Even Graveyards are Filled with Stories: John Kenny talks to Mike Resnick
Originally appeared in Albedo One #39 (2010)
Mike Resnick is the author of over 60 SF novels, 200 short stories, 2 screenplays, and has edited 40+ anthologies. According to Locus, Mike is the all-time leading award winner for short science fiction, 4th when you add in novels and non-fiction. Mike has been nominated for 34 Hugo Awards and won five times. Except for 1999 and 2003, he has received at least one nomination every year to date since 1989.
John Kenny: How did you first encounter science fiction?
Mike Resnick: Probably on TV, watching Captain Video or Tom Corbett, or maybe some old Flash Gordon serials, I really don’t remember.
But I remember the first science fiction book I read. My mother found me reading an especially grisly EC horror comic book when I was 8 or 9, and took it away from me. I argued that this was censorship, which she had always told me was wrong, and she, dancing on the head of a pin, explained that it was wrong to censor books but it was okay to censor images that might give me nightmares. So I took a couple of weeks’ worth of my allowance, hopped on my bicycle, and went right out to buy a horror book. I’m sure she thought it would be something unreadable for 8-year-olds such as Frankenstein, but instead the first ‘horror’ title I could find was a paperback of Groff Conklin‘s Science Fiction Terror Tales. The first three stories were by Ray Bradbury, Fredric Brown, and Bob Sheckley, and I was hooked. I knew before I finished that book what I wanted to do with my life, and it has never varied. (For what it’s worth, I still have the book, nearly 60 years later.)
JK: I guess, like most writers, what you read as a kid prompted you to write your own stories. How did you get started and where did you make your first sales?
MR: I sold my first article in high school at the age of 15, a totally forgettable thing about the history of the unicorn in myth. Sold my first few stories in college, none of them sf, none of them memorable. Sold my first science fiction stories in the mid-1960s to a trio of men’s magazines I was editing, where my stories and articles formed the legally-required ‘redeeming social value’ between photo spreads of voluptuous naked ladies. I do not list them in my bibliography, because in truth they were pretty derivative, and about half were written under pseudonyms.
I sold my first 50 or 60 books under pseudonyms in the ‘adult’ field starting in 1965. My first science fiction novel was a Burroughs pastiche, The Goddess of Ganymede, that I sold to Don Grant (hardcover, 1967) and Paperback Library (mass market paperback, 1968). I did 3 science fiction books in the late 1960s while I was doing maybe 25 or 30 adult novels a year, and they weren’t much better. I quickly realized that one shouldn’t hack in the field one loves, and I stayed away from science fiction for 11 years to give the fans time to forget.
By 1976 – I was editing a men’s magazine, packaging 4 monthly tabloids, and still writing maybe 20 adult novels a year, all out of my house – I decided that my brain was in danger of turning into porridge and running out my ears, and I had to get out of that field. We were breeding and exhibiting collies at the time (more than 20 champions, most named after science fiction books and characters, photos of which appear on my Facebook page), and I figured the one thing I knew how to do besides write was care for dogs, so we bought the second-largest luxury boarding and grooming kennel in America. By 1980 it was running smoothly, with a staff of 21, and I was able to get back to writing, more slowly and carefully this time. You may view my post-1980 career as a public penance for my pre-1980 career.
My first two science fiction stories that I’m willing to be associated with were ‘The Last Dog’ (1977) and ‘Blue’ (1978). The prozines didn’t know me then, and they got form rejections for all the majors, which were paying about 3 cents a word at the time – so I reluctantly sold them to Hunting Dog Magazine for 25 cents a word, both of them won the American Dog Writers Award for Best Short Fiction, and shortly thereafter I sold to Roy Torgerson’s Chrysalis series and a few other places. Never wrote more than one story a year until the mid-1980s, when I decided I liked doing them after all. That was about 250 stories ago.
JK: That’s some resume for the early part of your career. Some aspects share similarities with the early career of Robert Silverberg, who I believe wrote an awful lot of ‘adult’ books. Was it a case of financial necessity that drove you to write essentially one every two weeks?
