|An Interview with Jack McDevitt, Part 2|
|conducted by Patrick Smith|
Jack McDevitt presumed his writing career had been scrubbed on the launch pad when, as a high-school freshman in South Philadelphia, he sent a manuscript to Anthony Boucher at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Although Boucher was gracious in his reply -- anyone who's suffered the ignominy of the form rejection letter can appreciate what a compliment the veteran editor paid to the aspiring writer with his handwritten encouragement -- the sting of rejection didn't sit well with the 14-year-old McDevitt. After dabbling with short fiction and journalism in college, he didn't write another word for a quarter century.
Still, with more than 25 nominations for the science-fiction profession's top honors, including a Philip K. Dick Special Award for The Hercules Text in 1986, a Campbell Award for Omega in 2005, and a Nebula win for Seeker in 2006, his reputation in the field is as a pro's pro. Since that first success, McDevitt has published more than 20 books -- six installments in both the Alex Benedict and Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchins series (a seventh, Starhawk, is due out in November, as well as another Benedict novel in 2014), seven stand-alones (including The Hercules Text, Eternity Road, and Time Travelers Never Die), and more than 75 short stories, 38 of which are collected in the luminous Cryptic: The Best Short Fiction of Jack McDevitt (2009). In 2012, he published his first collaborative novel, The Cassandra Project, with SF veteran Mike Resnick.
McDevitt's humanistic writing reflects the wonders of a world first discovered in the theaters and bookstores of South Philadelphia during the frenetic 40s and 50s, the sensibilities of a kid obsessed with science-fiction, weaned on Robert A. Heinlein, the Saturday serials, Thrilling Wonder and Startling Stories, and Superman. His novels and short stories are direct links to science fiction's Golden Age and the work of Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke (Stephen King has called McDevitt "the logical heir to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke").
"The universe we live in is such a wild place," McDevitt says, explaining his lifelong affliction with science fiction. "It's one of those things that, once you're hooked, you never recover from."
Here, McDevitt discusses his childhood in Philadelphia, the work of H.L. Mencken, Jean Shepherd, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Edward Gibbon, the state of education, his passion for baseball, the lure of archaeology and history, and the difficulty of predicting the future, among many other topics. This interview took place in Brunswick, Georgia, on June 28, 2013.
So when I started teaching, I figured that my job was to get the kids interested in reading, not necessarily familiarizing them with Charles Dickens or the classics they weren't going to connect with. If I succeeded in inspiring a passion for reading, I knew they'd find Dickens on their own. I looked for a substitute to the textbook the administration had chosen. Kids don't like reading out of a textbook anyway. My own favorite was Sherlock Holmes, but he didn't work either -- another Victorian.
My standard bit was to do a dramatization of whatever we were reading at the time. I tried that with Holmes -- I played Watson and carried a doctor's bag -- and one of the students played Holmes. But it didn't work. I tried several books after Conan Doyle, and they didn't work either. Finally, I tried Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. Some of the kids volunteered to do the dramatization. We'd land the ship and look out onto the Martian landscape. The kids would say, "There are buildings out there. It looks like Ohio, picket fences and everything." And they'd open the hatch and look out and see a church, and someone says, "The steeple on the church has a cross on it!" And the student in charge of sound effects puts on the record and music from "Beautiful Dreamer" fills the room.
That was it. I yell Cut! and tell them the book's available down in the bookstore. The bookstore sold out. Bradbury was a huge hit. I heard a little criticism about teaching science fiction, but overall it worked beautifully.
Positive feedback is crucial, too. For years, I ran management seminars for the Customs Service, and we talked about the importance of making subordinates understand that they matter. That's the mark of a good leader. You do that by showing them respect and demonstrating confidence in them. Don't always show them what they do wrong; point out the stuff they do right as well. Simple, but effective.
Also, science fiction writers on the whole are, I think, more closely aligned with the academy. Sagan wrote his book, and a lot of science fiction writers are -- or were, at some point -- working scientists: Stephen Baxter, Gregory Benford, Alastair Reynolds, and so on. Collaboration in the academy is a common thing, so maybe it makes sense that a culture of collaboration holds in science fiction as well . . .
Collaboration is usually an unequal kind of thing, where you have one major writer and one guy who's at the beginning of his career. The guy at the beginning of his career does most of the writing, and the major writer puts his name on the book and that helps sell it. I'm not sure if that's true in science fiction, but it's true in a lot of areas. [points to the coffee table and a copy of Stephen Hawking's The Grand Design, co-written with Leonard Mlodinow]
I had the experience myself, a long time ago, getting calls from a couple of guys who, in effect, wanted me to collaborate with them. Big names. At the time, I was unknown. No doubt I would have written the bulk of the book. The big name kind of fixes everything, and the project goes from there.
