Interview with Stephen Oram

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Author Talk: Richard Lowe Interviews Stephen Oram

Stephen Oram writes science fiction. He’s been a hippie-punk, religious-squatter and a bureaucrat-anarchist; he thrives on contradictions. He has two published novels, Quantum Confessions and Fluence. His collection, Eating Robots and Other Stories was described by the Morning Star as one of the top radical works of fiction in 2017.

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Stephen Oram writes thought provoking stories that mix science fiction with social comment, mainly in a recognizable near future. As 2016 Author in Residence at Virtual Futures, once described by ‘The Guardian’ as “the Glastonbury of cyberculture”, he was one of the masterminds behind the new Near-Future Fiction series and continues to be a lead curator.

He’s keen on collaborating with scientists and future-tech people to write stories that provoke debate about potential futures; the title story of his ‘Eating Robots’ collection, came from working with the Human Brain Project and Bristol Robotics Laboratory.

As a teenager he was heavily influenced by the ethos of punk and in his early twenties he embraced the squatter scene and was part of a religious cult, briefly. He did some computer stuff in what became London’s silicon roundabout and then became a civil servant with a gentle attraction to anarchism.

He is published in several anthologies, has two published novels and a collection of short stories.

His first novel, Quantum Confessions, explores what happens to society when it no longer knows how to tell what is true and whether we can alter the past by tapping into the strange world of quantum physics.

Fluence, his second novel, is set in world where you’re judged by your online popularity and algorithms decide on your friends, where you can live and work. It follows Amber and Martin, one upwardly mobile the other hanging on by a thread.

His most recent collection, ‘Eating Robots and Other Stories’, was described by the UK’s Morning Star as one of the top radical works of fiction in 2017.

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Interview Transcript Stephen Oram

Richard Lowe  00:00

This is Richard Lowe with author talks with Richard Lowe and I’m here with Steven ogram. Steven writes science fiction, he’s been a hippie punk religious squatter and a bureaucrat anarchist. He thrives on contradictions. He has published two novels, quantum confessions and fluids. His collection, eating robots and other stories was described by the Morningstar as one of the top radical works of Fishkin fiction in 2017. Welcome to the show, Steven, how you doing?

Stephen Oram  00:28

I’m doing fine. Thanks. How are you?

Richard Lowe  00:30

I’m doing well. Thank you. Steven, welcome to the show again. And so how did you get started writing science fiction?

Stephen Oram  00:49

I guess I guess a couple of things. Really, I say starting writing at all, only happened a few years ago. And it was, it was one of those moments in life where I thought I really want to do something creative. And I didn’t really know what that what that was. I tried a bit of photography and painting, and I was absolutely rubbish at both embarrassingly embarrassing rubbish, really. And then I always wondered about writing side, evening creative writing course. And that inspired me. And then I thought, Well, I wonder if I can write a novel and sort of it went from clarity, and science fiction, I’ve always really enjoyed reading sight. I mean, I like reading lots and lots of things. But science fiction was one of those things that always sparked a lot of interest in me, and I really enjoyed reading it. So that was a that was a really obvious sort of route together.

Richard Lowe  01:51

Okay, okay. And what’s your history? Like? What’s your backstory?

Stephen Oram  01:56

Well, you from the, from the biography, you read out there, I can, I’ll fill a bit of that out. So please. So I’m from UK, I was brought up in a, in a small market town in the middle of middle of the country, very small, not very broad thinking. So I remember when I was, when I was younger, one of my ambitions was to was to leave. That was that was an ambition. And I, I sort of figured that everybody in the town, who was a little bit older than me, that I liked was leaving. So that was so so I left and, and after quite a lot of moving around for a few years ended up living in London, which is, which is where I’ve been ever since. And just to sort of unpack some of that, that biography. So I’m of an age where, as I was a young teenager, Punk was was really hitting hitting the scene. And I was really inspired by not not so much the way people dress. But by that, that attitude of we can do this ourselves. And actually, the authorities can go and do whatever they want to do. So and that’s what I meant by hippie punk. So I was actually, I dress more like a hippie. But really like punk music, to the point that actually was punk geeks dressed as AP, which was an interesting and probably very stupid thing to do. And then for, you know, I’ve done other things. So when it came to London, I spotted for quite a long time, partly because that’s about the only way you could move into London. But also, it was quite a nice sort of, out of the mainstream way to live. And at the same time, for bits of that I was religious religious, for a while I was in what I would describe as a bit of a cult. And those two things were going on. So I was very much outside of outside of things. And then over over the years, I’ve sort of coming back more into the mainstream, but a proper job. And as the final bit in the bio, which is Alec is bureaucrat, and what I mean by that is that so I have been a bureaucrat, I quite I think there’s something important about structures that people are in, but I’m also really, really attracted to the idea of anarchy in terms of communities making their own choices about how they want to live and rules are for them. So that’s that’s the sort of potted history.