MR: A lot of us labored in that particular vinyard when we were starting out: me, Bob Silverberg, Barry Malzberg, Andy Offutt, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Donald E. Westlake, many others.
It wasn’t financial necessity in the sense that this was hideous stuff and we were doing it to pay for that unexpected surgery or some such. Actually, it felt like stealing. You learned discipline; you learned speed; you learned how to turn out 50,000 words in a week or two. You were writing it for guys who didn’t want it good, they wanted it Thursday; and an industrious guy could anonymously make himself $50,000 a year from the adult book field in the 1960s (and in my case, that much again by also editing men’s magazines and tabloids), back when the average American was making about $8,000 a year.
So you tell me: was it necessity – or was it that we were a bunch of kids just learning our craft who couldn’t make anywhere near that much anywhere else? We all quit when we could, but no one quit broke. I was just a young man in my 20s, starting out – but long before I was 30 I had a house on 5 acres in a wealthy Chicago suburb, I had a kennel of show collies that we exhibited all over the country, my daughter had her own horse… and this was before I ever put my own name on a book.
JK: I note that you have used Africa as the setting for several of your novels. It’s obviously a continent that fascinates you.
MR: We’ve been to Kenya (4 times), Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Botswana, and Egypt. On half of each safari we were tourists; we love the game parks and the natural wonders. But we always went with a private guide, not on package tours, and I’d tell the guide in advance who I wanted to meet, what I wanted to see that was off the beaten track. I’d visit with old hunters, old Mau Mau, old settlers, anyone I’d read or heard about that I thought might have a story to tell. Even the graveyards are filled with stories. Just reading the headstones is fascinating: “Killed by a lion, killed by the Nandi, died from blackwater fever, killed by an elephant, died from cholera…”
Anyway, the more I learn about that continent, the more I visit it, the more stories I find. I thought I was pretty much done with it after that run of novels that included Ivory, Paradise, Purgatory, Inferno, A Miracle of Rare Design, A Hunger in the Soul and Kirinyaga, and stories like ‘Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge’, ‘Mwalimu in the Squared Circle’ and ‘Barnaby in Exile’. But ten years later my friend Bill Schafer, publisher of Subterranean Press and a man who really knows how to nag, got me to write Kilimanjaro, which came out about a year and a half ago, and then he and Pete Crowther of PS Publishing ganged up on me and the result was Shaka II, which came out in England in December. And now I seem to owe Bill another African novella, so I guess I’m not through with it after all.
Why write about Africa itself, or thinly-disguised analogs? Well, along with the fact that it’s beautiful and exotic and dangerous (and even more so these days with a few thousand jihadists wandering around), I think it boils down to this: I think everyone will agree on two things – first, if we can reach the stars we’re going to colonize them, and second, if we colonize enough of them, we’re going to come into contact with one or more sentient races. Well, Africa offers 51 separate and distinct examples of the effects, usually deleterious, of colonization on both the colonized and the colonizers… and if we don’t learn from our mistakes (and we probably won’t), we’re doomed to repeat them. You can’t have a fiction plot without conflict, and that’s a breeding ground for conflict no matter how you extrapolate it.
JK: That’s quite a list of books and stories just relating to Africa. You are very prolific, the more so in recent years. In fact, you’ve had several books hit the shelves in the last few months alone. Are there pros and cons to this?
MR: The pro is that you make a little more money. The con is that you have a little less time for everything else.
Most writers hate writing and love having written. Me, I love writing. Some reporter once asked Picasso what he did for a hobby. He said, “I paint.” The reporter said no, that was what he did for a living; what did he do in his spare time, to relax and unwind? Picasso’s answer: “I paint.” Me, I write.
After over one hundred books – novels, anthologies, collections – in the science fiction field, and maybe 250 stories, seeing my name in print is not the thrill it once was. But reading what I’ve written at the end of a good day and seeing that it came out almost the way I’d hoped it would when I sat down to write… that is a thrill in its own way. Also, I’m very aware that I’m a lot closer to the end than the beginning, and I still have hundreds of stories to tell before I reach the final page.
