SFFWRTCHT: A Chat With Author/Professor Doctor Charles E. Gannon
Doctor Charles E. Gannon is a Distinguished Professor of English at St. Bonaventure University. A Fulbright Senior Specialist in American Literature and Culture 2004-2009, his most recent non-fiction book won the 2006 ALA Award for Outstanding Book and was discussed on NPR’s Morning Edition when he was interviewed. He’s also appeared on Discovery Channel and is a member of SIGMA, a Science Fiction think tank of which clients include the Air Force, the Pentagon, and NATO. Prior to his academic career, Dr. Gannon worked eight years as a scriptwriter and producer in New York City. His latest novel is Fire With Fire, others are Extremis with Steve White and 1635: The Papal Stakes with Eric Flint, all from Baen Books. A happily married father of five, he lives north of Annapolis and can be found on twitter as @cegannon1, on Facebook and via his website at CharleseGannon.com.
SFFWRTCHT: First things first, where’d your interest in speculative fiction come from?
Charles E. Gannon: Where? Dunno. When? The cradle, I think. When I was three, I loved dinosaurs. So I wanted to be a paleontologist and write about it. When I was seven, it was zoology, and I wanted to write about it. At about nine, it was astronomy, then being an astronaut. But then I learned that space travel was still dangerous, so it was back to astronomy. And of course, write about it. You spent long, preparatory years doing immense amounts of number crunching, often living a dull existence, all so you’d get to do something uberkewl for a few days. That was not satisfying to me. But writing about it? I got to virtually live all those lives, whenever I wanted. And dive into the topix. Now that was kewl!
CEG: A longer list than we have time for. In SF/F, I’d have to say that Heinlein’s Starship Troopers was a revelation, and for anyone out there who has only seen the movie, you will not understand what I mean. Because, if you go back and count, combat occupies much, much less than 50% of the book’s page count. There is also a lushness of prose (occasionally a lushness tending toward purple) in the writing of Robert E. Howard. Gordon R. Dickson’s The Tactics of Mistake may be the finest military science fiction I’ve read. And there’s a lot of good mil sf out there, as we all know. Jerry Pournelle’s Janissaries had a really clever concept and an absolutely enthralling story line. And here’s a name you don’t hear much anymore: Chad Oliver. He was an anthropologist by training and career in academia (in TX, I think). Wrote some incredible fiction, particularly a short novel entitled Blood’s A Rover. A few short fiction mentions are warranted: HB Fyfe’s “Protected Species”; Poul Anderson’s eerily proleptic “Kings Who Die” and Mack Reynolds’ “The Hunted Ones”. Every single one of these is absolutely worth hunting down to read. All had a big influence on me.
SFFWRTCHT: Did your interest in dinosaurs ever result in a book?
CEG: Not exactly. But they’ve influenced a scene in Fire With Fire.
CEG: I knew I wanted to be a writer before I had any idea what that meant. All the challenges. But I could tell it wasn’t going to be easy, because there weren’t any job listings for “novelists” and because my Dad looked like he’d swallowed a mastodon tusk sideways any time I mentioned that ambition. Mom was the support. However–and note the irony–it was from my Dad that I got the taste for SF, particularly hard sf. He wasn’t a scientist, but he was “a mind forever voyaging” and that left an indelible imprint on me.
SFFWRTCHT: How’d you learn craft? Trial and error? Formal study? Workshops?
CEG: I took courses whenever I could in Junior High and High School. Then it was half my major in undergrad. Which was a bit of an ordeal and deviation. I’m not big on college creative writing programs, simply because (and this was more prevalent in “my day”, I think) they turned their noses way up at any popular fiction. Genre fiction the worst of all. So I was often “accommodating” the aesthetic imperatives of folks who, today, I just don’t think that much of as writers. I understood what they were trying to achieve. So, all that said, I had good training there, continued it on my own, and then got a degree in writing for Radio, TV, Film. In many ways, this was far more practical, because the markets are inherently popular in their tastes. Story structure, effective and snappy dialogue–indispensible.
