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Tony Daniel
conducted by Laura Haywood-Cory
 
January 2012

An Interview with Tony Daniel


When did you first become aware of science fiction and fantasy? What were the first F & SF books that you read?

I grew up for the most part in Anniston, Alabama, in the U.S., and started reading science fiction young. I voraciously consumed the Golden Spring Elementary School library when I was there, then found Gateway Books in the local mall. SF was a part of reading like everything else, but I was particularly struck by A Wrinkle in Time and The Dark is Rising back then. I was also reading mysteries, all the mainstream children’s books, and whatever else I could get my hands on.

There’s a half remembered series of kid’s mystery novels I’ve been trying to find again for decades now. Of course it exists, is probably known by many, and there are plenty of copies around, but I can’t remember their titles or authors. That’s often what I do when I go into a used book shop: go in for a chance encounter with half remembered stuff that I’ve read before and bring back memories of the book. You can’t really do that on-line at the moment, not in the visceral way a book shop allows with all the smells and such. If we get full on virtual reality in my life time, my first app download would be Old Book Store.

Gateway Books also had the benighted, editorially mangled Laser line of paperbacks. I read a bunch of those. Loved the covers (all done by Kelly Freas) with the big heads of the characters on them. Probably that was my first encounter with writers I later came to like, although I didn’t care much who the authors were with what I read as a kid (and still don’t, for the most part).

I also read, in about fourth or fifth grade, the Asimov collection of short stories, Tomorrow’s Children, and almost every story in that book had a huge effect on me. My favorite of all was Fritz Lieber’s “A Pail of Air,” which is part of my imaginative life to this day.

Then around sixth or seventh grade, something clicked in me, and reading became my default mode of existence. I fit high school, and adolescence in general, around my reading schedule. I devoured Tolkien, Asimov’s Foundation series, vast quantities of mysteries and spy novels, mainstream novels, classics, everything. I did not think of anything in term of genre. I didn’t like science fiction better than anything else. I loved science fiction and everything else, so long as it spoke to me. Historicals. Johnny Tremaine I loved, for instance. Nature and adventure. I ran across Annie Dillard’s essays in high school and was greatly influenced by her way of looking at the world.

Then in college I found my triumvirate of most influential novels: Moby-Dick, The Moviegoer, and The Sun Also Rises. I’d probably still pick those as all-time personal favorites.

The one thing I never got into much was sociological critique novels and satire. I was not that guy in your class who loved Catcher in the Rye, and temporarily transformed into a low-rent Holden. In the SF genre, I never much liked The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for the same reason. Felt like I was being preached to a bit in both books. And yet one book solidly in that tradition, Heinlein’s A Stranger in a Strange Land, was one of my favorite books when I was in high school. Great writing triumphs.

I also began to write myself at this point, and to put together zines and comic books with work by me and my friends. I worked on the high school newspaper and the year book (where I learned lessons on layout I use to this day) and was the editor of my high school literary magazine.

Who are your favorite fantasy and sf authors and why?

My favorite current science fiction author is Lucius Shepard. He and I are politically poles apart, but I think he is a hell of a storyteller and, when you cut through his, for me, generally nonsensical leftist politics (Lucius, who is a friend, knows what I think of his politics), his philosophical view of the world–a dark, dangerous, and beautiful place on the knife edge between determinism and free will, appeals to me greatly.

I generally like darker fare where the characters are worldly, knowledgeable, highly competent, and yet acutely aware that they are specks floating on a universe which is frequently overpowering, inhuman, and incomprehensible. I love Tom Kratman’s Carerra books, for instance. I also find this quality in the work of Michael Z. Williamson and often in John Ringo.

I like big ideas when they are well-handled by competent story tellers. I hate half-baked science in a science fiction story, and yet I generally do not like fiction written by scientists (although a very few are also good writers). I like Greg Bear’s work, for instance, where big ideas abound, and I was a huge fan of physicist Gregory Benford’s Galactic Center series.

For me, good writing (all that character, plot, and setting stuff) is a necessary foundation before I can truly enjoy a book. This is also why I am generally wary of experimental viewpoints and metafiction–unless they are being attempted by a writer who I know is fully capable of telling a story in a straightforward manner. Then I figure there is a reason for their use and my attempt to figure out what is going on will be rewarded. A writer whom I trust in this regard is Gene Wolfe. He was a big influence on me in high school and college.

As I said, I generally don’t make genre distinctions in my personal tastes, although I have to do so all the time at my job. I’ve worked for Baen for over ten years in various capacities, and I have read almost everything that Baen Books put out in that time, which has been a great pleasure.

Did you always aspire to be a published author?

I never thought about being published, per se. From a fairly early age (eleven or so), I wrote and wrote, and I suppose it is analogous to the way someone who practices piano three hours a day for many years assumes they will perform at some point, and that their performances will be pretty good and worth paying to see.

