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Eric Flint
conducted by Laura Haywood-Cory
 
March 2011

Eric Flint is a popular star of SF and fantasy, with a striking flair for alternate history, as exemplified by his New York Times best-selling Ring of Fire series, the most popular alternate history series being published today. He has collaborated with numerous authors, including Mercedes Lackey and Dave Freer on the Shadow of the Lion series, and on the hard SF novels Boundary, and Threshold with Ryk Spoor A longtime labor union activist with a master's degree in history, he currently resides in northwest Indiana with his wife Lucille.

Eric sat down last week with Baen's Associate Editor Laura Haywood-Cory, and now here he is, answering questions on who his influences are, what he reads, advice for aspiring authors, thoughts on his own novels, the future of e-books, and more.

When I asked him which writers have had an impact on him and what he reads when he's not writing, he says that some of his influences include Akira Kurosawa, Robert Heinlein, Cervantes, Rabelais, Louis L'Amour, William Faulkner and Eric Ambler, and adds that he's learned something from a very large number of story-tellers.

If he's reading fiction, he generally reads F&SF with some mystery, westerns, historical fiction and so-called classic literature. He notes that he's more likely to read non-fiction, however, largely because he needs to.

Pondering time travel and its associated "what if" scenarios is a popular pastime, though when I asked Eric if he ever had any interest in being transported back to 1632, his immediate comeback was, "Not a cold chance in hell."

He elaborates, "As mythologies go, the 'good old days' ranks right up there with the world being carried on the back of an elephant carried by four turtles." If by some means he wound up being stuck in the past anyway, he says it would be hard to narrow down the choice of which historical figures he'd most like to converse with.

For someone unfamiliar with 1632, his novel that kicked off the wildly successful Ring of Fire series, this is how Eric would describe it: "A small modern coal mining town from West Virginia gets transplanted back into seventeenth century Germany in the middle of the most devastating war in European history and the town decides the only sensible way to deal with the situation is to launch the American revolution a century and a half ahead of schedule." 

Eric has collaborated with many authors throughout his career, and notes that the two most important factors, for him, in choosing potential work partners are that the person has writing strengths that complement his own, and his assessment that they can get along reasonably well.

I asked him how he met and proposed collaborations with Walter Hunt and Charles E. Gannon:

"I met Chuck at a convention, during the course of a panel we both served on. I liked him, a conversation followed, I discovered he needed work and had a number of areas of expertise he could bring to several 1632 projects and I proposed a collaboration. He in turn recommended Walter as someone who had developed an extensive knowledge of 17th century North American history in the course of researching a book of his own. I knew Walter, as it happened, having met him at several conventions in the past. I needed someone with that knowledge for a specific project and approached him.

When I asked if he could pick a favorite among his many novels, Eric gets philosophical, so to speak.

I probably enjoy writing the Joe's World series books the most. (Theones so far published are The Philosophical Strangler and Forward the Mage.)  Partly that's because I've been working on that project since I was 22 years old. That story has literally been with me for my whole adult life. Partly it's because it's pure fantasy–and surrealistic fantasy, at that–so I have to do no research whatsoever. Given that most of my projects require a lot of research, that's a lot of fun.

Picking one or more of his works to call "the best," however, is a more vexing question for him.

The problem is more complex than simply trying to choose between children. Fiction is a form of art, and art has two aspects to it: the creation, and the communication. An artist, or a writer, can't simply judge a work by his or her own understanding or appreciation of it. He or she also has to take into account the way readers react to it.  

Eric told me that the Joe's World books are his personal favorites, but goes on to add that his friend and collaborator David Weber thinks that Eric's first novel, Mother of Demons, is the best thing he's ever written. He adds that in contrast, his wife thinks it's a toss-up between Mother of Demons and the Trail of Glory series (1812: The Rivers of War and 1824: The Arkansas War). 

He notes that he probably doesn't agree with David and his wife, but understands why they hold those opinions. Eric says that for all its flaws as a first novel, Mother of Demons has the widest thematic scope of anything he's ever written, and he says that there's a real sense in which everything else he's written since is essentially an elaboration of the themes of that book. 

That said, he points out that there's no question that the book that has had the greatest impact on the largest number of readers is 1632 and the Ring of Fire series that it launched. He elaborates, "The fan mail and personal commentary that I've gotten for those books dwarfs everything else. Nor is that simply a matter of sales. On an emotional level, the book has had a much deeper impact than anything else I've written, at least for most people."

Ultimately, though, what Eric thinks is most important is that he's now published three dozen novels and he's liked each and every one of them, both when he wrote them and afterward. According to him, "I think some are stronger than others, and some are more in the way of my personal favorites. But there's not a single book of mine that I regret writing." 

As First Librarian of the Baen Free Library, I wondered if Eric could look into his crystal ball and tell me what he sees for the future of e-books. He told me that he doesn't think that e-books will replace paper-and-ink texts, at least, not for a long time. He remarks that there are a lot of reasons that paper books will remain popular, many of which are not affected at all by the advent of electronic reading. He points out that for one thing, bookcases and book displays are an important part of the home decor of any literate person and feels that they're no more likely to be replaced by nothing more than another electronic gadget than you are to see all paintings and art works taken off of walls on the grounds that you can look at any of them on a big TV screen. 

That said, he does expect that the mix of books will change a great deal, and says that in fact, it already is changing. He thinks that the hardcover market will remain fairly solid, except for books that are especially expensive. His sense is that the mass market paperback market–which was already being badly hammered by factors other than the advent of e-books–will cede a lot of market space to e-books.

Eric makes a case for e-books and paper-and-ink coexisting:

The most important feature of the emergence of e-books, however, is one that most commentators either don't understand or ignore. Given a preference, the preference of most readers is not for either one or the other but both. Readers like to have the same book in both a paper and an electronic format, if they can get it cheaply enough. They use the formats for different purposes. 

That means that there is a gross overestimate of the extent to which electronic book sales are cannibalizing paper book sales. They are just as likely to be complementary and even supportive. 

 

It's become very common, for instance, for people to use free or cheap e-books as a way of exploring new writers–and when they find one, go out and buy many of the author's books in paper. (Often, in paper also–because they still want an electronic edition.) 

In closing, I asked Eric what suggestions he would offer to aspiring authors. He advises that it's not an easy path. "Be prepared to be frustrated for a number of years. But if you can indeed write well, you will eventually get published if you're persistent," he says.

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