Interview with Hugo nominated author Michael Flynn

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I am pleased to be interviewing Hugo-nominated author Michael Flynn. Mike and I met at the Greater Lehigh Valley Writer’s Group and have run across each other at Philcon and other conventions before, but we’ve never really had a conversation together, so this should resolve that.

Mike, what was your first big break into the business?

MICHAEL FLYNN: I entered a contest by Charlie Ryan, who was editor at the old Galileo magazine. It was for never-before published writers. So I wrote a story “Slan Libh,” about a fellow who has invented a time machine and decides to use it to feed his ancestors during the Irish Potato Famine. Charlie decided to buy it for the magazine instead, which was a larger payment. However, the payment was “due on publication,” and that never happened. Galileo went belly-up. My brothers, ever willing to offer encouragement, suggested the magazine folded because they had been reduced to the desperation of buying my story. For a while, Charlie tried to shop an anthology, but nothing came of it. So, I took the rights back and tried it at Analog, where Stan Schmidt bought it. It appeared in the November 1984 issue.

Two of my first four stories made it onto the Hugo ballot, which certainly did not hurt. This led another writer, the late Charles Sheffield, to urge his own agent to take me on as a client. Charles became a very dear friend, and not least because I only found out years later that he had done that.

VENTRELLA: Did you have any formal writing training before submitting your first work?

FLYNN: Nope. Just the usual English classes in HS and college. Never did workshops, either. OTOH, I did read voraciously.

VENTRELLA: You’ve done quite a few short stories. Do you find them more difficult than longer works?

FLYNN: Stories are less forgiving than novels, in that there is no space for self-indulgence. A novel can meander a bit and still keep the plot going, and has more room in it for scenes devoted to character-building, scene-setting, and the like. But shorter fiction must do all that with a greater economy of words. I find that they take longer to write relative to their length and from an economic perspective not at all cost effective. But I still write them because there are some stories that don’t need a novel to rattle around in. Take a story idea and put it in a novel, and you lose density. The whole seems fluffy. But put an idea in the right length of story and it is more dense and powerful. At least, that’s the way I think of it.

VENTRELLA: Your work is usually classified as “hard science fiction.” Do you agree with that classification?

FLYNN: Well, I’ve often considered them to be “high viscosity” science fiction, a term I coined in a moment of whimsy, but which seems appropriate. Some reviewers have made such comments as “…unlike most hard SF…” without seeming to notice that they were undermining their own idea of what hard SF means. There is an unexamined assumption that hard SF gives insufficient attention to character. But that may have been more a matter of decade than of genre. A story stands on four legs – idea, plot, setting, and character – and can remain upright on any three of them. I don’t insist that all stories have the same strengths. A captivating idea executed in a page-turner plot in a vivid setting can tolerate characters from central casting.

To this we can add the actual wordsmithing, or style. The rumor is that hard SF is less “literary” in style. I’m not entirely sure what that means, except that it leads reviewers to write things like “…unlike most hard SF…” when they notice stylistic acuteness.

VENTRELLA: How do you define “hard science fiction”?

FLYNN: As “science fiction.” Emphasis on both words. It should be a story in which some element of speculative science or technology plays a vital role, and does not serve as simple stage props. And the author takes some pains to “get the science right.” So “Flowers for Algernon” is hard SF, but “Star Wars” is not.

Of course, no one gets everything right, and sometimes the speculative science turns out to be wrong; so it’s more a matter of intent and thrust than it is of successful calculations and prognostications.

VENTRELLA: Science fiction is being outsold by fantasy these days. Why do you think that is?

FLYNN: The Modern Ages, which were among other things the Age of Science, have ended and we have moved on and/or back.

VENTRELLA: Do you find that there is less respect for science these days?

FLYNN: Yes. Partly, this is due to scientific hubris by which (mostly) fanboys of science set Science-with-a-capital-S as the colonial power of the intellectual world, invading other domains of human thought and disparaging philosophy, humanism, religion, and other endeavors. Partly, it is due to feminism, environmentalism, and government funding. Modern Science differed from Medieval Science in an important respect. The natural philosophers of old were in it to comprehend and appreciate the beauty of nature; modern science was redefined by Bacon, Descartes, and others to be subordinated to the production of useful products “to increase Man’s dominion over the universe.” They meant Man in a very masculine sense, and the exploitation of nature as completely open-ended. Hence, the feminist and environmentalist critiques in the Postmodern Age were not without some merit. Thirdly, as Eisenhower warned in his Farewell Address, the government-science funding complex meant that eventually science would be subordinated to political goals. All these strands contributed to undermining regard for science in the Late Modern Ages. When the American Chemical Society funded an exhibit on the contributions of science to modern life, they were astonished when the Smithsonian came up with an exhibit that presented American science as a series of moral debacles and environmental catastrophes: Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Silent Spring, Love Canal, Three Mile Island, and the explosion of the space shuttle.

