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June, 2006 : Interview:

An Interview with Lee Modesitt

Science fiction and fantasy writer Lee Modesitt started out thinking he'd be a poet. He says: "I studied poetry, wrote poetry, had poetry published in scholastic anthologies and small literary magazines. I didn't even think about writing any form of prose until I was in my late twenties."

Modesitt's first story was written when he was 28 years old, "and it was at the suggestion of a friend who said that 'You've read science fiction ever since you were a child; why don't you try writing it?'

"The very first science fiction story I wrote I sold to Ben Bova at Analog after he sent me a letter which said I'd really screwed up page thirteen, and that he'd like to see the story again. I sent it back to him and he bought it."

Modesitt wrote "something over twenty stories after that before I could sell the second one."

Poetry continues to influence Modesitt. "In poetry," he says, "every word counts, and every word has to have a meaning. I still use poetry. For example, when I did two of the Recluce books, Magi'i of Cyador and the Scion of Cyador, there's actually a book of poetry embedded in the two novels which ties them together and has a bearing on the resolution of the plot. Poetry is of the culture and of the times."

Modesitt's early literary influences are diverse, or as he says: "I can't say that anybody was my primary influence—or everybody was. A lot of people today seem to fixate on one author. But when I started reading, it was really very simple; my mother had this large bookcase of science fiction paperbacks in the front alcove leading into my parents’ bedroom, and we lived quite a ways from either the library or the bookstores and I liked to read, so I started reading science fiction and I read everything that was in the bookshelves.

"She had very wide tastes, so I just simply read everything that was there. I continued going along, reading pretty much anything that appealed to me. There are some authors that I only read one or two books of, and I just never cared that much for them, but I never fixated on one author or any one series.

"I probably have more distinct influences in the poetry field. In that sense, I really like the work of William Butler Yeats and T.S. Elliot, and to a lesser degree, Auden and Wallace Stevens. If you want to cite an influence, probably Yeats is the biggest influence on what I do."

A career in Washington, D.C. also influenced him. Modesitt says that journey began in Denver, which is where he was when he sold that first story to Bova, working as a real estate agent. "I was not a very good real estate agent," he says. "As a matter of fact, I was so bad at it that I had to get out of it, so I took a job as a research assistant on a political campaign [for Bill Armstrong]. It was a paid job because I couldn't afford anything that was volunteer because at that point, I had a wife and four kids.

"I thought, well, at least this will pay the bills for the next four or five months."

But Armstrong won. He became a three-term congressman and a two-term senator. "He asked if I wanted to go to Washington. Being employed in Washington was definitely better than being unemployed in Denver, and he was basically using my writing skills, although in a factual way. I was writing policy papers, research stuff. I became his head legislative assistant, and I was writing on the side.

"And at that point, I was only selling maybe one or two short stories a year. I'd been doing this for about five or six years after I got to Washington, and one day I got a rejection letter from Ben Bova at Analog, and literally, the first line stopped me cold. He said, 'Stop writing stories, I'm not going to buy any.' Then he went on to explain that the reason he wasn't buying very many of my stories was that he fully believed that I was a novelist and I was trying to compress way too much into a story format that didn't work. He encouraged me more strongly to go write a novel.

"So, part-time, I did write a novel while I was still in Washington. I finished it in about '79, so I'd been in Washington not quite seven years at that point. The novel [Fires of Paratime] went through a couple of publishers and then was picked up by David Hartwell—at that time, he was with Timescape.

"I continued to write part-time while I was in Washington for the next almost ten years, and I averaged about one book a year. But after seventeen years in Washington, it was literally burning me inside-out, and I eventually engineered an escape to New Hampshire where I could teach part-time at Plymouth State University and write pretty much full-time.

"Those transition years, for a couple of years, were a little bit tough. But that's how Washington fit in."

Washington taught Modesitt how to write tight. He relates: "After I did about ten years, maybe even about twelve years in government, I got caught in the fallout of the EPA mess, because I was the Director of Congressional Relations for the EPA at that time. While I was one of the few who were not canned, it was clear that my professional advancement on the political side in D.C. was extraordinarily limited.

"So I started looking around for jobs, and I got in with a Washington, D.C. consulting firm. One of the things that we did was write policy papers for non-governmental clients. It's a very stylized form, but a very effective form, of presenting an issue. Basically, you have to state what the issues facing your client are in one or two bullet points; then you come up with a second section which supports what changes you want in the policy or the law and what rationale supports those changes. The whole thing should be no more than two pages, preferably one, in very condensed form.