Richard Lowe  04:47

Yeah, and the United States, we would call that a libertarian. Somebody who wants the least amount of government necessary to make things happen.

Stephen Oram  04:59

Yeah, I guess there’s different definitions of what what the least is to make things happen to. Yeah,

Richard Lowe  05:04

but I mean, I get the point. It’s, it’s interesting. Okay. So let’s see. So what’s your book about?

Stephen Oram  05:14

So I’ve got three books, the latest one, which is the collection you refer to, which is a, it’s a set of 30, very short pieces that are all sort of near future, a lot of artificial intelligence, biotech, that type, that type of thing. And generally, they they’re prodding, whether that technology is going to give us the dreams that it seems to seems to offer. And, and I guess, in a lot of ways, playing around with how that technology would actually be in real life, given that we’re all humans, and we’re a bit messy and a bit chaotic and not particularly rational all the time. And so mixing, mixing those two, those two things up. So that’s, that’s the latest one, that’s the collection.

Richard Lowe  06:09

And what possessed you to write a collection like that?

Stephen Oram  06:13

I sort of started by so I was writing my second novel fluence. And I kept getting all these ideas and, and I thought, actually, I’m in danger here of introducing loads and loads and loads of ideas into this book just because they’re in my head. So that’s partly why I started writing the short stuff almost to sort of keep it out of the novel. But at the same same time, or similar time, I was asked to become the writer in residence for something called virtual futures. And a big part of that was in between panel discussions and audience questions and answers, I would read a five, six minute story on the theme of the evening to sort of bridge between the the fairly sort of very arty academic across to across the audience. So I was just building up lots of these, lots of these short pieces. So it seems like an obvious thing to put them in a collection.

Richard Lowe  07:17

And you say you have about 30 of them.

Stephen Oram  07:20

Yeah, in that particular in that particular collection, I probably got another 30. Now that I will get around to

Richard Lowe  07:27

the second part of it. And your cell phone list?

Stephen Oram  07:31

I am Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I’ve got some stories that are some short stories that are in anthologies through various publishers, but the collection in the two novels, yeah. Self Publish.

Richard Lowe  07:43

And why did you choose self publishing over traditional? I think,

Stephen Oram  07:49

again, probably a couple of reasons. So one was impatient. So I knew that what I was writing was fairly niche in a lot of ways, and therefore hitting the right publisher would be quite difficult. And I just wanted to get on with it, really, to see what people thought of it. But I think underneath that probably was going back to that public sort of things like well, why? Why do I need to, to wait for a publishing house to take to take this on this? I don’t need to technology’s moved on we can do it ourselves. And and why not? Basically. So I think those two things came together. Then that’s why I made the decision.

Richard Lowe  08:36

I’m a ghost rider. And I have a client who’s going the traditional route, and he’s getting frustrated, because it’s already been six months, and it’s probably going to be another six months before his books in bookstores. I’m sure he’ll be really happy when he sees his book in a bookstore, but it’s, it’s gonna be a whole year. And he’s getting impatient.

Stephen Oram  08:56

It’s a long time, isn’t it? And you don’t know whether it’s going to happen or not. And yeah, so yeah, as I say, impatience and, and wanting to do stuff

Richard Lowe  09:08

he described as he gives it to like a black hole, and he doesn’t know really what’s happening. So you’re a member of ally, correct?

Stephen Oram  09:19

Yes, yeah. Yeah, they’ve been really. So when I started out, I didn’t know about them at all. I could really have done with knowing about them. The beginning. sort of stumbled around the Fair, fair bit, trying to find editors trying to fight in understanding that I needed all those professionals to help turn out a professional book, but not really knowing very much about how to go how to go about that.

Richard Lowe  09:49

I understand. It’s a very useful group. I’ve gotten a lot out of it. Okay, so you’ve also written two novels. Why don’t you tell us about them? One of those, what’s special about it?

Stephen Oram  10:04

So the second one I wrote, which was called fluence, it’s, the basic premise is that you’re living in a society that where people are put into different starters dependent on their social media popularity. And slang use where you live, who your friends are, what your job is, etc, etc. It’s not, those edges are a little bit blurry, because as I say, I like to sort of think about how it would really work in the real world. So it’s not, it’s not the sort of very typical sort of groups fighting each other from different from different sort of strategies or whatever. But it is a unit that’s, that’s what happens. And it’s it’s set over the last week of the of the year, where it’s building up to the algorithms making the decisions to what you’re going to be following here follows a couple of people one is a sort of 30, something year old woman who’s very ambitious, overly ambitious, does some things that would make you cringe in order to increase popularity, and a 50 plus year old man who’s really just hanging on those fingertips and is struggling to keep his position his job.

