Friday, June 5, 2009

Allen M. Steele interview

Allen Mulherin Steele has been a full time science fiction author since 1988. Prior to that, he worked in Journalism. A frequent contributor to such august magazines as Asimov's Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction and Fact, his novels include several multi-volume works and anthologies. And he's a Dead Head. ;)

AW: What's the craziest quarter from which inspiration has struck you?

AS: Well, to understand the strange places where I sometimes get my ideas, you have to first understand that my inspiration usually comes from rather mundane sources. I might be driving or washing dishes or cleaning up the house or something like that, thinking about nothing in particular, and then something suddenly connects and I have a brainstorm. I can’t explain it, nor do I want to be able to. Nine-tenths of the time, though, that’s where and how I get my ideas.

However, over the years, I’ve reliably been able to get ideas – and some pretty good ones at that – from an unusual place: Grateful Dead concerts. I went to my first Dead show over 20 years ago and have seen them countless times since then, and quite a few of my novels and stories were not only inspired, but actually plotted, while I watched them perform. I take a notebook and pen with me, and when I get an idea, I write it down so I won’t forget. After the band formally dissolved following Jerry Garcia’s death, I attended shows by band members like Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, along with the occasional reunion tour, and have continued to get ideas from them. The most recent incidence of this happening was my novel Galaxy Blues; Part Four was almost entirely conceived during a Phil Lesh and Friends show in Hartford, Connecticut, three years ago.

I don’t know anyone else who gets their inspiration in quite the same manner. But it works for me.

AW: Do you know when you sit down to begin a piece, how long it will be: short story, novelette, novella, novel?

AS: I pretty much know, from the git-go, whether the story I’m going to write is going to be short or long, and if it’s the former whether it’ll be a short story or a novella (I don’t distinguish much between a short story and a novelette). It depends on the complexity of the idea, the setting, and if the plot is intricate. If the idea is big, the setting is large-scale, and the plot is intricate, it’s going to be a novel. If any of these factors are smaller, then it’ll be a short story or a novella. It’s that simple, really.

On occasion, I’ve taken an idea for a novel and reduced it to novella length, but in those instances I’ve almost always gone back later and expanded it again to become a novel. I did that with Labyrinth of Night, which was expanded from “Red Planet Blues”, and again with Chronospace, which was expanded from “`…Where Angels Fear to Tread.’” And the first two novels of the Coyote series, Coyote and Coyote Rising, are comprised of linked stories … I’ll get to why I did that later. For the most part, though, I know what the general length of the story will be almost immediately.

AW: How much time do you spend on research? Does it ever suck you in?

AS: Some stories or novels require more research than others, and a lot of that depends on how familiar I am with the subject matter and also the complexity of the story. But I rarely have a story that I don’t have to research one way or another. However, I like doing research. For me, that’s half the fun of writing … learning something I didn’t know before. And when the subject is interesting, I really start getting into it, to the point where I have to remind myself that I’ve got a novel to write.

Ninety percent of that research is reading everything on the subject that I can find, and fine-tuning my story as I go along. But written material can’t cover everything, so now and then I’ll do something that’ll give me a better idea of what I want to write about. I learned scuba diving in preparation for Oceanspace, for instance, and went to Germany to do research on the Hindenburg disaster for Chronospace. And I did a lot of hiking, canoeing and kayaking before and during the time I was writing the Coyote stories. That’s when doing my homework is a lot of fun.

AW: Which form do you enjoy writing more, novels or short stories?

AS: I don’t prefer one form over another, really. Both have inherent advantages and drawbacks. With novels, you have the ability to stretch out and tell a story in great detail and complexity … but since they necessarily take longer to write, I’m usually exhausted by the time I finish. Short stories and novellas aren’t as difficult and are more elegant, but you’re also confined by length. It’s the difference between a song and a symphony. When I’m into writing songs, I like doing them a great deal … but I also enjoy writing symphonies.

AW: Tell me about your most memorable book signing.

AS: To tell the truth, I’m really not that much into book signings. I do them out of necessity, and sometimes they can be fun, but on the whole I’d rather spend my time doing research or writing than promoting my work. Some writers enjoy the role of Science Fiction Author, but that’s their thing. It’s not mine.

Having said this, I think my favorite signing was the one where almost no one showed up. It was at a World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago, I think, and the autograph table had been tucked away in a corner where it couldn’t be easily found. So there was almost no one to bother Hal Clement and me while we spent the hour having a great conversation. Hal and I had met before, of course, but until then we’d never had much of a chance to talk. Now we had an hour to ourselves, and by the time it was over we’d become friends. I think we signed only a couple of books during that time, and neither of us cared.

