Andy Weir Is on a Mission to Create an Unpausable Story
The writer of 'The Martian' wows with world-ending stakes and an unexpected bromance in his new interstellar thriller, 'Project Hail Mary.'
May 6, 2021
Note: Text has been edited and does not match audio exactly.
Sam Danis: Hi, I'm Sam Danis, Audible's sci-fi and fantasy editor, and I'm here today with the one and only Andy Weir, writer of a little book you might've heard of called The Martian, and also of Artemis and the brand-new sci-fi thriller that we're here to talk about today, Project Hail Mary. Welcome, Andy.
Andy Weir: Hi, thanks for having me.
SD: Yeah, of course. So we're going to talk a little bit about the new book today. Project Hail Mary follows one man's last-ditch attempt to save Earth from an extinction event. It starts when Ryland Grace, a junior high teacher turned astronaut, wakes up with no memory of where he is. In fact, no memory of who he even is, with only two dead crewmates for company. He soon discovers he's part of a mission called Project Hail Mary and that his mission is to save the human race. So, no pressure.
AW: No pressure.
SD: No pressure at all, easy peasy. Andy, I just want to hear what's kind of the impetus of this story? Where did this come from for you?
AW: Well, this is funny, because usually my stories like my previous books, The Martian and Artemis, the ideas came from me speculating about science. The Martian started with me thinking, "How could we put together a humans-to-Mars mission?" How do we do that? And, "Oh, these things could go wrong. And, oh, what if all these things went wrong? And, oh, this might make a good story."
"I'm like, "Wait a minute! Disasters are where books come from!""
Artemis was me speculating about, what is humanity's first city that's not on Earth going to be like? Will it be an orbit, will it be on Mars, will be on the moon? Well, the moon makes more sense because of various reasons, yada, yada, yada. And that's where Artemis came from. Project Hail Mary, however, was a collection of spare parts that I had lying around from other story ideas. So, basically—
SD: I love that.
AW: Yeah, after I wrote The Martian, I was on top of the world, ma, and they immediately signed me to write another book, pretty much sight unseen. They're like, "Yeah, write, we don't care, write something." And so I got to work on what I thought was going to be my magnum opus. It was going to be my Game of Thrones. Like, The Martian would be seen as my whatever, my entry into the world, but this will be my real thing. It was going to be called Zhek, Z-H-E-K, and it was this epic saga. I mean, it was going to be many books; there's characters all over the place, doing all sorts of stuff.
It was just going to be awesome. It was going to have all these like soft sci-fi elements. Faster-than-light travel, aliens, telepathy, just lots of fun stuff. Anyway, I worked on it for about a year. I got about 70,000 words into it. For reference, The Martian is just over 100,000 words.
And then one day I was like, "Oh, this sucks. this book is not good." It's not interesting. The characters are not compelling. The plot is crawling along. I'm still in the first act. It's going to be some gigantic tome that nobody wants to read. I tried to be George R. R. Martin, but instead I ended up being like a four-year-old telling you about his day, where it's just rambling off in 20 different directions, and it just wasn't working. I realized that it was unsalvageable. I talked to the publisher and begged them for, "Hey, how about give me a year extension and I'm going to write a completely different book?"
That ended up being Artemis, and they agreed to it immediately because they'd been reading the pages that I was writing on Zhek. So that should tell you something too. That made me feel bad, of course, to set aside 70,000 words in a year of work and just basically throw it away. But, later on, and this is what eventually led to Project Hail Mary, I was saying, "You know, Zhek didn't work, but there were certain elements, little shiny bits in there that were really solid."
And one of them was a spacecraft fuel that basically works by mass conversion. It turns mass energy into light. Light has momentum. Most people don't realize that. But if you were out in space floating around and you turned on a flashlight, it would actually provide thrust.
There was also a character in Zhek that I really started to like. She was a woman who had a massive amount of secret authority. I really enjoyed writing her. And the scenes that she was in were very interesting and compelling. So I took those two elements from Zhek. That got me thinking about, "Okay, well, I love this spacecraft fuel, but it's way beyond our ability to make anything like that."
