Interview with Jack McDevitt by Rowntree and Negus

Interview with Jack McDevitt by Rowntree and Negus

Unless they’ve been cut off from humanity for a good while, every serious Science Fiction reader knows that Jack McDevitt has been working at the top of his field for more years than he’d probably care to remember. His first novel, The Hercules Text, won the Philip K. Dick Special Award and since then, as they say, he’s never looked back, making regular appearances on the final Nebula ballot, the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Hugo list. The recent release of Polaris, his eleventh novel has provoked a fresh tide of critical acclaim for his story-telling abilities.

With a new novel, Seeker (set in the same universe as Polaris), in the works, we caught up with him to ask him about his work, how he got started in the field, and well, just about anything really. What we discovered was a refreshingly forthright individual who has never lost his sense of wonder at the universe around him and who maintains a real sense of passion for his field.

Rowntree & Negus: It’s documented that your first Science Fiction short story, “The Emerson Effect”, was written as a result of encouragement from your wife, Maureen. Just how important has the support of your family been to your career?

Jack McDevitt: Essential. Without Maureen, none of it would have happened. Writing professionally seemed to me a capability beyond my reach. (Some might say I was right.) I was on a one-year TDY assignment at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centre in Brunswick, GA, in 1980, training customs inspectors. I got bored at one point and my wife encouraged me to try my hand at writing.

R&N: Do you think you’d have come to writing at all without Maureen’s encouragement?

JM: Impossible to know for certain. But probably not.

R&N: What other factors were important in you becoming a writer?

JM: I have a lifelong passion for SF. And there were things I wanted to see up close. I wanted to be able to watch a white dwarf from nearby, to follow the action while a binary system encounters a third star, to ride along while archaeologists unearthed an alien civilization, maybe to be present when we actually encountered a set of neighbours. We live in a remarkable place. I wanted to have a hand in looking around. (Even if it was a fictitious hand.)

R&N: The advent of the PC means more and more people are trying their hand at writing these days. On your website there are a couple of articles to help beginners. With those and your background in English teaching in mind, do you have any tips for people starting out today?

JM: I occasionally hear people wonder whether the editors gave them a fair chance. Whether they read deeply enough into the story (or the book). But the editor has no obligation to do anything other than — in a short story — read the first few paragraphs. It’s up to the writer to make sure that once the editor picks it up, he cannot put it down. Use the opening paragraph to grab the editor by the throat, so that he will not be able to sleep until he finds out what happened. In a novel, the writer will be granted a bit more leeway. Maybe a chapter. But the same principle applies.

R&N: How would you recommend that a new writer break through the mountainous slush piles cluttering up editor’s offices?

JM: See above. Write a standout story. Start with a first paragraph that grabs hold and won’t let go. Editors love to discover new writers. There’s a reason most of the stuff never gets published: It’s just not very good. You can’t evade the slush pile, except maybe by marrying into the family. But write a great story and they’ll be watching for you.

R&N: Many beginners enroll in creative writing courses, workshops, and the like. Sometimes at great expense. Do you think this is a sensible route or perhaps have some other suggestions on making sure that that manuscript meets and reaches a professional standard?

JM: Workshopping has its place. What everybody needs, beginner and established pro alike, is an in-house editor. We need somebody close by, a spouse, a friend, a cousin, someone with decent taste, who can look at our work and tell us what he really thinks. Not what we want to hear, but the truth. If you can find someone like that, every time they tell you something you don’t want to hear, take him to lunch. And never ever make him pay a price for his honesty because then you’ll lose him. Listen to the comments, and make your judgment on their probable validity and not on the basis that he’s criticizing something we’ve written. Then, if more work is needed, get to it. Always remember that when people criticize your work, they’re criticizing a narrative, not you.

R&N: Was there anything that might have made you give up? How close have you ever come?

