Rowntree & Negus: Charles, you’ve been extremely successful in the short-fiction arena picking up nominations for the Nebula, Hugo, Sidewise, and John W. Campbell Awards, as well as making it into Year’s Best Science Fiction, Year’s Best Fantasy, and the Mammoth Book of Best New Horror – how does it feel be nominated for those awards alongside other genre greats such as Neil Gaiman and Ian R Mcleod?
Charles Coleman Finlay: With the award nominations, I think I was just lucky that year. You look at writers like Gaiman or Mcleod and they’ve been producing good fiction year in and year out for a very long time. My award nominations were for the second and fourth stories I ever had published, and I wasn’t really prepared for that. With the Sidewise Award, the other finalists that year in sort fiction were John Kessel, William Sanders, Robert Silverberg, Walter Jon Williams–those are four great writers! It was an amazing honor to be mentioned in the same list with them.
I think it was Michael Swanwick who remarked one time that he had the advantage of being nominated for two awards for his first stories and losing both of them, because he still had a lot to learn about writing. I feel the same way. I still have a lot to learn about telling stories. Every time I send out a new story and get back an acceptance, I feel like I’ve won an award. Everything else is icing.
R&N: You’re about to have your first novel published, which must be an exciting time- any trepidation? (Not that we’re trying to imply that you should have).
CCF: No, it’s exciting! I’m saving up all the trepidation for finishing the second novel.
R&N: So, what’s the novel about?
CCF: Am I allowed to crib from the dust jacket or do I have to reinvent the spiel?
R&N: Crib away….
CCF: A baby is taken from a castle under siege and raised by trolls after losing his human protectors. Named Maggot, because he was small and white and wouldn’t make a mouthful when they found him, he grows up and leaves the trolls to return to people like himself. He discovers both love and friendship, only to be swept up in a war that will make him choose between the two.
R&N: What’s the first line?
CCF: Bran entered the great hall still wearing the stolen wolf costume, battered mask tucked beneath his arm.
R&N: What did you set out to achieve with The Prodigal Troll?
CCF:I wanted to tell an entertaining story. I wanted to take old stories I liked, like Mowgli and Tarzan, and do something different with them. I wanted to look at the contradictions we live with as fantasy readers: we profess a belief in democracy yet our heroes are inevitably from the nobility, lords and queens and lost princes — I wanted to look at a character in a situation who has reason to question that arrangement. But mostly I wanted to have fun.
R&N: There’s a buzz around the publication of Wild Things by Subterranean Press. Ever have to pinch yourself to see if you’re going to wake up?
CCF: I’ve got bruises.
R&N: Earlier we touched on the fact that you’ve had fiction in Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Year’s Best Science Fiction, and The Year’s Best Fantasy. Not too many writers have achieved that. The Prodigal Troll is obviously a Fantasy – what’s your preferred genre.
CCF: My preferred genre is speculative fiction — that includes all of those, right?
R&N: Okay, so why did you choose Fantasy as a vehicle for your first novel?
CCF: Actually, I chose alternate history as a vehicle for my first novel. It just wasn’t a very good novel.
I wish the fantasy choice was part of some diabolical plan to conquer publishing. “Step 1: Write best-selling fantasy novel. Step 2: Join secret cabal with Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, and George R. R. Martin. Step 3: Spread nasty rumors to tarnish popularity of J. K. Rowling and steal her readers.” But it doesn’t work like that.
Instead I had a story bouncing around in my head that just wouldn’t settle down. So I had to write it.
R&N: Mmmn, wish those three steps could be bottled and sold…. Fantasy can be maligned, with some readers having strong pre-perceptions before they even pick up a novel, do you think that’s a positive or a negative thing?
CCF: Is there any genre that’s not maligned by somebody? Is there any kind of novel that some readers somewhere don’t have strong pre-perceptions about?
I was going to write a postmodern magic realist murder mystery techno-thriller historical romance about a college English professor having an affair. Just to try to appeal to a bigger audience. But I ended up writing a fantasy instead.
R&N: Oh well, you’ve always got that as a back up – What makes The Prodigal Troll different from other fantasies?
CCF: The giant ground sloth!
Oh, wait, that’s the second novel.
I know I’m supposed to have a nifty little handle to give you so you can latch on to the high concept of the book. But it’s really the whole package. I take familiar tropes and character types and, I hope, do some unexpected and entertaining things with them.
R&N: Many of your short stories have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and it’s not hard to find complimentary comments about your writing from the Editor, how important have people like Gordon Van Gelder been to your career?
CCF: It’s been essential. Gordon Van Gelder has helped the careers of so many writers in the past few years: M. Rickert, Alex Irvine, Yoon Ha Lee, Laird Barron, Ben Rosenbaum. I’m forgetting others. I know at one point a couple years ago he was publishing more new writers than any of the other major markets. So I’m just another one of those writers. He bought my first story out of the slush pile. He gave me two covers in one year. I’m not the only writer he’s done things like that for. He gave me crap about sloppy writing, especially my commas, and made me improve. I owe something to every editor who’s ever bought a story from me, and to a few who haven’t. But without Gordon, I don’t know where I would have gotten my foot in the door.
The other person who’s been important to me is Ellen Key Harris-Braun. Ellen was an editor at Del Rey and convinced them to sponsor the Online Writing Workshop. I was unpublished and not improving and didn’t know why when I joined the Del Rey Workshop. Suddenly I was around a group of writers who were much better than me and headed places: in the first year, people on the workshop included Jim Butcher, Cecilia Dart-Thornton, Karin Lowachee, and James Allison, who’s been published here at Ideo. New writers of the same caliber keep pouring in year after year. Without OWW, I wouldn’t have improved enough to sell that first story to Gordon. And after I started selling stories, she hired me to admin the workshop, which has also been an important and positive experience for me.
