SFFWRTCHT: A Chat With Bestselling Lost Fleet/Lost Stars Author Jack Campbell
Jack Campbell (the pen name of John G. Hemry) writes the New York Times bestselling SF series The Lost Fleet (Dauntless, Fearless, Courageous, Valiant, Relentless, and Victorious) which has been published in the UK, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, China, Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic and Israel. He also writes the follow-on series The Lost Fleet – Beyond the Frontier (Dreadnaught, Invincible, and Guardian) and the spin-off series The Lost Stars (Tarnished Knight and the upcoming Perilous Shield). John is also the author of the Sinclair (JAG in Space) series and the Stark’s War series. His short fiction has appeared in places as varied as the last Chicks in Chainmail anthology (Turn the Other Chick), and Analog magazine (which published his award winning stories). His non-fiction on topics ranging from Interstellar Navigation to the Legion of Superheroes has been in (among other places) the Sequart anthology Teenagers From the Future, and anthologies on Charmed, Star Wars, and Superman. John had the opportunity to live on Midway Island for a while during the 1960s, then later attended the US Naval Academy. He served in a variety of jobs including gunnery officer and navigator on a destroyer, with an amphibious squadron, and at the Navy’s anti-terrorism center. He speaks the remnants of Russian pounded into him by the perseverance of Professor Vladimir Tolstoy. After retiring from the US Navy and settling in Maryland, John began writing. He lives with his amazing wife (the indomitable S) and three great kids. His daughter and two sons are diagnosed on the autistic spectrum. He can be found on Facebook and via his website at jack-campbell.com/.
SFFWRTCHT: Where’d your interest in SFF come from?
Jack Campbell: The first SFF book I read was Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Mastermind of Mars. ERB may have been what set the hook in me, as he has been for so many others. I’ve always been interested in history, though, which is always about another time and place where people made discoveries and had adventures. SFF can be seen as future history or alternate history or historical fantasy, and in that respect my interest in it may have been an outgrowth of my enthusiasm for “other kinds” of history. I know that when I first read The Lord of the Rings the thing that impressed me the most was how real Middle Earth was. Not just a geography, but a history of its own and folklore of its own. Ancient ruins with stories behind them.
SFFWRTCHT: What are the names of some of the authors & books which have influenced/inspired you?
JC: Leigh Brackett. Just about everything she wrote. Tolkien and Heinlein, who I think had in common that they wrote as if their stories were real, not fiction. Poul Anderson, who wrote beautifully. Andre Norton, who told such a variety of stories and told them well. CJ Cherryh, who also writes about many things, SF and Fantasy, and does such an amazing job with alien and non-human creatures. There are countless others I have read and learned things from, but those are probably the top.
SFFWRTCHT: When did you decide to become a storyteller and how did you go about it? School? Learn as you go?
JC: I think I’ve always wanted to tell stories. For a long time, I approached that by reading. Reading everything I could. But then as life went on I also started doing things. One aspect of the Navy is that it forced me to do many things I might not have done on my own. I learned more engineering, I saw more places, I worked on more different things than I would have if it had been entirely my choice. And I learned from all of those experiences, which grew into the well from which I could draw ideas and events to incorporate into stories. Another thing the Navy did was expose me to a lot of writing and editing. I learned that by doing, even though (technically, at least) what I was writing was supposed to be non-fiction. That was my school. When I started writing seriously, that became another school, because every story I wrote taught me something. I’m glad I worked on short fiction as well as longer works, since short fiction allowed me to try out lots of different things.
