Interview with author A. C. Crispin

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I’m pleased to be interviewing A.C. Crispin, whose new novel is PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE PRICE OF FREEDOM. She’s best known for the novelization of the 1984 V TV series, but also for her bestselling Star Wars novels THE PARADISE SNARE, THE HUTT GAMBIT, and REBEL DAWN — although I first discovered her through her Star Trek novels: YESTERDAY’S SON, TIME FOR YESTERDAY, THE EYES OF THE BEHOLDERS, and SAREK.

Ann, You’ve been able to write novels in some of fandom’s favorite stories. How did you manage that?

A.C. CRISPIN: After I wrote YESTERDAY’S SON and V, publishers with franchises approached my agent when they had projects they thought would be a good match for my skills.

If your readers want to read about how to get an agent, soup to nuts, they should read “Notes on Finding a (Real) Literary Agent” on my website.

VENTRELLA: Do you make proposals or do the studios come to you directly now?

CRISPIN: For original novels I write book proposals. For tie-in work, they pretty much come to me.

VENTRELLA: Let’s discuss THE PRICE OF FREEDOM. How much freedom were you given to develop Jack Sparrow’s background?

CRISPIN: After a considerable amount of back and forth on the part of the Disney studio liaison, during which several detailed outlines were not approved, the studio liaison decided that instead of writing the project I had been originally hired to write (the story of the Isla de Muerta mutiny re: the Aztec gold) I should instead write the story of how Jack Sparrow worked for the EITC and wound up making that bargain with Davy Jones. So I knew where the story had to end up. How I got there was left pretty much up to me.

I did consult with both my editors on the book, the acquiring editor and the editor who completed the project. For example, they both agreed that there should be a “Lady Pirate” as a character, so that’s how Doña Pirata was born. The Legend of Zerzura plotline was my creation, but my editors suggested having talismans as a way to get into the Sacred Labyrinth and reach the treasure. So I then came up with the bracelets.

By the time I finished with my outline, it was over 70 single spaced pages long. Of course, THE PRICE OF FREEDOM is a long novel, some 235,000 words.

VENTRELLA: Did Disney censor any of your ideas or tell you to make major changes?

CRISPIN: My Disney editor (somewhat regretfully, because she really liked them) bowdlerized my hottest sex scene. I’m not sure you’d call that a major change. After all, we are talking Disney, here. (The scene was hot, but not graphic — she felt that it was a bit too hot.)

VENTRELLA: What were your main goals in trying to develop his character?

CRISPIN: To create the character of “Jack becoming” so that people would recognize Jack Sparrow, but also know this wasn’t quite the Jack they see in the films … this was a younger, more vulnerable, more trusting and less cynical Jack. He gets more cynical and “savvy” during the course of the book. He’s not the same Jack at the end as he was at the beginning. Of course that’s the goal of good fiction, right?

VENTRELLA: What adventures in your novel help shape Jack into the character we all know?

CRISPIN: Oh, Jack experiences betrayal, disappointment, fear of imminent death, hatred, and as a result learns to be much more wary and cunning, and to trust almost no one. Readers who want teasers can read the excerpts on my website. There are six there.

VENTRELLA: Do any other characters from the film appear in the novel?

CRISPIN: Edward Teague, Cutler Beckett, Hector Barbossa, Pintel and Ragetti, and a certain squid-faced Captain.

VENTRELLA: Were you given a peek at the script for the most recent film in order to work in some foreshadowing?

CRISPIN: No. I was given the script for “At World’s End” before the film released, but my book was finished before the script for “On Stranger Tides” was written.

VENTRELLA: The most recent movie is loosely based on Tim Powers’ novel ON STRANGER TIDES. Did you use that novel at all for reference?

CRISPIN: I’ve read ON STRANGER TIDES a couple of times, but aside from the fact that it’s an excellent pirate yarn, no.

VENTRELLA: Will there be more books in the series?

CRISPIN: That will be Disney’s call. I imagine they’ll base that decision on how well THE PRICE OF FREEDOM sells.

VENTRELLA: What’s your favorite of the Pirates movies?

CRISPIN: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

VENTRELLA: Do you find using established characters in your media novels to be a limitation?

CRISPIN: Nope. I find it a challenge to have them grow and change in ways so subtle that the studio doesn’t realize I’ve done it.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written your own series: Starbridge. Tell us about this!

CRISPIN: Funny you should ask about that. There’s a good chance that the seven StarBridge novels will soon be re-released as e-books. There have been quite a few requests for them from readers, over the years. The series is about a school for young people from the Fifteen Known Worlds who come to an asteroid in deep space to learn to be diplomats, planetary advocates (known as “interrelators”) and explorers. The books focus on First Contact, and explore what it would be like in a galactic society.

VENTRELLA: Do you find writing books based on your own work easier?

CRISPIN: Not really. I put my full efforts into both my media tie-ins and my original novels. With the original novels, it’s generally a bit more work, because I have to create the world, the technology, the history, the geography, the society, etc. World-building and universe-building have to be done well if you want to create the illusion of reality –- something that’s essential to writing s.f. and fantasy.

VENTRELLA: We met at Balticon this year. Do you enjoy conventions and do you advise authors to attend them?

CRISPIN: You can learn a lot at conventions, and once you’ve gone pro, you can do a fair amount of networking and business at gatherings such as the Nebulas, Worldcon, etc. I enjoy conventions, still, even after all these years.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about Writer Beware. How did the idea for this come about?

CRISPIN: Back in 1998, Victoria Strauss and I both realized, independently of each other, that writing scams were proliferating on the internet. At some point our investigations brought us into contact with each other, and we decided to do something about it. SFWA gave us its blessing and sponsorship, and that’s how Writer Beware was born.

VENTRELLA: I meet many authors who have gone the vanity press or self publishing route and then wonder why no one takes them seriously. Other than “don’t do that” do you have any specific pieces of advice for these authors?

CRISPIN: I advise them to go to Writer Beware and read our articles about POD, vanity publishing, etc., so they’ll go into self publishing with a clear vision of what it can and can’t do for an author. E-publishing has taken off in the past six months, and it can now be a realistic way (provided the author has the sales numbers) to break into commercial publishing (advance and royalty paying publishing with a major press, that is). This is generally not true for POD and hardcopy “self publishing.” But there are exceptions.

The main problem with “self-publishing” is when authors confuse it with commercial publishing and expect their books to be on the shelves in bookstores nationwide, plus have other unrealistic expectations. It is really not a shortcut into a successful writing career for the vast majority of those who do it. I believe it’s still true that most POD and self published novels still sell fewer than 100 copies.

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

CRISPIN: Here are my top two picks for that:

(1) I’d go back in time and eliminate the Thor Power Tools Supreme Court ruling. That had a terrible effect on a publisher’s ability to keep books in stock. Look it up.

(2) I’d get rid of the Internet for two reasons (A) the internet has given aspiring writers the idea that they’re entitled to be published, no matter how well or poorly they write, and (B) because of the internet, writers are getting scammed at an appalling rate.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read for pleasure?

CRISPIN: Terry Pratchett, Elizabeth Peters, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Margaret Mahy, Ursula K. LeGuin, George R.R. Martin, Lois McMaster Bujold, Charlotte Bronte, and too many others to name.

VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?

CRISPIN: I do my level best on all my books. I’m pretty proud of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE PRICE OF FREEDOM, because I had to do so much research. It took me three years to write, and the whole time I was writing it, I was doing research on the historical period and the nautical stuff.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? Do you outline heavily, for instance?

CRISPIN: For tie-in work I HAVE to produce detailed outlines, so I’ve gotten used to working that way. I don’t like writing myself into corners, and a good outline usually prevents that.

VENTRELLA: Fantasy has grown tremendously in popularity over the past twenty or thirty years and now outsells science fiction. Why do you think this is? What is it about fantasy that appeals to readers that they can’t get from science fiction?

CRISPIN: I have no idea. Personally, I prefer science fiction, though I read both.

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

CRISPIN: Learn to read and analyze publishing contracts. Agents aren’t perfect, and you really need to be able to read a proposed contract and spot pitfalls.

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

CRISPIN: Here’s my top five list:

1. They spend years writing a Star Wars or other tie-in novel without ever researching whether they can actually submit the thing and have a chance of having it published. (With Star Wars, for example, they won’t even read the book; all Star Wars novels are contracted for in advance.)

2. They look for shortcuts, such as “self publishing” or POD publishing, often with a scammy publisher like PublishAmerica or Strategic, because it’s the easy thing to do.

3. They develop “golden words syndrome” and can’t see any flaws in their writing, and if someone points them out, they get mad. This is death to any aspiration to ever be a pro.

4. They submit first drafts.

5. They want to write fiction, but they don’t read it. I’ve never yet encountered a single writer, in the dozens, maybe hundreds of workshops I’ve taught, who wrote fiction well but wasn’t a reader. In order to write well, especially fiction, you must be an inveterate reader. No exceptions.

VENTRELLA: What question do you wish interviewers would ask you that they never do?

CRISPIN: Where readers can buy my books. There are links to purchase all my books on my website.

Intrerview with Nebula nominated author Bud Sparhawk

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing three times Nebula finalist Bud Sparhawk today. He’s primarily known for his short fiction with heavy and hard science, but also for his humor (in particular his “Sam Boone” series).

Bud, although you have extolled the virtues of outlines, do you think it’s possible to write a great story without an outline?

BUD SPARHAWK: I’m not certain “extolled” is the right word. Certainly I’ve advocated paying considerable attention to a story’s structure – the sequencing of scenes, time frames, and points of view. I don’t think I’ve ever recommended preparing a formal outline where a story is described in detail, point by point.

My own style of writing is to set up the scenes I think the story needs, block in the characters, setting, and time, and then move things around to the way I want to tell the story. Many times I write quite a bit before breaking what I’ve done into key scenes and then add sketch ideas that fill in empty spots. It’s generally a messy back and forth process but it works for me.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever done so?

SPARHAWK: Written a great story or used an outline to write it? All three of my Nebula finalists were done sans outline – just bashing along until they felt complete. I wouldn’t call any of them “great” – entertaining maybe. The one story that I felt was “great” was “Bright Red Star” and which received almost no literary comment, except from David Hartwell who included it in his Years Best SF #14. This story has now appeared in several languages and on audio pubs, which is somewhat of an affirmation. It was my response to some of the hysteria surrounding 9/11.

VENTRELLA: You’ve concentrated almost entirely on short stories and novellas. What is it about the shorter form that appeals to you?

I’ve been blogging about this very subject on budsparhawk.blogspot.com for some time. One of my latest musings dwelled on the differences between novelists and we short people. Although there are clearly differences between the two camps, my conclusion was simply that that some do and some can’t: Temperament, patience, and economic necessity are probably involved in a writers choices, but the mix would vary considerably.

VENTRELLA: Many writers consider short stories to be harder than novels. What is your experience?

SPARHAWK: I don’t think “harder” is the distinction I’d make. Some writers find it impossible to describe anything in a single sentence while I find it difficult to drone endlessly on about anything because I’m always anxious to get to the payoff. In my opinion, brevity always makes a point sharper and I usually edit down to reach that clarity. For example, I recently turned in a 15k piece that was originally 33k in second draft and around 20k in the penultimate one.

When I started writing I could write a 5-7K story in a weekend and once wrote one – “Persistence” – that I later sold to Analog – in an evening. I like to deal with issues or ideas and the short form is ideal for that. Longer pieces deal more with character development or expansion of a situation. I’ve written several as yet unsold novels and have found developing increasing complexity that forces the word count ever upwards tedious, albeit interesting.

Dedicated novelists have told me that they cannot begin a story without discovering that complications arise and they are faced with an irresistible urge to explain, describe, or comment. Then too, other characters come along with their own damn issues, backgrounds, motives and … well, you see how that goes, with the inevitable result is other than short.

VENTRELLA: What usually comes first for you – an idea or a character?

SPARHAWK: The idea or concept, always. I see characters as vehicles that carry the ideas forward, and try to make them eloquent spokespersons for what I try to say.

VENTRELLA: We’ve met at various conventions over the years. Do you enjoy conventions and do you advise authors to attend them?

SPARHAWK: I’m just a ham and enjoy the spotlight, talking to fans, and especially having the opportunity to talk writerish with the other pros. I love the readings, especially by unfamiliar writers to me.

VENTRELLA: What’s your favorite convention experience?

SPARHAWK: The random discussions that arise in the hallways or in the dealers room have be my favorite experiences. I hardly ever leave one of these random discussions without a story idea or two.

VENTRELLA: I meet many authors who have gone the vanity press or self publishing route and then wonder why no one takes them seriously. What’s your opinion on self publishing?

