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Mark L. Van Name
conducted by Toni Weisskopf
May 2007

Mark L. Van Name, who John Ringo has said is "going to be the guy to beat in the race to the top of SFdom," has worked in the high-tech industry for over thirty years and today runs a technology assessment company in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. A former Executive Vice President for Ziff Davis Media and a national technology columnist, he's published over a thousand computer-related articles and multiple science fiction stories in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including the Year's Best Science Fiction. Jon & Lobo stories have appeared in a Baen anthology and Jim Baen's Universe. His first novel, One Jump Ahead, features Jon and Lobo, an AI-enhanced assault vehicle who's rapidly becoming one of my favorite characters in SF, and will be released in hardcover in June 2007.

Like many writers, Mark started early. "I've been writing pieces of various sorts for almost as long as I can remember, though through most of my pre-grad-school life I never thought of writing as anything special. In ninth grade, for example, I wrote most of the contents of several issues of a UFO newsletter, but not to be a writer; I was just into UFOs. In high school, I wrote hundreds of poems, but again, not to be a writer; I started out hoping poetry would get me laid, because being a jock and being rich were right out, and I ended up enjoying writing poems.

"I was reading an SF story during a break between grad school classes when I had the classic SF writer feeling: I could write a better story than the one I was reading. (I was wrong, at least at that time, but I was sure of the fact nonetheless.) I decided then and there to pursue SF writing. I promptly spent about twenty-eight years on the fringes of SF, writing occasionally, selling even less often, and anguishing about it constantly."

Mark is a collector as well as a reader of SF, and his house is full of books, pulps, comics, movies, memorabilia—an amazing testament to his devotion to the genre, and the many and varied influences on his work. "As for influences, the most truthful answer to what influences my writing is probably also useless: almost every book I've ever read and every movie I've ever watched--and I've consumed a great many books and movies--has informed my work.

"Okay, I can give at least some examples from my pre-high-school reading.

"The Tom Swift books taught me that adventures and amazing inventions could let any boy go anywhere.

"Sir Arthur Conan Doyle showed me the beautiful power of the focused, rational mind.

"Robert A. Heinlein helped me set my sights high and made me realize, in a way that inspired more than it depressed, that though I could never be as good a man as I would like to be, I should never stop trying.

"Harlan Ellison's rage, which fairly jumps off the pages of some of his best works, granted me hope that writing could siphon some of the anger in my soul.

"Stan Lee left me with an enduring love of superheroes and a bone-deep belief that no matter what the odds, you never give up.

"J.R.R. Tolkien took me far away, when for the day-long stretch in which I read all three Lord of the Rings books back to back to back and without sleep, I traveled with Frodo and Sam and Gandalf and the rest of the Fellowship.

"I could go on and on. Hey, I already have!" True. And if we listed all the contents of Mark's collection, we'd need another server.

Mark also reads widely outside the genre. "Again, the list is so long it's hard to single out a few. I'll limit myself to talking about writers I've read in the last few months. During that time, I've read a lot of my favorite mystery/crime authors. I love crime fiction, particularly the hard-boiled variety, both for the tainted but honorable protagonists and for the sense of alien wonder that a good writer can deliver from setting a story in a place that I've never really lived, even if I've visited it. James Lee Burke, who for my money is one of the most beautiful prose stylists working today, does that for Louisiana, and I adore his fiction. Lee Child keeps you turning the pages even when he stretches the bounds of credulity; my Jon Moore is in some ways a Jack Reacher with more soul-searching guilt. Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane get my money every time a new book appears. Carl Hiaasen does, too, though I save his novels for those plane trips when I want to insure privacy by laughing aloud to myself. Christopher Moore makes me wish my brain were weirder. Vicki Hendricks makes me shake my head in wonder and want to spend at least a day getting to know her. And on and on. I've barely scratched the surface."

For Mark it's not the material things that mean the most to him about being an SF writer. "I think every writer lives large chunks of every day in his or her head, inhabiting the imaginary spaces of the current novel even as he or she moves in the real world. Perhaps the best aspect of SF is that the world in my head can be, within the usual limits of playing fair, anything I want it to be."

