“An Idea Isn’t A Story”: A Conversation with The Burning Light Co-Authors Bradley P. Beaulieu and Rob Ziegler

The Burning Light is about a powerful and dangerous idea, about the connections that tie people together both in our real world and in a near-future flooded New York. How do two authors collaborate on such a big concept? Bradley P. Beaulieu and Rob Ziegler got together to talk about their process as well as some of their favorite characters, scenes, and worldbuilding aspects that went into the making of The Burning Light

 

Bradley P. Beaulieu: In my head, I created the basic idea for The Burning Light: a world in which people are fully connected and share their most intimate thoughts and feelings. The moment I approached Rob Ziegler about writing the story together, he reminded me that he’d written a story that included such a concept. And that I’d read it. Like Leonard in Memento, I’m choosing to forget these facts.

This was really a fun story to create with Rob. Over the course of quite a few emails, Skype calls, and a few writing conventions, we batted the ideas back and forth. Early on, we brainstormed the science fictional elements to a degree, but we quickly started to focus on who the story was about, what they wanted, what was preventing them from getting it, and so on.

We both thought it fascinating how humanity might be given this gift of communing with one another whenever they wished, and however deeply they wished, and what they might do with it under those circumstances. Humans being humans, they would explore every nook, every hidden corner. This is how The Burning Light was conceived, a place formed by the combined consciousnesses of hundreds or even thousands.

But an idea isn’t a story. Early on we narrowed in on Zola as our main character, a caring woman who wants to share in the Light and protect the ones she loves. And hunting her is Colonel Chu, a woman driven by a devastating childhood experience to quench the Burning Light before it causes even more damage. These two characters and these two ideas—sharing vs. control—come to a head in this story.

Rob Ziegler: What I’m laughing about is how you copped to Leonardizing (coined!) the idea of connectivity. And how it makes me realize so much of this process I recall only as hours of writing. But as I read your recollection I’m struck by how much of the brainstorming I’ve let myself forget. Like Zola. I’d sort of claimed her internally as my own, because I’d written that first chapter of hers. But the truth is she was well and thoroughly conceived long before then. She is OURS. So much of the work of this story happened in our conversations, and so much of the writing I did was in response to chapters you’d written. I’ve Leonardized a great deal of that away. I recall many a great Skype session with you, and also, in San Antonio, hashing ideas out in person. But simply because those conversations were fun, I don’t recall them as work in the same way as I do the actual writing. So: I, too, am Leonard. I remember what apparently it suits me to remember.

So beginning at the beginning, when we were rooming together at the con in Toronto—my memory is vague (after all, it was a con.) I remember you suggested we collaborate. But I actually don’t recall the conversation you mentioned, where you were mulling connectivity and I said this was a lot like the novel I’d brought to Wellspring. What I do remember is sitting there brainstorming at the table in the lounge. I remember the ideas themselves, coalescing in the air between us, and I remember thinking they were good and it was going to be fun collaborating with you. I’m pretty sure now at that table is where Zola was first conceived. Do I have that right? Because surely we were already talking about our junkie girl then.

BB: The very first discussion we had about it was on a phone call. I rang you up and just talked a bit about wanting to collaborate because it seemed like an idea that you might dig, and that we could have fun fleshing out. Looking back, little wonder I thought you’d like it!

We didn’t talk about any specifics on that call. Toronto, as you mentioned, was really where Zola first started to form in our minds. It’s pretty interesting how collaborations can work. I’ve only done two, but in both cases, the end result was a million times richer than what I had in my head. Part of this is the natural evolution of character and world and plot; it happens with any story. What isn’t “natural” per se are the surprises that were in store for me. And by “surprises,” I mean changes in story direction I hadn’t anticipated.

In the case of Zola, we had this basic idea of a world in which tightly connected “collectives” existed, but we were trying hard to find some unique aspect about it. We stumbled across this idea of communal drug trips, where people meet with others to feed off of a common medium, one of the party who actually takes the drugs. In this way, it’s sort of no muss, no fuss. People get the experience of taking a drug without actually having to force their own body to deal with it. And that brought up all sorts of interesting angles, like what crazy things the mind of the one on the drugs would come up with, and why they came up with them, and the resulting support or celebration they received from those experiencing the fears or joys with them. It was a really cool story idea, but we needed something juicier to build the plot around. We quickly came up with the idea of: well, what if the medium dies, either under mysterious circumstances or by overdosing? And what if our girl has to step in to replace him?

Things were starting to shape up. But when it came to the main character, Zola, I had in my head this semi-rich woman, someone who has a pretty stable and safe life. I had a pretty tame version of the drug experience in mind as well, one in which the players were all people that did this recreationally, an escape from their hum-drum, day-to-day lives.

But when you started laying out that initial scene, it turned out so different than what I’d been thinking. Zola was now dirt-poor, a destitute woman living on the edge of life in Old New York with her man, Marco, the medium of their drug collective. It was a very interesting process—reconciling what was in my head with this cool vision you’d come up with. It set the whole tone for the story, one of a world that might have plenty of “haves” but many more “have nots.”

I had to completely abandon my initial thoughts of who Zola was, where she came from, and where the story was headed. But that’s part of the wonder of collaborations, the mixing of minds, so to speak, to come up with something that is of both authors, and sort of neither as well.

So what about you? What surprises did you find in our months (and months!) of brainstorming and writing? Or, hell, maybe I should ask first if there were any for you!

