We’d like to thank Michael Flynn and Tor for their support of LitStack and for allowing us to feature the Hugo nominated writer for the month of January. Flynn is truly an original and has written many stories that have entertained, amused and fascinated readers. As our last January Featured Author segment, we sat down with Flynn to discus his writing process, the politics in his novels and the changing structure of the publishing industry.
Have you always written? What were your first stories like?
I remember writing stories with my brother when we were kids. In pencil, in spiral notebooks. Illustrated with Magic Marker back before anyone worried about toxic fumes. That may explain a lot. The stories were all the same: spacemen go in spaceship to another planet and pretty much all of them die at the hands of monsters or other natural perils. At one point, we introduced the character of Bittner, who may best be compared to the character of Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation, except not as flamboyant.
We were also unclear on the nature of various planets. The ship had no trouble landing on the surface of Jupiter, for example. As for the quality of the writing, I simply repeat “when we were kids.” Later, we wrote a knock-off of Damon Knight’s “To Serve Man,” which our father had told us as a bed-time story. We had not yet then discovered his stash of Galaxy and Worlds of IF.
Many writers struggle with rejection. What was your road to publication like?
I sent off perhaps three or four stories to F&SF when I was a teenager, and collected three or four rejection slips. Well-deserved, I ought to say. I remember nothing of those stories. Their awfulness has wiped even the memory of them from my mind. By then, my brother and I had joined with two other kids to write what we now call a “shared universe,” which updated some of those stories from childhood and added an escalation planet-by-planet and then out to the stars, picking up alien sapients along the way. These stories, my mother saved and my youngest brother later assembled into a ring binder. The whole collection was called (of course) “Ad Astra.” I still have it.
Then I sent a story to John Campbell at ANALOG. (I never knew it as ASTOUNDING.) I received a three-page letter ripping the story to shreds. Little did I know that when Campbell spent the time to do that sort of thing he meant “Put these shreds back together in a more interesting way and try again.” Instead, disheartened, I dropped the whole thing. Years later, I stumbled across the story in a drawer, read it, and thought, “Man, this sucks.” I rewrote it and sent it to Ben Bova, who also rejected it. Oh well.
Then Charlie Ryan at GALILEO magazine announced a contest for unpublished writers. At this point, I was married with kids and working for wages. I wrote an entirely new story, “Slan Libh,” which Charlie said he would buy for the magazine outright. This was more money than the contest. Alas, payment was on publication and GALILEO sank before that happened. He tried to shop an anthology for a while, but nothing came of it and I had the rights back. My brothers suggested that buying my story had been the cause of GALILEO going under; but that’s what brothers are for.
So, I sent it to Stan Schmidt at ANALOG, and he bought it. Paid on acceptance, too; so I actually had earned money by writing SF. I and the IRS took a keen interest in this. I pulled out the old story that Campbell and Bova had rejected; read it; and thought, “Man, this still sucks.” So I rewrote it a third time. Maybe it was the fact that I was by then a grown-up (sort of; my wife has her opinions) but the third time was the charm, and my first story became my second story, “Ashes.” Then I wrote two novellas pretty much at the same time, and each wound up on the Hugo ballot. Since then, I have written only a couple of stories that I could not sell — one because TWILIGHT ZONE magazine no longer exists and it didn’t fit anywhere; the other because it sucked.
The scope of the publishing industry is changing. What is your opinion of the evolution of the e-book and its impact on the industry?
I agree with Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg that it will mark the end of publishing houses, editors, agents, and distributors; at least as we know them today. People now have the ability to self-publish and distribute through Amazon (which is becoming something of a vanity press in this respect). On the positive side, this means more of the income for a book will flow directly to the author. But on the negative side, it means a lot of self-indulgent, God-awful dreck is going to be out there. The publishing industry, for all its faults, is a dreck filter. Getting rejected by Campbell and Bova enabled me to sell a halfway decent story to Schmidt. If I had been able to self-publish those stories I wrote as a kid, I would have. Because I thought they were Way Cool. I would not have learned the craft of writing through the effort required to interest and engage a third-party with no ego-investment in the story.
What does the novelization of space operas still offer readers in a post-Star Wars world of sci-fi, and what attracted you to that writing within that form?
The difference between logos and icon; that is, between logic and impression. Star Wars and other visual media SF appeal directly to the senses: you see the space ships, you hear the phasers. The written word appeals to the intellect. By that, I don’t mean that a story or novel is “intellectual” in that sense of the word; only that they are not primarily sensory experiences. The intellect must reflect on the words and abstract the concepts. This motion away from logic and toward imagination has been going on a long time. You will notice that the only kinds of short story magazines now selling are SF and mysteries, and these are the kinds of stories that appeal to some degree to logic. So the short answer to the question is: because the written word compels the reader to reflect on what he is reading in a way that visual media does not.
