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SFFWRTCHT: An Interview With Joe Haldeman

Joe Haldeman was born in Oklahoma but has lived in Puerto Rico, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Alaska. Married since 1965 to Gay, they are frequently encountered at Conventions around the country. Haldeman has a BS in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Maryland and served as a combat engineer in the Army in Vietnam after graduation, inspiring War Year, his first novel. In 1975, he received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He now resides in Florida and Massachusetts where he teaches writing at MIT. Haldeman’s most famous novel is The Forever War (1974), inspired by his Vietnam experiences, which won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. He later turned it into a series. Haldeman also wrote two of the earliest original novels based on Star Trek the Original Series Planet of Judgment (August 1977) and World Without End (February 1979). In October 2008 it was announced that Ridley Scott will direct a feature film based on The Forever War for Fox. Other Hugo winners include the short stories “Tricentennial” and “None So Blind,” the novella “The Hemingway Hoax” and his novel Forever Peace, a sequel to Forever War, which also won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best SF Novel. “The Hemingway Hoax,” Forever Peace, Forever War, Camouflage, and the short story “Graves” also won Nebula Awards. His current novel, Earthbound, is the conclusion to a YA cycle, The Marsbound Trilogy. His official website can be found at

SFFWRTCHT: Let’s start with the basics: Where did your interest in Science Fiction and Fantasy come from?

Joe Haldeman: My father bought me and my brother some of the Winston Juvenile sf books when he came back from trips – there was a display of them at National Airport in Washington. Then my 4th-grade teacher caught me reading one of them during class — Rocket Jockey by Philip St. John (Lester Del Rey) – and instead of punishing me, brought me a half-dozen more from her daughter’s collection.

SFFWRTCHT: Who were some writers who inspired you as you discovered the genre?

JH: Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Van Vogt.

SFFWRTCHT: When did you start writing seriously and how long until your first sale?

JH: I started writing fiction seriously in my senior year of college, 1967. The first two stories I sold, I wrote then, but didn’t submit them until 1969, when I returned from Vietnam.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you study creative writing at all in school? How’d you learn your craft?

JH: I took a course in fiction writing my senior year, where I wrote those two stories.

SFFWRTCHT: So where did the idea for Carmen Dula and her encounter with the Others come from?

JH: I think the Others just crept in out of my subconscious while I was making stuff up about the Martians. Sort of “You think that’s weird? Look at this!”

SFFWRTCHT: How do you approach creating aliens? Do you model them after human cultures? Mix and match or just improvise?

JH: I guess I have some guiding principles, like “don’t make the aliens too human, but don’t make them so alien that readers can’t identify with them” . . . but in fact that’s not completely true. Sometimes you want the aliens totally inexplicable. I guess it’s one of those questions that really would require a book-length answer. If they’re modeled after human cultures, that’s probably for satirical effect. You read about biology and sociology and ecology and anthropology and whatever, and shake it all up and aliens come out the other end.

SFFWRTCHT: How long did you spend writing your first book before you sold it?

JH: I sold the book (War Year, about Vietnam, not sf) before I wrote it, as I have done with almost all my books – why work for free? – and then I wrote it in about six weeks. I hasten to add that it was very short, really just a novella. I had written letters home every day from Vietnam; I just read through those letters and rearranged the incidents into a coherent story.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you approach writing YA books any differently than books for adults?

JH: Not really. Younger viewpoint character.

SFFWRTCHT: Did any other writers influence your approach to YA?

JH: Yes, but I don’t know their names. When I got a contract to do a YA story, I went to the bookstore and studied the beginnings of about a dozen current best-selling YA novels. The main thing I got from that research was that there were no restrictions on what you could write about. Sodomize Martians with a raygun? Okay, but only if they enjoy it. Like most people, my earliest exposure to SF was books that would now be considered YA, like the Winston juveniles and Heinlein’s Scribner’s books. My fond memory of those books certainly had some influence.

SFFWRTCHT: In Earthbound, Carmen and her husband and friends return to Earth and are forced to use 19th century technology. Tell us a bit about the world setting of these stories?

JH: Part of the inspiration (and some of the detail) comes from the odd anachronistic Foxfire series – several back-to-the-simple-life books that grew out of the Whole Earth Catalog response to modern life.

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?

JH: Sometimes I do a little science. I have a red notebook that I use for working out the physical characteristics of alien worlds. Of course there usually is some aspect of that world that is central to the story (otherwise, why not just set it on Earth?) Camouflage is a straightforward example. The novel came from an article about the orbital characteristics of planets swarming in a globular cluster.

SFFWRTCHT: Would you classify this as space opera? What are the key elements of a good space opera?

JH: The Marsbound Trilogy are not space opera as I see that subgenre. I’m not sure that a present-day writer can write a “good space opera,” because to me the term refers to an old-fashioned form. The term of course comes from “horse opera,” referring to Westerns, and to my mind “space opera” is a similarly restricted kind of story-telling – a fairly simple adventure tale set in some space-faring future. I know that there is a “new space opera,” but have to admit I haven’t studied the idea yet. I think if you define it broadly enough, some of my stories would fit in, and so would a lot of the modern SF that I enjoy.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any plans to continue with these characters or is Earthbound the end?

