For Schools Work, Book Reports and Interviews

Because the Internet has made authors very accessible to students, a lot of teachers have made use of this new resource. I am not at all alone among authors in getting a lot of requests for interviews for school projects. Having been trained as a teacher myself, I understand the value of encouraging students to reach out to and interact with professionals who have touched their lives in one way or another. I’m honored that students choose to use my books for reports, or view what I do as a possible career choice for themselves.

The difficulty I have comes from two directions. The first is the sheer volume of the requests. Many of them come in with very short deadlines for reply: I was a kid, I recall doing reports the night before they were due. Very often this short deadline means that if I’m away for a weekend, or if I’m on deadline and ignore my email for a week, I have no chance to reply. The second area of difficulty is that fairly often the set of questions given to students by their teachers apply to more conventional careers and can be invasive. While it is true that I’m accessible through this website, it’s also true that what I put up on this website pretty much defines what I want to tell folks about myself. J. D. Salinger has suggested that authors should be known for their work, not themselves, and in this I concur. It’s not that I want to be a hermit, but I do want to maintain some privacy for myself and my sanity.

Another valid point brought up by author colleagues is that while the web is a powerful research tool, too often it’s being used by students to have us do their homework for them. The vast majority of questions I get in e-mail are, in fact, answered in my FAQ; but folks don’t read it since shooting off e-mail is easier. In short, research isn’t actually being done; questions are being asked, text is being reformatted, and the purpose of any exercise sending students to the web is lost in the shuffle.

And, it really should be remembered by everyone, the job of an author is to write stories not answer letters or write interviews. The fact is, however, that I do a lot of interviews, in print and for webzines, so even the most cursory search will uncover a lot of material. To help things along, I’ve put together a list of the most commonly asked school interview questions and supplied them with answers. Students are free to use this material for their reports.

1) Who are the writers who most influenced you?

I read a lot of different authors. Edgar Rice Burroughs and Kenneth Robeson supplied me with my understanding of plotting. Frederick Forsythe also helped out there. Rex Stout, Walter Gibson, Robert E. Howard, Roger Zelazny, Fred Saberhagen, Dennis L. McKiernan, Jennifer Roberson, Kate Elliot, Robin Hobb, J. Gregory Keyes, Bernard Cornwell, Stephen R. Donaldson and Larry Bond are all authors whose work I read and admire. In general I take something from everything I read: either something an author does that I’d like to learn how to do, or something that an author as done that I want to avoid like the plague.

2) Of your own books, which is your most favorite?

Tough question. I think Once a Hero is probably my best book. I was definitely hitting on all cylinders when I wrote it. Talion: Revenant is also a favorite of mine because it was really my first novel, so it has a big piece of my heart. Among my Star Wars novels, I, Jedi would be my favorite, and in BattleTech it would be Assumption of Risk. The collection of short stories/braided novel Wolf & Raven is a favorite as well.

3) When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

In the sixth grade I realized it was something I was interested in doing. My grandfather, Austin H. Kerin, had written and had published a little book titled Yankees in Court. It was a book of legal anecdotes. My mom was very proud of her father’s accomplishment, so I grew up in a household where writers were held in high regard. In sixth grade I turned out stories that were a bit longer than those of my classmates and, by the time I hit college, I started sending stories out to magazines. I graduated from the University of Vermont in 1979, worked in the game industry and, in 1988, had my first two novels published by FASA Corp..

4) What sort of training should I have to be a writer?

Most of the writers I know come from a variety of backgrounds: history, journalism, engineering, physics. The common element here is not what you study, but the fact that you learn how to study, to do research, and to synthesize new ideas out of old. The soul of science fiction, and perhaps even all fiction, is to look at a situation and ask, “what would happen if….” Change some variables and see how that makes people react to the situation. So, getting yourself a good grounding in any field of study will supply you with a great background wealth of material to use to build your stories. Then you really just need to start writing and keep writing. Writing is a skills-based endeavor and there is no easy way to become successful at it. Writers write.

5) How much money do you make?

