For many writers, penning a story about an astronaut stranded on Mars would ultimately lead to some such sci-fi elements as little green men or an ancient civilization destroyed by some unknown danger. But in his first novel, The Martian (paperback, Kindle), Andy Weir is taking a different approach; a more realistic one that eschews sci-fi tropes and makes this more of a thriller and a disaster movie in book form.
I always like to start at the beginning. What is The Martian about?
It’s about an astronaut stranded on Mars. He is accidentally left behind by the rest of his crew, who thought he was dead.
When you started writing it, why did you decide to set it on Mars, as opposed to the moon or some made-up planet?
Mars is the next obvious destination for manned spaceflight, but it’s far enough away that it’s impossible to mount a rescue mission quickly. This leaves the protagonist completely on his own.
In working on how you would depict Mars, did you consult real science books or did you look to other sci-fi novels, movies, or video games?
I used only real world information, and I did a lot of research. I wanted it to be as scientifically accurate as possible. It was one of my goals in this book to make everything as realistic and plausible as possible. And that includes making sure all the properties of Mars itself were accurately portrayed. I did make some concessions to storytelling, but I tried to keep them to an absolute minimum.
Was one of the books you looked at Packing For Mars by Mary Roach?
No, I’ve never read that. The vast majority of my research was simply done online. Also, I started out with a pretty comprehensive knowledge of Mars because I’ve always been a huge fan of manned spaceflight.
How often, in writing the book, did you come up with an interesting idea, only to have to abandon it because it wasn’t scientifically sound?
Very often. It was frustrating at times. I also had to go back and fix things I had written in to the story that turned out to be wrong. Sometimes that was a daunting task.
One mistake I made was getting the orbital transition time wrong. Once I realized my error, I had to go back and rework the dates that various story events happened. This wouldn’t be a problem in most stories, but in The Martian, the reader is given very precise information about how many days he’s been on Mars. It was a big rework.
And how often did you catch yourself getting too technical and had to remind yourself that The Martian wasn’t a scientific journal but a work of fiction?
This was my biggest challenge while writing the story. I wanted the reader to understand the science, but I didn’t want to bore them with a lecture. It was a constant battle to maintain that balance. And I had to remember that most people aren’t as interested in the raw science as I am, so using myself and my own interests as a litmus was not good enough. I often had to quickly blow by something in the narrative that I had put a huge amount of effort in to working out. Deep down, I wanted to brag to the reader and show my work. But the story has to come first, so I’d let it go.
The main character is an astronaut named Mark Watney. Is there a reason why you made him a guy instead of a woman?
Interesting you should ask that. I did consider making him a woman. Even late in the writing process, I realized I could have gone back and made him a woman with very few changes to the story. I guess I just wanted to stick to what I know. Mark is a geeky, sarcastic guy, similar to my own personality. So it was hard for me to picture him as a woman. Though Marcia Watney would have been a really cool character.
I have seen it. It’s a fun, 1960s sci-fi romp. There are aliens, space slave traders, and even a monkey sidekick. It’s a very different type of story than The Martian.
Aside from Robinson Crusoe, The Martian has also been compared to Apollo 13 and Mysterious Island. But the most interesting comparison, and it’s been made more than once, has been to the TV show MacGyver. When your book first got that, were you confused by it or annoyed that someone realized your secret crush?
I wasn’t surprised at all. Mark is a very resourceful guy coming up with very resourceful solutions. I would have been surprised if people hadn’t compared him to MacGyver. And I’m not annoyed by it at all. Being favorably compared to a great show like MacGyver is a compliment.
What about your writing style, what authors would you consider an influence on that?
I got away with a very snarky writing style because most of the story is told in the first person by a smart-ass. But in general, my writing is influenced by the classic sci-fi authors of the 2oth century: Heinlein, Clarke, Niven, and especially Asimov.
As you mentioned, Watney is a wise-cracking astronaut. Are there wise-cracking astronauts? They always seem so serious.
I often get questions about what real astronauts are like, and I always have to answer the same way: I’ve never met any. I have watched a lot of documentaries and I have a general feel for the professionalism and bravery that real astronauts have, but what are they like when not being interviewed? No idea. So I just made him really competent and also snarky.
You originally published The Martian as an eBook. Did you change anything or add anything to this new edition?
Not a lot of changes between the original eBook and the version. Mostly it was a lot of smoothing out. I have the editors at Crown to thank for keeping me in line. I rewrote poorly-written sections or filled out scenes to give more depth. Some characters got a little more detailed, and there are a few new scenes here and there to add more depth to Watney. The last scene is completely different, but the climax of the story is unchanged. The book is more polished now and I’m much happier with it.
The Martian has already been optioned for a movie. If they let you cast it, who would you pick to play Watney?
I think Bradley Cooper would make a great Mark Watney. He does “smart-ass” really well.
Finally, in previous author interviews that I’ve done, it’s been with people who’ve written a bunch of books, and so I’ve asked them which of their other novels they think fans of their new one will like as well. But since this is your first novel, I’ll ask you a somewhat different question: What other novels do you think fans of The Martian would also enjoy, and why?
If they enjoyed the science, I would recommend Ringworld by Larry Niven. If they liked the comedic narration, I would recommend pretty much anything by Terry Pratchett. Personally, I think Small Gods is the best book of his to start with.