One thing that beginning writers tend to overlook is the number of interviews, for sources small and large, print and Internet, that are asked of even such a non-celebrity author as yours truly. These tend to add up, especially when -- as in my case -- one's novels have been translated and reprinted in several dozen European, Asian, and other nations.
The following questions were sent to me not long ago by a magazine and connected web site in the Czech Republic. In the normal case of events, the author's American readership never gets to read such an interview so I thought I'd share this one with you.
- Have you wanted to be a writer ever since you were a child? If not, what was your dream job when you were little?
Oddly enough, I have wanted to be a writer since I was very young. In some ways, I compare that aspect of my past to that of my friend, the great writer Harlan Ellison. Harlan knew when he was five years old – knew it as certainly as if it had been a divine revelation – that he would be famous someday, either as a cartoonist or a writer. Since Harlan couldn’t draw, he decided it would have to be as a writer.
I could draw. My older brother was a professional cartoonist and I was drawing decently when I was quite young. By the time I was in high school, I received a scholarship offer to the best art school in my Midwestern state. But I turned down that offer in order to go to a liberal arts college because I knew that I needed thatbroader, liberal-arts knowledge of literature, history, science, art, and writing in order to become a professional writer.
A lot of people imagine at a young age that they’re going to have some fabulous life or profession, but the trick for kids with such a revelation (or for anyone at any age) is to act on it immediately. In third grade, about the time I was 7 or 8 years old, I was writing Timmy McBrown, Boy Detective stories in pencil on my lined paper and secretly handing them around the room – then writing sequels when some of the other kids liked the stories.
I knew even then, knew instinctively, that my writing wasn’t something I wanted noticed by the teacher or read aloud or – God forbid – praised by the teacher. Only the other kids as my reading audience mattered, their opinions and comments. Even when I was eight years old, I knew that writing should be subversive rather than approved and official and driven by the marketplace, never by the state.
In fourth grade in another school (my family moved a lot), when I was 9 or 10, I remember writing a sequel to “The Wizard of Oz“ – the movie – and secretly handing around the 25 pages or so of handwritten tale. I was too dumb and unlettered to know that Frank L. Baum, the original author The Wizard of Oz ( a book I’d never read), had written his own wonderful sequels. But my sequel was a hit with the other kids. (I still remember the pleasure of writing certain scenes – such as when Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man (the Cowardly Lion was off on a different adventure) stepped over a wall into a land of living ceramic dolls. Our protagonists were giants there and they had to step very carefully.
To me (and to most of my fourth-grade readers), twenty-five scribbled pages was a full-length novel. Eventually though disaster struck when our teacher, Mrs. Shives, intercepted the grubby pages as they were being passed from one reader to another. I expected (hoped for?) condemnation, but a day or two later, Mrs. Shives commended me for writing such an epic and even read a page aloud to the class.
I hated it. I hated the attention and hated the . . . offical approval. I quit writing for an audience at school for a year after that but I did write a story at home, picking out each letter on a huge, ancient Underwood typewriter that had once belonged to my business-secretary mother. The story (in 1958) was about the first trip to the moon and I remember the surprise of my astronauts as they orbited to the far side of the moon (I’d wanted to call it the “dark side“ but my science research as a fourth-grader taught me that there’s as much light on the backside of the moon as on the front) – and discovered that the far side, always turned away from the Earth, was a single giant mountain. And in that mountain were caves where the old atmosphere had frozen solid – the inhabitants had to cut out a bucket’s worth of frozen air and heat it to breathe – and lo! All of the lunar beings were troglodytes! (I’d just discovered that word somewhere and had been waiting and wanting to use it in my own work.)
Somehow, seeing my story typewritten – even with all the typing errors, penciled inclusions, and white-out corrections – convinced me that I had to be a published author someday.
By high school I had my own typewriter (set on a shaky TV-tray) and was pounding out short stories, beginings of novels, and scripts for some of my favorite TV shows ( “The Defenders“, “Burke’s Law“, “East Side, West Side“.)
- It is generally known that you have a great in-depth knowledge – we are interested in this: how much time do you spend on studying before you start writing your novels? Can you tell our readers more about this process and give some tips to beginning writers on getting familiar with a chosen topic?
