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A Million Words To Make A Writer
interviewed by Cristopher Hennessey-DeRose
The legendary work of Jerry Pournelle goes beyond what many contemporary SF authors may consider realistic: bestsellers like Lucifer's Hammer, Starswarm, and The Mote In God's Eye redefined the genre and helped genre authors be taken a bit more seriously than they had been in the past. Along with collaborator Larry Niven, he penned one of the most anticipated sequels in the world of written speculative fiction: The Gripping Hand.
Pournelle has also authored several comprehensive articles regarding
the application of technology to various forms of lifestyle and is a believer in the
use of technology to assist rather than destroy fundamental things like humanity and
nature. While known mainly as a SF author, Pournelle has also earned his Bachelors in
Psychology and Mathematics, his Masters in Experimental Statistics and Systems Engineering,
and his Doctorates in Psychology and Political Science all from the University of Washington.
He took time out from writing the sequel to his and Larry Niven's latest novel, The Burning City to talk about writing, science fiction, and whatever else came up.
What sort of goals should the beginning SF writer have in mind?
I'll tell any beginning writer: Write a lot. Send it to somebody who'll buy it. It's pointless to send it to me. I can't buy it if I like it. Now, you know, there's people who ask, "How do you get an agent?" Well, that's a pretty good question, and I don't have an answer to it, I must say. I never had a problem, because I was sufficiently useful to Mr Heinlein as a science fact source that when I wrote fiction, I could call in a favour and ask him "Will you read it?" which is a big favour. A lot of junior writers don't understand how big a favour that is. And Robert read my work and he liked it enough that he sent it to his agent, and I've had the same agent ever since. I didn't have any struggles breaking into the field, but you've got to remember, I had probably written a million words of non-fiction before some of that was of government reports and intelligence appreciations and strategy evaluations and technical proposals, but I had written a lot, so I knew how to write a sentence.
There are a number of major adventure and so-called mainstream writers who made their reputations, and now you see stories that they wrote that were un-sellable 20 years ago. The more you see on the market, you can tell why, can't you? They wouldn't have sold if it wasn't by Big Name So-and-So, and I don't think you're doing the reader any favour by getting them - by bullying them into reading something that you couldn't when nobody knew who you were.
Do you think that has to do with the estate of a given writer?
Yeah, sure, there's a lot of money in these things, and more and more all the time. When you get to be my age, I mean, hell, I did burn my trunk. Because I had the old unsold novels, and I could probably try to haul them out and refurbish them, there's a good bit of money in it, and I'm 70 years old, and it's a lot of work writing a novel, if I had a whole novel I could probably get 150- to 250,000 dollars for it, even an old, beat-up piece of nothing nowadays. Or turn it into a movie script.
Do you have any interest in going back and fixing up unpublished works?
I couldn't if I wanted to; I threw them all out. I thought at the time that if these things don't sell now, I don't see any reason why it would in the future, and I'd see why it wouldn't sell. [Writing] takes a lot of work, and there are no secrets to it and going to writer's clubs don't do you a bit of good, in my opinion.
Following that, what is the hardest part of writing SF for a living?
I'll put it this way, Randall Garrett used to have a rule, and he said no professional writer he knew ever got anything by taking classes. And I know of no exceptions to that rule to this day. Larry Niven took the famous Writer's Course, but he never passed it and in the middle of it, he started selling, so he just dropped it. You know damn well he would have sold anyway. He didn't learn anything from it. Maybe he got enough confidence to keep going. If that's what it takes to keep you finishing stuff, maybe that's what it takes, but most of these writer's support groups and writers' clubs and workshops and the rest of it. It's just lazy. Making you feel like a writer without having to write anything. There are a few of them that are worth something but they almost all have to do with business.
What responsibility does a SF writer have, and has such a thing changed since you first started writing?
We sing for our supper. If that's what you're after, then the song ought to be good enough to be worth the supper. I live pretty good off of selling words. I didn't build this house. You see what I'm getting at. So my obligation is to the people who buy my books is to make sure they get their money's worth. Now, literary writers I guess have different stories and different answers to those questions, but I'm not one of them, so I don't know.
How did your work with Larry Niven affect your collaboration with S.M. Stirling?
We don't understand each other as well [as Niven and I do]. The trouble is Steve wants his villains to win. I mean, try writing a novel in which Hitler wins and see how many copies you sell. Isn't that what the theme of The Producers is about? There're going to try to write the worst play that they can imagine so that'll it'll definitely flop, so let's do 'Springtime For Hitler.' You can't have the villains win and you can't make them too powerful. People may read that kind of story, but they won't read it very often. I mean, 1984, you wouldn't keep reading many of those, would you? But then on the other hand, Orwell wouldn't have written many of them. He did write Animal Farm and then topped it off with 1984. But you notice he didn't do it often even then, and he was not really an entertainer and wasn't intending to be an entertainer.
Would you consider him to be on the literary side of the field?
