I had the good fortune of being asked to interview Joe Haldeman at Norwescon, April 2004. I'd done so before (for Talebones), so I was prepared—I had a list of questions. but as the fifty or sixty fans gathered in the room to hear him, Haldeman set the tone for the hour by telling a joke about the pirate alphabet, and I knew this was to be no ordinary interview. Reinforcing the feel of a fireside chat, and showing that Haldeman was feeling pretty good, his wife, Gay, brought him a glass of red wine. I abandoned my script, prompted him very little, and sat back to enjoy.
Here's the transcript, edited as little as possible. The frequent laughter that punctuated his chat is not noted here, but I've tried to note his body language and sound effects. Still, like the pirate joke, it's just not as effective in print; you had to have been there.
Which prompts a point, if it isn't already clear: listening to Joe Haldeman is a wonderful experience. Next time, be there.
Ken Rand: Why storytelling? Why not truck driving or astronomy?
Joe Haldeman: The short answer is: I sold a novel and it was more interesting than continuing in graduate school so I became a writer.
KR: We have plenty of time for the long answer.
JH: Well, that's basically it. I was always going to be a writer because I've been writing poetry since I could read. I always figured I would be a poet, but then I sold a couple of short stories and then I sold my first novel the first time it went out. I was in my third semester of graduate school then and I was having problems with my department and I thought, well, I would knock off and write for a little while. Then, I had all this GI Bill to spend, so I wrote to the University of Iowa, which has the most prestigious writing department in the country. I said, "Listen guys. I'm running out of money; my wife is supporting me by teaching high school." [Gay arrives with a glass of red wine for Joe] And she's also my cupbearer, as you see. "She's leaving [her job]; we can't live off what I make writing short stories, and either you guys give me a teaching assistanceship, or we move to Mexico and you'll never see us again."
So they gave me one, and between the teaching assistanceship and the GI Bill, and what I was getting out of short stories, we were the richest graduate students at the University of Iowa. It was interesting. We would always have everybody over for dinner out of pity. I had had one novel published, War Year, which was about my experience in Vietnam. That's what I sent Iowa. I'd had a two-page review in the New York Times Book Review—it was favorable—and a whole bunch of other nice reviews, so they could not really refuse me the position.
Then, when I got there, I didn't write anything but science fiction, and they go, "What is this shit?" They really didn't like science fiction or fantasy, or any kind of identifiable genre. They didn't realize that a literary story is an identifiable genre.
KR: You did some astronomy?
JH: I got a degree in astronomy, and I worked for two months as the editor of Astronomy magazine, which was an interesting episode. I came that close to not being a professional writer because editing that magazine was so fascinating. It was about an eighteen-hour a day job. But it was fascinating. I love astronomy, and I had access to everything. I had all the journals. I guess it's less important now, but I had an 800 number going out, and I could just call anybody. I could call an astronomer in Japan and talk to him for two hours if I wanted to, and it was such a feeling of power. If knowledge is power, I had access to knowledge.
And then these crappy articles would come that these astronomers would send. They'd dictate them to their secretaries and they'd just type them out and I'd have to write them. We're talking eighty thousand words of editorial material a month, and I had to write every one of them [growls]. I'd have to just edit the fucking magazine and at five o'clock—let everybody go home. Then I'd go get a quick dinner and then come back to the office and write the magazine. Then, at about midnight, I'd go back to my cheesy little apartment—this is in Milwaukee—and fall, unconscious, into bed, get up at five in the morning, try to get down to the office in time to read all the journals that had come in. I'd make the coffee. The secretaries would come in and say, "We're supposed to make the coffee." "Okay, you get here at five-thirty in the morning and make the coffee."
I was just so totally wired. You know the cartoon of the 1930s newspaper with the editor with the phone in the corner of his shoulder: "Get me rewrite, sweetheart." He's typing at the same time. That's how it was. It was a wonderful, high-energy thing.
I was writing a story and I had it in my typewriter in my grubby little apartment, and I wrote two lines in two months on that story. I'd look at the typewriter in the apartment and go, "AAARGH!!"
KR: "It followed me home."
KR: You did a stint in Mexico or Costa Rica at an observatory?
