We have with us today Mike Resnick. Mike is one of the most acclaimed speculative fiction writers of all time and the author of hundreds of novels and short stories, most of which fall into the category of science fiction or fantasy (at least since the seventies). He is also the editor of Jim Baen’s Universe and is famous for being a fan and conference goer. We are honored to welcome today this living Science Fiction/Fantasy Legend.
SB Frank: Thank you Mike for joining us. With 33 Hugo nominations, and 5 awarded Hugos, you are generally considered the most decorated writer of short speculative fiction. In your opinion, what is the key to a successful short story?
Mike Resnick: If you just count Hugos, Connie Willis and a couple of others are ahead of me. The Locus list, which you are quoting, counts not just Hugos but all major awards from all over the world.
In answer to your question, I think when all is said and done, a story must make an emotional impact on the reader. It must move him – to laughter, to tears, to fear, to sympathy, to anger, to something. If it makes him think, so much the better, and the author has written a better story for it – but if it doesn’t make him feel, then it fails as a story, even as it may succeed as a polemic or a technological crossword puzzle in prose form.
While it’s out there being evocative, your writing is also very cerebral – smart humor or smart fiction. You explore a variety of deep themes and make people think. In particular, you often write about Africa and the problems caused by colonialism. What do you see as the biggest current challenges facing that continent? And is there an attitude or misconception toward colonialism that you would you most like to change through your writing?
The biggest problem right now is a continent-wide corruption on a scale unimaginable to those who haven’t been there (and no, tourists have not been to the real Africa). Robert Ruark wrote an international bestselling novel about the Mau Mau back in the 1950s titled Something of Value. The meaning of the title is that if you are going to take away a people’s culture, you had better replace it with something of value or you’ve got a big problem on your hands. Fifty years after Ruark, we still haven’t replaced it with anything of value to Africans, and we have 40+ separate and distinct big sub-Saharan problems on our hands.
You have said that your Lucifer Jones novels are particular favorites of yours. Is this true, and if so, is there a specific reason?
I prefer writing humor to anything else, though of course my reputation is based on my serious work. And of all the humor I’ve written, which comes to maybe a dozen books and 90 or more stories in this field, what I most enjoy writing are the Lucifer Jones stories. They’re parodies of every bad B-movie I saw and every trite pulp magazine I read when I was growing up, and the language is a delightful cross between the purple prose of Trader Horn and the fractured English of Pogo Possum. Some of the story and chapter titles will give you a broad hint: “The Island of Annoyed Souls,” “The Clubfoot of Notre Dame,” “A Jaguar Never Changes Its Stripes,” “The Best Little Tabernacle in Nairobi,” and so on. They’re just a pure delight to write.
You are the executive editor of Jim Baen’s Universe, which is closing as of April 2010. The closing has been handled masterfully, but it still seems a sad thing for the industry as a whole. Is there anything you’d like to say about that? And, as a corollary, from your perspective, what are the happiest and unhappiest current trends in speculative fiction publishing.
Jim Baen’s Universe had a fine business model when Jim conceived it and started it, but that statement was invalid before the magazine was a year old. (I joined it in its second year.) The notion was to pay the major writers a quarter a word, three times the top rate of the digests, and to run a couple of hundred thousand words an issue – and against the competition that existed when the magazine debuted, against Asimov’s, F & SF, and Analog, it made sense to pay those rates, put together that many words, have sparking, moving covers by a top artist like David Mattingly, and charge $30 a year for a basic 6-issue subscription. After all, when you compared values, we were giving the reader more big names and more words than the digests for the same price.
But as it turned out, after we’d been in business for about a year, we were no longer in competition with the digests. We were in competition with Subterranean Magazine (which was running people like John Scalzi, Lucius Shepard, Elizabeth Bear, Joe Lansdale and myself in just about every issue), and Clarkesworld (which ran stories by Tobias S. Buckell, myself in collaboration with Lezli Robyn, and similar), and a dozen other e-zines that were paying pro rates and were free.
How do you compete with that? Suddenly a bunch of e-zines were almost matching our firepower (and in the case of Subterranean, totally matching it) and not charging a penny. Suddenly that $5.00 an issue didn’t look like such a bargain.
We had other problems. Asimov’s came back from a near-death experience thanks to selling a few thousand issues a month via Kindle and Fictionwise/Barnes/the “Nook”. But Baen Books felt that our going to Kindle or Fictionwise would abrogate our distribution agreement with Simon & Schuster, so that was a potential lifeline that was denied us.