R&N: Humor seems to permeate a lot of your short stories, which can be difficult for a writer to do well, is this something that you naturally gravitate towards?
CCF: I’m attracted to characters who have a sense of humor. But then I’m attracted to people with a sense of humor, so that’s no surprise. The humorous situations in my stories usually arise, I hope, out of the characters and their place in the world.
R&N: One of your first published works was “Footnotes,” a unique story, which really got you noticed. Tell us a little more about the origins of that story.
CCF: Too many years of graduate school played a big part in it. But I remember that I had just read Bruce Sterling’s “Our Neural Chernobyl,” which is a review of a (nonexistent) nonfiction book written in the future. I’d also been reading some Stanislav Lem, who wrote similar book reviews and was the inspiration for Sterling. So the conceit of footnotes came to me, and it seemed like a powerful metaphor for the millions of unnamed characters who often fall victim to science fictional disasters. There’s a nod toward Sterling and Lem in one of the footnotes in the story.
I think that explanation is longer than the story was.
R&N: Is it important to receive positive reviews?
CCF: It’s important to receive reviews. Even negative reviews are better than silence, because they make people aware of your writing. The number one reason readers buy novels is because they’ve read other novels by that same author. You can see the problem when it’s your first novel coming out. So anything that makes readers aware you’re out there — a great cover, reviews, word of mouth–it’s all good.
R&N: So you’ve written poetry, short stories, novels, novellas, even the odd interview – where does your heart really lie?
CCF: When I was twelve or thirteen years old, I used to imagine being a novelist like Edgar Rice Burroughs. I recall making lists of the titles of the series and novels I wanted to write. I had a lot of other dreams, like writing and drawing comic books. But when I thought of becoming a writer, I thought of novels. Despite that, I found my voice writing short stories, and I’ve grown to love them. I hope that after a few more novels, I’ll come to feel the same way about them too.
R&N: What is your most satisfying piece of work?
CCF: It might be “We Come Not to Praise Washington.” There are passages in there that reference the early American fiction of Charles Brockden Brown and James Fenimore Cooper that still make me smile when I reread them. (See, even the first American novelists had three names!) I also went out of my way to get the history right. I remember Gordon had already bought the story and he asked me to show Aaron Burr sealing the letter he wrote. When you think of sealing letters, everyone thinks wax. But I wanted to get it right, so I checked with library collections, some antiquities dealers, and some historians in the period to see if anyone knew exactly how Burr sealed his letters. It took me two days, but I found that almost all the surviving examples of his correspondence were sealed with inexpensive isinglas wafers made from fish skins. I was lucky Gordon is a patient editor. But I remember wanting to get the history right, and many of the minor characters come from wood block prints or other historical records. I ran up $28 in interlibrary loan fines during the six weeks I was writing. That was another story that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. A lot of those details won’t be appreciated by anyone but me, but I felt a real pride in that story when it was finished. I haven’t written anything else yet that felt as dense, or gave me the same feeling of accomplishment. “Wild Thing” is close. I think it’s a good reading and alternative explanation of the source material surrounding the origins of Percival. My subconscious worked on those myths for almost twenty years after the first time I read Chretien de Troyes and tried to make sense of everything left between the lines. Of course, all those things are irrelevant if the stories aren’t also good reads. But that’s the reason those two are the first and last stories in the collection coming out from Subterranean.
I’m still too close to The Prodigal Troll to be able to judge it yet. I’ll have to see if readers get what I was trying to do, if they enjoy it.
R&N: What comes after publication of The Prodigal Troll?
CCF: I head off to Clarion to teach week 2!
R&N: Do you find teaching as rewarding for you as it is for the students?
CCF: Can I get back to you on that? Say, around the end of June.
R&N: Talking of education, you studied English at Oxford, how different did you find it from studying in an American College?
CCF: I’m the first male in my family to graduate from high school. And to be honest, there were times when that was a near thing. My father was a dropout, and in my grandfather’s day, of course, everybody left school after the eighth grade to go to work on the farm or doing manual labor. Nobody before me had gone to college. So I didn’t have role models for doing that, and when I went off to Ohio State, I was entirely unprepared. I didn’t have the study skills or background or support network to succeed. I failed a lot of classes, I was trying to work fulltime as a painting subcontractor to pay my way, and I was ready to drop out.
I went to New College at Oxford for a study abroad program the summer after my junior year. I loved The Great Gatsby–you know how Gatsby made a thing about being an Oxford man, had his picture taken in front of the gate, but Nick had his doubts about it. I always figured Gatsby was over there on the equivalent of a study abroad program. I know it’s dumb and romantic, but I’d never been out of the country before and wanted to do the same thing.
Anyway, the way the program was set up, with lectures and tutors, suited my skills and my style of learning. I loved it. And New College surrounds the oldest remaining section of the old city wall built by William the Conqueror. There was something about walking past that in the gardens beyond the quad every morning, and seeing a stone wall behind the row of blue delphiniums, that was a part of history, that had a powerful effect on me. I fell in love with history and with architecture, and when I came back I switched majors and stayed in school for another couple years. My GPA was so dismal that eventually, when I began thinking about graduate school, I transferred to Capital University to graduate. I liked the smaller classes and smaller faculty at Capital, which reminded me of the feel of the program at Oxford.
