TT: Continuing the Cross(over) Examination

JANE: So, Alan, last week we decided to stop speculating as to why authors write in a wide variety of genres and actually ask a couple.  I chose three authors I know here in New Mexico: Walter Jon Williams, John Maddox Roberts, and Pati Nagle.

Same Authors, Different Genres

Same Authors, Different Genres

Last week we took a look at how these authors got started.

When we were winding up, you asked me to ask our three authors why they ended up writing…  How did you put it again?

ALAN: I said, “Could you ask them why they’ve ended up writing the kind of things that their names are (these days) most closely associated with?”

JANE: Right!  That’s an amazing sentence…  Anyhow, I did, and here are their replies.

I thought I’d start with Pati, since she’s currently publishing in three different genres and has a name to go with each one: “Pati Nagle” for SF/F, P.G. Nagle for historicals, and  Patrice Greenwood for cozy mysteries

Pati said: “I love to read various genres, so I’ve also written in a number of genres. It’s like playing in your favorite fantasy worlds. A lot of writers start out writing derivative fiction set in the worlds of their favorite books/movies. With me it was Star Trek – I wrote a really terrible Trek novel when I was in my teens. I didn’t keep it; it wouldn’t have been publishable even with the serial numbers filed off. I realized years later that the main purpose of that ‘practice’ novel was to teach myself how to type.

“I’ve always got various ideas floating around in my brain. Which genre I write in next just depends on which one grabs me and says, ‘Write me now!’”

ALAN: That sounds like she just writes whatever the story demands of her, without really trying to force it into the “genre of the moment.”  How extremely sensible. I wish more writers did that…

Since Pati mentioned that a lot of writers start out by writing “derivative fiction”, I feel that I have to ask if you ever did that?

JANE: Well, I freely admit that I had a complex story I told myself that borrowed heavily from everything I loved, whether written or from television.  However, I didn’t actually write it down.

I wrote a story to fill in some of the gaps in the character backgrounds for the original animated Thundercats, to which I was seriously addicted as a counterpart to being a graduate student.

Now, back to your question…

For Walter Jon Williams, the path that would lead him to becoming an award-winning SF writer was a mixture of business and inclination.  He says:

“The market for historical fiction dried up, and I couldn’t sell.  Again, I was submitting across a number of genres, and it was the science fiction that sold.

“Many of my rejections during this period suggested that my writing was too weird or unconventional, so it’s lucky I ended up in SF, which is more open to such things.”

He added that SF/F appealed to him as more than a marketplace because: “It gave me license to experiment.  Unless you experiment, you don’t get better, and I’m always trying to get better.”

ALAN: One of the things I like about Walter’s books is that he seldom writes the same thing twice. He even experiments within the novels that make up an ongoing series. And now we know why!

JANE: I agree…

For John Maddox Roberts, the path that would lead him to Roman mysteries was also due to a combination of his interests, combined with the ups and downs of the business climate.  I quote:

“That first [SF] novel was followed by two more sf books, but the medieval novel was still out there circulating. By this time I had an agent, Eleanor Wood. Advances were low so I was looking for any work I could get. Signet Books was beginning an action-adventure line of books and the editor had had a look at my medieval book and asked Eleanor if I would be willing to write something similar, but set during the Crusades.  These books were to be published at very close intervals so I would have to write them fast. I wrote the first in twelve days and turned out three more within the next few months. I had a contract for six books, but Signet was sold and the new owners abruptly shut down the Action-Adventure line.”

ALAN: But how did he end up writing the SPQR novels?

JANE: Again, the business climate played a role.  John said than an element:

“…was the cyclical nature of science fiction – every few years a boom would turn into a slump. In the late 80s SF was in one of its slump periods and Eleanor asked if I had anything ‘different’ to send her. I turned up a few pages I’d started on several years before – a mystery set in ancient Rome. I wrote up a couple of chapters and an outline for the rest and Eleanor found a buyer at Avon books.

“My editor, John Douglas, was willing to take a chance on something this weird and the first of the series, SPQR, was nominated for the Edgar Award. Due to internal politics at Avon the series was badly mishandled and canceled after four books, but in the meantime they had become bestsellers in Europe, particularly Germany, and for several years I was writing primarily for German publication.”

JANE: As you and I both know, the series did eventually find a new American publisher, who brought the books out in hardcover.  John noted that: “The SPQR series is now up to 16 languages and is being produced for television in Germany.”

ALAN: Oh, no! I don’t speak German!

JANE: I’m hoping they’ll subtitle it in English…

John had another comment, specifically about writing mysteries that I wanted to share.

 He said: “Actually, I don’t understand the appeal of writing in a single genre. It seems limiting to me. Economically, mystery is dependable. Unlike the boom-and-bust cycle of SF and historical, the mystery market stays steady, for numerous reasons. Also, mystery is esteemed worldwide.”

ALAN: I’d never thought of that before, but he’s right. Nobody ever seems to feel ashamed or embarrassed if they are caught reading a mystery novel on the bus. That’s something you certainly can’t say about SF.

JANE: True enough.  At least for me, my writing brain doesn’t seem happy without an element of the strange and unreal.  On the other hand, the lines between the genres are becoming increasingly blurred.  Could be that one of these days I’ll come up with a mystery story that will make both sides of the bookstore happy.

2 Responses to “TT: Continuing the Cross(over) Examination”

  1. Paul Says:

    Coincidentally, Dana Stabenow, now best known for her “Kate Shugak” Alaskan mysteries, started writing with an SF trilogy before leaving that genre. She is bringing back her first SF with this comment on her occasional blog..;.
    …did you know my first published novel was science fiction? (I know, contain your shock, my writing life did not begin with Kate.)
    I wrote this first book in response to the Challenger blowing up, a story about a space program that worked. Rage is a great motivator.

  2. Paul Says:

    P.S. The title is “Second Star,” if anyone wants to check it out.

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