JH: I had a job offer, Gay and I, before I got drafted—between the time I got my astronomy degree and the time I was drafted. Coming toward the end of the last semester, I knew I was going to have an astronomy degree, so I tried to line up a job with the government. It was 1967, and the Vietnam War was escalating and I didn't want to practice escalatio on the Vietnamese so I went to some friends at the Naval Observatory. I'd had a relationship with them before, through the National Capitol Astronomers, an amateur astronomy group, and I said, "Hey, guys, get me a job. I want to work for Uncle Sam, you know, in the worst way."
So they found a job that was made for a writer with an astronomy degree because it was running a little astrographic observatory down in the tip of Argentina. And it's up on a mountain. So you get a regular forty-hour a week government salary—GS-10 or something like that—but what you'd do is you'd work eighty hours a week up on the mountain, then you'd go down into the little village and not do anything for a week. So I would write for a week, do astronomy for a week. My main qualification was not my somewhat crappy degree in astronomy; it was that Gay spoke Spanish. The wives down there were going crazy. None of them spoke Spanish and nobody in this little village spoke English—and they're stuck there! At least their husbands can go up there and look through a telescope. What do we have to do? They have to sit there and go, "Yo no comprende?"
But it may have had no effect at all, or it may have kicked off a little thing. The Defense Department says, "Wait, this guy hasn't been drafted yet." What happened was, I got out of school and my mother took Gay and me up to Montreal for Expo 67. We had a great time. Came back home and the mailbox is full of mail and one of the pieces of mail was my draft notice. If I'd just stayed in Canada, everything would have been cool.
KR: So you did work for the government "in the worst way."
JH: Yes, "in the worst way." And when I was in basic training, I'm going, "Oh, this is going to be a lot of fun. I get to go kill people in another country? Yeah, that's what I always wanted to do."
And this thing came up on the bulletin board. They wanted somebody to be an operator for a nuclear power plant in Antarctica. It was a sergeant thing, like an E-5. So I [makes motions of writing frantically] real fast, and sent it in. I was overqualified—because I had a dual degree in physics and astronomy. So, "Oh, you're overqualified for this." I said, "What?" But what they meant was that there was some sergeant down there who does not want some super-corporal with a degree in physics telling him, "I wouldn't touch that dial, sergeant."
But the idea of living in Antarctica for two years sounded really good compared to living in Vietnam for one year with people shooting at you. I can stand a few neutrons.
KR: But you weren't overqualified to be a soldier.
JH: No, in fact, they did that to me. I go there and I say, "I'm a conscientious objector." And I was. I filed conscientious objector papers. In Maryland, you have to have a letter from a minister, but I'm an atheist, so we don't have ministers. And the paradox was not resolved the way it should have been. I should have taken them to court, which was done the next year, and resolved in favor of the person who didn't want to be a soldier.
I said, "Look, I'll join the Peace Corps, I'll dig ditches for six years in Africa. I don't care what you do with me. I'll serve the county, but I'm not going to go kill people." And they said, "Oh, yeah, okay." So I wind up in Vietnam and get assigned to a combat outfit, and I said, "I'm not going to kill anybody." They said, "Fine."
I go to the supply sergeant and he gives me an M-16, and I said, "Look, I told them I'm not going to kill anybody." He said, "Carry it. You might find it useful." And then he gives me these hand grenades. I say to him, "I'm dangerous with these. You don't want to give me these."
In basic training, we had practice—a practice hand grenade is sixteen ounces of steel, and a real one is sixteen ounces of real trouble. So they give you these practice grenades and you throw them [gives a tossing motion]—like that. And you're standing in concentric circles, and mine always came in [indicates the thing landing in his own lap]—dead. I can't throw one far enough away not to endanger everybody around me. So when we'd have live grenade practice in basic training, they made me go rake leaves on the other side of the base.
So, I'm here in Vietnam, and I'm thinking, "Should I tell this guy about raking leaves in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri?" But he had sympathy. He said, "These are fucking dangerous things, so what you want to do is wrap green tape—which is the Army's duct tape—and wrap them around them all and put them in your pack and forget about them. But you've got to have them." And I did.
I just kept them in the bottom of my pack until one day I was in a small unit operation, search and destroy, basically, between seventy and ninety people, wandering through the jungle presenting themselves as targets to the enemy, and when the enemy attacked, we'd fight back long enough to bring in air support and artillery and try to kill them. I'm on guard, twelve midnight to three in the morning. It's raining [demonstrates rain beating down on his helmet]. You can't hear anything, and I'm scared because we're going to get hit, either that night or the next night. Everybody knew that. So I cut the green tape off one of the grenades and put it in front of me. And I had my M-16 and my bayonet and my radio.