JK: You’ve won many awards for your work. In fact, if I’m correct, you are number 1 with regard to short fiction awards. Are awards still important to you?
MR: Are they still important to me? Yes, to the extent that the awards help convince publishers, here and abroad, that I am a Prestige Item worth having in their stable.
Also, if you’re nominated – and I’ve been nominated for 33 Hugos, 11 Nebulas, and literally dozens of other awards through the end of 2009 – it’s nicer to win them than lose them.
JK: You’re also known for collaborating, particularly in the short form. You’ve had many collaborators over the years, but I note that you are doing a lot of work lately with Lezli Robyn. Can you tell me how this came about?
MR: Initially I collaborated with Nick DiChario about 20 years ago, because he was too talented for the field to lose (I bought his first story, which was a Hugo and WFA nominee, and he was still having a hard time selling), and I didn’t want him to get discouraged and desert us for another field, so I got him into print a few times as a collaborator until he could fly on his own. (We eventually collaborated on enough stories – eleven of them – to collect them as Magic Feathers: The Mike and Nick Show, from Obscura Press.)
I collaborated with my friend Barry Malzberg to pool our ignorance. Twice we were both assigned shared-world stories in universes we had not previous read about – Farmer‘s Riverworld and Laumer‘s Bolos – so we split the research, the writing, and the money.
I collaborated with some more newcomers to get them into print, discovered that I enjoyed it, started collaborating – only one story apiece – with established writers like Harry Turtledove, Kevin J. Anderson, Nancy Kress, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Janis Ian, Pat Cadigan, James Patrick Kelly, Catherine Asaro, a bunch more… and when the dust had cleared I’d had 41 collaborators.
Then came Number 42. I wasn’t looking for a regular collaborator, truly I wasn’t. A girl who lived in Australia, Lezli Robyn, bought a book from me via eBay. We started corresponding. I showed her some of my stories (which are difficult to get where she lives). She made some incisive comments, spotting things that no one else had spotted. I suggested she might think about writing a story. She admitted that she’d always wanted to, but knew nothing of the business. I offered to collaborate on her first one. We met at the Denver Worldcon and hit it off, and she agreed.
Although we are 40 years, 2 cultures, and 17,000 miles apart, I have never found anyone else who sees things exactly the way I do when writing, whose words, sentences, and plot structures are the same, who is in such artistic rapport with me – and who wants to write about the same things. If I suggest she read some item I found on the internet and tell me if she thinks it would make a story, she’ll suggest the very same story, almost item by item, that I had thought of doing. We sold our first story in late 2008, and have since written and sold 6 more to major markets like Asimov’s and Analog – and I’m not carrying her; she’s sold a few solo stories as well.
We’ll keep collaborating in the future. Not exclusively – I still owe a book with Eric Flint, another with Jack McDevitt, and some things with Janis Ian; and I still write a quarterly column with Barry Malzberg for the SFWA Bulletin – but from the first day we worked together she has become my Collaborator of Choice.
JK: How do you think you and Lezli compliment each other when writing a story together and does the 17,000 miles distance throw up any barriers?
MR: We’re so much alike when we write that we compliment each other primarily in small ways – pointing out a word here, a sentence that could be added there, small stuff that turns a good, salable story into a far better one. On about 2/3 of my collaborations, my partner did the first draft and I did the final draft and polish. On 1/3, my partner did the first half and I did the second half and polish. With Lezli it’s different, more like a Kuttner/Moore collaboration; I doubt that we’re done a story yet that didn’t go back and fourth four or five times to each of us before we hit The End of the first draft.
JK: You mentioned the difficulty Lezli had in getting your work in Australia. Of course, your work can be sourced via Internet ordering, but is foreign rights a job for your agent to be tackling more aggressively?
MR: I sold a few books to England in the 1980s and early 1990s; Santiago had 3 printings, each (as I recall) with a different cover, and Ivory was a Clarke nominee. My publisher was Century/Legend, my editor (Deborah Beale) left, and I don’t think I’ve sold to England again until 2009.
