David Gerrold: An Interview
Today I am pleased to interview science fiction legend David Gerrold, who has recently joined the HWA. David is the author of more than 50 novels, 12-plus television episodes, and several hundred articles, columns, and short stories. His credits include two of the most popular episodes of the original Star Trek series (“The Trouble with Tribbles,” “The Cloud Minders”), plus episodes of the Star Trek Animated series, LAND OF THE LOST, TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, LOGAN’S RUN, and others. His on-going novel series, War Against the Chtorr, is nearly required reading for any science fiction fan, and his novelette The Martian Child earned him the Hugo and Nebula awards, and was later adapted as a film starring John Cusack.
JGF: David, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview, and welcome to the HWA. I know our membership will be as excited to read it as I am to conduct it.
DG: It’s an honor and a privilege to join. Let me explain.
After I made my first sale to television — about the time the check cleared — I became eligible to join the Writers’ Guild of America. This may have been one of the single most exciting accomplishments of my life, because now I could go to the meetings and sit in the same room as Rod Serling, Harlan Ellison Paddy Chayefsky, Carl Foreman, Hal Kantor, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, and so many others whose work I had admired so long. I was technically a “colleague.”
At my first Worldcon, I asked if I was eligible to join the Science Fiction Writers of America. That was an even bigger honor for me, because now I could justifiably pretend to be a colleague of Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Theodore Sturgeon, Damon Night, Anne McCaffrey, Harry Harrison, and everybody else whose work had informed my adolescence.
I never thought of myself as a horror writer. But this past year, I realized I’ve written about a dozen short stories that could genuinely be called horror, so that qualifies me to join the HWA—and again, that’s the honor. I get to be a colleague with so many other authors who’ve scared the hell out of me more than once. So yes, thank you.
JGF: Let’s get the big lumbering elephant out of the room right away. You said a while back that the next War Against the Chtorr book would come out before Obama finishes his second term. Is that still on track?
DG: Yes. The book will probably come in at 300,000 words. I’ve got more than 250,000 words finished. I know exactly what pieces still need to be written — there are two large sections in the middle. And my goal is to have it done in time to be available at the 2015 Worldcon. The hard part will be organizing all the various chapters and sections and pieces so that they’re in a coherent order. What I’ve finished is written in a style I call First Person Psychotic and the narrative is jumbled in time (as were several of the previous books) so it’s like putting a jigsaw puzzle together — only you have to create each piece as you go.
But yes, I think I’m on track. Although I have to admit that I do suffer from what I call “perfectionist’s block”….
JGF: Now, we can get down to business. You mentioned once in an interview that you want every one of your stories to be different from every other, so that you’re never typecast. Can you explain what you mean by that, and if you’ve been successful?
DG: Okay, two examples. The first goes back to an art class I took in college. Every Monday, we’d analyze the work of a particular artist. Henry Moore worked in smooth round shapes with holes in them. Roualt drew big black lines around everything. Seurat made pictures out of thousands of tiny points. Picasso flattened everything into overlapping planes. And so on. On Wednesday and Friday, we would attempt to paint or draw in that artist’s style. The intention of the entire semester was to exercise not only our drawing and painting muscles, but also to stretch the boundaries of the way we looked at what we were drawing and how we were drawing it.
Second example: The Beatles decided early on that they would never write the same song twice. And if you grew up with the Beatles and were experiencing their work chronologically as each new song came out — you’d be driving along and the radio would keep playing new songs and you’d say, “Hey, that’s an interesting sound, who is that?” And then the disc jockey would say, “That’s the new single from The Beatles,” and you’d freak out because Hey Jude was nothing like Come Together or Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, and so on.
So somewhere along the way, that same idea got stuck in my head. Sometimes I would put on my Heinlein hat or my Ellison hat or my Sturgeon hat or my Delaney hat—and I’d see if I could write something that evoked the same moods and feelings as those authors had consistently done. I wasn’t imitating their styles (that was impossible) as much as I was trying to evoke a specific flavor. Each time I did that, it was a learning experience because I had to stretch myself to look at writing and storytelling from a different perspective. Eventually, I found my own hat, which is probably like one of those Goofy hats you buy at Disneyland. I still subscribe to the idea of wearing a different hat for each story — but they’re all my hats now.
I had a pretty good grasp of plot and character and structure, right from the beginning, but I agonized over style for a long time—even after I’d had a dozen books published, I still didn’t understand style. Theodore Sturgeon taught me a marvelous trick that he called metric prose, and that helped a lot—I used it for Moonstar—but ultimately, I realized I’d been asking the wrong question.
It’s not about style, it’s about voice. What’s the right voice to use for this story? I’d been a Theatre Arts major and I did some acting in college, trying on different characters, different accents, different dialects, different body language, and so on. Acting is about becoming the character so completely that you believe it yourself, so completely that you can submerge into that person and generate him as needed. Writing inside a character requires that same skill, because the story is the character. You have to be an actor before you can be the writer. You have to become the story and when you can do that, the right voice generates from that emotional core— that’s the real secret of style. But you can only learn it by doing it.
The ironic part is this, I don’t think of myself as a stylist, because I think style should be invisible—but I had a fun moment when a friend of mine gave The Martian Child to his girlfriend. She loved it so much that she wanted to read something else by me. So he gave her thirteen o’clock. She said the two stories had to have been written by two different authors of the same name; she refused to believe that the same guy had written both. So he gave her Moonstar Odyssey. And I’m told he put a lot of stress on their relationship after he sat her down with “The Trouble With Tribbles.” I love that anecdote because it speaks to the success of the work in creating its own compelling reality.
JGF: How do you balance individuality between books with your distinct style, and the constraints of doing a series?
DG: I dunno. I just type.
It’s what I said above. I put on the hat. I immerse myself in the feeling. I go swimming in the flavor. Pick your metaphor. If I can’t get into the feeling, I can’t type. It’s not writer’s block. I don’t believe in writer’s block. It’s something else.
Here’s an example. I was hired to write a script for the animated series, THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS. The outline was approved, but for three days I couldn’t start work on the script. I couldn’t find the voice. So I sat down with the laserdisc (remember those?) of the GHOSTBUSTERS movie, and about twenty minutes into it, I suddenly got Bill Murray’s voice—as an actor—and I ran to the typewriter (remember those?) and started typing. Once I had Bill Murray’s voice, Dan Ackroyd’s character fell into place, and all the others followed easily. That script and the next one I did for the show both turned out very well.
The same with Star Trek. I hung around the set, I listened to the actors, I read every script I could get my hands on, I watched dailies, I watched finished episodes, and as soon as I could get the voices of the characters, I knew how to write their dialog.
With my own characters — especially those in the Chtorr series — I know that Jim is impatient and angry and curious and insecure, Ted is goofy and amoral, Foreman is detached and calculating, Lizard is disciplined and professional; but each of these characters also has a deeper part that gets revealed as the story unravels. A large part of the writing of any story is about stripping the layers off the heroes to find out who’s inside.
I’ve written a couple of stories where I’ve used myself as the narrator — I usually come off as the frustrated sitcom hero caught in a world that he doesn’t quite understand. Those are some of the goofiest and funniest stories I get to tell. The Strange Disappearance And Equally Strange Reappearance Of David Gerrold is a good example. I just finished another one about the experiences of living with a troll in the back yard. I just dropped it in the mail to an editor yesterday.
JGF: In other interviews, you’ve said you got into movies and cartoons at a very early age, especially anything futuristic. Now, some people watch SF and drift towards the darker side of those movies – the scary aliens, the dark corners, the suspense. Others are caught by the science – the rockets, the computers, the ray guns. Which were you?
DG: I don’t deal well with suspense. By the way, neither did Alfred Hitchcock. There’s a famous story about how Alma was making a soufflé and Hitch went nearly crazy because he couldn’t open the oven to see how it was progressing. He couldn’t stand the suspense.
My favorite movies when I was a kid were the classic SF pictures of the fifties and sixties: Them!, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, War Of The Worlds, Destination Moon, Conquest Of Space, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Forbidden Planet, This Island Earth, and so on. My favorite cartoons were everything by Chuck Jones — especially Duck Amuck.
Now, mix all that with the works of Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Hal Clement, Arthur C. Clarke, Frederik Pohl, Cyril Kornbluth, Eric Frank Russell, John Wyndham, Murray Leinster, Philip K. Dick, A.E. Van Vogt, Robert Silverberg, etc. and you get a kid who’s fascinated with the engineering of the future as much as by the creatures who will inhabit it. I think about the engineering of the machines as much as the people who operate them. I have to believe in the whole world before I can believe in the story. That applies to everything I write as well as everything I read.
