We've agreed to meet in a restaurant with a title that could feature in a space opera—
When I arrive I realize we haven't specified the precise meeting place, so I decide to wait for a minute outside the main entrance. The street is remarkably lonesome. Maybe the lobby, I think, but I quickly find that it's also empty. Then I see him at the far end of the room, already seated at one of the tables, sipping tea. And it hits me: he is always focused on "what's next," so it makes sense he has started.
Robert Reed: he's published fifteen books and one hundred ninety stories. He's also a runner, with seventy thousand miles under the belt (or in the knees). In person he is affable and more given to joking around than one might imagine. Since winning the Gold Prize in the Writers of the Future contest with his story "Mudpuppies" in 1986, Reed, born in Omaha and a long-time resident of Lincoln, Nebraska has created literally hundreds of worlds and alien races, and explored as many ideas taken from the cutting edge of physics and biology. Yet he seems genuinely unimpressed by his own creativity, and brimming with inspiration for future projects. He is also unapologetic about his prolificity, claiming that it "only appears that way when you look at it over time."
For readers, it isn't a problem—
The day after our dinner I have the opportunity to speak with him again, and I ask him some questions that have been on my mind for a while. He's kind enough to let me document his responses.
Alvaro Zinos-Amaro: What impact, if any, did winning the Hugo award in 2007 for your novella "A Billion Eves" have on your writing career?
Robert Reed: Well, we received a lot more hits on the website—
And I had a sense of entitlement that lasted for one misspoken moment, where I made the mistake of boasting a bit and got in trouble for it later.
AZA: What do you mean, "got in trouble"?
RR: Oh yeah, I was going on about "A-ha, I won a Hugo!" and I got kind of ballsy about it. Leslie [Reed's wife] took offense. "Ok, well we're done with that," I thought.
It was my one little moment. Years ago I sat on a panel with George Alec Effinger, down in Armadillocon. He talked at length about himself, and I guess he was fairly good at that. One of his things was, he was talking about how pitiful his advances were. And the thing that most interested me was that when he finally won a major award [for "Schrödinger's Kitten" published in Omni, September 1988; won the Nebula, Hugo and Sturgeon awards] after many years of nominations he went into a funk. He could just not finish things for several years, and so on and so forth. I've been aware of this—
AZA: The same thing happens with the Nobels, doesn't it?
RR: Oh, Nobels can kill you. From what I've heard. Though I'm willing to take that bullet! That said...oh well. And the Pulitzers. I don't know, it's really such an amazing award: they do such a great job of combing all of American literature and picking something that will go on to obscurity later except for the fact that it won that Pulitzer! Their list of winnings—
As far as my Hugo, it was just a bit of euphoria, followed by "What am I going to do next?"
AZA: Your last novel The Well of Stars, set in the Marrow universe, was published in 2004. In the introduction to one of your recent stories, F&SF wrote that you're at work on three new novels. What can you tell us about these projects? Do they include the long-awaited novel on running you've mentioned in various past interviews over the last decade?
RR: One of them is the running novel. I took the original version of it and cut it down to just over 40,000 words, which is technically still a novel. I recently sent it to one small press and they rejected it handily. I sent them the first forty or fifty pages and they said "The writing's fine, but it's not interesting." So I don't know what I'm doing next. It's a very different story and I think the writing is very fine. I've thought about honing it down even more and chopping out characters to make it more efficient, a smaller story that I could sell to F&SF, but that isn't what I want to do. So I'm going to figure something out one of these days, and try a different path.
AZA: Have you tried smaller places, like maybe Post Scripts?
RR: I've thought of Post Scripts. PS is an obvious market but the problem is their distribution. This is a running novel, and I do feel that there is a market for this, one which I don't think PS Publishing can meet. I do see it as a small press, at this point, due to its length. But more mainstream. There are runners who would not read my stuff normally who would read this and enjoy it.
The second book is an ongoing project I've been working on for the last two to three years. It is an alternate history standard in that I take one event in the past and change it and see what happens afterwards. Except I'm trying to be far more elaborate than most are. I'm trying to take a smaller view of history. I have an ordinary person in his twenties. It's after college; the years are 1978 through 1980. And it is approximately set here, where I am right now. It is approximate too in that there are moments of my life in it, things that have happened to me. But this world is radically different.
