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Upgrade Author Blake Crouch Talks Staying True to Science in Sci-Fi

On writing thrillers inspired by "in-the-weeds" science. 

Blake Crouch interview
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  • Blake Crouch.Photo Credit: Matthew Staver.

Science is equal parts exciting and terrifying, depending on the application. And author Blake Crouch knows how to tap into our fears about the implications of cutting-edge tech. 

Crouch's newest book, Upgrade, dives into the implications of genetic modification. The idea of creating super-humans sounds great in comic books; but what happens if anyone can hack your genome? 

The novel walks the line between sci-fi and thriller, and is an intimate exploration of how to define humanity. In anticipation of Upgrade's release, we spoke with Crouch about his typical writing day, how he collaborates with experts, and writing endings that readers can't forget.

Can you tell us when you started writing?

In elementary school I would write these scary bedtime stories to tell my younger brother. Through middle school and into high school, my love of writing continued to grow, and I wrote lots of short stories and poetry, things like that. 

It wasn’t until late in my senior year of high school that I finally tried to write a novel. I finished that book in my first year of college and queried it extensively. It didn’t sell or get picked up, but that was first big step towards becoming an author, and helped me get my first agent.

What does your typical writing day look like?

I don’t know if I have a typical writing day. I’m not one of those writers who writes every day no matter what. I write when something is compelling, so most of my books were written in pretty short bursts of creativity. When I feel like I have creativity in the pocket, I try to write 1,000 words a day. On those days, I try to get up early and get that done. 

But there are a lot of days I don’t write at all, or I’m focusing on outlining, planning, journaling, or doing something completely different. But if I’m in the zone and feel like I’m making headway, I do try to write every day, because I think you do build momentum.

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You mentioned, outlining, planning, and journaling. I wonder if you could talk about your creative process a little.

I start with a little bit of planning, which interestingly, often starts with the science. With Dark Matter I knew I wanted to write about quantum mechanics, with Recursion I wanted to write about memory, and Upgrade started with me wanting to tackle genetics. 

So, the process starts with me asking what science field I want to write about. Then I come up with the plot, and the characters come last. I wish that I started with the characters, but they seem to be the last thing that really comes into focus for me.

For the science, I start with reading. I have a lot of magazine subscriptions through places like Scientific American, Nature, Science, things like that. I read a lot and see what piques my curiosity. And then I start journaling, which sometimes I’ll do for months. 

To give you an idea of that process, I started journaling for the next book back in December and I’m still taking notes on it. As I journal, I start to see plot threads and characters wanting to come through. After that, I start developing an early outline that usually takes me about through the midpoint. If I have a pretty good idea what happens up to that point, I usually feel good enough to start writing. 

That gives me some room for surprise too, because hopefully the book starts doing something I didn’t think it was going to do. That’s the most exciting part of the whole process for me—when I get surprised by something. 

But sometimes, deep into the book as I’m writing, I’ll have to take a step back to try and figure something out. Or if the science isn’t doing what I hoped it would, I often have to go back to the drawing board and try something new, or read a bit more, or ask subject matter experts for help. It can be kind of a messy process.

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I imagine having subject matter experts is invaluable for the types of books you write. How do you find these experts?

There’s an organization called the Science and Entertainment Exchange, and they typically help out with movies and television shows because they’re passionate about science being accurately portrayed in media. I reached out a few years ago and started working with them.

So, I have Clifford Johnson, he’s the head of the physics department at USC, who consulted with me on Dark Matter and Recursion. Michael Wiles is a molecular geneticist who worked with me through two drafts of Upgrade and helped me make sure I was writing about the concepts accurately. He actually gave me a lot of cool ideas for stuff I wasn’t even thinking about doing, in terms of what the technology could do at its craziest extrapolation.

I literally wouldn’t be able to write the books to the level that I think I’ve written them without their help. It’s such in-the-weeds science, and I really have to have a comfort level so that I’m not leading people down the wrong path or misrepresenting at least the core principles of the science.

Blake Crouch
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  • Blake Crouch.

    Photo Credit: Matthew Staver

Outside of taking these extremely difficult concepts and making them accessible to readers, what is the most difficult part of writing for you?

Oh, that’s a good question. I think getting stuck or blocked on a plot point is difficult, but I would say that the last third of a book is the hardest part for me. Generally, the crack I take at starting a book ends up pretty much being what it is. That’s not to say it doesn’t change a bit, but I work over the back half of my books pretty extensively. I’m pretty hard on those third acts because I really want them to be surprising yet inevitable, and it just takes so much work to find those story threads. 

It’s very easy to end a book in a way that’s okay, but it’s very hard to end a book in a way that makes people excited or emotional, and then makes them want to tell everyone they know to read it. And that’s always my goal.

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What was your most challenging book to write, and what made it a challenge?

Every book seems to present its own unique challenges, but I would say my last two, Recursion and Upgrade, were both insanely difficult though for different reasons. 

Recursion was a plotting pretzel, and it broke my brain trying to figure out how to end that story without breaking all the rules I had established. Upgrade, though the plot is slightly more straight-forward, turned out to be incredibly challenging because tracking Logan Ramsay’s mental and physical changes, on literally every page, turned out to be way harder than I had imagined.

There’s been adaptation talk on several of your books with exciting names—Shonda Rhimes and Matt Reeves—attached. Is there anything you can tell us about those projects?

They’re all in various stages of development and it’s weird to talk about stuff before they’re actually made or fully in production. I’m writing the adapted script for Upgrade that was picked up by Amblin, and I’m working on Dark Matter for Apple TV. As far as I know, everything is moving forward with all three of them.

I know we’re all anxious to see them move forward! Let’s shift to some fun questions. You’re trapped in a fictional world with four authors—living or dead. Where are you and who are you with?

Oh, I’m at a bar, in the Caribbean, with Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, Ursula Le Guin, and C.S. Lewis.

That would be quite the gathering. Okay, if you could create a world with your five favorite SFF characters, who would you include and why?

I actually wouldn’t. Fan fiction, of any kind, holds very little appeal for me. I want to write new stories with new characters. We live in a fan fiction media universe now, and I think it’s killing creativity.

What about your own characters? Do you have a favorite?

Letty Dobesh, from a collection of short stories and novellas. She is definitely my favorite character. She’s the most complex, but weirdly, the easiest character I ever created and is one of the rare instances where she came before any of the plot.

Before we go, can you tell us what’s next?

I’m journaling away, trying to find my way into this next book and feel like I have my arms around enough of the story to start putting pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard. No hints though, I have to protect the idea.

Download your copy of Upgrade, out July 12th from Ballantine Books!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.