JGF: Sci-Fi and horror frequently overlap each other, such as the ALIEN movies, Lovecraft’s Cthulhulian tales, and even Shelley’s Frankenstein. When you add in action/adventure, there is even more blurring of lines. As someone who’s written primarily in sci-fi but has dabbled in horror (TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, “Night Train to Paris”), where do you feel those lines should be drawn, or should they be drawn at all?
DG: Tough question. Thanks.
For me, a very simplistic definition of horror is that something terrible remains unknown or beyond the realm of understanding, even after the story is finished. I know that there are other, and better, definitions of horror, but that’s the kind of horror that scares me the most.
I wrote an evil little story for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction called Chester. It’s about a little girl who is being stalked by something that’s attacking her through her dreams. Chester is a little dog who’s supposed to protect her while she sleeps. (I modeled him after one of my own dogs.) The story has a recognizable punch line, “I think we’re going to need a bigger dog,” so some readers dismissed it too quickly as a joke, but if you’ve read the story and you start to think about it, the more you think about it, the creepier it gets. I never answered the question what was attacking the little girl. And if you think about her reaction — we need a bigger dog — then you have to ask, why isn’t she mourning Chester’s death? What’s really wrong with this kid? What’s really going on here?
So for me, a really good horror story isn’t about answering the question — it’s about asking it and leaving it festering in the reader’s head for a long time afterward.
And yes — I can immediately think of exceptions. Two Bottles Of Relish, The Tell-Tale Heart, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. And those are very effective pieces, no question. But what scares me the most is the quality of not-knowing.
JGF: In the horror or dark fiction genre, what are your reading preferences? Do you prefer suspense, supernatural, a touch of humor with your terror, buckets of gore, or all of it?
DG: It’s easier for me to point to specific authors. I always loved Charlie Grant’s work and I miss him a lot, both as an author and as a friend. Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, some of Ray Bradbury’s work — all those guys, of course. More recently, Thomas L. Higgins — I loved Red Dragon and Silence Of The Lambs. But the scariest story I ever read was by Stephen King, writing as Richard Bachmann. The Long Walk. I get exhausted just thinking about it. If someone ever does a movie version, I won’t go see it—I’d be terrified of getting a heart attack.
There are a lot of other writers I could name, far more recent, but I haven’t been able to keep up with all the great work in horror and I don’t want to slight anybody by leaving someone out. I apologize for that.
JGF: What types of stories did you like to read most as a boy?
DB: Heinlein juveniles, of course. Do you really have to ask?
I read everything I could get my hands on. Back in those days, there wasn’t a lot of overt horror, but for a while there were some truly wonderful comic books coming out of E.C. Remember those?
Tales From The Crypt was one of my favorites. I loved the horror comics. They were a break in that nice safe fantasyland where everything has a happy ending. Instead of little forest creatures helping with the housework until Prince Charming rides you off to the castle in the sky, you’ve got swamp creatures and zombies and things crawling up out of the grave. I remember one where a guy gets turned into an alligator, and another where the hero goes to a very strange gambling house—and the chips aren’t money, they’re the years of your life, and when you lose your last chip, the beautiful woman beside you suddenly has a skull for a face—you’re dead. I loved the E.C. comics because they were dangerous. They scared the crap out of you.
Then that asshole Fredric Wertham came along with his dreadful bit of scare-mongering piece of shit, The Seduction Of The Innocent, and pretty much killed the whole genre. I think that was about the time I started outgrowing comics, because they could no longer be as ambitious.
JGF: You’re an acknowledged huge fan of many classic sci-fi writers, such as Heinlein, Pohl, and others. Do you still read heavily in the SF genre now? What about outside the genre?
DB: I still read science fiction, yes, there are so many great writers working in the field now; but I’ve also expanded my interests. I follow a couple of detective series now; I love a good suspense story, especially if the twists are clever. And I’ve gone back and revisited some of the classics by Dickens and Dumas and Victor Hugo and Jules Verne and H.G. Wells; also Edgar Allen Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Right now, if you went prowling through my bookcases, you wouldn’t be able to find a specific theme. I’m reading “outside the box” to shake up my thinking about what’s possible.
JGF: Do you do a lot of research for your novels/stories? Do you ever find yourself getting caught up in the research, to the point where you lose track of time?
DG: Yes. All the time. It’s a virtue, but I can live with it.
The internet is a curse, you know. It’s like having the entire library at your fingertips. Before we had this convenience, writing involved lots of magazine subscriptions and occasional trips to the library — and I don’t mean the local library, I mean the central library downtown. And bookstores too! New bookstores, used bookstores — everything. I had a mental map of every used bookstore and every specialty bookstore in the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood, downtown L.A., Santa Monica, and even Long Beach. At least once a month, I would go on a personal safari from one to the next.
With the internet at your fingertips, you have access to so much information it’s overwhelming. But it’s the greatest tool ever. You can check the details, the facts, the spelling, the history, of any detail you want to include in a sentence, so there’s no longer any excuse for getting it wrong. (I’ve double-checked over a hundred different things just writing my answers for this interview.)
But let me give you a specific example about what research can do to a story. When I started writing The War Against The Chtorr, I expected it to be a quick and easy adventure story — but the more I thought about the nature of the Chtorran ecology, the more it grew. The more details I wanted to include, the more complex the ecology became. And the more I learned about the interrelationships of species, of plants and animals, apex predators, and all the other stuff, the whole problem expanded exponentially, because I wanted to include it all.
But you can’t. I love watching the Discovery channel, Nova, the National Geographic channel, the various science channels, documentaries of all kind. Sometimes you get multiple perspectives on the same story. Here—think about African migrations and how the herds are following the grasses, which are determined by the rainy seasons, and how the predators’ breeding cycles are geared to the availability of the migrating herds, and how the vultures and the hyenas have a co-dependent relationship, and why the giraffes and the zebras travel with the wildebeest, and how the crocodiles in the Mara river gorge themselves only once or twice a year, but that’s enough because—
— and that’s when you begin to realize that you can’t portray a whole ecology, not even in seven books. The best you can do is take a few snapshots as a way of intimating that everything is far more complex than you have the time to reveal. And that doesn’t even address how the elephants help to dig water holes and how the dung beetles make it possible for the grass to grow and—but you get the idea, right?
I think that’s one of the reasons why some science fiction writers have moved on to science-fantasy or even outright fantasy. It’s impossible to keep up with science. Scientific knowledge is expanding at a rate faster than any one person can assimilate. If you try to do the research because you want to include as much as possible, you’ll end up spending all your time researching and end up doing very little time writing.
But I love the research. That’s one of my fatal flaws. I love the surprises of exploration and discovery.
JGF: Let’s talk about literacy a little bit. You’ve said in the past that you’re a voracious reader, that you read everything and anything, from books to magazines and internet sites. Did you get into reading at a young age, or was it something that came later, after you acquired your interest in science fiction from movies?
DB: I’m fascinated by the written word. It has power. It takes you places you could not go otherwise. The written word is a puzzle, it’s full of secrets. If you can read, you can unlock the secrets. Do you remember the time before you could read? Do you remember staring at the page in frustration and impatience? Remember that amazing burst of enlightenment when you opened that first little book and it said “A is for apple” and you got it, right then and there, how reading worked. From that moment on, you were caught. I know I was.
As a child, I used to puzzle out the newspaper headlines, trying to see the connection to the pictures. The comics pages were even more seductive. I found my favorites, Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, on the comics pages and from there, the rest was inevitable. What was Gasoline Alley? Who were the Katzenjammer Kids? Dagwood and Blondie, Maggie and Jiggs, Nancy and Sluggo. Who needs imaginary friends when you have the comics page?
I think that I had a particular kind of obsessive compulsive disorder as a kid. I had to read everything, I had to know everything. Not knowing felt incomplete, almost painful. So it wasn’t enough to read one book about Freddy the Pig or one book about Doctor Doolittle or one book about Mary Poppins. I had to read them all. I had to read all the Heinleins and all the Leinsters and all the Asimovs. All the Groff Conklin anthologies too.
The same way with the comic books, and the science fiction magazines. I went to the used bookstores and bought back issues of every SF magazine all the way back to the first. (With the exception of Astounding and Amazing which had started before I was born.) But I had complete sets of Galaxy, If, Worlds of Tomorrow, F&SF, Venture, Weird Tales, and probably a few others. I had about a thousand paperback books on my shelves. And I was still checking out ten books a week from the library. People would ask, “Have you read all these books?” and I would wonder why they would even ask such a silly question. Why weren’t they reading?
