Interview with author Steve Miller

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am honored to be interviewing Steve Miller today. Steve and I have been on panels together at conventions, and I interviewed his collaborator (and wife) Sharon Lee recently. They started the first Liaden novel in 1984 and have published sixteen novels and several dozen short works together in that series alone, garnering a number of awards as well as invitations as Guests of Honor and Special Guests coast to coast in the US and Canada at many conventions. Their work has enjoyed a number of award nominations, with SCOUT’S PROGRESS being selected for the Prism Award for Best Futuristic Romance of 2001 and LOCAL CUSTOM finishing second for the same award. BALANCE OF TRADE, appeared in hardcover in February 2004 and hit Amazon.com genre bestseller lists before going on to win the Hal Clement Award as Best YA Science fiction for the year. SALTATION is a current nominee for Best SF of the Year on the Goodreads Choice Awards.

Steve, how do you and Sharon work together? What’s the process like?

STEVE MILLER: A madhouse, according to some solo authors.

We often role-play at dinner or after going over the day’s work; sometimes we’ll start driving, get in a discussion of a character or plot point and end up in Canada. The role-playing may involve standing and showing body language, or the raising of voice in character, or the rapid alternation of characters, more or less in voice — I guess, yes, our own madhouse. Sometimes one or another of us will pause at the grocery store, say “storystuff!” and we’ll discuss things right in front of the oatmeal or carrots — story takes precedence.

More prosaically, one of us generally does the typing/sketching of the first draft — Sharon will sometimes retire to the couch and write longhand notes, and I usually work on the netbook or big computer directly, my hand written notes being unreadable the next day. We sometimes switch off in the middle if timing is an issue — neither of us is automatically doing the first run. Generally, the person doing the base work is the “traffic cop” on the book, and is responsible for backing up the book, having the two foot pile of paper in their office, and etc. Since we usually agree on points as the book is written there’s not that much disagreement on things — but the traffic cop gets third vote on a book if there is an impasse about something, thus making calling in the Marines to solve something for us much less likely.

VENTRELLA: What themes do you find yourself revisiting in your work?

MILLER: Oddly enough, or perhaps predictably enough, partnership is one, as is the unreliability of formal education and educational institutions. I note that Sharon and I have both worked in university settings ….

We also tend to stress the need for individuals to have a trusted pool of competent (if not savory) people who they can depend on for advice, at least. I think I also deal with change-as-necessity. We also subscribe to the Andre Norton “there have been prior civilizations” school of thought and all that may be carried forth from there.

VENTRELLA: What makes your work different from others in the genre, in your opinion?

MILLER: I think that I’m a bridge between many of the older ideas and approaches of science fiction and the new, from the old market to the now market. I’ve had breakfast, lunch, dinner, and sometimes a morning or late night glass with writers and editors ranging from John Brunner, Damon Knight, Ted White, and Hal Clement to Roger Zelazny, Jack Chalker, Vonda McIntyre, and Toni Weiskopf; I’ve been to Clarion and I was published in Amazing before the lamented-by-me attempt to turn it into a mediamag. Having talked shop and traded manuscripts with this kind of an array brought me to face to face with idea writers and storytellers. Also, I’ve extrensivly read — not studied, but read and absorbed as a young reader and then a young writer — many of the founders of SF and Fantasy as we know it, both in short fiction and longer fiction. And not just the celebrated classic authors, but the pot-boiling writers to whom story and flow was ghod. Not too long ago I was surprised to see someone recognizably a “name” writer of the 1990s and 2000s assuming to have invented a certain genre … which actually was invented in the 1930s by a famous writer apparently unknown to the “modern” writer. What this means is that I have, and draw on, a breadth of “SF genre” that many newer writers lack — and that some disdain, to their detriment. In other words my meme farm is huge, and I’m not afraid to use it!

VENTRELLA: Everyone who is published was an “aspiring writer” once. What mistakes did you make along the way?

MILLER: How much time do you have? No, seriously, I made a lot in a very short time — especially between the ages of 20 and 24, when I’d been assured by some very good writers that I could probably make it it as a pro someday, based on what they’d seen of my work. They were the fiction writers, of course, because by that age I was already writing for newspapers, magazines, semi-pro zines, anywhere I could — particularly if there was pay involved.

What I didn’t comprehend was that a suggestion by a well-known fiction pro that maybe I should “clean this up and send it on to XXXX magazine” didn’t mean “Tell him I sent you” … and also that once I did get a nibble that I shouldn’t expect instant results, that is, that as a no-name-newbie my work was something that might fill out an issue when it would fit — of course there were more print magazine then and many of the editors had come along as I was coming along, and thought that was how it would work forever — get a foot in, become first a byline, then a signature, then a name, then an invite to write a novel.

