Mike Resnick is the author of more than 40 science fiction novels, 150 stories, 10 story collections, and 2 screenplays, as well as the editor of more than 35 anthologies. He has won 4 Hugos (and been nominated 24 times), a Nebula (with 10 nominations), as well as other major and minor awards in the USA, France, Japan, Spain, Croatia, and Poland. His work has been translated into 22 languages. He is currently the science fiction editor for BenBella Books, and edits the Resnick Library of African Adventure and the Resnick Library of Worldwide Adventure for Alexander Books. He has also published non-fiction books about writing and science fiction, a mystery novel, and a number of essay and article collections. In his spare time, he sleeps.
His daughter, Laura, is also a writer, and has won awards for her science fiction, romance, and travel writing. His wife, Carol, is his collaborator on his screenplays.
Lynne Jamneck: What would you suggest as the first thing someone unfamiliar with your work should read?
LJ: What was the first story of yours to be published?
MR: I wish I could tell you, but I really don't remember. I labored as an anonymous hack for a dozen years, I kept none of that work in my possession, and I put titles out of my mind as fast as I could. I think the first science fiction story I sold was "The Last Dog," an award-winner that I actually sold to a dog magazine, and I think (and again, I'm not sure) that the first I sold to a science fiction market may have been "Beachcomber" to Chrysalis 8. The first science fiction novel I sold was The Goddess of Ganymede, an Edgar Rice Burroughs pastiche that came out back in 1967, and which shows up every now and then to humiliate me at autograph sessions. I should have listened to the first dozen editors who turned it down. You can view my career since 1980 as a public penance for my career prior to 1980.
LJ: Has science fiction always been your milieu of choice?
MR: Science fiction always was my milieu of choice, though I've sold mysteries, non-fiction, and one of these days I may do a Western.
LJ: Which authors from the genre have influenced you the most?
MR: I was a good ten million mostly-anonymous words into my career before I turned to serious science fiction in 1980, so I can't say any of them were quite the influences they might have been had I started writing it when I was 18 rather than 38 . . . but that said, I owe a huge debt to Bob Sheckley, whose work in the 1950s and 1960s convinced me that accessibility is the most important single trait a writer can develop. Others whose work I admire enormously, and therefore probably influenced me to some degree, are Barry Malzberg, C. L. Moore, Olaf Stapledon, and Alfie Bester. I knew all of them except for Stapledon, and Barry and Bob have been close friends, and even collaborators.
LJ: Who are some of your favorite writers, in any genre?
MR: In science fiction -- Barry Malzberg, the late George Alec Effinger (another collaborator), Kay Kenyon, Harry Turtledove, Rob Sawyer, Nancy Kress, Jack McDevitt, Jim Kelly, Kris Rusch, the late Ray Lafferty, the late Jim White, a number of others.
Outside the field: I was a Robert Ludlum addict until his death a year or two ago. And James Ellroy, until his latest book (The Cold Six Thousand), which I found unreadable . . . but I liked everything he did before that. My dear friend, the late Ross Spencer, disguised the funniest writing around as mystery novels. I think Edward Whittemore did the finest writing anywhere in the world during the past 50 years. The Last Temptation Of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis is the best novel I've ever read, and Joe Heller's Catch-22 is probably the best American novel of the 20th century.
And here comes the heresy: I don't think much of Tolkien. If I'm to choose a fantasy by an Englishman, I much prefer T. H. White's The Once And Future King, which I think is a work of absolute brilliance.
LJ: You seem to identify strongly as a fan, which is a label that not all science fiction writers embrace. What kind of effect has fandom had on your life over the years?
MR: Most of my friends are involved in science fiction; more of them are fans than pros. Almost all our social life revolves around fandom. I hang out with fans because I'm a fan, I write for fanzines, I've published a fanzine and a pair of apazines, I still work backstage at conventions when they ask me to. I'm one of the last pros to come out of fandom, but I'm hardly unique. I'm following a long line of fans-turned-pro that includes Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Fred Pohl, Cyril Kornbluth, Damon Knight, Jim Blish, Judy Merril, Bob Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Terry Carr, Jack Chalker, Greg Benford, Joe Haldeman, and dozens of others, about 90% of whom published fanzines long before they sold to professional markets.
LJ: What are you currently working on?
MR: I just finished a novella titled "The Star Gypsies" for a Silverberg anthology, and two nights ago I sold Josepha Sherman "The Boy Who Yelled 'Dragon!'" for a fantasy anthology. Today I'm working on a Lucifer Jones story, "The Island of Annoyed Souls," that will appear in the fourth issue of the reborn Argosy (they're running Lucifer every other issue), and next week I start on A Gathering of Widowmakers for Meisha Merlin. I'm also editing an anthology, Down These Dark Spaceways, composed of six futuristic hard-boiled private eye stories; the contributors are Rob Sawyer, David Gerrold, Jack McDevitt, Catherine Asaro, Robert Reed, and (blush) me. I also write a regular column for Speculations, and Barry and I write "The Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues" for each issue of the SFWA Bulletin; I'd have to check my notebook to see if I'll be working on either of those in the next week.