That hasn’t been my problem in any other countries. This year I’ve sold books to Italy, Japan, Spain, Germany, Poland, Korea, France, and more. And the year before, I also sold China and Denmark. Still, it’s been a few years between Century and PS; I’m glad to be back in England.
My agent has cooperating agents in 35 or 40 other countries, and it’s their job to sell me in their own countries. I like to think I make it easier for them by selling my stories abroad. I average 6 sales per story; some of the more famous ones do far better – 29 for ‘For I Have Touched the Sky’, 27 for ‘Kirinyaga’, 18 for ‘Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge’, and 9 so far for one of my collaborations with Lezli (‘Soulmates’, which came out in September of 2009.)
JK: Nothing like making your short stories work hard for you. We certainly live in interesting times at the moment with regard to the publishing industry. There seems to be less interest shown by young people in reading as attention spans apparently diminish, and yet there is an ever expanding range of options for how you do your reading. What’s your view on the new options available and are you hopeful for the future of publishing?
MR: I think traditional publishing is on the way out, though it’ll hang on by its fingernails for as long as it can. But the world is changing. My generation grew up with newspapers and couldn’t do without them. But my 48-year-old daughter never reads a paper; she gets all the news she wants off the 24-hour news channels on cable, and downloads some other programs she likes on her ipod ever morning. When I was at DragonCon, after listening to my fellow writers complain that no one reads books anymore (and from which they extrapolated, wrongly, that no one reads, period) I asked an audience of a few hundred, most under the age of 30, what they’d rather read — a printed page or a computer screen. I think about 90% opted for the screen.
Publishers are incredibly slow adjusting, and their notion of Digital Rights Management belongs in the Eocine. Writers adjust. Three and a half years ago I didn’t know what the word “podcast” meant. I have now sold maybe 40 stories to EscapePod, PodCastle, Drabblecast, and other podcasters. Three years ago I had sold only two novels to audio, both of them to a CD/cassette publisher. Since then I’ve sold about 20 novels for very nice advances to Audible.com, which just sold to Amazon.com for $300 million, and Amazon knows its market. (And at last winter’s ConFusion, I picked up another audio publisher.) Those first two audiobook CDs are now paying decent royalties, propped up by the audience I’ve found through Audible.com, which does downloads, not CDs. Lately I’ve sold a number of books to a company that specializes in supplying digital versions solely to mobile media. I think the day is not too far off when, barring a bestseller advance, a writer will make more from books and stories that are not on the printed page than those that are. Hell, I haven’t even mentioned Kindle, the Sony Reader, and the Nook yet.
Let me give you one example about how the world is changing. A couple of years ago I sold a Hugo winner to a podcast network. The magazine in which it appeared had a circulation, that issue, of only 16,600 copies – and it would be unrealistic to assume than more than 12,000 of them read my story. The podcast – which had my story and nothing else – had 28,000 hits the first month, and it is still getting hits 30 months later. That’s potentially 50,000 new fans, some of who will part with their hard-earned money for a Resnick book. Or a Resnick audiobook. Or… but you get the idea.
JK: Traditional publishers do seem to be very slow to change alright. And that includes on the royalty front. Should publishers continue to demand the same high cut of the profits when it comes to electronic versions of the work?
MR: Absolutely not. They don’t typeset e-stories. They don’t print e-stories. They don’t do color separations for e-stories’ art. They don’t ship e-stories. They don’t pay national and local distributors to put e-stories in stores. They don’t pay bookstores for selling e-stories. I’d say a fair royalty rate is somewhere in the 50% range. They say it’s somewhere in the 20% range. If they continue to say so, they’re going to find out just how unnecessary they are in the e-publishing age. Don’t forget – Amazon Kindle’s going to 70% royalties in July of 2010. Why should a publisher take 90% of that?
JK: Do you see a day when writers will go straight to digital and bypass the publisher altogether? And what effect will that have on quality?
