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Mark L. Van Name
conducted by Tony Daniel
 
July 2011

Mark L. Van Name Q & A

Mark L. Van Name has carved a special place in science fiction adventure with his Jon and Lobo series. Jon Moore, Van Name’s principle, is a tough customer who gets called in for special operations when the chips are down and brute force won’t solve the problem. That is, when mere brute force won’t solve the problem, because Jon’s good at that too, especially when teamed with his loyal friend and constant colleague, the artificially intelligent spacecraft and battle platform, Lobo—an ally Jon resuscitated from scrap. Starting with One Jump Ahead and continuing throughout the Jon and Lobo saga, Van Name has created a science fiction paradigm to rival the likes of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee and Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op.

Van Name’s latest is Children No More, a special book in the series, for here Jon faces his own origin as he deals with the capture and rehabilitation of a group of child soldiers who have been co-opted into a situation no kid should ever have to face—the murderous straits of planetary war.


Q: Aside from the excellent adventure and SF mercenary thriller action in Children No More, a central ethical issue in the novel is the problem of child soldiers—that is, children who are conscripted, usually by force or psychological coercion or both into fighting in a military or paramilitary organization.

As you have Jon say at one point: “They thought they were fighting for the right side. Most soldiers do, regardless of their ages. I had, at their age … Not that it made any difference, not really, not in the damage that it did to me or that I did to others.”

Clearly this ethical issue not only resonates with you, it animates and deepens the entire story in Children No More. In addition to being a huge deal for Jon, since we find out he was a child warrior at one point, this issue feels like a very authorial concern. You’ve spoken before of your involvement in an odd chapter of a youth organization when you were around ten years old. Can you recount again how this experience affected you and how it relates to the book?

MVN: When I was ten years old, my stepfather died. My mother was concerned that I would grow up without any significant male influence, so with the very best of intentions, she signed me up with a paramilitary youth group. Their stated goals included applying the virtues of military training to teach young men to be physically fit, mentally tough, and disciplined.

They accomplished all of that with me. Unfortunately, they also taught me a great many more damaging lessons.

At my first session with them, on a hot Florida Saturday afternoon, Mom dropped me off at the group’s headquarters and drove away. The visiting drill instructor, a Marine Sergeant on leave at home before heading back to his third tour in Viet Nam, lined us up and began “inspecting” us. (The year was 1965. No one did three tours there unless he volunteered. That fact alone speaks volumes about how well adjusted the man was.)

The way you inspect fresh meat is to make them stand at attention and then one by one belittle them, intimidate them, and scare them into understanding that they are now in a place like no other they’ve visited, a world where the DI is their lord and master. Picture the first line-up scene in the movie Full Metal Jacket, but with kids from 10 to 16 in the roles of the soldiers.

I was the youngest, shortest, and fattest kid in the group. When the DI stood in front of me, he yelled at me about my height, my weight, and my name. He bent over and screamed in my face. He poked me in the chest. He wouldn’t stop screaming at me.

I couldn’t take it. I started crying.

He yelled at me more.

I cried harder.

He told me to stop.

I couldn’t.

He punched me in the stomach, hit me so hard that I doubled over and threw up. He screamed at me about messing up his pavement and with a quick sweep of his leg knocked my feet out from under me.

I fell and ended up with the side of my face in my own vomit. He put his boot on the other side of my face and held me there while he explained to the rest of the platoon that this was exactly the sort of pussy behavior he would not tolerate, that we would learn to be real men, to be tough, to work together, to take orders, and if we lived long enough, to be soldiers.

That was not the worst day I had during my three years in the group. It wasn’t even close to the worst day.

The worst day I had was as nothing compared to what the child soldiers in places like the Congo endure.

In writing Children No More, I drew heavily from my own experiences as well as my research into theirs.

And, yeah, the issue is personally important to me.

Q: You’re giving your own payments from the book to a charity that benefits the rehabilitation of child soldiers. Can you tell us a bit about that?

MVN: At the same time that I was working on the last draft of Children No More, I was also attending TEDActive in Palm Springs. As I listened to talk after talk from people who were actively working to improve the world, I was seized with the desire to do more than just write about the plight of child soldiers; I wanted to help those children. I decided the best way I could do that was by publicizing their cause and by giving money to a group that would help them directly. Giving away the proceeds from Children No More struck me as a perfect way to do both. Though the money from the book is very nice, and though I had been expecting to keep it, I am fortunate enough to have a good day job, so I don’t need it to live in my current lifestyle.