JH: Earthbound is the end, I think.

SFFWRTCHT: Do real world events inspire your stories at all?

JH: Of course every writer is affected by the world around him. The shock of 9/11 certainly informs the Marsbound Trilogy. The odd success/failure duality of the American space program is an invisible subtext to my writing whenever I write about spaceflight.

SFFWRTCHT: Of course, you’ve authored many books, but Forever War is considered a classic of the genre. How does that feel? Do you ever look at it and wish you had done anything differently in writing that?

JH: Of course it feels good to write a book that keeps coming back into print. If I had written it today, or even twenty years ago, I would have been less frivolous about the future in which homosexuality is the norm. What seemed sardonically funny in 1972 isn’t funny now.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing process like? Specific time set aside to write? Grab it when you can?

JH: I write in the morning, after breakfast. Ride my bike to a café and drink coffee and write in longhand in bound blank books for a couple of hours. Research and rewrite in the afternoons.

SFFWRTCHT: What role do beta readers play for you in the process now that you have a publisher?

JH: I don’t even have alpha readers.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you use outlines or character sketches? Special software? Music?

JH: I often make elaborate outlines like computer-programming flowcharts, but I don’t use them while I’m writing. They serve as a kind of wool-gathering; a meditative device. I’ll attach one. Likewise, I often do a kind of “free writing,” mumbling to myself about the story, after I’ve finished the day’s writing. I keep those notes but don’t refer to them often. Haven’t found any special software that actually works. Have tried voice recognition things like Via Voice, but they seem to take more time and trouble than they’re worth.

SFFWRTCHT: What projects are you working on for the future that we can look forward to?

JH: A novel, Work Done For Hire.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, 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. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SF Signal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

About Bryan Thomas Schmidt (68 Articles)
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and Hugo-nominated editor of adult and children's speculative fiction. His debut novel, THE WORKER PRINCE received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club's Year's Best Science Fiction Releases. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. As book editor he is the main editor for Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta's WordFire Press where he has edited books by such luminaries as Alan Dean Foster, Tracy Hickman, Frank Herbert, Mike Resnick, Jean Rabe and more. He was also the first editor on Andy Weir's bestseller THE MARTIAN. His anthologies as editor include SHATTERED SHIELDS with co-editor Jennifer Brozek and MISSION: TOMORROW, GALACTIC GAMES (forthcoming) and LITTLE GREEN MEN--ATTACK! (forthcoming) all for Baen, SPACE BATTLES: FULL THROTTLE SPACE TALES #6, BEYOND THE SUN and RAYGUN CHRONICLES: SPACE OPERA FOR A NEW AGE. He is also coediting anthologies with Larry Correia and Jonathan Maberry set in their New York Times Bestselling Monster Hunter and Joe Ledger universes. From December 2010 to June 2015, he hosted #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer's Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter as @SFFWRTCHT.

6 Comments on SFFWRTCHT: An Interview With Joe Haldeman

  1. Nice interview, Bryan. I’ve read most of Joe’s books. I loved THE FOREVER WAR and the ACCIDENTAL TIME MACHINE. But I think Joe’s WAR YEAR and 1968 are both underrated, perhaps because they do fall outside the genre. Those are some outstanding books in their own right.

  2. Thanks, Bryan.

    As Jamie above can attest, I’ve had a mixed record with Haldeman’s work, but THE FOREVER WAR is a book that is one of the essential books of the genre. The Hemingway Hoax is lots of fun too.

    “Tricentennial” is a weird story that I like, too.

    • You know, I loved the beginning of ACCIDENTAL TIME MACHINE, but I really thought it fell apart at the end. For one, he created a world I found hard to believe in one of the later leaps (been a while so don’t want to mention details unless I double check), and for another, I just thought it became a bit unfocused. I have a signed copy of FOREVER WAR I need to read. Other than that I read EARTHBOUND for this interview. So I am woefully behind. I do intend to read more. Was fun to pick his brain a bit about writing.

  3. Thanks for the interview, Bryan. Nice work. I’m sure there is more you’d like to comment on about the New Space Opera if this were in a different format. As for me, anyone who could replicate the joy I had reading the Dune prequels would earn themselves a new fan. Also, I thought it was funny how direct his answer was to how he learned the craft–“took a class in college.” I must have missed that one because his seems to have worked out splendidly. I know self-discipline and practice are involved, but it just sounded funny, like that is all he needed. Also, congrats, Bryan, on the announcement of your joining the team over at Adventures in Scifi Publishing! I look forward to hearing your contributions there and enjoyed your recap of the books you read last year. Man that was a lot.

    • Joe Haldeman // April 23, 2012 at 10:45 am //

      Tim, I forgot to put an there. I did take a course in college, but (like most people) I didn’t learn anything really important. It made me finish stories, which is the main function of writing courses (including the ones I teach).

      You don’t find many professional writers who learn their craft in school, like getting a degree in social science or apprenticing to a welder. Everybody learns how to write by reading and writing. You more or less find out what kind of writing you like best, and try to write as well yourself.

      Joe Haldeman

  4. Joe Haldeman // April 23, 2012 at 10:47 am //

    Oops . . . the “irony” symbol, Fe, didn’t come through in the first sentence above.

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