A sprawling story of government officials, academic experts and, eventually, actual witches banding together to alter the present by time traveling into the past, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is so deliciously entertaining that the reader is instantly swept up into its sense of adventure, no matter how outlandish the plot may seem. The fact that this 700-page book was a collaboration between two authors makes it an even more extraordinary feat.
We spoke with historical fiction author Nicole Galland and sci-fi icon Neal Stephenson (Seveneves, The System of the World) about the importance of spreadsheets, sympathetic villains and pseudo-science.
First things first—how did the two of you meet, and when did you decide to write a book together?
Nicole Galland: We have the same agent (Liz Darhansoff) and editor (Jennifer Brehl, at HarperCollins), and Neal kindly blurbed my debut novel, The Fool’s Tale. Several years later he invited me to join the heretofore-all-male tribe of writers creating The Mongoliad. (The story as I heard—Neal showed some early chapters to a female friend, who said there was too much testosterone and ordered him to include a female writer of historical fiction. This might be apocryphal, however. I defer to Neal’s version of events, as he was the initiator.)
Neal Stephenson: I have forgotten. The gender skewage on Mongoliad was so obvious, I’m not sure if a female was needed to point it out to me, but in any case Nicki was the obvious best person for that job.
NG: When I came out to Seattle for the final Mongoliad launch event, he told me the premise for D.O.D.O. and asked if I might be interested in writing it with him. I think I said yes while he was still asking the question.
At what point did you realize how complicated D.O.D.O. was going to be? And how did you even begin to keep everything straight plot-wise?
NG: I would say by its nature it was complicated straight out of the gate, but it got much more so as it went along. We began with an 11-page, single-spaced synopsis, most of which I could keep straight in my head, somehow. Then Neal generated an online chronology, which both allowed and guaranteed that it would all get more complicated.
NS: D.O.D.O. is an example of coherent universe fiction, where the story and the world need to hang together in an internally consistent way. We had, and still have, ambitions of trying to do more with this world, supposing people like the book. A first step in that is making sure that the timeline hangs together, and that gets a little more complicated in a time-travel story. So, spreadsheets.
Neal, do you think we will ever get to a point technologically where time travel is possible?
NG: I am so glad this question is directed to Neal.
NS: No. Not even in the book does it happen through technology. . . but that’s a spoiler.
Did you ever disagree about something while writing together? And if so, how did you resolve it?
NG: I’m sure we did but I don’t remember specifics. As a broad generalization, I think we have different approaches to problem-solving. My take is that Neal thinks like an engineer or a scientist or a coder—if something isn’t working, he calmly and methodically works on debugging the program, so to speak. I react more like a theater person—my impulse is to say, “That’s not working! We gotta try a different approach!”
NS: There were not any disagreements big enough for me to remember them. There were problems to be solved and we solved them.
How did you both pick which time periods to set it in? Were any of the periods completely new territory for either of you?
NG: Neal knew he wanted a medieval crusade because it would involve an encounter between different cultures (including military cultures). I suggested the Fourth Crusade since I already knew about it from writing my novel Crossed. The crucible of the Fourth Crusade was Constantinople, which happily turned out to be useful for other things in the book.
NS: Normandy, circa the Norman Conquest, was new for me. The specific times and places kind of fell out naturally from what we were trying to do from a narrative standpoint.
D.O.D.O. has such a huge and fascinating cast of characters! Who was your favorite character to write, and who was the easiest character to write?
NG: I especially enjoyed writing in Grainne’s voice. (Also, I loved depicting Erszebet. Witches with attitude FTW.) Mel was easiest. I tried to imagine myself pluckier, smarter and more grounded than I actually am, and most of the time that did the trick.
NS: The less attractive the character, the more I enjoyed writing them. Officious bureaucrats and PowerPoint weasels are where it’s at for me.
When it comes to the science in the book, at what point did you find yourself moving from established facts into the realm of, shall we say, informed speculation?
NG: I’ll let Neal answer this since it’s his wheelhouse. 😉
NS: It should be said that the overall tone of this book is lighthearted romantic adventure with satirical bits, and so burying the reader under heavy science wasn’t really on the program. There are a few parts of it where characters pretend to talk science. I hope that real scientists will read those with a sense of humor.
Nicole, you’ve written a book about one of the most famous villains in history, Shakespeare’s Iago, from his perspective. Without giving too much about D.O.D.O. away, what do you think makes for an engaging, sympathetic antagonist?
NG: If a character is engaging and sympathetic, you will enjoy them in any circumstance—especially if they have a believable motivation for their actions. “Being evil” doesn’t cut it; the more relatable the motivation, the better. For instance, Iago is not innately evil—he does bad things in response to bad things being done to him. (BTW I’m always happy to get into this over a drink with anyone who wants to argue about Othello.)
Similarly in D.O.D.O., certain characters evolve into antagonists in response to things that interfere with their well-being.
And for the record, I’m talking about antagonists who are center stage. Ancillary characters who cause problems by being irritating, narcissistic, complacent, knee-jerkingly greedy or vicious—that’s a different story.
There are so many more stories you could tell in this world. Any chance of a sequel?
NG: Stay tuned. . .
NS: Thinking about it. . .
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O..
Galland author photo credit Eli Dagostino. Stephenson author photo credit Brady Hall.