Mahesh Raj Mohan: The Silent Empire novels have a real space opera feel to them, with slipships, lasers and multiplanetary empires . . . do you consider these novels space opera? How would you describe them?
Steven Piziks: They're space opera, but better! The problem with the term "space opera" is that it makes people think of poorly-written pulp-era stories that have no basis in reality. I do use a lot of impossible science like easy FTL travel and powerful telepathy, so those elements are definitely space operatic. (Is that a term? Maybe I just invented it.) But I avoid cackling villains, good guys dressed in white, bad guys dressed in black, and people who bring swords to gunfights.
MRM: I really enjoyed the Dream -- the space made up of all the minds of the universe and used by the Silent for instantaneous communication; it's a clever take on telepathy, and keeps both plotlines unpredictable. How did you come up with the concept for the Dream, and its rules?
SP: Sarah Zettel, another SF writer and my good friend, actually came up with the basic concept for the Dream. Originally we were going to do Dreamer (the first Silent Empire book) as a collaboration. We wanted to do a story about a bunch of monk-like people who had some kind of psionic or mystical abilities, but we didn't want to do the usual telepathy/telekinesis/what-have-you. Sarah came up with the idea of the Dream and how it could be used for interplanetary communication. From there, we created a history of the universe, a few characters, and the beginnings of a plot. And then a good disaster struck: Sarah was offered a fantasy trilogy contract. She didn't have time to do that and the Silent Empire both, so she offered to hand the whole thing over to me. I accepted.
At that point, we only had the bare skeleton of the universe, including only a vague idea of how the Dream worked, so I fleshed out everything and, of course, wrote the actual book.
As an interesting aside, Sarah's computer created the term "Silent." Sarah uses dictation software to write her books, and when she said the word "psionic," her computer wrote "silent." We both liked the term and decided to keep it.
MRM: Kendi Weaver, the hotshot pilot and maverick Child of Irfan, is not a typical science fiction protagonist. He is a double minority . . . of Aboriginal Australian descent, as well as being gay. It is an inspired choice, considering the current lack of ethnic diversification in current SF publishing. It evoked Ursula Le Guin and even early Silverberg to me. What made you choose the Aborigines for Kendi's background, and was his sexuality a conscious choice at challenging the status quo of SF protagonists?
SP: Thanks! I made Kendi an Australian Aborigine because I had just read some books on Aboriginal culture and had a headful of the Aboriginal concept of Dreamtime. Dreamtime and Sarah's original concept of the Dream had some interesting similarities, I thought, so I decided to create a character who saw them as the same thing. Whether they actually are the same thing or not is up for grabs.
I did make Kendi gay on purpose, but originally he was going to be a secondary character. He and Ben were intended to be a steady, long-term couple, something you don't often see in fictional same-sex relationships. Sejal was actually supposed to be the male protagonist in Dreamer. But Kendi just strolled on stage and took that role for himself. I didn't fight him over it.
After I wrote Dreamer, I met with Laura Anne Gilman, my editor at Roc, to talk about a second book. My contract stated that I had to write Dreamer and another science fiction novel, not necessarily a Silent Empire book. I had an idea for an unrelated book, but it didn't really grab Laura Anne. I also ran the idea of another Silent Empire novel past her, one about Kendi as a teenager, and she greeted that one with much more enthusiasm. I, however, was a bit cautious.
"Will Steven Harper become known as 'that gay SF writer'?" I asked. "The label doesn't bother me, but I'm worried about sales."
"Gay characters don't hurt sales these days," she said. "Do what you like."
So I have.
MRM: In the novels, the theme of family is prevalent, and seems to drive the novels, and often not in a "warm-and-fuzzy" context. There are scenes between Ben Rymar and his extended family that were almost painful to read at times, for their realism. How much did you draw on your own experiences for the novels?
SP: I drew on quite a lot, actually, though not always consciously. I wrote Dreamer about two years after my own family underwent some serious upheaval. My parents divorced rather messily after twenty-five years of marriage, and my siblings and I scattered all over the state soon after, rather like Kendi's family was scattered. In Trickster, Kendi attempts to bring them back together again, right at a time when I was at last resolving various familial conflicts in my own life.
Ben's family in Nightmare is actually drawn from a friend's experiences with her family. They were dreadful people!
MRM: You have created a future in which slavery has not only returned, but is an entrenched way of life for several interplanetary empires and corporations. Do you perceive seeds of that in the world today? Will governments condone owning slaves in the future?