JM: I gave up after winning the annual Freshman Short Story Contest at LaSalle College. They even published the story in the school’s literary magazine, Four Quarters. I was on my way. Then I read David Copperfield and realized I could never write at that level, and therefore I should find something else to do. I joined the Navy, drove a cab, became an English teacher, took a customs inspector’s job on the northern border, and didn’t write another word for a quarter-century. Generally, when people give up, I think it’s because they lose confidence in themselves. The good news is that most of us seem to be more talented than we realize. We spend our early years with all sorts of authority figures telling us don’t do this, don’t do that, look out you’ll break it. Even teachers generally show us what we are doing wrong and ignore what we are doing right. What shines. After a while we begin to believe it.

R&N: With last year’s release of Omega you seem to have concluded a journey started in 1994 with your novel, The Engines of God. Did you originally conceive of the ideas and themes for one novel or was a there a realization then that to fully explore them more novels would be needed?

JM: I’d like to claim I planned the Omega novels from the beginning. The Engines of God, though, was intended to work as a stand-alone. But readers wanted to know more about the clouds. And I guess I caved to pressure.

R&N: With Omega nicely tidying up the plotlines developed throughout The Engines of God, Deepsix, and Chindi, is that an end to the Priscilla Hutchins/Academy Universe?

JM: That’s my intention. But I’ve learned not to rule things out. If a story-line shows up that would work well in the Academy universe, I wouldn’t hesitate to go back.

R&N: Your most recent novel, Polaris, released November 2004, is a sequel of sorts to your novel, A Talent for War. Already attracting critical acclaim and excellent reviews – How would you sum it up for your avid readers?

JM: Three starships travel to the edge of known space to watch a white dwarf collide with a class G sun. After the collision, two of the ships start back. The third one, the Polaris, reports Departure Imminent. And then no more is heard from her. When a rescue vessel arrives, six days later, the Polaris is found deserted. Pressure suits are still on board. The lander is in its launch pad. There’s no place to go anyhow. (The sun has collapsed.) There are no other ships within range. And there are no aliens.

Sixty years later, when the antiquities dealer Alex Benedict has a chance to buy some artefacts from the ship, the fate of its captain and passengers is still a mystery. But Benedict has already solved one enigmatic puzzle in A Talent for War. This one looks like a bigger challenge.

R&N: Polaris has received great reviews both from the general press and SF-orientated publications. Did this have any bearing on your choice of ‘universe’ for the next novel, Seeker? Or had you already decided upon this before the release of Polaris?

JM: Seeker was completed before Polaris was released. So, no. Obviously no effect whatever. I enjoyed writing Chase as a viewpoint character, and I have a passion for mysteries. Especially classic ones, like the Mary Celeste. Or, as in Seeker, the Roanoke colony.

R&N: Seeker reunites readers with prominent antiques dealer Alex Benedict and his companion Chase Kolpath. Can you tell us a little more about the plot?

JM: By the beginning of the Interstellar Age, America had become a theocracy. Several thousand ‘malcontents’ set off in the Bremerhaven and the Seeker for a destination, a colony world, whose location they refuse to reveal. The ships are owned by the colonists and, as expected, do not return. But nothing of them is ever heard again.

Thousands of years pass. The event acquires a legendary status. People begin to think of the colony the way we think of Atlantis. Until one day Alex Benedict finds himself in possession of a plastic cup, marked in English characters, and bearing a Seeker icon. Alex thinks little of it until, on a whim, he tests it and discovers it is nine thousand years old. Of course, it might have been no more than a souvenir of sorts. Might never have left Earth. On the other hand, it begins to look as if somebody might know where the Seeker is.

R&N: Many of your novels take a very reasonable, ‘ships passing in the night’ approach to the Fermi Paradox. Do you subscribe to a particular view on this? Or is the vote still out?

JM: Clearly the vote’s out. But I suspect it’s pretty empty out there. We’re talking immense ranges of time and space. It’s not only going to be a long walk to any neighbours, but they are very likely to be lost in time as well.