"Well, I'd written a policy paper—and I don't even remember the client for whom it was written—but I'd written a policy paper, and I took it to the head of the consulting firm because he's the one who passed on it, and he said—and he did not say it this way, but I can't say it in any way that I'd want to say it in print—he said, 'Where in the heck does this say our client's getting screwed by this regulation?' I said, "Well, it's in these two points.' He said, 'No, you're talking around it. If it doesn't say it, it doesn't say it.'

"That's the most succinct and effective writing advice I've ever gotten. If it doesn't say it, it doesn't say it. That's not quite what he said, however."

Few people are aware that Modesitt has published a stack of technical articles, editorials, and research reports, "and even a 300-page study on the deregulation of the telecommunications industry where I was a co-author."

Modesitt's lone excursion outside the science fiction and fantasy genre was a disaster. The Green Progression was "basically a D.C. political thing," he says. "Its fate explains why I don't go outside the genre. The book got good reviews; the Washington Times said it was one of the best looks at the way Washington works. But it had horrible sales. It may have been the worst selling book that Tor published in 1992.

"The reason for that, I suspect, is that the way Washington works is not the way people really want to think of Washington working. For example, you see movies like No Way Out, you see all these Washington films—people are dying all over the place. In the whole time I worked in Washington, I don't know of a single death that was caused by somebody else. Washington doesn't work that way. Washington is too cruel to kill anybody outright. Now, the number of suicides—that's another question.

"Washington will take away your livelihood. I know people who cannot do what they once did because of Washington. They will alienate your family and your friends; they will destroy your life, and they will destroy your family, but they won't kill you. They leave that up to you.

"The book portrays a great deal of this. This is not a view that anybody wants to espouse. There's no glamour to it. It's true. It's accurate. But the impartial, impersonal pursuit of power in the confines of the law is one of the ugliest things you'll ever want to see.

"The people who like science fiction generally only pick up the book as a curiosity," he adds. "And the people who would pick it up would be outside the field; so it just didn't affect things that much."

Modesitt says he was "very fortunate" that the book came out roughly six months after The Magic of Recluce, which started slowly but became a huge success. "The only stipulation Tor put on things," Modesitt says, "was I not write another book about The Green Progression."

Moving easily between science fiction and fantasy, Modesitt seems ambidextrous. His take: the two genres have a lot in common.

"Fiction is all about people," he says. "All of my stories are about characters, about people, about their personal situations and how that affects the world around them and how the world around them affects their lives and the people around them. If you look at it from that point of view, and if you understand both technology and magic, I don't see the difference. In my world, both technology and magic are tools, just like every other tool that human beings use.

"And the magic systems that I use are very logical—because I don't think in any human society, if magic did exist, people would really use illogical magic. You wouldn't have a general out there saying, 'Okay, I'm going to put the war mage out on the left flank, although we don't really know if his magic is going to work.' There is no sane general, whether it be in a fantasy universe or a real universe, who is going to put an untested weapon out on his flank or out in his middle or what have you. If he can't predict the results of that tool, he isn't going to use it. The costs are too high.

"Well, that's the way I approach things; so it doesn't matter whether we're talking about magery or technology. People aren't going to use things that don't work for them. The stories are about people and about what happens to the people as the result of either the magic system or the technology or—whatever."

What about that decline in readership you've heard about? Modesitt notes a published study has found that "reading has dropped off incredibly in the twelve to twenty age group. Science fiction and fantasy is a part of that age group, and if overall reading is dropping, our readership is going to drop, unfortunately."

Modesitt is unabashedly prolific. How does he do it? "My wife would say I'm obsessed," he says, "but basically, I like what I do; it beats anything else that I've ever done, and it's just a matter of sitting down and doing it. I guess the question is what else would I rather be doing? And the answer is, there are a few other things I'd like to be doing, but as far as anything occupational, anything regular, this is what I love to do. And—I just do it."

Still, Modesitt admits to "a lot of apprehension" when he starts a new project "because I'm never quite sure if I can pull it off. I suppose in a sense it's like the performer who has to face the audience every night. Can I do it tonight? Well, can I write this book? Part of me says yes you can, but there's always the fear that you can't. At least for me there is.

"I always want to do the best job possible, and I also want to try and do something different with every book. It may be subtly different, or it may be fundamentally different, but it's got to be different in some way.

"Now, some critics say that I write the same book. In a very basic sense, we all write the same books. Heinlein pointed out, over thirty years ago, there are only three plots in literature; the little tailor—the little shot who becomes a big shot; the man who learns something; and the love story. You can have combinations, but there are only three really basic literary plots. Well, there's also the fourth plot, the James Bond plot, the mindless adventure story, but that doesn't mix with the other three because, if you've got mindless adventure, you don't learn anything; you end up pretty much the same as you started, and there's no real love interest in it. They don't mix.