So Oxford turned me around and gave back to me a love of learning, a second chance. I’ve been lucky like that my whole life: whenever I really needed an opportunity, it showed up for me. In any case, if you’re still out there Robert Parry and Wade Dyke, thank you.
R&N: Let’s talk about inspiration. It seems that the muse has countless incarnations. Authors cite movies, TV, current affairs et al as inspiration to write. What motivates Charles Coleman Finlay to sit down in front of a blank screen every day?
CCF: Ben Rosenbaum told me once that he keeps a sign above his desk that says “Writing is chocolate.” It’s a treat, and a privilege, to be able to able to do something I really love. I’m going to try to enjoy it for as long as it lasts.
R&N: Tell the readers something they couldn’t possibly know about you already.
CCF: I’m late for work today because I’m at home doing this interview. Shhh. Don’t tell my boss.
R&N: Fantastic. We won’t tell. You do work for the John Glenn Institute; what type of organization is it? Do their aims and aspirations coincide with any of the themes in your writings?
CCF: The John Glenn Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at the Ohio State University sponsors leadership and public service programs at every level, from high school programs, to college living learning programs, to Washington internships, to candidate training programs for people running for public office for the first time. It’s an amazing institution, and there’s a merger underway with the School of Public Policy and Management that would turn the combined unit into the John Glenn School. I hope to see that happen. They’ve got brilliant new facilities, full of memorabilia from Glenn’s life, including his trips into space. That alone makes it an inspiring place for a science fiction writer to work.
In The Prodigal Troll, the trolls that raise the boy Maggot practice simple democracy, and the mountain people that Maggot joins when he leaves the trolls practice consensus democracy. These are contrasted against the aristocratic rule under which Maggot had been born. So I’m interested in themes of democracy and service, and that’s come through in some of my other stories as well. But there’s no explicit connection.
R&N: In your opinion what makes a novel worthwhile?
CCF: It’s different things for different readers, and different things in different books. For me, most of the time, characters and narrative pacing are the two most important things, with beautiful prose and nifty ideas or compelling themes coming up close behind tied for third. But if a novel does any one of those things brilliantly, it can be enough for me.
R&N: Who/What do you read for pleasure?
CCF: Everything I can get my hands on!
This year I’m on the jury for the Philip K. Dick Award, so I’m reading a lot of interesting original paperback novels, more than I usually would. There are a lot of blank spots in my reading background as well, which I’m always trying to fill in. Right now, I’m reading The Best of Cordwainer Smith. He was doing far future post-human outer space stories fifty years ago, before anyone coined the term singularity. There’s some amazing stuff in there. I’m also an unapologetic fan of Lois McMaster Bujold — I think her books are just plain fun. I’m looking forward to The Hallowed Hunt.
R&N: Thinking of other people’s work – can you pinpoint a particular piece of writing that has enriched your life?
CCF: There are so many books, at so many moments in my life. I’ve told this story before. In the small town where I grew up there was this big square Carnegie Library sitting on a bump of a hill downtown by the middle school. The children’s library was in the basement, and the summer I was ten years old I was bored with the kids’ books. So I went up this narrow flight of steps to the adult section of the library, with its tall rows of dark wooden shelves, and I walked through them, neck craned back and canted sideways to read the spines on the books. I pulled Tarzan of the Apesout because I recognized the name. It was one of the Grosset and Dunlap hardcover reprints, smaller than today’s hard-covers. The smell of those yellowed pages, many decades old even at that time, comes back to me every time I think of that book. For a lot of personal reasons, I fell in love with that story, and fell in love with reading. From that moment on, I was reading every novel I could get my hands on. There have been other books that were just as important, but you never forget your first real kiss. You know? I wrote an essay about it in high school that got me sent to a special gifted program one summer.
A couple years ago, when I was working on The Prodigal Troll, M. Rickert bought me an early edition of a Grosset and Dunlap Tarzan, complete with dust jacket, which was long gone from the one I read at the library. It’s one of the few books I have as an artifact instead of something actively to read.
R&N: What would the one piece of advice be that you’d give a would-be writer?
CCF: There’s no one-size-fits-all piece of useful advice that benefits every writer. I’ve been admin at the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror for the past four or five years, and I’ve seen at maybe a hundred writers go from nothing to pro sales. Different writers need different advice. Some need to read a whole lot more. Some need to stop reading and write more. Some writers really need to focus on refining fundamental skills. Other writers need to stop being so technically perfect and get in touch with something they really care about. For some, you just need to say “don’t quit, persevere.”
It’s not really advice, because everyone knows it already and it doesn’t help anyone write better, but you should remember to have fun when you write. You never know if something is going to get published, if it’s published whether it’s going to get read, or if it’s read that it’s had any effect on the readers — even though that’s what we all hope for. Let go of that, and enjoy the process of writing, or of rewriting, or whatever part of it is most satisfying to you. Enjoy that while you’re doing it, and set that apart from everything else that comes after.
R&N: How do you relax?
CCF: I like long walks on the beach in the moonlight holding hands while singing karaoke… Um. I relax by reading, exercising, hanging out with friends or chatting on IM, pretty much in that order. And I love doing stuff with my kids — watching movies, tossing a football or kicking a soccer ball, going swimming. All the normal stuff. When I’ve had a rough day, I’ll stop for Denise’s Ice Cream, winner in 2002 of an award for Best Ice Cream in the United States. Although that was before they moved from Boston to Columbus. Mmm, ice cream. Cheesecake ice cream, mmm.
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.