SPARHAWK: The line between vanity and self-published has become very thin. Established writers are self-publishing collections, reverted novels, and even original works – all to take advantage of the opportunities eBooks have created. Some non-professionals (another vague term) have been highly successful with their “vanity” publishing. Results are mixed, but in most cases it seems to depend on the degree of self-promotion one is willing to undertake. Social networking seems key to success for both types.

VENTRELLA: Do you think there is a difference if an already established author self publishes new material?

SPARHAWK: If a writer has already established a reputation, then selling new material via POD or eBook should not be a problem. Otherwise you use up a lot of time, effort, and creative juice that could be used for improving your writing.

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

The lengthy delays between submission and response, which is an unfortunate consequence of limited staff and/or time available to the publisher. The industry probably needs more underpaid English majors looking for “experience” in the publishing field.

Since most editors now accept electronic submissions I can easily see the day when some maven will design an app that evaluates e-manuscripts on the fly, all tailored to an editor’s preset specifications. That would certainly change the writing game for both writers and editors. Don’t know if this would make the publishers happy or not.

VENTRELLA: What do you like to read for pleasure?

SPARHAWK: Short stories, of course, and mostly SF, but I make an exception for anything by Terry Pratchett.

VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?

SPARHAWK: See above – “Bright Red Star.” Interestingly, I’ve written three more shorts in the same universe, two of which are in McPhail’s anthologies.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now?

SPARHAWK: I’ve a long novel in penultimate editing, four or five shorts that still need work, and getting as much of my published works into eBook formats as I have time for. The novel deals with the long term effects of human expansion into the universe and what exactly makes our descendants “human.”

VENTRELLA: Fantasy has grown tremendously in popularity over the past twenty or thirty years and now outsells science fiction. Why do you think this is? What is it about fantasy that appeals to readers that they can’t get from science fiction?

SPARHAWK: It is a puzzle that in these days of instant everything and twittering phrases that short fiction does not sell better. Steven King recently observed that much of the popular long form fiction has little substance but does carry the reader along in an engaging, but superficial narrative thread that provides an immersive experience. Summer reading at the beach, in other words. I find that much of the “epic” fantasy fits this description. Clearly, fantasy in general is not my cup of tea, but there are some fantasy works that rises above the rest – like Laura Anne Gilman’s Vineart series.

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

SPARHAWK: 1. Don’t give up your day job.

2. Put some time aside for writing every day.

3. Learn humility and to accept rejection gracefully.

4. Join SFWA as soon as you can.

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

SPARHAWK: Endless rewriting in pursuit of perfection, which can never be achieved. The pursuit of “better” is ever the enemy of “good enough.” A writer should rewrite only until the piece achieves a satisfactory level in their own opinion and, of course, whenever an editor asks.

VENTRELLA: What question do you wish interviewers would ask you that they never do?

SPARHAWK: “Where do you get your Ideas?” to which I respond “a guy in New Jersey sends me two a week for five bucks.”. Ask a silly question …

Seriously though, no one ever asks how the magic is done and the toll it takes on family life, work, and socializing. I wrote for years while holding a fairly demanding job, raising a family, and dealing with the issues of aging parents, yet managed to eke out a few words each night, having them add up to some decent stories and a lot of less than sales worthy. The ideas bubbled up during my non-writing times and, if they were worthy of remembering, finally made it into a story. Truthfully, I have no idea where the ideas come from. I only know how much work it takes to turn them from daydreams to reality.

Interview with author Michele Lang

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I’m pleased to interview Michele Lang, who writes all kinds of speculative fiction, and has also practiced the unholy craft of litigation in New York and Connecticut. LADY LAZARUS, her latest release, is a historical fantasy, the first of a series (Tor: September 2010). DARK VICTORY, the next book in the series, releases January 2012.

Michele, how did you get your “big break”? Aspiring writers want to know!

MICHELE LANG: I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten a “big break” exactly, more like a bunch of sweet serendipities that have led me from project to project. My first book, MS. PENDRAGON, was published by a now-defunct e-publisher; I pitched the executive editor at an online workshop run by an online romance writers group, From the Heart.

My first NY contract was with Chris Keeslar, who I met on the plane back from Romantic Times in Daytona in 2006. Now that was a lucky break! Chris is a wonderful editor, and I enjoyed writing NETHERWOOD for his Shomi line. Because of that contract, Lucienne Diver agreed to rep me as an agent, and Lucienne sold the LADY LAZARUS series to Jim Frenkel at Tor.

VENTRELLA: Do you believe that anyone can be a fiction writer or is the ability to tell a story more of an innate thing?

LANG: I think storytelling is part of what makes us human. I know many fantastic storytellers who cannot convey those stories in written form, so writing ability is not exactly correlative with a storytelling gift.

The most important factor, I think, in becoming a fiction writer is sheer determination. I know many talented writers who have broken through, but they didn’t break through because of their talent. They became published, and stay published, because they refuse to give up in the face of rejection and difficulties.

VENTRELLA: I recently blogged about “plowing through that first draft” and you wrote similarly about the “salami list.” What tricks have you found that help you personally get your work done?

LANG: To be honest, a contractual deadline does the trick better than anything else! But, aside from sheer panic, I have found some little tricks that help me to get work done.

The best is to have a daily goal. It can be humble, and probably should be, but most important it must be tied to your long term goals.

Start with a vision – what do you want for your writing life? Tie that vision to a goal you can achieve through your own efforts.

Break down the goal into measurable steps, and break those down into monthly steps. Weekly, and then daily. Work your plan, and review it in writing every month – how are you doing?

Try to get your daily goals done at the beginning of the day, before life sinks its teeth into you. Maybe this is only a tip for the morning people of the world, but it definitely is helpful for me.

Expect resistance and the termites of daily life to attack these goals. But dedicate a daily time to pursuing your goals with passion and consistency, and your dreams won’t be denied.

I try to write every day, though with a bunch of small kids in the house that is not always something I can achieve. I have time dedicated to writing: right now it’s 5:30-6:30 a.m., weekdays. I try my best to tack on another hour during the day, but that is not always possible. But I’ve done my best to make a habit out of the 5:30 hour.

That said, when I’m on deadline all bets are off. I write every minute I possibly can, then. The house goes to hell, but my immersion in the project overwhelms all resistance. I love writing 24 hours a day against a hard deadline – it’s so primal and exhilarating.

VENTRELLA: When creating believable characters, what process do you use?

LANG: I try to listen. When I am deep into a story, I can hear the characters and they tell me what they do and why. They often surprise me too.

If they go off and do something I don’t expect, I follow them and try to figure out what they are doing and most importantly, why. I try mightily not to impose my own judgments and expectations of what they should be doing – when I do that, the writing gets very dull and safe. And that’s death for the story.

When I’m rewriting, I try to climb inside my characters and see the story from their perspectives. And I try to make sure the story reflects their truest natures, whether they are villains or heroes or some combination of the two.

VENTRELLA: Some of your work is hard to categorize. How do you see yourself?

LANG: The stories that come out of me end up in the genre aisles, the romance and fantasy shelves. I think that’s a wonderful destination.

But before that, I am simply a writer. I write the stories that demand to be written, the ones that I have no choice but to write. I write the stories that I wish already existed inside a book.

I read this way, too. I try to read like a kid, without preconceptions about the market, what is marketable, where a story fits in the pantheon of Story. I read for love.

I might find WATERSHIP DOWN in the fantasy aisle, or FULL DARK, NO STARS in general fiction (or at the front of the book store in its own special dump), but the books I love the most transcend category for me. They are just wonderful stories.

To keep writing, it’s important to understand the marketplace, to respect the daunting job of the sales department and marketing department to get books into stores and into the hands of readers.

However, I figure if I write the best book I can possibly write, there will be a place in the market for it, especially now with the rise of ebook distribution and its long, long tail.

VENTRELLA: How does your latest fit into this dilemma? Is this giving your publisher problems with promotion?

LANG: LADY LAZARUS is a historical fantasy, but one with werewolves and vamps. My editor calls it historical urban fantasy, but it’s pretty epic in scope, too. The pacing doesn’t match a standard urban fantasy, but it does get pretty explodey by the end, and the next one, DARK VICTORY, picks up speed and ends up blowing up a good chunk of Eastern Europe and our history of World War II, besides.

Tor’s been great about promoting the books. I went to BEA last year, NYC ComicCon and I just got back from the Empire State Book Festival too. I think the urban fantasy market is very, very crowded but LADY LAZARUS is not quite an urban fantasy, so its out of the box status might actually help set it apart.

VENTRELLA: We met at Lunacon a few years ago; do you attend many conventions? Do you find them worthwhile?

LANG: I only started attending SFF cons after I sold my first book, and love them. I love meeting readers, and so I also find cons a great source of inspiration and new ideas.

I attend as many local cons as I can, and wish I could travel to more. I did get to go to World Fantasy last year and it was wonderful. But the local ones are great too.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the plotline and setting for LADY LAZARUS.

LANG: The series is set on the eve of World War II in a magical Budapest, and tells the story of Magda Lazarus, a witch with the power to return from the dead. In order to avert her sister’s horrifying visions of the impending war, Magda must battle SS werewolves, wizards, and demons, including the one who has possessed a willing Adolf Hitler.

VENTRELLA: How did you get the idea for the story?

LANG: This idea went and got me, I often say. My parents are both Holocaust survivors. This book is the ultimate what if – could my family have all survived if they had magic on their side?

The title comes from the famous Sylvia Plath poem, “Lady Lazarus.” She uses the idea of a Jewish girl returning from death as an extended metaphor for her own suicides. I am very literal-minded — when I read this poem for the first time I thought the idea of a murdered Jewish girl returning from the dead to kill Nazis was awesome. Wanted to read the story, so I wrote it!

VENTRELLA: Do you find short stories to be a good way for aspiring authors to get noticed?

LANG: Yes, absolutely, though that is not the way I came up in the writing world at all. Short stories are becoming a bigger and bigger market, and I think that’s terrific. The form is going to get more popular, I think, as people’s reading habits continue to change.

Aside from getting noticed, it’s a great way for published writers to promote their longer work, and also a great place for any writer to audition settings and characters for longer stories.

VENTRELLA: Amazon is reporting that e-books are now outselling traditional publications. What effect will this have on the publishing industry?

LANG: Hah – by the time I gave you an answer, it would be out of date, things are moving so fast! I’ll just say that it’s an amazing time to be both a writer and a reader. I write stories, my readers read and enjoy them. The more ways I can get my stories to readers, the better.

VENTRELLA: For beginning authors is this a good thing or a bad thing?

LANG: I’m not sure…it is definitely a confusing thing! The NY publishing route is no longer the only way to achieve financial success as a writer. The best way for a new writer to go forward is to get educated about their rights (read the Copyright Handbook for a start), read any publishing contract very carefully, and go forward boldly.

You will make mistakes – all writers make business mistakes at some point, or have bad luck. But then we start again. As I said above, stubbornness is the key to the game, more than luck or talent.

VENTRELLA: And finally: You’re like the fifth author I have interviewed who was an attorney prior to giving it all up to write. (I’m still practicing, though…) What is it about lawyers that make us want to write fiction?

LANG: I could say something witty here about lawyers and the truth, but I just won’t 😀

Actually, most lawyers I met during my practice were ethical and decent, and many of them were brilliant. I was a litigator, and I can say that the ability to convey a narrative is essential to winning jury trials. Also, to be a good lawyer, you need to be able to read a witness, tell when they are lying, get to the bottom of their motivations, etc.

The other great thing about being a lawyer is you learn to endure. It sounds like I’m joking around again, but I’m not. Generally speaking, litigation is like trench warfare – whoever hurts the other side the most, wins. That stubbornness, again – you need it to be a successful lawyer, you need it to be a pro writer.

Coincidence? Not in my case. Being a lawyer toughened me up for being a writer.

Interview with author Mark L. Van Name

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing Mark L. Van Name, who I had the pleasure of meeting at the Arisia convention in Boston recently. Mark has worked in the high-tech industry for over thirty years and today runs a technology assessment company in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. He’s published over a thousand computer-related articles and multiple science fiction stories in a variety of magazines and anthologies.

How important is it that writers of hard SF especially have a background in science?

MARK L. VAN NAME: There are no hard and fast rules about writing, SF or otherwise. The right good, smart writer can pull off just about anything. You can learn so much via research that not having formal training in an area is no excuse for not learning about it. So, I don’t think it’s vital that hard SF writers have a science background.

That said, I do think it’s helpful to have a solid base in any areas you try to cover in depth. Without that base, you better do your research, because otherwise, you’ll make mistakes, and your readers will spot them.

