Those of us who enjoy SF/F fiction aren’t the only folks on the road to better health. Many of the folks who create the fictional worlds, characters, and events we enjoy also get up from their desks and get moving. We were fortunate enough to catch up with Sci-Fi & Fantasy writers Jay Lake and Elizabeth Bear, both of whom, in addition to putting a lot of mileage on their respective keyboards, put a fair bit of effort towards getting up and away from them, too.
Jay has been churning out a prodigious number of sci-fi and fantasy short stories and novels since the turn of the century, frequently visiting territory in the realm of “new weird” and various flavors of N-punk (steampunk, clockpunk, and the like). Whether or he’s flying solo or collaborating with a handful of co-conspirators, it’s a safe bet that, no matter where you start out from, you won’t be in Kansas anymore by the time he’s done. He enjoys inventing funky worlds and making any excuse for a zeppelin cameo.
Elizabeth takes pretty much every SF/F trope and turns it on its ear in the name of challenging assumptions about the genre, the characters, and the expectations of both. Whether it’s flipping the animal-sidekick motif upside-down, poking around the underside of myths, or delving into the psyches of an ensemble cast, her writing will expose and explore the unexpected.
Both Jay and Elizabeth have been nominated for (and won) numerous awards for their fiction, including the Hugo, Campbell, Phillip K. Dick, and James Tiptree, Jr awards, among others. In short, they both write some very, very good and interesting stuff, in addition to being well worth sitting down with for a pot of tea.
So, without further ado, let’s give them a workout. They shared their thoughts on making time to get healthy, how it affects their work, and a singularly pernicious corn chip.
ShrinkGeek: What’s your typical body-in-motion regimen?
Jay Lake: Either 30 minutes on a stationary bike, or 60+ minutes of walking every single day. My only exceptions are travel days, where logistics such as 6 am flights make that difficult, or severe illness. In heavy weather, I walk anyway (I tend to enjoy that stuff) unless I’m feeling chilled or puny, in which case I hit the bike in my basement. I use a recumbent stationary bike.
I’ve also been in physical therapy for a rotator cuff injury to my left shoulder, which has kept me out of the gym since last summer — I was doing two days a week with a personal trainer on movement and weights. My shoulder is almost all better, but the upcoming thoracic surgery, followed by chemo, will probably keep me out of the gym for a long time yet [Ed. Note: Jay was diagnosed with cancer in 2008, and is having what he refers to as a "nacho-ectomy" performed to remove a small tumor from his lung later this month]. However, as a result of the PT, I’ve added a block of stretches to my daily body movement regimen.
SG: How does making time for exercise fit into your daily routine? A lot of folks claim they don’t have time to work out, and all we have is a conventional day job.
Elizabeth Bear: I make it. You figure out what’s important to you and you do it. I probably work — not simply writing, but on other related things like research and so on — about ten to twelve hours a day. If I sleep seven hours, that leaves me five or seven hours for other stuff–hobbies, errands, having a social life, and getting off the couch. I don’t watch a lot of television (only things I actually want to watch, as opposed to TV-as-background noise) and I don’t do a lot of online or console gaming.
JL: I’m not some kind of evangelist. Watch all the TV you want, etc. But if you’re concerned about your time for writing, for exercise, for living your life, spend a couple of weeks tracking exactly how much time you watch TV and game. Then ask yourself if the reward of an hour of TV or an hour of gaming is equal to the reward of an hour of writing. if the answer is “yes”, then party on. If the answer is “no”, then you may need to adjust your habits, as I did.
- Turn off the TV
- Walk away from the computer and video games
- Don’t sleep in, ever — get up as soon as you’re rested
- Keep track of your time
SG: Has your workout routine informed your writing in any way that you’ve noticed?
EB: Sure. I like to try things out before I write about them, when I can. It helps with the verisimilitude!
JL: Working out has not directly informed my writing that I’ve noticed. But on days when I miss a workout for some reason, my energy level is lower and I’m less productive. Likewise, especially when walking, the headspace is great for working through story issues, ideas and whatnot.
EB: Also, walks and running and so on are really good thinking time. When you get moving, you free up your brain for other things.
JL: As for the cancer, well, it’s been deep for a while. I didn’t even realize while I was writing Pinion that the cancer plays a prominent role; it had to be pointed out to me. (One of the characters has a raving, semidivine voice that talks to him from his gut.) My recent novella draft of “The Specific Gravity of Grief” is my first attempt to explicitly write about the internal experience of cancer. In general, surely my focus on themes of mortality, individual loss (and gain) and the transience of the world has sharpened through the experience of cancer.
Working out has made me a better writer, and it will probably help me have a longer career. But mostly I’ve long since gotten over the threshold of body movement being rewarding for its own sake. I wish I’d found that path years earlier.
SG [to EB]: You’re the first person I recall seeing who tracked/tracks their walking and running mileage in terms of schlepping from The Shire to Mordor. Where did you come up with the idea, and the various distances involved? Are you always following Frodo’s route?
EB: Nope. It’s a website — Eowyn Challenge — with a fairly large community of which I am not actually a part. However, it is a really good motivation to get your running shoes on. I’m actually following Pippin, since he’s my nearly-namesake. You have various options who you go with.
SG [to JL]: How much progress have you made, in terms of general health parameters (weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, or whatever)? Do you have specific goals, other than the Dorito-centric biggie of “being around for a good long while”?
JL: Weight is down from about 290 to about 230. It’s been as low as 215-220, but since my shoulder injury I’ve added back about ten pounds, despite maintaining roughly the same level of exercise and diet. I’m not sure that’s not a function of taking a fair amount of Ibuprofen, or if I’ve just been slowing down more than I realized. Blood pressure dropped from a respectable 120/80 to 110/70, and my cholesterol numbers have moved in the right direction by about 5-10%.
I mark my specific goals around endurance (my longest walks are currently 3 hours without a rest stop) and baseline weight. I weigh myself every day, or almost so, which gives me a near-realtime view into the effects of diet changes, exercise changes and so forth.
When I first started paying serious attention, I actually weighed myself hourly for about two weeks, and tracked the correlation between weight changes and dietary intake. That was revealing. A carb-heavy meal like pizza or pasta will spike me several pounds, a salad will not. Likewise, the earlier in the evening I eat, the less I weigh the next morning (within a 3-4 pound range), even with otherwise exactly the same food intake and exercise. That, more than anything, broke me of evening and overnight snacking — food intake then just doesn’t come back off.
SG: If you hadn’t been hit with that particular broadside [the cancer diagnosis], and your PCP had simply suggested healthier eating and exercise habits during a normal checkup, would you have made the same changes to your routine?
JL: A few months prior to my diagnosis I had begun modifying my diet and exercising somewhat, but my efforts were modest rather than intense. So the answer, yes, but not with nearly as much vigor or determination.
SG [to EB]: Rock climbing. How’d you get into doing it? (I tried it for the first time a couple months ago, and, holy crap is it tough.)
EB: It is one of the more intensely physical sports around, and requires a certain amount of care to avoid injuries. It’s very satisfying, though — well, in proportion to how frustrating it is. Which it can also be. To actually answer the question — I started as research, actually, and liked it enough that I stuck with it. [This was in] 2007, and it was for Shadow Unit.
SG: Big thanks to Jay and Elizabeth for taking time out to chat with us. You can find their complete works on their websites (http://jlake.com and http://www.elizabethbear.com), as well as catch up with the authors themselves everywhere from Twitter to LiveJournal to Facebook, and at whichever SF/F conventions happen to be on their upcoming schedules.