The truth is – and it’s somewhat of a secret – I often choose what novel to write because I want to learn about something or someone. I researched Ernest Hemingway for five years before I was ready to write my novel about his year in Cuba in 1942, The Crook Factory (the name that Hemingway gave to his private espionage group that so caught the attention of the FBI, OSS, and German and Cuban intelligence agencies.)
I wrote the two epic SF books, Ilium and Olympos, because I wanted to immerse myself in Homer’s epic – in as many translations of it as I could find – and to read as much critical commentary on Homer as I could find and absorb. It was a wonderful three-year effort, researching as I was writing.
I usually research some before starting a book – perhaps only a month or so – and then deeply and widely while I’m writing the novel. For Drood, I spent a marvelous 14 months immersing myself in 1860’s London, the life and opium addicted dreams of the real writer Wilkie Collins, and Wilkie Collin’s friend Charles Dickens. (I’d decided to write a novel about Dickens more than a decade earlier when I read Peter Ackroyd’s wonderful biography of the man. That decade, while I was writing other novels, I was always picking up little research bits about Dickens in preparation for what turned into DROOD.
Sometimes little research bits can derail a writer. I remember my friend George R. R. Martin mentioning that he’d had to stop work on his novel Fevre Dream because he had a character walking along the saloons and whorehouses of Natchez-Under-the-Hill in the late 1800’s and he didn’t know if that part of the sinful city had switched to gaslights yet. (It’s obviously much easier to check such details now, via the Internet, but George and I were writing in the 1980’s when research demanded many books and trips to libraries.
But sometimes even Google can’t help.
In my last book, Black Hills, I set an important scene in the world’s first Ferris Wheel (both words were capitalized then, it was such a wonder) at the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition World’s Fair. Such research was delightful and I quickly learned the exact height of the giant wheel – about 275 feet tall – the number of huge cars carried on it, the capacity of each car (38 passengers), the make-up of the tufted leather, swiveling chairs available to these pasengers (almost no one sat since they preferred to stand clustered at the windows), the design of the almost operatic costume on the “guard“ on each car – put there because engineer Ferris and the World’s Fair officials realized that this Wheel would be the tallest structure in America and that many fair-goers might want to jump to their death from such a contraption, so the elaborately costumed door guard was trained in hand-to-hand combat and jujitsu – and . . . I knew all this and more, but which way did the wheel rotate??!!
I had a very romantic and important scene aboard one of the cars on that first Ferris Wheel and I knew exactly what they would be seeing as the car rose to its zenith and descended (passengers got two revolutions before the cars were unloaded) . . . but which way did the wheel itself rotate? I couldn’t describe what Paha Sapa and Miss Rain DePlachette would see until I knew which way the damned machine was going. Was their rising view of the White City of the Fair and then Lake Michigan, or were they looking first at the Turkish Pavilion and then the railroads beyond the perimeter of the Fair and then – far away – the great prairies themselves??
Almost all modern ferris wheels around the world rotate clockwise only, but that told me nothing about this giant Ferris Wheel in 1893. Eventually I had to turn my web site forum people loose – like the Baker Street Irregulars – in helping me dig up obscure research.
We did have newspaper accounts from 1893 describing the experience and, online, one could find old letters and diaries written at the World’s Fair. (One of the best diaries was a long description of the Fair by a beginning writer Edgar Rice Burroughs and his wife – the wife doing the best descriptive writing.) In some cases, they were obviously describing a giant Ferris wheel that rotated clockwise, giving the passengers in each huge car a view of the White City and the Lake first. In other first-hand descriptions, however, it seemed that the Wheel was rotating counter-clockwise, showing the passengers a view of the prairie and then of the Lake and Fair only when the cars pass over the top.
Obviously I had to get into engineering diagrams of the first-ever Ferris Wheel, study its guts and gears, motors and engines.
For almost two precious weeks (I work under a 12-month deadline for all my books), I searched for those engineering specs. Finally I found them.
Yes, the first ever giant Ferris Wheel, designed for the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition World’s Fair, was motored and geared – unlike any modern Ferris wheel anywhere in the world – to rotate either direction. And then I found a postcard written by an 1893 fair-goer who described how she watched the giant Wheel rotating clockwise for several nights – every car and part of the wheel illuminated by hundreds of new-fangled electric lights, plus giant searchlights illuminating it from below – only to see it rotating the opposite direction the next week.