It's extremely episodic. I try to write a chapter a day. It has reached enormous proportions. Nothing happens in the book, and I don't see how I can get a publisher. When I say "nothing happens" what I mean is that there won't be a standard resolution. It's very mainstream in its tone. My wife really likes Alice Munro. I do too now. Her stories don't end in any normal way. Oddly enough, that's very much like life, and I find that fascinating. That's where I intend to go on this.
The third is a project in mind to write the first of a series of YA novels in the Marrow universe, set after The Well of Stars. I would like to have another book or two to follow up on The Well of Stars but my relationship with Tor, apparently, is over, so there's no way to do that at this point. There was some talk with Orbit in England and then in the US, but they didn't want anything right then.
I've been very busy with short fiction. I wish I could sell a novel or two, because it makes a big difference to my income. Novels pay a lot better than stories—
AZA: You've written that every writer has his favorite works—
RR: An Exaltation of Larks (1995). I said to myself, "I'm going to write my own damn novel, and I don't give a shit what anyone else thinks. If I sell it, I sell it." In a way it was like an extended short story. I could do what I wanted. I always feel like in short fiction I have more freedom. I don't have to have people love the characters or standard resolutions or points of view. With Exaltation, I got to play with some things that I enjoyed. And it sold. It did fairly well—
That said, maybe my real favorite is the big novel I'm working on now. I used to think that I could harvest this giant novel. There's different storylines throughout it. It's very complicated, for being told by a person who perceives he's leading a dull life. But it is complicated, and I could tease out all these threads and sell each one. But it loses a lot of its pop without all of them together. The cumulative effect has at times made me anxious—
AZA: Unlike ours.
RR: Oh, it's even worse!
AZA: From your nearly two hundred published stories, is it even sensible to try and ask you to pick some favorites?
RR: No, it's not sensible. Actually it's cliché, like "which are your favorite children?"
A fellow I must have talked to in the past saw me in Denver and congratulated me for the Hugo for "A Billion Eves," but he pointed out that "Eight Episodes" was a better story. I would tend to agree. ("A Billion Eves" is fine and there are parts of it that I really like.)
One of the things I like about "Killing the Morrow" is the idea that the past is deeply fragile, a concept I took to the logical next step in "Past Imperfect," in which the past becomes unknowable. Gardner praised me for essentially destroying time travel. "Truth" and "Veritas" both use the many-worlds theory, which I can't say is right, but I think at least deserves speculative attention.
There's another new story, probably coming out later this year in Asimov's, called "Until My Last Breath." It was a thought problem on my part. I came up with a scenario and then thought of a way to tell this story, and I really enjoyed that. It's not that long; it's just a short story, but it covers many lives.
I'm getting better at this, or worse. I'm getting better than I was in the past at having many characters in a small world. In this case, we get snapshots of their lives.
As far as older stories, I like "The Cuckoo's Boys," but I probably like "The Children's Crusade" better.
I also liked "Coelacanths" quite a bit, and "One Last Game." I enjoyed the latter because the protagonist is this yowly fourteen-year-old kid, and I really liked that voice. Again, this is the case where you're very comfortable with someone you don't necessarily like. He seemed pretty genuine to me. Having come up with the voice, I could just watch him go through with his events. He was in charge. Usually kids are younger and sweeter, but he's a teenager. Adolescents need the most intervention. Can't we just ignore them or give them guns or something? Send them up the hill?
AZA: What is the most bizarre rejection you've ever received, and the market you were most surprised to make a sale to?
RR: Every rejection from George Scithers many years ago. He would send me little 3-by-5 postcards with things written on them like: "The Golden Age of science fiction is twelve, and you need to write for that age." Thanks for the help. He came pretty close to destroying my career.
Sometimes you'll just sense that an editor will give you a reason but they don't really have one. Stories have done well other than where they were first rejected. "Mere" (2004) was rejected by two editors, both Gardner and Gordon. Gardner thought it was too long, Gordon wasn't sure and thought I should just send it back to him later--he didn't have room for it.
AZA: I'm surprised that it was considered too long. From reader comments I've seen, it was regarded as being too short. For me the compressed quality of narrative, the endless succession of civilizations against this one fixed, pivotal character gave it a mythical feel.
RR: I'm glad. The thought behind the story was, "How would one of my people from the Marrow universe be dealt with by a primitive society?" I decided they would be God.
AZA: What can you tell us about the new novella set in the Marrow universe, forthcoming in your 2011 quad-novella collection Eater of Bone?
RR: I came up with another scenario. Let me explain how the story idea arose originally.
