently to that, and what that would say about society at large.
And I’m exploring the nuanced vulnerabilities of the IoT (Internet of Things), and how minute weaknesses in networked entertainment, information, and health devices can be combined to catastrophic results. In Bloody Calculus, it isn’t one single vulnerability, but a stacking of otherwise-benign vulnerabilities, to illustrate the exponential, combinatoric security challenge we face (my work has been named “Top 10 Visionary in Information Security” by Gartner, so I’m reasonably authoritative in this space. . . .)
And, of course, I’m looking at superheroes as marketing gimmicks: gumshoes with public personas. And rather than showing them as competitive and threatening to law enforcement, they are licensed tools of it, empowered by public approval to play fast-and-loose—then expendable when they need to be.
When I dove into Bloody Calculus, I had just finished writing a 110k-word fantasy/alt-history novel called Merovingi. I loved that project thematically (it had its own set of meaty themes to sink my teeth into), but linguistically I really didn’t. It was well written—my agent loved it. But in the end, I read it and thought, “I’ve written this the way a thousand other writers could, there’s nothing ground-breaking about these prose, I’m not advancing the state of the art with this.”
So I doubled down on three ideas: rhythm, punctuation, brevity.
My interest in syllabic rhythm comes largely from my experience in singing and songwriting, from my appreciation for Shakespeare (I’m not a superfan, exactly, but I run in those circles), from a casual love of poetry for its lyricism and emotional density.
But I’m also skeptical of the rigidity of poetic forms, being something of a counter-cultural. And I suffer from an irreconcilable love of order, against an intolerance for conformity.
All of this led me to explore a “poetry in prose” approach, and to use punctuation not as traffic signs, but as deliberate emotion beats, a way to speed up or slow down the reader’s perception, lending less or more emphasis to each passage, and subconsciously varying the reliability of the narration (to give it a by-memory, storytelling quality). A free-form style that reeeeally leans in to the impacts that different rhythms and punctuations can have on emotional inference. This was very satisfying to write. It was a qualified success. One of my editors loved it; the other didn’t. It’s been a hit with critics and with readers who want to be challenged this way. It has also been the most criticized element of the book in public reader reviews (but I’m over 4 stars, so I’m doing fine). And damn, it is painstaking to write—it cuts my efficiency to a quarter easily. I’ll sit for hours just reading a chapter back to myself aloud, feeling its beats, making tiny changes to words, word order, punctuation, all to get a rhythm and a pacing I’m finally happy with.
This, like poetry, is far less “programmatic” than more explicit prose in more rigid systems. There’s more room for reader interpretation and extrapolation. I’m big on this notion of storytellers “collaborating” with their audiences in creating experiences that are ultimately unique to everyone. I taught (with a couple of brilliant co-teachers) a university Philosophy of Film course for a while that centered on concepts of “generosity” emerging from the ideas of Jean Paul Sartre. Readers bring things to their reading experiences. My aim as a writer is to play on that, to add things to that pile (not try to replace it or disregard it) so that differing (and sometimes surprising) percepts, inferences, and conclusions can be reached.
And finally: brevity. John Locke once wrote, “I am now too lazy, or too busy to make [this] shorter.” (Similar quotes come from Pascal, Franklin, Cicero, and others.) A cardinal rule of my writing is brevity—say something in as few syllables as possible. That’s one of the first pieces of advice I give to new writers, as well. And when I’m editing, my red pen slashes more at violations of brevity than at most anything else. But again (to Locke’s point), this takes time.
Then came the tech I wanted to include. And the characters. I love conflicted characters. Beowulf isn’t a superhero comfortable in his skin. He’s always doubting whether or not what he does is right, and struggling against the constraints of populism. This comes out strongly in the final confrontation between Beowulf and the villain in Bloody Calculus. It continues to grow in the next book.
With all of this as a framework, the story fell into place.
We immediately saw the story as a film, perhaps a series. Such a vibrantly constructed world, hitting on themes that are relevant and timeless. . . . Yet with that degree of futuristic detail, even if it’s not a traditional sprawling genre piece, there are logistical hurdles in getting it adapted, from a producer’s standpoint. Although we naturally consider marketability when judging, the book’s details felt too original and nuanced to pass up—and hey, sometimes you roll the dice on those (good material always find a home, we believe). Did you always see it as having cinematic potential? And if so, did it change your approach, or alter the narrative?
Yes. I ran an animation studio for years, then a film distributor. I think visually. Everything I write, I design to be a “property” with cross-over potential.
The world of Beowulf was designed to be near-future, gritty, intriguing. But all within reach. All the tech, all the set pieces, are plausible. Even Beowulf’s “Little Hog” anti-grav cycle, and the anti-grav elevators, are rooted in today’s science (or at least, in explanations that have been labeled as “not totally implausible” by subject-matter experts). And it’s set in New York, not in space or the bottom of the ocean. A New York that doesn’t look that different from today’s New York. A New York that can be painted 90% with live footage, and only ~10% CG enhancement. And the scenes split about 50/50 between major single-use set pieces, and recurring haunts. So while it will be more expensive to produce than Downton Abbey, it’s no Orville, or Mandalorian.
The scenes were built around intimate character moments on one extreme and those big set pieces on the other. And similar to something like True Detective, it was built to be serialized, with each short season resolving a mystery.
I do hope it gets picked up and produced as a serial. It has a lot to say visually, with ideas that would play well on screen.
What was the process of getting it published?