Voila! Now I could continue with the actual writing of the novel and on to my next little research challenge. (And when writing about Ogalala Sioux tribes, language, warfare, and culture, there were more than a few such challenges.)
- Which one of your books do you consider the best and why? Which one gave you the most trouble? We were particularly charmed by Ilium. Where did the idea to combine two seemingly uncombinable historical periods come from?
As both parent and author of many books, I know that one shouldn't say anything about which child is the favorite. (Of course, I have only one child -- my daughter Jane -- so it's only in books that I have to be careful not to announce a favorite. But that's almost as important as a parent's choice. Books have feelings, you know, and they tend to sulk if their creator gives them anything less than unrestricted love.)
I'm also not sure authors are reliable if and when they say which of their works is the "best". In his later years, Hemingway treated and wrote about The Old Man and the Sea as if that elongated, overwritten story were his best work -- he did receive the Nobel Prize for it -- but down deep he must have known that it was a deeply flawed work and that it couldn't hold a candle to his early stories or the best work in parts of his better novels such as The Sun Also Rises or For Whom the Bell Tolls. In truth, of course, none of Hemingway's novels best served his rare gift -- that is, of using his complex and well-honed style of ellipsis to levitate the best of his prose -- but a writer who'd been working primarily in novels for four decades found it understandably difficult to say that his "best" work was to be found in his early short stories.
I could probably go through my novels and suggest certain pages or passages or perhaps entire chapters and then say -- "This is pretty good." I feel that way fairly frequently when thinking about my novel Phases of Gravity (which was very personal) or The Hollow Man (which I suspect may not have been understood by many readers) or Summer of Night (which I wrote by simply opening a vein and dipping my pen deep in the warm, red memory of being a kid). Like most writers, I want to feel that some of my best writing is in my more recent work and I try to avoid that syndrome, but I do still enjoy and celebrate certain sections of The Terror and Drood and the complicated effort that was Black Hills.
My current work waiting to be born next summer in the States and the UK, Flashback, is too new, too fresh, too still-in-the-mind to allow any fully formed opinion. One can only hope.
I'm delighted that you say you were charmed by Ilium. It was a labor of scholarly love in the sense that I chose to write both Ilium and Olympos simply because I wanted to spend two or three years reading almost every translation of the Iliad as well as much of the scholarly criticism and speculation about Homer and that work. The idea of combining two such disparate historical periods (Homer's era and the odd and depressing human future thousands of years hence) was easy; the practice of actually doing so, writing it with some fluidity and verisimilitude, was damned hard.
As far as which book gave me the most trouble -- I can think of research and creative difficulties with most of them, but I'm not sure I can choose one book as the most troublesome. I've never started a novel and then abandoned it. I seem to have some sense as to what will work and what won't. (Readers may not always agree.) I was young(er) when I took on the massive megillah that was Carrion Comfort and it had so many characters and plot lines that my study walls were covered with long strips of brown paper with timelines, character lines, and plotlines all filled in with magic marker, character lifelines and subplot lines crossing and crisscrossing like some mad puzzle. I learned a lot from writing Carrion Comfort when I did. It was the most troublesome book in the sense that getting the 999-page novel published, in one volume and in the shape I wrote it, took several years, a World Fantasy Award for another book of mine, and a kind intervention by Dean Koontz. (But that's another story.)
- What is the project or challenge of your dreams regarding writing? Or has it been already fulfilled?
My primary dream regarding writing was to become a full-time professional writer. According to studies, there are only about 400-600 writers of fiction in the United States (population 302,0000,000) who make a living only by their writing. That was enough of a challenge for me and it was first met in 1987. So far, so good.
- What is your favourite historical period/event and why? Based on your books' settings, one can assume that it may be Ancient Greece and Rome or Victorian Era, or any period in which the greatest literary works were made. What's your relationship with Shakespeare, whose characters you use in your works (Ilium)?
I simply love history. And non-fiction history makes up the bulk of my reading, even outside of research for my novels. It's hard to choose an era as a "favorite" since that could be interpreted in different ways, i.e. "Would one want to live in that era?" or simply "Does one choose to read most in that era?"