Since the 60’s Larry Niven has been at the top of the Hard SF tree and with the release of his latest novel, Ringworld’s Children, he continues to demonstrate why. We managed to catch up with him during its release and ask him a few questions.
Robert D. Rowntree & Lisa Negus: Larry, thanks for taking time out to talk to us. Huge constructs or detailed and realistic cosmological environments are iconic statements of your writing and have become synonymous with the name Niven. Modern astronomy discovers more each day, yet in recent novels (Destiny’s Road, The Burning City, Saturn’s Race) you’ve gone for more character-driven stories. Do the wonders of the cosmos still hold their interest?
Larry Niven: I always did my best with my characters. They’ve always deserved my best. I’m getting better at that, I hope. But the cosmos grows more interesting and more detailed every day.
R&N: Your latest solo novel is Ringworld’s Children. What inspired you to return to Ringworld, a place you first introduced over 30 years ago?
LN: I lurked in the larryniven-l website on advice of my agent. They were asking questions I thought I could answer, and they had answers that were just a little bit off. They got me off and running.
R&N: In The Integral Trees, Smoke Ring, and Ringworld’s Throne, you gave some of your characters illnesses and complaints which you’ve experienced yourself. Has the process of writing about these things been cathartic?
LN: Yeah. Writing my problems into my books makes them more bearable. I hadn’t realized it at first. It’s not a habit I want to encourage; the story really should come first.
R&N: In your novel, Oath of Fealty (written with Jerry Pournelle), you predicted the arrival of gated-communities. Do you foresee a situation where education, policy and welfare are dictated by a two-tier society?
LN: Societies that try to be two-tiered always wind up multi-tiered, until almost everyone is enslaved to someone. Freedom is fragile. I vote Libertarian.
R&N: You were involved in The Space Defense Initiative, which culminated in the bankruptcy of the Soviet Union. Are you or have you been involved in other similar schemes?
LN: Not until lately. I’m involved, a little, in Spacewatch and trying to keep the planet safe from giant meteoroid impacts. Civilization has matured enough that we can, and should, act to protect the Earth. Mind you, the goal is large, my involvement is small.
R&N: Can you give us more detail on your involvement in The Space Defense Initiative?
LN: Basically, Jerry [Pournelle] put it together; we met at my house; our intent was to bring the human race into space.
The SDI was a logical consequence. Jerry had to make all our papers coherent and ready to present to Reagan’s Science Advisor. It ate into a lot of his life. We pushed and kept pushing, and the Soviets were driven bankrupt by a science fiction story developed at the Niven house, not to mention the consequences of their own socialist folly.
R&N: Privacy and its erosion are close to the heart of SF writers. David Brin has written extensively about it, and in a recent interview you said, ‘Privacy may be a passing fad.’ Is this a positive or negative step for society? Do you think society can handle the transparency?
LN: Society can certainly handle the loss of privacy. It is a recent concept, a few hundred years old. Kings and peasants never expected privacy in the old days. In small societies, people used to be expected to meddle. The trick to individual survival is to keep your pride when everything interesting about your life can be known by anyone.
This puts many politicians at a horrible disadvantage. Our election system is going to have to adjust.
R&N: With the Berkeley SETI program still active, and many of us participating in their screen saver search for signals, have you got a stance on extraterrestrial intelligence?
LN: The star-travelling aliens become less likely the harder you look. In a 13.7 billion year old universe, any intelligent tool user might be a billion years advanced beyond Earth. If they existed, they should be more obvious and they should be more powerful. I’m willing they shall prove me wrong.
But SETI is looking for leakage of a signal; for inefficiency. Our broadcasting of our presence in the universe is about to disappear as our systems grow more efficient. The aliens don’t get cable.
R&N: Your support of space exploration is well documented. Do you see bureaucracy as a major problem in national and multi-national space efforts? Or, as with Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites forging ahead with its White Knight/Spaceship One project, does the future of space exploration lie with private enterprise, tourism and industry?
LN: Beats me. I’ve spent a lot of my life supporting private spaceflight as best I could. Response, until the X-prize was announced, was sluggish.
Some of us are going to try to generate some goal-oriented X-prizes.
R&N: You have written many collaborations over the years — was moving towards collaborations a conscious decision?
LN: I tried it with David Gerrold. I was trying everything in my novice days. Collaborating turned out to be fun. Sure it was a conscious decision. I greatly admire Frederik Pohl’s collaborations with Cyril Kornbluth, Jack Williamson, and other golden age greats.
R&N: It’s not to every author’s taste. What do you find the benefits are?
LN: Collaborating is less lonely than solo flights. They’re also more work, by around 60%, which means that the finished product has to be 60% more valuable to be worthwhile. And of course I need a collaborator who will do 80% of the work…as I do.
R&N: Is there any truth in the rumor about some future work with Gregory Benford?
LN: Greg has a big structure, on the order of Ringworld size. We’re writing around that.
R&N: Brenda Cooper is another of your collaborators, and we believe there’s a novel on the way, Building Harlequin’s Moon. Are you giving anything away on that project?
LN: Used to be Creation Myth but our editor said that sounded like a religious tract. It’s about a terraforming project, taking place in the wrong solar system, using the wrong tools.
R&N: Your new Ringworld novel created a buzz of anticipation as its publication date drew closer. Do you like to get out and about among your fans? Any major dates lined up for this year to promote the new Ringworld novel?
LN: I’m booked as Guest of Honor at way too many conventions this year. Whether that helps promote the book, I’ve never quite known. I do it for fun.