VENTRELLA: Since all of speculative fiction relies on things that are not, do you think a beginning writer should be wary when writing about things of which they have no experience?

VAN NAME: Wary, yes, but afraid to tackle it, no. You just have to respect the material you’re using. If you haven’t been a fire fighter and want to write about them, reading about their work and talking to some would be a very good idea. Making it up entirely based on what you’ve seen on TV, though possibly better than no research at all, is rarely enough for your work to have the verisimilitude it should.

VENTRELLA: Given your background, are you worried about the growing anti-science attitude we are seeing in much of politics these days?

VAN NAME: Definitely, though I have to say that particular concern is lower on my list than many others, including global climate change, the huge levels of hunger and poverty around the world, our national debt, child soldiers, and many other causes. There have always been groups opposed to rationality, and there always will be.

VENTRELLA: How did you break into the field? What was your first sale and how did it come about?

VAN NAME: My first fiction sale of any type was a short story, “Going Back,” to a now-defunct, small-press, feminist SF magazine, Pandora. My first professional (by SFWA guidelines) sale was a short time later, a story, “My Sister, My Self,” that went to Asimov’s but ended up in their original anthology, ISAAC ASIMOV’S TOMORROW’S VOICES. In both cases, the sale went down in the usual way: I mailed them the manuscript, and they bought it. For the first story, the editors asked that I interview some battered women–the protagonist was one–and then do a rewrite based on what I learned. I did, I learned a lot, I rewrote the story, and they bought it. For the Asimov’s piece, I mailed it, and they bought it. Not very exciting, I’m afraid.

VENTRELLA: Did you get an agent?

VAN NAME: Nope. Only after I’d sold the first four novels did I talk to an agent. I’m not at all convinced that agents help beginning writers sell short stories. More to the point, I suspect that few agents you would want to represent you would take you if you were writing only short pieces, and that’s all I was doing for many years.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the Jon and Lobo series!

VAN NAME: Talking about a multi-novel series is a lot like describing a multi-course meal of experimental cuisine: whether you focus on the individual dishes or the overall meal, you’re bound to miss a lot. I’ll try it a bit from both perspectives.

The overall series is a future history that I tell from the first-person perspective of one man, Jon Moore. I’ve always found history more interesting when it comes directly from the people who were there, so I wanted to chronicle a very important time in humanity’s far future–I’m writing about a time roughly 500 years from now–but limit myself largely to what Jon can see and experience. Of course, he’s a most unusual man, as far as he knows the only nanotech-enhanced human alive, so he naturally ends up in quite a few interesting situations. In the first novel, ONE JUMP AHEAD, he meets and becomes first the owner and then the friend of Lobo, an extraordinarily intelligent assault vehicle that can go anywhere–on land, under water, in the air, or in space. Over the course of the many books the series will take to complete–I’m estimating about eighteen, but that’s just an estimate–the characters and the universe will undergo many significant changes.

On an individual book level, each part of the series is simply a novel that should stand entirely on its own. You can pick up any book in the series and enjoy it. You can read them in any order. If you read them all, however, and further, if you read them in order, then you should have a richer experience. I’ve talked to lots of readers who’ve joined the series several books in, and so far, all of them have been able to enjoy whatever books happened to be their starting points.

VENTRELLA: You like to attend science fiction conventions. Are they really worth it, given the expense?

VAN NAME: I have no clue, because hard data on the sales value of cons–or blogs or pretty much any other marketing tool–is almost impossible to get. That said, I don’t go simply to increase sales. I attend cons to be part of the community, to see friends, visit new cities, eat at good restaurants, and so on. You can’t be sure you’ll boost your sales, but you can be sure to see friends and have an entertaining time.

VENTRELLA: What’s the funniest experience you ever had at a convention?

VAN NAME: I’ve done a lot of humor panels at cons, and I’ve done stand-up comedy/spoken-word shows, so that’s a tougher question than you might imagine. Certainly one of the funniest hours I’ve spent was listening to my friend, Lew Shiner, give a talk on humorous mimetic short fiction at a long-ago Disclave at which he was the guest of honor. He delivered the entire thing in very scholarly style, but it was just an excuse to tell a ton of jokes–which he did, brilliantly.

VENTRELLA: What process do you use in order to make believable, realistic characters?

VAN NAME: I don’t see that process as separate from the overall writing process. I sit down to tell a story. The story becomes very real in my head, because I spend a great deal of time living in the world of the story. The story includes people. I get to know those people. Like any other folks, they behave the way they do because of who they are. If I try to make a character do something that she or he simply wouldn’t do, it feels bad, wrong, as wrong as it would feel if a friend suddenly behaved completely out of character. I listen to those feelings. I write the story. The characters behave as they would. That’s about it.

I should probably clarify that I’m not one of those writers who believes his characters are real humans. I know they’re not. I know I control them. I know I could make them do anything I want. I also know, however, that doing so, that violating a character’s identity simply for the sake of a plot, would be bad craft. I don’t want to do that.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process–-do you outline heavily, for instance?

VAN NAME: I generally outline, but how detailed the outline is varies widely. For a thriller, FATAL CIRCLE, that I’m partway through and hope one day to finish, I had to do some research in key areas and consult with some experts. The result was a very detailed, very long outline–over twenty-six thousand words, a quarter of a typical novel. For CHILDREN NO MORE, I went with an outline of barely three thousand words. I outline to the level I feel necessary before I’m ready to start writing the book, and then I write.

I do some writing work every day. That’s been the key to changing me from someone who sold a story every few years to someone who has multiple novels out. I don’t, though, have a word-count quota. I avoid that sort of goal because it’s so easy to fail at it, and I hate failing. Instead, I have a time requirement: I must devote at least half an hour a day solely to writing work. As long as I’ve done that, I’ve succeeded. Most days, I do more. Most days, I get a fair number of words on the page. Some days, I produce very few. As long as I’ve tried for half an hour minimum, I call it a success.

VENTRELLA: What do you see as the future for printed books? For book stores?

VAN NAME: I love books. I really do. My house is full of them. They’re everywhere. Sadly, I believe the printed book is going to become a minority taste. I’m not sure if the transition will take ten years or fifty, but I believe it’s coming. That said, in the fiction world, books are containers for stories, and ebooks are simply other containers for stories. Similarly, I believe bookstores will continue to exist, but they will evolve, and in time their numbers will shrink. I will hate that, because I love bookstores almost as much as I love books.

I hasten to add that I don’t see any of this as the demise of writers or of people paying for stories. They’ll just pay for those stories in other forms.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing?

VAN NAME: Rather mixed. I write a blog, so in a sense I self-publish. I sell all my fiction, however, to traditional publishers. I know that some writers can make a great deal of money self-publishing, but being a publisher is a lot of work, and most of that work is not writing, which is what I most want to do. So, for me, selling to a publisher remains the way I hope to continue to bring my fiction to the market.

I also expect most people who self-publish are unlikely to make a lot of money doing so. The sales and marketing experience that a publisher brings to its job helps make each writer a brand–some obviously much bigger brands than others–and it’s hard to manage that feat on your own. Plus, self-publishers have to be good enough at analyzing their own work to know when it’s of publishable quality. I’ve read some who are indeed good at that job, but I’ve also read many who are not.

Like so many things, if others want to do it, I wish them the best. For the most part, though, it’s not for me, at least not now. I add that last bit because even for those of us who work in the future every day, it’s pretty darn hard to predict.

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

VAN NAME: I agonized over this question for months. In fact, it’s the biggest reason I’ve been so late getting this interview back to you. I really took the challenge seriously, and I found I simply couldn’t come up with a single ultimate dinner party. I won’t let myself cop out completely, though, so I’m going to give you, in no particular order, a few that particularly caught my fancy.

Each on his own, just so I could focus exclusively on him: Homer, Shakespeare, Keats, and my biological father, whom I’ve met only once for a couple of hours.

My mother as a young woman, but with someone standing by to knock me out if I started to give away the future.

Several women I care about deeply, each alone, each as a young girl, just so I could see who they once were.

I could go on and on, but one thing is clear: I’d be greedy, going for one-on-one time rather than organizing a group.

Interview with Author Tee Morris

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing Tee Morris today. Tee grew up very near me in Richmond, Virginia yet we never met until a few years ago at a convention. His web page is TeeMorris.com.

Let’s start by discussing your latest book, which will be first in a series –- PHOENIX RISING: A MINISTRY OF PECULIAR OCCURENCES NOVEL. How did you decide to collaborate with Pip Ballentine?

TEE MORRIS: It was a bit of arm-twisting on Pip’s part. I had a bad experience with co-writing, and my co-author really put me in a precarious position that completely ruined our friendship and professional relationship. So I was quite gun-shy. Pip eventually talked me into a compromise: we would write a podcast-for-pay idea. Unexpectedly, someone contacted Pip’s agent on this “steampunk idea” she was working on, I was then picked up by Pip’s agent, we changed focus and then we got to work on what would become PHOENIX RISING.

I still can’t believe we put this puppy together and are now, presently, closing in on the sequel’s climax.

VENTRELLA: Was there a conscious decision to write a steampunk novel because of current interests in steampunk for business reasons?

MORRIS: Actually, no. Steampunk was a conscious choice, but it was because we wanted to write it.

I first discovered “steampunk” back in 2006 and found it fascinating. I wanted to write something in it, but I didn’t want it to be a knock-off of what I had already read and seen. There’s a lot of cool things to explore in steampunk, and the more I delve into it the cooler it gets. There are authors who are riding the steampunk train to capitalize on its rapidly-growing popularity, but Pip and I wanted to do something we were sincerely drawn to, and steampunk really appealed to us.

VENTRELLA: How much should a writer consider the market when deciding what to write?

MORRIS: The writer should look at what is selling when they want to begin pitching to agents and editors. However, you really should consider how good of a product you are going to produce if you simply write to what’s hot. I’ve seen authors do that, and the writing comes across as trite. If your heart isn’t into it, the reader will assuredly pick up on that. At present, I won’t write a werewolf-vampire-Buffe-Blake urban fantasy because I have nothing new to offer to that market. If I tried, it would probably insult readers of the genre and do a lot of damage to my career.

Sure, look at the market, but don’t try to force a story to happen. That can backfire and really damage a career.

VENTRELLA: How did your collaboration work?

MORRIS: Believe it or not, writing across hemispheres was very productive. Whenever I slept, Pip wrote; and when Pip was asleep, I was writing. Literally we got in 24 hours of non-stop writing. This is one reason why, with Pip working on relocating to the Americas, our word count has taken a hit.

The downside was that we had small windows of time when we could discuss the book. We couldn’t bounce off ideas when we had them, and discussing problematic moments were…well, problematic as we could only do that for a small window of time between hemispheres. Still we managed, and we now have a pretty solid workflow at home.

VENTRELLA: How did you interest Harper? Did you have an agent first? Was the novel completed and then submitted or did they accept a proposal?

MORRIS: The Harper Voyage deal is all due to Laurie McLean, our Super-Agent. What happened was Pip’s write-up in Locus Magazine took an interested party to her website. When they saw she was working on this steampunk property with me, they immediately asked “When could we see it?” So I signed on with Larsen-Pomeda Agency and then we got cracking. The “interest” didn’t really kick in until someone made an offer. Literally, within 24 hours, there was a bidding war (from people who had initially passed on it), and then the wildcard — Harper Voyager — stepped in and said “We want it. Badly.”

The rest is future-history.

VENTRELLA: How are you promoting this book?

MORRIS: Pip learned a lot of new promotion tactics when working with ACE and GEIST. Between our previous experiences with Dragon Moon Press, we’re simply incorporating years of what has (and hasn’t) worked, and creating a plan:

1. The “Tales from the Archives” Podcast. This is the first volume in what could be a continuing series of short stories set in the world of The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. We’ve been having a blast with this, watching really talented authors like Valerie Griswold-Ford, Nathan Lowell, O.M. Grey, P.C. Haring, and many others produce original steampunk of various moods. We’re only a few episodes in, and people are really enjoying these works.

2. The Book Trailer.

People have really mixed opinions about book trailers and whether or not they sell books, but I argue that it really does depend on the book trailer. This one was particularly ambitious as we were creating original footage as opposed to working with stock footage as I did with Pip’s Geist trailer (which I edited together). We have been getting a terrific response from it with over 1000 views on YouTube and over 500 shares on Facebook in just over a week. It’s also a great way to get the word out about the book. How will it equate in sales? We don’t know, but it is helping in letting people know what the book is, or at least what the mood of our book is.

