Long ago, I staked my claim to the title of “Official Mascot of the Clarion West Class of 2005.” This is because so many incredible writers who have become dear friends attended that year. But I might not have met any of them if I hadn’t known E.C. Myers. He and I became internet friends almost ten years ago, but it wasn’t until he was up in Seattle for Clarion that I actually got to meet him in person. We arranged to have coffee, and Eugene brought a couple of his fellow Clarionites along—Rachel Swirsky and James Trimarco—and the rest is history. I started hanging out with the 2005-ers at cons and elsewhere and because they were all so cool I forced them to accept me as one of their own. They have not, in retaliation, forced me to wear a mascot costume … yet.
Anyway, all this is by way of saying that I couldn’t be any prouder of Eugene than I am today, the official release day of his debut novel, FAIR COIN. And I’m tickled pink to have him here for this installment of “Three Questions Makes an Interview.”
1) So, let’s start with the title. The internets tell me that it was mathematician John von Neumann who first came up with the concept of a “fair coin” in 1951, using it to describe an idealized, statistically perfect coin that would land heads up exactly half the time it was flipped. Did the work of this great Hungarian polymath influence the writing of your debut novel?
Huh? Oh, sorry, I just lost half an hour reading about von Neumann on the internets. Damn you, Wikipedia!
So, this is very interesting, and I have to thank you for pointing it out. Although I was aware of von Neumann, I didn’t know he was responsible for the “fair coin” concept. In my research, I simply saw the term and thought it was an appropriate working title for the book; I thought “fair” might also suggest the fairy world and magic, as well as fit with the mechanism of flipping. I left it at that and went off to write the rest of the book, because as important as titles are, those are only two out of around 90,000 words.
However, it turns out that von Neumann indirectly influenced my book. He was also one of the founders of quantum mechanics, and his expertise in that area, as well as in probability and game theory, informed the work of another physicist, Hugh Everett III, who is considered the father of the “many worlds theory” of parallel universes. In fact, Everett was a graduate student at Princeton while von Neumann was a mathematics professor there at the Institute for Advanced Study, and Neumann literally wrote the textbook on quantum mechanics.
Without getting too much into history and quantum theory, Everett’s work in multiple universes was a response to von Neumann’s theory of wave function collapse: the idea that our reality is determined by human observation, and every possibility—every point of decision—has just one outcome. Everett, of course, suggested the opposite, that every possible outcome of our choices does happen, but in different realities. Anyway, Everett had tremendous impact on Fair Coin, and he’s even more important to the sequel, Quantum Coin.
This is one of those happy moments that sometimes happen while I’m researching a story in which pieces come together better than I ever could have planned. I’m amazed I never matched up von Neumann to the whole idea of fair coins, at least consciously, but it’s absolutely perfect and now I feel like a genius. He was a fascinating guy. I see he came up with an early computer that served as a model for modern computing, and there’s even like, a building named after him at Princeton.
2) You know, if the entire history of literature has taught me anything, it’s that wishes are never to be trusted. Do you think it is even possible to write a story in which the finding and using of a magic wish-giving macguffin *doesn’t* end up backfiring horribly?
That does sound like a challenge, but I have to say that if someone pulled this off, it would probably be a really boring story, so why do it? Good conflict in fiction comes from problems and complications. If the wishing macguffin (love that term!) is that central to the plot, then it has to be an integral part of the conflict. If the wishing macguffin doesn’t have any unexpected or awful side effects, then it eliminates the danger of the other problems the characters face, because they can simply wish them away. This is why one of the primary rules of fantasy is that magic has to have a cost, and in a broader sense, characters have to lose something or make personal sacrifices to get what they want.
Although, now that I think about it this some more, I could see this working if the tension comes from something other than the wishing macguffin. For instance, someone has a magic lamp that gives him exactly what he ask for, even unlimited wishes, but other people want it too. He’s smart enough to ask for the right things, but perhaps he isn’t so smart about dealing with the many people who want to take the lamp from him or abuse his power. So though the story is about the wishes, the plot comes from the characters and their responses to it. And maybe you even tell a series of linked tales about how the macguffin keeps falling into new hands. The wishes it gives are genuine, but the indirect cause of terrible consequences.
Now I feel like a genius again. Thanks for the story idea! Or, have I read something like this already…? (Loses another half an hour on the internet.)
3) Do you believe in luck? I mean REALLY believe in luck?
Actually, I do. Of course I also believe that we make a lot of our own luck, good or bad. Through hard work and determination, we can improve our opportunities for good things to happen to us, and open ourselves up to possibilities. But I know some people who have the worst luck—things are always going wrong for them, despite their best efforts. And I’ve always felt like I’ve been kind of blessed myself, that no matter what happens, things have a way of working out. (Knock on wood!)
I’m where I am now in life because of a series of decisions that led me here. I like my life, and if any one of those past decisions had gone a different way, my life could be completely different. Considering that many of those turning points are largely a matter of probability, and that many other things had to happen to all the people I’ve ever met in order for us to cross paths … If that isn’t luck, then I don’t know what is. I’ve also figured out that if I hadn’t met some of my friends in a certain way, we eventually would have encountered each other through one or two entirely independent connections, so to some extent, I believe that some things might be fated as well.
About the Author
E.C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts. When he isn’t writing, he reads, plays video games, watches films, sleeps as little as possible, and spends far too much time on the internet. Fair Coin (Pyr, March 2012) is his first young adult novel.
He currently lives in Philadelphia, where he is working on several young adult novels and a variety of short stories. In the rest of his imaginary leisure time, he edits the Clarion West alumni newsletter, The Seventh Week; blogs Star Trek Re-watch reviews with Torie Atkinson at TheViewscreen.com; co-moderates the GothamLit Yahoo group; critiques manuscripts; reads constantly; lurks on the internet; plays video games; and pursues other extracurricular activities that prevent him from getting enough sleep.