I read an account of the wolves of the Isle Royal National Park in Lake Superior. The wolves are in trouble. It's a very small population on its best day, and it's getting smaller, they're becoming inbred, and so on. They were down to one pack. Wolf politics is pretty rough stuff. Newt Gingrich can talk a mean game but he frankly doesn't have the jaws for their sort of work. So, there's a female that's in trouble for some reason and she's attacked by the others. She swims out into the water, mortally wounded, and she's washed back onto the shore at another part of the island. This young unattached male finds her, nurses her back to health and they form a new pack.
So I got to thinking, you could be a god, but you could also be a monster. You have organisms that will not die in any normal way. And so I envisioned a world that's impoverished metal-wise, and whose native sentient beings are not that advanced in technological terms. Humans have arrived and a failed colony has fallen apart. Wolf-men would mostly be worried about wolf-men. Here people are hunting people as much as the natives are hunting the monsters. The central character is hunted and befriends a man and so on and so forth. That's where it stems from, the idea of humans as monsters. It's 36,000 words long, almost a novel. PS was very quick to take it.
My third upcoming work on this same theme is yet another scenario based upon what immortal people would be like. And that is, superheroes. That would be my YA novel.
AZA: You featured a similar metal-depleted world in "Good Mountain."
RR: Yeah. Though there could have been a lot of metal there, down in the water. There's probably a lot of planets like that. The more I read about this, the more interesting these planets become. There's probably a lot of water worlds, and it's tough to envision anything like what we have here.
This planet happens to just look this way, for no particular reason I guess, and it works out well for us. But you can see so many things that could have gone differently.
RAZA: Are there any new story collections in the new works, like a five-volume "Best of"?
RR: No. A five-volume Best of? Yes, that's in the works. Sure. A lot of things are in the works. I'm very comfortable with alternate universes, you know. My top twenty thousand stories are going to be out any day now.
I'm just waiting to die, and then someone will get a grant and put my uncollected stories out. I'm not sure what will happen. Maybe Nebraska Press will churn them out. I haven't really pursued it.
Obviously, I have no ambition.
AZA: On that note, describe a day in the writing life of Robert Reed. You wake up, without ambition...
RR: That's right, I have to go to the bathroom, and then I realize I don't want to climb back into bed. Coffee is made for me by this miraculous machine in the kitchen. I take it downstairs, I go on the Internet, and after half an hour of trying to remember my name I begin to write on a novel that will never end.
Later I get my daughter off to school. Then I go downstairs again and pretty much write throughout the morning. I find I can only work for so long without getting flat. Even if I press hard. On the novel I do a chapter a day, and sometimes I'll do a chapter on the weekends, later in the day.
In the summer my exercise comes in during the morning, before dark, or near dark—
At times during the year I'll also spend time working on my yard. And reading to a degree. And playing Civilization 3.
AZA: Is your writing process fundamentally the same or different from what it was when you started publishing professionally? If different, could you describe how? How many times do you normally revise any given story?
RR: I'd like to think I'm more polished now, or at least more capable of knowing my limits.
I know what I can do, how long it will take, and I'm good at figuring out what is required to do the job. I'm good at allocating time now, and I've become good at knowing when the story is wrong and realizing I have to stop.
AZA: I've heard you mention this elsewhere. Could you be more detailed? What are things that tip you off that the story is wrong?
RR: There's a feeling of sickness that comes into me. Let me give you an example. It happened with the Big Novel. My anxiety level was getting higher and higher, which was a good thing, and then all of a sudden I wrote this chapter. It was fine...there wasn't any one thing about it that was wrong—
As it turns out, I'd made it in the chapter before. I'd introduced a twist that I never should have introduced. It was too much, too late in the story, and it made things too different even from the non-standard direction I had expected. So I went back and started again. I fixed it on the third draft, which is pretty efficient. I used to do many drafts in my typewriter days. I could have done five or six drafts. And I would retype a story after it had been rejected soundly (I'm a fast typist), and I would make more changes when I was preparing a fresh copy to send to people. "Mudpuppies" was rewritten many times, including for the contest submission. I had to retype it so that it would be anonymous, and I edited it again as I went. Now most of my editing happens on the screen, so that's different.
AZA: Do you edit as you go?
RR: Yes. I write until it sucks, and then I start over again.
But now going over a story goes more quickly. There may be glaring mistakes, and I may be a horrible writer, but they don't show to me on that second read-through. And there's usually very specific things I've done wrong. Too many small mistakes, deleterious genes sprinkled throughout, but I can straighten them out relatively easily.
