Interview with Hugo Nominated Author Steven Barnes

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am honored to be interviewing Hugo nominated author Steven Barnes.

Steven Barnes has a very interesting background: His martial arts accomplishments include black belt in karate and judo. He is a trained hypnotherapist, and studies yoga and other physical arts. His writing includes a number of novels by himself and others, short stories, and television episode scripts.

Steven, I have to begin by discussing something personal. You see, years ago friends and I read DREAM PARK and become enamored of the idea. It wasn’t too much later that we began the New England Roleplaying Organization, one of the largest Live Action Role-Playing games in North America. I edited all of their Rule Books and have since moved off and started my own group (Alliance LARP) – all because of a spark started by you and Larry Niven. And now I’m writing my own novels…

My first question, then, is: Did you realize how much of an influence that book had?

STEVEN BARNES: Not until Larry and I attended the first IFGS gaming conference. Being surrounded by hundreds of LARPers really drove it home. We’d created, or certainly influenced, an entire sub-culture.

VENTRELLA: That was not your first novel with Larry Niven. How did that relationship begin?

BARNES: I was about twenty-seven, and writing my butt off without getting anything published. My theory is that if you want to learn something, find someone else who is doing it, and figure out what they’re doing. I needed a role model…or a mentor, if I could be that lucky. A friend told me that Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle frequented the LASFS clubhouse (Los Angeles Science Fiction/Fantasy Society) on Thursday nights. I went up there, met Larry, and convinced him to read a few of my stories. He liked what he saw, and gave me a chance to work on an unpublished story of his called “The Locusts.” Luckily, I saw a flaw in the story that my particular skills could improve. It was published in Analog, and was nominated for a Hugo.

VENTRELLA: What process do you use when you collaborate? Do you split up subplots, or does one person write and the other rewrite?

BARNES: We work out the plot outline extensively, and then I write the first draft. Larry rewrites, suggests, tells me when I’m on the crazy train.

VENTRELLA: What themes do you find yourself revisiting in your work that may pop up without planning?

BARNES: What I would call “Self Directed Human Evolution” — the process of personal growth as it has been expressed in world culture, religion, philosophy and myth.

VENTRELLA: What is it about science fiction that attracts you? You have written a few things that are out of the genre (like some “Baywatch” episodes) –- what brings you back?

BARNES: The size of the canvas, perhaps. Most probably, the fact that I was just a dreamer as a kid, and loved stories of heroic adventure against exotic back-drops. But if I had had access to Ian Fleming instead of Larry Niven, I’d be writing spy novels.

VENTRELLA: Do you feel that editors and publishers still are fairly conservative when it comes to taking chances, even with science fiction?

BARNES: No more than their audience. I consider science fiction to be quite socially conservative in some ways, but that may be another discussion.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing style? (Do you outline heavily or just jump right in? Do you tend to start with an idea, a character concept, or something else?)

BARNES: Usually I’ll start with an idea, and then create characters to people that world. I outline using 3×5 cards, outlining programs, whatever. Every way of looking at a story reveals different details.

VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?

BARNES: LION’S BLOOD. I felt as if I had finally managed to create a work that expressed my core sense of social reality in America.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever run across unexpected controversy with your writing? If so, how have you dealt with it?

BARNES: Again, LION’S BLOOD, set in an alternate world in which Islamic Africans colonized the Americas, bringing European slaves. The reversal of racial roles was already pushing the edge. But 9/11 happened, and we were demonizing Muslims. That was the worst timing for a book you could imagine.

VENTRELLA: What bugs you most about the publishing industry and what would you change about it if you could?

BARNES: Oh, I don’t know if there’s anything. There are some things about human nature — tribalism — that have worked to my disadvantage, but that’s also a survival trait, so I guess I have to grin and bear it.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting author that you wish someone had given you?

BARNES: A writer should write for the sheer passionate love of it as much as possible. You have no idea how much external success you will ever have, so you’d better find a way to be happy just being a writer.

VENTRELLA: What’s the biggest mistake you see aspiring authors make?

BARNES: Chasing the market.

VENTRELLA: You’ve posted on your Facebook page about self growth and fulfillment. What are your goals and aspirations and how well have you met them?

BARNES: I reached every goal I ever set as a kid. I wanted love, to be a martial artist, and a successful writer. Got ’em. Now I’m redefining myself, and setting up new challenges. Primarily, I don’t want to be a professional writer any more. I want to be an amateur writer, writing for the sheer love of it. That means setting up an entirely new business. In this instance, coaching writers and those who want balanced lives. I offer a free phone coaching session to anyone: your readers can reach me at steven@diamondhour.com

VENTRELLA: With a time machine and a universal translator, who would you invite to your ultimate dinner party?

BARNES: Sun Tzu, Aristotle, Shaka Zulu (leave the assagai at the door, please!), Lewis Carrol, Nelson Mandela, Thomas Jefferson, Musashi Miamoto (likewise with the katana), William Shakespeare … and the most important women in their lives.

VENTRELLA: And finally, do you find yourself optimistic about the future?

BARNES: Very optimistic. I am most worried by people who don’t believe there is much risk of overpopulation. Frankly, I think this is leftover meme from the time humans were on the brink of extinction. Overpopulation won’t destroy the world, but it could destroy the ability to sustain a technological civilization.

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