MR: Hell, yes – and in my lifetime, which reasonably has about 20 to 30 years to go. Quality will go down with some authors (not every manuscript is perfect when handed in), and will remain the same on others (not every manuscript is imperfect either). If the print publishers continue on their current path, they’ll be replaced by a new generation of e-publishers – it’s happening in the magazine field, and books can’t be too far behind… and until the means of delivery are as rigidly controlled in the e-field as they are in the print field, I imagine more and more writers will bypass even the digital publishers.
There will also be some companies that do control the means of delivery – those dealing with mobile media, for example; no individual writer is likely to make deals with Verizon, Sprint, etc. – but they’ll be a minority.
The print publishers have no one to blame but themselves. Right now paying late on the signature advance, later still on delivery/acceptance, and later still on royalty statements and payments is industry standard. They know you can’t get into court for 5 or 6 months, and they also know that you’re not going to put a good lawyer on retainer to represent you when both sides know you’ll get your money a month or two before it ever comes to court. Also, the standard for reserve against returns – royalties held back on the assumption that some books out there will not be sold and be returned – was 23% for 6 months when I entered the field. These days it goes as high as 80% for 2 or even 3 years. This is not the way to build writer loyalty, and the print publishers have been doing a pretty thorough job of not building it.
JK: I guess the new technologies will promote an explosion of new talent. Who of the newer writers do you like? And who of the ‘older’ writers do you think are still at the top of their game?
MR: As a 40+ year veteran of the field, my definition of ‘new’ may vary a bit from yours, but of the ‘newer’ writers, these have impressed me the most: John Scalzi, Kay Kenyon, Elizabeth Bear, Kage Baker, Naomi Novik, David Levine, Tobias S. Buckell, and of course my favorite collaborator, Lezli Robyn.
Among the older writers, I’d say the following are still at the top of their game: Nancy Kress, Connie Willis, Rob Sawyer, Jack McDevitt, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Michael Swanwick, Neil Gaiman, James Patrick Kelly, Bob Silverberg and Barry Malzberg on those rare occasions they write fiction, Allen Steele, Harry Turtledove, Lois McMaster Bujold, and probably 20 others.
JK: Just that list alone is indicative of a very vibrant field. What do you say to the perennial doomsayers who pronounce the SF field to be dead?
MR: To the doomsayers, I would suggest they come up with something new to say. This field was pronounced dead when Gernsback went broke in 1930; when Astounding flopped and Clayton sold it to Street & Smith in 1933; when H. G. Wells died; when the World War II paper shortage killed Unknown and turned a bunch of monthlies into quarterlies, when American News Corporation went belly-up, killing the pulps and most of the digests; when we landed on the moon and mainstream commentators stated that there was nothing left for us to write about; and three or four more times since then. Save the doomsaying for the Western, the adventure novel, and the hard-boiled private eye; we’re doing just fine, thank you.
Whether you’re writing science fiction or anything else, your primary purpose is to tell a human story that moves the reader – moves him to tears, or anger, or terror, or laughter… but if you don’t move him, all you’ve done is fictionalized a scientific puzzle or a polemic. And since the human story is always more important that the technology, or the current state of a particular society, I don’t see any dimuition in the power or popularity of science fiction. It’s probably being outsold eight-to-one by romance… but it’s always been outsold by many categories. And, like George Stewart‘s Earth, it abides.
JK: You’ve dabbled in the genres you mention above, but in the context of mixing them with SF or fantasy. I’m thinking of the Galactic Midway books (elements of the Western), the Fable of Tonight books (hard-boiled detective) and the Lucifer Jones books (adventure). Can crossing genres help ensure the survival of these ailing types of fiction?
MR: I don’t think any of the genres is moribund, though Westerns are getting close. I truly don’t know if crossing genres is more likely to double your readership or cut it in half; your guess is as good as mine. But I also think the differences are artificial. My 4-book Eros series, for example, is set in an orbiting brothel. The second book, Eros at Zenith, is a murder mystery. Why not? Isn’t the most luxurious, exclusive brothel in the galaxy a likely spot for a murder? Do they only occur in Philip Marlowe’s and Sam Spade’s dark alleys? The first of the four, Eros Ascending, is a love story. It’s a lot of other things too, but it’s primarily a love story. Why not? Do men only fall in love with the girl next door? So I use any plot device that’s handy to tell my story… and if I tell it right, and with the proper depth, then it’s not really about murder or romance anyway, but about what lies beneath them and occurs because of them.
