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A Conversation With John Betancourt
An interview with Jayme Lynn Blaschke
August 2002

© F.A.N.A.C. Inc.
John Betancourt
John Gregory Betancourt
John Gregory Betancourt was born in Missouri in 1963. He sold his first short story professionally at 16 ("Vernon's Dragon," in 100 Great Fantasy Short-Short Stories, edited by Isaac Asimov et al.) and his first novel at 19 (The Blind Archer, published by Avon Books). In college he became an assistant editor for Amazing Stories magazine, then co-editor and publisher of a revival of Weird Tales. He also worked on a freelance basis for such publishers as Avon Books, Signet Books (now part of Penguin USA), Tor Books, Bluejay Books and Berkley Books. His novels include Johnny Zed, Rememory, and Rogue Pirate. With his wife Kim, he runs his own small publishing company, Wildside Press.

John Gregory Betancourt Website
ISFDB Bibliography: John Gregory Betancourt
SF Site Excerpt: Roger Zelazny's The Dawn of Amber
SF Site Review: Roger Zelazny's The Dawn of Amber
SF Site Review: Double Helix: Infection
Wildside: A Science Fiction Resource

Scott Grimando
Roger Zelazny's The Dawn of Amber
Double Helix: Infection

Best known as publisher of Wildside Press, John Gregory Betancourt made his fiction debut in 1982 with publication of the short story "Vernon's Dragon" in 100 Great Fantasy Short-Short Stories. Since then he has found time to edit Weird Tales magazine for several years as well as a handful of anthologies. The author of more than 30 novels and short story collections, Betancourt has contributed Heart of the Warrior, Double Helix: Infection and Incident at Arbuk to the Star Trek universe, while his original fiction includes such novels as Johnny Zed, Rememory and Born of Elven Blood with Kevin J. Anderson. His latest book is The Dawn of Amber, a prequel to Roger Zelazny's hugely popular Amber cycle.

First of all, I have to ask why write a book based on the works of Roger Zelazny? Zelazny remains one of the giants of the field, even years after his death.

Unfortunately, Zelazny is fading in the public's memory. I have a feeling that, if not for new projects such as The Dawn of Amber, he will be completely out of print and forgotten in 20 years. I note that Zelazny's regular publishers have let most of his titles go out of print. It's a sad fact of publishing, but new books from authors keep their older titles in print and selling, even in the case of classics. Compare Roger Zelazny to classic authors of the 60s and 70s who died 20 years ago, and the future for Zelazny isn't looking pretty. Leigh Brackett, James Blish, etc. published scores of great titles... and they're gone now. Then look at series which have continued beyond their original author's death -- Robert E. Howard's Conan leaps first to mind. Would Robert E. Howard be remembered today if writers like L. Sprague de Camp hadn't created new Conan books? I don't think so.

You mentioned quite a few "forgotten authors" there. Do you think this is a viable way to continue the legacy of most writers, or are there only certain authors whose works lend themselves to continuation by others?
I think it's rare that an author creates a universe capable of generating the kind of fan following necessary to keep it going beyond his or her death. Robert A. Heinlein didn't do it; Isaac Asimov's publisher tried with the Foundation series, but I don't think it generated much excitement... I haven't seen any real sign of it moving on to be the sort of mainstream phenomenon that Conan was. Frank Herbert's Dune series seems to be heading that way, and I think Anne McCaffrey's Pern could, too.

Why take on a project that invites comparison (and invariably criticism) with such a great writer?
I'm sure there will be a lot of criticism. It's inevitable; it's expected. There are a lot of fanatical Amber fans who simply can't abide the idea of someone continuing the series. And, to be fair, the first Amber series is a true classic. Not even Roger Zelazny himself could write a sequel that lived up to it. What I'd like readers to do is approach the new books as stories that just happen to be set in the Amber universe. They aren't written by Roger Zelazny; but that doesn't mean they aren't enjoyable in their own right. The handful of reviews I've seen have been universally good so far.

How did The Dawn of Amber project come about?
One small publishing company, ibooks, inc., is fortunate in having a knowledgeable and perceptive man in charge, Byron Preiss. ibooks reprinted a bunch of the classic Zelazny novels and short story collections because Byron Preiss liked them and still believed in them. That gave him an ongoing relationship with Zelazny's estate, and when he suggested finding a writer to do a new series of Amber novels for ibooks, they agreed. That new series ultimately became The Dawn of Amber. I'm a big fan of Roger Zelazny's work, especially the Amber series. And I was fortunate enough in being at the right place at the right time -- I did some of the production work on ibooks' Zelazny reprints. I know I'm not exactly a major name in the field (yet), but I've published more than 30 books over the years, and I truly do enjoy working in other people's universes (whether Star Trek, Star Wars, or comics-based, like Spider-Man, Superman, or Batman). And if I do say so myself, I'm pretty good at it.

