Interview with Alyce Wilson



MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing Alyce Wilson, whose web page proclaims her as “writer, editor, poet.” Alyce, which one of those tags best describes you?

ALYCE WILSON: It depends on the day! I would say, though, that I’ve probably considered myself a poet longer, since that started back in second grade, courtesy of a very enthusiastic teacher, Mrs. Johnnie Stahl, who taught us how to write rhyming verse. But I have to admit that I don’t necessarily write poetry every day, while I do tend to write something in prose every day. So perhaps “writer” is more apropos right now.

VENTRELLA: Tell us a little about how you became involved in the business.

WILSON: I love the Joseph Campbell quote, “When you follow your bliss… doors will open where you would not have thought there would be doors; and where there wouldn’t be a door for anyone else.” That’s what I’ve been doing. Aside for a brief flirtation with the idea of being a teacher, I’ve known from a very young age that I wanted to have a career in writing. The question has always been where and how?

In high school, I had an excellent journalism teacher, Mrs. Maryann Hoff, and began to consider that as a possible career path. But by the time I got around to declaring my major at Penn State University, I had fallen in love with radio (thanks to the college radio station, WPSU) and selected Broadcast/Cable. Perhaps if I had been less of a country mouse (raised in a small Pennsylvania town, as I was), I would have immediately sought out employment opportunities at a public radio station after graduation, but instead I felt directionless. The radio jobs available in small towns didn’t appeal to me, but I couldn’t imagine moving to a city. Fortunately, my decision to return to school, like the proverbial groundhog, waiting out six more weeks of winter, brought me to Penn State’s MFA program in Poetry. If I hadn’t panicked at the idea of city life, I wouldn’t have learned such valuable lessons that improved my poetry writing immensely.

Much as I loved grad school, however, I rebelled against the idea of remaining in academia. By that point, I had taught several undergraduate writing courses in essays and poetry, and I loved the students but hated the bureaucracy. I feared that pursuing such a career would be soul-killing and especially damaging to my writing. Instead, I felt it was important to experience life. So in my “hippie days,” I married a wispy dreamer, traveled up the Mississippi, and then took a job as a pizza delivery driver in my hometown (which served as inspiration for my second unfinished novel). Just about the time that my short-lived first marriage petered out, I found a job with the local newspaper (“The Standard-Journal,” Milton, Pennsylvania) as a reporter/assistant editor. This again, was the best thing for me, because it helped me to perfect my skills as a columnist.

However, the daily deadlines were highly stressful, and after putting on about 60 pounds and enduring a weekly migraine, I decided to get out of the newspaper business. I headed next for a PR job in Philadelphia, because after covering county politics and dealing with irate readers, living in the city no longer seemed so scary. While the PR job didn’t last, my love for Philly did, and for the past 10 years, I’ve been doing transcription work to make money and pursuing freelance and personal projects on the side. Coincidentally, spending time with college friends who had moved to Philly introduced me to my second husband, Mike Ryan, and led to our marriage and our 7-month-old son.

I’ll be the first to admit that my career path so far has been much less lucrative than, say, a career in public radio, but I believe that following my bliss has led me to becoming the person, and the writer, I am today.

VENTRELLA: Your latest work is “The Art of Life”, a collection of essays on various topics. Where did these first appear and how did you decide which essays to include?

WILSON: The pieces in “The Art of Life” came from three different sources: my “Standard-Journal” newspaper columns; columns I wrote for the now-defunct Comcast site; and blog entries written between the years 2002 and 2010.

To figure out what to include, I reread all of my blog entries and columns and pulled out the ones I liked the most. Then I reread them once again, keeping in mind the following criteria: Did it stand on its own, outside of the collection? Did it fit with the other pieces? Was it likely to appeal to a broader audience than that for which it was originally intended? If I addressed a similar topic in two pieces, I opted for the one that was stronger. Then I arranged the pieces so that they led into each other, being conscious to alternate topics and tone. Finally, I went back through the manuscript and cut any pieces I felt were not as strong until I got to a reasonable page length.