3. The Ministry Blog and Podcast Tour. As you see here with your blog, Michael, and others online, Pip and I started writing guest columns and interviews not only with podcasts (which really worked well for us back in August 2008 when we hosted “Double Trouble” online) but with blogs as well. Pip found that work with bloggers — book reviewers, authors, and others — cast our net a little wider than the podosphere. We’re reaching new people who show a little more faith and trust in their book blogs than they do in the mainstream media book critics. (Something we find very telling.)

4. Ministry May-hem. The month of May is when we start with the push of live appearances. It begins on April 30 (Not quite May, but close enough) with a stop at Borderlands in San Francisco. Then on May 7th we return to Staunton, VA (where we filmed the Ministry trailer) at BookWorks, and we will be wearing our steampunk best. May 11 we head up to Harrisburg, PA for a Watch the Skies meeting. Again, we’ll be in our steampunk best. Then May 20-22 is the Steampunk World’s Fair in Sommerset, NJ. We close the May-hem with Balticon May 27-30.

June … we’re going to have a wee rest.

5. Buttons, stickers, bookmarks, and postcards. You can never go wrong with freebies.

Pip and I have learned over the years that the key months of promotion should be the month before a release (keeping it fresh in people’s minds), and then two months after the book’s release (as it has that “new book” smell). If after June the book hasn’t “caught on” it probably won’t. You can still promote and still pimp, but it’s “old news” after that.

For Pip, though, she’s got SPECTYR (the sequel to GEIST) coming at the end of June, so there will be some serious gear shifting during the May-hem. Rather appropriate, now that I think about it.

VENTRELLA: This is your first novel with a major publisher (if I am not mistaken). What differences have you found between Harper and Dragon Moon? (And why do so many small publishers have “Dragon” in their name? My publisher is Double Dragon. Maybe they should merge and become Double Dragon Moon.)

MORRIS: Apart from the advance (which is a mixed blessing in itself), the distribution (which is a blessing no matter how you look at it) and the layout of the book (which I did for myself quite often because I liked that), there is still a “team” feel about working indie and working corporate. I have noticed with Harper Voyager that our publicist is also working hard to get our names and book out there to critics and media outlets, both traditional and new. Having that kind of support in publicity has been very nice! Dragon Moon and I did a lot of great things together, but distribution was always a challenge. I grew as a writer, and they gave me my first opportunity. A lot of terrific things happened to me because of it.

Harper Voyager is not my first orbit around the Moon, but it is definitely my “small step” and “giant leap” into what I hope will be my writing career.

VENTRELLA: You travel to many conventions to promote your books. Do you advise aspiring authors to attend these things? What do you get out of these conventions yourself?

MORRIS: Something else that I have learned in my years as a writer is really, really listen to what other authors have to say. (Both good and bad, when it comes to advice.) Perhaps one of the most important nuggets of know-how I got was from Hugo/Nebula/Aurora/insert-SF-writing-award-here winning author Robert J Sawyer:

“When you get an advance, don’t spend it. That advance is your marketing and advertising budget.”

I was traveling without an advance as my budget, and pushed myself several of thousands of dollars into debt. Even when I was writing books like PODCASTING FOR DUMMIES and ALL A TWITTER, I was already so deep in the red. People across the country had my books in hand, sure, but I was broke. Part of the problem was poor financial planning. When I got out of that debt, I plan events very differently now.

Don’t get me wrong, I love going to these conventions. I love talking shop, meeting other authors, and talking to other fans, not just about what I write, but about other geeky things like Firefly, Eureka, and steampunk. I dig that. But as I mentioned on my blog, these conventions are not cheap. I get invited to a lot of cons, but unless some of these costs are offset, I can’t go. In my early days/years, I would never make claims to have cons offset my costs. However, I have to make it a point of asking now as it’s just not that easy for me financially. I think cons are great for authors, provided you are smart about which cons you are going to attend; and more importantly, what you can afford.

VENTRELLA: How has the publishing industry changed since you entered it?

MORRIS: Well, there’s the e-book market for starters. The whole e-book movement has really been fascinating to watch. I think with the development of the ePub format, the elegance of iBook and the Kindle, and the affordability of digital books in comparison to hardbounds, the e-book is coming into its own. The publishing industry is now being forced to adapt, and I think many publishers are on top of it.

I’m also noticing over the year a growing animosity between writers and publishers, more of it coming from writer. There’s a mentality of “Us vs. Them” which rings hollow when I hear writers say “We understand it’s a business.” I’ve always regarded my career as a business, and I can only hope that I’m still writing when my child is in college. Harper Voyager have asked a lot from Pip and myself, but we are all working together to make the best book possible. If the book is a hit, it’s a win from everyone involved. That’s why I’m a little put off by that argument.

Something I have noticed, too, is that misconception of “writers just writing and letting someone else handle promotion as that is someone else’s job” is finally dying out. Even older authors have recognized the power and potential in podcasting, blogging, and social networking. Writers have needed to become Swiss Army Knives, wearing many hats and building up neck muscles in order to support them all. We have to look beyond “the end” and work with our publisher and the public to make our upcoming titles meet their potential.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest misconception beginning writers have about the craft?

MORRIS: The biggest misconception (apart from the one mentioned in the previous question) is the editor is out to “ruin” your work. Only bad editors tell you something like “Change it, or else.” An editor’s job is to make your good book a great book, and in this process help you become a better writer. Again, it’s a team effort. And when you do have a point of contention, you have to defend your choice with facts and resources backing up your facts. Simply saying “because it is cool” doesn’t cut it. I am thankful for every editor I’ve had, and I am a better, smarter writer because of them.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you see beginning writers make?

MORRIS: Superiority complexes. I’ve seen this in both writers with big and indie houses and it sickens me. A byline doesn’t make you any better a person. You just come across to people as a right jerk …with a byline. Maybe fans would “look away” once upon a time, but that kind of behavior can affect your sales. It can also make you a real leper amongst your peers. And even with books, awards, and movie deals (if you are really blessed) behind you, try and keep your head on straight. This ride can end at the drop of a bowler hat. I know that. So, I do what I can to be the best person (who just happens to have a byline) I can be.

VENTRELLA: What’s your next project?

MORRIS: My next project is a steampunk reboot of MOREVI. I love the story and I love the characters of MOREVI; but as it is, MOREVI is not ready for the mainstream press. It needs a rewrite. It needs a new direction. And it needs, for the love of God, to lose the elves. Those were my co-author’s touch, and I’ve hated them since the original printing.

I don’t have a problem with elves. They’re like Vulcans with better tailors. I just felt like they were not a good fit with MOREVI, and I think a complete reboot with Rafe taking to the skies and the region be China. (Still kicking around ideas, you know.) It would be something like Battlestar Galactica, only without so much gender bending.

me&tee

Interview with Lawrence M. Schoen

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am honored to be interviewing Hugo-nominated author Lawrence M. Schoen. Lawrence holds a PhD in cognitive psychology and spent ten years as a college professor. He’s also one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Klingon language. A few years back he started Paper Golem, a speculative fiction small press aimed at serving the niche of up-and-coming new authors as well as providing a market for novellas. In 2007 he was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer and in 2010 received a Hugo nomination for best short story. He’s the author Guest of Honor at Lunacon next weekend (March 18-20, 2011), where he’ll have a book launch for his second novel, BUFFALITO CONTINGENCY. (I’m just a regular guest, but I am on at least one panel with him!).

Lawrence, Do you enjoy conventions and do you advise authors to attend them?

LAWRENCE M. SCHOEN: I love conventions! Most of my friends are either authors or fans (or both) and they’re scattered all over. Conventions are often my only opportunity to see them and catch up. It’s become trite to talk about how writing is such a solitary experience and how only other authors can really relate to the tribulations of the life, but the reason it’s trite is because there’s so much truth in it. It’s incredibly comforting to settle in with other writers and listen as they share their own joys and complaints and be reminded that it’s actually a kind of club.

Back in my psychology days, I attended research conferences for much the same set of reasons. One of my graduate professors, a brilliant scholar named Thaddeus Cowan — the only person I know to have invented a new impossible figure! — told me that that when it comes to conferences and conventions you’re looking for three things: 1) meet up with an old friend, 2) make a new friend, and 3) come away with a fresh idea. If you do any two, it’s a good event, and if you manage all three, it’s great. Most conventions I’ve been to, I’ve been lucky enough to hit all three, over and over again.

Having said that, I don’t think every author should attend conventions. Conventions aren’t a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. I’m an extravert, a big guy with a loud voice. Having been a professor for ten years, I’m very comfortable standing in front of a room full of people and telling everyone what I think about something, at length. I’m completely at home in that kind of setting, but I know people who can’t abide crowds, let alone being trapped in a room with a bunch of loud people with big egos. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be an either/or kind of thing. I think you can be very successful as a writer without stepping into the spotlight and bloviating. A shyer author can attend a convention, hang out in the background and chat quietly with other authors and fans, attend functions and make connections. There’s plenty of room for variety, and even people like me get tired and calm down eventually and welcome a quiet conversation before the day’s out.

VENTRELLA: You are known in large part for your promotion and publication of Klingon translations of Shakespeare and other works. What led you to the interest in the language?

SCHOEN: I’ve always been fascinated with languages. I’m not necessarily particularly talented at them — it’s not like I have a great ear for languages, or learn them quickly, I just enjoy them. My academic expertise is in psycholinguistics. I stumbled into Klingon with the right set of skills at the beginning of the internet explosion. So I was in the right place at the right time. Traditionally, the two things that hinder any language, natural or constructed, are 1) time, and 2) distance. I became immersed in Klingon at the precise moment when these factors ceased to be an issue, when the technology and expertise allowed real time communication with people almost anywhere in the world, something that other constructed languages hadn’t previously enjoyed. It was like being on a linguistic rollercoaster, and the ride’s been going nonstop for twenty years!

VENTRELLA: You also established a small press company called “Paper Golem” a few years ago. What led you to that decision?

SCHOEN: I’m extraordinarily lucky. I have a good job that pays me a decent wage for part time work. That leaves me free to do things like write. A few years ago some members of Codex (an online community of writers) were kicking around ideas for generating more group identity, and I offered to edit a reprint anthology for them. When I looked at the numbers, I realized it wasn’t that much more time and money to set myself up to do additional books as it was to do just that one book. Basically, I was in a position to commit an act of “paying it forward” and that’s how Paper Golem came about. It’s not intended to make a lot of money. The goals of the press are much more modest. I’m very happy to have a book break even, and anything extra gets folded into the next project. We’ve put out four books to date, with another one due in May. And the last book, ALEMBICAL 2, has an original novella that’s up for a Nebula Award. As you can imagine I’m feeling pretty chuffed about that.

VENTRELLA: What works have you released through Paper Golem that have impressed you?

SCHOEN: We have two “series” that we do. First, I’m committed to providing a venue for novellas, because there aren’t a lot of places where you can sell a story that’s in the 20K – 40K word range, particularly if you’re not a Big Name Author. That’s what ALEMBICAL is for. Second, I like the idea of doing single author collections for writers who are producing incredible stories but haven’t yet written and sold a novel. These are authors who deserve to be read, who deserve to have their work gathered in one place so that potential readers can find them and be delighted. Our first single author collection was for Cat Rambo, and it’s absolutely beautiful. The next one, which I’m finishing up even now, is by Eric James Stone, and contains a novelette that’s also just been nominated for a Nebula Award. It’s incredibly satisfying to work with such talented authors who are going to transform this field as they progress through their careers.

VENTRELLA: Has Paper Golem been the success you hoped?

SCHOEN: Absolutely, particularly because (and this may be the same mindset that originally set me on the road of being an academician) I don’t measure success in terms of how much money is produced. Paper Golem is bringing quality fiction to print, and if you love reading good science fiction and fantasy then there really isn’t a higher mark to hit.

VENTRELLA: What does a small press offer than the larger publishing houses cannot?

SCHOEN: The ability to take chances. The opportunity to work with authors as a labor of love without having to justify it to the accountant. There are tradeoffs, of course. Would I love to publish a best seller? Sure. More sales would mean more money to do more books, but it would also mean reaching more people and introducing them to authors they might not have otherwise found. Don’t get me wrong, I love big presses, and I love what they do. But small presses serve a different niche. Small presses are all about the long tail, the specialized market. For Paper Golem that’s novella-length fiction and newer authors, and seriously, that’s not all that specialized. Somewhere I’m sure there’s a small press that is specialized to serve the reading desires of people who want nothing but humorous SF stories about talking, vampire cats solving computer crime in space. Hmm… I wonder if anyone has a novella about that…

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

SCHOEN: Lately I’ve become more and more upset about the economics and how that drives what publishing does. I’ve seen author friends who are working on series get dropped by their publishers because while the series is profitable, it’s not as profitable as hoped, so the author has to change publishers, and in effect end their series (the big exception to this being Carrie Vaugh) because what new publisher would want to pick up a series with book #5 when the rights to books #1 through #4 are tied up elsewhere? I understand that publishing is a business, and it would be criminally naive to imagine otherwise, but I don’t read because doing so puts money in some editor’s pocket or employs a proof reader or marketing department; I read because I enjoy what a given author creates.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read for pleasure?