SFFWRTCHT: Did you start with shorts stories, novels? When was your first pro-sale?
CEG: My first writing was long, long, long. I knew I wanted to work in the long form and did. However, my first pubs, both non-professional and professional, were shorts. Well, shorts as a relative term. Longest manuscript my junior high writing magazine had ever seen. Three chapters in an ongoing Starship Troopers serial for Berengeria, a fanzine (high quality for 1973!), a novella for Jerry Pournelle’s War World anthology (#4 “Invasion”) in 1991-2? So pretty much “as long as they’d let me.” But I was always thinking about novels, and particularly, the world and characters of Fire With Fire.
SFFWRTCHT: You’ve had the good fortune of having three novels come out in a very short time. How did you get involved with Baen Books?
CEG: Well, strangely, I was involved with them back in 1991 when I published in War World. After that, I just went in that direction. I My first submission was narrowly rejected but elicited an invitation for more. Then, by happenstance, met Steve White at Ravencon on the same panel and hit it off.
CEG: Starfire is a space opera set about five or six centuries in the future. It started life as a game, for which David produced a number of rule sets and products. He met Steve White, who was an avid gamer and the rest, as they say, is history. Those were the first novels for the two of them, and their first NYT best-sellers (I think). David left the series as his other projects began to consume his time ravenously, and Steve pulled in a first collaborator who ultimately didn’t work out. I was just meeting Steve when that lack of fit was becoming painfully manifest and used to joke with him about pitching in if he ever needed the help. The day before I left for overseas in August 2009, I got an email from him: was I serious about offering my help? (He’d seen my writing in Analog before).I said ‘yes’ and away we went. Extremis did very well and two more are contracted in the series: Imperative and Oblivion.
SFFWRTCHT: How was that experience? Do you split it, switch off on drafts? How do you work together?
CEG: Steve already had fourteen chapters done at various points in the book. I came in and caught up to his point of furthest. We split it chapter by chapter. By which I do not mean he does all the odd numbers, I do all the even. He has a raft of characters, and so do I. We break the action down so that we can almost work independently of each other, although that’s not our style. A unity of form and style is produced when you track each other’s work in progress. But that task division a) speeds the process, b) reduces stylistic qualms. It’s his sandbox, so I do not presume ownership because I don’t have any.
SFFWRTCHT: Were you familiar with the universe before you were asked to co-write?
CEG: Not a bit. Cram read for three weeks straight. And there were five or six novels, in addition to several rules versions (it came from a game).
CEG: Uptimer Americans in the Thirty Years War need to accomplish two things: keep the legitimate Pope from being assassinated by a brutal usurper; and rescue a young Uptimer and his beautiful Downtime wife from the allied clutches of the Spanish. Everything seems to be going just fine–until, all at once, it goes horribly, horribly wrong. Turns out the Spanish and other Downtimers are beginning to get the measure of the Uptime opposition and their surrogates, and deal them a heavy blow. Then it’s a panicked rush of improvisation, derring-do, and shrewdness to manage to complete both missions. And before it’s all over, some characters you’ve known over the books are killed in action.
SFFWRTCHT: Was the collaboration process there similar or different? How much freedom and how many boundaries were you given in helping to write in Flint’s universe?
CEG: Very different. Read over 2.5 million words in two months. Read another 2 million in the next two months. Lots of writing freedom but close universe constraints. Another cram course. I’d write the manuscript, he’d read it, make any suggestions/changes/rewrites and then we’d submit. I usually show him the manuscript in halves: start to midpoint, then thence to end. It’s worked well.
SFFWRTCHT: And how did you wind up writing with Eric?