RZ: Wow, I didn’t realize I’d gone so far off script. Sorry about that!

But you had surprises for me, too. Every scene you wrote was a surprise, one way or another. I’ll reiterate what you said, that reconciling what I had in mind with what you would write—that process was a constant. Brainstorming is one thing. It’s pure magic, having a good partner with whom to spin up ideas. It’s another thing, though, when the writing meets the page. I’ve never collaborated on a writing project before. It took me a few chapters to get over my desire to control every single word. But that was only in the early going. So often the chapters you’d deliver I liked better than whatever I’d had in mind. It only took a few chapters until you had my complete trust, to the point where I was simply looking forward to what you’d come up with.

Hopefully I’m not giving too much away here, but one specific chapter that still really stands out to me is that first halo scene. We’d talked a lot about it before you wrote it, what it looked and felt like for our junkies to connect, and the dynamics between various characters. Conceptually, aesthetically, it was thoroughly ironed out beforehand. Yet what you delivered so completely surpassed all that. I remember being actually moved, even though I knew exactly what was coming.

But speaking of collaboration and process, the most surprising thing to me was simply how committed you were to this project. As you say, it took months. (Months? Try years!) The most defining moment for me was when you came out to Colorado. We’d been batting chapters back and forth at that point for a long ass time. And we hadn’t specifically outlined anything, we were just making it up as we went. I liked what we were writing, but I’d reached a point where I couldn’t see how this story would end. It was Sisyphean, writing chapters just to write chapters. And plus, in between the writing of those chapters were huge swaths of real life and the writing of other projects. Basically, by the time you came out to Colorado, I’d come close to giving up on the story. I think it was my turn to write a chapter, and I hadn’t.

But you came out, and what did it take? Maybe four days, the two of us hunkered in my office, drinking beer, outlining and writing. By the time you left we had our first draft. It was seriously rough, but that’s when I first felt like we really knew what we were doing. Chu had come forth as a character, and the symmetries between her and Zola had begun to form. We had a bead on where we had to go. Your willingness to show up like that meant there was no way I wasn’t going to show up, too. For me, there was no doubt at that point we would see The Burning Light through to its best version.

So looking back, was there a defining moment in the process for you? Or a moment of defining clarity in the narrative itself, where the story as a whole popped for you?

BB: Ah, Paonia… The town where everyone knows your name whether you want them to or not. It was definitely a fun trip, but I felt like if I stayed even one more day, I wouldn’t have been allowed to leave.

Where did the story crystalize for me? Zola arrived pretty full-fledged. I was on board with her from the get-go. She staked her place in the story immediately with that first scene you wrote where she was oaring through the stink of sunken New York to meet Marco. Chu, on the other hand, didn’t feel fully formed until much later. Zola needed not just an enemy, but a foil, and in those early drafts, Chu wasn’t there yet—she had the violence and the drive, certainly, but was missing the humanity.

Two scenes stand out here for me. The first shows Chu’s drive (some might say cruelty) in the face of the danger that the Burning Light represents. She levels a pretty serious threat against Zola when they first meet in Latitude. That’s the setup. But I love the scene where Chu (trying hard to avoid spoilers here) follows through on those promises. It was a vicious and brutal sequence, and it made perfect sense when we see the other part of Chu, the one that cares so much about protecting the world from the Light that she would imprison her sister to achieve it.

Which leads me to the second scene, which gives us a glimpse of a different Melody Chu, a woman who wishes her life had gone very differently. It’s when she’s sitting in the hold of her gov gunship, talking with Joy. Here is a woman who’s been forced into very hard decisions. She clearly loves Joy, but she can’t let her guard down for fear of what would happen. It’s a thing we show emotionally, but also in a very real sense with the shielding she keeps between herself and Joy lest she let the Light in.

Once we had both of those things, Chu crystallized, and the whole story felt like it was achieving a harmony it hadn’t before.

To wrap up, and to play off this answer a bit, was there any one character who evolved for you? Who changed from our initial conception and you came to really appreciate or enjoy as the final version of the story took shape?

The Burning Light Bradley P. Beaulieu Rob ZieglerRZ: That’s exactly what happened to me: I stayed in this town one day too long. And here I still am. You were lucky, Brad. Lucky. Everyone here remembers you. They say, “Hi.”

But…I’m with you re: Chu. It wasn’t until later drafts that she began to take shape. To my mind, the story really began to pop as we found her humanity. It’s staying true to that old saying: everybody believes they’re the good guy, especially the bad guy.

Since you’ve already talked about her, I’ll talk about Jacirai. I liked him a lot right from the get go. He comes ready-made, the sort of character whose motivation is fueled entirely by self-interest. He’s all smiles, all teeth. Doesn’t care if he’s the good guy or the bad guy. But tweaking him just slightly, giving him a core of real nobility, allowed the story’s entire final act to slot into place. There are a couple of other characters, like Holder and Bao, whom I like a lot. But the way the story forced us into finding a deeper layer of Jacirai, and the subsequent payoff, was very satisfying.

And now that I’ve mentioned them, I want to talk about Holder and Bao. But we’ve probably given away too many spoilers already, so in the interest of keeping the story at least somewhat fresh, I’ll sign off. Brad, it’s been a pleasure. Come back to Paonia any time. We still have a pod waiting for you.

The Burning Light is available now from Tor.com Publishing.
Read an excerpt here on Tor.com

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