R&N: Your fans obviously mean a lot to you. You went so far as to put them at the center of the action in Fallen Angels (written with Jerry Pournelle and Michael Flynn) and you regularly take part in online chats. Has your readership has changed over the years? Many fans have written to you regarding your invented locals and suggested alterations–plot holes and mistakes plus their remedies. Is this something you encourage?
LN: Sure, I encourage the game of picking holes in the author’s story and rebuilding around them. It’s fun. It sometimes generates stories.
Has my readership changed? They grow up. Some grew old; some tell me I got them interested in generating scientific careers. As for “Fallen Angels”, we did it for them: a gift to fandom as well as a civilization saver. It’s been way more successful than we expected.
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?
LN: I can’t sell books one at a time. There are certainly people who won’t read science fiction; some of them are librarians, and that’s a pity. I once spent time persuading a few hundred librarians that 1984 and Brave New World are science fiction, and I believe I failed. The best I can do is to tell stories as well as I can.
As far as that goes, I don’t read only SF. Do I need to persuade people to read? Those who read will rule. Learning to read does something important to your brain structure.
R&N: If you could recommend one really great read to that person, what would it be and why?
LN: Lucifer’s Hammer. I’ve become convinced the giant meteoroid impact is a real threat that we really could do something about. Also, it’s as good a story as I’ve ever told.
R&N: There are many future projects listed at one of your fan sites. Can you tell us about some of them?
LN: Turned in: Ringworld’s Children, June 04; Burning Tower with Jerry Pournelle, January 05; The Magic Goes Away Omnibus, also January 05; Building Harlequin’s Moon with Brenda Cooper; The Draco Tavern Stories.
I’ve been working on almost nothing. I’ve written short stories, and I’ve played at outlining novels with collaborators, which may jell into bigger projects.
R&N: Recently the SciFi Channel announced plans for a miniseries based on the Ringworld novels. Are you involved with the project?
LN: Nobody has attempted to involve me in any way. I hope it’s real.
R&N: Are there any other motion picture/TV projects in the pipeline? Can you tell us a little of your involvement in this type of medium?
LN: I’ve written a Star Trek cartoon and three Land of the Lost episodes, long ago. Land of the Lost is now available on DVD, with commentary by authors and by the story editor, David Gerrold. “The Slaver Weapon” I last watched with German voice-over, at a convention in Germany.
R&N: We often hear of genre critics touting their own definitions of science fiction, but what about from a writer’s point of view, how would you set about defining the genre?
LN: First, don’t go to a librarian.
Second, SF stories sprawl all over the map. They only have one thing in common, and I had to search hard for it. This is the universal presumption: There are minds that think as well as yours does, but differently.
R&N: How do you respond to claims that science fiction often lacks imagination with regard to narrative technique, as opposed to its imagination with regard to ideas?
LN: I try to write better than that. Even so, Sturgeon’s Law holds: 90% of everything is crap.
R&N: Fantasy is also often dismissed by the critics as ‘impure’ and for its heavy reliance on folklore, yet it maintains an avid audience. Fans of science fiction are not always fantasy fans. As some of your own novels are classified in the fantasy genre, how do you reconcile differences between the two genres? What can a fantasy novel offer that a science fiction novel cannot?
LN: Sometimes I too want to play tennis without the net. What good fantasy usually offers are universals. If you’re telling a story that could never have happened, past, future, or sideways, then you’d best be telling a universal truth.
R&N: What does science fiction mean to you, and why do you think it remains so popular with readers?
LN: Science fiction is fantasy with borders. If you like to stretch your mind, you’ll read science fiction. You’ll read fantasy too, when you feel like playing tennis without the net.
R&N: You once said that your characters were all tourists. If you were a tour-operator in the universe of your published fiction, which five destinations would you recommend? And why?
LN: Oh, I’d just bounce around. Most of my domains are flawed paradises, highly scenic. I’d certainly want to visit Fafnir/Shasht, the Draco Tavern, Hovestraydt City on the Moon, Mount Lookitthat after the revolution, and the House of the Patriarch’s Past on Kzin (given proper reassurances).
R&N: Which other authors impress you and why?
LN: John Barnes, Stephen Baxter, Bruce Sterling: the more recent hard science fiction writers are way out there. I’m a Terry Pratchett fan. I loved Lonesome Dove, though it’s a straight western. I read anything by Tim Powers. Brin’s Earth was a great read.
R&N: Which piece of your own work means the most to you?
LN: I don’t have a favourite work. They all seemed worth writing. Footfall got the biggest advance, Lucifer’s Hammer and Ringworld get the most feedback, The Integral Trees is probably the best science fiction and Destiny’s Road the best novel. “Man of Steel/Woman of Kleenex” has gotten me the most giggles.
R&N: How much influence, have editors and agents had on your finished work?
LN: A great deal. Editors and agents are your friends; listen to them.
R&N: What are your current biggest influences in your fiction writing?
LN: I’m still waiting to find out. Maybe the info that comes in via the Internet. It seems there are people who want to keep me up to date on the subjects my books have tackled. My wife Marilyn tears the most interesting stuff out of various magazines for me. It always takes some time before some bit of data sparks an idea.
R&N: How have those changed over the years?
LN: They haven’t, not really.
R&N: Sticking with your early years as a writer, how did you get started on what was destined to be a hugely successful and prolific career?
LN: I wrote, and I bothered editors, until I sold something. I also took a correspondence course. An actor has said that most of becoming a success involves just showing up.
R&N: What are the biggest literary changes you’ve seen since you started publishing? Do you think that there has been any variation in publishing standards over that time?