As to why I wrote a space opera, the short answer is that I did not know I was doing so. The original draft of THE JANUARY DANCER was written in high school and early college, and it (you guessed it) sucked. The novel that finally resulted was placed in an “interstellar empire” sort of setting because that’s what I had done back in the day.
What led you to place, in a kind of a parallel structure, a narrative frame reminiscent of ancient oral poetry around a story that is, at least in its images, futuristic and technologically distant?
That’s a good question. It was not the way the original draft was structured. Worked out okay, though. I think I was influenced by a number of other books in which the main action was viewed narratively as having been accomplished in the past. Once upon a time. Something about that seems to generate a sense of nostalgia, even of loss and melancholy, like hearing the silver tinkle of morning bells echo during the red twilight. I’ll mention three books: Lawrence Block’s mystery WHEN THE SACRED GIN MILL CLOSES, in which the first person narrator retells the story in the main body of the text; H.N. Turtletaub’s historical novel JUSTINIAN, which alternates the interrogation of a Byzantine soldier-courtier in the narrative present with the events of the reign of Justinian II in the narrative past; and John Brunner’s THE SHOCKWAVE RIDER, in which again a character is being interrogated in the present about the events of the story in the past. In both the Turtletaub and the Brunner, the interrogator and the interrogated comment editorially on the matters just related and in the end participate in the story through their own drama.
Since there is something of the spirit of fantasy unavoidable in saying “once upon a time,” I suppose that may have influenced the tone of the narrative. But it was also because the Spiral Arm was going to be, improbably enough, Irish. That was a spin-off of reading DUNE shortly before that high school student started typing THE JANUARY DANCER.
How did using the more simplistic storyteller/musician interaction that comprises the frame of The January Dancer change the way you approached the genre as a whole?
I don’t know if it changed my approach. UP JIM RIVER did not use the same kind of structure — and that was deliberate. I didn’t want each book to “feel” too much the same. On the other hand, the third book, IN THE LION’S MOUTH, does return to the story-teller/listener model; but in a different way. Somewhere way back when, Maureen McHugh commented that the omniscient point of view, while common in mainstream novels, is generally lacking from SF, where we usually prefer a single protagonist close-in POV. So, I’ve been playing around with point of view ever since THE WRECK OF THE RIVER OF STARS.
The idea of a stone that can be used to control the will of one’s enemies seems like kind of an archetypal centerpiece to use. Is there any particular significance to your descriptions of the dancer in terms of what you’re trying to communicate within the novel as a whole?
Considering it was a teenager who came up with it back in the mid-1960s, it might not have too much significance beyond being Way Cool. There’s a bit of the MALTESE FALCON in it, save that instead of various people wanting to possess it, we have it wanting to possess various people. Part of it, too, was an instinctive revulsion against being told what to do. The Flynns are notorious for this. My family traces back to a stubborn old woman who pulled up stakes in Ballinlough and moved to Loughrea rather than pay rent to the new English landlords. That was right after the Cromwell War.
It doesn’t matter if the orders are correct or wrong, or if the intentions are benign or malign, I’ve always viewed Inspirational Leadership with suspicion. I was reading LORD OF THE RINGS at the same time I was writing JANUARY DANCER, and there is something in the tragic temptation of Boromir that resonates with the story. Colonel Jumdar and others in the story want to use the Dancer to “do good,” at least “good” as they see it. But the Dancer has its own motives and purposes and is quite able to use Jumdar as easily as the pirates of the Hadramoo. None of them can ever be quite sure what they really believe or what the stone needs them to believe, one of the reasons the stone is constantly being described as changing, but never changing perceptibly.
The Forest of Time examines culture and the division of people by their respective cultures. Do you believe that culture and setting are important in fiction? What have you read recently that demonstrates culture/setting creatively?
One of the critiques often leveled at SF from the 50s and 40s is that it envisioned the future as the 40s and 50s on steroids. But when we look back today at the 50s, we blink and say, “we’re not like that anymore,” even those of us who were there (when our memories are not failing us). There were things we took for granted — little kids running around the neighborhood unsupervised; going out of the house without locking the doors, and so on — that are unimaginable today for most people. And those are just minor changes of culture and setting. I had the fortune as a consultant to visit all parts of the country and a fair number of other countries, and so had the opportunity to view people who did not behave like the people on the TV shows. I once saw a family of five in Chennai, India, riding on a motorcycle: father driving, young kid on the saddle in front of him, older kid behind arms wrapped around the father’s waist, mother sitting side-saddle in the rear holding the baby in her lap. In Frankfurt, Germany, in 1970, you could eat pizza, but with a knife and fork.
