We continue our discussion with S. M. Stirling with more questions about the Nantucket novels. I also unsuccessfully pump him for insider information regarding his most recent series of novels. Begging didn’t help!
I owe a heartfelt thanks to Mr. Stirling for the interview and the time he spent answering questions for us.
And with no further ado, here he is!
How much research was involved in writing the Nantucket series of books? Did you find a great deal of information on the world of 1200 B.C.?
Lots of research! But then, research is my hobby and I started out as an amateur historian. Of course, one of the great things about using a Bronze Age setting is how little we know, particularly outside the literate cultures of the time. The ‘software’ of a society, the beliefs and customs and language, are usually irrecoverable if there were no written records, and the stones and bones can be very misleading.
For example, if we had no written records from Classical Athens, you could make a good case it was an Amazonian matriarchy – after all, this armed woman with shield and spear was the most common image. In point of fact it was a patriarchy with rules rather resembling those of Saudi Arabia.
This gives me a fair degree of freedom with respect to, say, Northwest Europe in 1250 BCE. We know a little of the material culture, and reconstructive philology means you can more or less ‘run the tape backward’ and know what certain languages were probably like, in rough outline – particularly Indo-European ones. Otherwise it’s just a big blank canvas.
In discussions with others who have read the Nantucket series, many of us found it odd that you chose the Babylonians to be the “good” guys and the Greeks to be the “bad” guys. Is this another case of you challenging your readers?
Actually they’re both bad guys from our p.o.v.; the Nantucketers just hook up with the Babylonians (who were under a Hurrian dynasty at that point) for reasons of realpolitik.
Do you intend to return to the Island in the Sea of Time series in the future?
It’s possible. The Island and Change series are linked and this is going to become more apparent in the current Change books. Note the prophecy at the end of Dies the Fire; I’ve been planning this for a long time.
In your post-change series beginning with Dies the Fire, what made you focus on a Wiccan community? Is there something about their faith and/or traditions that attracted you?
‘Twas a sort of dedankenexperiment – check the spelling, my German is awful. What sort of memetic complex would be preselected to do well in this environment? And then of course personal factors are important in that setting; there’s ‘founder effect’ out the wazoo when everything has been thrown into flux.
You seem to be leaving room for “magic” in your world building. Would you care to comment on whether or not this is the perception of your characters, or if the physical laws of the post-change world have resulted in the potential for “magical” abilities? (Pretty please!)
Thereby hang some complicated plot points, which have been waiting since the first book. Can’t do the reveal here! Let me just say that when THE SCOURGE OF GOD comes out you’ll think you know the answer – but you’ll probably be wrong. Heh, heh!
I’ve read several theories about what happened post-change in Dies the Fire. Can you comment on what actually happened? Or is this a read and find out question?
Read and find out, I’m afraid. Thereby hangs the tale!
Which is your favorite of the worlds/universes that you’ve built to date? What makes it your favorite?
Generally the one I’m working on is my favorite. I’ll soon be doing a new series (already under contract) set more or less in the present day, which will be a switch. It’s sort of a secret-history thing, with stuff going on behind the mask of current events which is the ‘real’ explanation for what’s happening. I’m looking forward to doing that; I’m also enjoying the “Change” books a lot.
A hallmark of your writing has usually been elaborately detailed dystopias. Is this an expression of your pessimism, or do you find it a better way to tell a story? What is it about dystopia that you find fascinating?
It’s easier to make a dystopia interesting than a utopia. You need conflict to tell a story, and by their nature utopias don’t have much conflict. “Today I was happy”, in other words, gets a little repetitive. I think it was the author of “Madame Bovary” who remarked that all happy families are happy in the same way, but each miserable one is unique.
Your villains always have a very powerful on-page charisma, sometimes more so than your “good” guys. Do you find it easier to write from the villain’s point of view?
See above. Milton had the same problem sometimes.
