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Robert Buettner
conducted by Tony Daniel
February 2011

How to Channel Heinlein

Robert Buettner on His Orphan’s Legacy Series and Renaissance Man Life—Plus, Five Rivets of Great Storytelling!

Q: The Orphan's Legacy series is an outgrowth of your earlier highly successful Orphan series. How is Jazen Parker your heroic-if-jaded mercenary in Overkill related to Jason Wander, the hero of the Orphan series? Are we in the Outworlds universe still?

RB: First, thanks for asking.  

Yes, Overkill continues the “future history” that follows the decades- long mankind-vs-the-Slugs War. Jason Wander fought that one, rising from private to general, over five books. But the new series stands alone. A reader doesn’t need to have read the first series to enjoy this one 100 percent. But if new readers start with Overkill, they probably will want to circle back to the prior series and find out where it all started, and vice-versa. Sort of like Star Wars episodes I-III. But, happily, there’s no Jar Jar Binks in either of the Orphan series.  

The new series begun by Overkill is less rigorously “military science fiction” than the Jason Wander series was.

Q: Which leads to the question, if Overkill isn’t military science fiction, what is it?

RB: It’s a sub-genre called “Military Science Romantic Fantasy.”

Q: Never heard of it.  Can you explain?

RB: Actually, you have, if you’ve heard of Avatar. The Czech SF magazine Pevnost did a profile of me and the Jason Wander books in an all-military SF issue that also focused on Avatar. Pevnost pronounced Avatar a new sub-genre, “Military Science Romantic Fantasy.”

Q: What are the elements of “MSRF”?

RB: Ex-military/paramilitary protagonist, preferably a smart ass; military hardware and panache; strong, independent female characters; a prominent love story, and alien worlds and creatures; all unstifled by NASA-level rigor.  

But you asked me to compare Jason Wander and Jazen Parker. The new series’ Jazen Parker cracks wise, blunders, and does the right thing at great personal risk, and in the face of overwhelming odds. That’s pretty much what Jason Wander did, too, throughout the prequel series. Much (though not all) of Overkill is told from Jazen’s first-person viewpoint. All of the first series was told from Jason Wander’s first person viewpoint. The two characters sound a lot alike. That’s okay by me, and presumably by readers and critics. Jason’s  voice was one of the things readers and critics most praised about the original series. I think they will find the interspersed new viewpoints in the new story make it even more fun. I certainly found them fun to write.  

As for how the two Jason/Jazen characters actually fit together in this universe that they share, well, that’s a story best left to the book.

Q: You have an extremely successful career as a lawyer, primarily a natural resources lawyer.  Plus, you started out as a petroleum geologist, and have a strong interest in paleontology.  Has your background in geology and earth science proved useful in world building?

RB: Actually, the non-technical aspects of those life experiences have enriched and informed my fiction more. For example, I once worked in a mining camp in the Alaskan interior.  There’s a scene in Overkill wherein two Native American Inuit people (that’s redundant, “Inuit” means “the people”) converse in English. All I had to do was play back my old friend Herbert in my head and I knew I was creating dialogue that worked.  

Actually, too much technical knowledge can hurt when constructing fiction. One of my books included a T. rex, which I, as a former paleo grad student, could easily describe accurately. Now, every school child these days knows that T. rex had only two claws per tiny “hand,” even though all his relatives, like velociraptors, had three. However, as I was writing, initial reports surfaced in paleo circles that a rex “hand” had just been found with three claws, not two.  Hmmm. If I described the rex with three claws, I’d annoy Cub Scouts who “knew” he had two. If I gave him the old-school two, I might annoy paleontologists, who “knew” he had three. And if I slowed down a fight scene with an anatomy lecture to clarify the conflicting information, I’d annoy most readers, who didn’t care. In the end, I just didn’t mention the claws at all and annoyed nobody.

Q: And ditto the law and courtrooms for characterization and plot?

RB: The law touches every life. Both Jason in the old series and Jazen in the new series have had brushes with the law, and of course those episodes read more authentically because I’ve “been there.” But the stories aren’t courtroom dramas.

Q: You've also led quite an active life outside of work, running marathons,  snowboarding and scuba diving. Any harrowing or exciting tales to tell there? Anything that's made it into a book in some form?

RB: Just as the Orphan books aren’t courtroom dramas, they aren’t sports inspirationals, either.  

Lately I’ve gotten more interested in road bicycling, the Tour de France stuff most Americans know little about. That came closest to making it into a book. I got to speculating that troops might be given a cycle of performance enhancing drugs and homologous blood transfusions to increase endurance during upcoming combat. Bike racers have done that for years in connection with long races. Though they vigorously deny it even when they get caught. I’m no fan of cheating to win a bike race, but I’m a big fan of saving GI lives.

Q: Jazen Parker is a heroic sort who never gives up, he can also be a fairly jaded fellow when it comes to his job as merc. He's seen a lot and has a price on his head. Did you draw some of your inspiration for Jazen from your own military experience? How so?