I didn’t want to go with a major publisher. My agent was shopping Merovingi to Tor, Bantam, and Orbit, and I asked her to pull it. I wanted the freedom to really play around with these ideas, write a few of them, and then maybe sell an anthology to a larger publisher later on.
So I took Bloody Calculus to one of my mentors, David Farland. He’s a NYTimes bestseller, head judge for the largest genre writing competition in the world, author of all kinds of how-to and business-of-writing books, and organizer of a host of classes and workshops. He loved it (one of his quotes is on the cover, another inside the book), and agreed to publish it with me. So we did.
I’m just finishing re-writes on Merovingi, bringing it into something of the linguistic spirit of Beowulf (though not quite as far). Then I’ll take it back to market. I used to attend writing conferences to listen to editors speak in panels and decide which ones I would ask my agent to approach. Now, I use PublishersMarketplace.com instead.
You’re currently wrapping the sequel. What provoked you to tell more of the story? Seems like most novelists, especially when writing genre fiction, instinctively at least consider subsequent books. Was this the plan from the start? What can be the pros and cons of extending a book into a series, at least in your eyes with Beowulf?
It was my plan from the start. I’d planned to make the stories episodic. I love mysteries, like Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books (A&E did a beautiful adaptation). They are generally strongly episodic. And I knew the themes in Beowulf would take much more than one book to explore fully.
Genre fiction, as you say, does often grow into series. For the same reasons, I suppose, that tentpole blockbusters do: ROI (both monetary and emotional). When you spend the time and energy to build a compelling universe with its own realities, technologies, mechanics, histories, cultures, languages, laws, politics, zoology, mythology. . . it makes good sense to re-use all of that on more than one title. And fans prefer it, too. Learning a new world as a reader takes a certain degree of work and emotional input. When you can re-use that across many stories, the payoff grows.
Based on your background, it’s safe to say you’re a Renaissance man of sorts. You’ve done. . . a lot of different things. It’s rather impressive. How can dipping into different industries and areas of the arts and sciences help? And for that matter, on the flip side: can it act as a deterrent? Or does it only help fuel the creative writing machine?
Variety is the spice of life. I have done a few things, some of them noteworthy. They do run along common themes. It’s been a compelling mixture of arts and technology, and sometimes the hard sciences.
My dad’s a Princeton physicist and invented 3D rendering, and my mom is a Colombia biochemist. Geniuses both; the bar was always high. And there was some initial skepticism about going in to the arts, so I did deliberately build my career along parallel but discreet tracks.
On the one hand I can look back and say that my diverse experiences have certainly multiplied what I can put into writing. But they have just as certainly limited what I have actually put into writing. I’m 40 years old and I’ve only written a few books. I’m writing more, and will write more, and it’ll have to do. Because in the end, I can look back at my life and see strategically what might have worked better for one aim or another, but I’m always faced with the truth that I would still be me, and I’m curious and frenetic, and fulfilled by experiencing diversity, and averse to going full bohemian.
If I wanted to write to the exclusion of all else, my path would have been the wrong one. Not because of its diversity (a lot of writers are vocationally varied) but because I care too much about the things I’ve done, I stay up at night thinking about them when I could be thinking about my stories.
So yes, it’s a two-edged sword—both edges very sharp.
Balancing work life, family life, and finding time to write. Ask a million writers, and you’ll get a million different tips. What have you found is something that rings truer than most in reaching peak productivity?
I’m no guru, here, I’m still figuring this out. My system has had to evolve as my life situation has evolved and my family has matured. Discipline serves better than passion, here. It’s easy to get caught on something hard, and without discipline, it’ll just sit unfinished.
And writing/revising for 2-3 hours/day is not the same thing as writing for 4/day and revising for 4/day. So all we part-timers are at a huge output disadvantage.
Stories are also a big part of my family. Making stories up on the fly is a game we play. And sometimes I’ll write those up. (One day I’ll publish them, or produce them as an audiobook anthology or a podcast.) This keeps the brainstorming skills sharp and nurtures a love and appreciation for the art and craft of it, which makes them more supportive of the time I spend muttering to myself over a keyboard in the corner.
David Farland says: the cure for an unfinished novel is finishing it. He’s right. Winston Churchill said: perfection is the enemy of progress. He’s right, too. When you first sit down, put perfectionism to one side, leave the research, leave the worry, and just start writing. After I’ve put some words on the page, I’m a big believer in pausing to outline—I’ll usually draft a list of scenes along with notes on what needs to have happened by the end of each scene. But it’s most satisfying (by far) when I finish a chapter and find that it’s turned out much different than I thought it would, when I learn something about my characters I hadn’t known and hadn’t planned.
That’s when it’s “writing itself,” and that’s when it’s really fun.
Milo Behr grew up in New York, Central America, Europe and the Middle East. His short fiction has appeared in anthologies alongside David Farland, Kevin J. Anderson, Eugie Foster, and others. Academically, he’s published through IEEE, ICSTC and others, and spoken at SIGGRAPH, BIA/Kelsey’s ILM, VFX and elsewhere. Milo has taught, and guest-lectures on, film production and information technology on the university level, and has twice been commended by the US Army for outstanding research.
He invented DigiClay Animation (his animation shop was the first to computer-animate Gumby), Cryptocast streaming media encryption, and a variety of other technologies. He lives among the Rocky Mountains with his wife and three children.
A sequel to his Book Pipeline winning novel will be released in 2019. Read Beowulf: A Bloody Calculus.