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A Conversation With Patricia Anthony
An interview with Jayme Lynn Blaschke

Patricia Anthony
Patricia Anthony
Patricia Anthony spent the 1970s travelling as an English professor with her then-husband and two children, and working at universities in Brazil and Portugal. Divorced in 1978, she settled in Dallas. There, she worked at The Dallas Morning News for 14 years while trying to get published and also taught creative writing at Southern Methodist University for three years. Her books include the non-SF book Flanders, along with Cold Allies (1993), Brother Termite (1993), Conscience of the Beagle (1993), Happy Policeman (1994), Cradle of Splendor (1996), God's Fires (1997) and Eating Memory (1997).   Titanic director James Cameron has optioned her second book, Brother Termite, as a possible feature film.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: God's Fires
SF Site Review: Eating Memories
SF Site Review: Flanders

God's Fires
Art: Carlos Alejandro
Eating Memories
Cold Allies
Cradle of Splendor
Happy Policeman

Patricia Anthony has emerged as one of the most distinctive new voices of the 90s. Beginning with her debut novel, Cold Allies, in 1992, Anthony earned wide acclaim for creating extraterrestrials that were truly alien. Her 1995 novel, Happy Policeman, was a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and with another of her novels poised to appear on the big screen, Anthony is indeed one of the fastest-rising stars in the field.

Your 1993 novel Brother Termite is being made into a movie by James Cameron. It's not exactly the type of book you would normally expect Hollywood to jump on.

I think they're going to do a really good job on it. I'll admit when I heard they were going to make it, I, of course, immediately thought "Oh, well they're not going to make my book, you know, because you can't make my book. It's too hard. It wouldn't make sense to anybody." The first thing I said when I heard James Cameron wanted to make the film was "Who's James Cameron?" I don't go to movies a lot, okay? My agent said "Well, he did True Lies." I saw True Lies, so that was pretty cool, but I couldn't see how the same person who did that would be interested in Brother Termite. And then I called a friend of mine who knows more about movies, and she started saying he did Terminator and he did Aliens. So now it's starting to make a little bit more sense to me, although really, looking at those movies -- this was before I saw Strange Days -- I was so puzzled. I enjoyed those movies, don't get me wrong, and there was a lot of good characterization in those movies, but when I look at those movies and I look at Brother Termite, I'm thinking those movies are basically commercial. They're linear. Those movies make sense. They go from point A to point B, and he bought this thing which is basically a political thriller, but it's also satire, plus it's got aliens in it and science fiction, and it's also a romance. What in the world is he going to do with this? So I figured no, no, no, he's not going to make this movie.

So why then are they doing Brother Termite?
After the contracts were signed and everything and I got the press release from Lightstorm, I finally saw what Jim Cameron had to say about it. What interested him were the characters, and the fact that Reen and the other Cousins are very empathetic characters, and you really like them at the same time they're doing something really godawful. There's that sense of tension in the whole book. When I read the screenplay, just the first draft of the screenplay, Reen is definitely Reen.

It's not too often you have a book or movie where the protagonist is also a member of a genocidal race intent on bringing about the extinction of humanity.
Right. And make 'em nice! I don't know why I do that, but it's like in God's Fires, where the protagonist is an inquisitor. He's a nice guy, you like Pessoa. He really doesn't want to burn anybody, he doesn't want to hurt anybody, but in the end he kinda, in a lot of ways, has to toe the line. You get a dichotomy going if you have basically a good person, who is given a horrific duty. I mean, I really get into that. That's fun. That's good drama.

James Cameron's projects usually turn out to be blockbusters, but you weren't exactly thrilled when you first got the contract in the mail.
It was real scary. Months went by and months went by and I did not hear a single word, and then to get this huge contract in the mail... I mean it just went on and on and on. Of course, I only got to page two, and you're signing your life away. I didn't sign the contract immediately. I waited a week, and I freaked. Remember, I only read the first two pages. When I took that contract out of the envelope, my eyes riveted on the option amount, and I'd been expecting maybe we'll get five, ten thousand tops. And it was quite a bit more. When I saw that I realized they were indeed serious. The first two pages scared me to death. They could change the title, they could change anything, and all for this X amount they offered in the option clause. I didn't talk to anyone but my very closest friends, and I told them, "I'm not going to sign. I'm going to tear it up. I don't need this." Finally, I was telling my decision to this one friend of mine who was a screenwriter. I had to go to her because nobody knew anything about screenwriting but this one friend. And I said "I've made the decision, I'm going to call my agent." But it was a holiday, and she was not in her office -- luckily. I said "I'm going to call her and tell her I'm not going to sign the contract. I cannot sign my future writing life away, and the perception of my books as a whole for X amount of dollars," and I quoted the option amount. And she said "Well, yes, I understand where you're coming from, but what's the actual purchase price?" Huh? "If they're going to make the movie, they've got to purchase the movie, so what's that price?" I said, "Oh... page three." So I get page three and I'm reading and there's this long silence, and then I say "Never mind."