And I got to thinking, "Well, that sounds kind of like life, right?" That sounds like, "Oh, it takes energy and makes more of itself." That's what life does. I'm like, "Oh, okay, so what if I rework it so that's not a technology, it's just a life form." And I'm like, "Well, why would a life form need to store so much energy that it can like propel itself through space?" And I thought, "Well, that's what it does. It lives by propelling itself through space. It needs to."
And I'm like, "Oh, okay, so that makes sense." It's mold and it grows on the surface of stars. It spores out in all directions, it's not intelligent, but it sends spores out in all directions in the hope of infecting other stars, just like mold does. And then I'm like, "Okay, that's pretty cool." And my original thought was, "Oh, what if humans got a hold of some of this stuff and it entered our system?" and they thought, "Oh, this is really cool." And they started breeding it up in reactors, and now we can go to Mars and we can do this stuff like that.
And I'm like, "Oh, they'd have to be really careful not to let it get into the sun, though," because if it got into our sun, then it would start breeding out of control. And that would be a real disaster. I'm like, "Wait a minute! Disasters are where books come from! This is much better. This is way better than just humans dorking around with technology. It starts with it hitting our sun, it starts with our sun being infected, and it's happening out of control. And this becomes an extinction-level threat, so we got to do something about it." And then I'm like, "Okay, so now I need an excuse for an interstellar trip." Okay, now that we can do an interstellar trip, I need the interstellar trip to somehow be part of a solution."
And I said, "Well, it's mold spreading out everywhere, but there's one star, Tau Ceti, that isn't having a problem." All the stars in our local cluster are dimming. They can see that the astronomers see that they're all infected with this stuff except, for whatever reason, Tau Ceti. So they decided, as a last ditch effort, a Hail Mary pass, if you will, that they're going to send a ship with people on it to Tau Ceti to try to find out why that one star is immune. If they can find an answer, maybe that can be used to save Earth. So that's the premise, and there's a bunch of spoilers for the first chapter or two in there, but you can't really talk about the book without getting some spoilers.
SD: Totally. I just want to say I think it's funny that you described your original work as unsalvageable, because it sounds like you salvaged a lot of really good parts of it, and a lot of things that really became the crux of this new novel.
The main character of Ryland Grace is a little bit different of a character for you, which I found interesting. He's the same kind of, you know, he's going to figure it out, he's going to get it done. He's very earnest in his mission, but he's not as salty, maybe he's…not as much cursing. I'm just curious if that was an intentional decision on your part.
AW: Despite the sales of my books, I've never considered myself that good of a writer. I'm pretty solid at coming up with interesting plot ideas and, "Oh, here's a neat problem and here's a neat thing that could happen. And here's the sequence of events." So I'm very plot driven, but my characters have never been that impressive. People loved Mark Watney, but no one would accuse The Martian of being literature, right? Mark Watney had no depth. The only thing you know about him is that he didn't want to die and that you can assume about most people.
And he's exactly the same at the end of the book as he is at the beginning. He does not undergo any change or growth or anything. There is like zero character development at all in The Martian. It's a 100% plot-based story. Okay, so for Artemis, for my main character, Jazz, I wanted her to be a deeper, more complicated, more nuanced character. I wanted her to undergo growth and become a better person by the end of the book. And I did all that, but I made her so flawed that a lot of people didn't like her and didn't like the book very much because they were having a tough time rooting for the protagonist.
And what's funny is, Mark Watney is the idealized version of me. Everything I like about myself, none of the bad stuff that I don't like about myself and the aspects that I do like about myself magnified. Jazz is more like the real me, and Jazz has a bunch of my flaws. Not living up to her potential, being a disappointment to her father, all these things, and also being her own worst enemy.
I did a lot of this when I was in my 20s. Trying to take the easy way out, trying to take shortcuts and stuff that lead to just making your life so much harder than it needs to be. And so I thought, I'll draw from myself and my own flaws and stuff like that to give Jazz the depth that they desire, that I want her to have. And then she grows and learns that these are bad ways of doing things and that she's going to not do them that way, and that's great. Well, it turns out that if you take a bunch of the bad parts of me and make a character out of them, people don't like that very much, you know?
