Robert Silverberg is rightly considered by many as one of the greatest living Science Fiction Writers. His career stretches back to the pulps and his output is amazing by any standards. He’s authored numerous novels, short stories and nonfiction books in various genres and categories. He’s also a frequent guest at Cons. A regularly columnist for Asimov’s, his major works include Dying Inside, The Book of Skulls, The Alien Years, The World Inside, Nightfall with Isaac Asimov, Son of Man, A Time of Changes and the 7 Majipoor Cycle books. (A major bibliography can be found at here.) His first Majipoor trilogy, Lord Valentine’s Castle, Majipoor Chronicles and Valentine Pontifex are being reissued by ROC Books in May 2012, September 2012 and January 2013. (Covers shown above; click for larger versions.) A new anthology collecting all the Majipoor short tales called Tales Of Majipoor will follow in May 2013. Bryan Thomas Schmidt of SFFWRTCHT took the time to talk with Silverberg about Majipoor, his approach to craft and more in preparation for the books’ reissue almost 30 years after their first release.
SFFWRTCHT: Let’s start with the basics: Where did your interest in Science Fiction and Fantasy come from?
Robert Silverberg: As a child I was interested in all sorts of romantic far-off things — the visionary world of the Greek and Norse myths, the dinosaurs that I saw at New York’s Museum of Natural History, the stars in the night sky, etc., etc. By the time I was ten I discovered that there was such a thing as science fiction (though I didn’t hear the term itself for another two or three years) that embodied in prose the wonders and mysteries that I yearned to know much more about.
SFFWRTCHT: Who were some writers who inspired you as you discovered the genre?
RS: The first was H.G. Wells, whose The Time Machine had an overwhelming impact on me when I was about ten. Then there was Lovecraft and his The Shadow Out Of Time, and John Taine with Before The Dawn (a great time-travel/dinosaur novel), and, later, when I found the s-f magazines, Robert A. Heinlein, Henry Kuttner under his various pseudonyms, A.E. van Vogt, L. Sprague de Camp, and most of the other Golden Age writers whose work filled the early s-f anthologies like Adventures In Time and Space.
SFFWRTCHT: When did you start writing seriously and how long until your first sale?
RS: I wrote my first story when I was about thirteen, a collaboration with a schoolmate. I went on writing through my teens and made my first sale in 1952, when I was seventeen. I didn’t begin selling fiction regularly for another three years, though.
SFFWRTCHT: Did you study creative writing at all in school? How’d you learn your craft?
RS: I never have taken a writing course, and don’t recommend them. Occasionally I would read a book about writing, like Thomas Uzzell’s Narrative Technique, but usually came away baffled. I learned my craft by reading an infinite amount of fiction and trying to discover how the authors achieved their effects. Where to begin a story? How does one end one? How much dialog should be mixed with exposition? I figured it all out by the time I was sixteen or so. I was a quick learner. The problem was not so much to learn the craft of telling a story as to learn enough about the real world so that one had stories to tell.
SFFWRTCHT: How do you define epic fantasy and what are its core elements to your mind?
RS: I don’t spend much time thinking about these definitions. Lord Valentine’s Castle is a quest story — the protagonist first must rediscover his lost identity and then reclaim it — and in the process of doing that he needs to find companions, to undergo certain adventures, to regain some sense of autonomy as a human being. But these are fundamental aspects of fiction and I didn’t need to make a list of “core elements” in order to know what I had to write about.
SFFWRTCHT: When I first read Lord Valentine’s Castle, I thought of it as epic fantasy but lots classify it as science fiction. Was your intent to mix genres? Is it space opera or is it who cares, I write it and you can sort it out later?
RS: I never gave genre a thought when writing the book. It’s science fiction, in that it takes place on a far-off world in a far-distant era, and it’s fantasy, in that there is some degree of wizardry in it, but my main concern was in telling a lively and compelling story, not in following the rules of any particular genre.
