Interview with Andy Weir, Author of The Martian

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By: Haylee Fisher (@haylee_fisher)

 

Most books that are adapted to film lose some of their magic in translation. Characters and plots are scrapped and fans are disappointed. But the latest effort from Ridley Scott, The Martian, stays true to its book roots, following Mark Watney and his abandonment on Mars after his crewmates think he’s dead. Screenwriter Drew Goddard took care in reworking the book to fit the movie and it shows through the film’s great reviews. But none of this would have been possible without the author of the book, Andy Weir.

 

Weir originally self-published the novel in 2011, but the rights were later bought and the book was re-released in 2014. And now a year later, the film is hitting theaters.

 

The Nerd Machine recently spoke to Weir about the book, the movie, his possible sci-fi legacy, and more. Read on, but be aware there are minor spoilers ahead.

 

Clearly you must be a science fiction fan. What were some of your favorites in the genre – movies, books, etc. – growing up?

 

For books, I grew up reading Baby Boomer-era sci-fi from my dad’s infinite collection of paperbacks. It’s weird because the books I grew up reading, I was just one generation off. So I’m a big fan of [Robert] Heinlein, [Isaac] Asimov, and [Arthur C.] Clarke. So my favorite books are Tunnel in the Sky and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Have Space Suit Will Travel. Stuff like that from Heinlein and from Asimov, I love I, Robot. The whole Robots trilogy. Caves of Steel, Naked Sun, Robots of Dawn. From Clarke, I really like Rama a lot. I will say from Clarke, though, I really like his short stories. He has a long collection of short stories he’s written. In terms of movies, I like good old-fashioned action/sci-fi, so I like The Empire Strikes Back and The Wrath of Khan. They’re fun sci-fi movies.

 

Was there a specific catalyst of inspiration for The Martian?

 

Yeah, I was sitting around thinking about how to do a manned Mars mission with our current technology. Not for a story or anything, just a thought experiment. And I started to think about all the things that could go wrong and how the crew would deal with them. And then I was like, “Hm, that sounds interesting.” So I made an unfortunate protagonist and subjected him to all of it.

 

There was a lot of science talk in the book. How did you go about researching for accuracy and then balancing the science with the overall plot?

 

Well, the research was just Google. Yeah, pretty much. I didn’t know anyone in aerospace at the time, so I was on my own for research. I started with more than a layman’s knowledge, because it was my hobby and passion I guess, but for the most part, it was just research and math. And that was the easy part for me because it was fun and it was interesting to me. The hard part was the actual writing! So describing it and presenting it in the book, that was a constant balancing act. It was like, “Okay, I want the reader to understand the science, but I don’t want it to read like a Wikipedia article. I need to give them just the information that they need.” And I needed to put it in a way that they didn’t mind reading it, which was why Mark was such a smart-ass.

 

A big plot point of the book is the limited availability of water on Mars. It was announced Monday there is water there. How would that discovery have changed the book?

 

It’s funny, the announcement on Monday would have had no affect on the plot of the story, because there are these briny water flow patches here and there on Mars, but they’re few and far between. They’re not on the heavily present. So I could have said, “Well, the nearest water is way too far away for him to take advantage of.” It’s also on slopes, and he would have needed it to be flat, so that’s out. What really helped me, though, is Pathfinder. A few years ago – after the book came out, but a few years ago, Pathfinder did some testing on the soil and the crater where it is, and it was like, “Wow, there’s a shitload of water in here!” It’s a form of ice, but for every cubic meter of Martian soil, there’s about 35 liters of water. So it’s actually like the planet is riddled with water. It’s all over the place. So for that, I would have said, “Well, Mars doesn’t have a solo-climate.” Just like Earth doesn’t. It’s got the Sahara Desert and the Amazon rainforest. Well, by the same token, Mars has its own unique climate areas and I would have said it turned out Mark was in the desert. So the water wasn’t there for him and no one can prove me wrong until they send a probe. Neener neener!

 

We asked our readers if they had any questions for you. Simone on Twitter wants to know if Mark Watney’s personality – his optimism, his wit, etc. – was a deliberate choice from the beginning or if it developed more and more through the adversities he faced?

 

Well I needed him to be a smart-ass for the exposition stuff. Really what I was trying to do was tell the story of basically a MacGyver on Mars. I didn’t want a deep, introspective story of a man’s struggle with crippling loneliness and constant stress. I didn’t want him to struggle with that inner conflict. That’s just not the kind of story I wanted to tell. I don’t enjoy those stories so I don’t want to make them. But I just wanted cool, clever engineering solutions to serious problems. And so I could kind of get away with it by saying, “Well, Mark’s not your average guy.” He was selected for a Mars mission, so he must have pretty good qualifications. Pretty solid under pressure and he’s able to handle stress. And he’s a very optimistic guy.

 

Let’s talk about the movie for a minute. How much input did you have in making it?

 

Most of my job was to cash the checks. I didn’t have any say or any authority or anything, but they chose to involve me. Drew Goddard, when he was writing the screenplay, consulted with me quite a lot because he wanted to stay as true to the book as possible. I mean, he was a big fan of the book. And he sent me revs [revisions]. He talked to me while he was writing it. He talked to me a lot while he was writing it. And he also sent me revs of the screenplay to get feedback. During filming, they had a few technical questions for me here and there, but that was about it. I was definitely an outsider looking in. I was not an integral part of the production or anything.

 

Can you tell me about any big changes from the book to the movie?

 

Well, there’s considerably less swearing! Let’s see, what else? There are parts that got removed, basically. Otherwise it would be a five-hour movie, right? You have to make some concessions. You have to be like, “Well, what’s gonna stay and what’s gonna go?” So with the stuff they pulled out, I think they made good decisions on that. The stuff they removed, it didn’t affect the plot that much. These are self-contained scenarios that happened in the book, but we can remove them entirely without affecting the long running plot.

 

The film is getting such great reviews. Have you seen it?

 

I’ve seen it six times!

 

Goodness! Do you have a favorite part?

 

Well, let’s see. I really like the sweeping panoramic views of Mars. The visuals. The cinematography is gorgeous. It’s really nice because when you’re writing a book, you can’t really describe landscapes. You can give it a sentence or two and hope the reader’s mind will fill in the blanks from there with their imagination, but I’ve read books that go on and on and on talking about the scenery and the landscape and it’s boring. So if you talk about the landscape too much, readers are just going to toss the book over their shoulder. So I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was like, “No, I want to keep things moving along.” So I couldn’t really describe how awesome Mars was. But then the movie, of course, is a visual medium and so they can do it in spades. They took advantage of every opportunity they had to show Mars.

 

Hollywood has a lot of influence on society, especially in science fields. I’ve spoken to people at NASA previously and they’ve mentioned a big inspiration to their colleagues was Star Trek. How do you feel about your work now being part of a legacy that could inspire people to go in to STEM fields and possibly even work at NASA in the future?

 

That would be great! I would love it if that were the case. That wasn’t my goal. When I’m writing, my only goal is to entertain the reader. I have no agenda beyond that. But if it inspires people, then super! I’m glad!

 

The Martian is in theaters now.


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