SFFWRTCHT: An Interview With Jack McDevitt
A former English teacher, naval officer, Philly cab driver, customs officer and motivation trainer, Jack McDevitt has had works on the final Nebula ballot nine of the last ten years. He won in 2007 for Seeker. His first novel, The Hercules Text, was published in the celebrated ACE Specials series and won the Philip K. Dick Special Award. The Engines Of God was a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and his novella, “Time Travelers Never Die” was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula. Omega won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best SF novel in 2003. He lives in Georgia with his wife and best proofreader/editor Maureen, plays chess, reads mysteries and lunches reguarly with his cronies. Find him online at http://jackmcdevitt.com.
SFFWRTCHT: Let’s start with the basics: Where did your interest in Science Fiction and Fantasy come from?
Jack McDevitt: My father took me to see the third Flash Gordon and the Buck Rogers movie serials when I was four years old. I never recovered.
JM: Burroughs, Bradbury, Heinlein, Leinster, Simak, Sturgeon, Clarke. When I was reading Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder in the late forties, I regretted having missed Edmond Hamilton’s Captain Future stories. Eventually, as a high school English teacher, I used SF in general and Ray Bradbury in particular to try to ignite a passion for reading in kids who weren’t necessarily enthusiastic about the official curriculum. It was reasonably effective.
SFFWRTCHT: When did you start writing seriously and how long until your first sale?
JM: I submitted a story to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction when I was about 16. It was returned with a note from Anthony Boucher explaining why he’d rejected the story, but which contained some encouragement. I thought he was just being polite. So I didn’t try again. Two or three years later, I won LaSalle College’s Freshman Short Story Contest. That same year I read David Copperfield and concluded I could never write at that level. So I gave up and didn’t attempt another piece of fiction for a quarter century. By then I was training customs inspectors and regretting the writing career that had never happened. My wife Maureen urged me to give it a try. I wrote a story titled “Zip Code” about a postal clerk who wouldn’t take the plunge to win the woman he loved because he feared rejection. Ultimately a long delayed letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson shows up. It carried Emerson’s famous observation that you have to believe in yourself. That if you can do that you can do anything.
The postal clerk, of course, made his move. The story was rejected twice, but the second time it came back with a written note from Ed Ferman. The magazine was stocked, he explained. Sorry. I still didn’t realize the significance of a personal reply from the editor, so I shrugged and would have walked away again except that Maureen suggested we look at the story a second time, juice it a bit, and give it another effort. It went to Twilight Zone, then edited by T.E.D. Klein. Mr. Klein bought it, we changed the title to “The Emerson Effect,” and the celebration never really ended.
SFFWRTCHT: Did you study creative writing at all in school? How’d you learn your craft?
JM: I had one of two courses. I learned to write, as far as I can tell, simply by reading. Mark Twain, Hemingway, Thurber, Fitzgerald, Kafka, Dreiser, Irwin Shaw. And of course the SF writers. And Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
SFFWRTCHT: So where did the idea for Alex Benedict and Chase come from?
JM: I’ve always been interested in things of value that get lost. That can mean all kinds of things. The Italian researcher coming back from Greece during the early years of the Enlightenment with a collection of previously unknown Greek plays (or maybe histories) that he’d found in a trunk, which get lost again when the ship goes down in a storm. We don’t even know what the contents were. Or the Temple of Jupiter at Pompeii. Or the history we tend to forget, like the courage of the Filipino women who defied Japanese guards during the Death March to bring food and water to the captives. Some were clubbed and shot. Creating an antiquities dealer who would live nine thousand years from now, and would be confronted with historical mysteries, seemed a natural outcome.
JM: I was lucky. My fourth short story, “Cryptic,” made the Nebula ballot, and apparently caught Terry Carr’s attention. He responded by inviting me to contribute a novel to the Ace Specials. So the book was sold before I knew what I would write about.
SFFWRTCHT: What are the key elements in writing a hard SF mystery? Is that the genre you’d classify this under or intended it to be?
JM: That’s probably as good a classification as we’re likely to find, Bryan. To make it work, the narrative needs something more compelling than the standard whodunit. Instead, the reader should be driven to ask what on earth is going on here? How did those people disappear out of the Polaris when the pressure suits and the lander were still on board and there’s no habitable ground in the planetary system anyhow? Why did that well-known horror writer claim that “they’re all dead,” when in fact nobody was dead and it appeared that nobody was even under a threat? And so on. The trick is to create a solution that makes sense. That does not rely on a villainous character manipulating everything. And also that, at the point of revelation, makes the reader smile and think ‘Holy cats, how did I miss that? I should have seen it coming.’
SFFWRTCHT: How did you go about getting the right pace and tone? Did you have to keep trimming?
JM: By writing multiple drafts. My first draft is always terrible. One of the Priscilla Hutchins novels, Omega, needed something like sixteen rewrites. I just stay with it until it feels right. Which means that pace and tone are locked into the subconscious somewhere. And yes, trimming and adding. Of course. Lots of changes.
SFFWRTCHT: Did you do a lot of research on antique and auction sales and that career?
JM: Not really. Alex simply operates the way I would if I were in his business.
JM: I rarely read a good writer without taking away something I can use. I try to keep learning. If I had to pick one, though, it would be John Dos Passos and his USA trilogy.
SFFWRTCHT: It’s set in the distant future in a solar system which seems quite different from our own. Tell us a bit about the world setting of these stories.
