Jeanne Cavelos is a writer, editor, scientist, and teacher. She began her professional life as an astrophysicist and mathematician, teaching astronomy at Michigan State University and Cornell University, and working in the Astronaut Training Division at NASA's Johnson Space Center.
Her love of science fiction led me to earn my MFA in creative writing. She moved into a career in publishing, becoming a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where She created and launched the Abyss imprint of psychological horror, for which she won the World Fantasy Award, and the Cutting Edge imprint of literary fiction. She also ran the science fiction/fantasy publishing program. In addition, She edited a wide range of fiction and nonfiction. She worked with such authors as William F. Nolan, Robert Anton Wilson, Dennis Etchison, Joan Vinge, Tanith Lee, Kathe Koja, Poppy Z. Brite, J.M. Dillard, David Wingrove, Barry Gifford, Patrick McCabe, Syd Field, Phil Farrand, and Peter Dickinson. In Her eight years in New York publishing, she edited numerous award-winning and best-selling authors and gained a reputation for discovering and nurturing new writers.
She has authored a number of Novels and non-fiction books.
She created and serve as director of Odyssey, an annual six-week summer writing workshop for writers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror held at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. Odyssey is a place where developing writers can focus on their craft and receive detailed, in-depth feedback on their work. Guest lecturers have included George R. R. Martin, Harlan Ellison, Terry Brooks, Ben Bova, Jane Yolen, and Dan Simmons. During the school year, She am an English lecturer at Saint Anselm College, where she teach writing and literature.
The Application deadline for this year's Odyseey writer's Workshop is April 8th. Learn more at www.odysseyworkshop.org
Jeanne Cavelos, thank you for meeting with us.
You’re welcome. I’m happy to be here.
You started out, not as a science fiction writer, but as a scientist?
Yes I studied astrophysics in college and grad school, and I worked at NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
My career goal was to become an astronaut and boldly go where no man has gone before. And, my career model was Charlton Heston in “Planet of the Apes.” I just thought, That’s what I want to do, when I saw him. In “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” he blew up the entire planet and killed everyone. So, perhaps I was somewhat of an odd child but that seemed like an appealing job to me. (laughter)
So, that’s where I started out. I was always fascinated with science but I kind of realized that my interest was more in stories that I could create with scientific ideas rather than in researching a narrow area of science.
Were you actually in the astronaut-training program?
I worked in the astronaut-training program not as an astronaut but as a trainer. I’d come up with ways to train the astronauts for different situations that might arise when they are out in space.
Did You get to go into the water tank?
No, I did not go into the water tank nor on the vomit comet, (laughter) but I did see that stuff and work with that stuff.
One of the things I did there was I came up with a training program for the astronauts to learn the constellations and star positions so that if the navigational system on the shuttle went out they could manually align to different stars and find out where they were and figure out how to get home. So, if you ever hear that they get lost, then that would be my fault. (laughter)
That’s kind of like going back to the old sailing days with sextant and charts.
How did you transition from that into writing?
I’ve been writing all my life. In second grade I won a pumpkin in a Halloween writing contest. (laughter) And, all through grad school instead of doing my physics homework I was writing this novel, a civil war era novel about telepaths. (laughter) Of course it was very commercial because we all know that psychic westerns are hot sellers. (laughter)
That’s what I was doing with my time. So, gradually I realized that what I really loved was writing and that science fiction was one of my big areas of interest. I loved reading it growing up. And, that what really captured my mind about science was thinking about how it would change us. Or how we would use it or what it would reveal about us. Slowly it dawned upon me that that’s what science fiction does.
At that point I realized that maybe I needed to go study how to write because I had written this entire eight hundred and eleven-page psychic western which was horribly horrible. I had taken a couple of writing classes in college but I hadn’t really focused on it. So I went back to school and got my master’s in creative writing. Then, during that process wrote another novel, a science fiction novel.
And then I thought, well, having an MFA in creative writing doesn’t qualify you for a whole lot of careers. (laughter) So I thought, well, I will see if I can get into publishing as my day job and learn how to get published from the inside and keep writing at night.
Yeah, that’s right. You actually won the world fantasy award for editing. Is that right?
Yep, I started out at the bottom as an editorial assistant in the Double Day religion department. They didn’t really know a lot about me (laughter) but I think I was a competent assistant.
Were you one of those people who had to read the slush pile?
Yes, I read the slush pile. I read many a manuscript in purple magic marker. These were religious manuscripts and the ones in purple magic were really strange but it was a great learning experience. After about a year I was able to transfer within Bantam Doubleday/Dell from Double Day to Dell and into a position in the regular editorial department where I worked with an editor who did non-fiction. Gradually from there somehow the word got around Dell that I was the girl who liked weird stuff and so they started passing them to me. None of them liked horror science fiction or fantasy so when anything like that came in they would just pass it to me because I was the only one who could understand it, apparently, or like it. Gradually I started accumulating these things and getting promoted and it went from there.