At that time, there were maybe less than a hundred authors working in genre fiction and only a few dozen books published per year, so a dedicated reader could not only keep up, he could have pretty much caught up with almost everything in the genre by the time he was twenty or so. At least that was my experience. I had read enough that I was developing a good sense of what the standard of excellence was.
I should include that I was also reading Sherlock Holmes, Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe, H.G. Wells, and a lot of other authors too. Dickens, Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edwin A. Abbott, Huxley, Orwell, Vonnegut, Steinbeck. and so on. A lot of mainstream best-sellers too. Political thrillers, detective stories, murder mysteries, a few historicals. And sometimes I would notice a significant difference in writing quality between mainstream and genre. Sometimes the genre writers were experimenting with style a lot more than mainstream authors. Alfred Bester, for example. But with enough experience, I also began to recognize that some genre writers were simply unreadable. (I won’t mention any names, they’re mostly forgotten anyway.) But … here’s my big secret—don’t hit me!—I never got very deep into Lovecraft. I found his style to be so turgid and tiresome, so over-written, that it was a chore to work through his stories. But I will admit that The Colour Out Of Space disturbed me a lot and did influence The War Against The Chtorr.
But there were things that science fiction novels didn’t do, and that recognition of the seemingly self-imposed limitations of the genre stayed with me. I wanted science fiction stories to be as fully fleshed out as the mainstream novels I was reading. So when I wrote When HARLIE Was One, my first novel, I tried to write it with a mainstream sensibility, so it had adult relationships and discussions, a fully developed romance, and some of the first real sex scenes in science fiction. It was pretty ambitious. I could have fallen on my face.
In my twenties and thirties I did read a lot in the horror genre, but after living through a couple of personally harrowing years (the late sixties), I found there wasn’t much that could scare me anymore.
But let me come back to the question at hand. One of the things I realized about reading is that the more you read, the more you get stretched—the more you begin to recognize the incredible infinity of possibilities in this universe. But also (and I know I’m not the only person to make this point) reading gets you into other people’s heads. More than that, it gets other people into your head. The printed word lets the writer think with your brain for a while. He/she moves in and steers you through a series of experiences and discoveries. You get to live through other people’s triumphs and tragedies intimately—and more than that, you get hammered with the insights of that adventure, good or bad. So when you read a lot, all kinds of books and stories, you start to grow. You develop understanding, compassion, empathy. And I think empathy is a vital first step toward true wisdom and maturity—a necessary step toward that higher state that we call enlightenment.
I also think that you can’t be a good writer unless you’re a great reader. But that may be bias on my part. Ten thousand books later, that’s how it looks to me. But that could be my OCD speaking up too.
JGF: What are your thoughts on recent studies, such as the one done by the Library of Congress, that show dramatic declines in the number of people who read books for enjoyment after finishing school? This, at a time when fiction reading is at an all-time high among middle and high school students.
DG: I wonder about the methodology. I wonder if the report might be flawed somehow. I’m skeptical.
We live in the most literate era in history. Anyone with an internet connection has access to more knowledge, more literature, more music, than any king in history could have commanded. Okay, yes, a lot of what’s on the internet fails the test of Sturgeon’s Law, but that might be a good thing—it encourages people to dig, to do research, to look at more than one site. Why do you think Internet Explorer and Chrome allow you to have multiple tabs open at once?
With the widespread adoption of laptops and tablets, people have even more portable access. When I travel, I don’t have to pack the half-dozen books I’m going to read and the dozen magazines I’m going to finish on the airplane. I take my Kindle. Right now, my device has over a hundred books on it. (Yeah, I know. It’s the OCD again.) Now, I don’t know how other people are using their tablets, but I suspect that a lot of them are reading more than ever.
What I do think is happening is the rediscovery of short fiction. The ebook makes it convenient to dip into an anthology or a magazine. I know I’m reading more short stories and anthologies than before, I assume I’m not the only one.
But…we’re also seeing readers plunging into humongous challenges like Game of Thrones and Harry Potter and Tolkien. Stephen King’s The Stand doesn’t seem to be hurting for sales either. If you build a big enough world, the reader doesn’t want to leave quickly.
What I think is happening is that literacy is evolving and adapting to the new media opportunities. On a cost-per-hour basis, a good book delivers more bang-per-buck than any other form of entertainment, (excepting perhaps an album you love to play over and over.) I’m not yet convinced that readership is in decline. I think the demographics are shifting. I certainly hope so.
JGF: Currently, the HWA is very involved in promoting literacy, through library partnerships, YA programs, and working with schools to incorporate horror into reading curricula. As someone who has taught before, do you feel there’s a benefit to using modern books and popular authors as a way to motivate students to read more? Do you think these books should replace older ‘classics’ on school reading lists, or be used as additions to the list?
DG: I don’t think contemporary books should replace the classics, I think they are valuable additions. I would happily put Les Miserables (if you could finish it in one semester) next to Cat’s Cradle or Fahrenheit 451 or The Long Walk. Certainly, I would include Richard Matheson’s work and Harlan Ellison and at least a dozen others.
I was going to suggest some caution about putting extremely horrific novels into the classroom, because not every student is emotionally prepared for extreme violence and gore. But then I remembered that Lord Of The Flies is regularly assigned to students, and there’s not much in literature that’s scarier than that.
But when you turn a book into a classroom exercise, you make it a chore, not an adventure. Sometimes the most important books in your life are the ones you discover for yourself. Everyone needs a few dark secrets to hold close to the heart.
My personal belief is that students should be exposed to the widest possible range of authors. The goal of education should be to make students safe for ideas, not ideas safe for students.
JGF: In 2001, you wrote World of Wonder, a guide to writing science fiction and fantasy. Do you think the principles and exercises in that book would be of value to horror writers as well? How about writers of fiction in general?
JGF: If you could design a fiction writing course specifically for high school students, what would you include, besides the basics of dialog, plotting, setting, etc.? What books would you recommend as examples for students interested in learning how to ‘do it right?’ What types of exercises do you think would be most beneficial for young writers?
DG: Great question.
Sometimes students come into a writing class alienated from the entire process. By the time they get there, writing anything has become a chore. Essay answers, book reports, “What I did last summer,” and busy-work assignments have jaundiced them.
So I’d personalize it. I’d get them to imagine themselves as the hero in the movie of their life and write a story with themselves as the hero. What dragons will you fight? What tragedies will you deal with? What victories will you win? I’d invite them to use the processes of imagination and creation as a personal adventure. Once I got them enthusiastic about that, I’d ask them to create bigger adventures for themselves and see where they want to go. Another world? One that they design themselves? Where is your ultimate fantasy?
And finally—this is where I close the bear trap—I’d ask them to create the scariest thing they can think of…and then confront it. This would teach them not only the power of writing, but the power of the self to create winning narratives for life.
Aside from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (and my own Worlds Of Wonder, which will be out as an ebook sometime soon), I’d invite them to find their own best writing book and bring it in to tell the class why they think it’s a good book and what they got out of it. That’s about exploring, discovering, and sharing.
JGF: You once said that determination is more of a key to success than ability, and that talent/creativity is actually more of an internal process of observing the world and making connections between various facts. Do you feel that ability, if you will, can be learned/taught? Or is it something some people are just born with, they way some people can master a musical instrument or create a beautiful piece of art and others can’t, no matter how hard they practice or how many lessons they take? How much of a balance between determination, ability, and creativity has to exist in order to ‘create’ a successful (or at least “talented!”) author?
DG: If I could climb into other people’s heads as easily as I climb into my own, I could give you a better answer.
Speaking from my own experience, I know that several of my instructors in college didn’t like me and underestimated my ability. They also didn’t recognize my determination. And few of them realized how much I was investigating, exploring, and pursuing on my own time. I know that several of them were surprised when I sold my first script to a prime-time series and went on to a successful career as an author—when some of the “stars” of the department just quietly evaporated into other careers. So, speaking from that anecdotal experience—as well as from my own experience teaching at Pepperdine—there’s just no way to predict who’s too determined, too stubborn, or too stupid to quit.
Some ability doesn’t show up immediately. I remember that when we had assignments, most of my work was very conservative—until I saw how ambitious some of the other students around me had been; but once the assignment was over, we didn’t get a second chance, we moved on to other things. And so I didn’t get to stretch on the assignment in front of me.
I noticed this as an instructor. One of my students was never quite getting the assignment each week, but the following week, his work showed that he had understood the previous assignment and was actively applying it, so even though his on-paper grades were only a B-average, he earned an A in the class. Today he’s a fairly successful director of genre pictures.