SFFWRTCHT: How do you approach creating monsters/aliens? Do you model them after human cultures? Mix and match or just improvise?
RS: Of course I start with what I know of the creatures of this world — there’s no other way. Then I make adjustments.
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?
RS: I began Lord Valentine’s Castle with the notion of Majipoor as a giant planet-sized city, divided into vast subcities. But as Majipoor evolved in my mind, I realized that it couldn’t all be covered by a single gigantic city, as I had originally thought. There had to be agricultural zones, forests and valleys, mountains and deserts, and such. Nevertheless I stuck to my basic notion of a huge planet that had a population of many billions, most of them living in enormous cities of great beauty and fascination. And from that came all the rest. In order for human beings to live comfortably on so big a planet, the gravitational pull would have to be something reasonably similar to that of Earth — which meant a light core for the planet, very little in the way of metals. Metal-poor Majipoor therefore could not be a high-technology planet, Since it exists some fifteen or twenty thousand years in our future, though, it is able to take advantage of technological breakthroughs that seem like sheer magic to us, and so there is enough in the way of transportation, communications, and sanitation to provide a comfortable existence for the billions of inhabitants. And so forth. Each step in the construction of the planet led to the next logical development, and it was all fairly carefully worked out before I began writing the book.
SFFWRTCHT: When you wrote this book, it came after several years where you had thought you’d given up writing for good. What brought you back, endless dreams of Majipoor you couldn’t let go to waste? Seriously, the world is so developed and detailed, I do wonder how much of that you had sorted before you ever wrote a word of prose?
RS: After an absence from writing of nearly five years, I felt the need to get back to it, and I wanted to return with a big book, one that would make people sit up and take notice. And since the books I had written just prior to my long period of silence had been, by and large, pretty dark ones, I wanted the new one to be bright, cheerful, of a different tone altogether. The first notes I took about the book said, “The novel is joyous and huge — no sense of dystopia. The form is that of a pilgrimage across the entire sphere. (For what purpose?) A colossal odyssey through bizarre bazaars. Parks and wonders.” Then I paused and added, “The book must be fun. Picaresque characters. Strange places — but all light, delightful, raffish. Magical mystery tour.” A moment later and I had my basic plot theme: “Young man journeying to claim an inheritance that has been usurped. His own identity has been stolen and he now wears another body.” A title offered itself: Lord Valentine’s Castle. And so everything was in place and I started working things out in detail until I had an 18-page outline.
SFFWRTCHT: You have written two trilogies, numerous short stories and a standalone novel in the Majipoor Cycle. (Did I miss any?) Did you envision the series continuing to capture your interest this long? Or even being reissued 30 years later yet again.
RS: Originally I thought Castle would be a standalone novel. Then I began thinking about aspects of Majipoor that could not fit into the book, and I started writing the short stories that became Majipoor Chronicles. And finally I saw that Castle needed a sequel to resolve the problem of the rebellious Shapeshifters, and out came Valentine Pontifex. But I conceived the series one book at a time. And, of course, I expected them to be still in print 30 years later! In those days, any solid s-f novel held its readership for decades.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you use outlines or character sketches, special software (other than word, like Scrivener, etc.), or music as you write?
RS: No, certainly no music, and no special software. I use an old word-processing program called Arrow and I just start my story and keep on typing.
SFFWRTCHT: The second book, Majipoor Chronicles, was a collection of short stories as Hissune learns the history of Majipoor. Was this an exercise in writing prehistory and filling in gaps as much for yourself as readers?
RS: As I said above, yes. Majipoor has thousands of years of history and I merely scratched the surface in Castle.
SFFWRTCHT: How much of the pre-Majipoor history do you have figured out, such as how they came from Old Earth, etc.?
RS: None of that was relevant to the story I was telling, any more than the travails of the Pilgrim Fathers would be relevant to a novel dealing with contemporary life in America. I deal with a little of it in one of the later short stories but most remains unwritten.