Writing, as a career, is not terribly lucrative. The average writer in the USA makes $5000.00 a year, which is pretty poor. Most do it part time, or have another source of income to see them through the time between checks. In my case, because of my luck at being associated with Star Wars and through having publishers who are keeping my books in print, I make a good living. I’m also well aware that my income can evaporate tomorrow, so I save a lot of what I earn and, so far, have invested it wisely. Too many people starting out think that writing a novel is like buying a lottery ticket, that once someone buys your book, you’ll be on easy street. The facts are pretty dismal on that score: an author makes 1-10% of the cover price of a book, depending on the deal made for that book, with an advance of $2500.00 being fairly standard for a first novel. Working up to a respectable income can take a good long time.

6) What advice do you have for a beginning writer?

First, don’t quit your day job. For every story of a writer making a killing with his first novel, there are thousands of stories of folks who never sell that first novel. Work on your story or book, but don’t go back and revise it until you have the whole thing written. What you will learn in writing the forty chapters of a novel is the same thing you’ll learn in revising that first chapter forty times, but the difference is that, in the first case, you’ll be a novelist and have a book to show for your effort. Make the book as good as you can, then begin to send it around to publishers. The book Writer’s Market is available in most libraries and can provide you directions to go in when it comes time to submit your novel.

Most beginning authors have a lot of trouble with character development. I heartily recommend the book Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card. It’s an excellent resource that will help you past a lot of beginning errors.

Finally, I recommend that beginning writers read critically. This means that you need to look at the books you’re reading with an eye toward what you like, what you hate, then you go back and study those books to figure out how to do the things you like and avoid the things you don’t. All writers learn from other writers in this manner, and jumping right in will help you along in doing it.

7) Where do you get your ideas?

Stories are akin to a hand of cards. You get dealt a bunch of ideas and you look them over and try to make the best combination out of them that you can. The trick of it is that the deck from which you’re dealing is infinite in size. Everything you read, hear, do, taste, smell, touch; all the stories you hear from others, all the books you absorb, every experience you have; all of these things add cards to that deck. The more experiences you have, the more you get to use in your stories. As you get older, as you mature, the combinations become more complex because you learn how to see more subtle connections between things.

8) It must be so cool to do what you do.

It is, no doubt about it. I like the fact that people like what I do, but I try to keep my head on straight about the situation. I was on a plane a number of years ago, feeling very good about where my career was headed, when a flight attendant asked if there was a doctor on board. Several rows back a guy was having chest pains. I realized, right then and there, I’d have chucked it all to have been a doctor to help that guy out. There are many more important jobs than mine in the world, from doctors who cure diseases, to volunteers who help the less fortunate than I am, to firemen and cops and teachers. I’m very lucky to be a writer and to be doing something I love for a living, but the contribution made by others to bettering the world is much greater than my meagre effort.

9) How long does it take you to write a novel?

I am very fast. It can take me as little as 200 hours, though that time is usually spread out over a couple of months. I am probably in the 95th percentile in terms of speed of authors, with guys like Stephen King making me look like a snail. Many other authors I know — good authors whose work I love to read — have a much more reasonable pace of 1000 words a day. I can hit as much as 10,000 in a day, if pressed, but I am comfortable at 3-6000 a day when a novel gets going.

10) You’ve written Star Wars novels. How does that work?

A publisher, Bantam Books at first, and now Del Rey, buys a license from Lucasfilm to produce books. The publisher then hires authors to write those novels. Lucasfilm approves the choice of authors, approves the outline of the novel, and approves the drafts of the novel along with changes. No one can just pick up and write a novel in a universe they do not own without permission and expect to see it published.

11) What do you do in your spare time?

I read, watch TV, attend Arena Football games, WNBA games, ride my bike, go to the gym, travel a bit, play indoor soccer and surf the web. I don’t have a lot of spare time, though. Mostly what I read is SF/Fantasy or Mystery novels; with a lot of histories thrown in there, too, for research.

12) Do you have any pets?

In the household there are three Welsh Cardigan Corgis: Ruthless, Ember and Saint. Saint is Ruthless’ great grandson. Corgis are dogs, by the way. We have no cats because I am violently allergic to them.

13) Can you come out and talk to my creative writing class?

Traveling to speak to schools is usually very expensive in both money and time. Chances are that my schedule isn’t going to have me anywhere near your school in the next nine months. If you do see that I’m going to be in your area, at a convention or doing a book signing at a store, do go ahead and communicate with the store or convention and use them as a way to arrange something.