It's a feeling. It's very intuitive. I'm not making conscious decisions.
AZA: Do you ever get that feeling when you're reading other people's stories that something has gone wrong in the composition?
RR: Oh yeah, and in those cases I'm much better at figuring out what I think it is. The biggest problem I have is the wordage. There's just too many words. I complained about this years ago to a guy who ran a bookstore in downtown Lincoln. His comment was, "You sound like the Emperor of Austria in Amadeus, saying to Mozart that there's just too many notes."
AZA: And Mozart asks the Emperor which ones he'd like him to take out?
RR: Right. But this isn't the same. "Too many words" is different from "too many notes"! There's a huge difference.
AZA: In an interview in 2004, you described how an agent suggested you consider the lucrative field of serial killer fiction. At the time you commented that "I did the research [on serial killers] and got really depressed. That was the worst depression I've had. I couldn't write anything about it." Is that something you've been able to overcome? Were you able to apply that research to subsequent works?
RR: That's a good question. No one's asked me that or anything like that before.
There are certain aspects of the serial killer that I'm comfortable with now. I think Joe Carroway from "Five Thrillers" may be a bit like this. A man without a conscience can do many wonderful things. He can also do horrible things. He's just free.
AZA: "Five Thrillers" was well-received and ended on a decidedly open note. Can we expect any more of Joe Carroway's amoral exploits?
AZA: Peter Watts, in an interview in IROSF, argued that sociopaths might have an evolutionary advantage because they're not limited, like you were saying.
RR: I would argue that they don't have an evolutionary advantage. You just don't see it. It's very rare. And when you find it, even the highest-achieving sociopaths tend to be poor performers. Take Ted Bundy. He was not a successful law student; he could pull himself together briefly when his life was on the line. Other than that he was a total fuck-up. Most of them can't achieve much except killing people. That's what they're really good at.
AZA: Unlike some other prolific writers (such as Jay Lake, Tim Pratt, Ian Watson, Stephen Baxter) your stories always seem to be solo projects. Is there a particular reason for this? Have you ever attempted a collaboration? If so, what happened?
RR: No, I've never had a collaboration. Never tried one. No one's ever come to me with the idea of one. And I'm not waiting for it to happen.
AZA: Why do you think that is?
RR: I don't know that many people. And I think I worry some people. I just that get that feeling sometimes when I'm in the SFWA suite....
Jim Kelly is probably the most friendly, open guy. Scott Edelman too. But neither of them have asked me to collaborate. We're buddies; Scott was the one who picked up my Hugo, and I loved the fact that he was there doing that for me. I thought that worked out well for both of us, but I can't envision either of them asking me to go along on a project. I can see Kelly working on things with Kessel. They should. You watch them together and they complement each other. I'm not sure who I complement.
AZA: Fair enough. Another question: the Bibliography section of your website, an impressive achievement, contains links to individual reviews of every one of your stories and novels. Do you ever read reviews of your own work and, if so, how do you react to them?
RR: I do read them, but not all of them.
There are certain times when stories are fresh and I'll keep running tabs to see how it's going. I do hear that there are older stories that get reviewed later on but I never know which ones, and they don't tell me, "they" being the two people who so graciously and out of their own time and effort have decided to do this project.
I like to read good reviews, but if you get a bad review you deal with it. And sometimes even when I get praise, I have to say "You know..." They may not be that perceptive as reviewers. They give their impression, and that's fine, and if they don't like it they'll tell you why. They can trash a story, and that's fine. Frank [who updates the links] has a rule. He has a line in the sand: "If you're wrong about the story in some deep, fundamental way, if you've misnamed characters or totally missed the point of the story, then you're off the list." I find that to be a reassuring way to attack this.
AZA: What was the last science fiction story you read, and what did you think of it?
RR: Mary Rosenblum's story about buying people's lives ["Horse Racing," Asimov's, September 2008]. I read it the other day when I was down with my daughter at The Children's Museum. It was a fine concept and I enjoyed it. I thought it was a little long. I also read most of a novella on rock and roll ["The Flowers of Nicosia" by David Ira Cleary, Asimov's, December 2008]. I was enjoying the writing quite a bit but didn't get to finish it. I have these magazines in the car and I'll carry them around. Usually a random assortment. I'm not in them. I don't like to walk around with my stuff.
AZA: As noted elsewhere, John Clute has written that your writing seems consistently to reflect the psychology of long-distance running. I think Clute got it wrong: Your short-story-to-novel ratio is about fourteen-to-one, so if it's true that short stories are akin to sprints and novels to marathons, you're definitely more of a short-distance writer. What's your take on all this?
