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The Allen Steele Interview

Allen Steele before our imminent arrest

The QM staff met Allen Steele at Boskone 37, and he seemed like a great guy. Allen recently agreed to be interviewed at Quantum Muse.

In return for his gracious acceptance of our request, we stepped away from the stall door and allowed him to leave the Men's room.

We now present that interview in its entirety.

QM: You've been a science fiction writer for quite a few years now. Does your family still hope you'll grow up and get a real job?

AS: No, my wife is quite happy with the job I have now ... which requires as much effort as when I worked as a full-time journalist. I was a newspaper reporter for several years in the `80s until I went freelance, and although I enjoyed the newsgathering and writing aspects of the job, I hated everything else: the long hours, poverty-level wages, the constant pressure of deadlines, and so forth. So when I sold my first novel, I took the opportunity to bail out. That was fourteen years ago, and since then no one has suggested that I get a so-called "real job," save for a senile in-law who once offered me a sales job at his plumbing supply company.

QM: Do you have a favorite place to write?

AS: Besides my office, you mean? It's really quite comfortable, with big windows that overlook the mountainside on which we live. But once a year I take a vacation to Tennessee, where I visit my mother at her summer cottage in Smithville. The house has a screened-in back porch, and in the evenings I sit out there with an oil lamp and write a short story or a chapter of a novel in long-hand.

QM: Some SF writers also work in other genres. Are you contemplating such a move yourself as a way of making real money?

AS: I've written some suspense fiction, one of which ("Doblin's Lecture") was included in the 1997 edition of THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES, but I didn't do this to make money so much as because I wanted to do write something besides SF. I've been researching a spy novel which I'll get around to writing sooner or later, but again, the purpose wouldn't be to make more money ... in fact, I've been assured that I'll probably earn less ... than it would be to stretch myself a little. It's probably unfashionable to say this, but I like writing SF, and have no real desire to leave the genre.

QM: Who influenced your writing?

AS: As I recall, my first major influence, at least in terms of an author whose work made me want to write stories of my own, was Ray Bradbury. I read everything of his I could get my hands on, and learning that he'd sold his first story when he was still a teenager was encouraging when I began sending out my first stories at nearly the same age. Harlan Ellison's work was my next major influence, for both better and worse -- better because emulating his range was beneficial to my development, worse because I spent years trying to copy his style, which is a fool's errand. But I think rediscovering the works of Robert Heinlein while I was in my `20s and trying to find a voice of my own was a major breakthrough, because he had such a clean, straightforward style ... almost like Hemingway's, whom I was also reading at the time ... and also because his early subject matter was much the same as those I was tackling at the time. Yet I've worked hard to develop a style which isn't like Heinlein's, and that has paid off.

Today, I'm influenced not so much by other SF writers as I am by authors outside the genre; John LeCarre' is someone to whom I pay attention, along with my old college professor, Russell Banks. Donald Westlake and John D MacDonald are other writers I've studied lately. Yet I read more nonfiction than fiction, and since my style tends to be journalistic, it makes sense that my muse carries a press card.

QM: What's your advice to beginning writers?

AS: Don't imitate. I occasionally instruct writing workshops, and sometimes read the slush pile for a quarterly SF magazine, and much of what I see is the same ol' thing ... bad knock-offs of space operas. There's a certain formula that repeats itself: heroic starship captain, beautiful heroine, huge starships, bad-guy aliens, good-guy aliens, space battle, etc. It seems if most novice writers are reading the same small handful of best-selling authors -- Weber, Feintuch, Bujold, McCaffery -- and seeing the same movies and TV shows -- Trek, Star Wars, "Space: Above and Beyond", "Starship Troopers," etc. -- and diligently copying their moves because they feel that this is a way to get themselves into print.

In my experience, though, editors don't want to see the same thing rehashed again and again, and neither do readers. If you want to be a successful SF writer -- or at least one who doesn't produce one novel which some publisher buys just to fill out the midlist -- then you've got to work harder and dig deeper. Imitation isn't the highest form of flattery ... it's just another form of shoplifting. So read more, learn more, get out in the real world and experience more ... and give all those damn "Trek" novels on your shelf to the Salvation Army.

QM: Where do you see the SF world headed?

