Not too long ago I reviewed Mr. Varley’s novel Rolling Thunder. Now, I have an interview with the author himself. Enjoy!
Firstly, thanks for doing this interview with me. Could you tell us a little about yourself (sort of a short biography if you will)?
Born and raised in Texas, got out as soon as I could, right after high school. National Merit Scholarship to Michigan State, dropped out, went on the road, became a hippie, did a lot of drugs, stopped doing a lot of drugs. Went to Woodstock accidentally. Lived in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, started writing. Been doing the same ever since.
What projects are you currently working on, if any? Could you tell us about them?
I’m working on a novel suggested by my editor that involves a post-apocalyptic world. I can’t reveal too many details about it, as the cause of the apocalypse is rather unusual.
Did your editor suggest the idea for your post-apocalyptic novel or just the idea of a post-apocalyptic world in general? Is this something different for you in relation to your other work (without revealing details, obviously, I just happen to be a fan of this subgenre)?
She just wanted a book about how things can go bad, and how we’d survive during and afterward. I cooked up the disaster myself.
Why do you write? (more or less, I’m curious why you decided to write SF and fiction in general)
I write to make a living, and to amuse myself. I write SF because it’s all I know how to do. I read mainly thrillers and mysteries, and I’d write those if I knew how, but I don’t.
Your biography on your website says you used to run behind DDT-trucks. Is that exactly as it sounds (a young John Varley running happily behind a truck spraying DDT everywhere)?
If you’d grown up on the Texas Gulf Coast you’d know exactly what I mean. The mosquitoes there were suspected of carrying off small cats and dogs to devour at their leisure. Nobody knew then that DDT was bad for you (actually, it isn’t, is it? It’s bad for birds and fish), so every night trucks would cover every street in town, spraying a soothing cloud of DDT mist that–back then, anyway, they probably eat DDT for lunch, now–killed the skeeters.
Big enough to carry off small cats and dogs? Was this like a strange conspiracy, like the Area 51 UFO mythos (true or not)? Government experiments to create super mosquitoes to decrease the animal population might work better than Bob Barker, I suppose.
That’s just how we grow ’em in that part of Texas. They sometimes pick up armadillos and drop them from a height to stun their prey. But the stories that they are responsible for cattle mutilations and 9/11 are not true.
What about your past has influenced your writing?
Reading. Even in SF you use your real-world experience, of course, if you intend to have believable characters and events, but the core of SF is concepts that you get by reading in science, and other SF stories.
What are some resources you use for finding scientific ideas, concepts, news, etc.?
The news. The Internet. My own speculations.
I have to say that the KYAGs (or these sort of stasis bubbles, for those that don’t know what I’m talking about) is a really brilliant idea. Out of curiosity, were they inspired by anything you read about or did it just come out of the blue?
Out of the blue, like all my ideas.
How much research into the science side of things did you do? You have quite a lot of ideas that I have to admit have not shown up in a lot of SF I have read (such as the fact that your human characters from Mars are actually noticeably taller than folks from Earth, which is realistic because of the difference in gravity).
Only as much research as I have to do. These days it’s made a lot easier by the Internet. I was able to find the names and orbits of all of Jupiter’s moons in one place, Wikipedia, and I wonder if that information is even available on paper except at a major university or observatory. The tall Martians, alas, are not an original idea. I can’t recall where I first saw it, but someone else had that idea first. Who knows if it would really work that way? We’re many years away from finding out.
One of the interesting things about your writing style is how you portray Podkayne throughout the novel. We’re given a direct look into her mind, almost like stream of consciousness, but without the lack of punctuation. Did you find it at all difficult to write in this manner, or did the character’s voice just jump onto the page in this way? How did the character of Podkayne come about? Was it easy to get into her head?
Characterization is the easiest thing about writing, for me. I slip effortlessly into someone else’s head, and that person grows as I go along. Plot is what I find difficult. Podkayne just started out with a name and a location, and I followed her wherever she went. I didn’t know she was a singer until she started to sing.
With it being so easy to get into a character’s head, is it ever difficult to separate yourself from those characters when switching gears to a new story? Do you find yourself still writing in the voice of another character even though you’ve finished that story?
No, when that story is done the character shuts up. Of course, in the THUNDER AND LIGHTNING series some of the same characters show up again, but considerably older, and in the background.
You talk a lot about music within this novel and I’m curious if you already knew a lot of the things you wrote about, or if you researched them for your character. What kind of music do you listen to and does it influence your writing at all?
I knew a lot of it, but again, I used the Internet to find the names of obscure bands that played genres I don’t know or that don’t exist yet. I listen to classical music, chiefly, though I say with some pride that there is no type of music I’ve ever heard that I don’t like at least some of it.
You’ve been writing for a long time. You have over a dozen novels, dozens of short stories, and quite a few awards under your belt. What would be some advice you’d give to anyone out there with the ambition to write? Any specific advice for writing science fiction?
First, write. Finish what you write. Send it in. Keep sending it in. Don’t re-write unless asked to. These are all pointers from Robert A. Heinlein. He maintained that anyone can publish if he follows these rules. I don’t think so. If you don’t have the talent, you can’t buy it. But if you do have some, even a little, you can have a career. For writing SF: read. Otherwise you’re going to be coming up with great “new” ideas that were old in 1935.
What are you currently reading and what have you just finished reading? Who are some of your favorite authors from past and present? Likewise, who, if anyone, do you think I should be reading that perhaps isn’t getting very much exposure?
I read mostly popular fiction, and I do it for relaxation. I’m about to finish Odd Hours, by Dean Koontz. Before that, I read:
NOTHING TO LOSE by Lee Child
CODE TO ZERO by Ken Follett
THE SHOTGUN RULE by Charlie Huston
FIDELITY by Thomas Perry
ARMAGEDDON IN RETROSPECT by Kurt Vonnegut
THE DOWNHILL LIE by Carl Hiaasen
DIRTY MONEY by Richard Stark
THE MIRACLE AT SPEEDY MOTORS by Alexander McCall Smith
PHANTOM PREY by John Sandford
LOST ECHOES by Joe R Lansdale
MANGROVE SQUEEZE by Laurence Shames
A PAINTED HOUSE by John Grisham
BLACK WIDOW by Randy Wayne White
THE GENIUS by Jesse Kellerman
HOLLYWOOD CROWS by Joseph Wambaugh
HOLD TIGHT by Harlan Coben
HAVANAS IN CAMELOT by William Styron
COMPULSION by Jonathan Kellerman
A SOUL IN A BOTTLE by Tim Powers
BETRAYAL by John Lescroart
HELL’S BAY by James W Hall
DEAD TIME by Stephen White
ATOMIC LOBSTER by Tim Dorsey
WATER FOR ELEPHANTS by Sara Gruen
TEXAS YANKEE by Nina Brown Baker
QUARTERED SAFE OUT HERE by George MacDonald Fraser
Most of these authors are pretty popular. I don’t’ necessarily recommend all of them. Underrated but up and coming: Joe Lansdale, Charlie Huston. Someone who’s always been underrated but is on the short list of every writer I know: Richard Stark (Donald Westlake). The book that changed my life: Catch-22.
And, for a more random question: If you had a spaceship (any kind of spaceship, doesn’t matter), what would you call it?
Thanks again, Mr. Varley!