RR: I bitch-slapped John Clute about this whole long-distance running crap. (The scifi.com interview appears to have been lost in the transition to syfy.com. -Ed.)
You can't write when you're running—
As far as short vs. long, I'm not a marathoner by nature. Probably my best distance is ten miles, give or take.
AZA: Is that like a novelette?
RR: Yes, or a short novella. Marathons are just horrible things.
AZA: Is that how you see novels?
RR: No! Novels are just series of short stories that you structure in a certain way. Every chapter has its rhythm, and a reason for breaking at the end of it and going to the next chapter.
This is something I jumped on when I wrote my first novel, The Leeshore (1987), and I didn't know what to do.
AZA: In recent interviews in Locus, both Michael Swanwick (March 2009) and Robert Charles Wilson (June 2009) commented that the quality of writing in science fiction now is higher than it's ever been. Is that a sentiment you share, or do you think we shouldn't lose sight of Sturgeon's law?
RR: Oh, Sturgeon's Law! First of all, I don't even think he said that. Yes, it's commonly attributed. Though I suspect there was really a Neanderthal who was sitting there going "90% of everything is shit."
I really don't know. I have not read old-time stuff in so long. I assume that the level has gotten higher in certain ways.
AZA: In what ways, specifically?
RR: I think you don't have as many seventeen-year-olds writing. These are adults. And oftentimes they've been doing it for years, and it shows. I don't think you have as many people moving into the industry early on and then moving out once they get real jobs. Despite the fact that there were over a thousand stories published last year, there aren't that many markets. There's a winnowing process that just didn't exist in the 1950s. I know Sheila has had debates with Mike Resnick about this. He'd say that there's plenty of good stories out there, enough to fill magazines, and she'd say "Well, you don't see what crosses my desk." When you're Asimov's, you get to pick and choose.
There's a great deal of pressure to produce quality stuff. There's a level that has to be reached before it gets out there that didn't exist in the past decades.
AZA: Reviewers and readers have at times commented that your prose is chilly and some of your protagonists unlikable; you've expressed a similar opinion. What is the most unlikeable character you've devised that you most like?
RR: Joe Carroway. He's a nice enough guy most of the time, you know. If the stakes weren't that high, he'd be a nice friend, a good neighbor. He might eat you at some point, but most of the time you don't need to eat your neighbors. And Romano from "Truth," though there's just something about him I don't like. The story wasn't told from his point of view, and that distance makes it harder for me to like him.
Also, Pamir from the Marrow universe. He's done well for me. He's got this bulldog mentality that I find appealing.
AZA: Has there ever been any interest in turning any of your work into films, TV miniseries, or computer games?
RR: My "cul-de-sac" novels, Beneath the Gated Sky (1994) and Beyond the Veil of Stars (1997) were both optioned. My working title for these was "Cul-de-Sac." That's what the agent called them, and I thought, "That's really good. This is just up my alley." He eventually shoveled money at me for a three-year option, and then at the third year it didn't show. There have been various little deals. But it hasn't really happened.
At one point when I was starting out in this silly business, I realized that the people that were doing really well all had white hair. "What is that?" I thought. "Do I need to start dying my hair?"
AZA: Anything else you'd like to share with readers? Something you've never revealed before?
RR: My history hunting California condors. They're really quite tasty!
And so the interview ends, though not our conversation. In free-ranging talk about his craft, there's an insight Reed shares that makes me take pause. He looks relaxed, almost meditative as he says, "One of my breakthroughs as a writer was that I largely gave up on the future."
Several interpretations of this come to mind. I ponder which one Reed intends, but decide not to ask for clarification. The silence is a comfortable one, and he elaborates:
I no longer considered SF to be any great godsend for making reasonable predictions about the future. What I feel is that SF is this perspective that pulls back to where the past, present and future all blend together. That freed me up from the rigors of extrapolating thoroughly. There are some people who do a really good job with extrapolation, but it's always, always going to look silly in fifty years. And what interests me is the characters, maybe to a greater extent than most writers.
This may be hard-earned wisdom from a mature practitioner of SF, but it also sounds like a practical philosophy for coping with a difficult career in an unpredictable publishing world.
On reflection, there's something existentially liberating about the notion. I realize how regarding the present moment, and then the one that follows it, and then the one after, can lead to Reed's focus, to the clarity of his visions—