SCHOEN: I read anything by Walter Jon Williams, Karl Schroeder, Daniel Abraham, China Mieville. I go on binges where I’ll read everything I can get by a particular author that I’ve stumbled over or rediscovered in my library, and I’ll keep tearing through all of that author’s work for a while until I’m sated and have to come up for air. Last year I devoured books by the late Kage Baker. Right now I’m in the middle of Michael Chabon.

VENTRELLA: How has your background as a psychologist influenced your work?

SCHOEN: I trained as a researcher, and so everything comes back to a question. Everything gets turned into a testable hypothesis. Why does the character do X. What happens if the bad guy is thwarted by removing Y from his path. What are the systematic variables that can affect the outcome? This kind of worldview permeates not just my fiction, but also my daily wife. It drives my wife nuts!

VENTRELLA: How did you come up with the concept of The Amazing Conroy?

SCHOEN: Some years back I was enrolled in the two week workshop that James Gunn offers out of the University of Kansas. It was the last night; we were done. Everyone had gathered and in a celebratory mood, and this line of dialogue just popped into my head and right out of my mouth without any control. It was “Put down the buffalo dog and step away from the bar!”

As soon as I said the room went quiet and everyone was staring at me. I had no idea what it meant or where it had come from, but I vowed to one day write a story with that line. It took years, but then, one day, I found myself writing “Buffalo Dogs.” At the time, I had no idea it was going to lead to another quarter million words and a branded identity.

VENTRELLA: There seems to be a theme in much of speculative fiction about super-humans – the “chosen one” who has special powers no one else has who is the subject of a prophecy to save the world blah blah blah. Of course, that’s an old theme going back forever. The main characters in my books are just normal guys who do their best, make mistakes, yet win in the end, and you have the same attitude in your work. So why do these kinds of characters appeal to you?

SCHOEN: I blame Thornton Wilder. I had to read a lot of his stuff back in high school, and he spent a fair amount of time championing the “every man.” Ordinary people finding themselves in extraordinary circumstances are much easier for a reader to relate to than someone who is superhuman in extraordinary circumstances. Most of us are never going to be James Bond, but we very well could be the guy who lives in the apartment next door to him (of course it’s not his real apartment, just one he keeps as a cover). I like protagonists who aren’t jaded by the chaos and adventure of their lives, but rather are dragged into it by surprise, kicking all the way.

VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?

SCHOEN: The answer to that is constantly changing, because I’m constantly changing as a writer. I’m very happy with the new novel, and I think it represents a new high point in my ability to craft a complex story and tell an entertaining tale. There’s a short story I wrote a while back that came out in January of last year and that I secretly (well, not so secretly now) harbor an unlikely hope that it will make the Hugo ballot. It’s called “The Wrestler and the Spearfisher” and it’s one of my infrequent jaunts into Fantasy.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? Do you outline heavily, for instance?

SCHOEN: I’m constantly changing how I work, trying new things. Nowadays, I’m trying to get better at blocking out the scenes in a story or novel before I do too much of the writing. I’m somewhat transitioning from being a seat-of-the-pants writer (what some like to call a “discovery writer”) to an outliner, but I suspect I’m going to stop far short of the end. I’m enjoying knowing more about a work before I sit down to write it though. It’s very different from the way I used to work. But will it last? We’ll just have to see.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting author that you wish someone had given you? What is the biggest mistake you see aspiring authors make?

SCHOEN: Problems in Perspective. There are always going to be bigger fish, and if you constantly compare your attainments to them, you’re always going to make yourself miserable. Keep a perspective on things and don’t view this business as a zero-sum game. Instead, if you have to be competitive, compete with yourself. Are you further along now than you were at this time last year? Is your prose improving? Are your plots more involved? Work on improving yourself, rather than trying to be as good as someone else. You’ll get there sooner, and you’ll be happier along the way.

16

Interview with Hugo award winning author Peter Beagle

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am honored to be interviewing Hugo award winning author Peter Beagle. I emailed some questions to him and was thrilled when he took some time from his busy schedule to send me back a voice recording of his answers!

Peter Beagle is probably best known for his novel and screenplay of THE LAST UNICORN. His other acclaimed novels include A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE, TAMSIN, and THE INNKEEPER’S SONG. He also has a number of short story collections and nonfiction works to his name.

Besides THE LAST UNICORN screenplay, he has also written the screenplays for Ralph Bakshi’s animated The Lord of the Rings and the episode “Sarek” for Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The transcript follows:

Mr. Beagle, THE LAST UNICORN was made into an animated film back in the days when maybe we’d get two animated features a year. How did that arrangement come about?

PETER BEAGLE: It came about because a red-headed rascal named Michael Chase Walker not only optioned the book from me but eventually — and this doesn’t often happen with options — eventually paid the purchase price to buy the rights to the book and then turned around desperately looking for a deal to make believing that somebody would want to make this book into a movie. He ran through a lot of people back then before he finally got Rankin and Bass to fall in love with it.

VENTRELLA: Were you happy with the results artistically?

BEAGLE: I’m as happy with it as their budget would allow them to be themselves. They did some wonderful work in it. There’s nothing that appalls me; nothing that makes me want to leave the country. At its best, it’s marvelous. It rarely has a ‘worst’ to it. I found myself saying, when watching it a year or so ago, “Oh my god, the damn thing’s a classic.”

VENTRELLA: How did the “lost” version of that book come about?

BEAGLE: Well, I started the book when I was twenty three. That summer I was sharing a cabin in the Berkshires in Massachusetts with my closest friend from childhood who was a painter, and still is. I began writing a story — just a story about a unicorn going somewhere with a companion who I couldn’t see, because he was out all day working on an enormous landscape. He’d make his lunch and then pack the landscape on the back of his motor scooter and I wouldn’t see him all day, and I wanted to show him that I had been working on something all day and not just fooling around in the warm sun or playing with the guitar. So I tried several stories that summer, and none of them seemed to work.

And then I found myself writing this story about a unicorn traveling somewhere in search of her people. It was almost completely different from THE LAST UNICORN that people know. I got about 85 pages done that summer and then simply hit the wall. I didn’t know what I was doing — well, I didn’t know what I was doing writing the whole book anyway — but I really didn’t know where this should go and I just dropped it. I put it aside, about 85 pages in, and wrote another book, nonfiction, about crossing the country with the same friend on a couple of motorscooters.

And then the mother of my children gently nagged me to get back to it. She’d read the original version and wanted to know what comes next. And I threw out — or thought I had thrown out (my mother kept everything, thank goodness) — I threw out everything but the first couple of pages from the earlier version and started over. What is out as the “lost version” was printed and will be republished is basically that first 85 pages. A reader would recognize certain things at the beginning and be absolutely baffled by a whole lot else.

VENTRELLA: Do you prefer screenplays to novels?

BEAGLE: Fiction is more fun — writing books in general is more fun — but screenplays pay better.

VENTRELLA: You are the Guest of Honor at Philcon this year. (I’m just a regular guest, but I’m hoping to maybe be on at least one panel with you!). Do you enjoy conventions and do you advise authors to attend them?

BEAGLE: When I pull into a convention, I always imagine myself and my business manager as a couple of peddlers coming to town with their cart and their mule, setting up shop by the roadside, and selling out of the wagon. There are extra elements to a convention. There are people I only meet there — there are friends I make at conventions that I never see during the rest of the year — and generally, I’ve had very good experiences. Some have touched me very deeply. And there are people I look forward to seeing when I know I am going to be in that town and I know they’ll be coming. But I never advise a writer to do too much of it. I didn’t do conventions at all for years, and I’m trying to cut down, because one is supposed to be home working and it’s not simply the time, it’s the energy. You only have so much and it usually takes me a couple of days to get charged up again after a convention. At a convention, you’re running on adrenaline, and that’s not the same thing.

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

BEAGLE: I’m trying seriously to at least cut down on the elder goddesses, cats, and music, as well as shapeshifters. Gotta watch it with the shapeshifters, they’ll turn up in my work. I’m doing pretty well with most of them but you have to watch the cats. Every time you take your eye off a cat, it shows up in your story.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read for pleasure?

BEAGLE: Well, I read far less fantasy and science fiction than you might think. I read a lot of history because my father was a history teacher and I have a taste for it. I’m getting back to reading poetry — I got scared off in college, which happens to a lot of people. And I have favorite writers whose books I’ll pounce on. Right now, I’m reading a novel I missed by John le Carre. I like mysteries very much and le Carre has an extra dimension, an extra depth that most mystery writers don’t have.

In fantasy, I look for books by old friends like Patricia McKillip and Robin McKinley and Patrick Rothfuss — I’m still waiting for his second book to come out. And I re-read a lot. I re-read books I haven’t read in years that I just want to see again, like visiting an old friend. I re-read George McDonald Fraser’s FLASHMAN novels. Flashman is an absolute scoundrel. There is nothing to be said for Flashman. It’s a rat’s eye view of 19th century English European history. There’s something just inspiring about Flashman’s badness because at least he never pretends he is anything other than what he really is! You can’t ask more from a character.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting author that you wish someone had given you? What is the biggest mistake you see aspiring authors make?

BEAGLE: The biggest mistake — it’s not even a mistake, but something I wish an author had told me: Don’t get too mad at yourself when you do it wrong. Just do it again. Because that’s most of it, just doing it again, learning by doing it wrong.

The thing I always tell people who want to write is that you have to show up for work. Most people haven’t got the patience. The talent doesn’t have anything to do with it. I know a lot of people with as much or more talent than I have … But I will sit there, even when nothing is coming. Anybody can write when the stuff is flowing. But I’ll sit there until, as Red Smith, the great sportswriter said, “I’ll stare at the blank screen or page until little drops of blood start to come out of my forehead.” That’s how you know you’re writing.

When I was fifteen or sixteen, I met a writer through friends named Charles Jackson who I’m sure isn’t remembered these days except for the movie that was made out of his novel THE LAST UNICORN. [laughs] I’m sorry, THE LOST WEEKEND, which was about an alcoholic. It was made into a movie, and was very successful. But when I met him, he wasn’t writing fiction. He was working for one of the early television soap operas. And being the age I was, I was immensely snobbish. How can somebody who wrote THE LOST WEEKEND lower himself to write for a TV soap? We rode in on the train together from Connecticut to New York, and he told me, among other things, “I can only really write about something that’s a part of me. I am an alcoholic, so THE LOST WEEKEND came out of what I know. And there hasn’t really been anything like that since.” I remember him telling me this: “I can probably get a hundred thousand dollar advance on my name for a new book of any sort, but you can’t do that. It’s not honorable. What I’m doing may not seem like much to you, writing for this soap opera, but it’s honorable work, and it’s professional. And when something erupts in my life that wants me to write about it, then I will. Meanwhile, I’ll do this.”

He wasn’t scolding me. He wasn’t coming down on me or anything like that; he was very gentle. But he taught me a thing about what is professional and honorable. What you can do and what you can’t, even if you need the money.

Charles Jackson had principles. I make jokes about having no principles of my own because I can’t afford them, but when I do come up against a principle, I know what it is. I’ve usually got ten seconds to make a decision. I hate it, but I think of Charles Jackson. He was gay, by the way, which he didn’t go into, and he did write a novel after that — again, this was in the 1950s — from the point of view of a gay man. He’s long dead. If anyone reads anything of his, it’s probably for a film class that included THE LOST WEEKEND. But he was a good guy and I’ve never forgotten him.

The biggest mistake an aspiring author makes is thinking either that nothing you write is any good or that everything you write is good, and neither one is true. The biggest mistake is listening to too many people and also — and this I talk about a lot — confusing writing with publishing. It’s not the same thing at all. Publishing is a business. Publishing involves making someone else some money and maybe a little bit for yourself. Writing, storytelling, art — that’s another matter. I’m not being romantic about it; there’s just not a lot of connection between the two.

There’s a saying that an artist is someone who can’t not be an artist, and that’s really what matters. If you can’t do without being an artist, then it really doesn’t matter if it doesn’t sell. You don’t burn the manuscript, for heaven’s sake, you find a place for it … The only publication that would touch my story “Lila the Werewolf” back in the 1960s was a college magazine at UC Santa Cruz. Later on, it got picked up, but I just wanted it published.