See, what happens is that if you hear something, you ask for permission to fire because you don't know where there are LPs—listening posts—out in front of you. There were none in front of me though, and I heard this guy walking toward me [demonstrates rain beating on his steel helmet and the noise of the guy walking]. Some poor asshole doesn't know we're there, and he's walking down the usual road to his farm, for all I know. So I call in Tiger One—I'm Tiger Three—and I say, "Tiger One, this is Tiger Three. I've got movement." And he says, "Chuck a grenade at him." I couldn't explain about raking leaves.
So I pulled the pin on the grenade and [performs throwing motion] and I thought, "Oh, shit!" I'd thrown it straight up. And it's real, you know—a real grenade. So I just yelled "Fire in the hole!" And everybody around me comes crashing out of their hootches and trying to get into their holes and it goes [makes sound of grenade exploding] really loud, maybe thirty feet away at most—within the kill radius anyhow, but nobody got hurt—including the guy.
I hear him going [makes noises of the guy running like hell]. But I started a ten thousand dollar firefight because I'm in a free fire zone. Nobody shot back at us, but everybody just—all the fifties, they just start shooting out into the woods and everybody's having fun—hand grenades and rifle grenades, throwing their bayonets out, whatever the hell. So I'm just sitting there; I caused all this. Nobody was hurt, fortunately. We looked through the woods and evidently the guy had got away.
KR: You did bring home a few pieces of metal.
JH: Oh, yeah. I have over two hundred actual wounds, but about a hundred and ninety of them are trivial. One was almost fatal. And a lot of them have caused me trouble over the years because the metal gets deeply into your body and it's more harmful to try to get it out than leave it in. So every now and then I get these little throbs and such, but basically, it was a million dollar wound.
KR: It hasn't stopped you from bicycling, though.
JH: No, in fact, bicycling is one of the best things—I've got a piece of shrapnel about the size of dime under this patella, and I think that, because I'm a fanatic bicyclist, it has kept it lubricated and out of danger. If it turns ten or fifteen degrees, I'm in trouble, or I'll have to have a replacement.
But that's the breaks of the game. I've gone some thirty-some years of bicycling without threatening problems. It hurts, but you know—my kids, my students—they're nineteen, twenty years old—I'd say, "How many of you are bicyclists?" and maybe one will raise his hand. I'd say, if we got on bicycles and had a race, you guys would beat the hell out of me for maybe the first half-mile, or mile—two miles, even. Maybe five miles, you'd keep up with me.
At a hundred miles you all would be by the side of the road or back home asleep and I'd still be cranking. Do you know why? Because your teenage bodies, at about twenty-five or thirty miles, will say, "This hurts. I want to stop." And by about fifty miles, they will stop. But an old person—everything hurts. All the time. So it's just more of the same thing. It's not going to stop hurting when you stop.
KR: Is there a writer analogy there?
JH: Could be. I don't find writing particularly painful.
KR: Let's talk about Gay. That's always a fun subject, isn't it? Center of your life. What did the program book say about Gay? "The Nicest Person in Science Fiction." How does it feel to be married to the nicest person in science fiction?
JH: Well, it certainly gives me a lot to live up to. I have to try to be the second nicest person in science fiction. Or the worst person in science fiction, alternatively. I could be the meanest person in science fiction. "How does she stand him?"
It's an interesting thing because neither of us were particularly sociable when we were young, and we found in science fiction fandom a kind of community that we could belong to. We've found friends, and people who don't judge you on what you look like or whether you know how to dress or how to dance or all the things that were important when you were a kid. None of those things were important to us when we were kids.
But in science fiction fandom, we found out that there was a whole underground universe of us who just read, didn't watch TV so much, and talked about serious things. We both had a turning point which must have been, I guess, two years or less into our science fiction career. We were at a convention—I believe at Philcon, in Philadelphia—and here was this seventy-eight year old woman, a real cranky, particular kind of woman, and she's in an argument with a sixteen-year-old boy about the merits of—oh, Jack Williamson, or something—and they each take each other seriously. And I thought, "this is where we belong. This is where we can be."
When I came back from Vietnam, a lot of guys had a horrible time. Those of you who are our age remember, but the younger ones won't know about it. America was so polarized about Vietnam that the people who were our age—eighteen to thirty—most of them were horrified by Vietnam and the more emotional of them would call us returning soldiers "baby killers," and "traitors" and blah, blah, blah, and so forth. Nobody in science fiction ever said anything like that to me.