LJ: What was the impetus behind the Down These Dark Spaceways anthology?
MR: To me, Raymond Chandler was the finest writer ever to come out of the pulps in any category, despite the fact that he really couldn't plot worth a damn. There is a certain flavor, a certain mood, a certain world-weary nobility that the very best Chandler-type stories possess that's rarely been tried in science fiction. We've done our share of mysteries, very successful ones too -- but except for Alfred Bester, who was piling on literary pyrotechnics that don't work in the kind of story I'm talking about, most science fiction mysteries are best exemplified by Isaac Asimov's Lije Baley novels, where the solution is far more important than the characters. I wanted stories of fallen angels, of men and women who know going in that the odds are stacked against them, that even their friends will desert them in the end, that the rewards (if any) will never measure up to the risks, but they do it anyway because it's right and somebody's got to do it. And those kinds of stories are somewhat rarer than hen's teeth in science fiction.
LJ: Do you think it's easier or harder to break into science fiction writing today than it was, say, 30 years ago?
MR: I think it's harder today than it's ever been. When I started selling in earnest, back about a quarter-century ago, they published fewer books than they do today -- but there were 17 mass market houses. Today there's Tor, Bantam, Del Rey, Baen, Ace, DAW, and Eos -- just seven; that's a lot fewer editors before you run through all your possibilities. There were a lot more short story markets, too -- not the 35 magazines that existed in the 1950s, but a hell of a lot more than there are now. In the past five years the field has lost Science Fiction Age, Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, and Amazing, and hasn't replaced them with anything. In books, we just lost NAL/Roc last month; it was gobbled up by Ace. Look around: there's no more Fawcett, no more Dell, no science fiction line at Pocket Books, no more Pyramid, no more Jove, no more Gold Medal, no more Playboy Press, no more Doubleday SF line, no more Berkley SF line, and the list goes on and on. No, this is a terrible time to be breaking in. Hell, it's not that good a time to be a lower-level or mid-list writer, for that matter.
The one spot of optimism is the small presses, which are getting bigger and paying better -- Meisha Merlin, BenBella (which recently hired me as their science fiction editor), Golden Gryphon, Wildside Press, Arkham House, Farthest Star Books, half a dozen others. Most will fail, or stay small, but a couple will make it -- and we can sure use them.
LJ: How do you think the Internet will change the publishing industry over the next 10 to 15 years? Will print editions eventually disappear completely?
MR: Print editions aren't going to disappear in my lifetime or yours. The Internet will post millions of unsellable, unreadable stories, and after the initial burst of enthusiasm for all this free drivel, the public will go back to paying for stuff from reliable sources (by which I mean professional publishers).
LJ: Can net-based publications (such as SciFiction) help fill the gap created by the decline in short story markets?
MR: No. There's a million web pages with free fiction, and 99.98% of it is crap. Eventually people have to get tired of wading through that drivel, and they'll go to the few web sites where they'll pay money to get known quantities, web sites like fictionwise.com. Most professional web-based publishing ventures have failed -- the most tragic, because it was much the best, was galaxyonline.com -- and most will continue to fail. Pick up a book or a magazine in a store and you can browse through it, see if you're interested, and if you're not you can put it back in the rack without paying a penny. Can't do that on the Internet, unless it was free in the first place, and more and more readers and finding out that it if doesn't cost anything that's probably an accurate assessment of its value.
LJ: As a South African, I find it extremely encouraging that there are significant African influences in your work. There's a growing move amongst South African writers to popularize the speculative fiction tale locally. In your opinion, what does the African continent have to offer the genre? What do "African themes" mean to you and to your writing?
MR: Colonization. I think just about everyone agrees that if we reach the stars we're going to colonize them. I think Africa offers 51 distinct and different examples of the effects, almost always deleterious, of colonization on both the colonized and the colonizers. The degradation of ecologies. The clash between more and less advanced cultures. The inability of a dominant or conquering culture to see any virtue in a conquered culture, or any reason for preserving it. In short, making use of all the things I see in Africa.
I tend to use what I know and transmogrify it for my science fiction -- and the most alien societies I've encountered have all been on the African continent.
LJ: How did you become interested in Africa? What do you do there when you visit?
MR: I seem to have always been interested. If I could point to a single impetus, it would probably be two books by Alexander Lake, Killers In Africa and Hunter's Choice, that I read half a century ago (and I am pleased to report that I've brought them back into print in the Resnick Library of African Adventure).
When we go to Africa, we of course visit the game parks like any other tourist -- though always with a private guide or on our own; we don't like group excursions -- but I also go with a list of people I want to meet and talk to, historical places I want to see, things I want to research for forthcoming books and stories. I write ahead, set up the appointments, and work them in between all the other stuff.
LJ: Of the many articles and columns you've written, are there any that stand out in your memory as having drawn the most interesting responses?
