Where did you grow up?
In California. The environment was great. Loving parents, friends, comfortable middle-class life. But I struggled with depression for a large part of my childhood and into my young adult years. So I didn’t really have a good time, but the reasons were internal.
What was your childhood ambition?
I wanted to be a writer. But I also didn’t want to live in a box in an alley, so I went into computer programming instead. And I really did enjoy that career.
What is your earliest reading memory?
I used to read Beverly Cleary when I was young. I remember that. I think that’s about as far back as I can remember reading on my own.
When did you know you wanted to write?
Around the age of 12 when I started reading my dad’s collection of Fifties and Sixties sci-fi paperbacks: Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke. Those stories made me want to make my own.
Where do you live now?
I live by myself in a condo in Mountain View, California. Well, unless you count my two cats.
Why did you choose to write sci-fi?
I’m actually interested in a few other genres. I have a fantasy story idea, a children’s book and a crime drama. But sci-fi is my one true love. Probably because I grew up with it.
When did you start to consider yourself a ‘writer’?
I was always a hobbyist writer, so in that sense I considered myself a writer since my teen years. But in terms of being a profession, not until The Martian got a print deal.
Where do you write and how?
I have a desk in my living room where I do the bulk of my writing – on a PC. I have to be alone, with no music playing in order to concentrate. I drink a ridiculous amount of Diet Coke. I actually have a soda fountain in my kitchen, like the kind you see in fast-food restaurants. I deliberately don’t keep snack food in the house, which stops me from eating too many empty calories. I only eat at meal times.
Which books and/or authors influenced you?
Among my favourite and most inspiring books are: Have Spacesuit - Will Travel and Tunnel In The Sky by Robert A Heinlein; I, Robot and The Caves Of Steel by Isaac Asimov; and Rama by Arthur C Clarke.
What are you reading at the moment?
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell.
Who is your favourite fictional character and why?
Han Solo. Because, Han Solo!
Which fictional character would you like to go out drinking with and why?
Chandler Bing from Friends. Because he’d be really fun to just hang out with.
Which fictional location would you most like to visit and why?
Gallifrey (The Time Lords’ homeworld in Doctor Who). I’d want to learn the secrets of time travel.
Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party and what would you serve?
Astronaut John Young, Nasa Flight Director Gene Kranz and actor David Tennant. I’d serve pizza and Diet Coke.
Not many people know this, but I’m very good at…
Cocktail mixing. It’s a hobby of mine. I have a home bar and a bunch of other cocktail enthusiast friends and we compare notes and work on bettering our techniques.
What do you always carry with you? And whenever you travel?
Just my wallet, keys, shades and cell phone. As for travel, I bring the usual stuff you would expect, plus I always bring my pyjamas. When you’re in a hotel room after an event or something, it’s nice to throw on familiar comfortable clothes to unwind in the evening.
What moment in history would you have wanted to be present at and why?
The Apollo 11 landing. I wasn’t born yet. I really would have loved to experience that along with the rest of the world.
Thinking about your writing – can you tell us about a problem you hit with The Martian and how you got around it?
When I did the math on how much water is needed to grow crops in soil, I realised there was just no way he’d have enough water to make that happen. So I was stuck because he didn’t have enough water and didn’t have access to any. I solved it by saying he had access to hydrazine, which can be manipulated to give him hydrogen. From there he could burn it to make water. It was a cool example of science creating plot. It added a cool subplot that I otherwise wouldn’t have thought of.
How would you define the ‘role of the writer’?
To entertain readers. And nothing more. I hate being preached at when I read a story so I never have any political or social moral in my work. The sole purpose of my stories is to entertain the reader.
What’s the most useful piece of advice about writing you’ve been given?
I forget who it was, but a famous author once said basically: Sometimes you’re inspired and writing comes easily. Other times it’s a total slog and you have to fight for every word. But if you look back later on at what you wrote, you can’t tell the difference between the stuff that was fun and the stuff that was a slog. This was very useful to me, because it helps with motivation. When I’m having a rough patch, I know I’m still turning out good content. It keeps me going.
The best sentence you’ve written so far?
“Maybe I’ll write a review. ‘Brought product to surface of Mars. It stopped working. 0/10’.”
How did you celebrate finishing The Martian?
At the time I finished it, it was just a serial on my website. So I just kind of posted the last chapter and moved on to the next story I was planning to write.
And finally, what’s the question (and answer to the question) no one has ever asked you, but you wish they would?
‘If the BBC asked you to write an episode of Doctor Who, would you?’