They knew I was just drafted; I didn't start the war. I didn't even help it continue that much, truth be known. If they had 125,000 people like me over there, they would have just been pounded, in fact. I was not a good soldier, I have to admit.
But then I came back and we went back into our fannish kind of society and people just took me back in and made allowances for the fact that I was a little weird after having spent a year in deep trauma. We're just that way. People in the science fiction community tend to be forgiving and friendly.
KR: Tell us the story about how you found fandom. It was kind of an accident, wasn't it?
JH: Oh, this was so weird. I guess all of us have some story like this, but this is back in a little window, ten or twelve months, when Analog magazine was big. It was like twelve by eight, and it was slick. It was wonderful. They had these great covers.
I was transferring from the University of Oklahoma to the University of Maryland, and Maryland did not accept some of my credits so I had to take government and politics in summer school. So here I am in this dusty, moldy classroom in College Park, Maryland, at eight o'clock in the morning or something, and I'd pull out one of these big Analogs to read to pass the time. A woman comes in and she's being pestered by this other guy, and to discourage him, she comes over to me and says, "Oh, you read Analog magazine. You must be a science fiction–type guy."
I said, "Oh yeah." Here's a pretty girl. "Yeah, want to know something about science fiction? I know it." So we got to talking, and she said, "You know, there is a science fiction club." She told me the address, and the day of the meeting, we showed up—you had to fall in love with this place. It was one of these big Victorian mansions. It was crumbling around the owners' ears, and I guess about forty or fifty people would show up—this was WSFA—the Washington Science Fiction Association—and a bunch of gamers would go over into one corner and play games—not the way they are now, but in those days, gamers were into chess and such, and Nuclear War, and Diplomacy. And then the rest of us would hang around and talk about whatever. It was just wonderful.
The fact that being underage and you could get beer had nothing to do with it. We had a wonderful time. So we were in fandom, really hooked by the second meeting.
We had gone to the Worldcon in 1963 because we'd seen it advertised in Analog and those magazines, and we lived in Washington, so we just went downtown and went to the Worldcon. We went through the whole thing and loved it, and we never learned anything about fandom. I even got an armload of fanzines at this nickel-a-fanzine room, but it was not obvious that there was a fandom. We went to all these panels with the writers that we wanted to hear about, and I guess we missed all the fannish parts.
It never occurred to us that somebody had to put the thing on, that it didn't just happen like an earthquake or something. We went to room parties. We didn't ask who was hosting the room parties. We'd just eat and drink what they had.
They had a masquerade—and this shows how ad hoc things were then—Gay came and she dressed in black and put on a pin that said Anti-Sex League. She was coming as a character from 1984. And I got an old accordion out of her mother's basement and put on some really raggedy clothes and a rag around my eyes and I came as Riesling the blind poet. And she got in the finals. They didn't want to see my accordion again.
KR: You've been going to conventions ever since.
JH: More or less. It was two years after that Worldcon where I met my future sister-in-law—my brother married her, finally—at that classroom with the Analog magazine—and from then on we were fans, stone fans. I dragged my brother in a week later and he took to it even more than we did. He went out and got a mimeograph and started [demonstrates cranking out fanzines] cranking out fanzines. Then he got an offset press. He had to build a new room in the basement to do his publishing career. Ah, there were giants in the earth in those days—but they were actually big machines in basements.
KR: Most writers don't travel as much as you do. Why do you do it?
JH: I just don't say "no." If I would say "no," I would stop traveling. I only travel if other people pay for it, generally.
KR: What impact does that have on your storytelling?
JH: I write less, just for practical reasons. I wrote nothing this morning. I ran out of time. Yesterday, I wrote 433 words and the day before that, I wrote 457 words, but today, I didn't have the time. I went and exercised on a stationary bicycle. I can't not exercise. It just drags me. And I had to do all my e-mail and all this foreign correspondence in various places around the world. It's too complicated; it really is. You know, if we just didn't answer all these people, they'd stop writing.