SP: Slavery never really went away. We got rid of it in the US, but it's still practiced elsewhere. People are bought and sold in Africa, the Middle East, India, and Asia. It's mostly underground, but not always. Slavery crops up whenever anyone has a chance to grab power over someone else. Once people and the corporations they build get out into space, they'll find it easy to take slaves. Who's going to stop them when the law is hundreds of light-years away?
What, me cynical?
MRM: A lot of writers, from E.M. Forster to Frank Herbert, impart a lot of meaning in character's name. I noticed that Chin Fen (from "Dreamer") seems to feature a neat play-on-words for "Sinn Fein," the political arm of the Irish Republican Army . . . was this a clue to the character's nature? (or am I just reading too much into the name?)
SP: Ha! No similarity was intended, though maybe my subconscious was working overtime, since I have indeed heard of Sinn Fein. . . .
Actually, the person whose name means the most is Kendi's. A kendi is a magical, clever lizard in Australian mythology.
MRM: The Silent Empire novels also feature a variety of settlings: from the dusty inner city on Rust in Dreamer to the frog farm in Nightmare to the towering forest-city on Bellerophon in both novels. Where did the inspiration for these settings come from?
SP: I wanted to do a post-war setting for part of Dreamer because you rarely see the aftermath of interplanetary warfare in SF. The war is usually the main focus of books where it appears, and what happens to the common citizens after it's all over gets ignored.
As for the frogs, just up the highway from Ann Arbor, where I live, is a little town that has a frog farm nearby. The post office is locally known as "the peeping post office," in fact, because the farm often ships its frogs by mail, and the frogs peep madly from their crates. It was too good a setting not to use.
Bellerophon is the kind of place I'd love to live in. I've been an incurable tree-climber since toddler-hood, and I was into dinosaurs long, long before Jurassic Park made them cool, so Bellerophon is my version of paradise: giant trees, giant tree houses, and dinosaurs roaming the wild. That's the real fun of writing SF -- creating worlds I secretly long to visit.
MRM: The second Silent Empire novel, Nightmare, was a prequel, rather than a sequel. The third book, Trickster is a sequel to Dreamer, and the fourth book was planned to be another prequel entitled, Awakening. That has obviously changed, since book four will be another sequel, Children. Why did you decide to structure the sequence of novels in this way?
SP: I'm capricious! Originally I was going to do Trickster second, then backtrack and do Awakening. Nightmare wasn't even on the radar screen. Then I decided that wandering all over the timeline was probably a bad idea, and I thought I'd work backward like Octavia Butler did in her Patternmaster books. Laura Anne liked this idea, too. But after I submitted Nightmare, Laura Anne offered another two-book Silent Empire contract. And she wanted another Kendi book. I wrote Trickster. So much for chronological order!
Then Laura Anne wanted a book about what happens next to Kendi and Ben, and so the next Silent Empire book is Children. Awakening will be put off.
Fortunately, I write every Silent Empire book to stand alone, so it doesn't matter whether you read them in order of events or the order in which they were written or the order in which you find them.
MRM: So, with Trickster being the fourth book in the Silent Empire series, what is the fate of Awakening?
SP: It's now in the hands of the readers. If lots of people buy the other Silent Empire books, Roc will want more of them and I'll get to write Awakening. So go forth and buy many, many Silent Empire books!
MRM: The Silent Empire novels also mark your first work under the name "Steven Harper." Your website mentions that Roc requested this so you could make a fresh start with them. Was the decision to use a pseudonym difficult for you?
SP: It was. I'm enough of an egomaniac that I wanted my own name on the cover. But the realities of the publishing industry interfered. My real name appears on my Star Trek: Voyager books, though, and on the movie novelizations I've done.
MRM: That's a good compromise. I'm curious, though, as to why Roc wanted you to make a fresh start in that way? A lot of writers can maintain their names when they shift publishers.
SP: Blame the chain bookstores. The novels I wrote for Baen got no publicity whatsoever, and they didn't sell well -- almost no one heard of them! Now, the big bookstores do most of their buying by computer. When your next book comes out, the computer looks at how many copies of the previous one sold. Then the computer orders half that many of the new one. In other words, if the chains order five thousand copies of Book 1 and they sell three thousand -- a respectable sell rate -- they'll order only fifteen hundred copies of Book 2. If a thousand of those copies sell, they'll only order five hundred copies of Book 3. You can see where this is going.