Another example: Back in the early 1990s, I had a friend who lived in California. We were in Washington, DC, at the same time, so we met for lunch. While in the restaurant, we noticed that everyone had gone quiet for some reason. I leaned over to the guy at the table next to me and said, "What's going on?" He told me that the United States had just bombed Baghdad.
I all but wrote the story, "Auld Lang Boom," on the way home about these two guys who live on opposite sides of the country and every couple of years they get together for lunch or dinner. Every time they do, there's a disaster somewhere. War breaks out, the Apollo blows up. The kicker is, there's one instance where nothing happens, one time back in the 1960s. Ultimately, they're killed while having lunch together in Atlantic City when a meteor drops on them. The son of one of the friends narrates the story. He recognizes what's going on, because it's in his father's diary. When he takes a closer look at the meeting in 1964 where nothing happened, he realizes it was the day that Lyndon Johnson claimed that one of our ships had been fired on in the Gulf of Tonkin by the North Vietnamese -- the event that gave him the excuse to send troops into Vietnam.
So stories come from all directions.
When I was a kid, Raiders of the Lost Ark influenced me a great deal. Your work started to come out around the same time -- 1981 or so. It's an interesting parallel to me and one of the reasons I've enjoyed your work so much. What got you interested in xenoarchaeology?
When I started The Engines of God, I sensed that I would get more emotional impact out of positing a civilization similar to ours that was now gone. Then I went off and did A Talent for War, which was just a matter of looking at legends and myths. Sometimes the myths are more important than the reality.
I hadn't planned on doing a sequel to either one of those books. I thought sequels were a cheap way of taking advantage of things. But the way the sequels got started, more than a decade after those books came out, was that I picked up a copy of Scientific American with a cover story by Michael Shara, an astrophysicist and curator at the New York Museum of Natural History (McDevitt and Shara would later collaborate on the short story "Lighthouse," collected in Outbound). The cover shows a rock headed for the sun with the teaser "what would happen if a brown dwarf came into the solar system and collided with the sun?" Bad news, right? The sun implodes, the lights go out, and real estate values drop. End of story.
At the time, I had an idea for a mystery novel. I wanted to put some people in a starship and have them disappear. But I needed a setting. I read Shara's article and realized the incoming brown dwarf was perfect. I'm not going to use our sun, because I don't want to destroy the solar system. Instead I'll use some star out there, where there's nothing around but a few empty planets, and send people out to look at the collision. That became Polaris. When I pieced the story together, it occurred to me that there was no point in going back and reinventing everything -- how fast the ships go, the million details that go into any book, even the characters. So I imported Alex Benedict.
The original version of Polaris was narrated by Benedict, but it didn't work. I got about 80,000 words into it before I realized that the wrong person was telling the story. Alex suspected too much, knew too much, and I understood I couldn't hold that back from the reader. You've got to have Doctor Watson. So I went back and rewrote the entire book from Chase's point of view. It sounds rougher than it was. For much of it, I could just plug Chase's voice in for Alex, and that worked pretty well. When reading that rewrite, the subconscious takes over, and the result just feels smoother. I knew it was alright.
That stayed with me. When I was doing Polaris, I needed somebody to come back and handle the narration. I needed a Watson to Benedict's Holmes. Chase was the obvious choice.
That's what I wanted to do with Benedict. I don't want the success of the story to rely on some villainous character driving the action. There are sometimes people behind the events in my stories, but they usually have good motives. Villains to me are dull.
I sat on a panel one time and made the comment that serial killers are dull. Somebody said, "You wouldn't say that if he's down there trying to kick in your door." And I said, "No, probably not. But if I had to sit through dinner with him, I suspect he'd be dull company." In the stories that use villains as crutches, you just set somebody up to do something, to create a mystery. A lot of the big thrillers are like that. Who did this? What's the real truth here? And the truth often is that somebody like the Secretary of the Interior is behind a nefarious plot. That to me is just boring.
Alastair Sim is a guy [in melodramatic narrator's voice] who takes out those who desperately need to be taken out. The Sim character started his career by taking out the headmaster at his school. He assassinates buffoons, clowns, crooked politicians -- but had to retire during the war because the competition was so fierce. It's a brilliantly funny film. Watch Sim's Saint Trinian's films as well.
I don't watch SF films that much anymore. The last one I saw was Into Darkness, the most recent Star Trek. Most of the Star Trek movies, I would happily turn on and watch for a second, third time. But not Into Darkness. This one is not much more than a western set in the future. The first half of the movie's good, but then it turns into a big punchout. Watching Spock in a huge fistfight with Cumberbatch's villain -- it goes on and on, on top of a taxi cab or something. Ridiculous. The Spock I know lays his hand on your shoulder and you go down.
I take away the same sensibility from your books -- Keats' Negative Capability, multiple ideas competing or even contradicting one another, the understanding that sometimes ideas bump up against one another in uncomfortable ways and that's okay. The converse of Occam's Razor.
