Steve White and Charles E. Gannon grill each other on their new Starfire saga collaboration, Extremis, and what it takes to continue a space-warfare SF series that has seen such bestselling masterworks as In Death Ground and The Shiva Option.
Gannon: Before we actually started working together, what aspect of potentially collaborating with me gave you the greatest pause?
White: At that time I hadn't read any of your stuff, so you were an unknown quantity as a writer—but not as a person, since it was quite clear to me that unless my judgment concerning people had gone completely haywire you were reliable, responsible, and emotionally stable—the qualities I was particularly in search of at the time. Besides, anyone who appreciates good bourbon can't be all bad.
Gannon: How did the final product that is being published differ from your initial conceptions—or instincts—about how it would progress and conclude?
White: The character of Ossian Wethermere was, of course, not included in the original concept. But he was a valuable addition. And I know from experience that when following a fairly detailed outline it helps to have a "safety valve" character with whom you can safely play, providing a novel viewpoint and doing anything that isn't actually incompatible with the holy writ of the outline. This was why I created the Irma Sanchez character in The Shiva Option.
So, what were some of the literary influences that went into the character of Ossian Wethermere?
Gannon: I can’t say that there were a lot of “literary” influences upon my creation of the character of Ossian Wethermere. Hornblower (early career) creeps in, and there’s probably a little of Dominic Flandry in there as well. But Wethermere is older than them chronologically, yet is still (comparatively) a naif in terms of the military (as will be revealed in the continuation of his story-arc, he’s not an academy product). There are other ways in which the inspirations for his character are more directly biographical than literary, including his habits of mind and also his bemusement with the vagaries of life in a war-time fleet.
You might call him an intentionally “calm swashbuckler.” This was inspired in large measure by many of the much-decorated and brilliant vets I’ve had the pleasure of meeting—and working with—through my work for SIGMA, the SF think tank. What strikes me about these men and women is their ability to remain calm and on task when others around them are anxiously yammering and chewing their fingernails to the quick. Ossian is my attempt at creating a memorable hero that is, nonetheless, no bigger—but also no smaller—than life. It is understandable—and perhaps supremely marketable—for authors to make heroes not only very passionate but very voluble and socially aggressive. I wanted to see if I could create a “leader” whose ego was normal-sized, and whose charisma was vested in surety and dry wit, rather than grand gestures and grandiloquence. This is what I’ve witnessed and observed in “real heroes” again and again. We’ll see how this “experiment” at representing their qualities in print pans out . . .
Anyway, what surprised you the most in actual experience of our collaborating together?
White: "Surprised" isn't exactly le mot juste, but what was most refreshing was the almost total lack of continuity issues. If memory serves, there was one instance when a similarity of names caused you to think the planet Beaufort from Insurrection was being referred to in the chapter outline, when in fact it was an altogether different planet, so we had to iron that out. Otherwise. . .practically nothing.
So to continue: you bring what is obviously an in-depth knowledge of Hinduism to your development of the Arduans. How did you acquire it?
Gannon: I must first—sadly—disabuse my interviewer (you, Steve) of his belief that I have an “in-depth” knowledge of Hinduism. Alas, I most certainly do not. However, some passing exposures from coursework in both anthropology and comparative religions engendered a relatively early appreciation of—specifically—how Hinduism differs from Western faith traditions. Then, exposure to Emerson encouraged a further attempt to reconcile the perspectives of East and West (as Emerson himself grappled with it.) In Extremis, I discovered that the opportunity to explore the long-standing contrasts between the ontological bases of these two traditions was right there in front of me, waiting to be used. Before I ever started working on the series, the leader of the isolated human fleet was established to be an Admiral Krishmahnta. And the Arduans themselves were furnished with what would appear to be (in a human ) a third (pinneal) eye. Everything more or less grew from these serendipitous story elements and the way they overlapped with (or at least contained strong echoes of) Hinduism.
My curiosity has always been this: was this simply serendipity, or was Steve White incorporating—unconsciously—HIS knowledge of Hinduism in the text? The parallels between what Steve seeded in and actual Hinduism seem too numerous and too significant to be chance. And I have experienced—more than once—how we authors incorporate bits and pieces of knowledge from divers sources without ever really being aware of their origins. So I suspect that it is STEVE who knows more about Hinduism, at least unconsciously, than he remembers. . .
White: Hmm. How difficult was it to accommodate to Shirley Meier's very different writing style so as to avoid a jarring stylistic discontinuity between Exodus and Extremis?
Gannon: I just hope I did accomplish that!
But actually, even that simple response is a bit misleading—because quite frankly, I felt that being overly-concerned with stylistic continuity/seamlessness would undermine the real objective of the book: to write a compelling, exciting story of cultures at war. In the final analysis, I realized that my style was just not at all like Ms. Meier’s. We were also electing to tell very different stories. Besides, I’m not really sure how well her voice and Steve’s meshed in Exodus. This is not a value-judgment, but a simple assessment that their styles were quite disparate, so much so that, at points, the differences called attention to themselves.
When I took up the task (the *delightful* task) of writing Extremis, I felt that the key to success had very little to do with creating a smooth stylistic transition from Ms. Meier. Conversely, I felt success would be directly related to how well my voice blended with Steve’s. Happily, this was a pretty much effortless objective: we discovered, within the first week or two, that although our voices were different, they blended nicely, and that the contrasts often strengthened the narrative. I think that during the process of our collaboration, Steve and I pointed out—at most—three writing choices to the other that wanted rethinking. There were diction questions, sure, but that was simply a matter of “is that really a word?” and “we’ve established, and must follow, a different convention for this series.” When it came to basic structure, style, and aesthetics, Steve and I got along famously, right from the start.
However, that wasn’t just blind luck: it is also the mark of a great senior collaborator. Steve trusted my instincts and my vision pretty much from the outset. I did my homework, brought in my ideas, and we chatted through them in October 2009. In short order, he placed extraordinary trust in me—and that allowed me to really swing for the fences: I didn’t have to write with the additional burden of thinking, “now, should I really do/write/ that? Will the senior collaborator like it? Maybe I should play it safe. . .” When you write that way—always imagining a ghostly kibbitzer staring over your shoulder—you will *not* create energetic or gripping prose or scenes: you will generate careful, tepid pablum. Steve White was an ideal senior collaborator because, in trusting me, he also allowed me to put my best, most creative foot forward without trepidation—and that is a very big deal indeed.
So, in summary, I don’t know if my voice in Extremis really follows Ms. Meier’s in Exodus—or even really transitions from it. However, I do know it very much blends with and braids into Steve’s voice—and his is, after all, the crucial voice in the series.
Extremis is the latest entry in the blockbuster Starfire series begun by David Weber and Steve White. Previous entries in the series include New York Times bestsellers In Death Ground and The Shiva Option. The milieu is based on the legendary Starfire gaming universe. Check Chuck Gannon's internet hub for more insight into Extremis. Steve White’s latest Baen novel is St. Anthony’s Fire and the upcoming Wolf Among the Stars.