Andy Weir, author of The Martian, has had a pretty wild few years. One day he was working a 9-5 job (which he liked, incidentally) and the next, he had a book atop the New York Times list of bestsellers. A movie based on the novel will be released this fall — with Matt Damon starring and Ridley Scott directing. All told, it’s a dream scenario.
Like many “overnight successes,” Weir’s breakout story was years in the making. He had always longed for the chance to be a full-time writer, he’d even given himself a career break to chase that goal. When agents and editors didn’t latch onto his early efforts, Weir never quit. Tenacity and optimism are qualities the man values deeply.
In 2009, frustrated but not despairing, Weir started a new project. It was to be a survival story — classic man versus nature. The kicker was that it happened to take place on Mars. He wanted to stay completely realistic, which meant research. Lots of research. Weir began writing and serialized the book chapter-by-chapter on his website.
Then a funny thing happened: The Martian‘s compelling first chapters inspired Weir’s regular readers to share his writing with their friends. Those friends shared it with their friends and the number of readers exploded.
After awhile, someone asked the author if he would assemble it into one cohesive book so that it could be read on a Kindle. Weir agreed and made the document available on Amazon for the lowest possible price ($0.99). Once again, people found themselves hooked by the very first sentence (“I’m pretty much fucked.”).
Weir sold 35,000 copies in four months.
This time around, the worlds of publishing and film took notice. Print and movie rights sold in the same whirlwind week. The film’s release date was recently moved up to October 2nd and the trailer has gotten giddy responses.
Recently, the self-described “space nerd” even got a VIP tour of the Jet Propulsion Lab and Johnson Space Center. Without specifically intending it this way, Weir wrote a book that looks likely to push NASA and the idea of a manned mission to Mars back into the spotlight.
Like a NASA launch, Weir’s lifelong dream of being a writer had taken enormous amounts of work — then rocketed into orbit suddenly and with tremendous velocity. We spoke to him this week about books, movies, and how it feels to be the “next big thing”.
So…are you reading anything right now?
Right now? No. Not too long ago I finished Armada, the new Ernie Cline book but right now I’m not reading anything. The sad fact of the matter is that once I became a full-time novelist I didn’t get to read stuff anymore.
But you must be getting asked to do a lot of blurbs for other books…
I get a lot of requests but I say no to most of them. A lot of people blurb a book without actually reading it, but I always read the book all the way through, so it’s a huge time commitment for me.
Where would you point a reader who really loved The Martian?
Across the board, anytime anyone ever asks for a book recommendation I say, “read, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.” It’s definitely my favorite book of the last 10 years. I’m in my early 40’s so I’m the perfect age for it. If you were present in the 1980s then you’ll love that book. Even if you’re a 90’s kid you’ll still like it. It’s excellent. People who like hard science fiction — the accurate science and stuff like that — might enjoy Ringworld by Larry Niven. It’s a very good hard sci-fi story. Almost everything in it, you could do the math on this, it works out.
In terms of just fun space adventures, I’ll recommend the stuff that I grew up reading. I still have a soft spot for the old juveniles of the 1950’s and 60’s. Have Space Suit — Will Travel is a great one, that’s by Robert Heinlein. Also, Tunnel In The Sky (also by Heinlein) that’s a classic man versus nature story. And of course the science fiction book that defines all science fiction books, I, Robot by Isaac Asimov.
I’ll tell you a bit of trivia about Tunnel In The Sky. Heinlein wrote that in, I think, the early 1950’s. At that time, books in this genre weren’t great on the social equality scale by modern standards. You have to grade them on a curve, I guess. So with that as the background, it’s cool to note that the main character in Tunnel In The Sky is black. Heinlein wanted him to be black, but he knew that publishers wouldn’t really let him overtly have a black protagonist. Nowadays nobody would care, but back then it was an issue, so he snuck it in. It’s very subtle, if you read the book you could read through the whole book and not realize the ethnicity of the main character — but if you pick up some of the clues, you see where he snuck it in and in later covers the character is black. He wanted the reader to be able to figure it out but he wanted the publisher not to figure it out.
Your book also had a lot of moments that rewarded that “close reader.” There was material that maybe someone with a non-scientific mind wouldn’t understand — but for someone else they kind of geek out on digging into it and making sure your science is sound. Have you gotten that sort of feedback from readers?