VENTRELLA: Let’s discuss FALLEN ANGEL, your collaboration with Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. How did that occur?

FLYNN: Niven and Pournelle had promised FALLEN ANGELS to Jim Baen, but were under contract to deliver a book to another publisher. But there was no bar to writing a Niven-Pournelle-Third Author collaboration, so they invited a friend to do the rough draft while they worked on the other book. But time went by and the other writer did nothing, so they invited him out. Then they went to Jim Baen and asked him to pick a collaborator. Jim had just published my first novel, IN THE COUNTRY OF THE BLIND, and was about to do a story collection, THE NANOTECH CHRONICLES. Larry and Jerry liked what they read, and so Jim Baen contacted my agent who passed it on to me.

VENTRELLA: How did you handle collaboration?

FLYNN: Superbly.

OK, seriously. (The three of us were on a con panel the year FALLEN ANGELS came out, we were asked that question, and gave that answer in unison.)

It befell thusly. I was given rough drafts of the first two chapters, and outline of the remainder that became sketchier as it went along, and character sketches for a bunch of characters, both fictional and real fans who would be Tuckerized. I was a speaker at a quality control convention in San Francisco and Larry came up and we talked story and batted plot ideas around.

I rewrote the first two chapters, added two more; visited East Coast conventions to harvest more characters, and showed the results to Larry and Jerry. They liked what they saw, made some suggestions, and gave me the green light.

“Showed” doesn’t cut it. This may have been the first novel written by modem. There were problems. I had a Mac, they used DOS boxes. We wound up sending files — dial up modems! Forsooth! — to Jim Baen, who was able to figure out the proper modem settings and translate from one to the other. So “showed” electronically.

Eventually, they made a breakthrough on the main book, then started doing rewrite behind me. There was two of them and only one of me, and I could write only part-time; so they began to catch up fast.

Funny thing was that I met Larry only twice — as aforesaid and at a Norwescon — and Jerry not at all until after the book was finished and I found myself on a client assignment in LA, where we all got together.

VENTRELLA: When creating worlds (either science fiction or fantasy), too often writers ignore politics. You have not done so. How do you make sure you are creating a realistic political world?

FLYNN: I used to be a filthy politician. Not the kind that runs for office — They asked once and I declined — but the kind that runs caucuses and so on. I was precinct committeeman, district captain, and eventually House District Leader. So I’ve seen politicking from backstage. Then, too, as a consultant, I have encountered all sorts of corporate-regulatory interactions. As for other settings, I read a lot of history.

VENTRELLA: When you create a story, do you begin with the characters or do you have some basic plot idea?


Typically, its one thing or another. Setting, Idea, Plot, Character. Any of them can be the stimulus. For example, “Melodies of the Heart” started with an idea. In his book, THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT, Oliver Sacks tells of cases of “incontinent nostalgia,” in which the patient re-hears music from her childhood and sometimes re-sees scenes of her childhood. That is, they don’t remember hearing or seeing in the past as such, but are hearing and seeing these things in the present time. So the notion occurred to me of a woman who as time goes by re-hears tunes from further and further in the past until one day the doctor realizes that the tunes are now “too early” and begins to wonder how old the woman is.

Okay, so what was the story? Doctor listens to old woman hum tunes is not a story. Even doctor discovers old woman’s age is not a story. Who is the doctor? Who is the woman? Why would it matter, to either one of them, how old she is? From this I developed the characters of Mae Holloway and Dr. Wilkes and why it mattered very much to them both. So this was a case of Idea then Character then Plot.

OTOH, I recently sold a novelette, “The Journeyman: On the Short-Grass Prairie,” to Analog. In this story, the Character came first: Teodorq sunna Nagarajan, the Wildman bodyguard in UP JIM RIVER. I got a kick out of his character, and the idea of writing his backstory appealed to me. Likewise, “Elmira, 1895,” started with the characters of Sam Clemens and Rudyard Kipling; while “Places Where the Roads Don’t Go” started with an abstract idea suggested by Searle’s Chinese Room and Lucas’ Goedelian Proof. It may the first hard SF where the S is not physics but metaphysics. “The Iron Shirts,” recently selected for Gardner Dozois’ annual anthology, was suggested by plot elements, as will usually be the case with alternate histories.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the FIRESTAR cycle.

FLYNN: I was at a con once with Charles Sheffield. I forget which. And we were at the Tor party. Tom Doherty was holding forth on what Science Fiction needed, which he told me was “near future, high tech, and optimistic.” I pondered on that for a while, since I had been playing with an image of someone listening outside a high school classroom and not hearing learning taking place. The listener became an industrialist, for industry was already hurting for educated workers. But it was a very vague idea. Listening to Tom Doherty started to make it percolate. Setting up a school system to deliberately produce technologically literate students.

