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A Conversation With Rick Wilber
An interview with Trent Walters
March 2001

© Rick Wilber
Rick Wilber
Rick Wilber
Rick Wilber, journalism professor at University of South Florida, hit the publishing scene in 1980 and in the past two decades has appeared in Chrysalis, Analog, Asimov's, Alien Sex, Aboriginal SF, F&SF, Pulphouse, SF Age, and numerous anthologies. His stories, "Hope as an Element of Cold Dark Matter" and "Mounting the Monkeys" were preliminary nominees for the Bram Stoker Award. "Ice Covers the Hole", "Bridging", "Imagine Jimmy" and "Where Garagiola Waits" were all Nebula preliminary nominees. His collection Where Garagiola Waits and Other Baseball Stories from University of Tampa Press was a finalist for The Dave Moore Award for most important baseball book of 1999. Other books include Magazine Feature Writing (St. Martin's Press, 1995), The Writer's Handbooks for Editing and Revision (NTC Publishing, 1996), Modern Media Writing (Wadsworth, forthcoming) and Feature Writing (NTC, forthcoming), The Secret Skater (University of Tampa Press, 1996, under the pen-name Robin Aran), and Subtropical Speculations (Pineapple Press, 1991). Rick Wilber is the administrator of the Isaac Asimov award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Story Writing.

Rick Wilber Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: To Leuchars

To Leuchars

How did you get started writing? You attended Clarion back in the day when Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm ran the show. How did Clarion aid your career?
I didn't write much fiction until I was a graduate student in English at Southern Illinois University, and even during that time I thought of myself as a newspaper and magazine journalist, and most of my writing was along those lines, lots of personality profiles, travel stories and sportswriting for publications like Sport Magazine, Football Digest, The St. Louis Post Dispatch and the like. I was even a rock critic there for a while, doing that for the St. Louis Globe Democrat while I was starting my teaching career.

But I'd always been a real lover of science fiction, regularly reading all the magazines and usually one or two novels a week. Finally, in the mid-70s, I tried writing some short stories and there was a great little fanzine coming out of St. Louis, Title, put out by Don Brazier (who ran the local science museum when he wasn't running off mimeo copies of Title and its sister publication, Farrago), and Don, bless his heart, started running my short stories in his magazines and that got me hooked. For some weird reasons, seeing a short story in Title (with a circulation of maybe 200) meant more to me than seeing my stories in Sport magazine, even with its circulation of half-a-million or more, back when it was one of top national sports magazines.

After a couple of years of that, I was teaching journalism at Mankato State University in Minnesota when I ran across some information about Clarion. It was an important moment, since I was sneaking up on age 30 and was really settled into teaching and non-fiction writing. I decided it was time to try and take the great leap into fiction, so I applied, was accepted, and had a really, really useful time there. I learned a lot, certainly, about the basics of writing short fiction. More importantly, for me, was the immersion into a world where everyone actually cared about writing science fiction and fantasy, with Damon and Kate leading the way. I'd never been part of that world before, and I found it to be a real revelation. You mean it's OK to write this stuff? Wow. In my one college fiction-writing course the instructor had screamed at me in class for writing that trash and insisted I write his idea of what serious fiction was all about. There, at Clarion, the world shifted for me in that sense and a lot of personal doors opened.

What's the story behind your first sale?
I'd been sending things out for a couple of years, and had taken part in that Clarion in 1978, and one of the stories I'd started at Clarion seemed promising to Damon, who told me to send it out. I sent it to a literary magazine and the editor there just ripped it apart, saying this science-fiction stuff was ruining the short-story form and I should quit writing it since it was a huge waste of my talent.

Instead, I thought I ought to just get the story out of the house as quickly as possible (worried, I guess, that the story's evil might be contagious) and so went to my market list and send it to the bottom place on the list, which was Zebra books and the Chrysalis anthology series edited by Roy Torgeson. In a couple of weeks, I received a postcard from Torgeson saying he loved the story and would publish it. That was "Horatio Hornblower and the Songs of Innocence," which called upon two of my loves at the time -- C.S. Forester and William Blake. Always borrow from the best, I say.

Who are some of your influences and how did they influence you?
Outside the field, certainly the things you pick up in your studies, writers like John Donne, Charles Dickens, Blake, Austen, Melville (I re-read Moby Dick every few years) and especially Stephen Crane, for both his short stories and for his poetry. With my family background in baseball, I also fell under the sway of Mark Harris and W.P. Kinsella for baseball fiction, and then there's Tony Hillerman for mystery writing and Rick Bragg and John McPhee for magazine and newspaper non-fiction. In the field, I did my master's thesis on Heinlein, so of course he's there, and when I was in college we were all reading the Hobbit books, so surely Tolkien, too. Generally I grew up on 50s science-fiction, so I read everything from Lucky Starr and Tom Corbett to Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz. It all had an impact. When I was a kid, I just read voraciously. In the summers, for instance, I used to read at least a book or two a day, usually juvenile science fiction. All I would do every day was play baseball and read, all summer long.

