A Conversation with Andy Weir

The Martian and Artemis author talks flawed protagonists and setting a heist on the moon.

Andy Weir

Jasmine Bashara never signed up to be a hero. She just wanted to get rich. Not billionaire rich, like the visitors to her hometown of Artemis, humanity’s first and only lunar colony. Just rich enough to escape her coffin-sized apartment and eat something better than flavored algae. Rich enough to pay off a debt she’s owed for a long time.

So when a chance at a huge score comes, Jazz can’t say no. Sure, it requires her to graduate from smuggler to criminal mastermind and calls for a particular combination of cunning, technical skills, and explosions—not to mention sheer brazen swagger. But engineering the perfect crime is just the start of Jazz’s problems, because her heist is about to land her in the middle of a conspiracy over control of Artemis itself.

Trapped between competing forces, pursued by a killer and the law, even Jazz has to admit she’s in way over her head. She’ll have to hatch a spectacular scheme to have any chance of staying alive and saving her city. Propelled by a wisecracking voice, brimming with clever problem-solving, and set in a city that’s stunningly imagined and intimately familiar, Artemis is another irresistible brew of science, suspense, and humor from No. 1 bestselling author Andy Weir.

Recently, Andy Weir sat down with Read It Forward editor Abbe Wright to discuss Jazz’s evolution as a character, the ever-burning need to improve his craft, and his unorthodox research methods when it came time to learn about welding.

Read It Forward: Why did you choose to make your follow-up character to The Martian’s Mark Watney this incredibly badass, flawed female, Jazz? Was she harder or easier to write?

Andy Weir: She was much harder to write. Originally, Jazz wasn’t going to be the main character. I had a completely different story idea, different main characters, different plot, different everything. But the plot called for a likable smuggler—a rogue character—for two or three scenes while I was outlining. That’s when I invented Jazz. That story didn’t really work, so I abandoned the concept and came up with a new one where Jazz was a little more prevalent.

She was still a secondary character, but she’d been fleshed out more. And I thought, “Jazz seems pretty interesting. What if I told the story about her and created a crime novel?” She was so cemented in my mind as to who she was as a Saudi-descended woman, and if I tried to change any of those aspects to be more familiar to me, to make her a man or something, my imagination would’ve rebelled. So I found myself writing a Saudi-descended female lead character in the first person; you’re right up there in her mind. I was super-duper insecure about all that, you know, because I’m not a woman.

RIF: Right.

AW: So that was a constant concern for me. She was much harder to write because Mark Watney had zero depth. No one would accuse The Martian of being literature. He was a guy, and his defining characteristic was that he didn’t want to die. It was a simple survival tale.

It always comes off as odd when I say this, but it’s true: I’m still sort of a novice writer. I fell into success with The Martian, but I wanted to get better, to have deeper characters with more backstories, more complex motivations, and—most importantly—flaws. Jazz is a very flawed character, and that was also hard because if I make her too flawed, it’ll alienate the reader. The reader will go, “Ugh, why would I root for this asshole?”

RIF: I just loved her, and her flaws allow for the perfect amount of empathy. I felt I could see myself in that.

AW: Some of the feedback I’ve gotten—because of course I zero-in on the negative Goodreads reviews; I’ll blow right by ten 5-star reviews to the 2-star and read that—and a lot of the feedback is that I made her too immature. She is immature, and that’s a flaw. A 26-year-old, even an immature 26-year-old, should probably be a little more mature than Jazz is.

RIF: I think her maturity shows itself in her planning.

AW: Mark Watney is based on the idealized version of me. He’s what I wish I were; he’s all the qualities I have that I like about myself and none of my flaws. He’s what I wish I could become. Jazz is more like the real me. And when I was in my 20s, I was a fuck-up. I really was. The whole wasted potential thing, that’s straight out of my life, and it turns out people like the idealized me a little bit more than they like the real one.

RIF: You used this classic trope of the heist, complete with bad guys, but it’s set on the moon. Why did you go to this tried and true, propulsive plotting device?

AW: It was just the emergent story. I wasn’t trying to follow any formula or pattern. I was just like, okay, here’s the conflict I’m going to set up, and then I want to see where it goes. And, yeah, it ends up playing out on the same beats as any other crime novel. There’s the heist, the thing that goes wrong, the rogues’ gallery meeting. Then, the other heist that has to undo the damage of the first heist, and then the resolution. So that’s not new, but the fun is in the telling of the story and doing it my way.

RIF: Totally. Reading this, I could tell you had so much fun writing it. It comes across on the page that you love watching your characters get into sticky situations that they have to use their ingenuity to get out of. What is so fun in writing that way for you?

AW: I love problem-solving. I guess the goal of any writer is to outsmart the reader, right? Just like mystery writing, I’m going to give you all the information you need as a reader to solve this problem, and then I’m going to have the main character solve the problem, and hopefully you didn’t figure it out. But in retrospect, you’re like, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.” That’s the best thing, right there. That’s victory.