CEG: I was at Lunacon in 2009. Eric was Toastmaster. I had never met him. We were on a panel together, about writing action sequences. At some point, after I remarked on how economy in description in writing action has parallels to fast cuts in cinematic action, he leaned over to look down the table and uttered the first words he ever directed at me: “Have you sent me anything?” (He was referring to Jim Baen’s Universe .) When I responded in the negative, he said, “Then send me something.” And that, to borrow and repurpose a line from Casablanca, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
SFFWRTCHT: How long did the novels take to write? In both cases?
CEG: Extremis was four to five months. Papal Stakes a little less. Although revisions stretched over longer time with Papal Stakes.
CEG: Well, you tell me: was it the chicken, or the egg? Seriously, I can’t really separate them. They both evolved a lot. ‘Cause both took shape as early as 1980 (yes, you read that correctly). And the one influenced the other in a lot of ways. Also this: the character that became Caine was originally conceived of in a different setting. And the setting changed to become less far future, more hard sf: they convergently evolved, you might say.
SFFWRTCHT: Caine is sent to investigate the possibility of sentient life on a colony that colonists might be hiding and discovers a larger conspiracy. Tell us a bit about Caine Riordan and his world.
CEG: Caine isn’t professional soldier. He is broadly familiar with defense and intelligence matters because he is an analyst. He is a writer, like the folks who do consulting for the Beltway TLAs (I’ve done some myself) and also contributes to venues like Jane’s, and Nightwatch, and Stratfor, you’re getting the picture. He did dally with news agencies—which was what ultimately (if indirectly) got him coldslept in 2105. When he wakes up in 2118, things are very different indeed. FTL travel led to exploring worlds early in the colonization phase. And he is awakened to do a job that he can do best not because he’s the most skilled, but because he’s been dead, presumed missing, for thirteen years. He is no one; unwatched.
CEG: Well, much more of an outliner. But not rigidly. I have a list of dramatic points that should be hit in each “ACT.” The acts start becoming chapters. Notes that don’t get hit in a chapter, get pushed back…sometimes to the next novel.
SFFWRTCHT: Is this a standalone or the first of a series (and how many books will there be)?
CEG: Ho ho! Standalone? ME??!!!!???? Surely you jest. Seriously, Fire with Fire was always just part of a larger whole. The next novel, Trial By Fire, in which Things Get Very Bad and Warlike Indeed, is on shelves a year from now.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing time look like-specific block? Write `til you reach word count? Grab it when you can?
CEG: I have a nanny–have to with four kids. Never get any writing done otherwise. I write from deep immersion. Day count of under 5K, if I’ve got an eight hour day, is subpar bordering on fail. By the time the rewrite is cranked in, I average about 3500-4000 per day.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any writing rituals or tools? Scrivener? Word? Something else? Do you write to music or silence?
CEG: No tools. Silence or downtempo/chill, or Liquid Mind, possibly Tangerine Dream. Vangelis gets too strident.
CEG: I’ve got 80% done before I begin, but there’s always details I didn’t anticipate, so more. I love doing the research–but I don’t love the time I spend. So I don’t get lost in it. That’s a danger for writers, for we are naturally curious creatures.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
CEG: Best writing advice didn’t come from a writer, or he’s not well known as one, although he was that originally and at the end. Winston Churchill said: “Never, never, never give up.” Worst advice? “Find out what the market likes and do that!” You simultaneously lose your best vision, best creativity, and true voice all in one fell swoop. What they should say is: find the intersection of what you like to write with what other folks want to read. Aim there and see if you can move the exchange in your direction. Woo them to your sweet spot, but meet them first on common ground.
SFFWRTCHT: What upcoming projects do you have we can look forward to?
CEG: “White Sand, Red Dust” in Steam, Aether, Empire, a co-owned Steampunk universe with Eric Flint from Arc Manor. In 2014, Trial by Fire (book two in Tales of the Terran Republic); Imperative (Starfire, with Steve White) and 1635: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies with Eric Flint.
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