LN: Hard to say. I haven’t had trouble selling my work since the beginning. I’ve always heard that the middle ranks are in serious trouble and so are the publishers. Details vary. Congress has passed some tax laws that make the backlist (the books you wrote when you were younger) far too expensive for publishers. The book distribution system has been vandalized.
The Internet has changed things a lot. In particular it’s become easier to collaborate with someone who doesn’t live next door.
R&N: And how about yourself? How have you changed as a writer during that time?
LN: I like to think I’ve gotten better and more versatile. I’m still a bit of a dilettante: I have to wait for inspiration, or somehow dig it up.
R&N: When some authors get up in a morning, they have a structure to their day – like working a regular job. Others hit the keyboard as soon as inspiration strikes. One (very successful) author that we’ve spoken to admitted that when about to embark on a new novel, he will do anything rather than write. What makes up a typical Larry Niven day?
LN: I get breakfast, and then go to my computer. Then my email sucks me in and wastes my morning. I have to exert myself to begin writing. Maybe there’s a hike, maybe there’s a yoga class. Evening, we probably go out to dinner. I should work at night, maybe, but I usually don’t.
R&N: We all know how tough it is for a rookie to find publication with a decent magazine – any advice for the dreamers out there?
LN: My first sale was to Worlds of If, which boasted a novice writer in every issue (the up side of an editor having no money.) That’s no longer an option. But it’s still true that the editorial address is published in every issue of every magazine. Just keep sending in the stories, trying the decent magazines first.
R&N: When you sit down to write a new novel, what kind of process do you go through from the germ of an idea to a full blown text; for example, can you take us through some of the major steps involved in putting Ringworld’s Children together.
LN: With Ringworld’s Children, Eleanor Wood led me to a website that studies my works. They were arguing about whether Teela Brown could have had a child, and what you’d get if you cloned a protector. Their answers were a little off. Otherwise I’d have had nothing to say.
I took off from there and started outlining. I added in everything I’d been wanting to say about the Ringworld, Ringworld design, Ringworld societies, evolution, a lot of leftover uncertainties from known space. After I’d written a bit, I turned it over to my agent to sell. And kept writing.
It came out shorter than I expected. That worried me a little. I’d rather give readers a bargain. But everything turns concise and under-redundant when I’m thinking like a protector.
R&N: Larry, you’ve written many novels and short stories in the science fiction and fantasy genres–which type of fiction do you find the most rewarding to write?
LN: I seem to like them all. I go where inspiration pops up.
R&N: How about to read?
LN: Again, I seem to like them all, though I mostly read science fiction.
R&N: You maintain a steady output of short fiction – how do you fit this in around the novel writing?
LN: Stories come in their own lengths. Nobody should give up short stories: they keep my writing tight, even though the money is in novels.
R&N: We would like to thank Larry Niven for his time. Ringworld’s Children, ISBN 0-76530167-9 is published by Tor and available from all good retailers.
Since 1980, David Brin has published countless novels, short stories, articles, works of non-fiction, and has maintained a public speaking programme that would give most of us nightmares.
His new graphic novel The Life Eaters is drawing critical acclaim. A collection of short fiction, Tomorrow Happens, recently hit the bookshelves, and Kiln People, his latest novel, is drawing favourable attention at the latest round of awards.
Despite all this, and with a young family to boot, we learn that he has also managed to found time to launch a new software company. Maybe David has somehow managed to turn the concept of his novel, Kiln People into a reality and has indeed found a way to replicate himself several times over. We persuaded him, or at least one of him, to take some time out to discuss his work.
Rowntree & Negus: David, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us. We’d like to kick off the interview by asking about your formative years as a writer. Should we have the image of a struggling, penniless author, burning up the wee small hours, or is the truth something else entirely?
David Brin: I suppose one reason that I’m known as an ‘optimistic’ author is that I perceive quite well how much luckier I’ve been than my ancestors (My grandfather had to walk home across Siberia after fighting in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905). Growing up in the lower middle class of Los Angeles in the 1950s was not easy. Horrible smog. Bad dentistry. Constant fear of nuclear annihilation. And nearby reminders of genuine poverty. But they beat the past. And all of those things are better now, of course.
Sure, I had struggles. Family crises. Had to wrestle with my muse at night while working by day. Taught myself the tools of discipline that must accompany inspiration, if it is to thrive.
But really, isn’t the struggling artist kind of a cliché by now? Don’t other people have their problems too? You can count on artists to glorify their travails and minimise how much they benefited from sheer luck — and the decency of others.
All told, I had my share of good luck along with bad. The first work I ever submitted — my novel Sundiver — was accepted right out of the post.
R&N: Do you think that fledgling writers have a harder time of it now? How have standards changed in the relatively short time since you first made your mark in the field?
DB: Progress gives…and it takes away. A more open and educated and richer society can allow ever-larger fractions of the popularity to have hobbies in the arts. Hobbies that enrich lives. But the best hobbyists want more. To move into professional status. As I did in 1980 with my first novel.
Great. Only a flood of bright newcomers cannot help but dilute the attention and rewards given to those entering artistic professions! If I must choose, I prefer a world that opens a myriad opportunities. But everything has a price.
R&N: Any advice for our would-be writers?
DB: I have gathered years of advice at http://www.davidbrin.com/advicearticle.html.
R&N: So, what, in your eyes, makes a worthwhile novel?
DB: Being fair with the reader, delivering on the plot threads that you laid down from the beginning, while still managing to spring the kind of surprises that your customers find most satisfying. Those that were well foreshadowed, but still leave the reader saying — “dang!”