I was initially worried that people might see such a decision as a publicity move, but my business partner, Bill Catchings, convinced me that it was a good idea--even if a few people came away with that misimpression.

The next step was to find the right non-profit organization to partner with. After talking to several, I settled on Falling Whistles. I liked their approach, which includes focusing on organizations on the ground in the Congo and on attacking the greater problem of bringing peace to the area. With the aid of a few friends, volunteers all, we formed the partnership with them and also set up a Web site about this giveaway program.

In every reading and convention appearance I made after the book appeared, I pitched this cause. I wanted to raise awareness about this particularly nasty form of child abuse and in the process raise more money to help these kids.

Thanks to Baen, I’m now in the middle of a ten-city radio tour in which I’m using the occasion of the sale of the paperback to talk about this issue to audiences around the U.S.

I initially planned to donate just my advance and the royalties from the hardback sales. As the paperback drew closer, though, I began to feel cheap and wrong about keeping any of the money. I wanted to do more. So, I extended the program to include all the money I make from sales of any edition of this book. Children No More will earn exactly zero dollars and zero cents for me, but with any luck it will contribute a lot of money to help those children.

All that readers have to do to contribute is buy the book. (Of course, if they’d like to donate more, Falling Whistles makes that easy to do; just go to their Web site.) As we say on the Children No More site, by buying this book you can lose yourself in other worlds and do good in this one.

Q: The title is a play on Children Know Moore (Jon’s last name), right? When did the title come to you?

MVN: Actually, no. In fact, and to my embarrassment, I’d never thought of that pun until I read your question. Boy, do I feel dumb.

The title came to me at the same time as the shape of the book’s plot. I was in the middle of writing the second Jon and Lobo novel, Slanted Jack, and was driving home with my family from lunch one Saturday afternoon. Somehow the conversation indirectly brushed by the topic of those childhood years of mine, and the title and plot of the book sprang into my head. I was afraid I would forget them, but that fear proved to be baseless; they never left me. After finishing both Slanted Jack and Overthrowing Heaven, it was finally time to write Children No More.

Q: One beautiful, and highly disturbing, scene in the book that certainly gave this reader the willies occurs during one of Jon’s childhood flashbacks. A young Jon is polishing a knife he hopes to use as a weapon and discovers it is made of human bone. How did this moment come to you? How did you develop it further?

MVN: My first knife-fighting training session took place a few months after I turned ten. We were lucky enough to have rubber training blades, but there was no way Jon would have those. As I dove into that scene, which had been in rough form in my head for some time, I realized that Jon needed a way to have a real knife. Unfortunately, there was no chance that one would be laying around on Dump, the island where the government ditched him and the other people they considered defective.

I had to figure out how the kids on Dump would arm themselves.

I already knew that the island had few animals. It was also clear to me that some of the dumped children had died there. Sharpened bone, as our ancestors proved, makes a fine weapon. It was only logical that Benny, the leader of the kids, would overcome his revulsion at desecrating the bodies of his dead friends and ultimately use the best available materials at hand.

Jon reacted to the discovery the way you would expect any kid to react. The fact that he ended up using that bone blade helps make clear just how strong an effect the training had on him.

Q: The interaction of Jon and the kids in the book is amusing and even touching, as Jon tries to relate to them. We find out Jon is no soccer player, for one thing. Was it fun after several books to put the implacable warrior we’ve come to know and love into such a delicate situation where he was absolutely forbidden to rely on violence by his own conscience? Were the scenes challenging to write?

MVN: It absolutely was both fun and gut-wrenching at the same time. The plight of the kids so resonated with Jon that he found himself compelled to stay and to try to help them.

The problem is, Jon knows absolutely nothing about children.

His own childhood consisted of growing to age 16 as a mentally challenged youth with almost no friends and plenty of people mocking him for his inability to learn. He then gained a normal—actually, a far better than normal—brain, thanks to his sister, the one person who treated him well, healing him. Immediately after she did that—we’re talking less than half an hour—the government took her away, put him on an air shuttle, and kicked him out the door onto Dump.

In the years that followed, Jon learned many things, but he never learned how to deal with children. So, while he identified heavily with the kids in Children No More, he was also completely out of his depth. That situation let me explore a classic duck-out-of-water situation, which was a great deal of fun.

On a literary level, I was also intentionally violating the classic American mono-myth story structure. In that very common type of tale, the hero, a person with special skills, comes to town, fixes an awful problem whose resolution requires those skills, and then leaves. The hero’s departure is necessary because the same abilities and knowledge that make him/her necessary also make him/her a less than desirable member of a community at peace. Children No More let me take Jon to that point—the morning after the take-over of the fort—and then have him stay.

