Mandy Brown: You wrote “The Wrong Plane” on a plane, right? Tell me about that writing process. How did the environment and the constraints of the flight contribute to the writing?
Robin Sloan: Yep, that’s right. I had committed to writing the whole story on the plane — it was part of a Kickstarter project in 2009 — and I boarded with a few scraps of language that I liked, and maybe a rough sense that the story would be weird and otherworldly, but no plot, no outline, nothing like that. So, I had a lot of work ahead of me, and from the moment the flight attendants gave the all-clear for laptops, I was racing full-speed, just pounding words out, slamming paragraphs around, dropping placeholders everywhere. I was in a window seat, I recall. I felt very tense — not in a stressed-out or agitated way, though. More like a wire pulled tight. I honestly don’t think I looked up from my keyboard once for the first three hours. But, again, it wasn’t an unpleasant feeling. It was definitely a flavor of flow. I don’t think I’ve ever been so productive on a plane.
MB: How did it feel to return to the story some years later and revise it? How do you feel about the story as it is now?
RS: Well, I’ve reread “The Wrong Plane” many times in the intervening years, and I always thought of it as one of my favorites. A weird little gem. Returning to it in the context of revision, though … honestly, it was a minor revelation. “Oh, wait … I can change this? Right, I can change this!” And of course, when you start looking at something that way, there’s always tons to do. I mean, you and I went through it together … there was flabby language. There were distracting word choices. Whole sections that were just kinda clunky. I feel like we stripped it down and put a new coat of paint on it. The story’s chassis is the same — it was a good chassis from the start — but boy it’s a lot prettier now.
MB: I like that analogy. To take it a step further, how do you know, when working on a story, which parts are chassis and which flaking paint?
RS: Wow. Good question. I think you just weaponized my metaphor. Well, the structure is definitely chassis. If you had said, “The story should start on the island!” or, “How about you rewrite it in second person!” that would have counted as busting it apart, rebuilding it. But is everything other than structure just paint, then? I’m not sure. I don’t think so, but I’m not sure where to draw the line.
Here’s a possible litmus test: if you’re just using the cursor — moving it around with arrow keys — you’re probably changing the paint. As soon as you start selecting text, though — whole blocks of it — you’re probably fixing the chassis.
MB: My favorite part of the story is when the narrator starts picking through the pieces of bird — the snarge — and describing what he sees. Was that a topic you happened to be familiar with? Or did you research it for the purpose of the story? How important do you think it was to use the correct language here (knowing most of your readers wouldn’t be familiar with it)?
RS: I have (sadly) never seen snarge up close. I heard about it when the head of the Smithsonian gave a talk in San Francisco and mentioned their sideline in bird forensics. I thought the whole thing sounded totally weird and amazing, so naturally I wrote it down, and for whatever reason, it was in my head while I waiting to board the plane. Snarge, snarge, snarge … how can I use snarge?
I should add that this tweet, posted not too long after I published the story, made my jaw drop. Sometimes a story finds its way home.