MR: I loathe the stupidities that Hollywood can get away with in science fiction films, stupidities no nickel-a-word writer working for the least talented of editors would ever be allowed to have in his work. So every year or so I get so fed up and write another article about it -- and since some of the films I excoriate are among our most successful and best-loved, I get a lot of angry reader response. Usually the gist of it is that they go to films to be entertained, not to think; well, my head is not detachable from the rest of me, and I've seen enough examples of entertaining films that weren't stupid that I know it can be done, and knowing that, I insist that it be done more frequently.
LJ: Are you still writing screenplays?
MR: I haven't written any for the past couple of years. I never write without a contract, and no one's contracted for my screenwriting services of late. I write screenplays in collaboration with my wife, Carol; we've sold Santiago, which I am told will get made (but I've been told that a lot over the years), and The Widowmaker, which I am told will not get made, or at least not with the script we sold (which was tailored to the story the then-director wanted to tell, and he's no longer the director.)
LJ: What do you and Carol each bring to the screenwriting collaboration?
MR: She's far more visual than I am. I'm a typical writer; I love words. Hollywood is more concerned with images. Carol has an instinctive understanding of that; I have to force myself to remember it each time I sit down to work on a screenplay. Also, science fiction deals -- a lot of the time, anyway -- with ideas, and Hollywood deals with emotions. Again, she is aware when I'm becoming too cerebral (i.e., aiming at 13-year-olds instead of 9-year-olds). Finally, I've never met anyone who is better at envisioning action scenes.
What I bring is pretty much what I bring to any other writing I do -- love and respect for my work, enthusiasm, some background, some skills.
LJ: If you had the option of turning any one of your works into a film, which one would you choose?
MR: If I could do the screenplay, any of the Lucifer Jones books (Adventures, Exploits, Encounters). They're my favorites, I love the language (which is kind of a cross between Trader Horn and Pogo Possum), and I wouldn't want anyone else to touch it.
Now, since it was a serious question, and writers don't have that kind of control unless their surname is Jehovah, I think Santiago would make as nice a movie as any of them, and since Carol and I have done ten drafts of the script I'd like to see it get made (though I'm told someone else is rewriting it this month, so I may not recognize a word of it, if and when it finally gets onto the screen).
LJ: You've previously said that you enjoy writing short stories more than novel-length works. What is it about short stories that puts the zing in your pen?
MR: Since it only takes a couple of days, my enthusiasm never wanes. When I'm writing a novel, which is a matter of a few months, I always break away from it six or eight times to write stories, articles, regularly-scheduled columns -- and that way I can come back to it refreshed and ready to go again.
LJ: Do you find that creating both serious and humorous fiction influences the way you write? Do you have a fondness for one style or the other?
MR: I prefer writing humor, but my reputation is based on serious work, and it's not that easy to slip humor by publishers (though I've been reasonably successful at doing so.)
I find that I slip a number of humorous lines and comments into my serious work, often without even thinking of it; I hope the reverse isn't true. As for how they influence the way I write, I think that the more skills you have, the more you can bring to a story, the better that story is likely to be.
LJ: You said earlier that accessibility is the most important trait a writer can develop -- which work of yours do you feel best displays this quality?
MR: I'd like to think they all do. Or let me put it another way: if you come to one you can't get through effortlessly, I did something very wrong.
LJ: A few years ago you publicly changed your opinion about the value of writing workshops. How did that come about, and what's your opinion today?
MR: I taught at Clarion in 1999. Before I went, I read two manuscripts apiece from the 19 students. There was one writer who was so polished I could tell he wasn't going to learn anything from the six-week course; he was beyond needing it. As for the other 18 writers, I thought if God dropped everything else two or three of them might someday sell a story to a minor market.
Then I showed up to teach the fourth week, read what they'd done for the first three weeks, watched what they did my week, and when I left I knew they had miraculously produced 17 stories that were either sellable as they were or could be made sellable with maybe an hour's polishing. That's when I became a believer. (And I was right. Eight of those 19 have already sold, and one was up for the Campbell Award. I included five of those students, and two of the stories I personally workshopped, in New Voices In Science Fiction, an anthology of new writers that DAW published last December.)
LJ: In what ways do you think you are still improving yourself as a writer?
MR: I can't name the ways, but I know that I am still improving, and the way I know it is this: when I hand in a manuscript, it's perfect or I wouldn't hand it in. When I see the copy-edit, I find a few changes to make. When I proof the galleys I find some awkwardnesses that need fixing. When the story or book comes out, I read it to make sure they made the changes I requested, and I find a few more that I missed. And when I read it three years later, even if it's a Hugo winner, I wince that I ever let such a clumsy piece of work out of the house. As long as I feel that way, I'm improving . . . and when I stop feeling that way it's probably time to hang it up and go keep bees in Sussex.
Copyright © 2004 Lynne Jamneck
Lynne Jamneck is a writer/photographer from South Africa. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in various markets in South Africa, Canada, the United States, and Great Britain. Her first mystery will be published by Bella Books in 2005. Her previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. To contact her, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.