And yes, it helps to use craftsmanship in writing to deliver insights to the human condition. Characters deserve some life. They work hard. Listen to them.
R&N: There’s a trend in the publishing world of trying placing SF authors into a sort of thriller-cross-over niche. For example, Greg Bear’s recent novels, some of Paul McAuley’s material and, to some extent, your own Kiln People (published in Britain with a non-genre cover and having the word thriller emblazoned on the jacket). Is this something you welcome or do you see it as yet another attempt to pigeon SF as ‘geeks’ genre?
DB: Publishers have their reasons. I don’t mind reaching out. The Sci-Fi people know where to find me.
Anyway, you will never see me acting all snooty and denying my roots in SF.
R&N: Your non-fiction book, The Transparent Society, and elements of Kiln People deal with our possible future’s lack of privacy. As a scientist, do you perceive this possibility as something we should be concerned with? Is it an issue that you believe we should be dealing with now,rather than later?
DB: Yes. I have been holding up the banner of accountability. A free people must able to use that tool. We are the only people in all of history that could wield it well enough to sometimes even hold the elite and the mighty accountable.
We can only do that if we see. If most of the people know most of what’s going on, most of the time.
R&N: Kiln People has been highly placed in several major polls and awards, proving that not only your readership but your fellow professionals enjoyed the book too. We believe a sequel is in the works, Kiln Time. Can you tell us something about it? And perhaps when it’s scheduled for release?
DB: Progress is slow. But when I finish this interview it’s back to work. (After taking my son to the orthodontist, that is. Dang I wish I could make copies of myself! 😉
R&N: What came first for you? Was it writing or science?
DB: Writing was not my own first choice of a career. True, I came from a family of writers. It was in my blood. But I wanted something else. Not just a spinner of fables but a discoverer of truths. To be a scientist. And by the fates, I became one.
I also had this hobby though — writing stories — and it provided a lot of satisfaction. I always figured that I’d scribble a few stories a year…maybe a novel now and then…while striving to become the best researcher and teacher I could be. Don’t mistake this for modesty! It’s just that I perceive science — the disciplined pursuit of objective truth — to be a higher calling than spinning imaginative tales, no matter how vivid, innovative, or even deeply moving those tales may turn out to be.
R&N: Many readers of this interview will be more familiar with David Brin the novelist, than with David Brin the scientist. Can you give us a brief insight into your world of science, share a little of what makes it a ‘higher calling’?
DB: I did theoretical studies of comets…and my papers predicted later discoveries spot on! (You always brag about the stuff that gets least attention). I’ve also done studies of SETI and information-related technologies. The latter is one reason I spotted a huge gap in the way people are using the Internet to do real-time communications, or ‘chat.’
R&N: When did you know that you wanted to become a writer? Was there one thing in particular that inspired you, or was it more of a gradual realisation that this is what you wanted to do with your life?
DB: It wasn’t my decision. I am better paid to do this (and interviewed by folks like you) than I ever was to be a seeker-of-scientific-truth. Look, I am grateful to have had two ways to contribute. Civilisation chose one of them to value. Who am I to argue with civilisation?
And if that answer sounds unconventional or weird, fine. Because that is the core thing that entertainers and provocateurs are paid to do. To provoke new thoughts. I am paid for that, too.
R&N: Can you tell us about the first piece you ever wrote?
DB: You mean published? Sundiver is a murder mystery set in the the future. I tell my writing students, no matter what genre you want to work in, start with a murder mystery. It is the form that trains you to craft a basic story well, developing a consistent plot that doesn’t cheat the reader, delivering everything you imply or promise.
People say that aspect of Sundiver seems to work pretty well.
R&N: You say that Sundiver was the first work you submitted,and it was accepted straight away. Had you been writing other material beforehand, which you didn’t submit and now have squirreled away?
DB: I have this great big comedy…a sci-fi ha-ha that I haven’t dared to publish. I read it aloud sometimes and audiences are in stitches. But comedy is scary. It is so hard to do well.
R&N: If science and writing were not an option, what else would you have done with your life?
DB: I was a pretty good teacher. I liked that.
R&N: You’re also very much in demand as public speaker,what part does that play in your life?
DB: It drags me all over the world. Really, gab can be a curse. But the audiences seem to find it entertaining and it can pay pretty well.
R&N: The Uplift novels are possibly the novels you’re best noted for; your fan’s passion for them ensures their continued readership. On your website, you mention that your story “Temptation”, first published in Robert Silverberg’s anthology, Far Horizons, (and reproduced on your website) is the basis for the next Uplift novel. Is that getting close to realisation?
DB: Not super close. I have been so busy with non-fiction works, inventions, speaking…plus that incredible graphic novel project for DC, The Life Eaters.
I suppose that’s one reason I wrote Kiln People…out of a wish I could split up and be in two places at once!
R&N: Do you see the series as an on-going work? Something that you’ll often return to?
DB: I love the Uplift Universe, but I can’t do just one thing. I do hope to get back to Tom & Creideiki and other Uplift adventures, but first some other projects. There are a couple of gifts for Uplift fans along the way — as you mention —downloadable at http://www.davidbrin.com
R&N: With the mystery of the Streaker’s discovery resolved, will you take the Uplift universe in a different direction?
R&N: Any other plans to diversify?
DB: Argh. Aren’t I diversified enough? I just started my own software company! (Looking for investors, too! ;-))
R&N: A software company? Wow, impressive stuff. With all of this going on, and with a family to raise, what do you do to relax?