VENTRELLA: You also are editor of a quarterly online literary magazine. How did that get started?

WILSON: At the time, I was about five years out of grad school, and I felt a calling to make a place for poetry in the world. This was an idea suggested to me by my poetry professors: that it was the responsibility of a poet in these days to make a place for poetry. A friend of mine, Amanda Cornwell, had received her bachelor’s degree in art and shared similar goals. We both felt it was important to make a place for the arts, particularly when you look at how the arts have been increasingly devalued in our society.

Previously, Amanda had launched a small print literary magazine, but funding was difficult and the circulation was small. We looked at the Web as a good forum for accomplishing our goals of making the arts accessible and appealing to the general public. With Amanda doing our initial Web design and serving as the Art Editor, we launched “Wild Violet” in October 2001. After the first three volumes (12 issues), she left to pursue other projects.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written a book giving advice to those who wish to appear in literary magazines. What’s the biggest piece of advice you can give (other than “read my book”) based on the mistakes you most often see new writers make?

WILSON: Know your market. As the editor of a literary magazine, far too often I receive submissions from people who apparently either cannot be bothered to check out our free online publication or have no clue how to direct their submission toward a specific market. We receive many submissions that are clearly inappropriate, which should be obvious to anyone who had perused the latest issue. It is essential to read the magazines to which you are considering submitting, and to decide which are most appropriate to send your work. It’s not enough just to look for magazines that publish poetry, for example; you need to find a magazine that publishes the kind of poetry you write.

VENTRELLA: “Literary” seems to have a specific meaning to some people in the publishing world. For instance, a science fiction or fantasy writer wouldn’t send their story to a literary magazine, would they?

WILSON: Actually, we receive all kinds of submissions, and we do publish some science fiction and fantasy. The term “literary” has unfortunately acquired an elitist connotation which, through “Wild Violet,” I’m trying to change. To me, “literary” means work which may be more challenging to the reader: writing which goes beyond basic storytelling, whether in terms of character development or the exploration of concepts. The science fiction we publish meets that criteria.

VENTRELLA: Do you think that talent is something that can be learned? In other words, can someone go to school to become a great writer or poet?

WILSON: Talent, that essential flare of ability, cannot be taught. Yet, more of us possess that essential flare than we may realize. A teacher can help you discover what your talents are. You might find, for example, upon taking a painting course, that it’s simply not something that comes naturally to you, but that photography does. That’s the role of education: helping people to discover and refine the talents they do have.

That said, I think education is a surer way to success for many people. There are few individuals with the right mix of raw talent and focused execution to become an overnight success, so to speak. It can happen, but those success stories are rare. Even those who enter a writing career later in life, after pursuing other careers, have more likely than not been honing their communications skills in other ways.

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

WILSON: According to Bloomberg, in the second quarter, for the first time ever, sold more electronic books than hardcovers. I think it’s safe to say that print books are going to take on a new role in our society. Just as with other media that have gone digital, such as music and photography, I think we’re destined for a sea change.

In some capacity, printed books will continue to sell, if for one key reason: there are always slow adopters to new technology. Plus, until somebody figures out a way to sign a digital copy, it will remain the only way to get a signed book. A lot of people like to have an object they can hold which is not subject to, say, a hard-drive crash or computer virus. So there will always be a place for books as more than just a quirky artifact. The number of print copies sold, however, will likely diminish. When you think about it, people are still buying vinyl, too, but nowadays it’s confined to discreet subcultures: namely, DJs and collectors.

Book stores will have to look at how to offer the reader an experience they can’t get from buying a digital copy. I think book stores may become more of a locus to interact: in person with authors for lectures and readings, and perhaps with other readers through reading groups and the like. I would expect at least the chain book stores to add digital kiosks to the store, where readers could sample electronic books and buy them.