R&N: Some commentators say that sense of wonder SF is dead and that baroque, darker futures are taking its place in novels from newer writers. Your work seems to hark back to sense of wonder themes and also nod in the direction of their loss — on the one hand sense of wonder, on the other pointing to its loss, the missed opportunities. Was it a conscious decision on your part to marry the two together almost as an epitaph to that format? And are themes of loss, loneliness, and regret things that you are interested in exploring?

JM: I don’t care much what’s currently popular. I write to my instincts. But it does seem to be true that I write frequently about things that get lost. Years ago, when I was in graduate school, we were at a professor’s home having lunch, and the conversation drifted toward Renaissance Italy, with all these scholars heading off to Greece and coming back with plays and histories and philosophical works. One of the professors had a story about one man returning with a trunk full. But a storm blew up and the ship went down. Along with the trunk. What was in it? Maybe other epics of the Homeric cycle? Maybe some of Sophocles’ lost plays? And I wondered what became of the scholar. Those kinds of events present dramatic possibilities that are overwhelming. Employing them seems to me the most natural thing in the world.

R&N: The list of awards that you have won and/or received nominations for is impressive. With all that behind you, what motivates you to continue?

JM: See above. I love writing SF. If I weren’t doing this, I doubt I’d be writing at all.

R&N: We’re not suggesting that any author might write simply to add another notch to his award belt, but is there any prize out there that you’d really like to get your hands on?

JM: Seeing my name on the spine of The Hercules Text gave me a pretty decent charge. And there were a few awards. But that first sale: That’s recognition unlike any other. Or at least it was for me because I never expected to see any fiction of mine in print. Sure, I’d like to win a Nebula or a Hugo, actually take one home. But so many good things have already happened, I can’t bring myself to worry much about it.

R&N: Winning the John W. Campbell award for your novel Omega was no small achievement, especially when you look at the competition. Can you tell us how it felt? What kind of a day was it emotionally? And what it means to you?

JM: It felt pretty good. I understand I am now tied for the all-time record for most nominations without ever winning a Nebula, so taking home the Campbell persuaded me that anybody really can be president. It was one of the finest moments of my life. And the fact that the award was presented by Gregory Benford had special meaning.

R&N: As well as writing novels, you’re a prolific short story writer. While we’re forever being told that the short story is dead, we’re yet to see the evidence of that. What do you believe that a short story, particularly an SF short story, has to offer the contemporary reader?

JM: The short story is probably the more natural form for SF. We are present at a discovery or, more frequently, we witness the result of a technological breakthrough. Usually of course, things have gone wrong, and therefore SF often serves as a cautionary tale. But we learn that immortality may not be all it’s cracked up to be, that contact even with congenial aliens may have a downside, that designing babies may create serious problems. The idea is presented, we watch the action, and the narrative moves to its natural conclusion. SF is at its best when only one thing has been changed, allowing us to see the result clearly. In a novel, a lot of things change, or the impact of the technology gets lost in 400 pages of charging around. This is not to say the novel doesn’t work in the genre, but simply that the short story is the purer form.

R&N: When some short story writers move into writing novels as their favoured form, the humble short is often forgotten, while others use the short story to fill the transition period between novels. Does maintaining an output of short stories serve any kind of function for you, or do you write them when inspiration strikes?

JM: I enjoy doing short fiction, which can pack a concentrated wallop that you can’t get from a novel. I’ll write one whenever I have a serviceable idea.

R&N: Science fiction fans are sometimes viewed as a nerdy bunch who’ve spent a lifetime cultivating acne whilst barely setting foot out of doors in daylight hours. How would you sell SF to someone of that opinion? What do you believe it has to offer that mainstream fiction or other genres don’t?