Do you miss that?
I miss parts of that a lot, yes. First of all I started this imprint called “Abyss” which published horror which I kind of saved from Dell because Dell had done such a horrible job with horror that they were ready to quit publishing it. I convinced them to start a new program with it. So that was very exciting and Horror and Science Fiction and Fantasy are things that I love and getting a publisher to make a commitment to that was great. Finding authors out of the slush pile and being so excited about their work and convincing my boss, yes, we should publish this author. I love doing that. And the thing that I love doing the most was working with the writers helping them to improve their manuscripts. That was something that I really enjoyed a lot.
Things that I didn’t love about the job were the constant meetings, the constant phone calls; basically you have to convince everybody in the company that this book that you’re publishing is good. You have to be the cheerleader and you have to convince them to put a little bit of their time and energy toward making that book a success.
Every good editor has to do that and that was very hard because most of the people in the company didn’t care about horror, fantasy or science fiction. So kind of fighting that fight for every book trying to get publicity attention, marketing money, and things like that was not my favorite thing. I did it and I think I did it pretty well because I got attention for the books but it was hard. I would have rather just stayed in my office and edited manuscripts and talked to authors all day but that’s a tiny part of the job.
Now you’ve transitioned from working in the publishing world to being an author yourself.
Well, I started out in publishing. I was a very bad assistant I guess. Earlier in the interview I said I was good but now that I think about it I was probably pretty bad. I left every day at 5:00 pm. I went home, I had my box of Donettes with the confectioner’s sugar and my Diet Coke. I’d sit at my computer and I’d write until bedtime, working on my novel. I was not very dedicated at that time to the job. I was in the job until I became “rich and famous” (laughter) (that was back in my naïve days).
So how do you like being “rich and famous”?
It’s wonderful! The Jacuzzi, massages by Elijah Wood every day—it’s wonderful.
So anyways, you transitioned to being a writer.
So gradually, when I was in publishing I got promoted and promoted and promoted and I had to bring more work home. I could not leave at 5:00 and when I did leave, I brought home a stack of manuscripts some of which had to be edited, some of which were submissions that had to be read and evaluated. My time for writing shrank, and shrank, and shrank.
I read this article in “Publisher’s Weekly” one day. It was about an editor retiring and he said, “Now I’ll finally have time to write that novel I’ve always wanted to write”
I knew that would be me if I didn’t get out of the business. I had lost my time for writing and if I wanted to do that seriously I had to leave publishing and make the time. So I decided I would because writing was very important to me and I moved up to New Hampshire, became a part time instructor at St. Anselms college where I teach writing and then I also spent most of the rest of my time writing, at least initially. I wrote a bunch of books. But I also had the idea that I wanted to be able to work with writers the way I had as an editor because I did love that and while I wanted out of the rat race I still wanted to have that experience. That’s why I started the Odyssey writing workshops so that I could continue to work with writers. That’s a six-week program each summer. I have writers of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror come and I get to work intensely with them over that period and see them improve and then I even continue to read their work after that.
Is there a website for that?
Have you ever come up with a weekend program as opposed to the six-week? (laughter)Because, most people like me who work for a living can’t take six weeks off at a time.
I’ve heard that a lot and I’ve thought about it and 6 weeks is great because then I can make a big difference in a writer’s skill level and I can push them down the path toward becoming the best writer they can be—pretty significant distance. I’ve thought about doing a weekend workshops and shorter workshops, it’s a lot of work just to set up the logistics of an in-person workshop so what I decided to do instead of that was to start offering some online classes that would allow people who can’t come to the 6 week workshops to have some method of learning and improving and having a class focused on the specific genres of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror and have other students who are all into those genres.
So that you don’t have the experience of people reading and saying, “I just don’t get it!”
Which is a lot of what happens when I was getting my Masters in creative writing. I was writing Science Fiction and they were all writing Literary Fiction. They’d try to understand but they didn’t really. I learned a lot about things like style, but I didn’t learn a lot about how to write a good science fiction novel.
The website for your classes, is that the same as the Odyssey workshop?
Yep, just click on 'online classes.'
What was your first book?
The first book I published was “The Shadow Within” which was a “Babylon 5” novel.
Did you actually meet with Michael Straczynski? (Joe, I guess).
I didn’t meet with him. It’s kind of a weird story how this came about so I’ll tell you.