So you haven't had any problems letting these other people take your baby away?
I've never looked at it like these books are my children. When I signed the contract, I made the decision that it's their movie. Whatever they want to do, it is their movie. My novel rights are protected, and that's what I was worried about. And so I was just fine with it after the decision. When all the paperwork was in, working with Lightstorm was terrific. They were so nice. James Cameron said in order to do this screenplay, there was only one person who could do it, and that was John Sayles. And I've been a John Sayles fan all my life.

Sayles has quite a varied body of work, doesn't he? It's hard to believe the same man that did The Secret of Roan Innish and Lone Star also gave us Battle Beyond the Stars, Mimic and Piranha, among others.
He does really wonderful screenplays. He said he was going to do Brother Termite because, in essence, he refuses to do a screenplay that he doesn't think is going to be a terrific movie. And he apparently really liked the story. He's done a great job. I've had a lot of people asked me, "Didn't you want to do the screenplay?" No. It's not my concept. My concept is for the printed word, and that's what I paint with. I don't have the least notion of how to take something and put it into a screenplay. What was really weird, he did a new scene. He added a scene which I'm particularly fond of, which did not occur in the book, but probably should have occurred in the book. It works so well. Who knows if this is going to show up in the finished screenplay, but I hope it does. It's a wonderful little scene. I mean really, it worked really well. So, I'm really happy with it. I had determined early on that no matter what, I was going to be their biggest supporter. Now, I find that it's really easy. I look at what he's doing and I really admire what he's doing, and it's really quite neat.

You've developed quite a body of work since then. After Brother Termite, you wrote Conscience of the Beagle, which was well-received. Your fourth book, Happy Policeman was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award.
Yes, that thrilled me to no end.

But your presence in Britain's dropped off since then.
In essence, I feel there's a problem in Great Britain with the perception of science fiction, and I think it's possibly the same problem encountered in Japan. Which is science fiction, by and large, is viewed as an adolescent type of literature. They do have some really good writers over there, but all in all, from what little I've seen, is that if you're doing something which is a little more literary in nature, it's going to be lost to a lot of -- not the British audience, but the British publishers. You understand? It's the marketing, and I don't think they know how to market the books. So when Happy Policeman and Brother Termite came out, they were marketed with Magic Eye covers. I'm not sure what the reception is in Great Britain, but basically if you market a Magic Eye cover here in the States, what you're appealing to is like, seventh graders. You're targeting a very young audience. I have some teenagers who read my work, but I don't appeal to the great mass of teenagers. Cold Allies did okay, but then when the other two came out, man, they sank big time. I've been selling well in the other countries overseas, but that was unfortunate with Great Britain.

But you're hoping to break back into that market with your next book.
The one that's coming after God's Fires, Flanders, is a World War I book about a young Texas boy who joins the British army in 1916. The British sub agents really love this book, to my surprise. I thought for sure I'd screw it up. I knew I couldn't go at it from a British viewpoint. I've never lived in England. I cannot do a book from a British viewpoint. So I opted to do this Texas boy who goes over there, and so you're looking at this society, and looking at the way this society works from the outside. And that I can do, because I've been there. I've known Brits and I know the differences, and they always say write what you know, and that's what I knew: Looking at the society of Great Britain from the outside. It's my first book that is not science fiction at all. The fantasy element -- and you can read this book as a history, because you really don't know if these spirits are real. But Travis Lee Stanhope -- who is the protagonist -- he's writing his brother, and at one point, he begins to dream about his dead comrades. He comes to believe that he's dreaming about their ghosts.

World War I is a rather uncommon setting for any novel. You could say it's this century's overlooked war. Why did you choose it, specifically?
The book is about a whole lot of things, but basically it's about death. And what better way to talk about... that's why I chose World War I. If you're going to talk about death, and shove the reader's face in it, this was the most horrible, oppressive death possible, because you couldn't get out of it in World War I. It was all around you. It was in your food. When they dug the trenches they dug through the bones of the French and the British and the Germans who had died there. It was the most godawful thing in the world. And of course he starts in 1916, and they've already been through a lot of bad war. I wanted to do that, and then I wanted to show the other side of death.

