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John Lambshead
conducted by Toni Weisskopf
 
April 2007

Dr. John Lambshead is senior research scientist in marine biodiversity at the Natural History Museum, London. He is also the Visiting Chair at Southampton University, Oceanography, and Regent's Lecturer, University of California. He has authored almost a hundred academic/scientific publications. In their special 2000 millennium edition, London's Evening Standard newspaper nominated him as one of London's top 100 "unknown thinkers" for his scientific research. But Baen's Bar fans know him quite well for his topic "I Love Lucy"—relating to the title of his first novel, Lucy's Blade, a Baen hardcover release for May.

He has kept "sane" by writing military history books and designing computer and fantasy games; he designed the world's first icon-driven game, based on Frederick Forsyth's movie The Fourth Protocol. He is married, lives in Kent in southern England.

You can get started on his work by reading Lucy's Blade. But he got started writing a lot earlier. "W. J. Burley was my A-level zoology teacher and he was a big influence on me. In my final year, he published a mystery novel about a murder in a school. Burley went on to invent the Cornish detective, Inspector Wycliffe, which became a popular TV series. The message was clear; writers were not just arty toffs from Cambridge. Anyone could have a go. I think the most important influence at this stage was the transfer of confidence."

Of course, John started reading SF at a younger age. "The first SF stories I read were in the boys comic The Eagle. They had this square-jawed, heroic character called Captain Dan Dare, who piloted space ships for the Royal Space Force. His great enemy was a sort of giant head on a shrunken body, the Mekon, who flew around sitting on a personal flying saucer. Dan Dare had all sorts of wicked gadgets like ray blasters, nuclear hand grenades and mono-ball cars with glass bubble roofs. The real future has been so boring in comparison of how it was depicted in the early '60s. Anyway, I then discovered English children's SF novels by people like Patrick Moore and WE Johns and, from there, it was only a short step to American authors like Heinlein. I was stunned by the daring and originality of the American SF culture and spent all my pocket money on paperbacks at two shillings and six pence a go. I still prefer the American wham-bam storytelling style to the more highbrow British approach."

Like most writers, John enjoys all his characters. "Jim Baen christened my Baen's Bar site 'I Love Lucy' partly because he was convinced that I was half in love with Lucy Dennys. Jameson and Karla are also favourites of mine and I have a sneaking regard for Alice, despite her being a grade A bitch. I would like to be a bold privateer like William Hawkins but I suspect that the reality is that I am more like Hammond, the academic geek. I put an enormous effort into trying to get into the heads of my characters and I can't do that without liking them."

When he reads outside the genre he goes for ". . . Raymond Chandler, Leslie Charteris, and Ian Fleming. As you can see, I have a weakness for thriller writers. I also rate mystery writers such as Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. My favourite book of all time, though, is Robert Louis Stephenson's Treasure Island. It is not a coincidence that my first novel features bold Elizabethan privateers."

When asked about the casting of the hypothetical movie of Lucy's Blade, he is way ahead of me: "There is only one choice for Lucy and that is Billie Piper. She was the best Dr Who assistant ever bar none and her Fanny Price in the new version of Mansfield Park shows that she is equally at home in period drama. It doesn't come any better for me than Billie Piper beating up bad guys and demons. Karla would be a cameo performance by Kate Beckinsale, who is the only serious successor to Diana Rigg and Honor Blackman. I don't really care who plays the male roles." So callous! I'm sure your women readers will have opinions on them, too!

I wondered what a how a career scientist would answer the question, what revolution or breakthrough in science would you most like to see in your lifetime. John has actually worked to achieve his goal! "I would like to know if there is any logical explanation to the structure of biological communities or whether species packing is all a matter of random chance. This is something that I have puzzled over all my life."

The historical event he most wishes he could have witnessed is also related to his specialty: "I would like to see the first human clan move out of Africa on their way to discovering the world. That was the most significant point in human history. We had to leave our African cradle with its associated human pathogens to become what we are. The rest of human history is just detail." Spoken like a true biologist!

I asked him how a career scientist came to write a fantasy novel. "I had always, always, wanted to be an author but somehow I never did anything about it. When I was a young scientist back in the '80s, I designed wargames and computer games. My claim to fame was that I designed the first ever icon-driven computer game based on Frederick Forsysth's The Fourth Protocol:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fourth_Protocol_%28computer_game%29

"I moved from there to writing historical source books and other material for Games Workshop. When they started publishing fiction, I wrote a short story about an orc – and it stank! But Christian Dunn, the GW editor, saw something in my writing and spent an inordinate amount of time teaching me the basics of story writing. He made me rewrite the story over and over again until he was satisfied and bought it – my first earnings for SF fiction.