AS: The genre is clearly undergoing a period of change, with both positive and negative effects. On the positive side, SF is finally becoming accepted as part of mainstream culture -- in fact, some say that it's absorbing the mainstream. However, by the same token, it appears that as a result of this new popularity, much of SF is getting dumbed-down to the level of Hollywood action movies.

On the other hand, there's also some promising signs. After many years of steady decline, I see certain indications that readers are paying more attention to short fiction ... largely, I think, because there's so many mediocre novels being published, while the number of good short stories is proportionately higher. There's a whole slew of new writers coming up, particularly from England and Australia. What's called "hard SF" -- I have some troubles with that term, particularly as it's been defined -- is no longer a forgotten backwater, but has reemerged as the genre's center.

So I think the genre, on the whole, is in pretty good shape, albeit with some misgivings about this matter or that.

QM: Does most of the SF world take itself too seriously or not seriously enough?

AS: There's always been something of a tug-of-war in this genre between high literary aspirations and frivolity. It goes all the way back to the `30s, when at one end of the spectrum there was the speculative fiction of Olaf Stapledon, Aldous Huxley, and H.G. Wells, while at the other end there were Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and "Thrilling Wonder Stories." When you stop to examine it, though, it's this friction which has given the genre much of its staying power. The authors who have been most successful are those who treat their work seriously while remaining conscious of the fact that, after all, SF is a form of popular literature.

I'm reluctant to see SF put on a pedestal as high art, because once that happens, it begins to lose some of its creative force ... that's what happened to the literary mainstream during the late 20th century, and only now is it beginning to recover. But at the same time, I don't want to see SF go the way of the western genre, which went into decline when it began to imitate formula TV shows like "Gunsmoke" and "Bonanza."

QM: If you had 20 million dollars, would you spend it on a trip to the space station, wine, women, and song, or would you just waste it?

AS: Although I'd be tempted to buy a ride on a Soyuz to Alpha Station, I tend to be more practical than that. Actually, if I had that sort of loot, I'd probably purchase the trademarks to "Astounding" and "Unknown," then start my own SF and fantasy magazines. I've been a full-time SF writer for about twelve years now ... it would be fun to switch hats and become an editor and publisher.

QM: Your new book, CHRONOSPACE, is a time travel piece that ties into the UFO phenomena. Did you ever see a UFO? Did you ever travel through time?

AS: Umm ... let me see if I follow this line of reasoning. Kim Stanley Robinson has written a massive trilogy about the colonization of Mars, so therefore he must have visited Mars, right? Isaac Asimov spent much of his career writing about robots, so of course he must have owned one. And every author who has ever written about first-contact with aliens must have met an extraterrestrial.

CHRONOSPACE is a novel. It's fiction. Please don't look for something in it that isn't there.

QM: Do you go to high school reunions just to flaunt the fact that you're a SF writer and way cooler than your classmates?

AS: Actually, I haven't been to a class reunion in nearly 20 years, nor do I have much intention of doing so any time soon. And I'd have trouble showing up some of my classmates. One girl in my class married Andrew Sorkin, the TV producer, and another girl who was an underclassman went on to become a country music star ... her name is Pam Tillis. But it might be fun to see the jock who used to push me around ... that last time I heard, he's pumping gas somewhere in Louisiana.

QM: Is there any truth to the rumors of wild sexual experimentation? Any pointers?

AS: Considering that I'm straight and have been happily married for the last fourteen years to the same woman I've known for twenty years, I think you can consider any such rumors, even if they exist, to be highly exaggerated. And even if they aren't, it's nobody's business but mine, thank you.

QM: How would you describe your agreeing to be interviewed by Quantum Muse: (a.) a kindness to a struggling on-line publication, (b.) the low point of a night of binge drinking, (c.) Quantum Muse who? I thought this was "Playboy".

AS: How about (d.) a productive way of avoiding housework.

QM: Would you mind buying the next round?

AS: Yes. In fact, I figure you guys owe me a case of beer for this!

QM: Or, we could just suggest that our readers both go buy all of Allen's books! Here is a comprehensive list:

NOVELS:
Orbital Decay
Clarke County, Space
Lunar Descent
Labyrinth of Night : A Novel of Mars
The Jericho Iteration
The Tranquillity Alternative
A King of Infinite Space
Oceanspace
Chronospace

COLLECTIONS:
Rude Astronauts : Real and Imagined...
All-American Alien Boy
Sex and Violence in Zero-G

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