Even though this is a new direction you're taking, the themes you're dealing with were present in your previous books. God's Fires focused on religion, and even back in Brother Termite there were the Karma sellers. Seems like you're taking morality and religion another step and examining them more overtly now.
Yeah, I parodied the Karma sellers. That was a send-up, but I made fun of everybody in that book. Today I'm very Zen, very, very Zen, and have been for many years. But I also picked up some tenants of spiritism, and you'll see that a lot, even though it was a send-up in Brother Termite. I had a lot of fun making fun of it, and making fun of reincarnation. But these are my basic beliefs. Nothing was sacred in Brother Termite. When you do a parody or satire, you've got to make fun of everything. I make fun of everything and hell, I make fun of President Kennedy, and he was one of my idols. So today, yes I am getting into more questions of religion and particularly death and the subject of death. It's something I've really always been interested in, and you see that too all through the novels. And when you talk about morality and I say I'm a Zen Buddhist, you have to go back. I really don't do heroes and villains, because I don't believe there are heroes and villains. Yes, there are people who do horrible things. Sometimes there's really good people who do horrible things. That's another problem the average reader has. People look for heroes and villains, and I have a very nebulous sense of what right and wrong is. Which is kind of dangerous and threatening.

You taught English literature in Portugal in the late 60s. You saw a lot of those horrible things first hand when you got involved in the Portuguese resistance movement.
Well, not really involved. It was very innocent. It was the very tag end of the 60s and we really believed that we, as Americans, could remake the world and make it better. And the Portuguese students were really caught up in that. I was lucky in that none of my students were arrested. I mean, we'd get invited to their meetings and we'd go in -- bless their hearts -- and they'd sing We Shall Overcome. That's what it was. They did not ever talk about violent revolution or overthrowing the government violently. Another thing that was really interesting about that revolution, which was bloodless -- all of them are -- there was an incident that occurred when the soldiers had been sent out to guard a weapons depot. And so these soldiers were in the front with their automatic rifles, fully armed, and a crowd of civilians was coming up -- a mob, really -- and they were armed with sticks. The old French Revolution type thing, picture that, coming up along the street, and they're heading for that weapons depot. The commanding officer of this small group of soldiers knew he had two choices. He could either open fire and kill a bunch of them, which was his duty, or they could turn around and walk off and let the crowd have the weapons depot. Well, what do you think an American would've done? But the Portuguese officer turned around and walked off, and ordered his men to stand down. And they left. That's the difference between the two cultures. So even though Caitano was doing stuff like pulling people off the streets and beating them up, throwing them in jail --it was horrible. He was a fascist, and I'm really glad he's gone. Portugal's a whole lot better off.

You're just a magnet for world events, aren't you? You're also one of the few people alive to see a nuclear explosion -- outside of a test, that is. Not many people even know it happened. San Antonio, Texas, I believe it was?
This wasn't a nuclear test -- it was a screwup. I was a senior in 1964 at Robert E. Lee High School in San Antonio, and in the afternoon they had these study hall periods. Anyway, all of the sudden, something changed. I don't know what it was, maybe I felt the vibrations. There were these big glass and steel doors to the outside, and all of the sudden these big door were coming open. I'm assuming the ground was vibrating, that's what was happening. It was just like a movie. There was this really, really tall mushroom cloud off in the distance. Now, you know any kind of explosion will make a mushroom cloud, but this was huge. I was on the north side of San Antonio and this was happening at Kelly Field way on the south side. The first reports over the radio was that it was a nuclear strike, Russian or whatever, and then it was a rumour going around that one of the nuclear warheads on a B-52 had accidentally been dropped. But I knew that wasn't the case, because I had not seen a flash. There was no light to it. The cloud was very dirty, and there was no light to it. It was an explosion very deep underground. It was a nuclear storage facility -- they had several of them out there -- and fission occurred. I don't know why, but fission occurred and there it went. And if the wind had been different, if the wind hadn't been just right, all of that could've come down over the city. It was interesting to me that those of us who were there remember it. It was in our local papers and on the local television news, but it never made the national news and has not since. And it's not widely known. I've lived through that, and I've gone through an emergency landing on a plane, I've been struck by lightning. I've seen ball lightning. That was cool.

