A Printer's Choice: The Making of a Catholic Science Fiction Odyssey, Part 2
An interview with author W. L. Patenaude
In Part 1 of my interview with sci-fi author W. L. Patenaude, we explored his background in science and engineering, his journey home to the Catholic Church, and some of the real-world science that inspired his debut novel, A Printer’s Choice. Here, in Part 2 of our wide-ranging discussion, we’ll cover his creative process and his spiritual life, among other topics.
Thomas Salerno: Did you find the transition from writing nonfiction to fiction to be a challenging process or did it feel like a natural evolution from your other projects?
W. L. Patenaude: It was a natural evolution, but it was also a learning process. Writing needs to capture a reader’s interest no matter the topic or genre. That said, fiction is its own art form, and one needs time and lots of practice to begin mastering it. There are some chapters, for instance—or whole sections, or rewrites of chapters—that were the last to be done because they were suggestions of my chief editor when he first read the manuscript. Those sections came easier and were written with a more natural pace than my earliest chapters. So, I’m enjoying working on the sequel, which is benefiting from those early lessons in writing fiction.
Salerno: How much research goes into a “hard science fiction” novel like A Printer’s Choice? How long did the research phase take?
Patenaude: It took me months sometimes to feel versed enough about a topic to world-build around it. Because I’m proposing and exploring a concept as wild as blending advanced AI into machines that can build anything, I wanted to ground everything else with the familiar and realistic. Moreover, A Printer’s Choice takes place in 2088—that’s the near future. So, I created a world where space travel is only marginally faster and easier than today. The new worlds in outer space farm, purify water, and treat sewage much the same way we do today. But the details of space travel and the realities of a huge, artificial world rotating to create a force like gravity took some effort—and a reader in the know of such things may find fault with some of it—but it was fun to research and crunch numbers. And in doing so, it was a treat to pay homage to authors such as Arthur C. Clarke. Although, of course, in a correction of Clarke, I championed faith rather than brushed it aside.
Salerno: Do you have a preferred writing routine or do you write whenever you can find time? How do you balance writing with a full time job and other commitments?
Patenaude: It was a challenge sometimes to find the time, no doubt about it. Besides my career, I had several volunteer obligations, and I was in the earlier stages of caring for my mom who had Parkinson’s. What inspired me to keep writing and making the time to write every day was my getting to know the main character’s history as a United States Marine. The dedication that Marines have—that my main character needed—rubbed off on me, so to speak. Plus, as a weightlifter for years, I was familiar with the incremental, if sometimes annoying and painful, steps that create big results over time. So, I would make sure I wrote something every day. And I would take blocks of time out of work to focus on editing the manuscript and rewriting it and editing it again—that’s why the novel took over two years to write. A Printer’s Choice was released on the Feast of St. Augustine in 2018 and shortly after that my mom’s Parkinson’s advanced. Between work and caring for her at home, especially during COVID, my writing came to a screeching halt. She passed last September, and I’ll be retiring from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) this coming December, so I’ll have much more time to dive into the sequel. But I’ll still have to push myself. That’s something all writers share.
Salerno: How have you incorporated prayer into your writing process? In what other ways do your writing life and your spiritual life influence one another?
Patenaude: The whole work is really a grand prayer—and was the result of prayer. The main concept of AI-3D printers came to me in prayer, when I was pondering what might make an interesting vehicle to explore free will. Prayer helped me keep going. It reminded me of why I was undertaking the project. Prayer grounded me and helped me keep pride in check when an editor would come back with dramatic but immensely insightful and helpful changes. I can’t imagine writing without a life close to the sacraments and filled with prayer.
Salerno: What was the road to publication like for A Printer’s Choice? What sort of hurdles and challenges did you overcome?
Patenaude: I opted to take the route of collaborative publishing because I wanted to bypass the gatekeepers of the traditional publishing industry—who may be unsure of what to do with a multi-genre work that is so faithful to Catholicism written by a first-time author. I also wanted control over things like the cover art. (And, ironically, without intending it, the secular sci-fi artist who created the dramatic cover did so with a main entrance to an orbital world that looks remarkably like a kilometers-wide monstrance! I’m still taken aback how that happened!)
In the end, I worked with a company called Izzard Ink, whose founder had all the publishing connections I needed, and was respectful of the story’s sensibilities and intent.
I do wish I had had a bigger budget and more time for marketing—but caring for a parent with Parkinson’s and keeping her at home took time and funds. That was a priority. First-time authors with no track records will need to think all this through, especially the marketing plan.
Salerno: What are the most important lessons you learned from writing and publishing a debut novel? Has your experience influenced the way you’ll tackle future writing endeavors?
Patenaude: The most important lesson in bringing A Printer’s Choice to reality was one that may have come easily to me because I’m a regulator—listen to experts. That advice goes for writers, as much as anyone.
Industry experts, especially editors, are your friend—even if they eviscerate one of your most-beloved chapters or insist one some change that you disagree with. At first, working with editors wasn’t easy, but in time, when they came back with their edits, after I would sulk for several hours or days, I’d get to work. Soon I enjoyed learning from them. I could see them making my work better—and in time they responded to my enthusiasm. My chief editor told me once that he put in lots of extra effort because he could tell that my story was heartfelt and dealt with big ideas, and he knew that I appreciated his efforts. His extra effort encouraged me, and I went with it. I listened and I learned.
Going forward, I’m taking with me these major takeaways, which I share with all aspiring writers:
First, I’ll continue to follow the directions of experts, especially editors.
Second, I’ll be more mindful of the business realities of the art of writing—of marketing and networking and the realities of traditional publishing versus independent or collaborative publishing.
Most importantly, I’ll write keeping close to the sacraments and prayer. Whatever happens after that may not lead to a wildly successful end by the standards of the world. But, if we place our faith in Christ, we can be sure that our efforts will achieve some end far greater than our worldly dreams could imagine. After all, it all comes down to trust in the Lord.
Thanks to Mr. Patenaude for sharing his insights about the writing life. If you’re a science fiction fan, I highly recommend you get yourself a copy of A Printer’s Choice — I’m eagerly anticipating the eventual sequel!