How did these influences percolate into my own writing? Surely when you read that much you incorporate a certain subconscious idea of everything from the basics of grammar and style to more general concepts like theme and characterization. From each of those sources you painlessly learn something useful, everything from Crane's descriptive abilities to Walter Miller's explorations into Catholicism and the implications of faith in an age of science.

What was your thesis on Heinlein about?
It essentially centered on how, at the time, Stranger in A Strange Land was perhaps being misread in terms of Heinlein's themes and typical characters. I felt at the time that it was very much in his thematic mainstream and not necessarily the 60s liberal work it was mislabeled as at the time. This was the first science-fiction master's thesis done on that campus, by the way, so it was very closely looked at. Happily, there were a couple of faculty there who read and understood science fiction (including the top Shakespearean in the department, interestingly enough), and I had them firmly in my corner come time to defend the thesis.

Many of your stories plumb and incorporate much of your varied personal experiences: Florida, Ireland, the Midwest, baseball, journalism, poetry, Down syndrome and other, more domestic troubles. How and why is "writing what you know" important?
For me, personal experience is a significant part of the research process for writing, whether fiction or non-fiction. I certainly do as much research outside of my personal experience as I do inside it, but I've come to think that introspection based on personal experience is a useful tool for certain kinds of stories. I tend to write stories that are heavily character-based, and using personal experience to get inside the head, or the heart and soul, of characters seems to work for me. Of course you use bits and pieces from all over the place to do that, and the characters might incorporate elements from a dozen different sources that seem to blend into something worthwhile.

I've been fortunate, as a writer, that I've had some interesting things happen personally, some of them challenging but many of them really positive, starting with a childhood in baseball, and then, as an adult, a lot of travel in Scotland and Ireland and a very stable family life that includes a wonderful little girl, a very supportive wife, and a Down syndrome son who has taught me a lot about life.

That doesn't mean I think personal experience is for every writer. Different people go about writing in different ways. But, for me, some of the things I know through personal experience -- whether it's from running my summer school in Ireland or from playing basketball every Sunday with my boy or from recalling a lucky childhood sitting in the dugout in Fenway Park with Ted Williams and my dad -- seem worth sharing directly (through essays) or indirectly (through fiction) through the storytelling process.

You have a reputation in the field for your speculative baseball stories, many of which are collected in Where Garagiola Waits. What is it about baseball that brings you back to it, again and again?
For me, baseball is so firmly embedded in the family tradition that it's sort of inescapable. My father was a catcher for the Cardinals, Phillies and Red Sox back in the 40s and 50s, and then was a scout, a minor-league manager, even a major-league manager for one game (which he won, which ties him for winningest career percentage manager all-time and makes him a great trivia question). He spent his whole life in the game, and so of course his family did, too. I have very firm memories of hanging out in the clubhouse and dugout at Fenway Park, for instance, and then of being the batboy in minor-league towns like Charleston, West Virginia. It was a great childhood, spending six weeks each spring in Florida for spring training, having family friends like Stan Musial and Joe Garagiola and the like. And I've played the game my whole life; it's what I've done when I should have been learning to play guitar or paint landscapes or learn something else useful. Instead, I learned how to pitch and hit and field ground balls -- which I still do in the over-40 league where I live in St. Petersburg (it's not surprising, come to think of it, that I've come to live in the archetypal home of spring training).

So I come by my personal blending of my two great passions -- baseball and science fiction -- quite naturally. I've loved them both since childhood and love them both still. I've been lucky in that baseball's history and certain elements of the game's structure, along with its great characters over the years, have long made it a mainstream literary darling. It's a little more difficult fit with science-fiction, though some fine writers have managed just fine, and one of my baseball/sf stories, "Bridging," got a rave review out of the Chicago Tribune of all places. And, of course, baseball works perfectly with fantasy, and so when I write those I'm just joining in with a large group of very talented baseball fantasists. Really, there is a lot of great baseball literature out there and I'm happy to have contributed a little bit to that school.

Describe your writing process.
I'm a heavy reviser. I usually get a first draft of, say, a short story done in a just a week or two, and then spend another couple of weeks probing at it, trying to figure out where the good story is buried in there. Usually that means a lot more writing, too, and not just paring away. Then, when I finally get a story into shape I'll send it out, frequently to discover that one of my favorite editors or another has his or her own ideas on how it could still be improved. I'll take those thoughts and go through another round of revising, and usually, at that point, the story shapes up nicely.