We come home from this three-week trip—because we went to a con in Wisconsin last week—and to save money for the con committees and all, we just came straight here, and so Wisconsin and Seattle split our airfare. Then we've got another one next week—the Nebula Awards next week in Seattle. It would be stupid to go back to Florida and fly back on our own hook to Seattle. We're already here on somebody else's dime. Then we go back to Florida and we've got eight days at home, then we go off to Europe for three weeks—twenty days. And, god knows—I've got a novel due in August. So I have to write when I'm on the road.
But I've always managed. I guess about a month from now, I'm going to start feeling real deadline pressures. When we get back from Europe, we'll only have about five things to do. We have to go down to Key West for the International Hemingway Conference, which is something that only happens once every two years. I'm a big Hemingway guy, and so I have to go and meet my fellow scholars and drink heavily with them.
KR: As I understand, you really haven't had a lot of rejection.
JH: No. I don't take rejection well, but then, I haven't had to. My first short story sold. My first novel sold to the first person that saw it. My first movie sold to the first person that saw it. My first stage play. And so forth and so on. I finally went back to writing poetry after ten years—I gave up writing poetry when I sold my first story, saying I can't waste time on something that doesn't pay. But after ten years, I couldn't stand it and I wrote another poem and I sold it for $1800. And I thought; well, I can write a poem every now and then. It won't kill me.
KR: How do you do that? Talent? Luck? What's happening?
JH: Luck. You don't want to jinx yourself by saying anything about your own talent. Really. All writers—all artists—are superstitious. I'm a total rationalist in most things, but I think to be a creator for a living, you have to believe in magic. At some level, it's magical thinking, because nobody knows where this stuff comes from. After the fact, you can sometimes figure out the events that triggered the particular thing that you wrote. But you don't know where it comes from. You just sit there with a fountain pen—ideas come from a fountain pen.
KR: But you teach, don't you?
JH: Yeah. I try to teach engineers how to write. "Well boys, you're fucked."
KR: That's an annual gig you have at MIT.
JH: Every fall semester I teach there, for the past 21 years.
KR: There must be more to it than "well, folks, you're screwed."
JH: It's actually a lot of fun. The ones who are easy to teach are the ones who are fans, or who have otherwise read science fiction passionately all their lives, because I just sit there and I say, "hey, go, man," and I help them with mechanics and so forth. But I have to get people who have never read for pleasure—never read fiction for pleasure, you know. They read manuals for pleasure, but that's not quite the same thing. First of all, I have to get them to like some fiction, and try to get them to understand why they like one story and not another. I tell them, "This is not something you can analyze like you can analyze two programs and say 'this one is more elegant that that one.'" Anybody can do that, and probably, if you had a room full of people, they'd all prefer the same program.
But if you took two stories, it'd be probably 50/50. This is a fact that you just have to realize. You can write a great story that I will love and the guy sitting next to you will love, but everybody else in the room will think it's a piece of shit. That's just the way art is. It doesn't line up in such a way that everybody's going to like it. And if you write something that I hate, just stay calm. You may not get a good grade in this class, but you may become the James Joyce of your generation. Maybe I'm too old to understand what you're doing. And I accept that.
I knew when I was a kid, there were people too old to understand what I was doing. I can't get any younger. Of course, one good thing about teaching is that you get knocked back into that way of thinking every September. And that's nice. I won't say it keeps you young, but it keeps you in contact with the young, and keeps you from being too old-fogeyish, because, boy, do they react to that.
KR: You once said that history is a branch of fiction. What did you mean by that?
JH: That isn't even my idea. That is Michael Reynolds, who was the premier biographer of Ernest Hemingway. He said everything written down is fiction. A grocery list on your refrigerator is fiction because you don't know that you're going to buy all those things, and even after you go to the grocery store, you can't prove to me that that's all that you bought, and that you did buy everything on the list. That is to say, nothing that somebody writes down has a guaranteed connection to reality.
Now, it becomes really obvious when you start to read things like biography and history that everything has to be interpreted. History that can be absolutely nailed to fact is nothing but a bunch of charts and spreadsheets and does not communicate anything about the human condition. You go all the way back to Herodotus, where the function of the storyteller was the same as the function of the historian, which is why, in most languages, the word is the same.
Herodotus didn't want to exactly preserve what he knew about facts and figures and the number of people in battles and so forth; he wanted to communicate the spirit of what the people were like. He did a good job of it. But you can't trust him in terms of troop numbers and casualties and so forth. I mean, these guys didn't actually drink whole lakes as they went on their way to Sparta. You couldn't actually feel the earth trembling from their footsteps before they showed on the horizon. I think it damped out before then. But that's okay. You had poetic license. Historians nowadays have less poetic license, but they still have some.
