JANE: This week, as an early holiday gift to all of you, I’m offering an interview with Nebula Award-winning author and personal favorite, Jack McDevitt.
(Turns to face victim.)
All right, Jack, ready to go? Here’s my first question.
In my experience, writers fall into two general categories: those who have been writing stories since before they could actually write and those who came to writing somewhat later.
Which sort are you?
JACK: I knew from my earliest years that I wanted to write SF. Started my first novel at about eight. The title was The Canals of Mars. You might be surprised to hear that it didn’t sell. In my early teens I submitted a story to F&SF, and got an encouraging reply from Anthony Boucher. But I didn’t realize how much that meant. I won the Freshman Short Story Contest at LaSalle, and thought I was on my way. Then I read David Copperfield and realized I could never compete with Dickens. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that I did not have to compete with him. In any case, I wrote nothing more for 25 years. Finally got started when my wife Maureen talked me into trying my luck. So I guess you could say I came late to the feast.
JANE: You’re right… So many would-be writers don’t realize how much a personalized rejection means.
Next question: What draws you to writing science fiction?
JACK: When I was four years old, I saw the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials. After that, fiction that never got above the rooftops just didn’t grab me the way Bradbury and Heinlein did.
JANE: Heh… That’s great. I’ve seen some of those serials and they’ve got real energy – an energy I certainly find in your novels.
You have two continuing series: the stories featuring Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins and those featuring Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath. What can you do by doing these two series that you couldn’t if you just stayed with one?
JACK: Probably avoid running out of ideas too quickly. Priscilla deals with different types of problems than Chase & Alex. I’m not much interested in using villainous characters to drive plots, so I need different types of problems. Priscilla is usually involved in discoveries made during the early years of FTL flight, whereas Alex tries to chase down historical mysteries, like your own Griffin Dane.
JANE: Griffin and Alex would probably like each other. I can see them arguing over beer.
Both Hutch and Chase are spaceship pilots. Is there any particular reason that you prefer female characters in the driver’s seat?
JACK: I used to do leadership seminars for the Customs Service. One of the exercises we ran involved putting five people together and putting them in a difficult situation that required them to communicate, make the right calls, and get good results. For example, we’d put them into a plane and crash the plane in Arizona during July. This was before the cell phone era, so they had no communication. All they were required to do was survive. Some groups were made up of special agents, others of customs inspectors, others of import specialists. They lived and died at pretty much the same rate. The only area in which we saw a difference was related to the gender makeup of the groups.
There were three types of groups: all male, all female, and mixed. The female groups showed a serious capacity for thinking things out and listening to each other, much more so than anybody else, so that had by far the best results. I suspect you’ll be surprised to hear who got the worst scores. It was the mixed groups.
We discovered that in the mixed groups the participants tended to assume standard roles: The males became more inclined to take charge, make decisions, and take foolish chances. The women became more submissive and just went along.
Going with female pilots who would not cave into dumb decisions seemed like an easy (and natural) call.
JANE: That’s great! I’m really not surprised by what you learned. I attended an all-girl high school and will be forever grateful. Later, when I taught college, I offered an SF seminar. To my astonishment, all seven students were female (and most were blond). I’d taught some of these young ladies in mixed groups and I was thrilled to find how much more opinionated they were when there were no guys around.
Alex Benedict walks the very narrow line between treasure hunter and archeologist, a division that defines his character in many ways. I’m curious why you chose this background for him. He’s smart enough that he could have had any number of career paths.
JACK: Sure. Banker, maybe. Or real estate dealer. But none of that would be of any interest to a reader.
JANE: You’ve been married for quite a while, and seem happy that way, but none of your main characters seem to be able to maintain a relationship. Why did you make that choice?
JACK: I don’t think that was actually a conscious choice. But our lives before we get married tend to have more tension and more surprises, which helps provide a more gripping narrative.
JANE: I’ve read (and loved) Coming Home, the latest installment in the Alex Benedict/ Chase Kolpath novels). Can we hope for future stories with them?
JACK: Coming Home has been interpreted by a number of readers as a wrap on the series. I’ve even occasionally thought of it that way myself. And that will probably stay in place until the first historical mystery that would capture Alex’s attention shows up.
JANE: I’m definitely going to have Griffin e-mail Alex. I want more stories about him and Chase!
In Coming Home, while doing research for something else entirely, Chase comes across a book that is clearly about Hutch. (I giggled mightily.) However, this confirms that they share the same universe.
JACK: I don’t think Chase tells us whether the book was history or fiction.
JANE: You’re right… Still, I was tantalized by the possible link.
Many of Hutch’s challenges center around helping keep the space program active. Is there a point at which it might be hard for you to carry her story forward without bumping into conflicts with the past history established for Alex and Chase?
JACK: Until now, I’ve never thought of them as living in the same universe. I’ve reached a point at which I’m going to have to make up my mind.
JANE: Hey, how about Alex and Chase investigating what happened to Hutch after she vanished on her final flight? Just kidding…
I know you just finished a book. Can you tell us anything about it?
JACK: Beyond the Sky is a sequel to Ancient Shores, published in the mid-nineties. A star gate has been excavated on a Sioux reservation in North Dakota. Who put it there? Why? And where can it take us? Answers forthcoming.
JANE: Oh, wonderful! I loved Ancient Shores. You’ve got a reader. Two, actually, Jim’s a fan, too. He had a couple sick days recently and spent them reading Coming Home.
Many of my readers are interested in writing. Can you tell us a little about how a novel typically develops for you? Do you write a little each day? Write in bursts? Have any tricks you’d care to share?
JACK: I work every day for about seven hours. My objective is to get a complete first draft. That, as you certainly know, is the brute work. After that I can fiddle with it. My inclination is to set up a mystery. How did those people vanish out of the starship? There was no place to go, and the lander and the pressure suits are all still on board. Once I have the answer to that, a reasonable explanation, the novel pretty much writes itself. But the reasonable explanation is essential. I want the reader to wonder at the end how he could have missed it. (That, incidentally, is Polaris.)
JANE: I remember. I have a signed copy on my shelf! Okay… One final question. If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
JACK: Seriously, I enjoyed my time teaching leadership and management seminars for the Customs Service. Before that I was an English teacher. Either one provides a rewarding way to make a living. You won’t make big money, but you’re doing something that’s enjoyable, and providing a service at the same time.
JANE: And that’s a combination sure to make for a happy life. Thanks for taking time to chat.
Any of you have anything you’d like to ask? We can hope to drag Jack back. Feeling too shy to ask directly? You might consider signing up for his Facebook Fan Club.