At first, I wasn’t writing it for mainstream audience. I thought that I was writing it just for the small core group of regular readers that I have and they were all very science fiction minded people. That’s why I put so much effort in being accurate — because I knew the people who were reading would know if I was bullshitting on the science. I never thought it would have mainstream appeal and if you had asked me at the time I would have said, “Oh no, someone who is not into science would hate this because I have these long paragraphs describing the science.” But what I found out is that for people who have no interest in science at all still enjoyed the book. They tell me that they just skimmed those paragraphs. They’re just like, yeah he’s describing the details on this…but I trust him.
I think that your book gets at something which everyone is interested in which is this idea of human ingenuity…
One of my favorite kinds of story is man versus nature. You can totally tell from the tone of The Martian that I’m an optimistic guy. I have a more cheerful view on the world than others and one thing I like about man versus nature stories is there’s no antagonist, there’s no bad guy. It’s just like everybody is the good guy, we’re all working together. The bad guy is nature and physics and just the way the world works. I think it taps into something that’s kind of inherent in every human being.
Are you writing the next thing right now?
Yeah, I’m working on my next book now. It’s tentatively titled Zhek — that’s a working title. It’s a more traditional sci-fi: it’s got aliens and faster than light travel and stuff like that.
So for this one were you able to step away from some of the research and just go off in your own head a little bit or has it still been research intensive?
I’m still me, so I still do things my way as far as research goes. I said, “Okay, what is the minimum quantity of bullshit I can add into the world, like making faster-than-light travel possible.” I needed a little bit of bullshit that I could insert into physics and then the reasoning worked outwards from there.
I spent a month coming up with a physics model that allowed faster-than-light-travel but doesn’t conflict with any other existing real physics. I even got down to the point of making sure it didn’t violate the Uncertainty Principle. I needed to make sure that you can’t send information back in time. There are all sorts of problems that happen with relativity if you manage to go faster than light…I think I’ve worked it all out.
As for The Martian movie, casting wise I think they nailed it.
Couldn’t ask for a better cast. Unbelievable cast. Everything just snowballed, it was like, okay so Matt Damon’s signed on and then Ridley Scott to direct. Then other performers, big name performers, were interested in the other roles and the studio was like, “Listen we love all of you but we cannot possibly afford to pay what you’re all worth, we’re not budgeting this movie for that much money.” So a lot of them worked for less than they’re worth just because they wanted to be part of the film.
Wow. You’re not just living the dream, you’re living the writer’s fairy tale.
It’s really awesome.
The last question here, one of the things that we always like to look with Uproxx is how does something feel. So how did this, moment of it all coming together feel? Were you just drunk on life?
I’m a pretty anxious guy in general — I have anxiety issues — so I was just on edge at all times. Just waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for the phone call that told me, “We changed our minds.” I was just expecting everything to be taken away from me by something, by some event or something out of my control. Until the day they started shooting I was just nervously waiting for that bad news call, but it never came. Now I’m having a great time. I’m like, “They just spent a whole bunch of money to film it, they’ve got to release it!”
For me the big day was when they started filming because the day they started filming, which was in November, marked the moment when they started generating intellectual property. The moment they do that is the moment they owe all the actors their pay — the studio is now on the hook for the many tens of millions of dollars of pay for all the performers in the film. That was when I was like, “Okay at this point even if they wanted to change their mind they couldn’t. They still have to make the film to offset the costs.”
I guess you can kind of see the constant analysis stuff going on in my head…that’s just the way I am. Now I’m just excited, just stoked.
CONTINUE DOWN THE PAGE FOR MORE BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS BY UPROXX STAFF
Ryan Perry: Blood Meridian (or The Evening Redness in the West) by Cormac McCarthy. The Road deservedly brought home the Pulitzer, Child of God is more tightly-spun, and No Country For Old Men spawned by far the greatest film adaptation of any of his titles. But if you’re looking to take a deep summer dive into Cormac McCarthy’s lyrical savagery, Blood Meridian is the only way to go. Grab a fruity drink and stretch out on your favorite chaise lounge, then soak yourself in the uplifting tale of how America really won the southwest: through whiskey-fueled scalping missions that gleefully meandered into sprees of pillage, slaughter, and above all else, betrayal.
Vince Mancini: Without repeating any of my BookDrunk selections, the most recent great book I read was Limonov, by Emmanuel Carrere. I was introduced to this Eduard Limonov character (a strange sort of Russian folk hero and leader of a neo-fascist bolshevik party who defies description) through The eXile, an alt-weekly run by American ex-pats in Russia that Matt Taibbi from Rolling Stone used to co-edit back in the late nineties. Anyway, I’d never read any Carrere before this, but he does an amazing job with Limonov, who has an amazingly strange life story.