So, when Byron Preiss had to find a writer for The Dawn of Amber, I said I wanted to do it. And he gave me the chance to audition for the project. I wrote a detailed outline and a sample chapter, and everyone loved them. It was actually fast and fairly painless as this sort of project goes.

How do you respond to criticism that novels and projects like this are derivative at best, grave robbing at worst?
Well, they are derivative -- quite literally. The Dawn of Amber is derived from a set of works by Roger Zelazny, and happily so; my books wouldn't -- couldn't -- exist without the original Amber series. Is this a bad thing? No. I bring my own thoughts, ideas, and writing style to the project, and the end result is something of a synthesis... hopefully taking the best of both Zelazny's work and my work and creating something new and special which couldn't have been created otherwise.

Why a prequel? Zelazny did leave a lot of loose ends dangling with Corwin, Merlin and the Ghostwheel at the end of his last Amber cycle. Was a second Amber sequel ever considered?
Byron Preiss had already signed a contract to do three prequels books when I came on board, so I don't know if the idea came from him or from the estate. Working backwards from the original 10 books, I found ample source material to construct a strong plot for the prequel series. Readers who take the time will enjoy finding all the intersections between the original Amber books and The Dawn of Amber -- there are a lot of little bits and pieces that mesh between them.

How hard did you try to capture Zelazny's "voice" or "beat" from the Amber stories? Or is the style here pure Betancourt, albeit playing with Amber concepts and motifs?
I have a largely transparent style. I did not try to match Zelazny's prose -- though I borrowed a few phrases from him, here and there. I wasn't trying to create a pastiche so much as a continuation of the story.

What's your favorite Zelazny story?
From a fan standpoint, I'd have to say Nine Princes in Amber -- I think it's the best of the Amber books, as the reader begins to find out all about this other world that Zelazny has created. I think one of its true strengths is that it starts in our world and then moves into fantasy, much the way the Harry Potter books do. This is a bridge for mainstream readers who probably aren't familiar, or prepared, to just dive into a completely made-up fantasy world. And it works on many levels, not just as an adventure story. There is philosophy, psychology -- lots of Jung -- poetry, and real mystery as well.

How has working with someone else's creations differed from your own original writings?
It's always a little constraining; I have to keep within the lines already sketched out. Several hardcore Amber fans have been quick to point out everything they consider an inconsistency between The Dawn of Amber and the 10 Zelazny books... but they don't seem to realize that they haven't read the whole story yet, and many of their complaints actually won't prove valid in the end.

One example is the character of Oberon -- who some readers have seen as too weak. But he's 20 years old in this book, and he has many, many years of intense politicking and fighting ahead of him. The beginning of his evolution into Zelazny's character -- a consummate ruler and master manipulator -- is the personal story within The Dawn of Amber.

I also think that, as the hero and viewpoint character, he needs to be sympathetic. Let's face it, Zelazny's Oberon is not a nice guy. Luckily he doesn't end up that way until thousands of years in the future!

I did go over many of these "inconsistencies" in great detail on the Zelazny newsgroup on Usenet, and I confess I revealed a number of spoilers about books two and three as a result. Anyone who's curious can look them up. Much of what they thought inconsistent is due to a major character being a compulsive liar.

Readers conveniently forget how many inconsistencies Zelazny himself committed. If I do miss one or two things -- and I'm trying not to, with detailed notes and advance readers who are trying to spot this sort of stuff! -- it's well within the spirit of the original series.

How did committing to a three-novel series impact your work with Wildside Press?
I'd like to say it didn't, but of course it did... just a matter of slowing everything down a bit. I'm caught up now, though, so when I begin writing the second book next month, there shouldn't be any problems keeping on top of my publishing business.

Speaking of Wildside, it's been almost 13 years since you founded that press. Looking back, what's your assessment?
It's been pretty wild -- three World Fantasy Award nominations for my wife and me as publishers, plus two Hugo and four World Fantasy Award nominations (and one win!) for books we've published; the bankruptcy of one distributor that left us pretty broke for several years (and forced me to write media tie-in novels -- and everything else I could get a contract for -- to pay the bills). Right now, things are pretty stable financially, and I'm still working with many of my favorite writers -- Anne McCaffrey, Alan Dean Foster, Mike Resnick -- so I'm pretty happy.

What's been your biggest mistake as publisher?
Picking the wrong distributor... twice! The first ones were crooks; the second ones went bankrupt.

What are you most proud of?
That's hard to say -- there are so many great books we've published. Probably the books I'm happiest with are the Lucifer Jones novels by Mike Resnick. The Wildside Press editions are amazing -- the first one was bound in an imported French leopardskin-patterned cloth, and the second one was bound in imported Spanish cork. If you didn't like the book, you could always use it for a bulletin board! Neat stuff, unlike anything ever published in the SF field before.