Weep us no tears. We announced the ending far enough in advance so that no subscriber would be left with paid-for-but-unreceived issues, no writer would deliver a commissioned story only to be told that the magazine was full and/or couldn’t pay for it, and no serial would be cut off in the middle. We pioneered the way, and when I took a quick count tonight, there are, excluding Jim Baen’s Universe, 18 magazines paying pro rates, and 14 of them are e-zines.
That’s a dramatic industry change and a great help for authors. I know you write primarily in science fiction, but you have some outstanding fantasy titles as well. Do you have any favorite fantasy writers? Any writers of short fantasy fiction for our fans at Fantasy Literature to watch for?
I’m no stranger to writing fantasy, or to appreciating it. Among the classics, I most admire T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, which I find far superior to Tolkien or C.S. Lewis. I’m also a fan of Orlando Furioso. I believe that Unknown, with stories as diverse as Sturgeon’s “Yesterday Was Monday,” Williamson’s “Darker Than You Think,” Heinlein’s “Magic, Inc.” and Leiber’s Gray Mouser stories, was far and away the greatest fantasy magazine of all time. I love Lisa Goldstein’s “The Red Magician,” Jonathan Carroll’s “The Land of Laughs,” Arthur Byron Cover’s “Autumn Angels,” and of course you could do a lot worse than Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Oh, and let’s not forget Jack Vance’s “The Dying Earth.” And while I have no interest in or admiration for paranormal romances, there is nothing wrong with the source: Bram Stoker’s still-brilliant Dracula.
Throughout your career, you have sustained a pace of several novels and I don’t know how many stories, dozens, I’d guess, per year. I am not sure if the inspiration is more impressive than the motivation. But I’d love to know how you get so many fabulous story ideas.
I get them from everywhere. One of my favorite sources is movies and plays that missed a better story (my answer to The Elephant Man was Sideshow), movies that should have been better (my answer to Don Juan DeMarco was “A Princess of Earth”), stories where I disagreed with the premise or ending (my answer to my friend Bob Silverberg’s The Second Trip was “Me and My Shadow”), and so on. Many came from my observations during our trips abroad: “The 43 Antarean Dynasties,” “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge,” some of the Kirinyaga stories, others. Some came from songs: “Distant Replay” came from “When or Where”; “All the Things You Are” even kept the song title; the last third of The Widowmaker paralleled Marty Robbins’ “El Paso”. Some come from reading, some from discussions, and some just pop into my head. I could give you the genesis of all 60 novels and 240 stories – but each would be different.
You’ve said that you have always wanted to write a Western. And while we were chatting about the interview, you mentioned that something was in the works. Can you tell us about it?
All my adult life I have been fascinated by Doc Holliday and Johnny Ringo, and I have always wanted to write a novel about them – but as a newcomer to Westerns, I simply couldn’t afford to write it for a newcomer’s advance. Then a couple of months ago Lou Anders, my editor at Pyr, asked me for a “Weird Western,” and I agreed. The Buntline Special will feature Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, an Apache medicine man named Geronimo (he really was one), a vampire named Bat Masterson, the thing that used to be Johnny Ringo, and more. Perhaps it’s not the novel I’d planned on writing, but at least I finally get to put Doc and Ringo on paper. Well, phosphors.
What other books, stories or screenplays do you have in the works?
Always an awkward question, because the answer changes by the month. Books about to be published or written include Shaka II (November or December from PS in England; it’ll be in Subterranean Magazine next year); Starship: Flagship, the 5th and final Starship book, coming from Pyr in December; The Business of Science Fiction, a collection of the Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues that have been running for the past dozen years in the SFWA Bulletin, from McFarland; The Buntline Special, sometime next year from Pyr; Blasphemy, an omnibus volume of 2 rather blasphemous novels (The Branch and Walpurgis III) and 5 short stories in which God or Jesus have speaking parts, from Golden Gryphon in summer; Masters of the Galaxy, a collection of my Jake Masters novellas; and Lezli Robyn and I have been asked to outline a YA trilogy for a new publisher and will be doing so in January.