The scenes with the kids were definitely rough to write. I wanted to be honest, but not exploitative. I wanted to tell the truth, but not to shock for the sake of shocking.

And, of course, those scenes drew enough on my own experiences that I spent many months in a very dark space in my own head. That’s never fun, but it’s part of the job of writing.

Q: One thing that’s always struck me about the Jon and Lobo books is your wonderful ear for dialog. Your characters often speak what seem to be deadpan, informational sentences, but there’s poetry, or at least indirect meaning, always playing around the edges. It’s great off-the-nose stuff, as they say in scriptwriting. In this way, your dialog recalls Dashiell Hammett or Lee Child and the Jack Reacher novels. Are any of these noir and nouveau-noir writers influences? How do you go about writing your dialog? Do you frequently speak it aloud, or mainly hear it in your head?

MVN: Thanks for the kind words. I definitely strive to deliver those effects, so it’s great to hear that they’re working for you.

Hammett and Child were and are both influences. In fact, noir detective fiction is the greatest literary influence on the entire Jon and Lobo series. Each of the books is at its core an SF mystery. I read extensively in both genres, so I wanted to write in both—at the same time. (I also plan to finish my pure near-future thriller, Fatal Circle, one day. I’m over 30K words into it, but for now it sits on the shelf as I write other books that are already under contract.)

From Hammett and many of the writers that followed in his footsteps, I borrowed and made my own some of the voice and worldview that informs my books. From Child, I took the lovely idea of a hero with no home, someone always on the move.

I obviously spend a lot of time in my head with these characters, so for the most part the dialog comes naturally. I do often read it aloud, though, just to make sure the cadence feels and sounds right. I’m also always tweaking bits of dialog to be sure that each character’s lines are his/hers, not mine.

Lobo, by the way, is the most fun to write, because he’s so frequently such a snarky bitch that I laugh out loud at what he says. I find him even funnier because in my head, I hear his voice as that of the superb British actor, Bill Nighy. If anyone ever makes a movie or TV show from these novels, I will beg them to have Nighy voice the Lobo part.

Q: Let’s come back to characters such as Jack Reacher and the great inspiration for such more recent creations, Travis McGee. From the first Jon and Lobo novel to the latest, John D. MacDonald seems a big influence. One might even say Jon is a science fiction, nano-enhanced version of Travis McGee in some respects. Is this a correct reading? Are you, indeed, a Travis McGee fan? Who are some of your other SF and non-SF influences?

MVN: You are absolutely right. John D. MacDonald’s glorious Travis McGee is indeed a strong influence on the Jon and Lobo series. Though Jon and Lobo are very different and very much their own creatures, the mapping of McGee to Jon is clearly there, as is the parallel of Lobo with a combination of Meyer, McGee’s closest friend, and the Busted Flush, McGee’s houseboat.

By the way, the day I learned that MacDonald had died and there would be no more Travis McGee books, I actually fell into a multi-day depression—even though the later McGee novels had clearly fallen well below the earlier ones in quality.

Many other mystery and SF writers influenced me, of course. To name but a couple in each genre, Hammett and Chandler, with Hammett my favorite of the two, loom large, as do Heinlein and a particular Simak novel, Time Is the Simplest Thing. I can’t defend that book as being a classic or even particularly great, but for the young me it perfectly captured the sense of alienation that I so strongly felt as a boy and that is at the heart of much of what I write.

Q: To switch tracks, what got you interested in editing Baen’s upcoming erotic fantasy anthology, The Wild Side? Was it to get a break from SF? To give writers you knew their heads to write something utterly different and challenging of boundaries? Why erotic dark fantasy in particular?

MVN: Many different motivations converged to create the anthology. Urban fantasy was clearly a hot area, and I wanted to play in it. I’ve always loved the classic vampire and werewolf stories and movies, but there was no way they would fit in the Jon and Lobo universe. One day, I realized that a character and a world were knocking around in my head and looking for a way out. And, I was tired of listening to fans and authors who were utterly and completely confident that they knew exactly what Baen was and what kinds of books it would and would not publish—and were dead wrong! I know that Toni personally and Baen in general are far more flexible and have done far more types of books than most people realize.

So, one night over a nice Italian dinner with Toni, I told her I wanted to edit this book. She immediately said yes and then almost as quickly gave me the title.

My end took quite a bit longer, because I wedged my work on the anthology into the tiny cracks that would appear now and again in my schedule. A few years later, the book is now here.

