Q) How did you get started writing? Any specific influences?
A) I got started writing when I was about twelve years old. At that point, I was writing poetry and some pretty bad short stories, primarily because I had a need to push words around. When I was in the ninth or tenth grade, my best friend and I wrote an interminable (and very bad) novel which was a sort of alternate history of post-Korean War geopolitics. By the time I was sixteen, I was winning prizes in writing festivals. I was also beginning to do advertising copy and news releases for my parents' PR firm, and I continued to work in public relations until my late thirties. I did radio and TV writing, instructional videos and slide shows, newspaper and magazine articles, and interesting things like annual reports and government studies. Lots of fun. All of that turned out to be excellent training for a future production writer. When you spend your time putting words together to meet deadlines, you get pretty ruthless with yourself, and I think that a writer who's going to sustain a high literary output has to have to that self-ruthlessness. Not to mention a certain degree of comfort working under pressure.
I had anticipated that I would probably teach college history somewhere and write historical or science-fiction on the side. Unfortunately, about the time I was finishing up my master's work, it came to my attention that the chances of finding a tenured position in the history field were not very good. So I fell back on my public relations background instead.
I was working for myself, which gave me a certain degree of flexibility where hours were concerned, and I started dabbling at a fantasy novel, more for self entertainment than because I seriously intended to submit it anywhere. I was also doing war game design at the time, working on the StarFire series, and my normal routine when I went to work on a product in the game line was to write myself a short story which would set the tone and feel for the "future history" which provided the game's skeleton. I'd met Steve White through our mutual interest in the StarFire games, so I sent him the short story I've done for one of the scenario collections I was working on. He sent me one back. I sent him another one. He sent me another one. Before we knew it, we'd written half of Insurrection and were beginning to realize that our "short stories" were actually chapters. I won't go into all of the vicissitudes we suffered through before we got that book submitted to Baen Books, but they were . . . extreme. Jim Baen and Toni Weisskopf, however, recognized raw, scintillating talent when they saw it, and promptly offered us a princely sum (cough, cough) for the product of our labors.
I guess it's pretty evident that my historian's background plays a major role in most of the stories I tell. In a way, I've managed to combine historical novels with science-fiction -- I just create my own history for them. A lot of people have asked about specific influences I see in my own writing, and I think that's probably a tough question for any author, especially one who started reading the genre when he was quite young.
There have been so many excellent writers and storytellers (which isn't always exactly the same thing) in our field, that it isn't easy to try to isolate out the recognizable, specific influences on our writing styles. I have to say that I was probably most heavily influenced by Robert Heinlein, H. Beam Piper, Keith Laumer, and Poul Anderson. But literally dozens of other writers also had their impact on me. Annie McCaffrey was just starting out when I was in high school, and her work -- especially her wonderful Pern novels -- were certainly significant for me. But so were Theodore Sturgeon, Mack Reynolds, Robert Howard, and, of course, Sprague de Camp. And I suppose that most people would probably detect some slight influence from E. E. "Doc" Smith, as well.
I think you may be beginning to see what I mean about how difficult it is to isolate "the" specific influences on my writing. In a way, everything I've ever read stuck, sort of like a snowball rolling downhill.
Q) What are some of the best perks of being a science- fiction writer?
A) When somebody asks me that question, I think about something Isaac Asimov once said. I don't remember the exact quotation, but it boiled down to something along the lines of "My greatest secret fear is that someday the publishers will realize they're paying me for something I'd do anyway." I can't speak for all writers, but writing is something that I have to do. It's been a part of me for so long that I can't conceive of not doing it. So, since I have to do it anyway, I think it's marvelous that I actually get paid for it.
Probably the most satisfying perk has been the opportunity to meet so many of the other writers whose work I've admired and enjoyed. I was very fortunate to have met Robert Zelazny and to have enjoyed his friendship, although not for long enough. Annie McCaffrey turned out to be just as wonderful in person as I had always hoped she would be from her books, and so did Carolyn Cherryh and Fred (and Joan!) Saberhagen. And, of course, Andre Norton. And I have also enormously enjoyed meeting people like David Drake, Harry Turtledove, and Tim Zhan. And immediately after the writers you get to meet come the readers you get to meet. People who aren't even members of your family, and who don't owe you money, but who have nice things to say about your work, anyway. Of course, in some cases they also have a few bones to pick with you, but that's fair. I always had a few bones to pick with my favorite writers, too.
And, finally, there's the "Peter Pan Syndrome." Writers don't have to grow up and settle for living solely in the "real" world. We get to submerge ourselves in other worlds, in other times and places and people, and they don't even put us in padded rooms for observation when we do it.
Q) Do you have any favorites among your characters?