14) Can I come to your house and watch you work/get some books signed?

Generally speaking, no. I actually prefer to keep my private life and my public life separate. When I choose to go to conventions or to do book signings, I make that choice knowing that I’ll be going out in public to meet folks, answer questions and sign books. Those are things I gladly do, but at selected times and under selected circumstances. The rest of the time I just like being me, working on books, remaining at home. I’m not set up to have visitors watch me work: and nothing could be more boring than watching me type. I also hate folks looking over my should as I type. I don’t have an intern program and, frankly, wouldn’t know what to do with an intern if I had one. And this office is such a mess I need a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver just to find my way from the door to my desk.

15) If you were told you couldn’t write anymore, what would you do?

Good question. I’d probably try teaching, go back to game design or maybe become a stock broker. Or, if I really wanted to scare folks, I’d get into politics.

16) My teacher asked us to send stories we’ve written to authors to get their opinions on them.

My lawyer and contracts forbid me from looking at any unsolicited, uncontracted material. The reasons for this are complicated, but it pretty much comes down to it that authors have been sued, in the past, for similarities between their work and stories they were sent. I also happen to be paranoid about plagerism, to the point that I won’t use an idea that’s similar to something I’ve read before. Reading someone’s story could cut me off from an idea that would make for a great story — an idea I’d have gotten to eventually. I just as soon avoid that sort of thing.

17) My teacher said there are only [X] number of plots in the world and there is nothing new under the sun.

Lots of people try to reduce creativity down to numbers and patterns and motifs to suggest, for whatever reason, that it’s all been done before. The fact is, for example, that there are probably only a half-dozen routes for driving a car from Phoenix to Chicago, yet every journey from Phoenix to Chicago will be different for the people making it. So it is with stories. They may follow the same basic plotlines and have similar characters, but the differences are what will make one story more memorable than another.

Are there a lot of books that are hopelessly similar to others? Sure. Why? Because the authors got lazy or just didn’t have the skill needed to raise that story out of the ordinary to the extraordinary. I think that is where each author owes it to himself and his readers to push himself to excel. They day I stop doing that is the day I stop writing. Every writer may be using the same bricks to construct her story, but that doesn’t mean the final product has to look anything like someone else’s story. That’s where true creativity comes in, and the best writers are the ones you find doing really creative stuff.

18) My teacher says Science Fiction and Fantasy aren’t real literature and are not important enough to be studied in school.

There are all sorts of opinions about what is literature and what is not. Scholars argue endlessly about this point. Lots of them exclude Science Fiction and Fantasy from the literary canon because, as John Updike has noted, the amount of world-building that goes on in SF/F to lay the groundwork for the story means it is not easily accessible to the majority of readers. Others just dismiss SF/F as escapist trash that provides no insight or illumination on the human condition because the stories are set in worlds other than our own.

While the debate can be interesting to watch, I really don’t care about it. First off, I think the judgment of “art” or “literature” is something that can only be made after 100 years. By this scale I suspect that only Stephen King will be remembered from among the writers of our day. Second, and by far more important to me, comes the basic fact that underlies what I do: my job is to entertain. In years past I’d have been a strolling bard (and a starving one since no one would want to hear my singing). I’d have spun out tales and ballads to make nights pass faster, to spread some mirth around and to stir the blood with tales of heroic dealings. If readers come away from a story with more than just entertainment, I’m very happy: enlightenment I throw in for free.

So, at the root of it, I don’t really care if folks classify what I do as art or literature. Earning that ranking isn’t something I’m interested in.

19) Can you send me an autographed picture of yourself for my report?

Not being an actor, I don’t have pictures to be autographed and sent about. For this reason, the answer would be no.

20) What is the biggest difficulty in becoming a writer?

On the most basic level, the biggest difficulty is that folks who want to write don’t sit down and write. It is often said that people like “having written,” but they don’t like the process itself. Without the discipline to sit down and write, no advancement beyond that point is possible. Once you have something written, the biggest difficulty is getting it published. As Manly Wade Wellman always said, “Only you believe you can write. If you quit, you just make it unanimous.” By hanging in the game, by still working on material and submitting it you not only get better, but you avail yourself of more chances to get published. After that point, the greatest difficulty is in not taking the risks to push yourself as a writer. You want to always force yourself to do something new, force yourself to grow and stretch for a writer. If you don’t do that, you’ll get stale and will eventually be forgotten as newer and hotter writers blow onto the scene.