Richard Lowe  11:29

So it’s kind of like economic strata, only instead of economics. It’s the social, social media strata.

Stephen Oram  11:36

Yeah, it is, I think. And it came when I was writing it, or when I started thinking about it was at the time that China just started talking about what it was going to do in terms of things is now much more widely widely known. So some of it was inspired by by that what what was that really looked like? I think I read I don’t know if this is true, but I read it the other day that on some of the public transport in China, now it sort of says Don’t spit or will will lower your social media, or your social rating or something. So it’s sort of unnervingly coming coming through a little bit.

Richard Lowe  12:17

That’s very interesting. And the first novel, what’s it about?

Stephen Oram  12:20

So the first novel was was one of those sort of classic first novels, I think it was the one that I needed to get out of me. So that’s, that’s got sort of two main themes going on. One of them is where the notion of truth so this is before fake news kicked off as well. But the notion of absolute truth or relative truth, really interested me what was truth and you know, people who believe believe that are absolute truths or people that believe there isn’t. So it’s, it’s built around that and the sort of propaganda war between those two, say those two sort of viewpoints, turn a lot of people in into just being in sort of catatonic state to cope with not knowing what is true, furthermore, approach that. And then it moves into looking at what if there are alternative universes through quantum physics, we can actually change the past. So that they’re the two the two big themes that run through that, and that’s called Quantum confessions.

Richard Lowe  13:38

That sounds like a fascinating novel, must have been fun to write.

Stephen Oram  13:41

It was really, really fun to write. Yeah. Yeah. So to let loose my imagination.

Richard Lowe  13:51

Excellent. Yeah, I’m writing a science fiction novel. So I understand how that works. So how do you promote your books?

Stephen Oram  13:59

So I think I do that through number of number of ways. So in terms of, so I put a lot of effort into, into these phrases, but marketing me as a brand, if you like. And so I put a lot, a lot of effort into establishing me as an author. I do a lot of collaborations with scientists, I do a lot of spoken word events, curate those things, do a lot of public stuff like that, because I really wanted to be in a position where I was being asked to work with people on on, particularly on the short stuff. So and that that’s great. And that’s that’s working really well, in terms of the sort of selling the books like then I found that advertising in various forms seems to be the way that way that the way that works, gets those additional sales. So there At the the events and things, don’t sell that many books, it’s much more through advertising. And at the moment, I’m experimenting with Amazon and do a bit of Facebook advertising. I’ve tried some of the lists that people you know, the remember their names, or any of those sort of newsletter mailing list, but that for some reason, they haven’t quite quite work. The my, my book

Richard Lowe  15:30

I haven’t found except for BookBub, which is everybody wants to get I haven’t found an email list that really works for mine either. Right? Let’s get to that. You’re not? I’ve probably spent hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars to get on all these email lists, and nothing. I mean, barely a sale. Yeah,

Stephen Oram  15:48

I presume they are relevant to particular particular genres. Or they work better for some genres than others. And I think I mean, the other. The other thing that I’ve not done is written the series. So I know some people will give away the first one for free so that people get to start enjoying the series. I haven’t written the series I haven’t done. I haven’t tried that either. Maybe I will, if I right. So the plan is to sort of write the series from the basis of the ones I’ve done now. But in the fullness of time. That’s a

Richard Lowe  16:26

good plan. I’ve heard the same thing that doing series is where do you want to go in books, even short series, even short books? You get loyalty that way, I guess. All right. So you market yourself that sounds like a good strategy. How do you do that?

Stephen Oram  16:43

As I say, I think so a lot of a lot of that is through events, in by events, I mean, so the things like being the writer in residence at virtual futures, that that was that was great, so that not only were we doing live events, whereas reading to say, Now curate and write for some fiction, evening science fiction evenings. And I’ve done a lot of collaboration with scientists in artificial intelligence people, neuroscientists that were. And the way that tends to work is that I will visit a lab, visit them talk to them, we’ll work together on what a possible world might look like, they’ll tell me just how far I’m stretching things. And then I’ll write a story, they will get a certain amount of veto, not over the side of the story of the writing, but there’s the technology, science content of it. And then we’ve had public events where I am alongside the scientists on stage audience, q&a, writing, reading, the reading the story, those sorts of things. So I’ve done quite a lot of lot of that. And that that’s very good for raising your profile. And it’s good fun to give your ad. I wouldn’t do it. If it wasn’t good fun. It’s meant it’s fun. But it’s also good to get your face out there. And your story is known.