In short fiction, I’ve got “The Bride of Frankenstein” in the December Asimov’s; “The Blimp and Sixpence” in the December Jim Baen’s Universe; “Shame,” a collaboration with Lezli Robyn, in the January Analog; “On Safari” in the upcoming anthology Gateways; a couple of anthology stories (and a trio of assignments) with Lezli Robyn; a novella called “Six Blind Men and an Alien” for Subterranean Magazine; 2 more Harry the Book stories; and a Lucifer Jones story in just about every issue of Subterranean Magazine.
DeeAnn: How have you utilized your love of dogs (I gather you used to breed collies) and your love of Africa to inform the storylines of your books and short stories?
Dogs first. Back in the 1990s I wrote a private eye novel titled Dog in the Manger, about a missing show dog that was just the tip of a very corrupt iceberg. In 2009, I had out a fantasy novel titled Stalking the Dragon, which had to do with a dragon show, and integrated much of how a dog show works. And I’ve used dog shows or their equivalents in a couple of short stories, “Royal Bloodlines” and “A Most Unusual Greyhound”, a pair of funny fantasies about werewolves.
As for Africa, it’s been a major factor in my career, probably the major factor. Kirinyaga consists of 10 sequential episodes; various parts have won 2 Hugos and gotten 8 Hugo nominations, and the book has garnered 66 major and minor awards and nominations (and is still collecting them). Ivory was a Nebula nominee here and a Clarke nominee in England. “Mwalimu in the Squared Circle” was a Hugo nominee; so was “Barnaby in Exile”. “Hunting the Snark” was a Hugo and Nebula nominee. “The 43 Antarean Dynasties” won a Hugo. “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” is a Hugo and Nebula winner, and has also won awards in other countries. I did a trio of novels — Paradise, Purgatory, and Inferno – that were science fictional allegorical histories of Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Uganda. I’ve written two major sf/African novellas in the past year: “Kilimanjaro” and “Shaka II”. So as you can see, my career would look a lot different without the Dark Continent.
Anorithe: Is he a trekkie or a Sci/Fi nut himself. I know he writes the stuff, but did he camp out for the new Star Wars films…does he go to Star Trek conferences, is Halloween just a day when EVERYone dresses up instead of just some people…you know.
I am not a Trekkie. I didn’t think much of the original series, and since I stopped watching network TV series about 25 or 30 years ago, I haven’t seen any other Trek shows and spinoffs. I thought the first two Star Wars films were good summer fun, nothing more; I didn’t like the third; and the three most recent were all-but-unwatchable. I don’t go to Star Trek conferences. I do go to about eight to ten science fiction conventions a year.
Ashe Argent: Before becoming an author. Mike Resnick was a book salesman, apparently selling steamy novels for men.
Nope. I wrote in the adult field under a variety of pseudonyms, and I edited some men’s magazine and tabloids, but I was never a salesman, only a writer and editor.
Anorithe: What are your pseudonyms you used ‘back in the day’? (i.e. 1960s/70s)
Sorry. Those – there were over 150 of them – go to my grave with me.
Anonymous: Have you ever been to Africa?
Yes. To Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Malawi, Botswana, Egypt, and 4 trips to Kenya.
Joe Scanlon: What is the worst book idea you ever had?
Whatever it was, I hope to hell I didn’t write it.
SB Frank: Anything else to share? Favorites?
My favorite writers in the field: Catherine L. Moore, Bob Sheckley, Alfie Bester, George Alec Effinger, Barry Malzberg, Ray Bradbury, James White, Cliff Simak.
My favorite writers outside the field: Raymond Chandler, Nikos Kazantzakis, Edward Whittemore, Alexander Lake.
My favorite collaborator (I’ve had 43): Lezli Robyn.
My favorite editor: I will answer that only when I quit writing.
My favorite publisher: ditto.
My favorite of my own characters: Lucifer Jones.
My favorite of my own books: The Outpost.
Thank you so much for this interview!
And thanks to all you readers for stopping by. We’d love for you to comment on this post either to respond to something said or just to share your appreciation with Mike. Mike will see all of your comments.
We’re giving away not one but two novels in connection with this event: A signed copy of Midnight’s Daughter by Karen Chance — the sequel of which, Death’s Mistress, hits the shelves on Jan 05th.
We’re also giving away a copy of the just released Three Days to Dead by Kelly Meding. Feel free to comment even if you don’t wish to enter either contest and check back on Thursday when we’ll close the drawings and announce winners during Ruth’s Thoughtful Thursday post.