What would you do differently if you could alter your past decisions?
The distributors. I would have gone with bigger players, like Baker & Taylor and Ingram -- those are the two I now use.

What have you learned as a publisher that you never would have as a writer?
Actually, I think I've brought more to being a publisher from the writer's side. I know how writers ought to be treated, how they want to be treated, and how they deserve to be treated. I do my best to make sure we do everything right. Page proofs, cover proofs, approval of cover copy, fast payments of royalties, easy-to-understand royalty statements, etc. I've even sent royalty money early to several authors to help with things like honeymoons and repair bills for cars. You never hear about Pocket Books or Del Rey doing stuff like that.

What do you feel the role of Wildside is in today's market? Has that changed since Wildside's founding?
Yes, definitely. Wildside Press started as a hobby; I was trying to collect signed, limited edition books -- but I found them so overpriced as to be largely unaffordable to someone of limited means, like myself. Wildside Press has produced some truly beautiful books, but I deliberately priced them less than half of what other publishers were doing. $35 for a 300-copy signed, numbered edition is much more affordable for collectors than $75 for a 1,000-copy edition... and I dare say Wildside Press books seem to be appreciating in value on the used book market, whereas many of the "collectible" bigger printings aren't.

What do you feel the role of the small press is in general in today's market?
Right now, I think it's preservation. The small press is putting into durable form many stories and novels that might otherwise be forgotten -- and it is the primary venue for short story collections from new authors.

Isn't there a historical trend where once small press establishes a successful niche, larger publishers move in and increase the competition?
Sure; that's just business. And it's not limited to larger publishers -- there are lots of small publishers, too, who get involved. Any market that's profitable is going to have competition. At the moment, however, Wildside Press is the big fish in the print-on-demand pond with regard to the science fiction field. Gross revenues this year will be around $400,000. That's tiny by New York standards, but excellent for a small press. Revenues have increased 300 percent per year for the last three years, so we're obviously doing something right!

Maybe it's just me, but it seems there are more collections and ambitious anthologies coming out from big publishers these days than, say five or 10 years ago.
I think that's true with certain authors, especially as more companies produce hardcovers aimed at the library market. But for the average author, no, there is little or no chance that a large publisher will do a short story collection.

What's your perspective on print-on-demand? Has it fulfilled the early promise and optimism?
Yes, in many ways. Print-on-demand has evolved rapidly into a viable book printing technique. And when you think about it, it's not so different from what I was doing before -- very limited print runs of books. Only now I'm doing one at a time instead of 100.

So, is print-on-demand the panacea for publishing's problems?
It's not an easy fix; incremental costs are too high for it to work for mainstream publishing. It's simply another printing tool.

You mentioned your work with Star Trek, and have four Trek books currently in print. What's your relationship, as a writer, with Star Trek?
Business mingled with pleasure. I watch and enjoy the various Star Trek TV shows and movies; I enjoy writing books based on them; the publisher pays me enough money to make it worth my while. If I wasn't getting paid, I wouldn't write these books... but I'd still watch Star Trek. I'd simply write something else, either my own fiction or something set in another universe I enjoy. People don't seem to realize it, since the media fiction I've published is so widely visible, but I've actually written about twice as much original fiction as media fiction.

Do you find that frustrating?
In some ways, yes -- but it's the nature of the beast. You keep writing and keep writing, and eventually something works, something takes off -- if you look at some of the biggest writers in the field, they went through years of publishing marginally successful books before hitting it big. That's happened to everyone from Piers Anthony to Dean Koontz, from Jerry Pournelle to George Alec Effinger.

How do you approach writing Star Trek as opposed to some other topic?
It's very carefully outlined, since everyone involved in the show, from the editor to the guardians-of-all-things-Trek at Paramount have to sign off on it. When I'm writing short stories, I prefer to write with just an idea in my head -- whether a scene, a bit of dialogue or action, or an idea -- and see where it leads me.

With the exceptions of a handful of titles such as Johnny Zed, Rememory and The Blind Archer reprinted by Wildside, most of your back list is out of print. How important is Wildside's role in keeping older works in print for you? For other writers?
For me, it's purely a vanity thing; I wanted to have them available, whether they sold or not. For other authors -- it varies from person to person, and you'd have to ask them about their motivations. I gather it's everything from wanting favorite books available to the public to the desire to have copies that they can sell at conventions.

Describe John Betancourt, the writer.
That's hard. I get very caught up in whatever I'm writing; perhaps a bit too emotionally intense, as I get into the characters' heads. I'm probably happier when I'm writing fantasy or SF than when I'm writing horror -- but I think some of my best work is horror.