JC: That depends how you look at it. I fiddled with writing starting in high school, trying a story every now and then over the next couple of decades. They never felt right, though, and my night-and-day job (the Navy) kept me so busy that I didn’t have much time to pursue writing. But starting in 1994, I began really putting an effort into it, writing seriously for the first time. My first short sales came in 1997, one to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine and one to Analog. (I’d become a bit discouraged by rejections, and saw that among MZB’s guidelines were that she didn’t want to see dragon stories, so I deliberately sent her a story about a dragon.) After that hopeful year, it was almost two years before my third short sale, but that came just in time for the Worldcon in Baltimore (not too far from my home). At Baltimore (as a just barely pro), another writer introduced me to an editor from ACE and eventually I realized that it would be smart to ask her what she was looking for. It turned out to be the sort of thing I was working on, so she gave me her card. That wasn’t a guarantee of anything, of course. It just meant that when I sent in my manuscript it would go to the top of the slush pile rather than the bottom. But she liked it, and a few months later I got an offer. Stark’s War (my first novel) came out in 2000. So, in one sense, it was about six years of serious writing. In another sense, given what went into the novel, it was over twenty years of experience and work.
SFFWRTCHT: What do you think are the key elements of good space opera?
JC: A sense of adventure, of possibilities, of strange new places and the strange creatures they hold. There has to be a challenge, something to overcome, even if that something is just getting home. A good space opera is, pretty much, the Odyssey of Homer. I don’t think it is a coincidence how closely the general plot of Star Trek TOS resembled that of the Odyssey (including the captain who seemed to find beautiful and willing women in every strange, new port).
SFFWRTCHT: And good military scifi?
JC: I think that good military SF has to be real. That may sound like a contradiction, but it’s not. Just as good fiction has to be grounded in the reality of life with (sometimes) fantastical elements added on, good military SF has to be grounded in the reality of the military. Specific characteristics of specific militaries will vary, but there are certain universal constants that anyone who has served (anywhere and anytime) can identify with. Even if military SF is set far away in terms of time and distance, it has to reflect those constants, to show a real military with all of its virtues, flaws, and quirks. I think that’s the foundation for a good story, for someone who has experienced similar things to be able to read it and say “Oh, yeah, been there, done that. I know these people, or at least what they’re going through.” The strange and different, grounded in the familiar.
JC: There were two primary inspirations which I had been thinking about for some time. The first was the problem of doing a long retreat in space. Years ago a fellow writer working in the Star Trek universe asked whether a long retreat could be done in that universe. All of us who were asked didn’t think so because the tech in that universe meant someone either got away immediately or couldn’t get away. But the question got me wondering whether or not a long retreat could be realistically and successfully done in space. The second concept which I had been considering involved the common legend of the great hero from the past who isn’t really dead, but just sleeping, to awaken when most needed. King Arthur is the most well-known example in the West. Those heroes of legend were once actual people, who would doubtless be very surprised to awaken and discover who they were now believed to be. What would it be like for someone like that? Especially if there really was a great crisis and everyone was looking to this hero to save them? At some point I realized that those two concepts could be combined to create a single story of an awakened hero who is shocked at the legends which have grown around him, but has to try to live up to those legends because the need is so desperate. A fleet is trapped deep in enemy space, and only that hero of legend can rally them and try to lead them to safety. As I worked on that, a third concept grew, that of the impact of a very long war on the culture and society of that hero, who finds many changes driven by the stresses of that war.
SFFWRTCHT: It began with Dauntless in a five book cycle and then you began a second cycle, Beyond The Frontier. Did you envision this as a long series or is that coming about as you go? And how many books do you have in mind?
JC: The first cycle was six books long, running from Dauntless through Victorious. That was my intended length for the series, and Victorious wrapped up the story arc begun in Dauntless. But, of course, it didn’t wrap up everything. Readers told me that they didn’t want the story to end there. They wanted to see what happened to Geary and his friends next, they wanted to learn more about some of the things seen in the first six books, they wanted to watch those characters face new challenges. That’s why the Beyond the Frontier series was created. It is designed to have shorter story arcs (two or three books long) wrapped within the longer story arc of the Lost Fleet universe. How long will it go? As long as there is reader demand and I can come up with new and different stories to tell. I also created the Lost Stars series (Tarnished Knight and the upcoming Perilous Shield) to give a different look at that universe and give me some dramatically different characters to work with so I could keep the stories fresh. The new characters and the ability to interweave the storylines from Beyond the Frontier and Lost Stars has been the sort of challenge that really helped inspire good stories to continue the saga. At this point there have been three Beyond the Frontier books (including Guardian which came out in May), with at least two more to follow, and one Lost Stars book, with at least three more of those to come (including Perilous Shield coming in October).
