In school I hated history classes. This was ironic, because the study of human history has been a hallmark of my later life. So what was the problem in school? It was that a school’s idea of history was lists of the names and dates of kings, the dates of battles, and maybe some lists of products of the times. Things to memorize. I was never good at memorization. Climate of Change*
When did you first become interested in writing?
Two years into college, I had to choose my major. I had been interested in higher math, but that had been blotted out in high school when I was required to take four years of languages instead. I was fascinated by psychology, but lacked the credits to take that farther. I loved art, but six years of art classes in high school and college finally satisfied me that I lacked the talent to earn my living as a commercial artist. So I pondered, and in a day and a night realized that I wanted to be a writer. It was like a light turning on, and it has guided me ever since.
What style of writing do you use most?
I use whatever style seems to work best for the subject or story I am writing. In the course of more than 140 books I have used different styles.
Mainly I want to be clear, interesting, and relevant.
Has your style changed from when you first began as an author?
I hope my finesse and precision of expression have improved with experience.
So the kind of history I liked was ancient, before there were names and dates. The problem was that there were no classes in that. So I had to research it myself. But there were huge gaps. Here is a typical example: modern man emerged from Africa about 100,000 years ago. Then he expanded throughout the rest of the world about 50,000 years ago. What happened in between? It was a mystery. It aggravated me. Climate of Change*
In what way do you usually put down your ideas first?
Originally I typed on a manual typewriter. Then when my hyperactive daughter was born, and I took care of her while my wife worked to earn our living, I changed to pencil on paper. That was so I could literally drop it in an instant to try to catch her before she fell. So my early bestselling novels were pencilled first. Seventeen years later, when she went off to college, I realized that this was no longer necessary, and switched to the computer. But I still scribble idea notes on paper, because ideas can occur at any time, such as when I’m eating, working, showering, or in town with my wife, and if I don’t catch them when they come, I may never remember them thereafter. Later I transcribe those notes to my burgeoning Idea File, so that they are there for me when I need them.
What made you choose that medium?
The computer? Two reasons: they stopped making good manual typewriters, and the computer saved me from having to retype from scratch. I could revise freely. The computer is almost as good in that respect as pencil, and considerably faster.
Do your ideas come from life or imagination?
My ideas come from anywhere. Let me illustrate by relaying a joke about the composer Beethoven: he had written four symphonies, but was stumped for a theme for the next. As he struggled against the determined blankness of his mind, his cleaning woman came by the office. She paused with her mop, and said “If you don’t mind my asking, sir, how do you ever come up with those great tunes you do?” How indeed! But he replied politely “Oh, I can get an idea from anywhere. Even from you, my dear.” She was amazed. “Me? Me Ha ha ha haa!” in the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It s like that with me too.
How do you choose your characters, if fact, how do you choose the subject?
I start with the story, then fill in characters as needed. Once I select a character, that person starts to define him or her self, becoming individual. Rarely I will adapt from life. This was the case with Jenny Elf in my Xanth fantasy series. Jenny was a twelve year old girl who had been struck by a drunk driver and put into a three month coma. I wrote her a letter at the behest of her desperate mother and offered to put her in a novel, as she loved the Xanth series. This roused her from the coma, but then it turned out that she was almost completely paralyzed. Jenny Elf does all the things Jenny Mundane can’t do. I still write to her weekly, trying to make her situation less difficult.
My nonfiction has mostly been biographical. There is however a very strong research basis for my GEODYSSEY historical series. I chose that because I am fascinated with mankind’s nature and history and don’t much like the way it is taught in school, which forever turns off students so that they prefer ignorance to knowledge of our species.
Now at last we have a hint: it was the climate. Mankind was spreading, but then came the Mt. Toba volcanic eruption, 74,000 years ago, of a scale we have never seen in historic times. It blotted out the sunlight and obliterated perhaps 99% of human life, and I think all of it outside of the home territory of Africa. Mankind had to recover and start over after that setback, from a far smaller base. This time there was no eruption of that magnitude, and he succeeded in colonizing the world, though constantly affected by the weather. Climate of Change*
Who is your favourite author?
That keeps changing, and I have to say I have no fixed favorite. Back in my day, the top three genre authors were Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke; I liked them all, plus Jack Vance, Theodore Sturgeon, and others.
What is your favourite piece of work by yourself?
My historical novel Tatham Mound, and the GEODYSSEY series. In fantasy, it is my ChroMagic series. Neither of these is well known, however; I am generally known from my Xanth series, which is light and punny fantasy that takes nothing very seriously. Xanth is a land that looks like the state of Florida, in America, with magic added. For example I live near the Withlacoochee River, which in Xanth becomes the With-A-Cookee River, with cookies growing by its banks. I live on a small tree farm by Lake Tsala Apopka, which in Xanth is Lake Tsoda Popka, with many flavors of soda pop. It is hardly deep literature, but it is popular.
How much time (on average) does it take to complete a work?