If book stores don’t start planning now, they will likely find themselves running into financial trouble, much the same way that record/CD stores have in the last few years with the emergence of the MP3.

VENTRELLA: “The Art of Life” is a self-published work. What are the pros and cons of self-publishing and why did you decide to do so for this book? Would you do it for, say, a novel?

WILSON: Any means of publishing offers pros and cons, which I examined carefully when deciding how to publish “The Art of Life.”

Pros to self-publishing include more control over the finished work. The author determines the final content, layout and book cover. Aligned with that are some obvious cons: you must either do all that work yourself or find someone to do it for you. So it is much more time-consuming, especially to guarantee a high-quality final product.

Another pro of self-publishing is timeliness. You can put the book out as soon as it’s ready, without going through the delays that a publishing house would necessitate. I wanted to get “The Art of Life” out as soon as possible, because I thought it would be a great opportunity to introduce myself to the reading public. Waiting for years for a possible acceptance by a publishing company did not appeal to me. I also felt that this particular collection, because of its range of styles and content matter, would be difficult to fit into the sort of genre or subcategory that publishers prefer.

Still another con, there is still a lot of prejudice towards self-published books, in part because so many sub-standard books have been published this way: poorly edited vanity projects that make the rest of the field look bad. However, as editor of “Wild Violet,” as part of our mission of making a place for the arts, I have reviewed dozens of self-published books. I’m happy to report there is some gold amongst the flax, so I felt like I was in good company.

Yet another con: as a self-published author, you are responsible for any expenses involved in printing and promoting the book. On the pro side, when money comes in, you see it immediately and stand to earn more per copy than through a typical publisher. Along the same lines, you don’t have access to a publisher’s connections when it comes to promotion; however, as I’ve learned from watching other authors, even with a traditional publisher, much of the promotion falls on the shoulders of the author. So if you’re willing to put that time and effort in, you could stand to profit.

Since there’s a long history of self-published poetry chapbooks, I felt comfortable with going that route for my poetry book, “Picturebook of the Martyrs.” Likewise, self-published nonfiction books can still sell, so I felt good about going that route with “The Art of Life,” as well. Unfortunately, when it comes to self-published fiction, there’s a glut in the market, with too many poor-quality books cluttering the field. Therefore, for better or for worse, I think that readers tend to look at self-published fiction a bit askew. The exception here is erotica, especially electronic versions, because that seems to sell strongly no matter the publishing source.

A caveat: these observations are largely anecdotal, so I’d be happy to be corrected by someone with more direct knowledge. However, I myself would be leery of self-publishing a fiction book, unless it were an erotica title.

VENTRELLA: One of the things that I admire about you is that you also run a Monty Python Appreciation Society. How did that come about?

WILSON: Just for clarification, I’m not currently running such a society. However, I am the former president of the Penn State Monty Python Society, and my adventures with MPS are detailed in my online chronicle, “Dedicated Idiocy.” MPS began in the 1970s when “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” first hit the American airwaves. By the ’80s, interest in the group had waned, but just before I joined as a freshman in 1988, MTV had added the show to its late-night schedule, so there were a record number of new members.

I discovered the Monty Python Society through a flyer I saw while attending an Amnesty International meeting. Since the two groups met at the same time, I suppose I should be embarrassed to admit that I sided with comedy over human rights. Still, I think comedy can do a lot of good in the world. One good thing it has done for me is introduce me to some of my oldest, best friends in the world. I’ve often said the real test of friendship is whether you can get together and be silly together. With these folks, I definitely can.

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 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 Jon McGoran



MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing Jon McGoran a/k/a D. H. Dublin. Writing as D. H. Dublin, Jon McGoran is the author of the forensic crime thrillers BODY TRACE, BLOOD POISON, and FREEZER BURN from Penguin Books. As Jon McGoran, his fiction has appeared in several anthologies, including LIAR, LIAR and THE STORIES IN BETWEEN and the upcoming “Zombies Versus Robots” anthology from IDW. He is a member of the Philly Liars Club, the MWA and the ITW.