These days, I write in the evenings, when everyone else in the house is asleep. Luckily I don't need much sleep -- five or six hours a night is plenty. I'm finding it's made me more productive than I've been since we had kids.

Pacifica is your next scheduled novel after The Dawn of Amber. It's a collaboration between yourself and Linda Bushyager set for a December release. Tell me about it.
That's an odd novel for me. It was written about 10 years ago as an entry for the Turner Tomorrow Award, which had a million dollar prize. I took an old story of mine, and Linda Bushyager and I changed and expanded it to give it an ecological theme. It doesn't read like anything I've written, nor like anything Linda had written previously. We hadn't done anything with it after the award process (it lost, by the way!), but when I moved back to Pennsylvania and we got in touch again, we decided to release it as an electronic book through Fictionwise. The readers there seemed to like it, so it's going to be a Wildside Press book this fall.

How did that collaboration come about?
I was working full-time at Byron Preiss Visual Publications as their science fiction editor, and I really didn't have enough time to write it before the deadline. Linda had the time, so I suggested we collaborate. She agreed. We worked out an outline, she did the first draft, and I did the final draft. After it didn't win the Turner Tomorrow Award, she tinkered with it a bit more.

Was the distinctive voice of the novel a direct result of your collaboration, or the nature of the story?
I think she brought a lot of her voice to the story; Linda was a very talented fantasy writer, and had she kept at it, I think she would have achieved the kind of following Andre Norton and Anne McCaffrey had. Her voice is naturally very close to theirs.

And you have more original fiction in the works?
The original books to watch for are coming up. I'm currently finishing Master of Dragons, which will be published in November 2003 by ibooks. Then after that will be Horizon, the epic SF novel I've been working on -- off and on -- for about a decade. Horizon is the best thing I've ever written. The editor who bought it, Howard Zimmerman, called it a cross between A.E. van Vogt and Frank Herbert -- it's galaxy-spanning, intelligent, humanistic SF.

You've done a lot in the field of electronic publishing. How has that worked out -- both from a writer's perspective and a publisher's?
I've been quite happy with it, overall. It's an emerging market, and the audience seems to be slowly but steadily expanding. We've only been releasing ebooks for about a year, but sales are steady. I'm quite pleased with all of our ebook publishing partners -- Fictionwise, Palm Digital, etc.

Is Master of Dragons a traditional fantasy? What can you tell me about it?
It's a fantasy novel set in my world of Zelloque. The Blind Archer is another, and there are perhaps 15 or so short stories -- nine of them were collected in Slab's Tavern and Other Uncanny Places about 10 years ago. There's a novel which could be assembled quite easily from one long novella and a couple of the novelettes, but I doubt it will ever be published -- I ended up using bits and pieces from those stories in a couple of other books. Master of Dragons is a Errol Flynn-type swashbuckler with lots of magic. It was originally published as Rogue Pirate by TSR about 15 years ago. They -- to put it kindly -- butchered the book, adding things like cannons (which makes no sense; it's a fantasy world without gunpowder!) and changing things like sea-serpents to sea-crustaceans (I imagine giant lobsters!) plus so many word and line-by-line changes that the text was hopelessly muddled. I was glad to have it go out of print. Now I'm rewriting it to bring it to my current level of craft, putting everything back the way it should have been. The book is a lot of fun. I think everyone will enjoy it.

So then, you're getting your chance at doing the director's cut? Or is this more of a full-fledged remake?
It's a complete sentence-by-sentence rewrite and expansion. Few would recognize it as the original work, beyond the plot and some of the dialogue.

You said Horizon is the best thing you've ever written. That's a bold claim -- justify it.
I'm probably not the best judge of my work, but it's how I feel about it. It has an epic scale, and it conveys my thoughts and feelings about family, human evolution, and the nature of God better than anything else. I'm very close to the characters.

Has working on a project over such an extended period of time presented any unique challenges?
Not really; I keep rewriting it, tweaking here and there, and it reads very smoothly. No one can pick it up and say, "this part was written 10 years ago, this part 5 years ago, this part yesterday." It's seamless.

There's been a resurgence of galaxy-spanning SF in recent years. What's your take on this?
Overall, I like it. I think SF veered too sharply away from its roots, perhaps because space opera is viewed as "kid stuff" and the very best SF editors and writers wanted to the genre to be viewed as literature. I think there's plenty of room for adventure and fun in SF. Space opera can be literature. Perhaps packaging has something to do with it, or the commercial success of true back-to-the-genre's-roots space opera, like Star Wars.

Copyright © 2002 by Jayme Lynn Blaschke

Jayme Lynn Blaschke graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in journalism. He writes science fiction and fantasy short fiction and has several in-progress novels lying around in various stages of decay. His non-fiction articles and interviews have seen publication in the U.S., Britain and Australia. His website can be found at

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