KR: We seem to be seeing science overtaking science fiction so rapidly, sometimes it seems to lose its resonance. The book comes out and it's already fact.
JH: It's happened to me. It's okay. Even outsiders are starting to realize that we live in a science fiction world, and have since about—well, pick your year—I'd say 1963. Science fiction is the one literary form that reflects the way we live, because most people, whether they admit it or not, if they are cooperating with the modern world, they are living slightly in the future. They're all trying to second-guess what's going to happen. That's what science fiction writers have been doing since the nineteenth century.
But not in the spirit of predicting—generally. Some of them do. Wells tried to predict in The War in the Air, in his tremendously prophetic book about the use of tanks in land warfare. He was using his tremendous intellect—trying to see what the world was going to be like twenty years from now. And Verne did too, as a matter of fact, in a novel that he couldn't sell—Paris, 2000. He predicted the fax machine, of all things. But it was a horrible novel so he never even tried to sell it.
When you come to write the history of this era, I think they may call it "the science fiction age," or whatever they'll call science fiction by then, because it is a different way of looking at reality. And it's a way—not so much of looking forward as it is of seeing the present as a kinetic, malleable thing, and not expecting the future to be the way the past was.
[At this point, the fans joined in.]
Fan: You mentioned that you wrote four hundred words yesterday and four hundred the day before. You're walking around with us clowns who ask you weird questions. How do you get down the next morning and get back to where you were?
JH: The secret is to write every day, and always at the same time every day, and at the same place if you can manage it. I can't. But I get up between 3:30 and 4:30 in the morning. And nothing's happening. I've got no excuse for not writing and so I just go ahead and do it. I open up to where I was a couple of days before and just keep going. And I have the motivation; if I don't do it, I know I won't write the book in time.
Fan: Have you ever just sat back down and started reading what you've done and say, "my mood must have changed here," and have to go back and fix stuff?
JH: Sometimes that happens, but it's more like, "oh my god, I should have explained something earlier." What happens is, I'm writing in bound books, and I'll often just make a line there and I'll write something that happened twenty pages before and then put it back. Then after I've finished my writing, I go ahead and put it into the computer, so I'll go and put it back in there.
We can't carry a big old notebook full of lined paper, so I break it into four, so I'm carrying the current notebook, which is volume two, and a printout of volume one—spiral bound by the local Renaissance guys—so I have the whole thing. And it's on the computer too. I turn on the computer at home and get it on line, because while I'm writing, I might want to know the molecular weight of silicon. I don't want to find a book. I just find it in a couple of keystrokes.
And I write in a different part of the house. I write out on the porch, normally. But there's no electricity there. I write under oil lamps, and it's quiet out there. And if I need something, then I go into my office and use the computer, and then I come back out. I like the quiet. I love computers, but they're intrusive, and they give you so many opportunities to not work while you're writing. You say, "Oh, I'm going to Google this," and two hours later, you know everything about a million things that don't have a thing to do with the story that you're writing.
Fan: How much rewriting do you do?
JH: Very little. The rewriting I do is mainly adding to the text, because I tend to write very compactly, and my idea of a novel is like sixty to seventy thousand words—and my contracts call for a hundred thousand words. I write the novel the way I like it, submit it, and the editor says, "Well, where can we get another twenty thousand words out of this?" I try to find a way to do that without padding it. I think I've been successful. They sort of tolerate me.
A lot of writers can write a hundred-fifty-thousand-word novels. I spend eighteen months writing a seventy thousand one. But it usually stays in print, and it wins prizes. It doesn't sell a lot of copies, but it stays in print. The guy who knocks off a hundred fifty thousand words sells more copies that I do, and that's just a fact of life. I tell my kids if you want to make a living writing, get your brain out of the fucking circuit and just write the same story over and over. That's what really sells. That's what makes money.
But if you're like me, and have to write a different book every time, you're doomed to this little corner of people who like to read a different book every time.
KR: How do you solve that problem—expanding the text without puffery?
