SFFWRTCHT: Glen Cook on Dread Empire, Garrett P.I. and the Dos and Don’ts of Writing

Glen Cook is the author of several successful series, including ten Black Company books, fourteen Garrett P.I. books, three Starfisher books, and multiple Dread Empire Books. He has also authored numerous short fiction for anthologies and other sources. Retired from General Motors, he lives in St. Louis with his wife of forty plus years, Carol, and they travel frequently to SF conventions as booksellers and panelists. Glen is busily working on sequels to his various properties.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt talks to Glen about his career, his approach to craft and his exciting future projects with us.


SFFWRTCHT: Where did your interest in SFF come from?

Glen Cook: Kind of always been there. A next door neighbor gave me a set of Tarzan books. I found and read my dad’s copy of The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov. I was reading a lot of westerns and history but now turned to SF, devouring everything in the local library. I began trying to write my own in seventh grade. Did the Adam and Eve story right off, then something about aliens intervening in a battle between the Egyptians and Hittites on the Plain of Armageddon.

SFFWRTCHT: Who were some of your favorite authors growing up?

G.C.: A. E. van Vogt and J. T. McIntosh before I got to high school. The local library only featured SF published by Doubleday. My high school library expanded my horizons some but I didn’t really run into the usual suspects (for my generation) until I got to college. I found Heinlein and Vance and Norton, then went into a hiatus. Though I wasn’t much of a student I was there at the behest of the U. S. Navy. For most of the next eight years my reading was limited.

Parenthetically, I grubbed a higher grade in several high school and college classes by wowing the teacher with an original short story related to whatever topic was at hand. None of those crippled masterworks have survived.

SFFWRTCHT: Were you involved with cons and fandom? Cosplay?

G.C.: No, no, and no. I was a man full grown and then some long before I became aware that such existed.

SFFWRTCHT: How did you get your start as a writer?

G.C.: Glen Cook the commercially published author first began stirring in later 1967 and during 1968. At that time I was part of a General Motors team managing an ammunition plant for the U. S. Army. We produced 105mm Howitzer shells. Beginning with the Tet Offensive at the year’s beginning 1968 was the hottest year of the Viet Nam War. We worked seven days a week, twelve hours a day, except Sunday, when we ratcheted it back to eight hours. I had two days off the first six months. But my job consisted of sitting by the phone waiting for an emergency call. When that did come it might take me forty-five minutes to deal with the problem. I read a lot while waiting. The material kept getting ranker and ranker. In those days publishers were producing only a few titles per month, often reprints of stuff I’d already read. I decided I could do better. Using company equipment and supplies, I set out to do that. It was harder than I thought.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you study writing in college? How did you learn your craft?

G.C.: I did not, except that I did attend one of the earliest Clarion Workshops. The best result from that was I met my wife of 40+ years while I was there. Mainly, I learned by doing, and maybe not so much.

SFFWRTCHT: With the release of Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops, people are talking about a new genre of military fantasy, but Myke reminded me Black Company is military fantasy. Where did the idea for Black Company come from?

G.C.: I don’t know. Some writers like to give a mail box number and others say, “I made it up.” It isn’t a question I can answer about any of my stuff except to borrow from Salman Rushdie and say I found it in the Sea of Stories. All the stories I have written, along with hundreds more, are just there inside my head. And original heavy metal music, too, but I don’t know how to get that out. I might not know where the Black Company came from but I knew what I wanted to do, which was tell the story of the Great War between Light and Dark from the viewpoint of the guys doing the grunt work for the Dark Lord.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you plan it as a series or did that just evolve over time?

G.C.: It was an evolutionary process beginning with the editing process for the first book. The editor who bought it was troubled by Black Company because she saw it as so different from all the Tolkien clones going around in those days. She insisted I do a trilogy in which the men of the Company would eventually show us that they were not irredeemably wicked. By the time I completed White Rose I knew Shadow Games. That underwent mitosis and became Shadow Games and Silver Spike. By then Dreams Of Steel was obvious and Glittering Stone had to be done. That last, however, had a litter: Bleak Seasons, She Is The Darkness, Water Sleeps, and Soldiers Live.

SFFWRTCHT: You’ve written ten books so far. Are there plans for more?

G.C.: Actually, there are, assuming I survive long enough to complete them. Port Of Shadows will take place in the interval between Black Company and Shadows Linger. A Pitiless Rain will follow on after Soldiers Live. The initial two parts of Port Of Shadows have been published already as short fiction, “Tides Elba” in Swords And Dark Magic Edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders. There was a Subterranean Press limited hardcover edition and a Harper/Collins trade paperback. “Smelling Danger” was in the Subterranean Press limited edition Tales Of Dark Fantasy 2 edited by William Shafer. I will be turning my full attention to Port Of Shadows as soon as I have cleared off some prior obligations.