And speaking of having anything they way he wants it to be, when asked how he'd like to cast One Jump Ahead, Mark feels free to alter a few realities. "In classic Hollywood style, I'll pretend neither absolute nor relative height matter, because Jon is about 6'6" tall and Alissa stands about 6'0. Given that pretense, I suppose Hugh Jackman for Jon, with Lucy Liu (who is all that and two bags of chips and who, as her performance in Kill Bill demonstrated, can kick butt) for Alissa. Lobo needs only a voice, of course, because CGI would do the rest. The choice for his voice is, to me, quite clear: Bill Nighy."

Lobo is my favorite character in the series, and I wondered if the same was true for Mark. But they are all his babies. . .. "I suspect I'm tripping the trite meter when I answer this one honestly, but here goes: I love a whole lot of them. Jon is a reluctant superhero who tries to live life honorably. Lobo is, well, that would be telling, but he's sure fun to write, and he often voices the kind of statements I leave on the cutting room floor of my mind. Alissa: what's not to love? She's sexy, gorgeous, deadly, smart, and psychopathic. Gustafson grew out of the story, but I came to really like him. In Slanted Jack (the sequel to One Jump Ahead, which Baen will release in June 2008), Jack is a favorite, as well as being my homage to a series I loved; buy the book, and if you don't get the reference from his last name, email me, and I'll fill you in. Maggie--oops, no one has met her yet--is really growing on me, and she's also gorgeous.

"I also have to mention the machines. I love writing the little rascals, in large part because as a lifelong nerd I can't help but appreciate their fanatic obsession with their functions. Plus, I hear Monty Python voices in my head when I write them."

Hmm. Since Mark's been involved with corporate America, I wondered if those "day job" experiences informed his fiction. "You bet. Much of what steers the world happens in meetings, and I've been in more than my share of those. In addition, the best business deals, like the best deals of all types, are those that align the self interests of all the parties so everyone involved wins. I strive for those types of deals as often as possible, and Jon does, too."

Since Mark is in the unusual position of having sold his first novel twice to Baen (long story—ask him at a convention some time), I asked him if he had any advice for novice novel writers who'd like to sell to Baen. "The usual stuff: Write a good story, one you'd like to read. That way, even if no one else wants the book, at least you'll have had fun reading it. Read other Baen books. Heck, read everything."

Over the course of his writer career, and in juggling day jobs, Mark has learned wonderful writing work habits, also good for new writers. "I'd like to be a morning writer, but I would require certain conditions my life doesn't currently meet: I need to have no other job, and I need my mornings to start about noon. I'm quite a night person, so getting up early doesn't suit me well at all.

"What I do now is write whenever I can. My day job is interesting and hugely time-consuming, so I work on fiction as time permits--but at least half an hour a day, every day, no breaks. I don't allow myself to sleep until I've finished at least that much time on fiction, and of course I usually put in more." Nice definition of morning. I think I could be a morning person under that definition.

When I asked Mark what scientific leap he'd like to see in his lifetime, he chose real leaps: "What I'd most like to see is not going to happen: teleportation. I've wanted it as long as I could remember. (Back we go to influences: think teleportation, and you have to think Alfred Bester, whom I didn't mention earlier. The list would never end.)

"Failing that, I'd love a dial-a-weight pill: take the right dose, and you stay at a fixed weight even as you eat all you want. I'd need the auto-artery-cleaner to go with it, because I'd be camped outside Ben & Jerry's eating a steak and waiting for dessert the day that combo became available.

"Okay, those won't happen either.

"In the realm of the possible, I'd love to see continued advances in life extension. With so many wonderful books and movies and so much great music, as well as interesting people and amazing sights everywhere, I want as long a life as I can get!"

As for historical act to witness, I'd second his choice: "I'd like to stand behind Neil Armstrong on the surface of the moon, be there with him as he first stepped onto the ground, and stare at the Earth and space and know the majesty and the possibility of it all."

In One Jump Ahead, Mark creates a really cool alien animal, Bob, a giant racing ray, that a human can ride on the sea. I wanted to know where we could go to get our own racing rays. "I wish I knew. I've done a tiny bit of night diving, and it was eerie and magical indeed. The closest I've come to the experience of riding with Bob was one night in college, on a new and officially still closed stretch of highway outside Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A friend and I were in his vintage 1964 Jaguar 12-cylinder doing almost a hundred and sixty miles an hour, alone on this beautiful new highway, and I turned off the lights. (Yeah, I know, but it was college, and I was dumb and immortal.) In the liquid warmth of the night we shot forward as if propelled by magic, and for a moment all was indeed magic and joy."

For more information please go to: www.markvanname.com