“This is what you do when you’re a nerd who ends up with a bunch of money!’ Andy Weir says gleefully, reaching up to a shelf at his home in Mountain View, near San Francisco, and handing me a small black rock. ‘This is a meteorite that came from Mars. That rock got knocked off the surface by an asteroid impact, then it wandered around in our solar system for God knows how long, and eventually fell to Earth.’
Until recently Weir, 43, was a successful computer programmer, and not given to buying such fripperies. He wrote code for the hugely popular 1995 game Warcraft II, and more recently worked for MobileIron, a company based in Mountain View (where we have met at his home), an hour’s drive from San Francisco, that works with big firms to make sure their employees’ mobile phones synchronise with their corporate systems. Weir is fully aware how boring this sounds, though he also says the job was a lot of fun: the only child of a particle physicist and an electronics engineer, he likes solving problems, and he enjoyed the office banter.
It was his love of problem-solving that changed his life. Just for fun, he began to work out the logistics of a manned mission to Mars. He then started to research what a human would need to survive on the red planet, and this evolved into a story set in the near future, in which Mark Watney, an engineer and botanist on Ares III, the third Nasa mission to Mars, is struck by debris during a fierce dust-storm and left for dead when the rest of his crew are forced into an emergency evacuation. He wakes up to find himself marooned on Mars with no way of contacting Earth, and needing all of his scientific ingenuity to survive. In 2009 Weir began posting the story on his website, chapter by chapter. ‘I wasn’t writing for a mainstream audience,’ he says. ‘I was writing for this core group of extremely technical, science-minded dorks like me. I’m one of those guys that’ll nitpick every little physics problem in a movie. I absolutely am.’
As the serial progressed, he picked up around 3,000 readers, who would send corrections if he got the science slightly wrong. ‘I had chemists, electrical engineers emailing me, and a reactor tech on a US nuclear submarine, just telling me how this stuff works. It was really nice because I didn’t have any contacts in aerospace at the time. I didn’t know anyone in Nasa, so all my research was on Google.’
He called his novel The Martian, and when it was finished he made the whole thing available via his website as a free e-book. In September 2012, after a few requests, he put it up on Amazon’s site for the Kindle reader. Here he wasn’t allowed to give it away, so he charged the minimum allowed, which was 99 cents (about 64p). By December it had sold 35,000 copies and was topping Amazon’s bestseller chart for science fiction. ‘I still have no idea why it has mainstream appeal,’ Weir admits. ‘I guess people liked the snarkiness of the main character.’
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In 1999 he was one of 800-odd employees made redundant when the internet provider AOL merged with the web-browser creator Netscape. The severance deal was good enough for him to be able to take a break from work and try to make it as a writer. His second book was better, he says. ‘It was a decent plot, with interesting characters that even had depth. But the prose is so bad.’ He sent it to agents and publishers, and accumulated a pile of rejection slips. Then, in 2002, he decided it was time to stop watching daytime TV, and he went back to work in the software industry. This didn’t feel like a crushing failure, he says.
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He might not have had what it took to be a successful writer, but he no longer had to wonder what might have been. ‘So I went back to a profession I loved.’ He kept writing as a hobby, publishing via his website. He created a couple of successful web-comics and, as well as The Martian, he started a serial about a young mermaid living in New England in the 19th century. In 2009 he posted a short story called The Egg, espousing a Zen-like vision of the afterlife. It went viral, with people translating it into their own language and even making short films of it. He says it was fun to know that millions had read it, but he had long since given up on making a living by writing.
So it came as a surprise when he got a call from an agent who had read The Martian, asking if he wanted representation. As negotiations began to seal a publishing deal with Random House, his new agent called to say Fox wanted to option the film rights. In the end, both deals were signed within four days of each other, in March 2014. ‘At this point I’m still sitting in my cubicle at work, fixing bugs,’ Weir says. ‘Then wandering off to take a call about my movie or book deals.’
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A studio optioning a book doesn’t mean it will always get made into a film – quite the opposite. But hot Hollywood writer Drew Goddard (Cloverfield, World War Z) got attached to The Martian immediately, with a view to directing the film as well as crafting the screenplay. Keen to preserve the scientific integrity of the story, Goddard – unusually – consulted Weir throughout. The story’s charmed rise continued when Matt Damon expressed interest in playing Mark Watney. Then Goddard was offered the chance to write and direct the new Spider-Man film, and it looked as if the whole thing had stalled.
Restricted by a lifelong fear of flying, Weir had yet to meet his agent, his publisher, or anyone from the film company. So when his agent told him on the phone that Sir Ridley Scott had stepped into the director’s chair and the film was still going ahead with Damon confirmed for the lead, he began to think the whole thing had become an elaborate hoax. ‘I was like, “Are you freaking kidding me?” ’ Weir says with a laugh. ‘I just felt disbelief, really. There must be a moment when people who’ve won the lottery stare at the ticket for a minute and go, “No, I must be misreading this.” ’