Me and Peter Beagle

Interview with Walter H. Hunt

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Walter H. Hunt is a science fiction writer known primarily for his “Dark Wing” series, a “military space opera.” His most recent work, A SONG IN STONE, deals with the Knights Templar. He lives near my old stomping grounds (Boston area) with his wife and daughter. His web page is here.

Walter, you began writing scenarios for games. (As a person who has done the same — albeit for LARPs — I know what that’s like!) How did you get published that way? In other words, how did you turn your hobby into a business?

WALTER H. HUNT: I had the good fortune to encounter Rich Meyer and Kerry Lloyd of Gamelords in 1981 and was pulled into the company as a writer. Between 1981 and 1984 I worked on a number of projects for them. When they stopped publishing Richard and I (along with others, including my wife) began Adventure Architects to write free-lance in the game industry. We worked for Mayfair, Iron Crown, FASA, and several other companies.

VENTRELLA: Is there still much of a market out there for writing for games?

HUNT: It seems so, though I haven’t done any of it for quite some time.

VENTRELLA: When did you decide to start writing fiction, and what were your first attempts like?

HUNT: When I was in elementary school. And it was predictably awful, though it meant that I wrote lots and lots of words and learned how to set scenes and compose dialog. I wrote six novels in middle and high school. They will never be seen, I hope.

VENTRELLA: How did you get your first big break?

HUNT: I’d shown a manuscript to a friendly editor at a convention in 1987, and when he began working for Tor Books in 2000 he contacted me through a mutual friend to see if I still had it available. The mutual friend lined up the agent, so I got the agent and the publisher at the same time. Lucky break – though it took almost 14 years for me to get so lucky.

VENTRELLA: Lately it seems that fantasy of all varieties has taken the place of science fiction on the bookshelves. To what do you attribute this change?

HUNT: Haven’t a clue. There is a lot of bad fantasy, but there is a lot of bad science fiction too – especially on television. Sturgeon’s Law, I suppose.

VENTRELLA: Your most recent work is about the Knights Templar and the Rosslyn Chapel, something most people had never heard of before Dan Brown. How did you decide to tackle that subject?

HUNT: The Order of the Temple is an interesting subject, with plenty of scope for writing. I’d heard of Rosslyn before reading the Brown book – it’s common pseudohistorical fodder in Masonic circles, and I’ve been a Freemason since 1988. When we went to Scotland for Worldcon in 2005 I put it on my itinerary, and was fortunate to receive a tour from a fellow Mason. He pointed to the ceiling of the lady-chapel and said, “that’s the Rosslyn music.” As the lead character in “Despicable Me” is fond of saying, “light bulb.” By the time I came back from Scotland the book was plotted and partially written.

VENTRELLA: You are a regular at science fiction conventions (and indeed, we have been on panels together!). Why do you attend them?

HUNT: Why, to meet fascinating colleagues. Seriously, the opportunity to meet readers and fellow writers is something not to be passed up. For professionals (or aspiring professionals), there are editors and publishers as well. I arranged my most recent book deal at NASFiC this summer by having the right conversation with the right person. And I’m still a fan: I’ve gotten to sit next to people like Robert Sheckley and Frederik Pohl and Connie Willis and David Brin and a dozen others – and talk to them (and listen to them. More listen than talk, I hope.)

VENTRELLA: What advice would you have for an aspiring genre writer for attending these things, even if they haven’t been published yet?

HUNT: Finish the book. No one buys an idea from an aspiring writer – only a manuscript. But by all means believe in your own work; I have seen too many occasions when an unpublished writer lets his/her work be folded, spindled and mutilated by people who want to make it into something else because it might be more “publishable.” Write what you understand, trust your creative instinct, and finish it.

VENTRELLA: What’s your pet peeve about the industry?

HUNT: I’ve heard it said that the criteria and market studies for genre fiction are thirty-plus years out of date. I think that some editors base decisions on what to buy and what to promote based on inaccurate perceptions of the composition and demographics of the buying public. But, again, I have no idea if this is true.

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

HUNT: To assume that there’s any money in this business. I’m married; as the old joke goes, “what do you call a full-time writer who’s single?” The answer is, of course, “homeless.”

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on small press and self-publishing?

HUNT: Small press deserves better respect, and I think the internet is helping with that. My Rosslyn book A SONG IN STONE is currently published by a small press. Self-publishing is a mistake: it says, essentially, “no one professional will buy my work, but maybe the reader will. I hope so, my garage is full of these things I paid to print.” So I’d wait to have someone buy my work.

VENTRELLA: I see you are a historian or sorts, having studied that in college. With a time machine and a universal translator, who would you invite to your ultimate dinner party?

HUNT: Top of the list would be Benjamin Franklin – polymath, wit, diplomat, Freemason. Erasmus of Rotterdam. Stanley Weinbaum and Cyril Kornbluth, two great science fiction writers. My parents, whom I miss terribly (they’ve been gone for twenty years and never saw me succeed as an author. My mom would enjoy meeting Franklin, I suspect.)

You know that Hendrik van Loon did this little thought experiment, right?

VENTRELLA: Um, no. Hendrik van Loon? Did you make that name up?

Goofing off at Capclave 2014

Goofing off at Capclave 2014

Interview with author Alan Goldsher

I recently interviewed author Alan Goldsher, whose zombie novel PAUL IS UNDEAD has just been released. Most of my interviews are done over email but Alan was willing to do it through a phone call, which I enjoyed quite a bit!

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I just finished reading PAUL IS UNDEAD, being the big Beatles fan that I am. I hear rumors that this has already has the film rights sold. Is that true?

ALAN GOLDSHER: What was bought was an option from Double Feature Films which is owned by Stacey Sher and Michael Shamberg. They produced “Pulp Fiction” and “Erin Brockovitch” – they’ve done a whole bunch of great stuff. When we were shopping around the novel, they read it from top to bottom and fell in love with it.

Right now they’re putting together talent – screenwriter, director, some stars…

I produced a screenplay for it and I’m really happy with it but if they want to go in another direction if someone wants to, I’m sure they’ll find someone to knock it out of the ballpark. That’s it! Cross your fingers.

VENTRELLA: You actually sold the rights before the book was published?

GOLDSHER: That is correct.

VENTRELLA: Wow. You’ve got a good agent.

GOLDHER: Well, you’ve read it – I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s a particularly visual book, wouldn’t you say?

VENTRELLA: I would think so! I assume they’re going to make it sort of as a mockumentary, sort of like how the book was?

GOLDSHER: You know, that’s like the screenplay that I wrote but there is a concern among some that they should shy away from mockumentaries. I feel that you’ve got “Best in Show” and “Spinal Tap” – and those are classics. Zombies with a documentary format I’d like to think that has the potential to reach that audience that will be loyal and stick with it.

But if they want to do a typical three act thing, I’m sure they’ll find someone great to do it.

VENTRELLA: Do you think there will be any sort of issue over the rights to the songs?

GOLDSHER: That’s certainly an issue. The hard part (and the expensive part) would be using their versions of the songs. If we were to do cover versions, it’s significantly more affordable. For “Across the Universe” they paid $23 million dollars to get the rights, and that’s the budget of an entire movie in some cases.

I have one idea that’s pretty cool, but I’m not sure if anyone is going to bite on it… since we’re dealing with an alternate universe, take the existing songs, throw away the melodies, leave the lyrics and get completely different Beatleseque melodies, and get a very Beatles-sounding band…

VENTRELLA: Sort of a Rutles thing?

GOLDSHER: Yeah, except with the original lyrics. The only thing that will be similar will be the sonic aspect of it. You know, make a song from ’62 sound like it was recorded in ’62. I think that would be cool in that (a) it will be different and interesting and (b) it makes the soundtrack a hot item.

VENTRELLA: That’s true. I certainly bought the Rutles albums…

GOLDSHER: So we’ll see. There’s a lot in the air but as is the case with most books translated to screen situations, the writer doesn’t have too much say. Still, they’re open to hearing my ideas but they’re the pros. They’ll make the final decision.

VENTRELLA: So do you think Paul, as a vegetarian, will object to being portrayed as somebody who eats brains?

GOLDSHER: That’s a good question! Do you want to hear the Paul story?

VENTRELLA: Absolutely!

GOLDSHER: I heard this from a London Times reporter maybe three months before the book came out. He told me that he was at the BAFTA awards speaking with Jason Reichtman and who wanders over but Paul McCartney! Paul and Jason have a long mutual admiration society discussion and there’s this reporter – this is the first time he has ever met a Beatle – God knows why he said this, but he said “Have you ever heard of PAUL IS UNDEAD?”

I mean, if I’m meeting a Beatle, I’m not mentioning my book!

But he asked if Paul had ever heard of PAUL IS UNDEAD and Paul said “We put that rubbish to bed in the 60s.”

And the reporter said, “No, not ‘Paul is dead’ but PAUL IS UNDEAD. It’s a book about you guys as zombies.”

And Paul said “Oh. Heh heh heh” and then he walked away.

VENTRELLA: So now he knows of it.

GOLDSHER: He knows it exists. Ringo knows it exists too because a New York Times reporter mentioned it to him in an interview last month, before his 70th birthday. Ringo was very diplomatic as you would expect from Ringo who is just clearly a nice man. “Well, I don’t read any of the books about the Beatles, I’m just glad the records keep going.” I don’t think he’s going to say a bad thing about anyone.

VENTRELLA: Well, he definitely came across in the book as the nicest guy of the four, you’ve got to admit.

GOLDSHER: I’m sure you’ve watched the Anthology set…

VENTRELLA: Oh, of course.

GOLDSHER: He’s just such a nice man. I’ve watched the Anthology about six or seven times all the way through. At the end of it, Ringo gets kind of teary-eyed and says, “The Beatles were about four guys who really loved each other.” That kind of stuck in my head as I was writing the book. Ringo’s just a sweetheart and he was also the last in the band and he always seemed a little put upon because he wasn’t part of the original gang.

That’s part of why I made him a ninja. It’s kind of a huge metaphor for that. Also, often times in horror books – DRACULA, for instance – there is a living, breathing guide to the underworldy beings. So Ringo’s kind of that guide. He makes sure that nothing bad happens to them on this earth.

VENTRELLA: Did you have any problems with the characters being unlikable in that, you know, they murder people and eat their brains?

GOLDSHER: I think since you’re coming in with a preconception since the Beatles are intrinsically likable, since the humor is so silly and the gore is over the top that it’s kind of hard to dislike them.

VENTRELLA: I agree that you can’t take the book seriously in that regard in that it’s kind of a satire… well, it’s not really a satire… I don’t know! How do you describe it?

GOLDSHER: We had all kinds of discussions before we started the book deal about the legalities of it. There’s some law – if it’s satire or parody, you’d know this better than I would – if it’s very obviously satire then you’re cool as long as you don’t libel anybody.

VENTRELLA: Yes.

GOLDSHER: We were very very careful. We didn’t say anything out-and-out bad like “This guy’s an asshole” or “This guy’s a dick.” Instead it was “Here’s what he knows in this alternate universe.” There’s no way you can believe it, it’s very obviously a parody.

I also tried very hard to tell it with as much love as possible. I really do love the Beatles! I love the band and I hope that comes across.

VENTRELLA: It does.

GOLDSHER: And I’d like to think that if they do read it – If Paul or Ringo or Yoko or anybody associated with the group or who was mentioned in the book reads it that they will realize we’re just having fun, and that’s just a gory, disgusting love letter.

VENTRELLA: Did you ever say to yourself “Oh, this reference is too obscure.” I certainly caught things that an average reader would not… such as John’s first girlfriend, that kind of stuff…

GOLDSHER: I wanted to include as many obscure facts as I could for people like you, who would read it. To me, it made it feel very insider for all the Beatles nerds to take Thelma Pickles’ name and laugh at it since it’s so ridiculous. The whole thing about Jimmy Nichols – those are the kinds that keep Beatles fans from looking at me and thinking “Wow, he’s just trying to wreck the Beatles name and he doesn’t really care about the group.”

I care about the group! I did research for things like when I named their instruments. I was very careful. “This was the instrument Paul was using in ’64 so here’s what he would throw against the wall.” Little nerd stuff like that. Many fans know that stuff right off the top of their heads. I have some incredible nerdy friends. Yeah, I wanted there to be this stuff so people like me wouldn’t get offended.

VENTRELLA: It’s nice when you can make that kind of insider joke and someone else will get it. I was in a band in Boston and playing in a club and a bunch of German sailors were in the audience who were cheering and yelling. My friend Matt then shouted out “Mach Shau!” and maybe three people got it… but it was nice to know someone did.

GOLDSHER: Yeah, if one person gets it, it’s cool. But we are nerds together.

VENTRELLA: Are you working on a sequel now for the solo years?

