Matt Damon stars as a stranded spaceman in new sci-fi epic The Martian. Here American author Andy Weir talks about having his debut novel transformed into a Hollywood blockbuster.
THE RED BULLETIN: The Martian has had an impressive journey – from self-published ebook to New York Times bestseller to Hollywood movie in just four years…
ANDY WEIR: It’s been the most surreal thing. It’s kind of hard to describe it – it’s like you’re watching someone else’s life play out! It’s unreal, but it’s been a very positive experience.
The story sees astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon in the film) left behind on Mars and having to use science to survive. Where did you get the idea?
I’m a space nut. I’ve always been a big enthusiast of manned and unmanned space flight. I’ll watch documentaries; I’ll go online and find articles about it… I was sitting around at home one day thinking, “OK, how could we do a manned Mars mission just with the tech we have right now, without having to invent any new magical crap?” I was just speculating – the mission would have to account for things going wrong and making sure the crew doesn’t die. I started throwing harder, increasingly desperate problems at them, and tried to come up with ways to ensure that they survived. Then I thought, “This would make a good story” – so I created an unfortunate protagonist and subjected him to all of them!
How important was it for you to make the story scientifically accurate?
It was really important to me. I’m a really picky reader. It drives me crazy when I see scientific inaccuracies in stories. What’s weird is that huge, gigantic glaring inaccuracies don’t bother me at all, but little details do. So if you say, “We have a warp drive and we can go hundreds of times the speed of light”, there’s no problem – I immediately accept it and don’t even think twice. But if you say, “Here we are on the moon and I’m breathing without a space suit,” I’m like, “No!” I call it the ‘uncanny valley’ of hard sci-fi: if you’re telling a story that appears to be accurate, you have to be completely accurate, but alternately you can be so completely off the rails that scientific accuracy is irrelevant and the audience will accept it. But if you try to mix and match, if you try and throw in science in some places and ignore it in others, then people just say it’s a mess. So when it came to the premise of how we would do a Mars mission I was like, “OK, you’ve got to go the whole hog on this.” A lot of my readers were space geeks like me, so I knew I’d be called out on it.
How did you get into writing?
I was a computer programmer my whole life but I always wanted to be a writer. I wrote as a hobby. I’d been posting serials to my website for years and I accumulated a regular readership. The Martian was one of them. Once I’d written it I figured that was it, I’m done, move on. But then people started emailing and asking me to make an e-reader version. From there I self-published through Kindle and, because I couldn’t give it away for free, I charged 99 cents. People started writing reviews on Amazon and it got around by word of mouth. It started selling really well and that was my big break.
Was it difficult fitting the writing in around your day job?
Well it was a lot of work but it was my hobby. I was actively engaged in it and enjoying it. It took me three years – it’s not like I was nose-to-the-grindstone. Sometimes I’d go months without touching it. One thing that really helped with motivation was, since I was posting the story online chapter by chapter, I got feedback from readers every step of the way. I got a lot of positive comments and that kept me going. Before posting it to Amazon I thought, “If I’m going to charge for it I should try to be more professional” – so I hired a copy editor to go through it and fix all my many spelling and grammar errors!
How did you feel when you found our director Ridley Scott wanted to make it into a movie?
Suddenly a bunch of my dreams were coming true. He’s made some iconic sci-fi movies and I love the way he directs things – he likes huge, vast sweeping landscapes, and that scale is perfect for Mars. They could have just handed me the cheque and said “See you at the premiere” but they chose to include me. Especially Drew Goddard [the films screenwriter, whose previous work includes Cloverfield and The Cabin In The Woods]. He talked to me a lot as he was working on the screenplay and he sent me drafts to get feedback. He decided he wanted my input; he had no obligation. And that was cool. They invited me out to Budapest where they filmed it to watch as a spectator but that’s really far away for me!
How do you think Watney, the main character, is going to translate to the screen?
I wasn’t writing it as a film, so I had the advantage that I could show his innermost thoughts at all times without any problem. In an audio-visual medium you need to have some excuse for why he’s speaking his mind. But in terms of capturing the character it looks like Matt Damon has really nailed it – he’s exactly the way I envisioned him, anyway. I’m really happy with that.
Where do you stand on the books vs film adaptations debate?
They’re such incredibly different ways of storytelling that it’s unreasonable to expect them to exactly match. I’ve never understood this tendency where people complain that the movie is different to the book. In most cases, if you made the movie exactly like the book it would be boring or uninteresting or the pacing would be terrible or something like that. There’s a reason they deviate – the filmmakers are trying to make a movie people will like.
How has the success of The Martian affected you?
I always wanted to be a full-time writer but I wasn’t willing to take the financial risk. Now it’s made enough money for me to live on, I’ve quit my day job and I’m working on my next book. I’m taking my shot.
Can you tell us anything about your next novel?
It’s coming out mid-2016 and it’s a more traditional science fiction story. It’s a ‘soft’ sci-fi – not the risky, technical type that The Martian was. This one’s got aliens and faster-than-light travel and stuff like that, but done my way. It’s not at odds with any physics – other than the one that you can’t go faster than light!