This, by the way, is the origin of another truism of modern publishing that it's often harder to sell your third book than your first.
At any rate, changing your name fools the computers. They think Steven Harper is a brand new author. It fooled them so thoroughly, in fact, that Dreamer was nominated for Barnes & Noble's Maiden Voyage award, which they give to the year's best first novel. Customers choose the winner by ballot, and the voting was already underway by the time anyone got around to telling my editor about the nomination. She had to tell them that Dreamer was ineligible. I think they just decided to count the ballots and give the award to the second-place winner if Dreamer won. I never did hear how it went.
I can still write Star Trek books under my real name, incidentally, because the computers don't care who writes Trek paperbacks. From the chain stores' perspective, my book is The Nanotech War, Star Trek: Voyager, not The Nanotech War by Steven Piziks.
Authors with big names and big sales are immune to this phenomenon, which is why they can keep their names if they jump ship to another publisher.
MRM: Did you find that writing The Nanotech War helped your name recognition with readers?
SP: Not really, I'm afraid. My first two novels, my "Steven Piziks" books, were drifting out of print by the time The Nanotech War came out, and not a lot of people know that I also write as Steven Harper.
MRM: Did you enjoy writing in the Star Trek universe?
SP: It was a blast! The first chapter was really difficult because I couldn't get the characters' voices right in my own head, but once I got into it more, I found it flowed fairly quickly. I didn't have to worry about characterization -- that was already done for me. So was the technology and the overall universe. That meant I could concentrate on plot and on having fun with it. I used to write Star Trek fanfic (my dirty secret), but this time I got to do a "real" piece.
MRM: I'm sure a lot of fellow fans would envy that opportunity! You mentioned novelizations earlier; you've said the novelization for the film Identity took 28 days to write, and the process was "hard work" but also "great fun." What were the challenges and rewards of writing that novelization?
SP: The biggest challenge was the time limit. I had less than a month to turn a 118-page screenplay into a workable book. I chained myself to the word processor and lived or died by the pizza delivery guy. The other challenge consisted of the . . . er, minor errors in the script. The screenplay had, for example, three people leave Las Vegas and end up at the same fleabag motel in the Nevada desert. One person was heading for Los Angeles. One person was heading for Florida. And one was driving west to an unspecified location. Except if you check a map, you'll find that anyone who wants to go to Florida from Vegas will drive south or east, not west toward Hollywood and other unspecified western locations. There's no way these characters could all meet at the same motel! In a movie, you don't have time to notice these things -- they breeze right past you -- but when you're reading a book, you have time to say, "Hey! That doesn't work!" I could have just left it as it was and blamed the screenplay, but I hate leaving holes like that. I found a way to explain it in the book, but I was really scrambling for a while.
As far as rewards go, I got a small taste of Recognition. I mean, almost no one outside of the SF neighborhood has heard of the Silent Empire, but lots and lots of people saw Identity. When I tell people I wrote the book based on the movie, the reaction is a lot more enthusiastic than the "Oh, really?" I get when I tell people I write SF novels.
MRM: You previously worked with Baen Books, who published your books In the Company of Mind and Corporate Mentality . . . but your website alludes to a less-than-amicable break . . . what was it like to have Baen as your publisher?
SP: Baen and I weren't a good artistic fit. We didn't fight or anything after he published my second book, but he didn't want to buy the kinds of stories I wanted to write. Fortunately, the folks at Roc do!
MRM: How do you get the kind of promotion that you want? What can a writer do to get their book noticed above the dreck?
SP: This is actually a major problem for a lot of mid-list writers. Chain book stores charge publishers a fee to display books in prominent places like on tables or end-caps. Those cardboard stands near the cash register cost money, too, and publishers are less and less willing to put out that kind of money for anything that isn't going to be an automatic best-seller. There are other factors as well, but it all comes down to economics and the fact that the book industry is moving away from books being sold by people who love them to books being sold by people who see them as a commodity like computers, cars, or candy.
I do a certain amount of self-promotion. I try to get interviewed by the local papers and radio stations. I keep an Internet presence and I go to science fiction conventions. My friends and relatives tell me that they turn my books cover-side out on bookstore shelves. I have no idea if any of this helps, but it doesn't hurt!
MRM: Absolutely not! It kind of is a do-it-yourself kind of ethic for mid-listers, then, isn't it? What can the mid-lister do to combat this "commodification" of books? I'm a bit of an idealist, as you can tell.
SP: The only thing I know of is to avoid the chain stores. Don't buy your books at Borders, Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks, or Amazon.com. Instead, buy your books at a local independent store. They use the same book database, and if they don't have what you want in stock, they can usually get it in within two or three days. If you want to order books on-line, go to booksense. The site will direct you to a local store that takes orders over the Internet and will ship to you just like Amazon. Then urge all your friends and family members to imitate you.
If you want to know more about shady bookstore practices, Pat Holt writes a wonderful weekly e-column called "Holt Uncensored." You can subscribe to it for free by e-mail or read it on-line. I've learned a great deal from her.
MRM: You've spoken a few times about pitching ideas to your editor, where sometimes the idea doesn't grab her. Is that ever constraining?
SP: Yes and no. Ideas are easy. If I were to write every book I currently have a mental outline for, I'd be set for fifteen or twenty years. It's disappointing to have an idea I like rejected, but that's part of the industry. And getting ideas is like waiting for a bus -- if this one doesn't work, another one'll come along soon.
MRM: With movies and video games competing for the attention of science fiction readers, adults and children, how do you see writers maintaining the interest of their readership? How do you think new readers should be brought into the SF and fantasy fields?
SP: I've heard a lot of debate on this issue. Are book sales going up or down? Are video games and movies eating away at the book industry? I've heard arguments and facts to support both sides, and I don't know who to believe. So I say, recruit, recruit, recruit! I'm one of the people who thinks that movies can bring more readers into the fold: people see the movie and want to read the book. Certainly the Lord of the Rings movies have regenerated interest in Tolkien among the non-SF crowd. So I support media SF.
I'm less happy with video games. They suck up a lot more time than movies or television, and I don't think they contribute to the reader pool. I'm mixed on whether they're actually harmful. But they ain't getting people to read!
MRM: Your books feature the philosophy of "paying forward, not back." Assistance and guidance given to students at the Children of Irfan monastery at Bellerophon is conditional on them repaying by helping others. Parallels can be drawn to novice or unpublished writers. Do you advocate the "paying forward" system for established writers to guide newer writers?
SP: Definitely. Marion Zimmer Bradley had this attitude, and she passed it on to me and several other writers for that matter. There's really no way a novice writer who becomes successful can pay back an experienced writer or editor who helped out. So you pay them back by helping out someone else.
MRM: Okay, here comes the obligatory questions: Who have been the biggest literary influences on your writing? And which authors working today do you enjoy?
SP: Marion was probably the biggest, though more from a publishing standpoint than a literary one. She published my first short story in Sword and Sorceress IX -- and then proceeded to reject everything I sent to her for two full years. She always rejected with comments, though. Sometimes they were pre-generated comments and sometimes she scribbled something at the bottom of the rejection letter. I figured that if she took the time to do that, I should listen. After a while, I started selling regularly to her, and to other markets. One of my big regrets is that I never got the chance to meet Marion face-to-face before she died, though we did talk on the phone a few times.
I stand in awe of Octavia Butler. If you haven't read her books, go out and get them right now! Wild Seed is one of my all-time favorites, and I wish I could achieve the same depth and power while simultaneously telling a ripping good story.
In non-SF, I like Sue Grafton. Want to know how to create minor-yet-memorable characters? Read her Kinsey Milhone books. Lately I've also been reading Ken Follett and liking what he does, too.
MRM: How would you describe your experience as a working novelist -- the highs and the lows?
SP: It's the best job in the world! Maybe one day I'll even get to do it full time. It's a job that's full of rushes. It's a rush to get a book contract, and another rush to finish the actual book, and yet another to see it out on the shelves.
And yet . . .
At least once per book, sometimes two or three times, I feel like I'm banging my head against a wall. The book stalls out, it reads like crud, it's boring, it's slow, I'll never finish it on time. It gets depressing. The only way I can get around this is to ask myself, "What happens next?" and force myself to write down the answer. It'll be better in the rewrites, I tell myself.
I also sometimes get nervous about whether I'll be able to keep selling books, especially Silent Empire books.
But these feelings always fade when the next cool scene comes up. Nightmare was a book to look for, according to Ingram, the world's biggest book distributor, and the Silent Empire seems to be steadily getting attention. So I can also be optimistic.
Copyright © 2003 Mahesh Raj Mohan
Mahesh Raj Mohan has been writing fiction since he was fourteen. He has completed one novel and is at work on a second, unrelated novel. He has inflicted a web log on the denizens of the 'Net. This is his first interview.