GOLDSHER: Well, not for the solo years. It’s called POPPERMOST OVER AMERICA will take place immediately after PAUL IS DEAD ends.

VENTRELLA: So you’ll be a zombie in the sequel?

GOLDSHER: No, I actually don’t get turned into a zombie! Put down “Spoiler Alert!” They kidnap me and take me along on their Poppermost Over America tour, where they will continue their quest to take over the world. And depending on what the legal department of whatever publisher I end up going with will say, I’ll put current musicians in there and contemporary figures who will try to stop the Beatles from taking over.

VENTRELLA: Have you read any other similar books? Have you read PAPERBACK WRITER by Mark Shipper?

GOLDSHER: I did not. A number of people have pointed out to me that the book exists, but I didn’t know about it.

VENTRELLA: It’s nothing like yours other than the fact that it’s a fake Beatles history.

GOLDSHER: Is it fun? Is it a good book?

VENTRELLA: Oh, it’s hilarious! It rewrites the history and is full of insider jokes, but it’s been out of print for years.

GOLDSHER: When was it written?

VENTRELLA: Probably in the early 80s, I’m guessing (EDIT: Turns out it was in 1977.)

GOLDSHER: I should probably seek it out so I am knowledgeable in case anyone else ever asks me about it.

VENTRELLA: It’s only because yours are the only two I know of that are fake Beatles histories. Other than that, there’s no relationship. He just changed history and made it funnier.

GOLDSHER: There’s a mythology about the Beatles, so it’s kind of easy to take these events and twist them because they’re already fun to start with!

VENTRELLA: Well, PAPERBACK WRITER came before the Rutles so it’s kind of the Rutles except they didn’t change the names.

Let’s talk about some of your other books. Was JAM your first novel?

GOLDSHER: JAM was the first, and that was almost an experiment to see if I could write a novel. It turned out pretty OK and people seemed to like it. I wrote it in ’96 and finished in ’97. Any writer who has written a number of books knows that it’s embarrassing to reflect on your first novel.

VENTRELLA: Well, I’ll agree with you there; I’d like to go back and rewrite mine. JAM is another music novel though, right?

GOLDSHER: It’s semi-autobiographical. I kind of put my own life in every book. At the beginning of PAUL IS UNDEAD, I discuss how I fell in love with McCartney’s music. That’s the absolute truth. I didn’t know who the Beatles were until I heard “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.”

VENTRELLA: I’m a little bit older than you, I guess. I got into them after “Let It Be” which was probably one of their weakest. At the time, I was still 12 years old or something, I was into the Monkees. Then I heard “Let It Be” and went “Hey, these guys are better than the Monkees!”

GOLDSHER: The first Beatles music I remember having was a 45 of “Hey Jude.” I had the close-and-play record player, and I brought it outside on a hot and sunny day and it melted! I don’t know how much it would be worth now, but it sure would be nice to have it…

Then I got the red and blue greatest hits album, and kind of worked my way backwards.

VENTRELLA: I remember my friend finally got the White Album and back then we didn’t know anything about it. He came to me with a list of songs on the album, and I thought he had made them up. “Oh, really? You expect me to believe there’s a song called ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’?”

GOLDSHER: (laughs) “There’s a song called ‘Piggies.”?

VENTRELLA: “‘Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey’?” Yeah, sure.”

GOLDSHER: How many animal songs on that record?

VENTRELLA: That’s true! I should count them. Back to your books though… you wrote some chick lit books?

GOLDSHER: I was working with a literary agent who said “You have an interesting ability to write in different voices and for an exercise, why don’t you write a chicklit book?” This was around 2004 and the chicklit market was happening at that point and he thought it could be something I could be part of. So I took JAM and took that basic outline and rewrote it with a female protagonist. And then on the second draft through, I threw all that out the window and it became its own entity.

I found a place for it with a publisher in the UK called Little Black Dress. For God knows what reason, they signed me to a three book deal. All three came out and they’ve done pretty well. Up until PAUL IS UNDEAD they were my bestselling books.

I’m working on a new one now called NO ORDINARY GIRL which is a paranormal chicklit book. It’s about a girl who has superpowers. It’s kind of a metaphor for – you know that these books are geared toward a very tight demographic? 21 to 29 women… the metaphor is that women have a certain part of them that they’re not happy with: “Oh, my ass is too big, I’ve got this mole on my face…” and this woman says, “Oh, I’ve got these superpowers.” So it’s about how she comes to terms with something she’s had since birth.

VENTRELLA: You started off writing nonfiction though, correct?

GOLDSHER: The first actual book I wrote was fiction. Then I wrote the book about jazz drummer Art Blakey. I was also doing magazine work at the time.

In a perfect world, I’d write whatever I want! Like right now, I’m jonesing to write a book about Miles Davis. My agent and I are trying to pitch the concept around, because (a) I love Miles Davis and (b) the Miles Davis books that are out there now – some of which are very, very good – are for jazz nerds like me. I’d like to write something that’s a little more populist. I think that would be a cool thing for the jazz canon. My first love was jazz.

VENTRELLA: You were a ghostwriter for quite a few people as well.

GOLDSHER: It’s exciting when it comes along.

VENTRELLA: How do you get those kinds of jobs? How do they seek you out?

GOLDSHER: It starts out with literary agents. The first project I did with a celebrity was Bernie Mac in 2000. He was working on his first book and this agent that I knew reached out and said “Would you be interested in ghostwriting the book and the proposal?”

“Absolutely,” I said. Bernie Mac is a funny, funny man and this was right before he was on the cusp of stardom. He’s from Chicago, and I’m from Chicago, and we hung out and had a great old time. We sold the book and then he ended up going with a ghostwriter who had a little more experience, which is one of the catch-22s about the entertainment industry: You can’t get the gig unless you have more experience and you can’t get more experience unless you get the gig.

That was a great notch in my belt, so in 2007, when I was working with another literary agent and another ghostwriting thing came up, I was ready and was attractive to potential clients.

The ghostwriting project I am proudest out was a book I did with a woman named Sarah Reinestsen. Sarah was the first female above-the-knee amputee to complete the Iron Man triathalon in Hawaii, and she is an absolute inspiration. She has a great joy and was very honest about relaying painful facts. The most painful one was that her father abused her. Her leg was amputated when she was seven, and her father physically and verbally abused her to the point where one consistent punishment for a while was threatening to take away her prosthetic leg if she wouldn’t wash the dishes or something. But she impressed me and it really shows in the book.

I did Robert Englund’s book which was a nice project. Robert was a sweet sweet man and if you were going to say there was a weakness about the project it was that he was too nice! He wouldn’t dish anything. I mean, you get Mackenzie Phillips coming out and saying “Oh, I slept with my dad” and the book is an immediate sensation and sells a lot of copies. With Robert, he talks about how much he loves this person and that person. That doesn’t really translate into sales. I don’t think he has a problem with that, though. He’s proud of the book as it is.

VENTRELLA: I assume as a ghostwriter you get paid a set amount as opposed to a percentage of the book sales.

GOLDSHER: Depends on your negotiations. David Ritz, one of the best pop culture ghostwriters out there, I guarantee gets a percentage of the books because he’s one of those guys whose name brings cache to the table.

VENTRELLA: Are you planning on going to any Beatles conventions to promote PAUL IS UNDEAD?

GOLDSHER: Maybe next year if the book is still doing well, and that’s not out of realm of possibility. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES is still doing well after a year. I will be at the Chicago Comic Con on the weekend of August 20, and then I’ll be at the Comic Con in New York on a panel on October 10.

VENTRELLA: I was going to be on a panel there as well until I realized it conflicted with another convention I had already committed to that exact same weekend.

GOLDSHER: I’m looking forward to it. I think that’s the best place to reach the people who would obviously like the book.

VENTRELLA: Most writers I know who have books on the bestseller lists still have jobs, too. It’s always amazing to me how (with a few exceptions) this is not as profitable an occupation as many people think.

GOLDSHER: I’m doing OK! We make the rent, and my wife and I are trying to start a family. I think there are two things that really help me are (1) I take rejection really well! How do we make this work? How can we get this off the ground? And (2) I have a legitimate interest in writing about all kinds of stuff in all kinds of different platforms and formats.

For instance, my agent hooked me up with a gentleman who had written a 175,000 word novel. That’s a long novel! There was a book buried in there and I had to dig it out. That was a bunch of work, just as if I had worked for a month anywhere else.

So I have all kinds of projects like that, like the superheroine book and a couple other mash-ups in the coffer – I’m doing one called FRANKENSTEIN HAS LEFT THE BUILDING, which is a retelling of the Frankenstein story with Elvis as the creature.

VENTRELLA: That’s the key, I think. The writers who do make a living at it are writing constantly, and they write all kinds of different things. Jonathan Maberry comes to mind; I notice that he gave you a quote for your book cover … He did the same for me, actually!

GOLDSHER: Jonathan’s a nice guy and I would love his career. He’s done wonders for himself. He’s a hustler and that’s also part of the business. And he’s like me in that he takes rejection really well. It seems like he comes up with an idea a day. He’s writing comic books and all sorts of stuff. Total admiration for Jonathan.

(Here we got into a prolonged discussion about bass guitars since both of us play bass. The conversation continued on after the tape ran out!)

Interview with Jody Lynn Nye

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing Jody Lynn Nye today. Since 1985, she has published 39 books and over 100 short stories. Among them are her epic fantasy series The Dreamland, five contemporary humorous fantasies starting with MYTHOLOGY 101, and three medical science fiction novels starting with TAYLOR’S ARK. STRONG ARM TACTICS, a humorous military science fiction novel, is the first of Jody’s new series, The Wolfe Pack. Jody collaborated with Anne McCaffrey on four science fiction novels, and edited an anthology of humorous stories about mothers in science fiction, fantasy, myth and legend, entitled DON’T FORGET YOUR SPACESUIT, DEAR! She has written eight books with the late Robert Lynn Asprin. Her web page is http://www.sff.net/people/jodynye.

Jody, I first became aware of your work with the fun MYTHOLOGY 101 series. Was MYTHOLOGY 101 your first published work?

JODY LYNN NYE: MYTHOLOGY 101 was my first solo novel, but not my first published work. I wrote some humor and short pieces (unpaid) for various digests and newsletters after college. While I was working for WFBN-TV in Chicago, I contributed technical articles for Video Action magazine. For those, I was paid sometimes in money, but sometimes with technology items that VA had been given to review. My first paid work was for Mayfair Games, Inc. They published the Role-Aids game supplements to Dungeons and Dragons. I wrote modules for D&D and the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine game.

Because of the game materials, I had credentials to ask to be included in the Crossroads game book series for TOR Books, which were choose-your-path novels but based upon established science fiction or fantasy series. I had volunteered to write adventures for a couple of other books in the series until Anne McCaffrey gave consent to allow the creator/editor of Crossroads, Bill Fawcett, to commission Pern-based adventures. As a big fan of Anne’s, I couldn’t resist dropping my previous selections and writing one of those.

That first Crossroads book was DRAGONHARPER (not to be confused with the current novel by Anne & Todd McCaffrey, DRAGON HARPER). It was published in 1987. I eventually wrote four Crossroads adventures, two in Pern and two in Piers Anthony’s Xanth. Once Anne and Piers found I was easy to work with and respected their worlds, Bill had me write the VISUAL GUIDE TO XANTH and the DRAGONLOVER’S GUIDE TO PERN. The DLG is in its second edition and who knows which printing.

I wanted to work on my own novels, of course. I sold MYTHOLOGY 101 to Brian Thomsen of Warner Books in 1988. I did not have an agent, but as you may know, SF/fantasy editors are far more accessible to fans and would-be writers than in many other genres. I got to know Brian through friends and professional contacts. At a SF convention, I chatted with him about my concept for the series, and he asked to have me send a proposal to him at Warner (note to aspiring writers: do not try and load an editor down with paperwork at a convention. Always send it to their offices.). He bought it, and I was off to the races. MYTHOLOGY 101 came out the same year as the first of my collaborations with Anne McCaffrey, THE DEATH OF SLEEP. So far, there have been four books in the series.

VENTRELLA: I always imagined that the idea must have come to you while secreted in some college library. Is that true? What was your influence for this series?

NYE: You are absolutely right. The Midwestern University college library is based upon a real library. If you had ever seen the original, you would be able to identify it. Some alumni of that university have come up to me and asked about it.

In fact, the library itself was the influence for the series, not the characters. Those came later. In the carrels among the nine-story stacks, it was warm and quiet — except for the sounds of distant voices. I could never make out what they were saying. It was odd, because no one around me was talking, nor was anyone in the reading rooms out front. The sensation of the disembodied voices stuck in my mind for years. Finally, one day I began to think about it. Where were those voices coming from? Who were the speakers? And somehow, they became the little people who lived in the basement of the library.

