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Stephen Hickman
conducted by Toni Weisskopf
June 2003

Steve was originally scheduled to be the Artist Guest of Honor at Libertycon/DSC this July. Health issues forced him to cancel, but we'd already started this interview for the program book, and Steve's answers were too interesting not to share with you folks. I've worked with Steve in my capacity as an editor with Baen Books, and he's done some of my all-time favorites:Sassinak—the one I refer to as "The Mona Lisa of Science Fiction." The entire Man-Kzin Wars series, with fighting cats in cool armor. The one for Hoka Hoka Hoka by Poul Anderson & Gordon R. Dickson that is a pastiche of his own Man-Kzin Wars covers, with a cuddly teddy bear in the cool armor. Fallen Angels, with its swoosh and movement and perfectly integrated typography and art. Lately he's been doing intricate fantasy covers for Mercedes Lackey's collaborations with Rosemary Edghill. My favorite is the latest one, for Mad Maudlin, to be released in August. The list goes on. Steve is a painter very conscious of geometry, as well as one with a firm sense of the romance and narrative strength of science fiction. And he's a science fiction reader and lover, too, as the interview below indicates. To find out more about Steve's artwork, check out The Fantasy Art of Stephen Hickman (Donning, 1989).

TW: How did you get your start in painting professionally?

SH: While I was doing T-shirt designs for a firm in Maryland, the shirt explosion, I was doing up some paintings to use as portfolio pieces. I took these around for awhile, until Neal Adams, a well-known Marvel Comics artist, was good enough to take the time to look through the work I had then, and recommend me to Charles Volpe at Ace Books, the outfit that published the Burroughs books with the outstanding covers by Roy Krenkel and Frank Frazetta. Charles bought the rights to one painting which was used on the cover of (for the reference of archaeologists) lady of the bees by Thomas Burnett Swann. Then were was a second one which had some green in it which was used on The Green Millenium. But my big break was an actual reprint which I got to read and do a cover for specially —The Brain Stealers, by Murray Leinster. I must have worked on that for months. 

TW: Why did you pick sf in particular as the center of your career?

SH: Well, it was actually fantasy covers that compelled me to go into cover painting —the Burroughs covers I mentioned a few lines ago. I still regard these as among the best works of fantasy ever painted. I think my favorite of all time is the Krenkel cover for The Mastermind of Mars. But I started reading sf when I was about 12, and somewhere in there I got ahold of a copy of Have Space Suit, Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein, and my life was changed forever. I've read a lot of sf since, but I still love that book with my other favorites in the field. When we moved to Northern Virginia, I happened to go to an exceptional high school, and I found all of Heinlein's books in the library, and read them immediately. This high school, incidentally, was where I received all of the useful artistic training I use in my work now —Mr. Fletcher Proctor, a man of great integrity and ability, was the art teacher, and I took classes in the summer as well as during the regular school year. I ended up with so many extra school credits I could have skipped my senior year in high school and gone straight into partying through art school in Richmond, VA.

TW: Where do you think sf is going from here?

SH: That's up to the writers and moviemakers, for the most part. A lot of the best art goes into movies now, which is an anonymous way to make a living (unless you are a visually oriented director like James Cameron or Ridley Scott, in which case you are making moving paintings) (come to think of it, that's what cinematographers do for a living).

TW: What's it like balancing a career in the arts and a family?

SH: Now that's a trick—in the twenty-five years I've been married my wife has never learned not to interrupt me when I'm painting. But in a pinch I can always work at night, nyah-ha-ha. Come to think of it, I generally work a lot a night anyway, because I like to. I think it was the late Joe Orlando that defined a hack as an artist who hadn't worked all night in three years (so I'm safe for at least another three years).

TW: Who are your favorite authors? Artists or schools that've influenced you at different times in your career?

SH: Whoo, this will end up as a list of names—the guy in sf (ostensibly) that I'm really impressed with right now is Neal Stephenson. Snowcrash and The Diamond Age are brilliant sf books, but my favorite, Cryptonomicon, is more main- stream literature. The writers I'm most familiar with (through the medium of unabridged recordings) are authors like Patrick O'Brian and John Lecarre, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, Harlan Ellison and Donald Westlake, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Booth Tarkington and Georgette Heyer and Dorothy L. Sayers, Stephen Coonts and Dick Francis, Carl Hiaasen (this guy is truly a hoot), Robert Louis Stevenson and H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft and the best fantasist of all time Clark Ashton Smith, H. Ryder Haggard and A. Merritt, and Robert E. Howard, and so many others that I will have to stop here for lack of space (including several books I have read which haven't been published yet)—the best of the stylists, in other words, which I have fairly well memorized by now. And Cryptonomiconfeatures right up there at the top. Next in line is one of those that hasn't been printed yet, written by Larry Hama.

But in the mainstream sf genre, there are many authors and books that I can't do without—the Dune series (with the exception of the last two) by Frank Herbert, The Mote in God's Eye and The Gripping Hand, by Niven and Pournelle: these are milestones in sf. David Drake is always great, with a talent for taking sf into bizarre fantasy-nightmare situations. And Hal Colebatch, who has done some outstanding stories for the Man-Kzin wars series—and considering the fine level of these stories this is a real distinction. Tolkien, of course—I've lost count of the times I've read the trilogy and The Hobbit. I've even read The Silmarillion twice. But this is another list I will have to simply stop writing for lack of space—I have a cold at the moment and can't think straight (that gives me an excuse for the time being), so I will just include Manly Wade Wellman, Orson Scott Card, E.E. Smith, Ray Bradbury, Tom Cool (my personal recommendation) and Kim Newman—and I reserve the right to add to this list when my cognitive enhancers kick in.

TW: Favorite of your own covers are….

SH: Here's another list—and I can feel your readers getting fidgety by now—so to keep is really short, maybe I can mention a few of the most rewarding or challenging ones—The Farnham's Freehold cover (Robert Heinlein, the most challenging author bar none i've ever done covers for), and Expanded Universe (same author)—the John the Balladeer cover (Manly Wade Wellman—and there's a story behind that one [note this will be available on the CD-ROM included in the first edition of The Far Side of the Stars by David Drake, November 2004]—The Toxic Spell Dump cover (Harry Turtledove—and it took me literally two tries to do this) —The Dracula Tapes cover (Fred Saberhagen), The Cardmasters cover —Lacey and His Friends (David Drake—and I spent five weeks on this one)—and the Man- Kzin wars covers. The tales of the Cthulhu mythos cover (for this cover I actually did a sculpture that I intended to take a photo of for the cover—an odd story behind what happened here, but it ended up as a painting). By the way, the Cthulhu statuette edition is sold out now. And not necessarily in that order, please note.

To see more go to: www.stephenhickman.com