People like Mark Watney a lot more than they like me, I think is what it comes down to. For Ryland, what I decided is, "Okay, once again, got a new protagonist and got a cool plot-based situation. Let's think character." I want to be a better writer and I'm like, "Okay, I want to make a character for him. And I'm not going to base him on any aspect of myself. I want to come up with a personality for him."
I mean, he's going to have the elements of me. It's impossible for any character in any book not to have some of the writer's personality, at least a little bit. So for him I decided that he was going to be maybe a little naive. He's a little naive, he's kind of a Boy Scout, kind of a goody two-shoes in a lot of ways, and also not particularly brave. He's very conflict avoidant. His go-to response to a fight is to back down.
Also he's a very solitary person. He lived alone, didn't have any significant other, didn't really want to interact with the world very much or interact with anybody. He didn't want to really rely on anybody, and throughout the book that also becomes a thing.
SD: First of all, I would argue that you are a great writer, but I love that you are trying to improve and try something new with each new story you put out there. I think it is that kind of naivete about this character that makes him so endearing from the very beginning. And talk about, you know, not being brave and waking up in space. There's your conflict for you.
So, I want to get into the narration a little bit here…. We mentioned the main character, Ryland, [and there's also] Strat, that kind of no BS, take no prisoners type of character. All narrated by the amazing Ray Porter. He's a rock star to us. We absolutely love him. He was a celebrity to us long before he portrayed Darkseid in Zack Snyder's Justice League.
AW: He's awesome. It's one of those things where they don't really need to vet it. They're like, "We know he's going to do a great job. We don't need to send little pieces and get feedback on how he's doing."
SD: Yeah, Ray's got it.
SD: I will say [to anyone listening] to tune out now or go finish the listen before you continue.
*WARNING: Spoilers ahead for Project Hail Mary*
This is a first contact story in addition to a space adventure. Not only these mold-like creatures that are infecting the sun, but also Ryland meets a friend out in the space by chance. Tell us a little bit about that character and how he sounds.
AW: Yes. So while Ryland is in the Tau Ceti system, very quickly another spaceship comes up to him and says hi out of nowhere. This is an alien spacecraft. So he almost immediately, upon entering the system, encounters an alien spacecraft, which is also powered by Astrophage, the same as Ryland's ship, which that's interesting, and they start communicating by flicking their engines on and off because they can see the infrared light that the Astrophage creates. They end up building a tunnel between the two ships. It's clumsy communication and there's a lot of fun there. And then he finally gets to see who this alien is.
"It's a buddy story. It's a bromance."
And it is like a five-legged spider kind of thing about the size of a Labrador retriever, with mineral-like deposits all over its carapace. He nicknames the being Rocky. Rocky has, like, five internal bladders that can squeeze back and forth across kind of vocal chords. And so he doesn't pronounce things. He doesn't have a mouth that he's pushing air through and stuff like that. It's all chords. So the language of Rocky's people are like multiple notes being played at the same time.
In the right sequence is a word. So it's like [makes sounds of multiple notes playing]. Audible had to put a lot of thought into this. They were like, "Okay, well, we need to make those sounds. So what does Rocky sound like?" And also then how do we portray? Because within the book, over time, Ryland starts to put together kind of a lexicon of all of Rocky's words. And Rocky, we find out, has basically eidetic memory. So he can just remember, you know, once he knows an English word, he'll remember it forever.
So eventually, within the book, Ryland just kind of learns Rocky's language. He learns, "Oh, that note." And I'm able to just start putting whatever Rocky says in italics to indicate to the reader that, "Oh, this Rocky speaking his own language, but Ryland is understanding it." But you can't do that in audio, so the question is what do you do to indicate that this is Rocky speaking a different language and a language humans can't even make the noises of and Ryland understanding it? What they came up with is cool. At first it's just the notes and it's like you hear that [mimics musical notes], you know.
