© 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
SF Site Review: 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
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
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
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
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
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.