You have many different hats: author, editor, professor. Is it hard to switch gears from one to the other and back again? Does your editor-brain ever interfere when you're writing, or are you able to just write, and then just edit?

I developed good critical ability early on and am generally able to cut to the heart of any piece of writing that I am reading. This allows me to enjoy reading a work that is not quite there, and at the same time see what needs to be fixed or modified from a general reader’s point of view. This is an ability that a writer, editor, and literature teacher must possess.

I’m not a multi-tasker. I do one thing, then another. I need a stretch of time to do a first draft on a book, a story, or a piece of advertising copy, for that matter. Then I need an equal stretch of time to revise it.

Teaching is a little different, because it involves a good deal of performing. But you have the same kind of first draft/revision thing going on. I have to rehearse if I’m going to make it seem effortless and entertaining (and thus get a student to actually pay attention to what I’m saying). But you can never let your students know you practice beforehand. That ruins the magic.

What do you like best about being an author? Being an editor? Being a professor?

I love it when readers or students suddenly realize that somebody else shares and finds cool all the amazing stuff they have been thinking about. I enjoy that moment when you feel like that by doing your job you’re also doing somebody else a favor, giving them something useful and entertaining.

 

Which of your novels are you most proud of, and why?

My latest book, Guardian of Night, is perhaps the most complete and well-formed book I’ve written. Some of my other stuff is exploding with so many ideas that this maybe gets in the way of the story telling. I think I found a pretty good balance of cool ideas and story with Guardian of Night.

Say I'm a student in one of your classes. What three core pieces of knowledge do you want me to take away from your class?

Science fiction is a doorway into all fiction. Fiction is the way we humans structure our long-term memory as a species and as individuals. History fades into a general miasma, scientific knowledge gets turned into rules of thumb. Fiction lets us put history and science into something humans can deal with, given the way our brains are constructed.

How do you do fiction? Get you a hero. Give your hero a problem (the problem is usually also the big idea in a science fiction story). Have your hero attempt to solve the problem. Hey, your hero makes the problem worse! Have your hero solve the worsened problem, or have the problem solve your hero. Either way, establish a new status quo in your world. Within that simple structure is the secret to what makes us people, and not animals or robots.

 

So how did you make your way from New York to Texas to North Carolina? Do you see yourself settling down in one place?

Alabama through college at Birmingham-Southern. . .then to graduate school in philosophy and English at Washington University in St. Louis. . .to an internship at the American Spectator in Washington, D.C. . .to film school at USC in Los Angeles. . .to my early writing career creating lots of short fiction for Asimov’s and other venues, and writing my first book, Warpath, in Seattle. . .to Prague to write for a year and live cheaply (this is where I wrote my best known short story “A Dry, Quiet War” among others). . .to New York City to get into publishing and drama, with useful gigs writing reams of reviews for Publishers Weekly and elsewhere, book reports for The Science Fiction Book Club, as well as the job of creating the abridgements of numerous audio books. . . and my first job with Baen as the slush reader. . .back to Alabama for a spell to write my book Earthling. . .back to New York City where I took on the writing of Baen advertising copy and became a Baen consulting editor. . .to Sant Llorenç near Barcelona (and my mother-in-law’s wonderful place in a national park) where I wrote my novel Metaplanetary. . .back to New York City to work at SCI-FI.COM, where I wrote, produced, and/or directed a bunch of audio dramas starring well-known actors. . .to Dallas, where I taught the literature of science fiction and graduate writing courses for several years. . .to North Carolina, where I’m now a full-time editor with Baen.

I want to remain settled for a while now. I had a pretty stable childhood living in mostly the same place, and I think that will be good for my kids, as well.

You're also a runner. Why do you run? Are you running toward, or running away?

I’m a runner because I’m a backpacker and mountain climber and running keeps me in shape for hiking and gets me outside. It also has its own peculiar rewards. I wrote a science fiction story once about running that appeared in Asimov’s in 1996, “The Joys of the Sidereal Long Distance Runner.” In it I have a guy who figures out how to twist himself partially out of time so he can run basically forever. That’s about what the last six miles of a marathon felt like to me a couple of years ago.

What sf-nal prediction do you hope to be alive to see? (e.g., manned missions to Mars, commercially-available flying cars, etc.)

I would like to meet a true artificial intelligence, one that passed my Turing test. That would answer a lot of philosophical questions I have that can’t otherwise be dealt with.

What's in the box?

Another box that’s bigger than the box it’s in, of course. And inside that one is a cup of coffee, a two-foot-long piece of rebar, and a scuffed up but still functional Glock with an extra clip. This is your settlement kit for Planet Life. Welcome to the Big Time, kids!

Hugo finalist Tony Daniel is the author of Guardian of Night and other SF novels and short stories, including Baen.com free fiction "CHECKSUM Checkmate," which is set in the world of Guardian of Night. He is an editor at Baen Books and maintains an active Facebook author page.

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