I don’t know what kind of ability lies nascent inside a person, I don’t read minds anymore, it makes my brain hurt, but I do know that what’s there can be trained and disciplined. I had a fellow sit in on an eight-week workshop because his wife wanted to take it and he was her ride. As an experiment, I asked him to do the work too even though he didn’t want to be a writer. He did, and he applied the lessons and ended up writing the best story in the entire class. So I do believe technique can be taught—but passion? That has to be created from the inside
JGF: One of the programs the HWA has is a mentoring program, where established writers provide one-on-one help for those who are just starting out. Do you think this is a valid method for young writers? Would you like to see other writer organizations doing something similar?
DG: Mentoring is like marriage. It’s a two-person relationship. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. The mentor has to be patient, the mentee has to be willing to step out of the ambitious self-righteousness of the beginner. Sometimes the mentor knows what he’s talking about, sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes the mentee wants to go in a different direction. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s a train-wreck. I’m ambivalent.
JGF: When you were starting out, did you have any mentors, anyone who you could go to for help?
DG: Irwin R. Blacker, Dorothy Fontana, Harlan Ellison, Gene L. Coon, Anne McCaffrey, Betty Ballantine, Harry Harrison….
Wow. I lucked out, didn’t I?
JGF: What do you think the impact of America’s shrinking (or at least changing) vocabulary and attention span is going to have on the future of literature?
DG: Well, duh. Like totally totes, ^5! Aye-firmative, dude.
When someone wins a Pulitzer Prize for writing a book in L33T, I’m throwing myself off a bridge.
Fortunately, I don’t think we’re headed in that direction. Last year, I revisited several of my favorite novels of the fifties, sixties, and seventies—books by award-winning authors that we still consider classics today.
I was startled to realize that several of them depended on impossible coincidences to get the protagonists unstuck in the middle—coincidences that were easily avoidable, given the set-up. I was even more depressed to recognize that the quality of the writing was not as high as I’d believed. (Memory plays tricks.)
Contrast that with several recent issues of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and it’s obvious to me that not only has the level of mediocrity risen, the level of quality has also risen. It’s a dramatic contrast.
I think we’re seeing an evolution of literacy—the same kind of evolution that occurred after Gutenberg invented movable type. The same kind of evolution that occurred when schooling became widespread in England and America (and other nations). The same kind of evolution that occurred when daily newspapers became possible and public libraries as well. Create the opportunities to read and people will read.
If you look at the stylistic literacy of Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad, Neil Stephenson, William Gibson, China Mieville, Paolo Bacigalupi, Kim Stanley Robinson, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, and so many others, you have to cheer for the future, not fear. We’re evolving. Our literature is evolving.
JGF: One of the things the HWA is trying to do is let libraries and schools know about the wealth of material the small press has to offer, books they probably never even hear about. What is your feeling about the small press and what they’re doing these days?
DG: May the Flying Spaghetti Monster touch all the small press publishers with his noodly appendage. Twice. I love the small presses.
The small press printers are ambitious enough to do things that a lot of the big guys won’t touch. There are some things that are just not cost-effective for the big guys. You get a lot of experimental work, niche markets, specialized erotica, graphic novels, and things that can’t be pigeonholed. I love browsing through a bookstore that’s brave enough to stock the little guys. It’s another reason why I love the dealers’ rooms at conventions. I have a humongous stack of books on my shelves I’m still catching up with. The small press books are in a special stack and they take precedence.
JGF: As someone who’s written for the YA and middle grade readers, what do you think we, as writers, should or could be doing more of to get kids and teens to read?
DG: Well…I don’t really write YA. I write adult books with young adult protagonists. If you go back and look at Jumping Off The Planet—yeah, it feels like a Heinlein juvenile at first. But it would have given Alice Dalgleish, Heinlein’s editor, a heart attack. It’s got a dysfunctional family, divorced parents in a custody battle, a child custody kidnapping, a gay older brother, illegal smuggling, and finally a brutal court case where the kids divorce their parents. That’s pretty heavy stuff for a so-called “juvenile.”
In my not-so humble opinion, the very best books for juveniles and young adults respect that the readers are capable of dealing with real-world situations. In fact, the same should be true for all books. Respect the reader. Indeed, go beyond that. Love the reader. Assume the reader is your best friend, your confidante, your special soul mate, and you can share anything with him or her.
Based on the evidence in the bookstores, there are way too many writers rushing to cash in on the latest craze—dragons, fantasy, wizards, vampires, zombies, whatever. I advise against it. You’re going to get trampled in the stampede. I think a writer should go off into the wilderness (metaphorically) and write something that no one else is writing, something that no one else could think of writing. Find that thing that interests you the most, that story you most want to read but no one else has written—and write that one. If you do a good job, the audience will find you.
JGF: You’ve written for television, movies, and print. Recently, you’ve gotten involved in writing scripts for a web series called STAR TREK: THE NEW VOYAGES, with all new actors playing the roles of the original Enterprise characters. Was it different writing for an internet production?
DG: Again, it’s evolution. The studio system evolved into what it is today because of Jaws and Star Wars. They discovered that summer blockbusters were extremely profitable. So now, we see hundred million dollar investments into major franchises because one summer blockbuster can make more than ten little films together. If it’s the right franchise, it’s a guaranteed success. Which is why you see so many sequels, or pictures derived from successful books or comics.
Think of the big studios as dinosaurs. They take two to three years to lay an egg. If it hatches, then they take another two to three years to lay another egg.
Meanwhile, off in internet-land, you’ve got all these little egg-sucking therapsids running around like crazy. You can buy a good HD camcorder for less than a kilobuck. You can get a 4K camera for 5 kilobucks. Lights and sound equipment are another grand. A computer and editing software? Less than a grand. And so on. You already have the computer anyway. So you’ve got a professional-level kit for less than less than ten thousand dollars. You gather a bunch of friends, everybody rolls up their sleeves and pitches in, you’ve got a film crew. That’s what happened with STAR TREK NEW VOYAGES/PHASE II. And now there are at least a dozen other Star Trek fan films in the works. Beyond that, there are hundreds, probably thousands, of dedicated filmmakers, both beginners and professionals, all of whom are eager to get to work and who no longer have to depend on studio financing or studio control. Yes, they have the limitations of budget—they’ll make up for it with imagination. The Blair Witch Project proved that it’s doable.
The important thing is that the internet is a great way to do an end run around the studios and the networks. Instead of having to go through the entrenched distribution systems, where the studio or the network takes a giant chunk of the profits, the internet makes it possible for the filmmaker to deliver his product directly to the audience. YouTube makes it possible to reach a large audience overnight. That’s why Amazon and Netflix and Hulu and others are all investing in internet productions now. They want to be part of that growing market. So where the studio dinosaurs have a 2-3 year reproductive cycle, the internet therapsids can go through 2-3 generations of product in a year. Evolution is on the side of the independent filmmakers now.
Yes, the studios have some advantages. The studios can do GRAVITY. Joe Filmmaker can’t. The studios can do THE HOBBIT and BATMAN and another chapter of LARGE BIG THINGS BLOWING UP. And we’ll still go see those. But Joe Filmmaker can take us places the studios won’t bother with. Joe Filmmaker can still scare the crap out of us with a well-told story, interesting characters, and a lot of imagination. If you think about some of the scariest films that were made before CGI, the horror wasn’t in what was shown, but what wasn’t shown—what was left to our imagination. Think about Robert Wise’s production of THE HAUNTING. Remember the banging bulging door? We never found out what was on the other side of it, did we? I’m glad I never found out. It’s still terrifying today.
By the way, the scariest movie I’ve seen recently is the original Swedish version of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. (The American remake wasn’t bad either.) It was scary because of what it suggested much more than what it showed. And what it suggested about the eventual relationship of the boy and the girl after the movie ended—well that had to stay with you long after you walked out of the theater. That picture worked. Another one—the best all-round monster movie I’ve seen recently was the Norwegian TROLLHUNTER. Funny, convincing, and with a very nice twist at the end.
Coming back to STAR TREK: PHASE II, it was one of the most exhilarating and exciting experiences I’ve ever had writing and directing—because we didn’t have some disconnected guy in a suit telling us what we could or couldn’t do, what the demographics demanded, or why we couldn’t put a gay character in because someone might get their panties twisted. Instead, we had a bunch of ambitious people saying, “Let’s try this!” and “Let’s go for it!” and “Wow, yeah!” The difference between the studio environment and the independent environment was a level of creative freedom I’ve rarely experienced anywhere else. I can’t say enough good things about the cast and crew. They brought enthusiasm, commitment, passion and a level of professionalism and dedication that a lot of people in Hollywood could learn from.
Yes, the result was a little uneven in some places—we had only ten days to shoot 80 pages—and not all of our actors were experienced professionals, and I admit to some concerns about the final cut, as well as some of my own mistakes in the process, but based on audience response, we got our job done. They gave us standing ovations whenever we showed the episode at a convention.