RIF: Yes!

AW: Readers love being outsmarted—if they had a chance, as long as you didn’t withhold vital information from them. It’s very similar to writing a murder mystery in that you have to give the reader everything they needed to know to figure it out. And then they’re like, “Well, it’s on me for not working it out.”

RIF: I didn’t even know that I liked to read that way, but it’s a great point.

AW: I love being outsmarted by the writer. And conversely, I hate not being outsmarted by the writer.  Everybody hates it when they see a plot twist, or something coming miles in advance, and it happens. You have to be a better writer than the reader is a writer.

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RIF: So Artemis is this huge tourist destination, and the cashflows come from tourists visiting the moon, which reminds me of Las Vegas. It’s got the glittery casinos, hotels, and restaurants, and then where the actual workers have to live.

AW: I based Artemis’ economy on actual Caribbean resort towns, and that’s how they are. It’s like this town exists for no reason other than tourism, right? So you’ve got that glitzy hotel, the nice places, maybe some casinos, brothels, et cetera. But the people who actually live and work there, they don’t live in anywhere near as nice conditions.

And I’m not trying to make some sort of wealth divide comment. I’m never making any commentary, at all. Anybody who thinks there’s a message in my books is reading it in. This is not #OccupyMoon. This is not a story of wealth inequality; it’s just that’s the emergent behavior of any human town, and especially one heavily based on the tourist economy.

RIF: I know in your research you actually calculated how much money it would cost a tourist to go to the moon.

AW: Yeah, it was about 70,000 bucks in 2015 dollars. That would pay for a two-week vacation to the moon.

RIF: Wow.

AW: Well, two weeks on the moon, and then there’s another two weeks transit total: a week there and a week back. But that’s the sort of thing people would do, I think, if you could put it within reach of middle-class people.

RIF: What other stuff did you have to research?

AW: Oh, so much. I needed to find out how raw ores get smelted and refined into metals. I had to find out exactly what the composition of those ores on the moon was. I had to learn a lot about welding and, unlike planetary sciences and stuff that’s been a hobby of mine forever, welding I didn’t know crap about. I knew zero, so I started my research by going to Wikipedia and typing “welding.”

RIF: Very technical.

AW: And I actually tried to get welders. I emailed people at welding shops and went online to find welders in my area, just saying, “I’m a writer and I’m working on a book, and I need to talk to someone about how welding works.” None of them responded.

RIF: Oh no!

AW: They’re probably too busy welding, you know? They’re working. I mean, I can understand that—some total stranger goes, “Hello, I would like to meet you. Tell me your secrets.”

RIF: So, Jazz. She’s born in Saudi Arabia, but she doesn’t have the same connection to her home country that her father has. Why did you feel so passionate about her new homeland?

AW: She’s an Artemisian. It’s where she grew up, and you see that social pattern emerge over and over again with first-generation immigrant families in the U.S. or any other country that has a diaspora. You end up with the parents coming over, and they have the old-world beliefs, but the children grow up and they’re completely, in our case, Americanized. In fact, that almost never doesn’t happen. You know what I mean? If you bring someone over to the U.S. when they’re young, they’re going to be Americans, and they only speak the native language in and around the house. That’s again just kind of the way humans work out.

RIF: Do you have a favorite scene in Artemis? [Spoiler Alert!]

AW: Hm. I guess the scene toward the end—I mean, this is spoileriffic—but toward the end when the chloroform is all over the town, and she’s running through the knocked-out city.

RIF: I had a very detailed picture of Artemis in my head.

AW: Good, that’s what I wanted.

RIF: Just white, shiny halls everywhere.

AW: I imagined more like brushed metal, because they wouldn’t polish up the aluminum for the hallways.

RIF: That’s very true. What do you hope readers take away from Artemis?

AW: I hope they have a fun time reading it. I know that’s a cop-out kind of answer. All I ever want with my books is for someone to read it and put it away and go, “Huh, that was cool!” and hopefully recommend it to people.

RIF: And have the movie rights been bought for this?

AW: Yeah, Fox has already bought the film rights, so that’s pretty cool. That’s a significant investment on their part, and it means they’re taking it pretty seriously.

RIF: That’s so cool. I can’t wait to see their imagination of Artemis.

AW: Me too, of course. A million things have to go just right for a movie to get green-lighted, so it’s still very, very far from a guarantee.

RIF: What are you reading right now?

AW: Normally, I say nothing because I just don’t have time to read, but I’m reading The Midnight Line, the latest Jack Reacher novel.

Author Photo: © Aubrie Pick

ANDY WEIR was first hired as a programmer for a national laboratory at age 15 and has been working as a software engineer ever since. He is also a lifelong space nerd and a devoted hobbyist of subjects like relativistic physics, orbital mechanics, and the history of manned spaceflight.

About Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Senior Editor of Read It Forward. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.

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