And then later on, as Ryland starts understanding it, it's Ray speaking the words on top of the notes. So the notes get a little quieter and Ray is saying the words, and the way Ray does it is it's just very clipped. It's like, "Ye-, yes. Good, good, good. Happy. Yes, please."
SD: Almost like an AI, yeah.
AW: Yeah, well, kind of just like this clipped like [mimics musical notes] and a little bit rapid. Rocky turned out to be, unexpectedly, everybody's favorite character. Everybody just loves Rocky. I mean, they like Ryland, sure, yeah, he's cool. But Rocky they love. He's just somehow really likable. I don't know. Maybe it's because of his childlike method of speech, because they have sort of this pidgin language they're using to talk to each other. But, yeah, people really liked Rocky.
It's from that point on that the true nature of the book is revealed. It's a buddy story. It's a bromance.
SD: Yeah, it's an interesting combination of some of my favorite tropes, I think, which is the first contact and then the trying to understand first contact, the species that we encounter, but then it does just kind of morph into this really heartwarming friendship where these two characters have to learn to understand each other, learn to live with each other, and figure out this massive problem that's affecting both their worlds.
AW: And become like best friends in the process.
SD: It really is a great concept.
AW: What can I say? I'm a wholesome writer.
SD: It's incredibly wholesome and just really compelling. You described Ryland as a Boy Scout, I think that's kind of the vibe. I loved Rocky as well, as a character. And I imagine listeners will as well, especially with Ray and all the cool sound design that's going on.
AW: Yeah, they really did a fantastic job with how the sound works out with Rocky.
SD: You mentioned before that Ryland was kind of used to this solo life, and then, of course, he's sent into space all alone, and then he makes a friend. My fellow editors and I were talking recently. This idea of isolation from the rest of humanity happened to Mark Watney, it's happening to Ryland, and maybe a little less so to Jazz. But it seems like it's a running theme within your work a little bit. I'm curious what draws you to that story.
AW: Yeah, you're absolutely right. A lot of my ideas seem to involve an isolated scientist, and I was wondering, "Maybe I should branch out from that." But then I'm like, "But people really like it when I write things like that." I guess it's just a very convenient form of storytelling because, as I mentioned, I still have a lot to learn about character interplay and character dynamics and character-driven story. When you have an idea for a plot-driven story, the character interactions become a distraction.
"I want to know what they were reading that allowed them to put the book down. And then I want to get rid of that. I want to keep that reader up all night."
And so if you have a person-versus-nature story going on, then it can be much more directly plot advancement related. I want to keep the reader glued to the book. I know this is Audible, so most people probably listened to it on their commutes or when they're at the gym or whatever. But, as for the physical book or the e-book, I imagine my reader, you know, at 1 a.m. reading my book, they're getting tired, and they're like, "Okay, well, it's time for me to go to sleep." And they put the book down for the night.
I want to know what paragraph they were on when they did that. I want to know what they were reading that allowed them to put the book down. And then I want to get rid of that. I want to keep that reader up all night. I want them to fall asleep with a book on their face or something.
SD: I love that.
AW: I don't ever want the reader to feel like, "This is where I can take a break." So for the Audible listeners, I want them to maybe stay at the gym a little longer than they plan to or sit in their car once they get to work, you know.
SD: We call that "unpausable" here.
AW: Unpausable. That's what I want. I want unpausable. And so, an isolated character allows plot advancement to happen much more rapidly, or at least with my particular style of writing.
And also, it's almost like cheating. It's like, "Okay, I now control the entire environment. Me, the writer, I control the entire environment. I only got one character to deal with. And so, this character is going to encounter a problem, the character's going to solve the problem, or maybe not quite solve the problem or whatever. So when it's person versus person, it gets more complicated.
Also my strength is in first person narration. So if a person's alone, first person narration works great. If there's lots of characters, you have to constantly find an excuse for the narrator to be wherever things are. Interestingly, Project Hail Mary is first person and present tense narration, which I had never done before. But I really enjoyed doing it.