JGF: Do you see the internet as the wave of the future for video, or more of a complement to TV and movies?
DG: Definitely the wave of the future. See previous answer.
JGF: Over the past couple of years, you’ve become very active in social media, even, some might say, approaching a George Takei-like level on Facebook. Was this something you undertook as a way of promoting your brand, or because you enjoy it, or both?
DG: You think I’m a social media star? Really? That’s the first I’ve heard. Do I get a certificate now?
If it happened, then it happened more by accident. I wasn’t thinking about any long term goals. I only joined Facebook to stay in touch with friends and family and people I know in the various writing communities. I accepted a lot of friend requests, I made a lot of my own. One day I noticed I had 1701 FB friends and I thought the number was funny. The next time I looked I was almost at my limit. I hadn’t paid attention. I’m still amazed.
But yeah, now I do use Facebook as a soapbox. I share what I’m passionate about. I’m passionate about my son, my writing, and specific political issues. On political issues, I have an unfailing rule of thumb. “Is this good for all people or just some people? Who benefits? Is it good for the planet? Or does it do harm? What would I say or do if this were a face-to-face situation?”
I also have a second rule about the entire internet, not just Facebook: “Never put anything online that you’d be embarrassed to see on the front page of the NY Times.” Or maybe the Post. Or Fox News.
That means, in the cleanest possible terms, don’t be a dick. It’s not always easy. I reread everything before I hit post, and my internal shit-filter asks, “Is this really how you want to be seen by others?” From this side, it’s an internal demand for compassion, understanding, logic, rationality, and thoughtfulness. Remember Henry Fonda in TWELVE ANGRY MEN? That’s my internet role model.
But yeah, I enjoy the internet. It lets me be gregarious without having to shower first. I learn stuff. I laugh. I find out what friends are up to. And it’s fair to say that I’m willing to let people know where the boundaries should be recognized. I learned that one from Heinlein. I’m not interested in gossip, name-calling, or toxic behavior.
Oh, I just looked back at the original question. You asked if I’m promoting my brand. Yeah, if I had a brand, and if I knew what it was, yes, I guess I’d feel I have to live up to it. But I don’t know what my brand is. I honestly don’t know how I’m perceived by the audience, because I’m inside the bubble. Occasionally I’ve asked people what they think my brand is. I still haven’t gotten a consistent answer. I think this may be due to the thing I mentioned above. I try to write a different story every time out. If somebody can clearly define the David Gerrold brand, please let me know. I can’t stand the not-knowing.
Coming back to Facebook, I do share occasional bits of writing insights. Sometimes I ask the collective consciousness to help with research and expertise as well. It’s a great source of feedback. I rarely say much about any specific work until it’s finished and available. Once it’s finished, I’ll promote it for a few days. Generally, I post one note a day about a book or a story that’s available on Amazon to remind people that I’m not just another FB loudmouth (I’m this FB loudmouth) and my backlist is available for tablets and ebook readers. People seem to appreciate it. I haven’t heard any complaints yet.
But I don’t regard Facebook as a promotional device. I think too much self-promotion gets in the way of honest discussion. And honest discussion is far more interesting than anything else—especially if you’ve got intelligent and insightful people sharing their own thoughts with you.
JGF: On Facebook, you haven’t been one to shy away from any controversy that results from the political or personal posts you’ve made. You once said, “I welcome literate and well-researched disagreement, because that’s where I learn the most.” You also say on your website, regarding social media, “Follow at your own risk.” Do you like the fact that social media allows an individual the ability to have an almost instantaneous discourse with hundreds of people on any topic you post? Conversely, do you get annoyed when those discourses get interrupted or misused by trolls and other web pests?
DG: Continuing the same train of thought from the previous question, yes. I have Facebook friends who are literate and experienced in so many different areas that it’s like having access to a living university. They share insights about their work; that stuff not only informs me, it informs my writing. I have a short novel on Amazon called Nowhere Man. The narrator is a thirteen-year-old super-genius. I’m not a super-genius (just a normal genius, maybe), but I was able to create the character’s voice and expertise by assembling bits and pieces of knowledge that so many others have shared with me.
I love the online discussions because I’m a fast reader, so I can move through a thread and get a sense of what people are saying very quickly. When something catches my eye, I read it carefully, and sometimes even cut and paste it into a database I keep of great thoughts and quotes. It’s another information resource. Everybody in the world has something to teach you—even if it’s “don’t be like this person.”
As for trolls, I don’t see very many. If someone behaves badly, I block them for a few days. It’s called a time-out. They never come back. It’s not a useful investment of energy to get into a flame war with a fool anyway. I make it clear that my wall is my online living room. Bring your company manners, please. For the most part, most people get it—because most people want the internet to be a positive experience.
JGF: Overall, do you feel that social media has been a boon or bane to authors in the last five years?
DG: Look at it this way. What does a writer do? He sits alone in a room and talks to himself. If he says anything useful he types it. When he has enough stuff typed, he sends it to an editor in the desperate hope that the editor will pay for the privilege of publishing it. If no editor buys it, then he’s not a writer, he’s just a guy sitting alone in a room, talking to himself.
Social media changes that dynamic. The author is no longer alone. He’s now able to connect with people instantly. Most important, he can check in with his audience in a way he never could before. From the other side, this lets readers see authors as human beings, people who have real lives. It creates a much more intimate relationship.
From my side, I love Facebook because it lets me stay in touch with friends all over the world. If I’m traveling, I’m rarely alone. On a recent trip to New York, I had a whole group of people show up for a dinner. On a trip to Orlando, another friend became a personal tour guide of the theme parks. When I was in London, several friends took me all around the city to see things I would have missed otherwise. The best part is that I get to discover that people are as interesting in person as they are online.
As an author, I find the collective consciousness to be the greatest possible resource. I can ask a question like, “how many notes in Beethoven’s ninth symphony” and have a dozen experienced musicians explaining to me within an hour why the question can’t be answered precisely, but here’s how to estimate. I can’t imagine working without an internet connection now.
JGF: You’ve recently begun releasing many of your backlist books as ebooks. Is this something you’re excited to be doing? Which ones have come out, and which ones are coming down the pike?
DG: Benbella books has just republished The Trouble With Tribbles and The World Of Star Trek. Those are big favorites with the fan base. They’re also republishing When HARLIE Was One, Chess With A Dragon, Under The Eye Of God, A Covenant Of Justice, Moonstar, Space Skimmer, and my monster dinosaur novel, Deathbeast. Plus a very disturbing collection called In The Deadlands. Horror fans should check that one out. On my own, I’ve put up a collection of horror stories called (appropriately) Little Horrors. And I’d also point out thirteen o’clock and In The Quake Zone and Dancer In The Dark for those who like darker tales.
Sometime next year, the first four books in The War Against The Chtorr will be republished, when book five is released.
JGF: How do you feel about the changes that digital publishing and self-publishing have brought about in the publishing industry?
DG: I’m somewhere between terrified and enthusiastic.
I’ve noticed that my reading habits have changed dramatically in the past three years. I carry my Kindle with me everywhere and I’m reading a lot more now because it’s so convenient to have my personal library to hand. But I don’t know if I can extrapolate that experience to the populace at large.
It used to be that the backlist was an author’s retirement plan. You would stay with one publisher for much of your career and every few years, the publisher would slap a new cover on the old plates and bring in another 10,000 sales. If you had ten books finished, that would be royalties on a hundred thousand copies.
But then the law changed and publishers had to pay taxes on books in inventory, so they didn’t want backlist books cluttering up the warehouses, they wanted best-sellers. Just like the studios wanted only blockbusters.
And then the computer arrived and publishers could track sales, so they would go to the computer records and say, “Hmm,” this last book by this author only sold 50,000 copies, so we’ll only print 45,000 this time around.” And then the next time, they’d look at the numbers and say, “Hmmm, this guy’s last book only sold 40,000 copies, so we’ll only print 30,000.” I’m not making this up.
So for a while there, the author was trapped between a crock and a hard space. He couldn’t sell his backlist and the computers were conspiring to keep him from breaking out into best-seller territory.
But the ebook has changed all that. With the Kindle and the Nook, your book is always in print. It’s available at a lower price, of which you get a much larger share. Given a choice between 10% of $30 or 70% of $10 I’ll take the 70% share. And at $10 a pop, you’re going to sell a lot more books than at $30.