JM: Actually there’s not much to tell. Rimway’s another Earth, similar gravity, similar environment. The culture is much like ours. People still like to go out to restaurants. They still hang out in bars and on beaches. They like boats. Sports remain a popular pastime. Educational levels are higher. People need not work if they prefer a life of leisure. Poverty has been eliminated. (I haven’t gone into the economic details because economics puts people to sleep. But in the technologically advanced world of the twelfth millennium, there’s plenty for everyone.) Humans have been colonizing hospitable worlds for thousands of years. War among humans is a thing of the distant past. Nobody can imagine it in Alex’s era. With poverty gone, and educational levels higher, crime is rare. There are no career criminals in our sense of the term: offenders who seem unable to correct their behavior receive a mind wipe. (Which is of course the equivalent of a death penalty.)
SFFWRTCHT: How much effort do you put into worldbuilding before you sit down to write? Or do you just throw it together as its needed?
JM: The geological construction of a world has never been at the center of the action for Alex & Chase. They have to deal with gravity issues and whatnot, but they too haven’t been central. Readers are pretty good at visualizing worlds. I try to provide a few details, and allow them to take it from there.
SFFWRTCHT: You made the interesting choice to tell some of these books through the POV of Chase rather than Alex, who feels like more of a protagonist. Why and what are the challenges as a writer to telling the tales that way?
JM: The first novel in the series, A Talent for War, was told from Alex’s perspective. The second book, Polaris, was originally also written from Alex’s point of view. I was about three-quarters through it when I realized that Holmes had Watson for a reason: Holmes knew too much. He drew too many inferences. The problem is that if Holmes is narrating, he has to take the reader into his confidence. There’s a rule somewhere that the viewpoint character can’t keep things from the reader. It doesn’t work. Aside from Holmes knowing too much, someone has to be there to ask the questions the reader would ask. So what was it about the dog in the night, Holmes? I mean, it didn’t even bark.
The nature of Talent had allowed me to get away with it the first time, but the Benedict POV was creating too many problems in Polaris. So I tossed the first version, and let Chase tell the story. Getting rid of so much work was painful, but it wasn’t the last time I’d do it.
JM: The same as in any piece of fiction, I suppose. Characters we care about. A rational conflict that is maybe about something more than starships shooting at one another. And effective staging that draws the reader into the action. And getting the science right.
SFFWRTCHT: How many books are in the series? How many more do you plan to write?
JM: Firebird is the sixth. I don’t think far enough ahead to make long-range plans. The Cassandra Project, which is a stand-alone novel, will be out next year. That was cowritten with Mike Resnick. I’m currently planning a prequel about the young Priscilla Hutchins for 2013. Beyond that, I have no idea. But probably another Alex & Chase.
SFFWRTCHT: Did you sell the idea as a series or just keep getting new ideas and adding to it?
JM: We never talked about a series. Each title just more or less showed up.
SFFWRTCHT: Do real world events inspire your stories at all?
JM: Of course. One of my favorite moments comes in Talent, when Alex, shocked at an effort to blow up an aircraft, wonders who’d be crazy enough to take a bomb on board a plane.
JM: The Cassandra Project is based on my short story of the same title, which appeared last year in Lightspeed. Though I should caution those who’ve read the story and think they know how the novel ends– Well, let me just ask them whether they know what the Watergate burglary was actually about? Apollo XI wasn’t the first manned landing on the Moon. A half-century later the great cover-up begins to unravel. It’s a stand-alone.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing process like? Specific time set aside to write? Grab it when you can?
JM: I write every day. Set a goal for each day, consisting of writing a specific scene, or six pages, or whatever. When that’s done, I’m free to take some time to myself.
SFFWRTCHT: What role do beta readers play for you in the process now that you have a publisher?
JM: Maureen is my in-house editor. Everything has to get past her before it goes out. But even she doesn’t get to see the first drafts. My recommendation to any aspiring writers: Find someone who has good taste to look at your work, and who can be trusted to give you an honest reaction. If you find someone like that, treat her to lunch. (Under no circumstances get annoyed because she doesn’t tell you what you want to hear.) And think seriously about proposing.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you use outlines or character sketches? Special software? Music?
JM: I always wander away from outlines, so I’ve long since stopped using them. I need to know where I’m starting, and what the resolution will be. Once I have those, the book writes itself. I keep notes on the characters, eye color, whatever. No special software. And usually lots of classical music.
SFFWRTCHT: How do you approach collaboration? Split characters? Split scenes? Rewrite each other?
JM: I had no real experience with it on a major project prior to my collaboration with Mike. My advice: Collaborate with someone who knows what he’s doing. Mike and I set up two narrative threads, talked a lot, and ultimately matched everything. It worked. At least I think it did.
JM: We never reached that point. We talked things out and were able to avoid any sort of major split.
SFFWRTCHT: Is it harder to write in collaboration or just the same?
JM: Harder in some ways, easier in others. Things get written quicker when two people are working. But you don’t have complete control over the book. On the other hand, you can’t help learning from the other person’s perspective and experience.
SFFWRTCHT: What projects are you working on for the future that we can look forward to?
JM: I’ve always enjoyed writing about Priscilla Hutchins. I’m currently working on a novel that tracks her through her first year as a star pilot. Her initial assignment is as emergency backup at the space station. The vehicle she’s assigned is a clunky maintenance ship, the Bloombury, or something like that. She hates the name and begins identifying it as the Starhawk. That will likely become the title.
Interviewer Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.
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