I always return to the Peloponnesian War, the treachery of Alcibiades, the decisions of the democratic Athenian city-state that led to its destruction. (A friend of mine may be the world's foremost scholar on the Melian Dialogue -- the only non-Platonic dialogue and one with a hidden structure, and also the dialogue taught in American military academies. It should be taught everywhere.) Of course, I've never written fiction set in that era, only in the era of its Homeric mythos.
The Middle Ages continues to fascinate me. I think this period is the most underrated and least popular for many history readers largely because it was labeled "the Dark Ages" for far too long. Luckily, better translations (into English) of such classics as Johan Huizinga's The Autumn of the Middle Ages are beginning to bring the marvelous complexities and wonders of this interesting era alive for lay readers. And, no, I haven't set any of my novels in the Middle Ages, either, although I've noticed that some bestselling writers recently have.
I'm always fascinated by how a single work of history -- say Roger Crowley's Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, The Battle of Lepanto, And the Contest for the Center of the World -- can bring an entire pivotal historical epoch vibrantly alive for modern readers. (Before re-reading Don Quixote, I think it's helpful to recall that 24-yr-old Miguel de Cervantes was first a Spanish prisoner of the Muslims during that era and then a volunteer on the Christian fleet that took on the overwhelming Muslim armada. Cervantes later wrote of war ironically but on that day of October 7, 1571, the poet was hit in the chest by two acquebus shots -- rather equivalent to an RPG round today -- and permanently maimed in his left hand. Still, he summed up the Christian mood after that sea battle-- "The greatest event witnessed by the ages past, present, and to come." He may have been right. At the very least, we should know about that battle and its incredible historical implications.)
The two areas of history in which I've been in uxorious love since I was 10 years old are the American Revolutionary and Civil Wars. The former -- with emphasis on America's Founding Fathers such as Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, Washington and others -- does show why this nation, the United States of America, founded on the apogee principles of Enlightenment philosophes (not philosophers) -- has a constitution and history which truly is "exceptional", even if our current president doesn't understand why. Reading Peter Gay's two volumes on the Enlightenment -- The Englightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism (Vol 1) and The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom-- and then on to the Federalist Papers, is a good prelude ot understanding the mindsets, values, assumptions, and unparalleled genius of America's Founding Fathers. If they and their works -- including the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution -- aren't profoundly exceptional in the chronicles of human freedom and social advancement, then nothing on Earth is.
Finally -- with apologies for the length of this -- the era that I've studied most seriously in the past 40 years is Germany and Europe (including England) during the rise of National Socialism in the period between the world wars. A reading knowledge of German has helped me in this effort since college and such reading is necessary if I'm going to understand how regular civil servants (I was a schoolteacher for 18 years) could be so successfully drafted into the SS Einsatzgruppen and, as Einsatzkommandos in Poland, the Caucasus, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and eastern Russia, become the most ruthless killers of innocent peoples since the onset of the Mongol hordes in Europe.
(I had so much research on this subject, acquired from 1967 - 2000, that I seriously considered writing a non-fiction history book on the subject, but luckily Richard Rhodes (author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb and, I think, one of the finest contemporary historians writing) beat me to it with his beautiful and terrifying Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust.)
I know that I will spend the rest of my life trying to understand the elements that led to the Holocaust and the human experience that both survived it and perished in it. (Note: I've placed part of only one of my novels in that period, a major subplot but primary theme in my early epic Carrion Comfort.)
As far as my "relationship with Shakespeare", I confess to it being one shared with millions of other readers, including the greatest poets and novelists since Shakespeare's day: I love and revere Shakespeare's powerful, dangerous work and his always surprising mind. For all of the harried playwright's "errors" -- in continuity, in anachronisms, in characters' shifting ages, in loopholes of plot -- William Shakespeare was and is simply the best of the best of all of us who write, in any language. I've spent a good part of a lifetime simply trying to understand the extent and power of his mastery and the resulting understanding, while very partial, has been beyond humbling; it's almost frightening.
- Some of your latest novels (The Terror, Drood...) show a considerable shift from classical sci-fi or horror typical for your earlier works. Is this intentional or is it based more on a spur of the moment inspiration?