I saw a recent study that suggests the best price-point for an ebook is $2.99. I can see that for a short book. A bigger book cold justify a $5.99 price tag. I’ve bought ebooks at that range. But you can also sell short fiction at $.99 or $1.99 and while you’re not likely to get rich from those sales, it builds up your audience. And at the back of every ebook, you put an ad for all your other stuff. So yes, I’m very enthusiastic about ebook sales. I think they’re already proving to be a healthy source of income, especially for genre writers.
But I love printed books too. I love the look and feel of a well-assembled hardcover book, or even a good paperback. To me, that’s a real book. There’s something wonderful about holding a book in your hand. And I love the smell of bookstores, of libraries, of a whole shelf of books. I don’t think physical books are going to disappear. I think they’re going to evolve. My son’s favorite Christmas present was a big coffee-table book filled with pictures of classic cars. For my birthday, I got a stack of books, including three graphic novels and a bunch more books that wouldn’t work very well as ebooks. My next trip to Ikea, I’ll be buying at least three or four more upright bookshelves for my office wall and the back room and the hall and the closet….
JGF: What changes do you see coming in the near future as technology advances even more?
DG: The tablet is going to be the primary access in the future. We’re not there yet, but you can see the evolutionary processes at work. Let me predict:
The touch screen is going to evolve into hand-gestures. If you have a Windows 8.1 laptop and you run the food and recipe app, you can wave your hand in front of the camera to get to the next page of the recipe without touching the screen. Imagine three or four years down the line when that function is built into every app. Instead of clicking to get to the next page, you’ll wave. That doesn’t sound like much right now, but once you become used to pointing and waving and gesturing, you’ll prefer it to the mouse.
Speech recognition is another piece. Apple’s Siri is a good start. There’s a similar app for android called Robin. I can tell Google voice to navigate to a specific address or find me the nearest Taco Bell. But while the apps are getting better at recognizing words, they’re still not very good at understanding complex requests. That’s only going to get better. When I can wave my phone to life and say, “What’s the next show time for LOSING NEMO AGAIN in 3D at the multiplex” and have the screen pop up with useful data in less than a second, we’ll see a whole new level of functionality and usefulness from our machines. “Download last night’s episode of Big Bang Theory, please” and “Pay this month’s auto insurance bill from the Wells-Fargo account” are the next big step after “Call Mom.”
I’m not sanguine (yet) about Google glass or 3D printers. Not because they aren’t important technologies—they are. I just don’t see why I would need either of those technologies in my home yet. Those technologies need a killer app before they’re must-have appliances—because we’re not buying devices, we’re buying usefulness. A phone is useful. A tablet is useful. What can a 3D printer do for me? I can’t answer that question today. I already have a chess set. Tomorrow, I might feel different.
I think TV screens will continue to get bigger. 4K resolution is inevitable. 3D without glasses has been successfully demonstrated, but 3D is going to remain a niche market for fanatics—like me.
The big one will be self-driving cars. That will affect everything. Fewer traffic jams because the cars will navigate alternate routes. Elderly drivers will let the car drive and they’ll have fewer accidents. Teenagers will have fewer accidents because the parents will set the car to do the driving. Insurance rates will drop. Fuel use will also drop because you won’t be getting lost, the car will know how to get where you’re going. While the car is driving, you can read a book or watch a video, or get some work done. Or even talk on the phone again.
I also think we’ll start seeing the first real household robots within the next ten years, maybe even as early as 2020.
This is nowhere near an exhaustive list, but these are the things that will most likely have the biggest effect on our daily lives.
<2>Writing and Publishing
JGF: Horror is a genre where certain tropes seem to enjoy long bursts of popularity – zombies, vampires, demonic possession. Does science fiction have any over-done trends?
DG: I think the franchising of TV shows and movies has used up a lot of good shelf space in the stores. And sometimes I despair at the proliferation of what I call “wannabes.” These are books that are spun off a popular trope—but I have to tread lightly on that one, because it would be easy to say that The Star Wolf series is spun off of STAR TREK and The War Against The Chtorr series is spun off of STARSHIP TROOPERS.
I’ve found myself passing on a lot of starflung intergalactic space opera that doesn’t seem to be rooted in any real science—especially when it’s about that one unique person fighting the oppressive system that’s going to kill her or him for resisting.
But if I had to pick one trope that’s been overworked, it’s dystopia of any kind. That story where civilization has collapsed and it’s every survivor for himself. Let’s have a long convoluted journey across a barren landscape and kill lots of people in the process. I liked ROAD WARRIOR. I even liked WATERWORLD and THE POSTMAN. But I’m done with those. I skipped The Road and Children Of Men. I haven’t seen THE HUNGER GAMES either.
When I was growing up, the future was a wondrous place filled with marvels of technology. The Shape of Things To Come, Forbidden Planet, Destination Moon, Conquest Of Space, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and of course, Star Trek. The underlying theme of all of those was that the real adventure was the human adventure—that one day we were going to come of age as a truly enlightened species and that we would ultimately learn how to live and work together in peace.
Today, the future is almost always portrayed as an oppressive regime, where all the marvelous technology is used to dehumanize us. MINORITY REPORT, A.I., OBLIVION, GATTACA, THE ISLAND, and more. Science fiction used to be optimistic, hopeful, inspiring. Much of the best work still is. Read Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, for example. Or anything by Spider Robinson. Even my own Chtorran series is optimistic because it says that human beings never give up.
JGF: In either sci-fi or horror, what trope or sub-genre do you feel has been ignored or overlooked?
DG: Great question.
I think there are two areas that authors have tiptoed around. And with good reason. We don’t have enough information yet.
The first area is gender-identity. There have been some marvelous efforts in that direction. Of course, you have to start with Ursula K. LeGuin’s Left Hand Of Darkness as one of the most compelling examples, but I think there are areas beyond that. Joanna Russ’s book The Female Man was another ambitious effort. I think gender-fluid sexuality is also worth exploring Tanith Lee’s book, The Silver-Metal Lover gets into that. Many of John Varley’s stories have explored gender-fluid characters as well. Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X is also a must-read. There are a lot of other authors tentatively stepping into this area, but in my opinion, it remains an under-explored domain.
The other area may be even more touchy. It’s an area I call “the technology of consciousness.”
Back in 1952, the Hugo for best novel went to They’d Rather Be Right which was a stunning tale of the physical cost of self-righteousness and hypocrisy and how when human beings were reprogrammed out of the toxic and crippling behaviors, it was also a rejuvenation. (The book has been unfairly maligned since then, possibly because it hit a little too close to home?)
A lot of stories written in the post-war era were about the next step in human evolution—that it would be psychological. Heinlein explored it in Beyond This Horizon. Van Vogt got into it with Slan. But for the most part, stories about transforming the human condition from the inside never captured much of an audience. Perhaps the whole discussion was also tainted by L. Ron Hubbard, Dianetics, and Scientology.
But I think it’s fair to ask the question, if we can spend billions and billions of dollars on weapons, then why can’t we spend a few hundred million researching the nature of the people who use those weapons, who authorize them, who think they’re important to build in the first place? Why can’t we spend some time and money researching the nature of human consciousness and how can we train ourselves to be the very best people we can be? Why can’t we spend some money finding out how to become the kind of people who don’t need war?
During the fifties and the sixties, as part of the post-WWII existential reexamination of “what the fuck just happened?” and “what kind of species are we?” we saw the beat culture develop, we also saw an increasing interest into eastern culture—zen and Buddhism in particular. On the west coast, there were groups like Mind Dynamics which explored the nature of human behavior—some of those graduates included Werner Erhard who created est and John Hanley who created Lifespring. That was where the human potential movement began.
Regardless of your feelings about trainings—and yes, the training environment was tainted by a lot of bad behaviors, but that’s a different discussion—if you could sit and talk with the trainers (I have, many times), you would begin to see that the trainings were based on a rigorously applied philosophy of personal responsibility, zen delivered with a fire hose. Can you live like an enlightened being? Can you be responsible for your choices? At the heart of it was a serious examination of what does it mean to be a human being? And that’s an area that I think science fiction is still fumbling with. But I don’t hold that against science fiction authors—the whole species is stumbling around that question. Where I think we’re failing is that people do not seem to be drawn to this subject. It gets dismissed as airy-fairy, touchy-feely, new-age, crypto-mysticism—and it’s not.
On the plus side, there are some excellent authors, like Steven Barnes, exploring just how profound an area this can be. I think he points the way toward a more rational and humane way of being. He recognizes that we are not only storytelling creatures, but that our stories define us. In fact, it is possible that our ability to codify our experience as story may have been one of the triggering factors in the ongoing development of true sentience. If science fiction isn’t going to examine the human condition then I think we’re missing a great opportunity.
JGF: As an editor, when you look at a story, what five things are most important to you, and in what order?
DG: In order?
- Was I entertained?
- Was I moved, touched, and inspired?
