Jack Campbell (John G. Hemry)
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John G. Hemry is a retired US Navy officer and the author, under the pen name
Jack Campbell, of the New York Times national best-selling Lost Fleet series
(Dauntless, Fearless, Courageous, Valiant, Relentless, and Victorious). Next
up are two new follow-on series. The Lost Fleet – Beyond the Frontier follows
Geary as he and his companions cope with a post-war era which is far from
peaceful, and try to learn more about the Enigma race. The other series, The
Phoenix Stars, is set on a former enemy world in that universe. Under his own
name, John is also the author of the JAG in Space series and the Stark’s War
series. His short fiction has appeared in places as varied as the last Chicks
in Chainmail anthology (Turn the Other Chick) and Analog magazine (which
published his Nebula Award-nominated story Small Moments in Time as well as
most recently Betty Knox and Dictionary Jones in the Mystery of the Missing
Teenage Anachronisms in the March 2011 issue). His humorous short story As
You Know Bob was selected for Year’s Best SF 13. John’s nonfiction has
appeared in Analog and Artemis magazines as well as BenBella books on
Charmed, Star Wars, and Superman, and in the Legion of Superheroes anthology
Teenagers from the Future. John had the opportunity to live on Midway Island
for a while during the 1960s, then later attended the US Naval Academy. He
served in a variety of jobs including gunnery officer and navigator on a
destroyer, with an amphibious squadron, and at the Navy’s anti-terrorism
center. After retiring from the US Navy and settling in Maryland, John began
writing. He lives with his long-suffering wife (the incomparable S) and three
great kids. His daughter and two sons are diagnosed on the autistic spectrum.
When did you realize you wanted to write?
I know I first actually wrote a few things when I was in high school. As best
I recall, I’d been thinking about writing for years before that. It’s
probably true that the first time I realized people wrote the books I loved I
decided I wanted to be able to do that.
If you didn't become an author, what would you be doing now?
Well, what I did first was become a officer in the US Navy. I drove ships and
did a lot of other things. Invaluable experiences in many different areas
(not that I’d want to relive some of those experiences). When I retired, I
had a choice of finding a job in one of those areas, but it seemed a good time
to try writing, and my wife strongly encouraged me to give it a shot before
committing to another full-time job. So, if not writing, I’d probably be
working for some government organization known by its initials and wouldn’t be
able to tell you anything about it.
The space battles in the Lost Fleet books stand out for their realism.
How much of the way you depict battles comes from your real-life experience
in the Navy, and how much comes from other sources?
A great deal of the way the battles are done comes from experience. Driving
ships requires learning the feel of massive objects with lots of momentum, and
it requires understanding relative motion. Other surface ships are only
moving on the same surface you are, but aircraft are moving above you and
submarines below. I work the battles out in my head using that, and using my
hands like an aviator to visualize the positions and aspects of different
forces. And of course the importance of logistics was heavily informed by my
experience. My fleet worries about food, fuel, spare parts and all the other
things that are critically important in the real world.
A big part of working out the battles was working out the nature of the ships
and weaponry, which in turn is intimately bound into the nature of the
operating environment (space). Three-dimensional, no boundaries, no up or
down except as defined by arbitrary human convention, very little hide behind,
huge distances, and so on. Put all that together and the operating platform
is a bit like a terrestrial ship and a bit like a terrestrial aircraft, but
also neither of those things. It has to move very fast to get anywhere, but
that means combat encounters are going to be blindingly short. Part of that
was based on my experiences with ships and aircraft, but a lot of it was based
on physics and looking at the “battlefield.”
Finally, I looked at history a bit. World War Two bomber boxes were something
I could build space fleet formations on, because those boxes were designed to
deal with a three-dimensional threat. Ancient battles using triremes and
other oar-powered vessels offer some lessons because space combat is also
likely to be ruled by momentum. The Age of Sail suggested some ideas, since
it seemed that in space (with forever to run away in) like during the Age of
Sail, there would usually need to be a mutual desire to fight, unless
something valuable needed to be protected. But I didn’t take any past battles
and put them into space. That wouldn’t work. The environment is just too
A big theme I see in your books is the dangers to freedom from many
sources. The Syndic worlds live under iron rule by a small elite. John
Geary is constantly tempted to lead a military coup against the elected
Alliance government. Aliens from without threaten the freedom and existence
of all humanity. Do you see a lot of parallels in today's world (OK, aside
from the aliens), or are we better off than the societies in your books?