JC: The Alliance is a grouping of star systems united by their belief in free systems of government. There’s variation among the different star systems, but they all have to conform to certain rules about representative government and human rights. A century before Dauntless begins, the corporate-dominated Syndicate Worlds (Syndics) launched surprise attacks which led to a war which has continued since then. With the immense resources of many star systems and huge populations, neither side has been able to beat the other even though the costs of the war in human and monetary terms are driving both sides to their knees. The Syndic leadership refused to stop fighting, and the Alliance refused to surrender, so the war went on and on. At the beginning of Dauntless, the Alliance had launched a desperate strike deep into Syndic space which has gone disastrously wrong and threatens to finally cost the Alliance the war.
In the Beyond the Frontier books, the First Fleet under Geary has been literally sent outside the frontiers of the Alliance and human-explored space to discover what might be out there and learn more about one alien race which has been covertly sabotaging humanity for some time (a race so mysterious that they are known as the enigmas). With the Alliance reeling from the cost of the war, and support for the Alliance government tottering, the last thing some of the Alliance’s leaders want is a legendary hero around who might create even more trouble for them. But other leaders believe that hero might be the only one who can save the Alliance once more.
JC: In those first surprise attacks at the start of the war, Captain Geary had led his heavy cruiser in a rear-guard fight to save the convoy his ship was guarding and frustrate one of the Syndic assaults. He was thought to have died in that action, and afterwards an Alliance government frantic for heroes to inspire the fight built up a vast, heroic myth around “Black Jack.” Eventually, the popular myth included the belief that when the need was greatest, Black Jack would return. In fact, he had not died, but had been drifting in a damaged escape pod, frozen into survival sleep, for close to a century. Found by the fleet on its way to launch that desperate blow against the Syndics, Geary is revived to find himself expected to save the day when the fleet is ambushed and trapped. He knows he is not the hero of legend, but he has to do his best to live up to that legend if he is to save the people who depend upon him. And he has to remind the men and women of the fleet, who had grown up in a war which had already consumed their grandparents and parents, of who their ancestors had been before that apparently endless war had forced them down some ugly roads. He doesn’t want or like fame, doesn’t want power or glory, but has a job to do and will try to do it. He also believes in what is for the Alliance the old concept of honor – that honor is about how you treat others, not how others treat you.
SFFWRTCHT: And about the Syndics with whom they are at war?
JC: The Syndics are a state in which there are no checks on the power of those in charge, and all actions are justified by claims they are necessary for the safety or well-being of its citizens. There are no real boundaries between political and corporate power in the Syndicate Worlds. Order is maintained by fear (fear of the efficient and ruthless Internal Security Service, fear of the Syndic warships which can bombard rebellious worlds from space, and fear of the Alliance, which Syndic citizens have been taught started the war and which they know has also bombarded worlds) and by a bureaucracy which is not efficient but is everywhere.
JC: That’s a hard question. My model remains Tolkien, who created a detailed, internally consistent, and authentic-feeling world. I always ask myself when world-building, “if this were real, what would it be like?” For example, the question of warships in space. My world-building there was to think about the environment of space (its sheer size, its emptiness and so on) and what would be needed to operate there as well as tell the story I wanted to tell. That drove what the ships are like, how they fight, what their weapons can do, and so on. Characters for me are usually composites of the many people I have known and worked with. Sometimes they appear fully formed, name and personality and strengths and weaknesses all laid out almost as soon as I realize I need a character. There are times when I use characters who are drawn from specific individuals, especially in my Sinclair/JAG in Space novels. There, many of the characters were inspired directly by people I knew. I even named one character after the woman who inspired her because that made it a lot easier to write.