- Did I care about the characters?
- Did the author take me someplace interesting? Did he or she take me somewhere I’ve never been before?
- Is this story ambitious? Dangerous? Is it going to stick in my memory like a stuck chicken bone?
JGF: If you could change 3 things in the publishing industry, what would they be?
DG: First, I’d want the very best editors in the field to have more time to sit down and work with authors on a one-to-one basis. I want editors who actually know how to edit. There are some very good editors in the field today. Betsy Mitchell, Ellen Datlow, Beth Meachum, Shawna McCarthy, Gordon Van Gelder, Gardner Dozois, Mike Resnick, Eric Flint, David G. Hartwell, Moshe Feder, and I could mention a dozen others who I’ve worked with in the past—but the pressures of publishing mean they don’t have the time to do the kind of hands-on work that some authors need. I want to work with an editor who has enough gravitas to slap me upside the head and say, “No, that doesn’t work. Fix it.” Of course, I also recognize that the ultimate responsibility is mine—but a good editor is the best source of feedback that an author could ask for. So what I really want is for editors to be able to do the kind of job they want to do.
Second, (this is the one that’s going to get me in trouble if I get into specifics) I’d want SFWA to become a more aggressive advocate for authors’ rights in the changing world. I want SFWA to function like a true guild of professionals. This would require a major transformation in the thinking of the membership, so it’s not likely to happen. But I believe SFWA’s best strengths have always been in monitoring the marketplace for the membership and working to keep authors from getting caught in bad situations, and I’d like to see that part of SFWA expanded and strengthened.
Third, I’d like to see some kind of support system put in place for authors to have affordable health care as well as resources for other emergencies. Authors don’t have steady employment. Unless you have a column or a day job, you never know what kind of income you’re going to have from month to month. If you’re fortunate enough to get a best-seller or a popular franchise, you’ll still have to manage your money so that the two big lump sums that come in as royalty payments can be spread out across the entire year. I don’t have an easy solution to this, I just know that there are writers who have occasionally been slammed into brick walls by emergencies, and there’s no safety net for any of us. We had this happen in my house just last year. My son’s application for health care got tangled in the wheels of the system, his hernias had gotten worse and he desperately needed immediate surgery. My next royalty check wasn’t due for several months. And I don’t like borrowing money. I put a note on Facebook that I was considering a fund-raiser. Before I could even organize that fund-raiser, we had so many donations come in that we could afford to schedule the surgery immediately with the best specialist we could find. But not every author has that kind of fan-base. (I’m still a little staggered by it. And I will be spending the rest of my life paying it forward.) So, for me, this would be the big one—finding a way to create a safety net for writers in need.
Bonus answer: I’d also love to see a renaissance of serious review zines—or websites. In the glory days of fanzines, there were several hefty zines that came out on a regular basis, with reviews written by experienced readers providing a fairly broad overview of current books and magazines. We still have Locus and Tangent, of course, and The New York Review of Science Fiction remains one of the most informed and literate. But I want more. When I read an insightful commentary on a great book, it informs my own writing—it makes me aware of things I should or shouldn’t be aware of. It makes me a better reader and a better writer. Maybe I’m missing some of the better blogs and review sites. If that’s the case, let me know.
JGF: What are the most common mistakes you see writers making these days?
DG: If I start with myself, I’d have to say arrogance, pretentiousness, and taking myself too seriously.
Yes, I know I’m passionate and ambitious and confident that I can solve the problems I set myself. But that also morphs into being judgmental about others, and arrogance and pretentiousness follow quickly after that. So I have to remind myself regularly that’s not the person I intend to be. My contract with myself is to be powerful, vulnerable, and loving. In practice, the job is to be mature, humble, and goofy. Especially goofy. If you’re goofy, it’s almost impossible to be pompous.
Extrapolating outward to others, now I have to be judgmental. Sorry about that.
- It annoys me when an author isn’t ambitious, when he plays too small, when he doesn’t ask the big questions, when he doesn’t ask the next question, when he sells out too quickly.
- I hate sloppy language, clichés, clumsy construction, bad plotting, dreadful dialog, and inaccurate science or psychology. It reveals that the author isn’t doing his/her job. The reader trusts the author to be an authority, trusts the author to reveal a truth about the universe. If the author doesn’t do that, he’s not only cheating the reader, he’s failing his own responsibility to be the best he can be.
Authors need to train themselves to be literate, to be clear, to be precise—but most of all to be truthful.
Here’s an example—the “every man for himself” trope in disaster tales, the idea that civilization is such a thin veneer we’ll throw it off at the first excuse. This is false. Having experienced two or three actual disaster-emergencies, I can tell you that people unite to take care of each other. Ask any survivor of 9-11 what their experience was and you’ll see the falsity of that notion. We aren’t all eager to loot and kill; we’re much more eager to put it back together and find ways to make it work.
- But the all-around worst mistake I think any author can make is to be so shamelessly self-centered that he doesn’t notice that he’s shooting himself in the foot while it’s still in his mouth. Sometimes it’s the guy who self-promotes himself so aggressively that he becomes self-parody. Sometimes it’s the guy who thinks he has a right to skewer other authors for their perceived failures. Sometimes it’s the guy whose politics are offensive because they’re based on vilifying other groups or even whole classes of people. Finally, there’s the guy who thinks that because he’s published a few books, made some serious bucks, that he is now an expert on writing—so he pontificates ad nauseum. (I’ve made this mistake myself, so I know how annoying it is.) When an author forgets that 90% of the job is to listen and learn, he’s no longer challenging himself to become a better author, let alone a better person.
JGF: Is there anything you’d like to say to the writers out there who might be watching this and trying to decide if they should join the Horror Writers Association?
DG: I can tell you why I joined. First, it’s the opportunity to hang out with a lot of other writers I admire a lot. Second, it’s the opportunity to pick their brains and hear their insights about storytelling in one of the most difficult genres of all.
When I started writing, I went to every convention I could so I could attend the panels and hear what the real pros had to say. I hung out in the bar and the green room and the con suite and the hotel lobby and listened to every bit of advice that was generously offered. It was like a graduate level course in how to write what I most wanted to write, being taught by the people who were most experienced.
That kind of access is probably the most valuable aspect of any writers’ organization.
JGF: How important is it to have other sets of eyes for your books? Do you still use beta readers?
DG: Sometimes no, sometimes yes. It depends on the project. There are a couple of writers I’m close to whose judgment I cherish a lot. And sometimes, I’ll drop a piece on someone who isn’t a writer just to see how an average reader might react. (Of course, there are no average readers, but the feedback is still useful.)
JGF: What are the pluses and minuses of doing a popular series of books, such as your Chtorr series?
DG: If you can turn out the books regularly, the plus is that each book sells a little bit more than the last book and it can ultimately generate a nice bit of income. The minus is that you’re trapped inside a pipeline. You have to deliver on time — or your editor, your publisher, and your readers stand in front of your house every night with torches and pitchforks, muttering darkly.
JGF: Do you have any advice for new writers out there, the ones struggling to get their stories and books into print?
DG: The best advice I can ever give a new writer is to quit. Quit now while you still have your youth, your looks, your ambition, your dreams. Quit while life is still an adventure. Quit now before you turn into a reclusive alienated keyboard-pounding drudge. Quit because the odds are against you. Quit before you become disillusioned. Quit because whatever you might think, the universe is going to repeatedly remind you that you are not enough.
Now…if reading that paragraph pisses you off, makes you so angry that you want to write a novel just to prove me wrong, then maybe you have the determination to get from page one to page last. Maybe you have the cojones to make it. “I’ll show that bastard!” is useful energy. It’s fuel for the writing engine. The other great fuel for the writing engine is passion, but that’s a lot harder to tame, so for a beginning author, I recommend getting pissed off at the world and pouring that pissed-off-ness into the keyboard.
JGF: What project or projects are you currently promoting? Is there anything in the works you might want to drop some hints about?
DG: I’m always promoting. It’s part of the job. Not my favorite part, but necessary. Every author needs to learn how to skillfully, but modestly, self-promote in a way that readers will want to seek out his books. Of course, the real challenge is to write a story so good that the reader will say, “I want more of this” and go looking for everything else you’ve written.
Mostly, I tell people to look me up on Amazon and see what interests them. The Martian Child is always a good place to start, but I also recommend In The Quake Zone and thirteen o’clock for style and mood and character. For those who like hard science, there’s Ganny Knits A Spaceship and Turtledome. Space opera? The Voyage Of The Star Wolf. Aliens? Chess With A Dragon. Young adult? Nowhere Man and Jumping Off The Planet. For starters, anyway….