DB:I grant interviews.
R&N: Fair enough. In the past, you’ve mentioned that some readers just want the same types of novel that they’ve read before and are reluctant to experience different material.
DB: Those aren’t my readers. Mine say, “Take me someplace I’ve never been before!”
R&N: Which piece of your own work means the most to you, and why?
DB: I cannot pick one of my children above others. But that metaphor does let me brag about their strong points.
Earth is my intellectual child, earnest and thoughtful about the planet and our near future.
Glory Season is my bold daughter, who takes on adventures, penetrates mysteries and cannot be kept down.
The Postman is my son who won’t give up on hope.
Kiln People is the smart-aleck kid who is always ready with a pun, and willing to take on the strangest of the strange….
…and so on. My real kids don’t seem to mind these comparisons,by the way. They are all working on black belts. Confident little whipper-snappers. Put up with Dad.
R&N: Nice analogy. So what about the other side of the coin? Is there something you’ve written which with hindsight could have been better?
DB: Always! My aphorism — the basic philosophy underlying both my fiction and non-fiction – is CITOKATE: “Criticism is the Only Known Antidote to Error.”
Look at the back of every book. At least 40 names of pre-readers who helped me notice/catch stupidities before the book was set in type. Few authors continue this habit after they gain status. But I figure, why stop doing the very thing that brought me to the party? It’s called quality control.
And yet I keep a file of glitches that people later find…grrrr.
R&N: What about other people’s work? Is there any particular piece of writing that you’ve found enriching?
DB: Goldman’s The Princess Bride is one of those stories you can read aloud to your kids. I admire that. Aldous Huxley was underrated even in his own time. Non-fiction like Melvin Konner’s The Tangled Wing can make you feel for the predicament of human beings…essentially jumped-up apes who can destroy the world, but who also have ambitions to become like angels.
R&N: We’ve briefly touched on the publication of your two graphic novels (The Life Eaters and Forgiveness). With these, you’ve taken a step into a totally ‘new’ genre. What prompted you to enter this arena? When you look at them against the traditional novel, what merits do you think they display?
DB: Writing a big graphic novel is like directing a little movie! The script is similar, and then you deal with artists, designers, and technicians. I really feel that I have had an apprenticeship in cinema.
R&N: Changes in lifestyle, advancements in technology, and accessibility to the Internet has given rise to a new generation of publishing, where quality can seem to take second place to quantity. It has suddenly become very easy, very cheap, and ultimately very accessible. As a futurist, what do you foresee for the written word?
DB: I foresee technology liberating guys like me, to not only write fiction but to direct more complex efforts.
Think about it. In a few years, it will be trivial for a very small team of maybe five people to create a feature length animated film. The one aspect that cannot be technologically simplified is the actual writing. If this happens before I get wheeled into the Home, it should be an absurdly fun time!
R&N: As well as writing, science, public speaking and granting the occasional interview, you’re also well known for your articles, in which you seem to enjoy putting a controversial view forward, arguing your case with passion, clarity, and humour. You have on occasion upset fans of both Star Wars and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings by delving into their symbolism and social orientation. Do you enjoy the debate these broadsides create? Or is it more of a stand for quality, logic and better understanding that drives your desire to write these essays?
DB: Punditry and public speaking have been a fun and lucrative sideline. And some of the things I have said in defence of much-maligned modernism have long needed saying, in the face of the knee-jerk impulse to knock our decent civilisation. But I need to remember that nobody will be reading that stuff 100 years from now. I need to stay focused on novels, not interviews and …such…dang, I did it again.
R&N: Do your opinions ever land you in deep water? Or should the question really be: How deep is the water that your opinions have landed you in?
DB: Feh. A few people holler. A couple of Hollywood types have declared a ban on dealings with me. That’s persecution? Talk to my ancestors. Talk to Giordano Bruno, a guy a lot like me, who was burned at the stake exactly 400 years ago. Naw. The dopiest people around are those who indignantly yell persecution when they are having the time of their lives sticking it to the Man.
By all means stick it to him! The Man deserves it. All power centres need accountability.
Just keep your sense of humour. Notice the progress that you are an essential part of.
R&N: We visited our local branch of Waterstones recently and couldn’t help but notice that two whole shelves were dedicated solely to the novels of David Brin. With such an eminent body of work behind you, what drives you to continue?
DB: Novelty. Fun. A chance to help pay back a world that’s been pretty good to me.
That theme of gratitude — plus fear that it might all go away — is inherent in much of my work. The artists and film directors I despise most are those who have had favoured, lucky lives, benefited from a wonderful civilisation, then turn around and express nothing but contempt for the people who have been so good to them.
R&N: One final question (hoping that the answer isn’t ‘bothersome interviewers’), what annoys you?
DB: Ingratitude. People who are supposedly ‘of the people’, but who hold nothing but contempt for the people. I mean, look around. Things are working so well…the water is potable and the traffic lights work. People wave each other ahead at stop signs. Almost nobody steals. Stand on a street corner and notice how many things work, quietly, as sophisticated and educated people co-operate in a zillion little ways.
Face it. Your neighbours simply cannot be as stupid as they look.
Grow up a little. Be a member of a civilisation. Enjoy.
R&N:We would like to thank David Brin very much indeed for his time. His latest novel, Kiln People is available from Tor SF, ISBN0-765-34261-8 and is available from all usual retailers, including www.amazon.com. For a wealth of information on David Brin and his work, it is well worth a visit to his website at www.davidbrin.com.