Jon and I met at the Writer’s Coffeehouse near Philadelphia and he has provided some excellent advice for me in the past concerning my fiction.

Jon, they always say “Write what you know.” What background do you bring to your crime thrillers?

JON McGORAN: I have no background in law enforcement, either side it — or zombies or robots, for that matter, — but I think the whole “Write What You Know” axiom is worth considering. It sounds like great advice, but I think it only goes so far. Everyone I have spoken to in law enforcement pretty much agrees that all fictional depictions of their jobs are wildly misrepresentation, even the good ones, and in some ways especially the good ones.

Take a private eye novel: the vast majority of what goes on in the work life of a PI would never make it into a book, not should it. No one would want to read a truly realistic portrayal of the life of most private eyes. I am not saying there are not many, many valuable insights into the world of the cop or the criminal that can only be gained by living those lives, but for the most part, there is a lot of drudgery in those jobs, and very likely most of those professionals rarely if ever encounter the excitement twists and turns in most PI novels.

I think, to be honest, most PI novels, and most genre fiction, is more informed by the conventions of the genre than by the realities of the world it purports to depict. (And if you write a series, you are almost by definition writing off any level of realism; the events in each novel would take a huge toll on the main character, and who would want to read a PI series where after the fourth book the protagonist just sits in a corner and rocks back and forth?).

People generally don’t want to read about the mundaneity of everyday life. They want to read about something special. But they want to read about those fantastic things happening to people who are on some level very real. That’s what makes them care.

So, I would replace “Write What You Know” with two other axioms: “Write Who You Know,” since the essence of writing a good novel of any sort is knowing the characters in it, and depicting them realistically; and “Know What You Write,” because while you do not have to start out an expert in the area you are writing about, you have to become one in order to do it well. Especially in a genre such as forensics, you have to do your research. Apart from the importance of writing knowledgably and with confidence about a given topic, it can be devastating to the reading experience to catch the author in an error. Research can be hugely fun and fascinating, but when it comes down to it though, your job as a writer is to make stuff up.

VENTRELLA: Having helped teach the “Write a Novel in Nine Months” course, what are the biggest mistakes you see new writers make?

McGORAN: I used to hate it when writers would pontificate that character is everything, and I still don’t like it (because nothing is everything, that’s why there is other stuff) — but character is hugely important, and while plot and setting, etc., are also important, one of the hardest things to grasp is how important it is that character thoroughly pervades every other aspect of a story. That point of view and voice impact everything, and they all stem from character. You learn about plot and setting and character as different things, but when you get to that next level, you have to learn in order for your writing to be immersive for the reader to lose themselves and get absorbed in it, everything must be experienced through the lens of character. As with so many aspects of writing, that is easier to grasp than it is to keep in mind while you are writing. One of the greatest perks in teaching the Novel in Nine Months class, apart from meeting so many talented writers, is that by reiterating the lessons of good writing, you are reminding yourself, and reinforcing your own writing.

VENTRELLA: What mistakes did you make when you first started writing?

McGORAN: The full list of mistakes I made while writing my first novel would be longer than the novel itself, but I learned a lot from making those mistakes, and even more from correcting them. The biggest mistakes had to do with point of view. It was a sprawling, raucous thriller with four or five plot lines and maybe ten different points of view. Unfortunately, it was only after I finished the first draft that I fully grasped what “Point of View” really meant. There were POV errors on every other page, and scenes with shifts of POV that were physically impossible. It took me months to sort it out, maybe full year, through several rewrites and drafts, before I had fixed all of the POV errors and inconsistencies. But through the process, I learned a lot about the importance and the subtleties of POV.

VENTRELLA: What is the process you use to create believable characters?