Projects in the works? Yes. I’m absolutely determined to finish Book Five this year.
Nine Quick Questions
- Name three things you think will soon be moved from science fiction to real science.
DG: The problem with that question is the word “soon.” Everything that’s “soon” is already in process.
I mentioned several possibilities above, I’ll recap those first. I think we’ll see hand gestures augmenting touch screens and mice and keyboards. Self-driving cars are inevitable; it’s a little scary to think about, but I expect that many people will end up appreciating the utility. Useful household robots are also inevitable; all the separate pieces are already in the pipeline, what’s missing is the software to unify it all. A key piece will be speech recognition that has a greater understanding of human nuance—the oft-fabled “do what I mean” instruction. But these are easy predictions. Let me tackle some harder ones.
We’re on the verge of 3D printing organs from people’s own stem cells, that will make organ transplants more accessible to more patients. Finding a donor won’t be a problem anymore. That same technology will also allow us to culture meat in tanks instead of having to slaughter animals. And eventually, we will be able to grow a baby in an artificial uterus—but that one’s at least a decade or more in the future.
Two small changes are going to produce one big synergistic one. Now that we’re moving to IPV6, we’ll have enough internet addresses that we’ll be able to build an internet of things. You’ll be able to monitor and control locks, light switches, coffeepots, etc. At the same time, the cost of high-resolution cameras is in free fall. Eventually, we’ll have cheap solar-powered camera-buttons that you can stick anywhere. You’ll start with cameras on all your doors and windows, and you’ll have a home-security system that photographs anyone who comes near your property. But extrapolate from there. Businesses will deploy security inside and outside their offices and factories. Stoplights will have cameras to monitor traffic. All of the public cameras are going to end up linked in a common network. The police won’t need to chase a criminal; they’ll monitor his progress from camera to camera and shut down his vehicle from a distance. Plus they’ll have compelling video evidence for the court. It’s going to be a bad time for criminals. The courts will eventually rule that public cameras are a valid police tool, but we’ll hear the word Orwellian a lot. The legal issues are going to be complicated. Ultimately, you’re only going to have true privacy in your own home. Once you get past the front door, no—you’re a member of the global village.
My wild card prediction is that linear accelerator technology is going to become more and more practical. The military will have railguns that will be able to fire huge projectiles over fantastic distances. That may eventually result in catapults for launching objects into space. There are technical issues there, the projectile will probably need rockets for orbital insertion and parachutes in case the rockets don’t fire, but the catapult will be much more cost-effective than launching a gigantic rocket.
My second wild card prediction is that we’re going to see a lot of low-tech solutions as well. Now that we understand the physics better, we can heat and cool and ventilate our homes without major expenditures of energy. We can switch to solar power water heaters, we can generate oil from algae, we can use windmills and roof-panels to create power. We can build homes out of more efficient materials. It’ll take a generation for most of these things to fall into place, but it’s inevitable, because energy is going to get more expensive.
Finally, we’re going to see smart-buildings. We’re seeing the first step toward it. But I predict that in the city of the future, a building will have restaurants and shops on its bottom-most levels, offices and businesses on the next few levels, and apartments and condos on the top. There will be a large internal atrium to provide a “village space.” Interleaved with the apartments will be gardens and farms and structures to make the building energy independent. On the outside walls, there will be solar panels, possibly windmills or energy producing kites on the roof. A large building will be its own community.
An alternative kind of construction will be to dig downward. A deep cone-shaped hole can also become an inverted skyscraper where everyone has their own private terrace fronting an apartment dug into the wall. Why this is practical is that ground temperature is so stable that the energy cost of heating and cooling such an environment would be drastically reduced.
There’s enough right there for a whole set of future-set stories. And I don’t think I’ve even scratched the surface of what’s inevitable.
- What would you like to see a book written about that hasn’t really been done, or done well?
DG: If I could answer that question, I’d be writing that book. Maybe I will.
I’d like to see an in-depth look at the tools and techniques of the human potential movement, the courses and workshops. Not a puff-piece about how, “Dude, you totally transformed my space” which is just unintelligible jargon—but something more down-to-Earth. Something that addresses both the psychological and philosophical core of who we are as human beings and how we can train ourselves to reach the next levels of intelligence, awareness, and wisdom.
We live inside the stories we tell about ourselves and the stories we tell about how the world works. That informs and influences how we experience everything, how we react, how we behave. If we can rewrite our personal stories—even a simple change from “I can’t handle this” to “I’m bigger than this problem” is sufficient—if we can rewrite the stories we live in, then we are rewriting ourselves in the movies of our lives.
- What are your three favorite movies?
DG: SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, THE SEARCHERS. Runners up: THE FALL. (Look for it!), REPO MAN, THE APPLE WAR (Even harder to find.) Also runners up: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) and THEM!
- If you were trapped on an island, what three books would you want with you?
DG: How To Stay Alive In The Woods, Outdoor Survival Skills, The Survival Handbook. Books to read for fun? Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, and Treasure Island.
- What is the number one problem with horror and science fiction movies today?
DG: The number one problem with horror and science fiction films is the use of CGI as a substitute for real imagination. I want to say to the writers and directors: “We know it’s an effect. We know you can be gory. So what? We don’t believe it because we know in our gut that it’s not real. Eye candy is great, but I want to be scared! THE RING scared me. THE THING did not.”
A second problem, much bigger but less obvious, is that a lot of modern films are being written to formula. A number of excellent books have been written analyzing the structure of successful films. Writers can use these books to inform their analysis, to find out why a story isn’t working—but studio executives, people who don’t write, are using these books as rules for writing successful pictures. And the end result is that every new movie feels like every movie that came before it. You can sit in the theater with a stop-watch and predict every emotional beat: set-stage, lock conflict, trap the protagonist, moment-of-truth, feel-good advance, reversal, flipover, advance, reverse, triggering moment, transformation, victory, extra-surprise at the end. Blah blah blah. Great writing doesn’t come from a beat-sheet or a formula or a rulebook. Great writing comes from sitting down at the keyboard and opening a vein. Great writing breaks the rules and in doing so, rewrites the rules.
My advice to anyone writing? As soon as you recognize the formula you’re trapped in, challenge it, break it, turn it upside-out and inside-down. Find out what happens to the hero when he can’t be heroic the same way he was last time. (This is one of the things I did in “The Trouble With Tribbles” and I think it’s one of the reasons the episode has remained so popular with the audience.)
- If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be?
DG: Miserable. But I know I could be a pretty good director. And I’ve had some experience leading courses and workshops too.
- If you were President of the United States, what would be the first three things you would do?
DG: 1) Tell the White House chef how to prepare my favorite lunch. 2) Ask congress to shift a big chunk of the defense budget to education, and another big chunk to energy research, space exploration, and other big-science projects. All of those would create major long-term benefits in every domain, including defense. I’d have to do some serious deal-making, but the benefits would be worth it. 3) Ask congress to create a minimum basic income for all Americans. This would allow us to end unemployment and other welfare programs, would be cheaper all around, and would provide a major boost to the economy. There aren’t enough jobs to go around, but the nation is wealthy enough that we can take care of all of our citizens. Those who would benefit the most from this would be children. 4) Trim the bullshit out of the defense budget. We don’t need tanks or bombers anymore. We can accomplish a lot of the same goals with drones and robots. It’ll be cheaper and with a lot less risk to our troops. I would invest in the development of power-armor exo-skeletons—because it’ll be useful for firefighters and rescue workers. 5) Invest in rebuilding the American infrastructure, especially energy independence. The single most important thing we could do to create self-sustaining economic health is to achieve energy independence. That would mean we would be able to stop borrowing money from China to import oil from Saudi Arabia. 6) Reenergize the Peace Corps and the domestic Peace Corps. That’s the best way of all to prevent future wars.
- What’s your biggest pet peeve?
DG: Not having enough time to write all the stories that occur to me. Every night, while waiting to fall asleep I find myself blocking out a new novel. Dammit! Let me finish the ones I’ve already started!
- What one book or movie has made the biggest impact on you, either professionally or personally?
DG: Book? Tossup between Stranger In A Strange Land and Starship Troopers. Both those books were about putting specific ideas in practice. One was about discovering our own humanity, the other was about the responsibility we have to the society that nurtures us.
Movie? It’s a tossup between The Wizard of Oz and King Kong (1933). I’d also have to acknowledge War Of The Worlds (1953) as a runner-up. All three of those expanded my imagination.
JG: David, I just want to say thank you for this interview, it’s been a real pleasure!
DG: Fun for me too.
For more information about David Gerrold, and to see a complete list of all his works, visit his personal webpage, www.davidgerrold.com or his Wikipedia page, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Gerrold.