SFFWRTCHT: How long does a typical novel take you to write?
JC: On average it has been anywhere from a year to six months, depending on inspiration, life events, and looming deadlines.
SFFWRTCHT: Outliner or pantser?
JC: Very definitely pantser. I know who my characters are, I know where the story is starting, and I know where it is going. The journey from beginning to end is influenced by the characters. They may end up doing things I had not expected, or they may decide that something I wanted to happen isn’t what they would do. I think that replicates real life (we face situations and decide what to do based on who we are and what is happening) and that in turn makes the stories feel more real than if I tried to tightly pre-plan everything.
JC: When the Lost Fleet was extended into the Beyond the Frontier series, I felt a need to have some new situations and characters to give the old characters a shot in the arm. My readers had long been asking for more about the Syndics, so I thought setting a spin-off series on a Syndic world which was dealing with the collapse of the Syndic empire would give me a lot of room to have fun. The main characters are Syndic leaders who were exiled to the distant Midway Star System and now are trying to both survive the wreckage of the Syndicate Worlds and build something better from the ruins. Of course, having been brought-up and trained in a system in which the only morality was power and no one could trust anyone else, they are having some trouble understanding other ways of doing things.
SFFWRTCHT: You’re known for short stories written as John Hemry. Why the nom de plume for this series?
JC: My first two series were mid-list performers. Not great, not awful. But under the software used by the major book chains, that meant they ordered fewer and fewer copies with each book. By the time the last Sinclair/JAG in space book came out there were so few pre-orders from the chains that the books had no chance of taking off. Like a lot of other writers, I tried to escape that death spiral by adopting a pen name for the next series. The chain software saw a new writer, ordered enough copies to sit on the shelves to give Dauntless a chance, and I was lucky enough for demand to grow and keep growing as the series went on. Now, Jack Campbell is the successful author, so John Hemry isn’t writing too much anymore.
JC: I’ve got three kids (the elder two autistic) and since retiring from the Navy I’ve been the full-time caregiver. Grab it when I can is all I have, like it or not. But I would probably be a lot like that anyway. I’ve never been able to train myself to create on a scheduled basis. The muse has to show up, and she refuses to do that sometimes.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any writing rituals or tools? Scrivener? Word? Something else? Do you write to music or does silence reign?
JC: There’s nothing consistent. I keep a few files active when writing to keep track of details, but nothing as specialized as Scrivener. Most of that stays in my head. I use MS Word for writing (and when my old PC died I was able to use my disc for my MS Office disc to load the pre-ribbon menu version, for which I am very grateful). When I am driving or doing something else, music may help inspire my thoughts, but when writing I usually tune out background noise except for whatever the kids are up to.
JC: As I noted above, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to one of their editors at a convention, and smart enough to ask her what she was looking for. I was lucky that she was looking for something right up my alley. She did ask for some modifications to my first submission, to see if I could handle editorial changes, and then offered me a contract for one book. I promptly called an agent who I had met at the same convention, an agent who had impressed me by being polite and professional with everyone (including barely-published me). Naturally, Joshua was happy to take on a new writer with an offer in hand, and after he did his work that offer turned into a three-book contract with ACE.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
JC: The best is that to write well you have to write and keep writing, and read and keep reading. The worst is probably the advice to put in lots of details about how equipment in the stories works.
SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?
JC: I have an American Civil War alternate history novella coming out from Subterranean at the end of June. There have been a lot of alternate history stories about the Civil War, but I think I can honestly say that The Last Full Measure is unique as well as exciting. In October, Perilous Shield comes out, and I’m working on the next Beyond the Frontier novel (Steadfast) which will come out next year. Besides that, my agent is shopping around a series I call Steampunk with Dragons.
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