"I do write, to some degree, similar books in the sense that my characters always do learn things. My protagonists range from sixteen-year-old boys to seventy-year-old men. I've got middle-aged divorcees, I've got thirty-year-old engineers; you name it, I've got an age group. And yet there's a sort of a stereotype that says, 'Oh, he writes about young people who grow up.' No. I've written about young people who grow up, I've written about old widowers, and I've written about divorced women with crummy spouses."

Modesitt's characters, in fact, come from life, "from just observing people and seeing what's happened, from the people I've interacted with. I tend to take characteristics as opposed to whole people. For example, in The Magic of Recluce, fifteen-year-old Lerris is terminally bored. I took that directly from my daughter, who at age fifteen was terminally bored. It seemed to apply whether it was male or female, and she's since grown up to be a very distinguished doctor. But at the time she was fifteen, she was terminally bored. I took that characteristic. I certainly borrowed some of the singing from my wife.

"You take things; some are from myself, some are from other people. We all share a lot of the basic motivations. We all want to be thought to be worthy, whether we're hero or villain or what have you. We all want some form of love in our life. We all want to feel that we've accomplished something worthwhile.

"Now, how we put all that together is, of course, an individual thing, but those basic motivations, I'm convinced, are endemic to all human beings, and readers can identify with those."

David Hartwell at Tor has been Modesitt's editor for all but one of his four dozen books (Modesitt says it's "forty-six or forty-seven"). "The other one was The Hammer of Darkness, which was my second book; that was edited by David's former assistant. Gene Wolfe is probably the only author that David has edited longer than he has me. David likes my science fiction, frankly, better than he does my fantasy. He's a good editor."

Modesitt's Recluce universe seems boundless, endless; he could tap it for story forever. "There is an implied beginning," he says, "and there is a definite end. The Death of Chaos is the last book chronologically that there will ever be. I won't say why in print, but anybody who's read the book would know why if they thought about it.

"But the stories span 1,800 years, and I could probably write in that universe as long as I can find something different to say about a different place or a different continent or a different human dilemma. Recluce is not limited. My ability to mine it and interpret it may be limited."

It's not just the physical limitations of a twenty-four-hour day. "I want to do something different," Modesitt says. "In the last Recluce books, Ordermaster and before that, Wellspring of Chaos, for example, one of the differences is the main character is a middle-aged cooper who's got two kids and a somewhat nagging wife when the story opens. This is not your normal fantasy character. And he's very much a craftsman; he's very much into being a barrel maker. That's all he's known. That's all his father did, that's what his grandfather did; he had inherited this cooperage. And he does two very good, selfless deeds, and they destroy his entire life. That is a different approach, and as long as I can do something which is both realistic and different, I will probably continue to write stories in the Recluce universe—but I won't promise it."

Except for his first book with Timescape, and the second one with Avon, Modesitt has been with Tor; in fact, he's been with Tor from about a year after Tor began. Many writers move on, eventually, if not frequently. Not Modesitt. "There's a very good reason for that," he says. "One, they keep paying me, but I think a more fundamental reason is that what I write is not terribly popular among the professional editing community. It's popular among the readers, but it's not popular among the editors. There are probably only three editors, maybe four, among all the science fiction editors who like what I write and why I write. And at least two of those are at Tor.

"So, although it would appear that I could go any place else, it's really not that practical. I'm with the one publishing house that I know of that appreciates all that I do and has been very supportive and has allowed me incredible freedom as a writer. Why would I want to go any place else? Tor has been very good to me."

Another publishing anomaly: Modesitt works without an agent. Again, the reason is simple practicality. "When I started," he says, "nobody knew who I was, and no agent who was really reputable really wanted to deal with me. The point is, I didn't come up through the fan community. I came up from the writing side. Yes, I'd read science fiction ever since I was a child; yes, I knew the genre—but I knew it from the writing side. I didn't have any contacts. I went over the transom.

"I worked with David Hartwell long distance for something like four years before I ever met him personally. Because of that, no agents knew who I was, and a couple of agents—one, a very well-known agent, basically said, 'I don't think I could work with you. I'll probably kick myself, but I don't think I could work with you.'"

Another anomaly: Modesitt doesn't write to contract; he always writes the book first, "then I ask them if they want it. To me, it makes perfect sense, because there's a clause in the contract that says if we don't like the book, we don't have to publish it, but you've got to give back some of the money. Well, I'm sorry. I don't want to operate that way. I don't like being in debt, for anything. So, I write the book and see if they want it. So far, they have. There may come a time that they don't."