What did you do before you were a writer? Do you still have a day job to pay the bills?
I had a great many day jobs before going full-time in 1988 (the same year I got married). Now I’m making a fairly comfortable living from writing.
This is fortunate because I got fired from, or quit, every other job I ever had. Including being a bouncer for two days. I quit that one when I discovered that you get puked on a lot.
Who are your major influences? Is your recent Lords of Creation series a tribute to anyone in particular?
Lords of Creation is more or less a tribute to the whole “planetary adventure” school of SF and adventure fiction. SF is a descendent of the general adventure/tale of the marvelous, of course, which goes back through Wells and Haggard and Burroughs to the Chansons and to Homer. That’s the tradition I see myself as working in; it’s the urheimat of FICTION in the capital-letter sense. It provides entertainment, of course – the first function of art is to provide aesthetic pleasure of one sort or another – but it interacts with reality in interesting ways.
When Cortez’ men came over the mountain pass and saw the Valley of Mexico spread out before them, with the great painted palaces and pyramid-temples, they exclaimed in wonder. What they said specifically was “This is like something out of Amadis of Gaul!” Which was a popular fiction of the time, with knights and damsels and wicked sorcerors and exotic kingdoms.
Yes, they were fanboys!
What does your fan base look like? Do you have a large following in the military? Is there a particular demographic that finds your books appealing?
I do seem to have a fair number of soldiers. Otherwise, they range from New Age types to retired farmers, with a fair balance of the genders, too.
Do you get any cross-genre appeal for your alternate history work?
It seems like it. Of course, when your sales get up to NYT list levels, you can’t tell what they’re really like just by the ones who talk or write to you, so it’s hard to say.
What books (at most five) are a must read for any science fiction fan?
Oh, hell, that’s a toughie. One Wells, one Anderson, one Heinlein, one Simak, and one LeGuin, I’d say.
Have you ever read a classic science fiction novel that everyone loved that you hated? If so, what was it?
Can’t say that I have. I thought “Dhalgren” was unreadable, but then late Delany irritates me – it’s a case of a wonderful talent ruined by a literary theory that encourages all his worst proclivities and suppresses his best.
At a writer’s panel at DragonCon last year, John Ringo endorsed your novels, but said “He’s fucking grim, man.” What do you say to that?
This from the man who specializes in having 90% of the population of earth eaten by giant intelligent bugs? 8-).
Seriously, I really like most of John’s work, but I never went that far. I think it’s just that we have different iterations of the word ‘grim’. I ‘destroy’ some things that John’s really attached to, and vice versa, in my fiction. We each strike the other as ‘more grim’ and we’re both right! As Kipling said, “There are nine and ninety ways…”
Do you have any advice for writers struggling with their first sale?
Write what you like, the book you’d like to read. And write for fun, albeit it’s a fairly strenuous type of enjoyment. You can’t ‘write to the market’, if only because fashion changes faster than writers can do novels.
This is a brutally competitive business – millions want to do it, only a few hundred can – and there’s a large element of sheer dumb luck in succeeding in the business end of it.
So write what you like, have fun doing it, and don’t quit your day job until you’ve got as much money coming in from the writing as you get from the job.
Will you share the anecdote of how you were first published?
Not counting the semi-pro sale to an English fantasy magazine that folded before I got paid? (I did get paid a whole $0.04 cents a word, 20 years later, when the magazine’s assets were bought for an anthology.)
My first real sale was “Cops and Robbers”, to Jim Baen, which I’d sent unsolicited (more common back in the 1980’s than now). He phoned me up and said that he really liked it. I was calm – as far as my voice was concerned; my feet were doing a little Snoopy happy-dance. Then he said he thought the ending was a bit too ambiguous. I didn’t, but I wasn’t going to challenge the first pro editor to want to buy my work, so we talked around it for about five minutes.
Then I realized that I’d left off the last page of the manuscript when I sent him the story!