This has worked well for me in short fiction and in shorter non-fiction, but it's a very slow way to write books, I've discovered. In novel length, the revision process balloons out to a really enormous project; keeping all that material up in the air while you add, subtract, change, and slowly begin to find the good work that's in there.

Happily, I love the revision process. I love discovering things in the draft stage that I can work with to maximize the story, and I love the process of sharpening the diction and finding the best way to say something useful. But it's very, very hard work.

How did the initial idea for the S'hudonni Mercantile Empire first occur to you? Did it come as one story or did you have an inkling that it may become a sort of future history?
Early on, I had an interest in the Hudson Bay Company and the East India Trading Company, both of them quasi-governmental bodies busy making money while expanding the interests of the British Empire in its glory days. In the U.S. today, we are the world's dominant power as much by economic clout as by military might. My natural sympathy for the underdog got me wondering right from the start how we would handle it were some larger power to do to us what we so willingly do to others. One of my first short-story sales, "Thinking of Romance" to Analog, explored that idea, and I've kept coming back to it every now and then over the years.

I had in mind, at first, a novel that followed the career of the first Earthie to become an active part of that mercantile empire, but over the years it kept trickling out story by story instead. It's been a long haul, and only in the last year or so did I think maybe enough of the story had been told to pull some of these together into a more cohesive storyline.

Was the task of bringing these stories together into a cohesive novel daunting or had the stories simply come out that way?
The hard part was figuring out which stories to leave out of this collected-novel version. There are some pretty good stories that I'd thought would be part of it, but didn't quite seem to fit once I was working on the book. For instance, "War Bride," a story in Ellen Datlow's Alien Sex anthology from a decade ago has gotten a lot of praise in various places and I really wanted it in there, but it just didn't seem to fit. And "Thinking of Romance," too, which started it all, just didn't work in the way I wanted to, so I had to leave it out. There are several others that I slowly came to realize just didn't belong in this book.

The novel, though certainly complete, felt like more could be added before, during and after the events in To Leuchars. Will more stories be written in the series? How many are yet out there to be collected? Where can serious aficionados find them?
I'm working on a new one right at the moment, in fact, and it's another Twoclicks story. He's the S'hudonni aristocrat who figures in a lot of the stories, and I find him at least as interesting as Peter Holman. He's from a failed family and so has had to make his own way despite his lineage. I think of him as Falstaffian in his humor and his dark interior. He has big plans for Peter Holman, of course, and I think we'll begin to see some of that in the next story or two. There is a competing empire out there, and it's a lot nastier group than the S'hudonni. At some point, the two empires are going to come into sharp conflict, and Holman and Twoclicks are the crucial figures in that conflict.

I've been chatting with an editor friend at a university press about doing a short-story collection of my own favorite science fiction and fantasy stories and one of these days that will happen. The other S'hudonni stories will be in there, certainly, along with some more recent personal favorites like "Seven Sisters" (in Fantasy & Science Fiction, July 2000), "Stephen to Cora to Joe," (Asimov's, June 2000) and "In Boise" (F&SF, April 2000) among others.

Tell us something about your upcoming projects: Bone Cold and Rum Point.
I've just turned in the mystery Rum Point to Alan Rodgers at Wildside Press. It won't be a print-on-demand publication, but will have a regular, healthy print run, I'm told. It's centered around an elderly Billy Graham-styled evangelist who owns a Major League baseball team that's in a pennant race. This owner and the team's manager and his daughter and a few other characters have a run-in with an ex-DEA agent gone bad who's putting together an international drug cartel. I think the book will be out this summer sometime and I hope to have its official launch at the Baseball Hall of Fame, as we did with the Where Garagiola Waits book.

Bone Cold is a thriller that I'm finishing final revisions on now for Jim Frenkel at Tor. Jim, like Alan Rodgers at Wildside, is a great editor and he's really steered me along nicely to maximize the impact of the story. It comes from a novelette "Ice Covers the Hole," from Fantasy & Science Fiction some years back. The story follows a girl who's had a more horrible childhood than she knows. Her discoveries of that past mix in with a violent present as she and a detective friend figure out who's been killing women and children in the depths of a hard Minnesota winter. It's tough stuff.

Next up is a couple of books that emerge from the short story "Where Garagiola Waits." The books follow a baseball player in the 40s who goes off to fight in the war and then returns with a new bride to again play ball. His emotional scars and his tempestuous relationship with his Irish bride lead to a whole series of conflicts, from the death of an eldest son in Vietnam to his wife's eventual madness. A second son is the product of that marriage and that son's efforts to build his own life from the carnage of his childhood are in the second book. We're just starting to shop these books around now.

Copyright © 2001 Trent Walters

Trent Walters co-edits Mythic Circle, is a 1999 graduate of Clarion West, is working on a book of interviews with science fiction writers.

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