RB: Jazen’s dark humor about his job is, I think, a common sanity preservative among soldiers. And the closer they are to the sharp, dirty point of the spear, the darker it gets. As for my experience informing the story, everybody’s military experience is the same and everybody’s is different. Jason Wander’s Drill Sergeant DeArthur Ord is a composite of Drills I was taught by and also of Drills I later commanded in a Cold War reserve unit made up exclusively of Drills. But one reader and veteran was so sure that Sergeant Ord was, in fact, his Drill from Basic that the reader sent me the man’s photo from his Basic Class “Yearbook,” and insisted that I confirm that Ord and this gentleman’s Drill Sergeant were the same guy. Alas, they were not.  Except for the smokey bear hats.

I’ve been surprised and gratified that so many service personnel, from WW II, Korea and Vietnam vets to current grunts literally emailing from Combat Outposts in Afghanistan, have thanked me for telling their story and for getting it right.

However, Overkill veers more toward adventure than a retelling of the foot soldiering experience. Even so, Jazen, like Jason before him, is a GI to the core.

Q: In your afterword to a collection of Heinlein stories (The Green Hills of Earth/Menace from Earth, also from Baen), you comment that Heinlein was the master of the "middle" of the story.  You, too, have developed a critical reputation for never letting the action slack while maintaining the character's inner struggles and inner journeys as well throughout your novels. Why is this such a rare trait in so many stories?

RB: The first thing I always point out when someone mentions the favorable comparisons that have been made of my work to Heinlein is that they’re like comparing changing a bulb the invention of the electric light to. Still, I’m flattered.  

But I think the mistake we writers make when we complain about the difficulty of maintaining the story through “the middle” is presuming that somehow the writer’s duties change during “the middle.” Those duties don’t change. A writer’s first duty is compel the reader to read the next line. If the writer does that his duty, line after line, then before the reader knows it, he or she has read and enjoyed the book. It’s really that simple.  

Writers write and rewrite and sweat blood to create a novel’s beginning that “hooks” the reader. Precisely how writers do that is beyond the scope of this answer, but they do.  

The trouble comes after the beginning. The very metaphor, the “hook,” implies that once the reader is “hooked,” the rest of the novel is just a matter of hanging on until the hooked fish exhausts itself and gives up. But in fact readers, unlike hooked fish, can simply close the book and unhook themselves. And readers frequently do exactly that, the moment they no longer care what is going to happen in the next line, much less next page or next chapter.  

I try to write every couple of lines with the same urgency and attention I devote to a book’s beginning “hook.” If I keep my readers turning pages, maybe that’s why.

Q: Any advice for budding writers striving to reach the next level?

RB: 1. Write. Don’t just think about writing and read books about writing, though by all means do those things. Do it. Until you take that step you won’t know whether you want it bad enough. And if you really expect to learn the craft well enough to be New York published, you had better want it pretty bad.  

2. Write lots. They say that a writer has to write a million words to develop the skills to produce salable commercial fiction. I believe Stephen King had collected seven hundred short story rejection slips before he sold his first one. I completed seven novels of varying degrees of awfulness, now boxed up for eternity, before Orphanage.  

3. Write well. Study The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and anything Mark Twain wrote about writing. The best contemporary treatment of the art and craft of writing that I’ve seen is King’s On Writing. Find a mutual critique group of people who know what they are talking about, take your lumps, and learn from their mistakes and yours. If you write well, you will be ahead of ninety percent of the twenty-five thousand or more unsolicited slush submittals that a reputable agent wades through annually.  

4. Rewrite well. There is no good writing. There is only good rewriting.  

5. Last but not least, persevere. When you have written, then rewritten, a novel so good that it can’t be ignored, be prepared to reinvent yourself and your craft when it is, anyway.

Q: What's next for Jazen? How is Undercurrents shaping up? 

RB: Plenty is next. Undercurrents is scheduled for release July 5, 2011. Jazen’s back, and the intrahuman, interplanetary cold war that ties together this series really emerges for the reader.  New worlds, new critters, new hardware, new villains, new allies. As well as new situations for the friends the reader made in Overkill.

Q: Does Jazen have a rendezvous with his past, his parentage, and his origins on the way?

RB: Jazen’s a curious, driven guy, and it’s a big universe. So, sure, he and the reader will learn more about where he came from and where he’s going over the course of the series. It’s not going to be easy or fun for Jazen, but it is going to surprise him. On the other hand, for readers, the style and tone remain easy to and fun.  But I think that what Jazen learns about his past, and how he learns it, will surprise them as much as it surprises Jazen. I know it surprised the heck out of me.

The Denver Post, among others, proclaims that Robert Buettner has “the Heinlein touch.” Buettner’s science fiction thriller (or is that “MSRF”?) Overkill debuts this month from Baen. Overkill launches Buettner’s Orphan’s Legacy series, and builds on his best-selling Orphan series.