Richard Lowe  18:19

And it’s all about building that following isn’t it?

Stephen Oram  18:22

Yeah, yeah. And the the the fiction events, we do a virtual futures now, we just we did for this year, we’ve just opened for submissions before next year. And we were we were selling out in terms of getting an audience along. So we were selling out at like 800 plus people, which I don’t know what it’s like where you are. But in London, 80 plus people at a science fiction reading is is a really good audience.

Richard Lowe  18:51

That’s phenomenal. Even for here. Yeah. Okay. Do you get writer’s block? And if so, what do you do about it?

Stephen Oram  19:01

I? It’s an interesting question, because I don’t think I do. So I don’t know if I do anything about it. However, I think I’ve got because partly because of the short writing the really short stuff, then I can, I can hop around stories. So if one’s not quite working, it’s easy to hop to another one because I have who’s got at the moment, I think I’m committed to six piece short pieces for various things that I’m doing. So there’s always something to be doing there. I’m also writing a novella, but so I think it’s I don’t really suffer from writer’s block, but I do hop around if if something’s not quite working or not quite, not quite gelling.

Richard Lowe  19:50

So your solution sounds like basically is to always have something to do and to swap around when you this one’s going a little slow. Let’s go over here.

Stephen Oram  19:58

Yeah, I think that that’s Probably I’ve never really thought about it, particularly, but sort of reflecting on the question, I think. Yeah, I think that is, I think that is what I do. If anything I’ve got, I feel like I’ve got too many ideas, more more of the problem.

Richard Lowe  20:16

I understand that problem. The brain explodes with ideas. All right, and how do you fight? Or do you get people who talk bad about your writing or invalidate your writing in some way? And how do you deal with them? If you do? Talk? bad about it?

Stephen Oram  20:36

Yeah. So yeah, I’ve had bad reviews. Thankfully, in the minority. And I’ve got friends who don’t like my writing, but generally, they don’t like that sort of that sort of genre. So in the people I’m talking to and people I meet. I don’t mind as much as they seem to mind that they don’t like it. Because I as far as I’m concerned, if, if the reason you don’t like it is because you don’t like that sort of stuff. You don’t you get it I have people apologizing to me saying I’m really sorry, I tried to read it by a couldn’t get into it. But you don’t like that sort of thing. Why would you? So that I mean, that’s just one one side of it, I don’t find that a problem at all. I think with the if it’s bad reviews, or you know, somebody criticizing the writing, then I think it’s valuable, I think trying to trying to understand what it is behind what they’ve said, is is always useful, because there’s bound to be some nuggets in there that can help you help me improve what I do. Not taking it all on board, in it just trying to decide for myself, I guess, what, what is valuable, what’s not valuable. And the other thing I find myself doing is if I get a bad review, I’ll follow them through and see what else they’ve reviewed, and see what they’ve said about that. And sometimes, they’ve given bad reviews to a whole load of books that I really love. So, in some ways that validates what I’m doing. It’s okay. You don’t like this sort of stuff. That’s okay. Because I because I do so. I think it’s a mix of things. Really.

Richard Lowe  22:26

I understand I tend to avoid even reading the reviews for the most part. Usually I get positive reviews. But occasionally there’s the one you know, oh my god, this book is horrible. And I just avoid reading.

Stephen Oram  22:40

It’s probably very sensitive, ballooned out of proportion. Can they like the one? The one bad one sort of overrides all the 30? Good ones?

Richard Lowe  22:52

Yeah, I have a book that has 77 good reviews, and like three bad ones. And the bad ones? Of course, it’s where I focus. Yeah. Oh, my God, I didn’t like my book, you know?

Stephen Oram  23:03

Yeah, it’s so hard not to.

Richard Lowe  23:07

So you’ve been writing a while? What’s, uh, what’s your favorite memory about? About your writing?