SFFWRTCHT: Another of your popular series involves a fantasy private investigator named Garrett. Where’d the idea for Garrett, P.I. come from?

G.C.: Garrett started out as a straight American PI story/character. My agent discouraged me from doing PI fiction because there was no market for it at the time (1980). A few years later the Garrett stories began to force themselves out in the fantasy form they have now. It started as a standalone but I knew Bitter Gold Hearts and Cold Copper Tears complete by the time I finished SSB. I seem always to know the next Garrett and parts of the one after that before I finish the one at hand.

SFFWRTCHT: Will there be a 14th Garrett novel?

G.C.: I’m not sure what number Gilded Latten Bones was but, yes, there will be another, Wicked Bronze Ambition.

SFFWRTCHT: Were you influenced by other writers in writing these series?

G.C.: Absolutely, and sometimes deliberately. I leave it to the readers to decide which title is a Raymond Chandler, a Dashiell Hammett, a Richard Prather, and so on. Most such guesses, when presented to me, are usually off the mark so maybe the influences were not quite as deep as I imagined while I was doing the writing.

SFFWRTCHT: Your latest, A Path To Coldness Of Heart, wraps up the Final Chronicle of your Dread Empire series. Why the gap between books? Was it hard to get back into it again or did you have notes sitting, waiting to be realized?

G.C.: Back in the day Dread Empire was expected to run roughly fourteen volumes, plus a lot of short fiction and was intended to be the great work of my life. Unfortunately, while other writers lauded the series, everyday book buyers did not. Only two of the initial seven books earned out their advances. On the other hand, both the Black Company and Garrett books were proving popular so guess what my editors wanted me to write?

The next book in the series (then entitled A Cruel Wind) was 85% complete when I set Dread Empire aside. It’s sequel (The Wrath Of Kings) was about 15% complete. Everything to do with the project was stored in a single large box in hopes of eventual revivification.

In the 1980s my wife and I hosted an annual blowout for the SF community that usually attracted about 150 guests. At the last of these someone helped himself or herself to that box, I presume being desperate to know where the story would go next. (Guests also helped themselves to a number of early Ace Doubles, my pristine copy of the 1949 Hillman 1st edition of Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, and my only copy of a porn novel I scribbled in 1970. That took me twenty-two years and nearly three hundred dollars to replace. Other treasures vanished as well. We never had a party again.)

When Night Shade picked up most of my backlist for reissue they asked if I would write a book to wrap up the Dread Empire. I had nothing to go on anymore except vague memories of a project twenty-five years fallow. I leapt into those, remixed everything, combined the main events of Cruel Wind and Wrath Of Kings, tossed in the very highest points of the book that would have followed on after those two, sprinkled in hints from the book that would have come after the others, and created A Path To Coldness Of Heart. The book does, I think, do what it was intended to do, but less satisfyingly than what was initially planned. It contains plenty of suggestions, I fear, about what might have been and where the series would have gone had it enjoyed its natural life. Which is not to say or even imply that I am dissatisfied with or ungrateful to Night Shade. They have been very, very good to me.

SFFWRTCHT: How do you switch between series and keep the right tone/feel for the various books? Do you ever have to look back at prior books to capture the mood again?

G.C.: I do look back, a little, these days, but very little. Each story just seems to come out the way it needs to be. There are changes in time, as there are in the real world. I don’t do a lot by deliberate intent.

SFFWRTCHT: What can you tell us about Winter’s Dreams, which comes out at the end of April 2012?

G.C.: It is a short story collection. I have done very little short fiction across my career. Winter’s Dreams includes everything that was not in the Dread Empire story collection An Empire Unacquainted With Defeat. The stories are from early in my career, mainly from very small or obscure sources, or were things I did as favors for convention committees.

SFFWRTCHT: Are any of the stories in the collection related to your popular novel series?

G.C.: Several of the stories tie in to the future history of Passage At Arms and the Starfishers Trilogy. “Winter’s Dreams” would be part of a sequel to The Dragon Never Sleeps if ever I wrote one. “Darkwar” is related to the Night Shade omnibus of the trilogy of that same title, the trilogy having been written to explain what was going on in the earlier-published novelette. The past few years I have done a number of novelettes at editorial request, none of which made it into Winter’s Dreams for contractual reasons. Those would include the two Black Company stories mentioned above plus “The Good Magician” in Songs Of The Dying Earth edited by Dozois and Martin, and “Shadow Thieves,” which is a Garrett PI story (the only short one ever) in Down These Strange Streets, from Ace books and also edited by Dozois and Martin.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you outline or pants it? How much planning do you do before you write and what?

G.C.: Pants it. Very little planning, though the amount varies from book to book.