Yeah, well. You know, I mean he was an essayist who put an essay into a damn good novel form is what it amounted to. Aldous Huxley's a little that way. Very few people read Huxley in the same way they read other novels. You do not read an Aldous Huxley novel, whether it's Point Counterpoint, or... you might read Antic Hay as a kind of an entertainment, but even then it grates after a while. And you certainly don't read Brave New World as an entertainment. Now, I don't mean entertainments can't have messages, but in my judgement, as I used to say about Burning City, "yeah, it is a sort of a novel of social commentary, but fortunately, the characters don't know it." As long as the characters don't know they're in a social drama, you can get away with a lot of stuff. As soon as the characters realize that they are in fact archetypes... you see what I'm getting at. And I don't write that. Very few people can bring that off. How many copies did 1984 sell when it first came out? 1984 is one of those weird books that kept selling a few more every year, you know? And it's always stayed in print. Unlike Joseph Conrad, who when he sold stuff, he told stories, and people bought them but for stories, and only later did they realise there was more to Lord Jim than just a pretty good adventure story in the South Seas.
Do you think his characters knew they were archetypes?
No. But then, Conrad was a storyteller, like me. If you want to compare me to somebody, Robert Louis Stevenson comes close. I don't think of him as a lightweight, but he would never have called himself a literary writer. He was a storyteller, an adventurer, and that's what I think I do. I try to be Sir Walter Scott, there's another one. Scott wanted to make a living at writing, did for a long time. And yeah, he had stories to tell, he had messages in his stories I have messages in mine, for god's sake, but the characters don't know that. Falkenburg knows he's a messenger, but he's got a different purpose in life. He's not just a messenger; he's also a teacher. He's got to teach his junior officers why they're killing people in addition to how. So I can get away with Falkenburg, but I couldn't have when I first started it, you see what I mean. He had to establish his reputation as being a guy whose advice was worth taking before I could let him give advice. The closest I ever came to preaching was in that scene in Prince Of Mercenaries in the helicopter when Falkenburg is lecturing to the young prince who says "I don't do this very often, but then you don't very often get a future king as a captive audience, either."
Why was there a long delay in writing the sequel to The Mote In God's Eye, and what motivated you and Larry Niven to do it?
It took some 20-odd years before there was any sequel to it was because we couldn't think of a sequel to it. Then one day, Niven came in and said, 'The Gripping Hand! Mr Niven says "The Gripping Hand!" And I said, "What?", and he started telling me the novella that begins that thing, and that sounded like such a good story that we decided to sit down and write it and when we did, it went on from there and I think it's a good story. It turns out that the society we constructed for the Moties in the first book had nothing to do whatsoever to do with anything we saw in the second book coming. It looked a lot like Arabia before the prophet. And we had an Arab nationalist in the first book that fits in just beautifully in the second one, and it would be one guy in the world who could have actually understood the Motie society because it did look just like Arabia before the prophet.
How has promotion changed?
I used to go up to San Francisco to be on those them morning shows up there probably every month. And there was one in San Diego, that was on late at night and it was Long John What's-His-Name [Nebel] in New York. It was an all-night radio show and it was worth going to be on it. And you'd go there and you'd sit there from eleven o'clock 'til five in the morning just talking about your books and everything. I asked my agent the first time he asked me to do it, and he said, "A lot of insomniacs read books, Jerry." I don't know how you do it today. I don't know where you get publicity from today. Again, I'm well enough known, I get invited to be keynote speaker at conventions and things, but... how do you get there? And I don't know.
What do you do to unwind?
What do you like to play?
I like online games. I like Everquest and Dark Age Of Camelot.
Are those historical?
Dark Age Of Camelot is historical, Everquest is straight fantasy.
Will we be seeing a sequel to Starswarm?
I don't know. I can easily exploit that story. I'm not sure that's what I want to do. Right now, my present plans are to finish a couple works that have been hanging around too long and get them done. Then I'll sit down and start thinking of what I want to do next.
Anything you'd care to add?
Psychic income is the one damn thing they can't take away from you in taxes, and I have deductably built myself a fairly comfortable place to live, so... it's all deductible, too. Been audited, even.
Sure, but you know, every bit of this, I can prove is somehow relevant to the way I make a living.
Yes, it is.
(Laughs) And it's 45 percent of the house in square feet. (Giggles). So 45 percent of my house is deductible. So that's what I do.
Jerry, thank you for your time.
A SELECTED JERRY POURNELLE BIBLIOGRAPHY:
Birth Of Fire (1976)
Prince Of Mercenaries (1989)
Falkenberg's Legion (1990)
The Mercenary (1977)
A Step Farther Out (1980)
WITH LARRY NIVEN:
The Mote In God's Eye (1974)
Lucifer's Hammer (1977)
The Gripping Hand (1993)
The Burning City (2000)
WITH STEVEN BARNES AND LARRY NIVEN:
Beowulf's Children (1995)
WITH S.M. STIRLING:
The Prince (2002)
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