The inclusion of “erotic” in the book’s description came from two sources. Sexual tension is such a natural part of the classic monster stories that it felt wrong to me not to allow it in the book. Plus, I’d recently listened to a group of writers talk about how Jim Baen would never publish anything with sex in it, and I felt like proving them wrong. (That claim is, of course, as dumb it could possibly be; do I need to point to some of what John Ringo has written for extreme counter-examples?)

The stories that ended up in the book are actually quite a bit more tame than I anticipated, but that’s cool with me. My goal was to let talented writers tell the stories that mattered to them, and they did just that.

Many of those writers are well-known authors with multiple books and stories to their credit, folks like Tanya Huff, Caitlin Kittredge, Diana Rowland, Toni L.P. Kelner, Dana Cameron, John Lambshead, and Sarah Hoyt. Two of the contributors, Gina Massel-Castater and Ticia Isom, debut here, and their stories stand well with the material from the more established pros.

Q: How would you intrigue a non-fantasy, adventure SF reader into giving The Wild Side a try? Or would you?

MVN: I absolutely would! I’d go even further: If you like a good story, you will love The Wild Side.

You’ll find in these tales plenty of action, memorable characters, exotic settings, and thought-provoking setups and conclusions—exactly the sorts of things that characterize the best SF adventure fiction.

Q: “The Long, Dark Night of Diego Chan,” your own novella in the The Wild Side, is a darkly amusing, noirish, but also very realistic, look at a world where vampirism exists, but where our own governmental regulation and complex culture are also just as much forces as in the present day world. In the story, people can sign contracts to prevent vampiric resurrection, etc. Through this odd, and oddly familiar, world, you have a mysterious hit-man, problem-solver type of character who makes sure one such contract is enforced. It’s an extremely entertaining urban fantasy noir set in a fascinating milieu—well worth buying the book just to read it, in my opinion. What was the genesis of this tale? How did it develop? (And please tell us you’re going to be writing more stories, or even novels, with Diego Chan as a main character.)

MVN: First, thanks again for the kind words! I’m glad you liked the story. I’m particularly fond of Diego myself.

This story began, as many of mine do, with a character and a world that one day just popped into my head already well formed. (When those things happen, my subconscious has clearly been doing its job.) Diego, as I hint in this tale, has no memories prior to when he met his friends in an orphanage. As someone who lost almost all of his own memories prior to age ten from a traumatic event, I have a strong interest in such characters. Diego is also another classic noirish protagonist, one who’s a step closer in lifestyle than even Jon Moore to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. When Diego and the world came to me, they brought with them a plot arc that will take many books to cover.

This particular story explores not only the issue (vampiric resurrection) it directly discusses, nor just the obvious parallel (do not resuscitate orders), but also a stranger, at least as painful topic. Though we’ve all lost a loved one to death, what is sometimes worse is to lose someone to a change so extreme that we simply cannot accept it and ultimately leave them. Coping with such a loss--a loss that ultimately we choose to endure--can be incredibly difficult. As someone whose best friend from high school turned into a criminal and is now serving multiple consecutive life sentences, I am very interested in this issue.

If Toni [Weisskopf, Baen Books publisher] likes the story and is interested, and if I can cram the time into my writing schedule, I very much hope one day to write all of those Diego Chan novels.

Q: On a lighter note, and speaking of aspects of your childhood as we were earlier, how’s the Citizens’ Ufological Research Organization going these days? Are you allowed to comment on CURO’s work?

MVN: Thanks a lot for bringing up that strange bit of my past, Tony.

Like so many other parts of my childhood, it’s clear that CURO will never quite vanish from my life. For those who’ve never heard of it, CURO was an “organization” that actually consisted of just me and my one friend, the only kid in ninth grade (the last year of junior high school at that time in Florida) who was more of a nerd than I was. (He might well argue that point.)

We were UFO enthusiasts, so we decided to create our own UFO organization and newsletter. I wrote almost all of the publication, and we printed it on a mimeo machine. We, mostly I, sold it to a few friends and teachers who were willing to indulge us. I think that some of the issues may still live somewhere in the back of a closet or file cabinet in my house, but I’ve managed for many years to be too busy to look for them, and that will probably remain the case for years to come.

That said, creating those newsletters introduced me to writing to fit the available space and to the concept of magazine writing. Years later, I made my living for a time by writing articles for the computer trade press (something around 1,500 bylines have appeared in that area), so as with most experiences, maybe all of them, it did not go to waste.

If anyone reading this happens to have any copies of those newsletters, please let me know (you can contact me via the Contact page on my Web site, www.markvanname.com). I’d be curious to read them.

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