Clearly, the biggest mistake I made was lack of patience and in the long run trying to rush things probably cost me a year or two of pro work.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest misconception people have about being a writer?

MILLER: There are several that go together, I think — One is that being a writer is inherently glamorous and the add-on is that being a writer elevates one to a superior state of being, with all the joys thereof.

VENTRELLA: How did you first interest an agent in your work?

MILLER: Accidentally. I was working as “third key” at Williams-Sonoma in Owings Mills, Maryland — meaning I was official management and got to deal with provblems and situations the manager didn’t want to deal with, like book signings and in store demos. Thus, when we had a double whammy of that, it was me in the front line — we had a cookbook author come to the store for a demo! The day before she came we’d gotten an offer on Agent of Change from Own Locke at Del Rey. It turned out that the cookbook author also wrote fiction… and when I mentioned that we had an offer in hand she recommended us to her agent, who looked over (and improved) the contract and got us through the three Del Rey books. Once we had a record getting the next agent was a little easier, but she was uncomfortable dealing with the SF side of things, and eventually we moved on after personal meetings with several agents at conventions and we’re pleased to link up with Jennifer Jackson.

VENTRELLA: What process do you use when creating believable characters?

MILLER: I’m hoping to write a book about this, but not here. Generally there’s no concious prefabrication involved in my new characters — the story starts, the character stands out from stage left or right, and Ta Da! I rarely base a character on someone I’ve met, but it may be on someone I know — that is, based on a character I’ve met in the thousands of books and stories I’ve read. The key to believabilty is not in the original creation, but on how the character acts in the story. A multi-hundred foot tree as a character? No problem. A sentient dragon looking for love? No problem… as long as they act right by who they are and don’t just act like dolls moved form here to there in a dollhouse.

VENTRELLA: What is your background in writing? What led you to wanting to be a writer?

MILLER: I pretty much have wanted to be a writer since I started reading books, and it probably helped that my grandmother was an award-winning poet so the concept of writing for publication had a priority over writing for school from the time I was quite young.

In high school I worked on the school literary magazine several years before becoming editor as a senior and in college I joined the school newspaper in my freshman year as a reporter, and soon took over some editorial duties. I started reviewing for the school paper as well as a number of fanzine and semi-pro genre mags shortly thereafter, and eventually was Managing Editor. I also contributed to poetry publications — which led to my weekly poetry column in a local newspaper by the time I was 23, IIRC. I was the sceince fiction book reviewer for the Baltimore Sun in my mid-20s when I was also a music columnist for the Baltimore area Star newspapers — and that led to me eventually being a features editor and then to taking over as Editor of several weekly papers. The whole time, from about 17, I was also writing fiction, which began appearing in semi-pro magazines and then in Amazing and some other pro places. I did spend some summers working construction, which helped convince me that writing was the way to go when it came to making a living.

VENTRELLA: The publishing industry is changing daily. What trends do you predict and how will this affect the business and your own publishing?

MILLER: Shoot for the moon: I think IPads in he current size will become obsolete in a couple years and theat reading will increase as people have access to phone readers and more reasonably sized and priced tablets. Paper publishing will continue to be a zoo, the current returns system in the US will crumble with in next 5 years as physically moving books becomes too expensive — this will cut down print runs drastically which will cut a lot of small bookstores out of the loop. We’ll keep on writing.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now that we can look forward to?

MILLER: I’m told that between a new yet-to-be-seen novel and new Baen editions of previous novels we have at least six books due out in 2011, so it shouldn’t be hard for a a new reader to find us. Those are all books that are written, however.

In the short term, the new stuff? I’m working on finalizing SKYBLAZE, a novella due out as a chapbook from my own SRM Publisher in February. For those familiar with the Liaden Universe(R) this will span the end of the attack from I DARE and the early SUREBLEAK period and is our holiday chapbook (delayed a bit because of my recent hospitalization and the moving of SRM’s principal office).

Beyond that, we have contracts for three more Liaden novels to be delivered over the next 18 months or so. The first is DRAGON SHIP, which is the follow-on to GHOST SHIP; I have notes on that and once SKYBLAZE is done I’ll do a week of rereading of the series and then start right in — it follows Theo from FLEDGLING, SALTATION, and GHOST SHIP as she deals with the results of her pursuit of a, let us say, nonconforming path to independent starship pilot. Also in the works is an unnamed novel set on a post-Korval-arrival Surebleak and the long-awaited JETHRI follow-on, TRADE SECRET, which, depending on where you started reading the series, is a distant prequel to the Agent sequence or a distant follow-on to the Crystal books.

We’ve also committed to several more short stories for 2011 but I can’t say more than that quite yet.

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