JM: I feel sorry for people who have never discovered SF, who have never ridden the Centauri Express, who have never stood beside a Martian canal, who don’t know what it is to set down on a distant world. SF is basically about change. The world is moving very quickly. My father was born before the Wright Brothers flew, and he lived to see the moon landings. That’s a lot for one lifetime. But people are hardwired to resist change. That’s why older folks are always behind the curve and we need our kids to get rid of the virus when it shows up. During the last two administrations, we encountered ideas that have been kicking around the field a long time: clones and genetic engineering. The two presidents involved, and the majority of the American public reacted as if the issues had fallen out of the sky. Of course, we banned clones, and we banned stem cell research. And if somebody figures out how to make a healthier kid, we’ll ban that, too. SF is about discovery and the future. It’s a literature for people with brains, whose interests go somewhat beyond adultery in the suburbs.

R&N: If you could recommend one really great read to that person, what would it be and why?

JM: My personal favourite is Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. I don’t see how anyone can sit with the crew of the third mission and look out at that small Martian town with its picket fences and its church and its frame houses, open the hatch and hear someone on a piano playing Beautiful Dreamer and ever be the same again. The book is filled with dynamite, the guy left behind on Mars who can never get to the phone before it stops ringing, the sentient dying house in “There Will Come Soft Rains,” the kids whose father takes them to the canal where they can see Martians.

R&N: Which writers have most influenced you throughout your career?

JM: I assume you mean SF writers. Those are Bradbury, Clark, Heinlein, Wyndham. Outside the field, Mark Twain, Dickens, Dostoevski, Tolstoi, Dos Passos, Charles Lamb. And Jean Shepherd.

R&N: What made you fall in love with science fiction as a genre?

JM: Strange places, the ultimate in romance, escape from a city where the stars were always dull. I suppose the answer is the same one that drove Ulysses: the sights.

R&N: What else do you read?

JM: Everything except westerns and mainstream fiction. I am currently reading Grant’s Memoirs, James Trefil’s Are We Unique, Peter Watson’s The Modern Mind, and Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club. I am about to start Stellar Collisions, Mergers, and Their Consequences, edited by Michael M. Shara. (Anyone familiar with my work will smile at that last one.)

R&N: Which contemporary writers do you most admire?

JM: In SF: Benford, Kress, Sheffield, Bear, Brin.

R&N: We noticed on your website that there s a top ten films list containing several British comedies. Is there a particular reason for this?

JM: I should have included Schindler’s List. But yes, I was blown away back in the fifties by Alistair Sim, Terry-Thomas, Peter Sellers, Alec Guinness, and the others. I don’t think anyone does comedy the way the Brits did during those years. Regrettably, they seem to have lost their touch and become Americanized. Everybody falls down a lot now.

R&N: Jack, because of the way you speak about your writing, and science fiction as a whole, you strike us as a passionate man. Could you give us a little more insight into the man behind the pen? What are your other passions in life?

JM: My wife and family. I enjoy chess, bridge, moonlit beaches, encountering old friends, lunch, Sherlock Holmes, astronomy, rainstorms, the Phillies and Eagles. I read almost any kind of book. I do a one-hour workout daily — most days. I like a good movie, a good mystery, a good thriller, a good comedy. I like chocolate. Dogs, cats, and parrots. I have always been gifted to understand that the moment is priceless, that we don’t have forever, that there’s never been a time in my life that I didn’t realize the day would come when I would wish heartily to be able to return to it, to that moment, to see the people again, to remember how it felt. I admire H.L. Mencken (who showed up in Deepsix as Gregory MacAllister), Bob Hope, Goldie Hawn, the astrophysicists who are working to get the first visual of an extra-solar star. I’m entranced by the improvements during my lifetime in medicine and dentistry. And automobile technology. I also like Indiana Jones and I retain my fondness for the Lone Ranger and Captain Midnight. My favourite all-time radio/TV show is probably I Love a Mystery from the 1940’s.


We would like to thank Jack McDevitt for his time. His latest novel, Polaris, is available from Ace Publishers, ISBN 0-441-01202-7, priced at $24.95. Go on, treat yourselves.

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