I had been editing the “Babylon 5” novels at Dell as an editor. I was the one who watched the series when it first came out, read about how it was one continuous story like a giant Russian novel and I thought this is so cool. I would love to see other novels, since it is such a big arcing story that could maybe be built off of this. So I thought it would be great to do some novels connected to the series. So I called Joe and he was all for the idea. I convinced my boss who bought a bunch of “Babylon 5” novels and then I had to go find writers to write them.
So that had been going on when I left and they had me continue to freelance edit the novels after I left because no one else watched the show. After I had left and I was in New Hampshire I got a call from the woman at Warner Brothers who handled these novel rights who I had dealt with before and she said, “you know, it’s really tough to find very good writers to write these books because we don’t have a big budget to pay them and I really think you should write one.”
I said, “I’m sorry; I’m busy writing the great American novel (laughter) I don’t write tie-ins.”
And she said, “I think you’d write a really great Babylon 5 novel.”
And I said, “well, how do you know? You’ve only seen my editing.”
And she said, “I have a feeling about people and sometimes I tell them things and it changes their lives.”
And I thought this woman is a flake and I said, “thank you very much I’m glad you think I’d do a great job but I’m not interested.”
So then after that conversation it was like a horrible little seed she’d planted in my mind, you know, I loved the series. I just had never thought of doing that myself and it kept growing and growing and I thought if I were to write a Babylon 5 novel of course it would be brilliant but what would it be about?
And so I started thinking what it would be about and then I thought, well it would be about something really scary because I love scary. I love the horror and Science Fiction mixed together. So it would be about Anna Sheridan and what happened to her when she awoke the shadows or she met the shadows or Morden how did he become the way he was. So all the sudden I had this whole idea. I wrote it down. I had this little synopsis and so I sent it to them. They loved it and they said, “do it”
So that’s how my first novel came to be.
During the process of writing it I had a couple of phone calls with Joe to check facts and ask permission to do various things. He had okayed my synopsis and then I actually wrote a more detailed outline and sent that to him and he okayed that, I had some questions come up when I was writing about Science issues and character issues, like I wanted to give Morden a first name. If I’m writing about him before he becomes evil and he’s a friend of Anna Sheridan and they’re all on this archeological mission together they’re going to call each other by their first names. So I need to have his first name. So I said, “Joe what’s his first name?”
He said, “I never thought of Morden as having a first name.”
And I said, “could I come up with one then?” (laughter)
“I’m not really comfortable with that; no I don’t feel like I want him to have a first name.” (laughter)
It was so crazy! Okay then, so I had to come up with this whole thing where they all call each other by their last name (laughter) because he had no first name that I could put in the story.
That was one of the very few things that he did not go along with what I wanted. He is very nice and very easy to work with.
Moving away from Babylon 5, what else have you written?
I have a couple of non-fiction books out: The science of the X-Files and The Science of Star Wars. Those were great because I was able to use my science background and explore some really weird areas of science that I otherwise wouldn’t have had the time for. Things that always fascinated me.
And then I got to interview the top scientists in these various fields and get their take on it. That was just great fun because you never know how they’re going to react when you ask them, “so could we make human blood by adding alien DNA?”
You have to sort of work up to those questions (laughs) in the interview by asking some preliminary questions.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m writing a near future thriller called “Fatal Spiral” which is about cloning and genetics.
It’s very dumb, I would just like to advise anyone who is listening or reading this interview, to write something set in the near future unless it’s a short short because the future is here before you can get the book published. Things are happening so fast now, changes are happening so fast that the technology that exists today is completely different that exists when I started this novel. It’s set twenty years in the future and to make it believable as being twenty years in the future I have to keep upgrading the technology in the book so that it’s not what we have today.
What scares you most about the future?
So hard to choose! Wow, pretty much everything scares me but I think the thing that scares me the most, I’m not sure if I’m saying it in the right words but, that we’re losing our individuality, or we’re losing solitude and individual creativity. Things seem to becoming more and more communal. People want to write stories together, they want to create communities on the internet they want to do things as groups.
I’m not anti-social! Honestly! And I really don’t hate humanity in its entirety but I feel like nobody’s alone anymore and there’s no solitude. Because, if you’re alone you’re just messaging somebody else, you’re texting somebody else you’re on the cell phone to somebody else. You walk around this campus that’s all you see. No longer do people walk and think from one class to another class. They’re walking while they’re talking on their cell phones so there’s not the sense of being alone and thinking and coming up with your own unique perspective on things.
It’s more about doing things communally and I guess there’s a value to that. I’m certain there is. But I feel there’s a big value to doing things alone. Because then you can come up with things that are really different that nobody else would have thought of. I guess I’m scared that that may be going by the wayside.