SD: Yes, exactly. I want to ask you a little bit about, there's just so much science going on. It is a science fiction thriller, at its heart. I'm curious what your process is when it comes to the science. You went into it a little bit with coming up with Astrophage.
I'm curious, do you more often come up with the concept and figure out, "Hmm, how am I going to work this into the story?" or is there a challenge that you hit in the story where you realize, "I have to figure out how to solve this myself?" À la Ryland or Mark Watney?
AW: Usually, I start with what I want to exist, then try to work out a way for that to exist that is scientifically accurate. What's cool is I go way down the rabbit hole. I go way further than I really need to in working this stuff out, basically because I really enjoy that. Research is my favorite part of writing. But what's also cool is oftentimes during the research, I find out things that I'm like, "Oh, oh, I didn't know that. Oh, that would cause this thing to happen, and that would really screw things. I hadn't even thought of that."
Research is my favorite part of writing.
For Astrophage, I went all the way down to the cellular biology level of this monocellular organism. I invented something in quantum physics that does not really exist, but is not in conflict with anything that could exist. And that mechanism, ultimately, is what leads Astrophage to be able to exist. I went all the way down to them at the subatomic level, which is, maybe some might say, a bit far.
SD: I love that your research rabbit holes are what lead to the conflict for your characters. I almost imagine them saying, "No, stop."
AW: "No, no. Oh, God, don't read that."
SD: It seems like you have a lot of fun researching and writing your stories, and I feel like that really does come through for the reader or listener as they get to learn all these fun things. It resonates for sure.
AW: Well, thanks. I have fun researching. I generally don't have fun writing it. I mean, sometimes I do, but the writing is work, right? It's work.
It feels good when I got the answer. I'm like, "Okay, here's what's going to happen. I've figured this out. I've got the next several chapters planned out in my head. I know where I need to go and how I'm going to get there." Then it's like, "Okay, now I got to actually write it." It's like, "Okay, I've decided to move this big pile of big, heavy rocks to the other side of the yard. I know exactly how I'm going to do it. I know exactly the arrangement that big pile of rocks is going to be. Okay, now I have to start carrying rocks one at a time over across the yard."
SD: The perfect analogy for writing, if you ask me.
AW: I really enjoy editing. It's the first draft that's terrible for me. That's the one that's really hard. The way I like to put it is, it's a lot easier to paint the house than it is to build a house.
SD: This is true. Another good analogy.
AW: When people ask me advice about writing because they foolishly think I can help, I'll say, it's a quote from Hemingway, "The first draft of anything is shit." Hemingway is absolutely right; your first draft is not going to be any good. Sometimes you feel really bad when you're writing. You're like, "Oh, this is so clunky. This is really awful." But, just remember, it's not going to be that way when you're done. You're getting the skeleton together.
"I like to say, give a man a book, you entertain them for a night; teach a man to write, you give him crippling self-doubt for life."
SD: Comforting words in a sense. Aspiring writers out there, just start moving those rocks just to move those rocks.
AW: Just move the rocks.
SD: Totally. So Andy, for my last question, what rocks are you moving next? Anything exciting you're working on?
AW: Good, good question. I would love to say that I am, but, honestly, I'm having a difficult time choosing what my next project will be. I'm just not sure what comes next. I like to say, give a man a book, you entertain them for a night; teach a man to write, you give him crippling self-doubt for life.
SD: Oh, that is too perfect. Well, this is a nice meaty one to dive into, so I don't blame you for taking that break. There's going to be a lot of payoff for our listeners. And whatever you end up working on next, I'm sure it'll be great.
AW: Well, thank you so much. I appreciate the confidence you have in me that I lack.
SD: Hey, it's the writer's syndrome. I have it myself.
AW: It is, yep.
SD: Well, Andy, thank you so much for chatting with me today. Thank you so much for walking me through all that. I cannot wait for our listeners to get to hear this one. It is a delight. And for you listeners, you can find Project Hail Mary, which releases on May 4, right here on Audible. Thanks again, Andy.
AW: Thanks for having me.