SFFWRTCHT: The third book is more spiritual as a religious rebellion of sorts arises and Valentine is rising to Potinfex with Hissune poised to become Coronal, but complications ensue. It has a bit different tone and takes place several years after the first two. Why choose such a gap? Many would likely have enjoyed spending more time with Valentine as Coronal.
RS: Valentine becomes Pontifex late in the book, and Hissune comes out of nowhere to be Coronal. I think I picked the right place to start the book — with Valentine established once more on the throne and the Shapeshifters causing real trouble.
SFFWRTCHT: The next trilogy you chose was Prestimion’s tale which is way before the time of Valentine. What was it about that story which cried out to deserve the novel setting as opposed to short stories?
RS: Prestimion and his successor Dekkeret are referred to frequently in Castle and Pontifex as great figures of the past. I wanted to go back a thousand years and show what made them great, and that took three big novels.
SFFWRTCHT: I think Sorcerers of Majipoor is my favorite of the books. It was just brilliantly executed. (I am torn between it at and Lord Valentine’s Castle). You set up a brilliant ethical delimma there with a decision by Prestimion to respond a certain way to limit who knows about Korsibar and his sister’s actions. It really dominates Sorcerers and King Of Dreams, the third book in that second trilogy. How hard was it to make that plot device work? (Trying to avoid spoilers, feel free to ditch the question if you feel it’s too revealing to answer well.)
RS: I think the Prestimion trilogy has been much underrated by readers, perhaps because it is much more dense and complex than the Valentine novels. And Prestimion and Dekkeret are interesting, complicated characters. There are many minor characters that came alive for me, too. They were hard books to write, large-scale and intricately plotted, but I was very pleased with them when they were done. I hope to bring them back into print a few years from now.
SFFWRTCHT: Mountains of Majipoor is an exploration by Prince Harpirias, exiled by the Coronal for indiscretions, who sets out to a remote icy region to discover what happened to a group of paleontologists who disappeared while searching for dragons. Where’d that idea come from?
RS: The publisher of the Majipoor books at that time had started a novella series, and suggested that I try a Majipoor novella. But I don’t think Mountains fits well into the series and I have let it go out of print.
SFFWRTCHT: Will there ever be yet another trilogy? (Please say yes, I wrote this question on my knees. Lord Stamiot’s time with the conquering of the shapeshifters/Piurivars seems to be begging for a trilogy…)
RS: There won’t be any more trilogies. Writing these long books takes tremendous stamina and I would be in my eighties by the time I finished a new trilogy — at my age I’d rather kick back and take things a little easier. Wouldn’t you? But I did deal with Lord Stiamot in a novelet called “The End of the Line” that will be included in a new collection called Tales Of Majipoor, a book similar to Majipoor Chronicles in structure, that will be published next year. I agree that there’s a big story in Stiamot, and I may return to it some day; but for now readers will have to be satisfied with my two stories about him, the one in Tales and the one in Chronicles that bracket the start and finish of his career.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing process like? Specific time set aside to write? Grab it when you can?
RS: I’ve always begun work right after breakfast and continued until I was too tired to go on that day. In my most prolific years I would work until about three in the afternoon. Gradually the finish time got earlier and earlier until it was somewhere before noon. But I work methodically, the same hours each day, Monday through Friday.
SFFWRTCHT: What role, if any, do beta readers play for you in the process?
RS: My wife Karen reads and edits everything when it is in rough draft, and sometimes I have other people look over the work, but only occasionally. Four or five people checked out Castle for me when I was working on it, but that would be rare now.
SFFWRTCHT: What projects are you working on for the future that we can look forward to?
RS: As I said, I’m getting up in years, and at the moment I don’t have any project in progress except the big one of getting all my previously published work reissued for electronic reading devices. That takes a great deal of time, because there’s so much of it and the new media involve some pretty complex decisions. I can’t predict how long it will be before I actually get back to writing anything new.
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.