This can be used in two ways. The background of the story becomes something more than a “white room.” It comes alive, and becomes a “character” in the story the way gaslight London is a character in Sherlock Holmes stories, or New York City is a character in Lawrence Block’s mysteries. Secondly, human beings are formed by the societies in which they live. You can’t have people behaving like 2020 Americans unless the culture is something like 2010s America. When I saw a body lying on the sidewalk in Chennai, with crowds of pedestrians simply walking around her, my host would literally not look, would not turn his head. When I saw a body lying on the sidewalk in Philadelphia one time, the crowd was gathered around talking and speculating behind the police tape. When an Ethiopian client once mentioned casually the “first time” he woke up to find a dead body on the street in front of his apartment building in Addis Ababa he was quite disturbed and people gathered around; “but after a while,” he said, “you get used to it.” This was during the Red Terror. Right there, you have three different cultures displaying three different attitudes.
Part of what a story is supposed to do is make you think you’ve “been there” in a strange and alien future/planet. Can’t do that with a white room.
The January Dancer and Up Jim River are both set in the future. What about that time frame compelled you to explore the potential culture and how close to humanity’s future do you feel you came?
To the charge of attempted journalism on the future, I plead not guilty. FIRESTAR tried to look a decade or two ahead, and got a lot of it wrong. A couple thousand years? Ask a Sumerian to describe the New York subway system. Even if you brought him forward and took him for a ride on the A train, he would not be able to process what he saw. The categories of his thoughts are different and he would try to stuff his perceptions into those categories. He wouldn’t even know what a chariot was. Had he tried to write a story about the future, he would have described Sumeria on steroids: THE ENDLESS SUMER.
In one sense, I think I came close; and that is that I don’t think human nature itself changes, no matter what happens to the stage props and the toys. It may express itself differently, and in the SPIRAL ARM series I try to show that even a single world, like Jehovah or Harpaloon, contains different cultures with different ways, and with their own histories and their own myths about those histories. I took different contemporary and past cultures and mixed them together, sometimes randomly. There is a lot of Chennai in the Terran Corner of Jehovah, for example; but altered and morphed. Harpaloon holds a wild mix of Irish and Arab. The director of the tissue bank on Dancing Vrouw is named Shmon van Rwengasira y Gasdro, combination of Jewish, Dutch, Hiya, and Spanish. But human nature itself is like the matter in an Aristotelian composite: it is what persists through changes of form.
That being said, a lot of the technology and science I think is at least plausible on our present accounts; and a lot of it comes from present day press releases. Absent any societal collapse, we can expect to see some of the techne in a few hundred years rather than a few thousand. The science is less certain.
Tell us about In the Lion’s Mouth. Do the political struggles in the novel illustrate or perhaps mimic the political environment that exists for us today?
The short answer is no. What I have always disliked is the portrayal of the other side as monolithic, when They are just as prone to faction and division as Us. So I postulated a revolution/civil war among the Shadows. One faction wants to overthrow the Names who rule the Confederation; the other side supports the Names. You can treat the sheep however you like; but you better treat the sheepdogs well. The war is fought the way Shadows always fight: by stealth and ambush and, as often as not, by political maneuvering: capturing bureaus or departments within the government through artful promotions and demotions. In a dictatorial regime, people may rise and fall at random anyway; so it is not too revealing to engineer someone’s downfall on trumped-up charges. (It was all written long before Herman Cain was squeezed out of the presidential race, so none of it is directly parallel to contemporary politics, where becoming a candidate for office is much like entering into a mutual suicide pact.)
But the problem is that after revolution has cleared the board, the people who build the new world order will be those who have only known the old one. Overthrow the Tsar and you wind up with Lenin and Stalin; kick out the Shah and you get Khomeini; chop off King Louis’ head and Robespierre comes around to chop off yours — and then Napoleon picks up the crown from the gutter. So from the viewpoint of the Reader, or even the viewpoint of the League and its Hounds, it’s not entirely clear who one should root for. The Shadow factions are pursuing different ends, but largely using the same means; and the virtue of Prudence is unknown in this future.
One of the most difficult tasks a writer faces is making the Bad Guys realistic. No one does evil as they themselves see things. That is how people come to do evil things. They believe they are doing good, or that good and evil are matters of personal opinion. Purifying the Race, Saving the Planet, Stopping World Communism, Protecting the Consumer… There is no cause so noble that it cannot be driven to excess by True Believers; and there is no cause so unworthy that its proponents do not believe in it with pure and wholehearted devotion. Instead, we usually portray the Bad Guys in monotone. They know they are doing evil, and they revel in it. Not only that, but of course, the Bad Guy smokes, and he is unkind to Mother Earth, and he treats women like dirt, and he’s a bigot, and so on; as if a man who is wrong about A must also be wrong about B, C, D, and E. But people can be bundles of contradictions and the challenge is to empathize without necessarily sympathizing.
With any luck, readers will see the culmination of all this in the fourth book, ON THE RAZOR’S EDGE, presently written but not yet under contract. After all, when everything is in the Shadows, not everything can be readily seen.