"What happened next is one of those odd twists of fate that change lives. I went back to writing wargaming books. I am a huge fan of David Drake's Hammers Slammers series and I got to know David through writing the official Hammers Slammers handbook, which was a wargaming book.

"Dave gave me the best advice that a would-be writer can receive. 'If you want to be a writer, then start writing. Write something every day, even it it's only 500 words.' I wrote a pseudo-Buffy urban fantasy story for Dave and he sent it back to me outlining a fault in my technique and getting me to rewrite the story. I would then send it back and he would show me how to fix something else. I must have written that story seven or more times. But you know, at the end, it wasn't that that bad. You notice that Dave and Christian adopted similar methods. These are professionals who know their business inside out. I have to admit that everything that I have ever sold has had input from Dave at some point. It just staggers me how Drake can cast an eye over a flawed story, pinpoint the problem instantly and tell one how to fix it in a couple of succinct sentences.

"I have a fulltime job so I write fiction whenever I get a free moment. As a London commuter I travel four hours a day on the trains. For a precious hour each morning and evening, I ride an intercity with a table on which I can balance my laptop. Basically, I can write anywhere. One chapter of Lucy's Blade was written in a coffee bar in Europe's biggest shopping centre, while my wife and daughters went round the dress shops."

John is excited to hear there are perks associated with being an SF writer. "Perks? There are perks to being an SF writer? Why didn't someone tell me? Joking aside, the best part is that I suddenly became part of a global family of SF writers and fans. Running the I Love Lucy site for Baen's Bar has been a great experience and I have made some wonderful friends. I also have to confess that the strain on my modest academic's salary of putting two daughters through university was also something of a spur. I refer you to Samuel Johnson—'No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money'--and, as a British government scientist, I am not permitted to earn money from writing academic works, so bring on the demons."

Since Lucy's Blade is set mostly in Elizabethan England, I asked John what sort of research he did to get the historical setting just right. "The short answer is that I do a great deal. I am a professional academic so research is something that comes easily to me. I knew something of the Elizabethan period before I started, as military history is one of my hobbies, and I have written popular history books for wargamers, but I needed all sorts of lifestyle information to write a novel. What did Elizabethans eat, for example? I spent weeks working through history books, jotting down useful factoids and real-life events in a notebook. I worked many of these into the story as I wrote it. I often find that real events are a springboard to fictional action."

Lucy's Blade was the last fantasy acquired and edited by Jim, so I asked John what working with Jim was like. "I met Jim socially, really, because of his interest in evolution, especially human evolution; David Drake introduced us. Jim asked me a question about human evolution concerning the development of upright bipedalism, if I recall right, I sent back the usual sort of polite but rather shallow answer that Museum people write to members of the public. Jim was instantly all over me. He had an incredibly sharp analytical mind and he made me actually think about the subject.

"Jim and I became friends and often used to chat. He kept insisting that I should try to write fiction and gave me enormous encouragement. We batted all sorts of ideas around but I had no idea how to go about it until David showed me how to plan a novel. Jim and I found we had a shared love of Buffy, so our ideas gravitated towards a fantasy about a young girl who becomes a demon killer. But we both wanted something that was completely original, apart from that single starting point, so Lucy is nothing like Buffy. Lucy is English and Elizabethan. Unlike Buffy, she is wealthy and connected but socially alone until she is possessed by Lilith. Buffy is a rebel but Lucy is highly conventional until events dictate otherwise. Jim came up with many of the structural ideas, such as the story within a story and that Lilith the demon should be a being from the future, not the past. Jim was like Winston Churchill: he just spat out ideas. He used to leave me exhausted sometimes after one of our chats but he was always inspirational. Working with Jim Baen was like being a young postgraduate student in an elite university working with their elderly prof. Jim was demanding, perfectionist, driven, implacable, infuriating, unpredictable, whimsical, childlike but always inspirational.

"The last thing Jim Baen said to me was 'John, you should ring more often.'"

For more information please go to: the I Love Lucy site on Baen's Bar. http://bar.baen.com

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