McGORAN: For me, writing process is closely related to character development, and getting inside the heads of characters, especially characters in some ways very different from me. I have always been a strong proponent of outlines, and the more I write, the more convinced I am of their importance. I know some writers do not outline, and it seems to work for them, but it is an essential part of my writing process. And when writing a story with a mystery at its core, outlines are particularly important, because you’re not just concerned with the structure of the plot, you also have to think about how you reveal information, both to the characters and to the readers. You almost need a second outline, just dealing with the revelation of clues and other information needed to solve the crime. When writing a forensic mystery it is even more important: you are not just getting information from witnesses or informants, you are deriving it from forensic techniques; evidence that has to be discovered, then interpreted, and often reinterpreted. The revelation of that information is part of the pacing of the story, and I think it’s almost impossible to do it well without a solid outline.

So what does all this time spent outlining have to do with believable characters and being a male author writing from a woman’s point of view? I think preparation is hugely important, and outlines are a big part of that. As I was preparing to write BODY TRACE, the first book in the D. H, Dublin series, I was a little concerned about writing from a woman’s point of view. But my outlining process helped me a lot, because the time that I spent working on the outline, I was really getting to know my characters, especially Madison, the main character. By the time I started writing the first draft, I had already been so immersed in the outline, and so immersed in Madison, that her point of view was second nature for me. This is not to say that there weren’t surprises or revelations about her while writing that draft, and there were definitely aspects of her character that revealed themselves toward the end of the book, causing revisions of earlier passages, but for the most part, I knew Madison before I started the draft. By the time I started writing, I was no longer worried about, “Is this how a woman would think or act,” I was thinking “Is this how Madison would think or act?” And by outlining so extensively, I had already answered many of those questions for myself, which helped define Madison in my mind. Writing a detailed outline helped me in the ways that a detailed outline always helps, but in addition, that added time spent living in Madison’s world before I starting the first draft helped me to become completely comfortable with her point of view, and her voice. By the time I started writing the first draft, I had a fully-formed character to occupy –- a character for whom being a woman is just one of many defining characteristics. The same is true for the other characters in the book: All that time spent in preparation is time your are getting to know all of your characters better, so that they are more or less fully formed before you start your draft.

VENTRELLA: What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about the publishing business?

McGORAN: I would say probably the biggest misconceptions in the publishing industry these days are things that were stated with absolute certainty by well-informed experts six months ago. Things are changing, and fast. Frankly, I am torn, at times trying to keep up and make sense of the constant changes, and other times keeping my head low, concentrating on my writing, and wondering what it’s all going to look like when things finally settle down.

Self-publishing is absolutely not what it used to be; it is a viable alternative, and one that many successful authors are exploring, and many new authors are having great success with. That said, some of the major knocks against it remain true: while there is a lot of great stuff being published, there is much more that is not very good, and your great self-published book will have a hard time punching through all that clutter to get any attention. And when you self publish, you are not just a self-published writer, you are now a self-publishing publisher, and you have to do all of the things that a publisher does, including all the production, promotion, distribution, and sales. Some people say the traditional publishing houses barely do that stuff anymore, but don’t kid yourself: they could certainly do more, and they could do some things better, but they do a lot. Self publishing can be a great option if you have the time to put into it, but make no mistake, you are taking on a whole other job, and a big one at that, one that could take up all that time you would have been able to spend writing that next great novel.

VENTRELLA: As a fan, who do you enjoy reading?

McGORAN: There are a number of local writers whose work I really enjoy, including our friends Jonathan Maberry and Dennis Tafoya, as well as Duane Swierczynski. Still, though, I think my favorite author is Elmore Leonard, he of the crackling dialogue and zero percent body fat prose.

Interview with Hugo nominated author Michael Flynn



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: How did you handle collaboration?

FLYNN: Superbly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the FIRESTAR cycle.

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: What other works are you most proud?

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now?

FLYNN: Answering these questions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

FLYNN: 1. Learn science.

2. Learn fiction.

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

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

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