A) Yes. Next question? Sorry. I couldn't help myself. Yes, I have favorite characters. Obviously, Honor Harrington is one of them, although there are some other characters in that series who I think I like as well as I like her. Horace Harkness comes to mind, and so does Andrew LaFollet and Protector Benjamin. The problem with the entire "favorite character" question is that favorite characters change. Sometimes you feel closer to one of them than to another, and then the story line moves on, your mood shifts, and someone else comes to the top as your very favorite-most character in all the universe. For a writer, a well drawn literary character is a very "real" person. His favorites from among them are like your close friends. There may be one or two – like Honor, or Colin MacIntyre, or Bahzell Bahnakson and Brandark – who stand out especially, as your "best friends in the world," but there's always that flow and shift.
Q) What was the first sf story you ever read?
A) The very first science-fiction novel I ever read (and I don't think I read any short stories before it) was Jack Williamson's Legion of Space. I think I was ten or eleven years old at the time, and I was laid up with some ridiculous childhood ailment and I'd finished off all of the Black Stallion stories, so I raided my father's science-fiction shelves. If I remember correctly, the second novel was Genus Homo, and I believe that Lest Darkness Fall was the third or fourth. And after that, I found "Doc" Smith.
Q) Who are some of your favorite non-science-fiction authors?
A) Again, that's something that shifts and changes. I read Tom Clancy, I really like Douglas Reeman/Alexander Kent, and I adore Alastair McLean, especially his early World War II novels, like HMS Ulysses and South by Java Head, although The Black Shrike was pretty damned good, too. I'm an avid Louis L'Amour fan, and I read a lot of general and military history. I loved David and Leigh Eddings fantasy novels, especially their ability to create living, breathing characters, but that might be getting a bit too close to "science-fiction authors" to qualify for this question. I'm very fond of Jack Higgins, Ken LaFollet, and Georgette Heyer, and I read all of the Travis McGee and Matt Helm novels. I think probably my favorite "police procedural" writer is Ed McBain
Q) Who would you like to see play your series hero (if appropriate) in a movie?
A) Oh, no, you don't! I'm not about to answer that one. The character everybody wants to know about is Honor Harrington, and the fact is that I don't think there's anyone out there who has the proper combination of height, physicality, and demonstrated acting ability to be "perfect" for the role. So my mind is fairly open on this topic. I think it's more important to have someone who can portray Honor's character and command style than it is to have someone who is six feet two inches tall. Claudia Christian has been suggested, largely I'm sure because of her work as Ivonova on Babylon 5. I've met Claudia, and I like her a lot. She's much shorter than Honor, but so are most women, and I think she could handle the physicality. My biggest concern would be that the writers might attempt to be create Ivonova because of how successful the character was on B 5. Unfortunately, Ivonova's command style is totally different from Honor's. It's not that I don't think Claudia could handle being someone else; it's that I'd worry that the writers wouldn't let her be someone else. Aside from that, I'm not going to get any deeper into the quagmire.
Q) What invention or scientific leap in understanding would you most like to see made in your lifetime?
A) In terms of inventions, probably practical fusion power. With a big enough energy budget, you can do just about anything for anybody . . . or for everybody, and I suspect that the real trick to getting along with one another on this planet is for everyone on it to have the same shot at decent health care, good nutrition, and a portion of the physical comforts and conveniences we take so utterly for granted in the First World generally and in the United States in particular. Getting to live beyond age fifty or so would probably be pretty neat, too. And since the anti-tech hysterics seem to have done a pretty fair job of killing off fission power, fusion's probably our best shot at clean, nonpolluting, copiously available energy.
Of course, there are times when I swing to the diametrically opposite end of the spectrum and think about all of the possibilities that nanotech may offer. As far as scientific leaps in understanding are concerned, I'm actually fairly content to sit back and see where we go. The thing is that there's so much going on out there already that it's almost impossible to visualize anything as "impossible." I suppose that if I had to pick one goody from the science-fiction writer's wish list, it would probably be faster-than-light travel. Somehow, though, I don't think I'll hold my breath waiting for that one. On the other hand, I'll bet there are some very interesting places Out There.
Q) If you could go back to one incident in all of history to watch as a spectator, what would it be?
A) I wonder if anyone on the face of the planet could really answer that question. The problem, especially for a historian, is twofold. First, there are simply so many incidents that we'd love to see that picking out just one is a virtual impossibility. Second, because we're historians, we know how seldom those events live up to their "Hollywood" billing. If I were permitted to pick an entire historical process, rather than one specific incident, I really think it might be the American Revolution. I'm sure I would be horribly disappointed in some of the Founding Fathers, but when you come right down to it, they really managed something quite remarkable. And they did it better over all, I think, than anyone else ever has. Of course, I'm probably prejudiced. In terms of specific incidents, though, the one that would probably send the strongest chill down my spine, however unimpressive it might look, would be the day that Homo erectus picked up fire for the very first time. He probably didn't look like much, but on that day Prometheus was real and mankind put his feet on the trail to the stars.