A serious novel may take six months. Each GEODYSSEY novel did, though I had a paid researcher; otherwise they would have taken a year or more. A simple Xanth novel takes under three months. My fastest was in six and a half weeks. Despite the opinion of critics, nothing I write is carelessly dashed off; I do my best to make it the best of its type that it can be. I turn out novels rapidly because I spend full time on it. Writing is my livelihood and my life.
How well do you take criticism?
About as well as the average writer does. More specifically, a critic is finely crafted from fecal matter. Thus he is a turd that walks and talks like a sh*t. It’s a good thing you asked when I was in a good mood.
I also have a broader idea of history than conventional texts do. I see it as a process dating from when mankind separated from the apes, several million years ago. When he left the trees, walked on two feet, learned to use tools, started wearing clothing, and learned to talk. I believe that the phenomenal tool of language powered his explosive increase in brain size. That brain made it possible for him to conquer the world, once he learned how to use it. Climate of Change*
What do you do to overcome a ‘block’?
In college I took drama and was in several plays. I discovered that I could not afford stage fright. As a math teacher in the US Army, and later as a civilian English teacher, I came to the same conclusion. So I worked to eliminate it, and have not suffered from it since. Writer’s Block is similar, and similarly unaffordable for a writer, and I got rid of it similarly. I really don’t suffer total blocks, the kind that prevent a writer from writing anything for years at a time. I think such writers aren’t really serious about writing. I developed what I call my [bracket] system: when I come to a place in the story that seems to be a dead end, I go into [brackets] and discuss the problem with myself. Why brackets? Because the point is to keep writing, whether in pencil or typing, but not to confuse it with the story itself. When I had only the one pencil and paper, or the one manual typewriter, the brackets allowed me to do this on the same page without confusion. Such a discussion might be one sentence, or it might be three thousand words. Whatever it took. Then when I figured it out, I exited the brackets and resumed writing the story. Next draft, I would edit out the bracket notes, as they had accomplished their purpose, leaving only the text. Today I have a separate computer file for it, but the principle is the same. A facetious example of such a note: [My protagonist has just taken the woman of his dreams into his embrace. She is absolutely lovely and is gazing into his face with sheer adoration. What does he say or do now? Ask her the time of day? Burp in her face? This would not go over well. Aha! I think I’ve got it. He can say “I love you” and kiss her. What a struggle to get that original notion!] I use this system constantly. That’s why I never really block. It should work for another writer too, if he is serious about writing.
How do you know something is ‘finished’? Is it easy to walk away?
My novels have definite plots that come to solid conclusions. Of course I do tinker, revise, and edit, which I regard as putting the final polish on a gem. I have trained myself to recognize when such tinkering is yielding diminishing returns, and to let the piece go. I do suffer separation pangs, as it is a world I am departing from. So I start the next novel, and that distracts me.
Have you had been published?
Oh, yes. Too many novels, stories, and articles to track, let alone list.
I have been writing full time since 1966 and am one of the most prolific writers in the Science Fiction / Fantasy genre. 21 of my fantasy novels made the NEW YORK TIMES national bestseller list in the 1980s. I’m not a bestseller now, but anyone can find my works by Googling my name.
Have you any publications planned for the future?
I am constantly writing. The problem is getting my books published, especially the more challenging or original ones. At the moment I have a horror novel The Sopaths that may be unpublishable because it pushes some wrong buttons. There will be Xanth novels in the future; more serious works are problematical.
There were other mysteries. Why did he lose his fur, so that he had to replace it with clothing? Why did human women, alone of all mammals, develop permanent breasts that weren’t needed for feeding her babies? Climate of Change*
What are your plans for the future?
To keep right on writing. When I die I’ll be half through a great novel.
What advice would you give new authors?
Write for love rather than for money, because no one has any certainly of getting successfully published. There are something like a hundred decent novels for every one publishing slot. Fortunately affordable self publishing now exists. I was active in that, investing serious money in Xlibris because I wanted that option to exist. Now it does, though Xlibris may not be the company it was in my day. I also maintain a candid ongoing survey of electronic publishers and related services at my www.hipiers.com web site, so that new writers can shop for publishers without being deceived about the bad ones. I do it in significant part because I have the will and the means to take it to any bad publisher that tries to threaten me (and some do); otherwise the truth would not be known, and writers would get deceived or cheated more than they do now. So when you have your novel, try the traditional print publishers, then the electronic publishers, then as a last resort, the self publishers. I wish every writer could be one of the hundred, but that’s unrealistic.
Have you done any courses to help you?
Way back when, I took the correspondence writing course by the Uzzles. I concluded that they did not properly know what they were doing, and thereafter proved it by forging my own way.
What do you do to market your work?
I let the print publishers do the promotion. Apart from that there’s just my web site, which may be considered a promotional tool, though I regard it mostly as a service to the writing profession.
Have you got hobbies?
I practice archery for exercise, and ride a recumbent bicycle. Otherwise, writing is my hobby as well as my profession.
Where are you based?
* The included snippets are from the introduction to my last published novel, Climate of Change, copyright 2010, published in hardcover May 2010 by TOR. It is the concluding novel in my historical GEODYSSEY series.