There’s the old Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times.” We
certainly live in such times. But I also think the forms of dangers to
freedom are pretty constant. There’s the obvious external ones, but the US in
particular was founded with a fear of a standing army. One of the points I
try to get across is that very few of the threats to freedom think that are
doing something wrong. In their own ways, most convince themselves that this
one exception must be made just this once, and then maybe another time, and
then another, or that security means giving up certain freedoms, or that only
they know the right answers, or that anyone thinking otherwise is not just
opposed to them but also a traitor to what both believe in. The most
dangerous are those who believe that only they can lead the way, because
they’ll find ways to rationalize anything necessary to ensure they achieve or
remain in power.
What we do have to draw on are some very good examples, foremost among them
individuals like George Washington. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about
Washington was that he gave up power repeatedly, that he did not do the things
he could have made happen.
The biggest worry in the long run is the corrosive effect of endless war.
Wars are used to justify things which would never be accepted in time of
peace. In my Lost Fleet books, both the Alliance and the Syndicate Worlds
have been unable to win but refuse to stop. The stresses are tearing them
apart, but neither government can admit to losing. When the leaders stop
looking for solutions instead of slogans any country is going to face serious
You have two series of books coming out that are sequels to the Lost
Fleet series. What can you tell us about them?
The Beyond the Frontier series follows the “further adventures” of Black Jack
Geary and his companions in the post-Victorious universe. There’s a lot left
to do, in particular right off the bat the need to learn more about those
The Phoenix Stars series takes place at the same time, but is set in and
around a Syndicate Worlds star system. There, the (former) Syndicate leaders
have to figure out how to cope with post-Victorious situation in the Syndicate
Worlds, which is not a good situation at all. This series responds to
requests from readers to learn more about the Syndics, who they are as people
and what they believe. Needless to say, with the Empire crumbling, those
beliefs are facing serious challenges.
I'm just curious. Why did you decide to publish under the
pseudonym "Jack Campbell"?
Simply put, a pen name was forced upon me by the nature of modern book-
selling. The big bookstore chains use software to order books, and that
software bases its orders on the track record of an author. If the
software “decides” your track record isn’t good enough, it starts ordering
fewer copies of each new book. As fewer copies get ordered, fewer sell, and
before you know it you’re in what I call a sales death spiral. At that point,
publishers look at your low sales and aren’t thrilled about publishing more of
They way around the software is to acquire a new name. You’re a new author,
and therefore the software orders enough copies of your next book to give it a
chance in the marketplace. That’s what happened for me. Of course, once Jack
Campbell started selling lots of books, John Hemry had to keep writing under
that name. The funny thing is, you don’t have to keep the pen name/real name
relationship a secret. The only thing that needs to be fooled is the software.
How did you first get published? What did it feel like when that first
acceptance letter arrived?
The first story I actually sold was one called Agent Problems to Marion Zimmer
Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine. After having written a lot of stories and having
them rejected by all comers, I noticed that MZB’s advice to writers noted that
she didn’t like getting dragon stories. Well, fine, if you won’t buy my other
stuff, I’ll send you a dragon story about a writer who can’t get his stuff
And that felt seriously, seriously cool to receive that acceptance letter.
The money was pretty small, but it was a professional market and MZB herself
had chosen the story. Maybe I really could write…
However, that wasn’t my first published story. Not long after that, I sold
One Small Spin to Analog, which also felt spectacular, and Analog published
that story before MZB published Agent Problems.
Then, ready to build on my sales momentum…I didn’t sell anything else for over
a year. Reality check.
What advice would you give to sf writers just starting out?
Write what you know, write what you love, read a lot so you know how other
writers handle ideas, and write, write, write. Don’t just work on the same
thing, don’t confine yourself to one thing, try different things, and keep
working. The nature of writing is be rejected. A lot. You have to keep
trying. Writing, like most other things, improves with practice if you are
truly stretching yourself with each new thing.