AW: Have you ever abandoned a story or novel, never to return to it?

AS: Plenty of times. I’ve got about a half-dozen unfinished novels in my file cabinet, and about twice as many story fragments. No one will ever read The Gomorrah Encryption, which was to be the sequel to The Jericho Iteration, or an interstellar war novel called Slipknot, or a Near Space novel called The Mountains of the Moon. And by much the same token, I’ll probably never finish “Frank”, which was supposed to be about the adventures of Boris Karloff’s android replica in Hollywood, or … well, a lot of other stories that I left incomplete after five or ten pages.

I’ve been writing for most of my life, and in that time I’ve built a pretty good bullshit detector. I know when something is working well, and when it isn’t. And while I’m willing to struggle with a story or a novel to make it work, or even put it aside for a long time until I get a better idea of what I want to do with it, I’ve learned that, sometimes, I’ll get an idea that seemed good when it came to me, but in practice wasn’t so great after all. And when that happens, perhaps it’s better to let it die than to finish a story or a novel that might have been a stinker.

AW: Your stories which appeared in magazines such as Asimov's and Analog before they became parts of your books – did you write them with the intention of a later novel in mind? Did you write them individually?

AS: As I said earlier, I’ve occasionally taken an idea for a novel, removed some aspects of the plot, and turned it into a novella, and later gone back to expand them again to novel length. I’ve done this when I have a story that seems like it should be a novel, but I don’t know yet how to write it at that length. So I’ll write it as a 25,000-word novella, and later come back, when I have a better handle on what I’m doing, and expand it to a 100,000 word novel.

The first two Coyote novels, though, were something else entirely. Coyote went through a decade-long gestation period, during which I attempted twice to write it as a normal linear novel. But the story was much too complex for the traditional novel form, so I had to come up with a different way of doing this. Until then, I also had a problem with writing very long novels. Most of my previous books had been 100,000 words or less, and I figured that Coyote – or, as it was then called, Year of the Coyote -- would be longer than that.

I read and collect a lot of old SF, including magazines from the 30's and 40’s, and it was around this time that I re-read some classics – Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, and also Clifford Simak’s City – in their original forms as story cycles published in “Astounding.” And it occurred to me that this form, which had largely fallen out of use during the last few decades, might be my solution to the problem. So I proposed this to Gardner Dozois, who was then the editor of “Asimov’s”, and he agreed to go along with my idea, and so Coyote was first published as a series in his magazine, with Coyote Rising following a year or so later. Both cycles were extensively revised before publication as novels, though, so there’s considerable differences between the “Asimov’s” stories and their final versions as novels.

This approach was a means of solving a couple of problems, and since it was a success, I continued the mosaic-narrative format in the subsequent books of the series. It’s not the usual way a novel is written these days … but it worked, and that’s what counts.

AW: The Coyote books are in a frontier setting with similarities to the Wild West. Did you grow up watching westerns or reading them?

AS: The Coyote series is a shadow-text, or thematic retelling, of American history, with the first three novels about the settlement of a frontier. However, the Old West wasn’t my source of inspiration. Instead, I was thinking more about the first American frontier: New England, where I live now, and the South, where I was born and raised. If you look at what was going on in those regions during the 1600’s and 1700’s – the exploration of the New World, the gradual expansion of early settlements, the political conflicts between Europe and its colonies – then you’ll see where the parallels lie.

I can see where this misunderstanding comes from. Nathanial Philbrick, a historian whose books about early America have been one of my sources of inspiration, points out that many people have a sketchy idea of American history. First Columbus came here, and nothing much happened after that until the Revolution, and when that was over everyone rode out west to become cowboys. So when readers see that I’m writing about a frontier, they automatically think I’m writing about Dodge City, and not about Plymouth.

AW: Tell me about your current projects.

AS: I turned in Coyote Destiny a couple of months ago, and at this time I believe that it will be the final novel of the series. I’ve said everything that needs to be said, and if I go any further I may repeat myself. So I’m stopping now, just as I said about 12 years ago when I finished work on the Near Space series.

However, I may well continue writing novels and stories set in the same universe, as I did with Spindrift and Galaxy Blues (which are often erroneously identified as Coyote novels: they’re not). I recently had a story like this published in an anthology, Federations, called “The Other Side of Jordan”, which has lead me to think in that direction. So while I’ve finished writing about Coyote itself, I’m looking forward to writing more about the human exploration of the galaxy.

AW: What's the next milestone you're shooting for as a writer?

AS: To write my next novel. Every one presents a different challenge. My first novel was a milestone, and my seventeenth will be, too.

Learn more about Allen Steele at

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