JK: You have a lot of work coming through the system. Do you work on some stories simultaneously or park them in order on the runway? And what kind of hours do you keep?
MR: I never work on two novels simultaneously. But when I’m working on a novel, I often take a 2-or-3-day break to write a short story and then come back to the novel all refreshed and ready to continue. (I think my record was 6 short stories while I was writing The Return of Santiago.)
I write the novels in the order I sign the contracts for them, unless there’s a special rush job (and my experience at turning out a couple of hundred books in a decade back in the adult field during my starving-writer days means I don’t panic when there is a rush job. It’s nothing I haven’t seen and done before.)
I found out more than 40 years ago that no one knocks on the door or calls on the phone after 10 at night and before sunrise, so my workday is usually from 10:00 PM until 5:00 or 6:00 AM. If I’m pushed up against a deadline (and it happens occasionally), I’ll write during the day as well. I edit and proof galleys and do all my business correspondence during daylight, but not the writing (if I can help it). I think most writers keep vampire hours; the majority of us work very late at night (I know this because I find them online when we’re taking our breaks), and those who don’t get up a couple of hours before dawn (like Bob Silverberg and Barry Malzberg) and write then. It’s the same principle: you do it when no one’s likely to disturb you.
There’s one exception to that, and that’s when I’m in the homestretch of a novel. If it’s, say, a 400-pager, for the first 330 pages I’m immortal. But somewhere around page 331 I realize I could wrap my car around a tree or have a heart attack, and they might farm the rest of my novel out to the next Lionel Fanthorpe or Lin Carter… and at that point, I don’t eat, I don’t sleep, I just write clear through until I type “The End”. Then I’m immortal again til I’m approaching the end of the next novel.
JK: So what’s up next for you?
MR: That changes almost daily. This week, for example, I placed my wife’s favorite character, Harry the Book, with Postscripts, which will be running him in every issue.
Recently I concluded a deal for Masters of the Galaxy, consisting of the 4 Jake Masters novellas (he’s a hardboiled private eye about 3000 years from now) plus a new Masters story written especially for the book. The Buntline Special, a ‘Weird Western’, comes out at year’s end from Pyr, and I just signed for a sequel titled The Doctor and the Kid. This autumn Golden Gryphon brought out an omnibus volume titled Blasphemy, which will consist of my novels The Branch (about the true Jewish Messiah), Walpurgis III (about a planet populated by Satanists), and 5 short stories in which God or Jesus have speaking lines. I’ll be doing a Lucifer Jones story for every issue of Subterranean. I owe Subterranean an African novella, tentatively titled ‘Six Blind Men and an Alien’. Lezli Robyn and I have 3 collaborativeanthology assignments to do this year, and will also be collaborating on a YA novel. As soon as Eric Flint catches up with his schedule – he fell behind during his open-heart surgery – he and I owe a novel, The Gods of Sagittarius, to Baen. Barry Malzberg and I have a collection of our SFWA Bulletin Dialogues coming out this summer from McFarland as The Business of Science Fiction – and we continue to do our bi-monthly Dialogues. I owe an original novelette to a Czech-and-English anthology about 2012. I just sold ‘The Incarceration of Captain Nebula’ to Asimov’s. One day soon Farthest Star is supposed to do a collection of my travel essays, Resnick Abroad. Jack McvDevitt and I just signed with Ace to do a collaborative novel titled The Cassandra Project. And of course I have book proposals in at a couple of publishers; probably I’ll have one or more sold before this interview sees print. I’m in conference about editing a successor to Jim Baen’s Universe, which I co-edited with Eric Flint; the new magazine, if it comes off, will not be connected to Baen in any way. I realize that at my age I should be slowing down, but first, I love writing, and second, I am a lot closer to the end of The Resnick Story than the beginning and I still have hundreds of stories to tell.
Check out Mike’s website here.
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