Another anomaly: none of Modesitt's forty-seven books have been rejected. This doesn't apply to his short stories. After that first sale to Analog, he wrote more than twenty short stories before he sold the second one. "I still occasionally get rejections," he says. "Part of it is that what I write as short fiction does not sell to editors well in the United States. The only sales that I have had to magazines in the last fifteen years has been to Canadian publications, or to anthologies. And interestingly enough, some of those stories have won awards.

"I had one short story called 'Understanding.' I wrote it for an anthology. The anthologist looked at it, said, 'This is too misogynistic.' I thought that was a little weird. I sent it off to Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, and Marion rejected it for being ultra-feministic. Nobody would touch it in the United States. It was finally published in On Spec, the Canadian magazine."

Hollywood has made occasional rumblings about filming some of Modesitt's work. "When The Ecolitan Enigma came out," he says, "I got a letter from Lightstorm Entertainment, which is James Cameron's outfit, and they said, 'Boy, we're really interested in this. Let us look into this.'

"Well, I didn't hear anything for a while and I called and said, 'Okay, is this going any place?' 'Well, it's a really good book, but it's too complicated for Jim.' I write very complex stuff. It's subtly complex, but it's very complex. There are a couple of books that could be suited to movies; I think Adiamante, for example, could be done. It wouldn't be that expensive to be done in terms of special effects, and I think it would make a good story. But a lot of what I do is too complex to really translate well.

"The Recluce books would really make an excellent series or miniseries. I'm not sure they'd make a very good movie."

And if he does get a movie deal? "I'll take the money and run," Modesitt says.

His latest science fiction novel, The Eternity Artifact, came out in October. Modesitt says, "It's a stand-alone science fiction novel that deals with the whole question of humanity's role, literally, in the galaxy, and what role religion plays in it. The setting is very simple: humanity has expanded 5,000 years in the future into the galaxy, and there's no sign of any other intelligent life. All of a sudden, at the edge of the galaxy, astronomers discover a world spinning along the edge of the galaxy at an extremely high and unnatural rate of speed. On it is a single city; an oval roughly 300 by 600 miles filled with identical silver-blue towers that are over six billion years old and yet preserved even though the atmosphere on the planet has frozen. There's no other sign of any other life in the galaxy or any place else; just this, shall we say, enigma.

"An expedition goes out there because there's a limited time before it's going to reach a region of singularity that will make it impossible to explore to find out what this is all about.

"The questions that the book raises are: are there technological limits that we cannot reach for various reasons? What is the role of humanity? What is the implication of religion? Were we created or did we evolve?"

The Eternity Artifact is told in the first person viewpoint of four characters, alternating.

A fantasy novel, Cadmium's Choice, the second book in the second trilogy of the Corean Chronicles, will be out in April 2006. The third volume, Soarer’s Choice, is scheduled for publication in November of this year.

Modesitt's workday is quite mundane. "I get up. I take care of the dogs. I fix breakfast. My wife and I talk over breakfast. I go out five days a week and run, walk or jog three and a half miles. I come back, take a shower, get cleaned up and sit down at the computer. During the school year, I fix lunch; during the summer, she fixes lunch. Lunch is our big meal."

He's not sure how many hours a day he writes, "but I'm with the computer—writing, researching, doing writer-related stuff," he says, from 9 or 10 a.m. until 9:30 or 11 p.m. He tries to average roughly 2,500 to 3,500 words a day.

Modesitt would like to be remembered, he says, with these words: "He wrote well, and he wrote honestly, and we still remember him." But talk of immortality doesn't impress him. "I've heard a lot of people's take on immortality," he says, "and it may be; I may be around a hundred years from now. I'm not counting on it. One of the things I have learned in life is that it's extremely uncertain, and even if you've got physical immortality, it's still extremely uncertain. Literary immortality is even less certain."


Copyright © 2006, Rand. All Rights Reserved.

About Ken

Ken Rand (1946-2009) resided with his family in Utah where he wrote semi-fulltime. He sold 60-plus stories to Æon, Oceans of the Mind, Weird Tales, On Spec, Talebones, Writers of the Future, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Fictionwise.com, and four dozen other magazines and anthologies. He published more than a dozen books. Details and excerpts on his website. His writing and living philosophy was: "Lighten up."

COMMENTS!

Jun 5, 20:58 by IROSF
A thread to discuss Lee Modesitt -- or Ken Rand's interview.

The article can be found here.
Jun 6, 06:15 by Nancy Beck
Interesting. Modesitt sounds like a really good guy; no doubt I'd have a good time conversing with him over a beer (if he could be persuaded to leave his computer).

But...I started reading The Magic of Recluce...and could only finish the first few chapters. Maybe it was just me, but I couldn't get past the "sound effects" he put into that novel. His magic system seemed like a really neat idea, but I just couldn't get past those effects.

Maybe I'll check out his other books/series.

~Nancy

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