FanLit thanks Stephen Frank for conducting this interview for us!
Wonderful interview! Thanks to Mr. Resnick for taking the time to do this. Fascinating individual and wealth of knowledge. I did find it somewhat surprising that he’s not really a fan of Scifi in film and television.
I have lots of new reading ideas. I can tell that I’ll enjoy the stories that Mr. Resnick mentions. I’m going to find them!
I’ve read some books that get colonial issues Just Plain Wrong, and if it annoys me, I can only imagine what it must do to someone better-versed in the issues! I imagine you want to hit lots of authors with the Clue Stick…
I’ve never read The Once and Future King but if Mr. Resnick is hailing it as superior to Lewis and Tolkien, I’m in for a treat. And I’d love to win Midnight’s Daughter.
I’d never read Unknown Worlds Magazine. But now I’m dying to track down a copy. And once again, yes Kat, you told me so, I’m going to put Vance’s Dying Earth on my to-read list. Somehow I’ve always put it off – I think maybe the title sounds too pessimistic. Thanks Mike!
I am going to track down some of his science fiction books about the colonization of Africa. Thanks for the informative interview.
Wonderful interview with Mr. Resnick! Lots of great info and a few new things for me to search out.
I have a copy of Once and Future King sitting on my bookshelf that I always mean to getting around to reading. I might just have to bump it up to the top of my TBR pile.
I think I have 3 copies, Ruth.
I hate to admit it but I have not read any of Mike’s books. I am really going to have to check them out. This was a great interview and I love how S. through in the questions from followers and mentions who they are.
Great interview! Thanks for kindly stopping by.
I admit that I have not read any of Mike’s books or short stories, too. Very interesting interview. I liked how he listed Nikos Kazantzakis as one of his favourite authors. (You should check the spelling of his name by the way, there’s no need for an r :) )
That was an excellent interview! Thank you to Mike Resnick for sharing here. I hadn’t realized that Africa played such a pivotal role in his writing or that Mike wrote under pseudonyms. I thoroughly enjoy reading Mike Resnick’s books and it was such a treat to learn more about the author behind them.
Thank you again,
Oh – a PS:
Will Mike ever collaborate on a novel with his daughter, the amazing author Laura Resnick?
Wow – 150 pseudonyms! That’s a lot of names to keep track of.
It’s always interesting to read an interview of someone who has been in the business so long.
Good question, RK!
What an interesting combination of influences to write. Makes me feel like I need to pick up some of his work. Where to start as a SF/Fanatsy reader?
Mike Resnick responds to posted comments!
Justin – I couldn’t take one more “Beverly Hillbillies” or “Gilligan’s Island”, so I quit watching network series about 30 years ago. I figured I could write, or I could watch TV and turn into a vegetable, but I couldn’t do both. I must say that close to a third of a century without weekly series has not made me feel culturally deprived.
Kelly – It’s a lot easier to understand the effects of colonization on both the colonized and the colonizers if you see it first-hand…and for science fiction writers, that’s not a bad idea, since I think everyone agrees that if we reach the stars we’re going to colonize them, and if we colonize enough of them we’re going to come into contact with some sentient races.
Stephen – There are a few anthologies of stories from Unknown that will be a lot easier and less expensive than any single issue of the magazine itself.
Abumonkey – I’ll go a step farther. I think The Last Temptation of Christ, by Kazantzakis, is the best novel I’ve ever read (and I’m a lifelong athiest). And as long as I’m going out on a limb, Catch-22 is the best American novel of the 20th Century, and Moby Dick is the best American novel of any era.
RK – I doubt that I’ll ever collaborate with Laura. A few years back I had a collection titled With a Little Help From My Friends, which contains stories I did with 26 different collaborators. It also had a very funny introduction by Laura explaining why she absolutely refuses to collaborate with me.
Collaborations on tap include a novel with Eric Flint for Baen, a novel with Janis Ian (unsold and unplotted for another couple of months), a YA trilogy and a lot of stories over the next few years with Lezli Robyn.
Tia – those pseudonyms were all in the “adult” field, where a bunch of us – me, Robert Silverberg, Barry Malzberg, Donald E. Westlate, even Marion Zimmer Bradley – served our apprenticeships for guys who didn’t want it good, they wanted it Thursday. I think the last pseudonym I used was in 1975.
— Mike Resnick