It never hurts to go to local conventions where you can meet authors, listen
to them, and maybe even talk to them a bit. You can get some good advice for
free, and there also link up with other aspiring writers to form support
But, most all, keep writing.
How much of yourself do you see in "Black Jack" or any other character?
I’ll never be half the guy Black Jack is. He’s not me; he’s the guy I want to
work for. I wouldn’t mind being like Black Jack, mind you. One area where we
do overlap is our awareness of our flaws. One of Black Jack’s greatest
strengths is that he knows he’s not perfect. Since I’m married, my wife makes
sure I know the same thing. (And that’s important. Seriously. People close
to you offer encouragement and support, and also let you know when you’ve
screwed up. Without a wife you end up creating characters like Jar Jar Binks
and thinking it’s a good idea.)
I guess one other way that I’m like Black Jack is that he likes strong women,
even though that can make life a bit too interesting at times. The rest of
the times make up for that, though.
Sometimes my characters are composites of people I’ve met, and other times
they are pretty closely modeled on one person. The closest I’ve come to a
character like me is probably Paul Sinclair in the JAG in space series.
How soon do you think we might develop spacecraft similar to the ones
you depict in your books, or is it ever going to happen?
I think it may take a while, as in a couple of centuries perhaps. A lot of
predictions about space travel assumed that it would follow the trajectory of
heavier-than-air flight on Earth, going from the Wright Flyer to jet fighters
in four decades. But I think space travel may much more closely resemble the
path of ocean exploration on Earth. For a very long time, ships stuck near
coast-lines for safety. Long voyages across oceans were possible, but rare,
expensive and dangerous. It wasn’t until a multitude of factors developed far
enough that ships could make repeat voyages over long distances and do so in
an economically viable way. Columbus wasn’t the first European or Asian to
visit the Americas, but he was the first who mattered because with his ships
and advances in navigation and other things he could get home and then come
back again and again.
Someday we’ll reach that point in space. Right now we have to hug the coast
(Low-Earth Orbit) for the most part. We could go to Mars tomorrow, but it
would be prohibitively expensive, dangerous, and we probably wouldn’t go
back. Getting to the point were the technology will allow us to make that
voyage again and again, reliably, will likely take a while. We need to
discover a lot of things, and figure out how to apply that. We’ll get there.
It’ll just take a while.
What about the future excites or worries you the most?
The endless possibilities excite me. The whole Carousel of Progress “There’s
a Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrow” thing. There is so much left to learn, to
discover. We’ll never have all the answers, and they’ll always be something
new to build and to create.
What worries me the most? Well, we’re human. We do stupid things. Maybe
we’ll do something so stupid it denies that limitless tomorrow to us and our
descendents. Just as our abilities could give us the universe, our frailties
might deny us the universe. We have to transcend our faults.
But we’ve managed to do that in the past enough to get where we are. The gods left us hope, and hope, by definition, is about the future.
Is there anything you'd like to add that we didn't ask?
I’ll be at the
in Reno this year, and also attend
in Baltimore and
in Washington each year.
Everyone always asks about the covers of the Lost Fleet books. “Why don’t the
covers have anything to do with the story?” Because I don’t control the
covers. Marketing at the publisher has decreed that all Lost Fleet books
portray “the main character” carrying a big gun and wearing battle armor. So
that’s what the covers show.
The UK editions of the Lost Fleet books are coming out in the first few months
of this year, just prior to the release in the UK of Dreadnaught.
The Lost Fleet Series
The Lost Fleet Book 1: Dauntless -- Paperback Kindle Edition
The Lost Fleet Book 2: Fearless -- Paperback Kindle Edition
The Lost Fleet Book 3: Courageous -- Paperback Kindle Edition
The Lost Fleet Book 4: Valiant -- Paperback Kindle Edition
The Lost Fleet Book 5: Relentless -- Paperback Kindle Edition
The Lost Fleet Book 6: Victorious -- Paperback Kindle Edition
The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier
Dreadnought -- Hardcover, available for pre-order. Publication date: April 26, 2011
Visit the author's website by clicking here
Order The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnought by clicking here
toginnh - Great interview, thanks
Great interview... loved this series!
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