Stephen Oram  23:15

Question. So, obviously, there’s just tons and tons and tons of memories that are great, I think. So, a couple that really stand out for me, which was when I was first, right. So when I was writing quantum confessions. And it was the, it was a new thing to me to do. And, and I remember, I woke up from a dream, and I’ve been dreaming about the two main characters in the book, have been arguing with each other over something. In my dream, I think the tree might realize that actually, I could get them to do whatever I wanted them to do. And it’s just one of those moments that I actually yeah, I’m thinking, wow, I’m creating, I’m creating things. So I think those characters becoming real. And then I think there’s a similar thing in the devas, a moment where one of the characters not, not a particularly big one, not didn’t feature a lot in the book, but she commits suicide, how I was really devastated for quite a few days. And yet, obviously, it’d be my choice. Like, it’d be one of those moments where sort of like, this has to happen, and I really don’t want it to happen. But it really has to really has to happen, given the situation and who she was and all the rest of it. So I think they’re, they are really, they both are quite sad. Members in some ways, but I guess what I’m saying is But there’s that memory of, actually, I’m a writer. And as that sort of dawned on me, I think they, they were really important moments.

Richard Lowe  25:12

I completely understand the and it sounds like your characters almost take over your story sometimes.

Stephen Oram  25:19

I think I think they do. And I think they should as well. I don’t know what you think. But if, if you really understand the character, and there’s a switch, you know, you’re obviously you create the situation, but, but to remain true to that character. And I guess I don’t plan I do plan out my books, I plan them out at a fairly detailed level, but then allow them to wander off, if that’s the way Firstly, it’s going so. So there are situations that I haven’t necessarily planned for it in great detail. And I think back to when, that’s when you have to stop. So, you know, I’ll be walking somewhere thinking, what would they do? Well, it’s sort of a thinking about a friend doesn’t know, what would my friend do in this situation? And obviously, we’d have the advantage of being able to decide that but yeah, so I think they do to a certain extent, take over.

Richard Lowe  26:21

Yeah, I’m writing the novel. And I’ve started writing it one way. And one of the characters kind of almost spoke to me and said, No, no, I’m actually going to have this personality. And I’m like, no, no, I want you over here. Nope, nope. This is like, Okay, well, whatever. So I had to rewrite part of it.

Stephen Oram  26:36

Yeah, it’s very, it’s a, I find it very hard to explain to people who don’t write what that what that feels like. Because it it sounds a bit sort of trite and a bit silly. That actually, you just can’t go against why I find it just can’t go against that. Because then it’s not. It’s more genuine, and it’s just not working.

Richard Lowe  27:04

Okay, and what do you have any tips for other writers?

Stephen Oram  27:13

I think the biggest tip is enjoy yourself. I mean, I guess it depends on the you’re totally reliant on this for you to eat or not. But so yeah, I think I mean, I think that’s why we’re so enjoy it. Right, what you like to write, but I think, I mean, this is a decision I made for kids working is it’s sort of also decide what it is you want your readers to get from you. And then sort of stick to that. And then by that, I mean, I think it’s useful for them to, to know what to expect, broadly speaking, when they when they start reading some of your writing. So maybe, maybe the thing is, enjoy yourself, but make sure that you’re you choose carefully before you start on the plot.

Richard Lowe  28:13

Exactly. And what is your favorite thing about being an author?

Stephen Oram  28:23

I think it goes back to it’s sort of the opposite of the what do you do about bad, bad reviews? I think I, I really, it’s not the good reviews, per se, what I really, really like about being an author is waiting, when somebody not only tells me they’ve enjoyed what I’ve written, that’s great to entertain people, it’s a it’s a delightful thing to do. I think it’s also when what I try to do my writing is to provoke, provoke thought provoking people into maybe seen for something slightly different to how they would have done previously. And when people say that I succeeded in that. That that is a great feeling. And I really like that science. The other thing I like about being an author is and I’ve never really thought about listen to my study writing is the is the way that you’re dealing with a really big macro creating world. And really worrying right through to where does that comma go. And that that makes them really big and really pedantic. I really enjoy a really enjoy that. And obviously, there’s lots of things in between that, but there’s sort of two extremes of the different layers and different levels that you’re working at.

Richard Lowe  29:55

That is an interesting career, isn’t it?

Stephen Oram  29:58

Yeah, very much. So.

Richard Lowe  30:01

Okay, so we’re coming close to the end. Do you have any final words that you’d like to say?

Stephen Oram  30:07

I’d like to say thank you for getting up so early. I, I guess it’s an obvious one. Like, if people will get more, I’ve got a website, check out the website was very keen to hear from anybody, particularly if they want to collaborate on anything or anything like that. But that that’s that’s really my closing remarks, I guess.

Richard Lowe  30:36

While okay. And thank thank you for coming and I’d like to thank all our viewers for viewing if you want to subscribe to these videos, hit the subscribe button below. We’ll be coming out with one to two per week. So thank you for watching, and I’ll see you next time.

Richard Lowe
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Stephen Oram

Thank you Richard for taking the time to interview me – it was a pleasure to talk.