Not many people have ever seen ball lightning. Some scientists argue it doesn't even exist.
I know, and it was great. I was in Brazil and it was a terrible, terrible storm, just the worst godawful storm I've ever seen. In fact, it was so bad that in the interior, to the south of us, that was the location of the hydroelectric plant, and it knocked out the hydroelectric plant. I mean, took it down. It drowned a whole lot of people along that river valley. But all of the sudden, my ex-husband calls out "There's a UFO!" and so naturally I run down the stairs. We had huge, two-story windows. It was a magnificent house on an old coffee plantation on the side of the mountain. I'm looking through the thick trees in front, and here's this ball. It was the size of a beach ball, and it was fire. It was so cool. It was orange, and it was floating. The wind was blowing very strong, but it could float against the wind, and it just meandered around the trees. And I said "That's not a UFO. My god, that's ball lighting!" Our neighbour, the next day, he told us that he'd been in his house and this orange ball rolled through the wall as we were watching TV -- oh, bad, bad news. It rolled toward that, it went right over and hit the TV and pfft! electricity went out in the house.

You're pretty lucky to come away from that one unscathed.
I've got a thing about lighting. I don't know why, but it's struck me, it's struck my car. That was the same night, the lightning was so horrific. The windows we had were wrought iron. We're living in a lightning attracting place. I'm sitting downstairs, and at this point we still have electricity in the house. All of the sudden I hear the clap, and I know what it is, and this blue streak has struck the house. And it was following the electrical lines. We had stone walls, we had granite walls inside and out, and you could see it following just in a grid pattern down where the electrical lines were running, up to the light switch. It hit the light switch and pfft! flames went this high up. Luckily it was all stone, but the lights were definitely out in the house. It wasn't just us that lost electricity. The whole electrical company went out. So we were out of electricity for a week, and when the electricity finally came back up, we turned on the electricity in the house, and the electricity was polarized. It's direct current in Brazil, so for some reason this lightning strike polarized the whole electrical system. You couldn't touch the refrigerator or the refrigerator would shock you. Any kind of electric appliance would shock you, so we had to take and tie copper wire around every electrical appliance we had and lead the copper wire out and bury it in the ground. It was a hoot. It was a real hoot.

You have a close relationship with your readers. As far as writers go, you're fairly accessible. You attend conventions often and teach a writing class at Southern Methodist University. You really do a lot of mentoring, don't you?
Roxanne Longstreet-Conrad -- who is also a wonderful writer and a brilliant designer -- got me a website, and it's at And she's always tinkering on it. It's pretty interactive, because writers can post their good news. I give writing tips. A lot of what I'm interested in is mentoring, which is why I teach at SMU. That's why I teach creative writing. It took me from 1980 to 1987 to sell my first short story, and I was still trying to sell novels, and I didn't sell my first novel until 1992. That's a long damn time, and you get real discouraged and it gets real tough. I've always wanted to be able to teach prospective writers so that they did not make the stupid mistakes that I made. I made a lot of dumb mistakes about writing. Really not understanding the craft, going at it without having any feedback, and doing it particularly because I come at it as what I call an organic writer. Which is I don't outline. I go in with kind of a vague story idea. I don't know what's coming out.

That's an interesting concept -- working without a net, as it were. Has that ever taken you to unexpected places?
There was a kid who had bought Cold Allies, and he had gotten into the first three chapters and was really excited. He lived locally, and he called me on the phone. He looked up my telephone number and called me, and we had this great conversation. He was really excited about the book, and I said I hoped he enjoys it, and to let me know what he thought about it when he finished. Well, he called me again, like at 11 o'clock one night. I was already in bed and he calls me, and I'm like, "Who the hell is this?" and he's going, "They left! They left! The aliens left!" I say, "Yeah?" and he said, "Well, you never told me what they were doing." I went back and I went over the book with him, and showed him the reasons. I said, "They left because that's the way they were." In essence, those aliens, it was like being run over with a steamroller. They didn't have to tell you what they were here for. We can't know, because they're so damn alien. There's no way to make any sense of what they did. I said there's only an Epiphany sort of sense and a question they leave in the mind. That's the essence of the aliens. And see, I'd never understood that until I had to explain it to the kid. He thought about it, then said "Okay... Okay!" So I think that when the stuff comes up in yourself, you should let it go.

(This interview first appeared in the June 1999 issue of Interzone.)

Copyright © 2000 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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