21) What is the greatest joy of being a writer?

Seeing that a book or a character or a scene really hit with a reader. When I get told that a reader got choked up at the same point I did in writing the book, or that she laughed out loud at a line that I meant to be funny, that’s very cool. It means that I succeeded in communicating what I wanted to communicate to the reader, that I did my job. I had a reader once tell me, “When I see a Stackpole book, I don’t necessarily know what it’s about, but I know I’ll like it.” I really can’t think of a much higher compliment a writer can have.

22) What religion are you/do you have a family/what is your favorite football team, etc.

These sorts of questions, which are highly personal in nature, I choose not to answer. I don’ t think they are germane to what I do as a writer.

23) In [a book] you had a character say [X]. How can you believe such a horrid thing? [Variation: My teacher says all characters are drawn from the writer, so are reflective of parts of him.]

I reject the hypothesis that all characters, all things characters say and do, are somehow rooted in the psyche of the writer. It is no more true that an actor has to become a vampire to play one in a movie than it is true that a writer has to become a fighter pilot to write about them. What both actors and writers have to be able to do is to get inside the heads of such characters so we can make them act and react in a logical and consistent mannner. Very specifically, I am not any of my characters — all of whom do things that would get me killed on a regular basis. What I do, when writing a story, is to create a character, get to know him, fill out his background, and this tells me how he will act during the course of the story. Very often characters do things I would not — and this is especially true for villains. I do not believe all of the things my characters say, I do not condone all of their actions and when/if I want to communicate a message to the readers through a character, I keep the presentation relevent to what is going on in the story.

24) Do you ever base characters on friends or people you know?

While I do draw upon history to guide how characters perform in a story, I don’t base characters on historical figures or friends. I don’t use historical figures because seldom does their background fit exactly the situation I have in my books. I don’t use friend because I learned, very early on, that killing characters can be a very effective way to provoke a response in readers. If I based a character on a friend, then decide to kill that character, I’d lose a friend. I do my best to avoid that sort of thing.

That being said, though, I have written people into novels because of their contributions to charity for that right.

25) What responsibility do you bear as an author if someone does something violent because of something they read in one of your books?

This is a tough question. If that sort of thing were to happen, I’d feel crushed and feel horrible for the victims. Any human being would be, and I’m only human. Regardless, I can’t be responsible for the actions of a reader who draws out of a book more than I put in there. I think it would presumptuous of me to assume credit for any good works that came from those who read a book of mine and did something nice; likewise I’m not responsible for the actions of someone who does something bad because of a book. To accept that responsibility would be a) giving me a lot more power over someone than I have and b) would be usurping that individuals’ taking responsibility for what he did. Short of writing a hate-filled creed that willfully incites people to wanton slaughter, I think it is beyond the power of most writers to influence normal people and motivate them to commit violence.

That being said, however, I do think writers do have a responsibility to the communities for which they write. We have a responsibility to our audiences, many of whom are young, to show that actions have consequences. Mindless depictions of violence where the heroes walk away unharmed are grotesque and cartoonish. Hard fought victories must have a cost, must have a price. As I noted above, the death of characters often brings this point home to readers. Whenever I get a note asking, “Why did you have to kill [X]?” I know that this particular reader will feel the pain of that loss. The experience becomes real and can serve as a point to consider when pondering real world activities.

26) What are your strengths as a writer?

I know I plot well and intricately. I can describe the workings of technology well and make it understandable. I write action sequences well, I handle humor well, I handle adult relationships well and I think I do a pretty good job characterizing characters at the start and letting them grow.

27) What are your weaknesses as a writer?

There are certain character models and motifs with which I am very comfortable, like the Hero (stalwart, tough, strong, always fair), the Villain, the Trickster, etc.. I need to expand my repertoire. I also need to include more philosophical discussions in my books, using situation to let characters explore moral questions. I’ve done that some: looking at racism in Once a Hero, for example, or religion in Eyes of Silver; but it’s seldom a central theme of the work. If I could bring more of that into the work I might verge on committing literature. I think I can hold back from that point, however.