It's intentional. It's very intentional. One can't write and publish 28 novels, all of which have made money for their publishers, by galloping off on spur of the moment inspiration.
More to the point, these more recent novels -- The Terror, Drood, Black Hills, perhaps the upcoming Flashback -- have engaged and drawn in a new, broad, and important (to me) readership who never would have found my work had I stayed in SF or horror or mystery or simple thriller genres.
- How do you look for inspiration for your novels? Is it a painful process or do you have the opposite problem of not being able to process all your ideas? Do you use events in your life and personal experiences in your novels? Could you give an example?
It's a mild and old (and not very funny, though true) joke that full-time professional writers don't wait for and don't trust "inspiration," only perspiration.
Another true story known to all professional writers is the person who sidles up to you at a cocktail party and says -- "I have a fantastic idea for a novel but obviously, since I have a real job, don't have time to write it. How about if I give you the idea, you write it, and we split the royalties 50-50?"
My response has always been that ideas are easy (it's the writing that's hard) and that I have more good ideas for books than I can ever finish in this lifetime. I said that with absolute conviction when I was 27 years old and obviously with more sincerity now that I'm 62.
- Could you tell us what are you working on at the moment?
I'm currently preparing to read copyediting proof on Flashback, due out in the States from Little, Brown (Reagan Arthur imprint) in July of 2011 and -- between contracts with publishers and with no deadlines pending -- have started work on a fast, scary, unusual short novel or solid novella I call "Vastation". (Tagline -- "When all the mirrors in your house go absolutely black, your Vastation is about to begin.")
- Lastly, we'd like to ask a crucial question: Will the Shrike come to visit us again?
Yes. The Shrike will be back.
(Note and caveat: I've vowed never to write another novel in the Hyperion universe and I never will -- I hate publishing infinologies and the inevitable decline in story telling they entail -- but I said nothing about returning to that universe to write the occasional short story or -- perfect for such a tale -- occasional novella. I've not talked to any publisher about it, but I see a book of five intertwined Hyperion-universe tales with the working book title of Shrike Quincunx.)
- Before Christmas will be published in Czech Republic your title Black Hills. Did you yourself learn the Lakota language, which seems to be widely supported to stay alive, or did you have a native speaker as a consultant?
I simply studied the Lakota language as best I could via books and online sites. But I did have several American Indians as my advisors and proofreaders, including my new good friend Jacques L. Condor Maka Tai Meh and two Lakota PhD's.
- Speaking about general Custer where did you get information about his private life - correspondence, books by his wife etc.?
From correspondence, from books by his wife, and by my own licentious imagination. I have no idea if George Armstrong Custer and his lovely wife Libby were as lusty and erotically charged as I've presented -- but I have a hunch they were. I believe that Libby Custer spent 14 years as a wife of a rather famous young general and then 57 years as his loyal widow, defending his name and place and history across the decades as revisionist historians champed at the bit to denigrate Custer, and by her own admisstion, she never considered re-marrying. Even into her 80's, 50 years after she had last slept with her slaughtered husband, Libby Custer spoke and wrote about how her body still remembered his body in bed next to her and how she simply couldn't conceive of "another man's head on the pillow next to me."
At the very least, introducing Custer to my readers through his overwhelming (and erotic) love for his wife is a new avenue to viewing an historical figure who's been lost for a century by caricature, misrepresentation, revisionist distortions, and manipulations for current political reasons (ala the caricature of Custer as a bloodthirsty moron in the Vietnam-era film "Little Big Man". An acquaintance of mine, the late Blackfeet-nation-born author James Welch, wrote the book Killing Custer. In a sense, the reality of the man named George Armstrong Custer has been attacked and killed and killed again over and over since the Battle of the Little Big Horn. We project our sins upon him and then offer up the complex and sometimes passionate and frequently violent man whom the Indians called Long Hair as our human sacrifice.
I hope that readers in the Czech Republic enjoy Black Hills and its rather unusual look not only at Custer and at the Lakota Sioux experience during the late 1800's, but also at that entire period of American history that included the carving of the presidential heads on Mount Rushmore . . . heads that our Lakota hero, Paha Sapa, now in his early 70's, fully intends to blow up on the day that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt comes to the Black Hills to dedicate one of the finished faces.