I submitted my first story to Fantasy and Science Fiction when I was about fourteen, a freshman in high school. I got a written response from Anthony Boucher, who was the editor at the time. He encouraged me to keep writing and explained that they were filled up at present. I must have mentioned that I was fourteen -- I don't really remember the correspondence -- but I was annoyed that he didn't buy the story. I didn't realize how significant it was to get a response from this guy.
Shortly after that, I started writing a newspaper column for The Rocket at my high school. When I got to college, I discovered they had a freshman short story contest. I submitted a science fiction story and it won. They published it in the college's literary magazine, Four Quarters. That would have been 1954 or so. I thought I was on my way. And then I read David Copperfield and I thought, My God, there's no way I can compete with this guy. I don't know what made me think that I had to compete with Dickens. But I gave up. I still did some writing -- a column for the college newspaper for about three years -- but I never made a serious effort to write anything after that. I didn't believe in myself.
Fast forward to my being forty-five years old. I was teaching customs inspectors at the United States Customs Service Academy on a one-year TDY (temporary duty), grumbling to Maureen about how my life wasn't going anywhere. Maureen said, "You're always talking about writing a science fiction story. Write one." So we groused back and forth, and finally I told her I would write the damn thing. It was called "Zip Code," a bad title. We sent it out a couple of times, and it bounced. I brought in one of Maureen's friends to look at it. She told me that parts of it needed to be fixed, some of it was shaky. So I rewrote it. We sent it out a third time, to Fantasy and Science Fiction, and it bounced again. And that was it for me. It was pretty clear I had no future in the business.
One day, around the time we were winding up the TDY, Maureen came home with a copy of Twilight Zone magazine she'd picked up in a local store. She urged me to send the story off one more time. We did, and a couple of days later we headed back up north to our home in Pembina, North Dakota, where I was a customs inspector. When we arrived, there was a postcard waiting from Ted Klein. He'd accepted the story. It was about a post-office employee in love with a young co-worker. He's afraid to make a move, though, because he knows he'll fail. Doesn't have a shred of confidence in himself. One day, a letter mailed 150 years earlier by Ralph Waldo Emerson shows up, and the guy opens it. There are some lines in the letter that Emerson actually wrote in some of his essays. One is "If you believe in yourself, you can do almost anything." Of course, after reading that, the guy makes his play. It was only years later that I saw the irony in what I had written. Once I got that first story out there, I just kept writing. It was published, by the way, as "The Emerson Effect."
Even so, I doubted I would be able to write a novel. For a period of about four years, I just wrote short stories. Maureen and I had a running joke about (legendary SF editor) Terry Carr's collections of the year's best science fiction stories, which never included mine. Periodically, I would come home from work and say, "By the way, we have a call from Terry Carr yet?" One day, the answer was yes, Terry had called. I thought he wanted one of my stories for his collection. That's what I hoped, anyway. Instead, he wanted me to write a novel for the Ace Specials. I said, "What's an Ace Special?" He was shocked that I didn't know. He asked me how long I would need to do it, and I said, "A novel. My God, how long have I got? Probably about two years." He gave me six months.
I decided to try it, though I didn't think I'd be able to manage anything close to six months. I started writing during my lunch hour, on the train back and forth from work, at my kids' Little League games. The thing did pretty well. It ended up winning the Philip K. Dick Special Award.
When I first sold the book to Terry Carr, I kept waiting for him to call me and say, "What a great book! Loved it!" Or something, anything. But nothing. I found some excuse to call him. I have no idea what I called him about, but it had absolutely nothing to do with the novel. "How you feeling, Terry?" You know, something like that. But finally I had to ask, "What'd you think of the book?" And he said, "It's not a dog."
I asked him what the problem was, and he told me I dragged readers through 400 pages before revealing that everything was hidden in an altar. The characters get this transmission from the stars, and the technology -- the main character has a daughter with diabetes, and a cure for diabetes is in there, all kinds of game-changing information -- once decoded, has got a dangerous side to it. So when I rewrote it, I brought it out of the Cold War, streamlined the story.
The best lesson I ever learned about writing was when Carr said, "You drag readers through 400 pages, there's got to be a payoff." And I didn't have one. In the rewrite, the guy who's in charge, a federal employee, gives the information to a friend to put online and then tells the President of the United States, "Either you can release it or we will." It's amazing how much different it was. How much better.
Patrick A. Smith is professor of English at Bainbridge State College (GA) and an associate editor at Bookmarks Magazine. His books include "The true bones of my life": Essays on the Fiction of Jim Harrison, Tim O'Brien: A Critical Companion, and the edited collection Conversations with Tim O'Brien, as well as interviews, articles, reviews, and stories in magazines and journals. Conversations with William Gibson will be published in 2014.
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