JH: That's where editors are so valuable, because once you've written the story, you're so tied into it, that actually you know there's no way you could expand this thing without it looking obviously padded. Then somebody who has not lived with it for a year and a half says, "Don't you see that the relationship between him and her has not been sufficiently developed, and if you'd just take them off to Paris for a couple weeks, you'd have another twenty thousand words, and then people would know more about their relationship?" and I say, "All right." I wrote this story Buying Time, and it was thirty thousand words short. My editor at the time was John Douglas, and John says, "This section you have in the denouement in New York City—you've got this whole novel in a future where they have space flight, but you've never taken anybody out into space. Why don't you take this New York thing some place else? Then you can spend about five thousand words explaining how you get there, and then you've got another five thousand words explaining what it's like out there. Then you have the damn episode which will take more time to describe because you're on another planet." I said, "Oh god, all right." I put it out in this asteroid belt which became this libertarian la-la land. How do you make a viable modern civilization without laws, and this and that? I had a lot of fun writing it and actually, it made it a better book—quite a better book.
It's curious what an editor can come up with. You have to trust them. Some people see their editors as the enemy, and in fact they do work for the enemy. You don't pay the editor's salary; the publisher pays his salary, and the publisher doesn't care about art. He doesn't care about you. The publisher cares about the bottom line. Anything they can do to drag your book into a kind of more salable category, they would do it.
But with me, it's not that important to them. I don't sell that many books. I'm a midlist guy. But I can't sing the blues because this midlist life has given me a very good life, full of variety and fun and good people and so forth. I do what I want to do.
When I was a little kid, and summer came, I loved getting out of school, because in summer, I could sit and write poetry and I could read science fiction, I could go ride my bicycle all the time, and I could look at the stars with my telescope. And play the guitar. That's what I do now—even when it's not summer. And I get paid for one of them. And I paint.
KR: Why don't you find something to do? What a boring life.
JH: Yeah, it's really boring. I've got an art show that opened April first down in Gainesville, a show of watercolors and etchings and charcoals and wood block pictures. I hung it April first, during the day. At night, I had the reception and a whole bunch of the local art community showed up. It was really good. It was a big, big reception. But then, April second, I got on a plane and I don't know if I've sold anything. It's all just hanging there, waiting for me to come back. I come back, and then five days later, I have to strike the show. So I'll have another reception and say, "Anybody home?"
I'm fairly serious about art. I've never gone into the science fiction art world. I have so many friends who are science fiction artists and I don't want to masquerade as something I'm not. There's this thing, if you've ever read [James] Boswell's Life of [Samuel]Johnson. Johnson really betrays exactly who he is. A woman had started preaching in London and he said, "that's very interesting, but it's like a dancing bear. It's not that the bear dances well, but that it should dance at all." So I'm like the woman preacher in Johnson's world. I could bring my paintings to a con and sell them but they would buy them because it was a science fiction writer who painted them, not because the paintings were worth anything intrinsically. I sell a few as just a painter. I keep it that way. I don't want to be dishonest.
Fan: Where did you grow up?
JH: I haven't yet. I was born in Oklahoma City, moved to Puerto Rico, where I learned my first language, Spanish, which I learned ten words of, and then I moved to New Orleans, where I had my first accent, which I lost, and then Washington, DC, and then Anchorage, Alaska. When people say where did you grow up, I say Alaska. That's where I went through preschool, kindergarten, the first couple of grades, where you start to see yourself as an entity apart from your parents, so yeah, I think of myself as an Alaskan.
But then we moved on to Bethesda, Maryland, where my father lived out his federal career. He was a public health service officer back when it was an officer corps, and he quit when they offered him the job of surgeon general. He was assistant surgeon general at the time and all of the surgeons general had died of stress-related diseases. So, handwriting on the wall. He quit and went into the private sector. He moved up to New York, and he was in charge of all the hospitals and nursing homes in New York State.
By that time, my brother and I had gone off to college and were pretty much independent. But it was wonderful to have this nice rambling home over a lake in Tarrytown, New York. When I'd come up to New York to visit my publishing buddies, you could take the train up and have a party at my parents house. It was a nice break from New York City for them, and my mother was just a totally social animal, so she loved having guys like Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois come up and clown around and get drunk. We had a great time.
Fan: Of the conventions you've traveled to, which do you feel more comfortable with? The West Coast, the East Coast, the Midwest?
JH: I've gone to so few on the West Coast, I shouldn't generalize. I went to Baycon and really hated it, but I really like this one. Baycon was so media oriented. I felt like, why did they pay for me to come out here? I was like a ping-pong ball floating on the sea. If I weren't there, nobody would have noticed. But it cost them big bucks to bring me out, and I thought—eh—wasting resources.