VENTRELLA: Will we ever see another MYTHOLOGY 101 book?

NYE: I certainly hope so. From Warner, the series moved to Meisha Merlin Publishing, which ceased to publish a few years ago. I would dearly love to place the Mythology series with another house. I have more stories to tell. After all, Keith and Diane finally got engaged!

VENTRELLA: More than most authors, you’ve managed to work with some of the biggest names in speculative fiction. How did these arrangements come about?

NYE: SF actors Wil Wheaton, Roxann Dawson, Armin Shimerman and Nigel Bennett were once on a panel at a convention when the subject came up how some of them had become published authors. Armin, Roxann and Nigel each said that because they knew Bill Fawcett, they had been approached to co-author books with science-fiction writers for the Star Line, an imprint of Baen Books that had been arranged and packaged by Bill. Wil noted down carefully, that to become published, one needed to “know Bill Fawcett.”

One of the many hats Bill wears is that of ‘book packager.’ His function is to create a book or series, staff it with one or more authors, supply illustrations and maps if needed, possibly even commission the cover from an artist, and put the whole, production-ready package into the hands of a publisher. It is what a publishing house would do for itself if it had far more employees than one typically does.

In the late 1980s, Bill created a package for Baen Books that paired CJ Cherryh with three junior writers apiece to write a series of co-authored novels. CJ’s was “Sword of Knowledge”, and included Nancy Asire, the well-known filker Lesley Fish, and a new fantasy writer named Mercedes Lackey. These series gave the senior writer a chance to have ideas for which s/he had no time to do alone, and gave a boost to the career of the junior writers, who would get to work closely with a noted name in the field whom they admired.

A few years later, Bill interested Anne McCaffrey in trying the same thing. She liked the idea, because she had always had more ideas than she would ever have time to write in some of her non-Pern series. I was one of the three noobs who were signed on to co-author books in the Planet Pirate trilogy with her. She already knew my work from the DLG and two Pern Crossroads books. She and I wrote THE DEATH OF SLEEP. Chronologically, it is the first novel in the trio, but was published second, after SASSINAK, by Anne and Elizabeth Moon.

VENTRELLA: How did you meet Robert Asprin?

NYE: I read ANOTHER FINE MYTH the year it was published in mass market paperback by Ace Books. I loved it. At the time I never thought I would ever meet any author at all, let alone end up collaborating with Robert Asprin on eight books.

It’s funny, but I seemed to have been following Bob into so many places long before I met him. I was a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism in the late 1970s, early 80s, but he, known there as Yang the Nauseating, had already stopped going to events. His legend, however, persisted. I knew dozens of stories about him. How he had founded the Dark Horde. How he was mischievously disrespectful to the king. His songs. His quips. His legendary prowess with women.

When a friend whom I knew from the SCA took me to my first convention, I found at least one more Myth book in the dealers’ room. I heard legends of Bob. His perpetual ‘office’ in the hotel bar (sort of a permanent party). His love of Irish whisky. His friendship with Gordon R. Dickson. His irrepressible humor and memorable filks. His legendary prowess with women. But he had already stopped going to so many conventions, so I never ran into him.

It was not until Bill, then my fiancé, took me up to Ann Arbor to meet Bob and his wife, fantasy author Lynn Abbey, that I met the man himself. Bill was one of Bob’s closest circle of friends. At the time, Bob was writing his own books as well as co-editing the shared-world anthology series Thieves’ World with Lynn. He and Lynn were so kind and gracious to me, a baby writer, that the impression has never faded. Bob was encouraging about my efforts in humor fiction, but at that time the subject of collaborating didn’t come up.

Later, when Bob had some trouble with writer’s block, we agreed to try writing together. We found we were very compatible as co-writers. We had a lot of interests in common, which meant we got one another’s jokes. Our first book was LICENSE INVOKED, a novel about spies, magic and rock and roll.

VENTRELLA: When working on the Myth Adventures series with him, how much input did he have?

NYE: We communicated mainly by e-mail and in person at conventions. After the first Myth novel, MYTH ALLIANCES, we would get together at DragonCon in Atlanta every Labor Day weekend and work out the plot over a table in one of the restaurants. When we got going, the ideas came out faster and more furious than a hive of angry bees. It was a lot of fun. We threw around plenty of concepts; what we didn’t use for the book that year I squirreled away in a laptop file to discuss at future dates. Bob was not great at keeping notes, and I type faster than he did.

VENTRELLA: What sort of arrangement do you have to continue the series?

NYE: Ace Books has purchased two new Myth novels (and one Dragons novel). I am already working on the first one.

VENTRELLA: How did your collaboration with Anne McCaffrey work?

NYE: Each of the four collabs I did with her was different. On THE DEATH OF SLEEP, she had a basic outline for each of the three novels. Since they were being written simultaneously we juniors had to adhere to the structure we were given to maintain series continuity, though we had room to add our own ideas. I wrote the first draft and sent it to Anne. She worked on it and sent it back to me. I made changes or corrections, then it went back to her for a final look and polish. As the senior writer she had the final say on everything, but she was intensely generous with me. For example, she had no problem using one of my ideas if she liked it better than her own. I learned an incredible amount from her.

VENTRELLA: Do you find collaborations easier or harder than writing on your own?

NYE: They go faster than solo books. When you are bouncing ideas off another person, you can crank out a lot of energy. That’s not to say that when I am working alone I don’t cackle over my keyboard at something that strikes me as funny and pound the keys at top speed to get it down. Collaborations are more work because you can’t just keep an idea in your mind and come back to it later. You must share everything with your co-writer that you expect or hope to have in the final manuscript. You must prepare to compromise and respect your co-writer’s opinion and skills. Only in solo books can you get your way on everything. I think it’s worthwhile to learn to work with someone else. It’s like teaching: you learn a good deal about your craft when you have to explain something to someone else.

VENTRELLA: Some writers tend to think that humor in fiction means that it can’t be taken seriously as literature, and therefore should not be considered as “worthy”. What’s your take?

NYE: I deplore the fact that just because something makes one laugh that it is not worthy of the respect enjoyed by tragedy. Without the light moments, no one could stand all the dark ones. Those writers who don’t consider humor to be literature have to turn their backs on Mark Twain, Anthony Trollope and many others whose books occupy the Literature shelves in bookstores and libraries. Shakespeare’s comedies are held in the same esteem as his dramas. I would put up a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel against any number of popular dramatic novels that I don’t consider nearly as well written.

VENTRELLA: Your most recent work, A FORTHCOMING WIZARD, is a stand-alone novel. What’s it about?

NYE: That is actually the second half of an epic fantasy I wrote for TOR. It does stand alone, the vicissitudes of publishing being what they are, but I hope people will seek out both books. The first half is called AN UNEXPECTED APPRENTICE. The story concerns a smallfolk girl named Tildi Summerbee who, like Frodo Baggins, is thrown into an epic struggle not of her making. She comes into possession of a page of the Great Book, a magical tome that can change reality. Only Tildi, because of a chance gift from her parents, can touch the book without being harmed. She becomes part of a fellowship to regain possession of the book and restore it to a place of safety before it destroys the world.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now?

NYE: Already finished and heading for your shelves in December is DRAGONS DEAL. This is the third in the Dragons series created and written by Robert Asprin for Ace Books. The first two were DRAGONS WILD and DRAGONS LUCK. The copy-edited manuscript of the second landed on my doorstep only a few weeks after Bob died. I took care of it, and some time later, when we had all recovered a little, the editor asked me if I could and would continue the series. I hope that our readers will enjoy it. The Dragons series is about a brother and sister named Griffen and Valerie McCandles who discover that they are hereditary dragons. And they are by no means the only dragons out there. Hence, drama and comedy ensues. DEAL takes place during Mardi Gras. As the series is set in New Orleans, where Bob lived the last many years of his life, I felt that was fitting.

At Baen Books, I have an entirely new humorous SF book, which I hope will become a series, called VIEW FROM THE IMPERIUM. If you ever read P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster books, you will understand something about my two main characters. Thomas Innes Loche Kinago is a foolish, spoiled, rich, good-hearted young noble who has never had to work a day in his life. He has just graduated from the space academy and is serving his required stint on a warship. His duties, as he is a noble (pretty nearly useless in this society), are nominal. That’s not to say he can’t spin a perfectly ordinary assignment into chaos. To keep him from doing more damage than is strictly necessary, Thomas has assigned to him an aide de camp, Commander Parsons, who seems to know absolutely everything, and is never at a loss for the right action to take. VIEW FROM THE IMPERIUM is due out in April of 2011.

VENTRELLA: When creating characters, how do you make them real and believable to a reader?

NYE: As CJ Cherryh said during a panel discussion I once sat on with her, in the end all stories are about people. The protagonist of a story, or at the very most distant, the sidekick, needs to be someone with whom the reader can identify. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, it is Dr. Watson, a nice, normal human being, intelligent, caring and devoted, with whom most readers feel empathy. For us, Watson asks why. Through him we feel involved in the action. The reader will be drawn into the book by a compelling proxy.

I need to know what motivates my characters. Often, a new writer will only know what s/he wants a character to do, but maybe not why. Such characters will feel wooden and artificial. Once you know where your character is coming from, you can see how it will behave in various situations.

All beings have flaws. Perfect people are irritating or boring (or both). Imperfections give characters vulnerability that we understand, or can learn to understand. Hidden hurts or past events in my characters’ back stories inform their behavior.

When I create a character, an image often appears in my mind. A few of my writer friends like to use celebrities as the basis of their cast, but that hasn’t worked for me. Only once have I ever run into anyone who resembled one of my characters.

One thing I dislike enormously is having a character do something stupid just to advance a plot. If I have created realistic personalities, it will feel wrong if I try to steer them into an unrealistic situation. That’s not to say I can’t have a character behave stupidly –- people do dumb things all the time -– but it can’t be to make things easy for me as the writer. I owe my readers real people.

VENTRELLA: I tried to avoid cliches in my fantasy novels (regarding the typical “chosen one” hero and so on) while also relying upon them too (elves, dwarves, wizards…). How does one meet the balance of creating a world that balances both?

NYE: There is always an element of the “chosen one,” or else why are we reading about him or her? If that character isn’t special, then can anyone do what s/he does? What if there had been a hundred Arthurs who could have pulled the sword from the stone, but he just happened to be the one who tried that day? (Hmm, there’s an unexplored story.) But why that one, and what happened afterward to all the others? When I write a story, I have to focus upon my protagonist. What is extraordinary about this person? How can s/he succeed when others have failed? I think a successful story will tweak the reader’s perception and give a new way of thinking about the meaning of a hero/ine. Archetypes exist because they have a core of truth about the eternal journey. Cliches exist because some storytellers can only think of telling an archetypal story the way we have always heard it.

I agree, there have been a LOT of books lately featuring familiar tropes like elves, dwarves, werewolves, pirates, vampires, pixies, princesses, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with using these creatures, as long as you don’t necessarily believe that they all belong in the same worlds all the time. Or if you do, have a good reason for it. Only in D&D do Aztec gods occupy the same sphere as leprechauns.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written role-playing books (a subject close to my heart, since I have been doing that for 20 years now myself). How did you arrange those?

NYE: I’ve been affiliated with the gaming industry for a long time. I got into D&D role-playing when I was nineteen. It’s always been dear to my heart, though I haven’t played in a long while. My first DM introduced me to one of the partners at TSR whom I dated for a year. I ended up typing out Gary Gygax’s manuscripts for the new Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I guess you could call that my first job in publishing. It made me aware of the game industry, where I met an amazing number of creative people. For a short time, I worked with a couple of fellow players who wanted to create game materials. I attended every GenCon from 1977 until it moved from Wisconsin to Indianapolis. Because I had a background in role-play, I had the expertise to write for Mayfair Games and later for TOR Books’ Crossroads series, as I mentioned above.

VENTRELLA: And finally, tell me… why do so many writers have cats? (I have four, by the way…)

NYE: Cats are the superior species in the universe, or haven’t they told you that? I like to use the Two Cat System of writing, my take on Dave Barry’s Two Dog System. My cats specialize in holding me in one place, usually through Cat Gravity (read Robin Woods’s excellent small book on her Theory), so I have to stay put and work. Other writers I know use more or fewer cats, depending on how much inspiration they require. Some writers, like Mr. Barry, use dogs for inspiration. Cats are a convenient size for laps and do not need to be walked in the rain, so I prefer them. Also, purring is a near-magical soother to a creative person’s troubled soul. I often rely upon purring to get me through a complicated story.

Thanks for interviewing me! I enjoyed your questions.

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