SFFWRTCHT: How much and what type of research do you typically do before writing or as you write?

G.C.: Not much to none. I rely on a lifetime habit of voracious and eclectic reading and a good memory for broad input. Once in a rare while I’ll go to Google for a detail of which I am uncertain.

SFFWRTCHT: How long does a typical novel take you to write?

G.C.: A year would probably be a statistical average but there is a big bell curve. Eleven and fourteen days in two cases, years and years in others. I have an unfinished project entitled Fail Point that has been semi-active since the early 1970s.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing time look like? Planned time? Grab it when you can?

G.C.: These days it’s usually a few hours in the morning, then whatever I feel like doing during the rest of the day. Back when I was with GM and raising a family it was totally catch as catch can. I got more done back then.

SFFWRTCHT: How do you deal with writer’s block?

G.C.: I don’t. Never been a problem, though sometimes I will shift my attention to a different story if I don’t like the way something is going.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best writing advice you have to offer new writers who ask?

G.C.: First and foremost, Do It! Don’t talk about doing it. For God’s sake, don’t come telling me the whole story you’re going to write someday. Sit your ass down with a pen, a typewriter, a word processor, or a computer, and start making words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs. You will have to trash a lot of stuff before you start to get it right, but that is part of the learning process. And, someday, some of those primitive ideas might be resurrected as part of some worthy project.

Secondly, don’t ask your mom, your significant other, or your close friends to read and comment on your stuff. They all like you so they will lie to you to keep from hurting your feelings. You need your feelings hurt so you’ll stop writing all that crap.

Third, you should have a more than passing familiarity with the English language. Every craftsman has to know and take care of his tools. No, the editor is not going to fix it for you. Whatever you think, that isn’t her job. If you can’t write a coherent sentence, can’t spell, can’t punctuate, use grammar like you were raised by toads, your masterpiece is going to be rejected before the first reader gets to the second page.

In his Uncle Hugo’s Bookstore quarterly catalog, owner Don Blyly said:

“There are now hundreds of thousands of self-published titles available. A few are very good, some are okay, and most are dreadful. In many cases the authors got suckered by unscrupulous publishers, who took the authors’ money knowing that the book would never be able to sell more than a few cases to the authors, which the authors will have to store in their closets for the rest of their lives. Many of these books have never been edited, spell-checked, grammar-checked, etc., and are offered at high prices and low discounts that guarantee that a bookstore will never buy a copy. For an extreme example of this check out The Worst Book Ever is “Moon People”.

The point is, if you have to publish it yourself it’s almost certainly not worth publishing. There were about 850,000 such books published in 2010.

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

G.C.: The next Garrett, Wicked Bronze Ambition. The fourth Instrumentalities book, Working God’s Mischief (I would like to do a fifth, He Lost His Shadow Somehow, but that is unlikely to happen. Paperback and e-book sales for the series have been disappointing and the fourth book was a hard sell.) The aforementioned Black Company books, given time, and a couple of novelettes for forthcoming anthologies, then another Garrett, this one from Pular Singe’s viewpoint (Actually, they all are, she having written down what Garrett has reported). I still have a lot of stories inside me but at 67 I don’t feel as driven to get them out as once I did.

SFFWRTCHT: Final thoughts?

G.C.: Don’t worry. Be happy. Glen Cook

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s 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 along with his book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids from Delabarre Publishing and the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 which he edited for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novel for author Ellen C. Maze (Rabbit: Legacy), a historical book for Leon C. Metz (The Shooters, John Wesley Hardin, The Border), and is now editing Decipher Inc’s WARS tie-in books for Grail Quest Books. 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.

4 thoughts on “SFFWRTCHT: Glen Cook on Dread Empire, Garrett P.I. and the Dos and Don’ts of Writing”

  1. Well, Paul, I have not read Black Company or Instrumentalities yet. I have a number of his novels and am working my way through. I read some Garrett and I have read some space opera. He’s a very talented guy. I’ll be hanging with him again Memorial Day weekend here and look forward to it.

  2. Sad to hear the Instrumentalities are not doing so good. I like the series quite a bit, but it is difficult to get into.
    On the other hand, it’s great news that he’s working on more Black Company books. Hopefully we’ll get those soon.

  3. The question I would ask, and more than likely, he’d say to talk to the publisher, is why 10 of his 13 Garrett books are on Kindle, and why the ones in the middle of the series. There’s nothing to be found on it anywhere on the web, and inquiring minds would like to know! Out of all the books I own, this series is the easiest to just sit down and read on a lazy day, and it drives me bonkers, especially since OTS is the book that got me into Garrett when I was a teenager. Anywho, glad to hear there are more Garrett books coming, but if one is from Singe’s view that does not bode well for the man himself methinks.

    Rob

Comments are closed.