Here, I feel like people have read my stuff. I like talking to people, and I don't feel marginalized just because I'm a fiction writer.
I guess I tend to be Midwestern, but when I became a "great science fiction writer" I was living in Iowa and so I got a lot of my initial contacts as a writer as opposed to a fan in the Midwest. Our connections on the east coast go back to the '60s, when we were fans. There're always old guys around who say, "you think he's so hot—ha, ha. You should have seen the crap he was writing for his brother's fanzine back in 1963."
Fan: A lot of science fiction writers write about war, and I was wondering which ones do you think did it right?
JH: I don't read enough of them to generalize. Most of the stuff I see in and out of science fiction doesn't impress me as being very realistic, but that's okay. They're not writing for other veterans. Most people who read the stuff don't see the emotional inaccuracy. That's what turns me off.
I always go back to The Red Badge of Courage. The best novel written about the Civil War was written by a guy who'd never heard a shot fired in anger. Granted, he did a hell of a lot of research. His brother was at Chancellorville, and he went and interviewed vets in old folks homes all over the place and got reams and reams of research to write a novel that's like forty-eight thousand words long. So, yeah, he did his work, and I admire him as a writer very much.
But I think some of the worst writing about the war has come from veterans, because you go through war and you think that's war, but it's really only your war. A whole lot is going on that doesn't conform to the things that happened just around you. In Vietnam, I thought nobody used their real names. They were given code names. I was "Professor," this guy was "Hot Dog," "Hot Rod," "Gee Boy." Those were the names we called each other. We didn't know each other's real names.
The purpose was radio security because they had found out that if you use a person's real name over the radio, the Vietnamese would contact the Polish embassy in Washington who would generate a telegram that would be sent to your parents saying that you were killed, and give the exact location. So, a little trouble at home. So we used code names.
Then after a couple of years I'd been back, I realized nobody else did this. This was the Fourth Division that did that.
And I read these things about bad race relations in Vietnam. I don't know, man. There was only one other white guy in my platoon most of the time, because we were draftees, and everybody knew it was the black guys who were doing all the fighting and getting killed and everything. You don't have to like it, but there it is.
You look around; there aren't any white people. They accepted me. They said, "Boy, you are dumb to wind up here." They were right. I just didn't understand the game. And my father was a general. Nobody would believe that a general's son was out there on the line. But I never asked him for any favors, and it never occurred to me that a hundred bucks to the right guy would have gotten me off—because I had money.
Hell, I was making a thousand bucks a month playing poker. The one thing I didn't realize was what it would do to you to kill people. I killed a lot of people in Vietnam. It's not something that you can ever walk away from. Those people just stay dead. The fact that you killed them to keep them from killing you and your buddies is true, but so what? They're still dead. For a guy who said that he was philosophically opposed to war and would not fight, it's hard to know that, well, yeah—you do, you will, after only a few weeks in combat, you'll kill any son of a bitch who comes after you. That's just the way it is.
[A fan asked a question about Iraq.]
JH: Well, as a citizen, I believe that we shouldn't have done it. As a man who has been a soldier, I support the soldiers. As a person who has been a soldier, I should say, because I support the females as well as the males. If I were in that conflict, I don't know what the hell I'd do. I'd probably desert.
I feel a real strong connection with other soldiers, but no connection at all to the Army. You've got to do your job. You've got to protect the people around you. But the thing that gets to me is the army knows this, and the army uses it.
In World War I, they did a psychological study of motivations of soldiers. To protect your squad, first of all—well, your butt, first of all—but then your squad, then your platoon, and then your company. By the brigade time, you don't quite associate your own life with your brigade's. But if somebody asks you to risk your life for your squad, you don't even think about it; you just do it. And even for your company, you just do it.
I was there too. I took fire. I did all sorts of crazy things it's—it's not following orders; it's protecting everybody. If you're not willing to go out and get shot at, how do you expect somebody else to do it for you? That's just the way it is. It's a weird way to live, but you've got to get from one day to the next.
[We could have easily kept Haldeman for another hour, but Gay had a panel and our time was up. To again emphasize how relaxed he was, it was not till people had finished applauding him and were standing up to leave that Gay reminded him that he had a book coming out that we hadn't gotten around to mentioning.]
JH: Oh, right. I do have a novel coming out. Camouflage [Ace, August 2004]. You must buy it. At least one copy. Buy several.