Then David Hartwell, an editor at Tor, called and asked if I had ever thought of writing a book for Tor and I said yes and he said what kind of book and I said, “near future, high tech, and optimistic.” Well, you know that had to be a good fit.

The original concept was of a single book covering the maturation of a cohort of students at one of these schools as they grow into the middle managers who save the world. (I had also read Strauss and Howe’s book GENERATIONS.) It was to cover a thirty-year arc; but after 200 pp. it was clearly not going to fit into a single book.

Interestingly, although the near future of FIRESTAR is now the recent past — it’s set during 1999-2007 — Tor has recently issued a second edition without any updating, making it a sort of alternate history.

VENTRELLA: What other works are you most proud?

FLYNN: I would have to say EIFELHEIM, since it was a Hugo finalist for best SF novel of the year. It did win the Seiun Award for the Japanese translation and the Prix Julie Verlanger for the French translation. The SPIRAL ARM series is shaping up nicely. THE JANUARY DANCER made #6 for SF paperbacks in October, which is not bad considering that #1-#4 was George R.R. Martin’s GAME OF THRONES books. And both UP JIM RIVER and IN THE LION’S MOUTH have gotten good reviews.

There is also THE WRECK OF THE RIVER OF STARS, which did not sell as well as it should have. It is a bit darker.

On the short fiction front, I have always been fond of “Dawn, and Sunset, and the Colours of the Earth,” of “Melodies of the Heart,” “House of Dreams,” “The Clapping Hands of God.” The forthcoming “Places Where the Roads Don’t Go” may also pass the test of time. I think. There is also a story series set in the Irish Pub, of which I think “Where the Winds Are All Asleep” is probably the best.

VENTRELLA: What would you advise a reader to go to first if they wanted to check out your fiction?

FLYNN: EIFELHEIM, because it stands alone. THE JANUARY DANCER, because it is first in the series. For short fiction, a collection THE FOREST OF TIME AND OTHER STORIES is available in ebook format, and a new collection CAPTIVE DREAMS is forthcoming. The latter overlaps one story with FOREST OF TIME, but contains three stories written specifically for the ebook.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now?

FLYNN: Answering these questions.

Oh, wait. Books and stories…. I just sent a short, “Elmira, 1895,” to Analog, fate unknown. A fourth SPIRAL ARM book, ON THE RAZOR’S EDGE, is in the can. For the moment I am working without contract on two possible novels:

1. THE SHIPWRECK OF TIME, about tantalizing hints found in Old Books, Old Film, and Old Bones, in a story that runs from a scholar in 14th century Freiburg-im-Breisgau to historical researchers in 1960s Milwaukee, a documentary film maker in 1980s Denver, and a police detective in contemporary small town Pennsylvania.

2. THE CHIEFTAIN, an historical fantasy (yes, fantasy) revolving around David O Flynn, chieftain of the Sil Maelruain in 1224. The magical element will be not the wizard and warlock kind, but prayer and saints, a bit of a change in pace.

VENTRELLA: How have the changes in the publishing industry affected you and what do you see for the future in publishing?

FLYNN: The only effect is another channel for books, the electronic one. However, going forward I think Mike Resnik and Barry Malzberg are right, and the whole print industry will be turned upside down. Self-publishing is becoming easier; but may become too easy, flooding the market with so much self-indulgent publishing that one may have a hard time separating wheat from chaff.

VENTRELLA: What piece of advice would you give an author wanting to write science fiction?

FLYNN: 1. Learn science.

2. Learn fiction.

At least in third-party publishing, the sort of writing that got by in the 30s and 40s will no longer do, and a certain stylistic mastery will be expected. Editors will often work with promising newbies, but editors may pass away if electronic self-publishing drives third-party publishing out of the pool. The same is true of agents. You may need one to convince Tor or Ace to publish your book; but you do not need one to convince yourself. (And that is the big trap.)

It is also more difficult to write good SF about the science of the 40s or 50s or 60s. Much of what was once speculative science is now mainstream. There was a time, and not too long ago, when a story about a kid using a home computer to garner the information needed to solve a problem wold have been high SF. Now, it’s your son or daughter doing a homework problem. So learn where the cutting edge is today; and if you must use the tropes of yesteryear, give them a new spin that makes them fresh.

Writing fanfic is okay for practice and for beginners; but fanfic will always be derivative and imitative. Whatever you write had got to be genuine and genuinely yours.


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3 Responses

  1. Well done! I learned AND was entertained!

  2. Great interview – into what science fiction is, story creating and authors collaborating. Really informative!

  3. Enjoyed reading your interview, and absolutely loved Eifelheim!

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