An Unlikely Interview with Curtis C. Chen

The character of Margaret Fisher in It’s Machine Code is slightly reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple (except on the other side of the law), the sweet, little old lady no one suspects, and thus everyone overlooks. Could you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind the character, and the story in general?

I watched a lot of “Murder, She Wrote” as a child for some reason. And I’ve always been a fan of elderly characters who have a lot of accumulated life experience and suddenly encounter a new situation to which they can apply their expertise.

This story started as a terrible pun: “CSI: Computer Science Investigation.” I wrote a flash piece with that title, then realized it had to be the start of a larger story. Plot-wise, I struggled for a
bit with the “movie hacking” problem--typing at a keyboard is hardly exciting on screen, and on paper there’s also the risk of falling into an infodump spiral. So I decided to make the central crime something more tangible and hardware-related, instead of purely a software issue.

3-D printing is a relatively new technology, still in its infancy, but the printable handgun is already creating controversy. The benefits ultimately appear extraordinary, but at the same time it creates significant complexity in many realms from manufacturing to product control to the very concept of the original. How do you see this playing out in the future?

Well, my hope is that we’ll eventually all have Star Trek replicators and live in a post-scarcity economy. But that probably won’t happen for a few more years.

I’m hesitant to make specific predictions, because things rarely go the way we expect them to, but I definitely expect more growing pains of the type you’ve described. When physical objects are as easy to
copy as a computer file, what rights does the original creator retain, and should we attempt to impose non-native restrictions on that technology? This is what’s happening with digital media and
anti-piracy laws right now, and I have no idea how that’s going to shake out. In the long term, I’m hoping that people will end up placing more value on experiences rather than things, which makes copy protection less of an issue for everyone.

In addition to your writing, you’re part of the podcasting team for SnoutCast, which focuses on puzzles, gaming, and interactive room escape and puzzle hunt games. For those who aren’t familiar with these type of games,could you talk a bit about puzzle hunts, and similar large-scale interactive games? Have you ever run/designed a puzzle hunt, or do you tend to stick to the player side of things?

There are lots of different flavors of puzzle hunts, and I encourage everyone to try them! My particular community creates original brain-teasers which “solve” to reveal hidden messages, usually linked to a central theme or overarching story for the event.

I’ve run dozens of puzzle events with my wife and different teams of friends, starting in 2001 with our version of “The Game,” a weekend-long driving hunt in the San Francisco bay area. Our biggest event was a Harry Potter-themed Game which included a train ride to get to “Hogwarts” (downtown Sacramento) and a custom-built “magic wand” (electronic device with motion sensing) for each team. Since July of 2010, we’ve helped organize Puzzled Pint events on the second Tuesday of every month — we started in Portland, Oregon, but have now expanded to twelve cities, including London and Montreal. You can find
out more about that at

There’s a lot of cool stuff happening with puzzle games these days. We just concluded SnoutCast after five years and 213 episodes, and our archives include interviews with many other creators. You can also
visit friends-of-the-show and for current puzzling news and event listings, respectively.

Authors are notorious for working strange jobs. Stephen King was a janitor and J.D. Salinger worked as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

Well, I used to be a software engineer, and I wrote this story called “It’s Machine Code”…

Seriously, though, I haven’t had too many strange jobs. The most unusual one, I suppose, was when a former tech industry co-worker hired me to write some articles for the Wired How-To Wiki as part of a
project sponsored by Intel. I got paid more per word on that gig than any other writing I’ve done before or since. I also did freelance tech blogging for a couple of years. That type of content production is very different from fiction writing; it was interesting and educational, but also split my focus too much, so I decided to stop. I have nothing but respect for my freelancer friends who can juggle a ton of different writing projects with different requirements all the time.

Some authors require complete silence when they write, others need their desk arranged a certain way, or their favorite tea mug at hand. What does your ideal writing space look like — either the place where you actually write, or the imaginary place where you wish you could write?

I personally don’t believe in writing rituals. For me, the greatest inspiration is a hard deadline and another person waiting for me to deliver. When I know someone is expecting a thing, I’ll finish it no
matter what; when my team has announced a date for a puzzle event, we’ll run that event, come hell or high water. I suppose my wish would be not for a specific writing space, but rather the ability to work in any environment regardless of the distractions which might be present!

We all have our favorite authors, some of whom everyone has heard of, and some of whom are relatively obscure. Who is one of the more obscure writers you love? What do you love about their work? Tell us which story or novel of theirs we should drop everything to read right now.

I have terribly mainstream tastes, so I’m afraid I don’t know a lot of very obscure authors. But here are three books I didn’t expect to love as much as I did, in no particular order:

-- THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS by N.K. Jemisin, which does everything right and then some. I don’t read a lot of fantasy, but this hooked me from page one and didn’t let go until the very end.

-- THE SUMMER PRINCE by Alaya Dawn Johnson, which plays on the surface like a YA novel but has the dark, resonant undertones of the best future dystopias.

-- A ROGUE BY ANY OTHER NAME by Sarah MacLean. I’m reading category romance as part of my continuing education in writing compelling
characters and relationships, and there’s plenty of both in here. Don’t judge.

What else are you working on have coming up you want people to know about?

I have a short story, “Ten Days Up,” in the Baen anthology MISSION: TOMORROW, which will be published in the fall of 2015. Follow me on Twitter (@curtiscchen) or bookmark my bibliography web page for further announcements!

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