Danger Guerrero: I became a little obsessed with David Letterman in the lead-up to his retirement — watching clips, reading interviews, reading retrospectives, the whole nine. His earliest, most revolutionary stuff was a little before my time, and while I knew it, like, existed, I had never gone out of my way to seek it out. Eventually, this obsession led to me track down an old, beaten up copy of The Late Shift, the book that detailed his battle with Jay Leno to get The Tonight Show after Johnny Carson stepped down. I finished it in three days.
If you’re at all interested in either of them, or in late-night television, or if you followed the Leno/Conan debacle from a few years ago, I highly recommend it. It’s a really fun, quick read, which is all you can really ask for from a book in summer.
Ashley Burns: After it was announced that The Stars My Destination had been optioned by Paramount for the big screen, and like a zillion people (or four) asked me, “Bro, it’s like the greatest science fiction book ever, how have you not read it, bro?” I continued my new effort to get out in front of these never-ending adaptations and read it in a few days time. I definitely liked it and found Gully Foyle to be a fascinating character, but I think this was the first time I’ve ever read a book and had it sort of ruined by the movie. Or at least in this case the idea of a movie. I couldn’t stop my stupid brain from going, “How the f*ck is this going to be a movie?” And from the description of Gully, I tried really hard to dream cast him and I couldn’t think of anyone. Hell, the guy on the cover looks like a cleaned up Tom Sizemore. Maybe Dave Batista, but that might draw a bunch of Guardians of the Galaxy complaints. Tom Hardy? I think he’s my answer to everything.
Whatever, I look forward to this being a three-film series that underwhelms all of our grand expectations.
Dan Seitz: Gun Machine, by Warren Ellis. Ellis is best known for his comics, but his story about a withdrawn NYC detective hunting down a history-obsessed serial killer is the ideal beach read if you’re sick of airport paperbacks.
Or if that sounds too heavy, start reading the Harry Dresden novels; don’t be intimidated by the number, they’re quick reads and Harry is the kind of smartass wizard you want to spend a lot of time with.
Jameson Brown: I just finished Under the Skin written by Michael Faber. Its descriptive narrative is razor sharp and it pierces into your brain, forcing you to rework the world you live in: people, situations, trees and especially animals. The most intriguing thing about it is its relationship to its respective film (also a great watch). Watch the film first and then be shocked with the “behind the curtain” backbone of the novel. It’s a haunting twist on Sci-fi and expertly breathes life into a genre whose core is human relationships and perspective.
I’d also like to give a nod to And The Ass Saw The Angel. This is the book I’m now starting and it could have been written by Flannery O’Connor herself. It’s not. It’s written by the great musician and screenwriter Nick Cave. So far its grit gets stuck under your fingernails and doesn’t go away. Some parts are sickening and others are holy, but they are each curiously reflective.
Jamie Frevele: My roommates and I were all just talking about how we want to revisit the “required reading” that we were assigned in school to see what kind of read they’d be for us as adults. I really love that idea — books like Catcher in the Rye, Grapes of Wrath, Lord of the Flies, anything by Dickens and Mark Twain, whatever I can remember getting the Cliff’s Notes for!
But as far as recent material goes, I really recommend books about real people: Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up, The Life of Graham, about Graham Chapman, and It’s Always Something by Gilda Radner. I read Gilda’s book in a single sitting and cried when it was over.
Also worth reading: Stephen King’s The Shining. It might be cliché to say to read that — but it’s so much different from the movie that if you liked the story, you owe it to King to read the version he really wrote.
Steve Bramucci: First off, I love The Martian, I wouldn’t have sought out Weir if I didn’t. You should also give his story The Egg a read — it’s free and quick and explores a very worthy theme. These days, you have some really great writers turning to genre fiction. I absolutely love The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, which feels like a pulp western but has a depth and style that really stands out. I lost my mind over that book. Speaking of westerns, I’m reading Lonesome Dove and having a ton of fun with it. I think that book gets ignored a lot (I suspect it’s because of the title) but it’s a ripper.
Also, any time I meet someone who hasn’t read the noir classics of Raymond Chandler, I grab them by the hand and walk straight to the closest book store. Start with The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye.