Challenging Destiny Home
Read a Copy
Interview with Spider Robinson
Here is our complete interview with Spider Robinson. It also appears in Challenging Destiny Number 25.
interview by James Schellenberg & David M. Switzer
CD: Could you tell us about the Variable Star project?
SR: It was the most exciting, gratifying, terrifying and enjoyable experience of my 35-year career. Every day of my life (since I was six, and read my very first book, Rocket Ship Galilelo), I've had imaginary conversations with Robert Heinlein -- but never have I strained so hard to hear his answers. Basically, I reached a point in my life where I wanted to read a new Heinlein novel so badly, I didn't care if I had to do all the typing and marketing.
It came about by dumb luck. At a Worldcon panel in Toronto the assistant archivist mentioned the discovery of a novel outline Robert had never gotten around to writing. A stranger in the back of the room named Kate Gladstone yelled out, "You should get Spider Robinson to finish that book." On the panel were Robert's agent and the man who controls his estate. The rest, as they say, is social studies... See the book's Afterword. And check out http://www.variablestarbook.com for a video interview about the book with me and David Crosby.
CD: How was Robert A. Heinlein's 100th birthday party?
SR: It was as memorable a time as I'd been expecting. We got to spend time with a lot of folks who loved Robert and Ginny as much as us. For another thing, my wife got a free trip to zero-G, to work on her choreography!
At the Gala, Jeanne gave a PowerPoint presentation about her Stardance Project, her current effort to get a zero-gravity dance film made -- with strong support from Robert's granddaughter Dr. Amy Baxter, and from David Crosby, among others. Robert and Ginny both famously supported the arts in space, and were fans of our Stardance trilogy. During the Q&A afterward, Jeanne was asked if she planned to try out zero-G herself, in a parabolic-arcs flight like that offered by the Zero-G Corporation. Jeanne agreed it would be a great help, and said it remained one of her dreams and fundraising goals. The great Dr. Peter Diamandis, creator of the Ansari X Prize and CEO of Zero-G Corp, stood up in the audience and said, to thunderous applause: "You've got a free ticket for you and your dancer, Jeanne." See http://www.stardanceproject.com for information and updates.
But the best thing about the weekend was being surrounded by so many people who loved Robert: my kind of people, most of ‘em. And several Heinlein family members showed up, and there were some lovely exhibits and displays.
CD: You've been writing Callahan stories for many years now. How do you stay fresh? Does it become easier or harder to come up with new ideas in such an established universe?
SR: It must be different for each writer. For me, it gets easier. As I get to know the characters better, I get a better sense of the kinds of silly things they're liable to do... and that's all a story is, really: watching someone interesting do something silly.
That said, I haven't been back to Callahan's in my mind for over 5 years now. I hope someone buys a new Callahan's book from me sometime soon, so I can afford to spend another year of my time hanging out there again. But I can only write what an editor will agree to subsidize me to write.
CD: Is the computer game based on your Callahan's series fun to play?
SR: Well, it was the one time I tried it.
In the first place, I'm not much of a games guy. In the second place, I am a Mac guy, since day one, and there never was a Mac version of Legend Entertainment's Callahan's Crosstime Saloon game: Legend folded before getting that far.
But before it was released, its totally brilliant creator, Josh Mandel, showed up at my door one day with a laptop and a beta copy of the game. He had no time for conversation or even hospitality; I couldn't get him to accept a glass of water, much less a cup of my specialty coffee. He just opened up his laptop... and then we sat side by side and played his game together, for something over eight hours -- until my eyelids started to feel sandy. I had a great time. Then he grinned, shook my hand, closed his laptop and left to drive home to Seattle... again, without stopping for so much as a sip of water. Very interesting man. Hope I see him again one day.
That's my total experience playing the game. But I've had nothing but favorable reports from others who've messed with it -- some of them ecstatic. Almost as universally popular is another game of the same name, Callahan's Crosstime Saloon... but this one in the GURPS universe, from Steve Jackson Games, written by another genius, Chris McCubbin. Reviews of both games sent to me usually include words something like, "It is so nice to play a game that doesn't involve killing anyone," or, "how pleasant: a game that leaves you less tense than you were when you started." And by the way, Josh is a comedic genius: that game contains enough rotten puns for a dozen of my books.
Here's a site with a freely downloadable version of the game: http://www.abandonia.com/games/297/CallahansCrosstimeSaloon.htm.
CD: How did you get started writing?
SR: The folk music market collapsed. America, in its musical wisdom, turned to disco instead. There went my career plans. I hung up my guitar and took the only job a BA in English would get me: night watchman. And one night to keep from going insane with boredom I pecked out a story about where I wished I was instead: a bar where they let you smash your glass in the fireplace. I sent it to a magazine because I figured once I had a rejection slip I could impress girls: the tragic artist. But the magazine bought it, and I've been stuck ever since. Turns out you can impress girls even more with money...
CD: What's your writing process like (i.e., novels vs. short stories, solo projects vs. collaboration, new ideas vs. sequels)?
SR: There is no process. It's almost totally random, and what little direction there is to it comes from editorial whim. But usually Dumb Luck controls. For reasons not known to me, I haven't gotten a short story idea in well over a decade -- not by conscious choice. I just stopped thinking of ideas that weren't useful for whatever novel I was working on at the moment. I miss short stories, and the moment I think of another one, I'll write it.
The best words I know on novel writing are attributed to EL Doctorow: writing is like driving at night. You can't see any further than your headlights can reach... but with a little luck you can make it to the coast that way.
CD: What is your impression looking back at your recent stint as a newspaper columnist?
SR: It's a tremendous relief not to have to read daily newspapers any more. Keeping up with the news, so that I knew who to fling sacks of dung at, was a terribly depressing experience. Pointless, too: I doubt I ever changed a single mind about anything, or righted a single wrong.
But the money was nice. And it was great to be able to vent my rage at the thieves and morons who misrun our lives. But wallowing daily in the troubles of six billion strangers you can't do a thing to help is not a recipe for peace of mind.
Anyone interested in rants is invited to visit my website at http://www.spiderrobinson.com/writings.html, where each week my friend and webmaster Colin MacDonald reprints another of my columns, from the collection The Crazy Years (BenBella Books).
CD: Could you tell us about your trip to the White House last year?
SR: That was a strange trip indeed.
Jeanne and I were each invited separately -- me for Variable Star, her for the Stardance trilogy. So we each got to bring a guest: our daughter and my sister Mary, a math teacher from Smithtown, NY. Breakfast with Mrs. Bush (and Bob Woodward and George Pelecanos and Michael Connelly and Alexander McCall Smith and Yevgeny Yevtushenko!!!) in the East Wing was a surreal experience... though not quite as surreal as the previous evening, when without warning Jeanne and I found ourselves locked in a room surrounded by soldiers in full combat gear, locked and loaded, along with not only our hostess Mrs. Bush but also, unexpectedly, her husband George, and Dick Cheney, and Condoleeza Rice, and Karl Rove... all of us listening to Elmo, of Sesame Street, plug his new book, My Life As A Furry Red Monster. That's sort of my benchmark for surreal, now.
Oh, and see my website diary at http://www.spiderrobinson.com/nbf.html for a photo I took of the President's personal bathroom in the Presidential Library in the East Wing... with the front door torn off the stall. Man never tires of waving to his people, I guess... or perhaps he just hasn't dropped by his library to read a book since his election.
CD: Any thoughts on current science fiction compared to when you started out?
SR: We're in our worst recession ever, and I really hope we survive. There are just as many good writers, producing science fiction just as good, for readers just as grateful... what is now missing are publishers who believe in it enough to buy it, and spend ten cents promoting it. What they believe will sell is what tends to sell, time and again. At the moment, the publishers are convinced SF doesn't sell anymore... and they're all busily self-fulfilling their prophecy. Like everybody else in the North American entertainment industry, they have been raised to believe that all the people they are selling to are ignorant pinheads terrified of science even if they weren't too stupid to understand it. They honestly believe you would all rather read about elves and dwarves and heroes with swords than about the exciting new world you're actually going to be living in the next few years.
Science fiction hardly ever produces a gazillion-copy blockbuster Harry Potter-sized Phenomenon, which seems to be the primary point in today's industry. SF has never generated anything like Harry Potter dollars; therefore it is on the run. SF has always had what they call mid-list sales: we do okay, but not great. Okay is now not good enough in today's market. A modest, steady return is of little interest to today's publishers. The deck is stacked against any product that isn't going to generate serious sales.
The government has also devastated the industry by passing a new law that taxes all books in backstock, stored in warehouses as assets. Instead of holding onto books by mid-list authors, publishers are being forced to reduce their print runs to what they know they can sell. This leaves publishers less likely to take chances, or reissue mid-list authors. This is coming at a time when the internet is teaching us that it's creating a wide variety of niche products available to a huge audience. This is the business model of the future. The government is effectively hamstringing the publishers from being able to pursue that option. Bad news for science fiction. For good books generally.
Maybe the internet will save us. All I can say is, it had better get a move on. In the meantime, let's form a movement to reverse that new tax on books.
CD: What project are you currently working on?
SR: Recording audiobooks of my work for Blackstone Audiobooks. My debut effort was a finalist for the industry's annual Audie Award, and the reviews have been most kind. See http://www.blackstoneaudio.com/search.cfm?x=38&y=12&search=spider+robinson. Haila Williams at Blackstone also granted me the great honor of letting me be the one to record the very first book I ever read: Rocket Ship Galileo, by Robert A. Heinlein.
And I'm just starting to get into podcasting. I spent the last year as the first-ever Writer In Residence at Vancouver's famous H.R. MacMillan Space Centre, and part of my duties was to post monthly essays on space and space travel at the Centre's website, http://www.hrmacmillanspacecentre.com. I'm now recording them for podcast out of both the Space Centre's website and my own, and I suspect I'm going to be putting more energy into podcasting in the future.
CD: Did reviewing books by other authors help you figure anything out about your own books?
SR: Sure. The best way to learn is to either critique or teach.
CD: Have you received any interesting responses from readers of your books?
SR: Literally hundreds of thousands -- by now, millions. I hardly ever get an uninteresting response.
But mail for Variable Star has been unusually interesting. I braced myself for a blast of rage and scorn at my audacity and hubris in daring to collaborate with The First Grandmaster; I was ready for savage criticism. I have been made aware that there is a bit of that out there online, in various obscure cloaca... but so far, exactly two of the emails I've received at either my website address or at www.variablestarbook.com have been critical, and both of them were extremely polite and reasonable. Every other letter has been positive, some effusively so: the nicest, most heartwarming fan mail I have received in 30 years. It seems a whole bunch of readers missed Robert so much -- just as I had -- that they forgave me for trying to remind them of him again for an afternoon, however clumsily I may have done so. I can't tell you how pleased that makes me. I didn't let my friend and mentor down.
CD: What's the best thing about living on an island?
SR: Preternatural beauty, low population, zero crime, and a perfect excuse to be as much as an hour late for any meeting or event on the mainland. And my cat loves living where there are no raccoons.
Last modified: August 28, 2007
Copyright © 2007 by Spider Robinson