interviews Mike Resnick
Resnick is more than simply a science fiction icon. Mike has won more awards
than any other science fiction writer. In fact, Mike is so good at what he does
he makes the very hard work of writing top-notch science fiction look almost
easy. Besides numerous books and stories in print all across the world, Resnick
is also the editor of Galaxy’s Edge.
Joy Ward: How did you get started writing?
My mother was a writer. I always wanted to be a writer. By the time I was in
high school I sold my first article at fifteen, I sold my first poem at
sixteen. I'm not a poet but I ran it in Facebook a while back.
Silky Sullivan came to the Derby with more pre-publicity than Secretariat and
ran twelfth. I wrote “Silky at the Post” (which was my answer to “Casey at the
Bat”) and I actually sold it. I sold some stories by eighteen. I married Carol
in college. I was nineteen, she was eighteen, and after a year of fiddling
around working for the railroad I figured it was time to get a job in
publishing somewhere -- and it happens that the only publishing job open in the
whole city of Chicago at that point was at 2717 North Pulaski Road. National
Features Syndicate is what they called it, but what they did is they put out
three tabloids, very much like the National Enquirer only worse, and
three men's magazines. Within half a year this twenty-two-year-old kid is
editing The National Insider with a print run of 400,000 a week. Our
best-selling headline during the years I had it was "Raped by 7
Dwarves." I will not testify to the veracity of our stories. Because we
did not publish erotic books, adult books, that meant I was free to sell them elsewhere,
whereas I couldn't sell tabloid or men’s magazine stuff elsewhere because we
had our own publications. But I knew guys from other publishers in our field
and I started doing that. By the time the dust had cleared ten years later I
had sold over two hundred of them, all of them under pseudonyms. As I
explained, the only place we writers wanted our name was on the check, never on
be surprised how many people who have gone on and made it pretty big started,
learned their trade in that field because you could get very well paid while
you were learning how to write. We only got a thousand a book, sometimes seven
hundred a book, and no royalties ever, but if you turn out a book every two
weeks or every week or so, this was at a time when the average American was
making eight thousand bucks a year. We could do that every two months if we had
to. We were twenty-two, twenty-three- year-old kids. You learned how to make
deadlines and you learned how to differentiate characters since they were all
going to do the very same thing. I sneaked through some Edgar Rice Burroughs
and Robert E. Howard pastiches to legitimate New York publishers, but I didn’t
want to write Burroughs or Howard books, I wanted to write Resnick books.
day in 1975 I turned to Carol and I said, “If I write one more four-day book or
one more six-hour screenplay for Herschel Gordon Lewis (he was voted the second
worst director in history after Ed Wood), if I do one more my brain is going to
turn to putty and run out my ears. What else do we know how to do?”
the time we were breeding and exhibiting collies. We had twenty-three champions
overall, and we had twelve or fifteen dogs on the place any given day – and we
figured if the two of us could care for fifteen dogs and I had time to write
all that crap, think of what a staff could do. So we spent about eight months
looking around the country and wound up buying the second-biggest luxury
boarding and grooming kennel in America, which happened to be in Cincinnati. We
moved there and within about four years it was going full force. We had a staff
of twenty-one. Any given day we were boarding like two hundred dogs, sixty
cats, grooming about thirty or forty dogs.
was finally able to go back to writing, only this time writing the kind of
stuff I wanted to write. I was sure there was no audience for it. That was why
we had the kennel. Much to my surprise, it started selling and in 1993, when
the writing out-earned the kennel for the fifth year in a row, we sold the
kennel. We figured we could now live anywhere we wanted, so we looked all over
the country, decided we liked it here, so we stayed in Cincinnati.
first thing I sold after we bought the kennel was The Soul Eater in
1981. Analog called it a work of art, which surprised the hell out of me that
anybody besides me thought it was any good. The next one I wrote was one called
Birthright: The Book of Man, which I have resold a dozen times. It
created a future in which I've put about thirty-five of the novels I've written
since then. I wrote thirteen books for Signet and they were getting
phenomenally good reviews. They were selling okay because Signet kept buying
them from me, but they weren't selling any more than okay.
advances weren't getting any bigger. It was like I was standing still doing
nothing. My friend Jack Chalker finally convinced me that the problem was my
agent. I had made one foreign sale in four years. So, after he convinced me, I
did the smartest thing I've ever done in my career: I hired Eleanor Wood as my
agent. I hired her in 1983, and she remains my agent today. The first book she
sold was Santiago, which got me three times the biggest advance I had
gotten up to that point. It made The New York Times bestseller list and
in the first two years I had her she made twenty-six foreign sales for me,
which was twenty-five more than anybody else had made for me. We have been
together ever since.
thought at the time, a rather stupid thought, that if you had something
important to say you had to say it in sixty, seventy thousand words or more.
You couldn't do it in a short story. I only wrote seven stories the first ten
years I was writing science fiction. Then in 1986 Orson Scott Card asked me to
write a story for an anthology he was doing called Eutopia, and by
keeping to all the strictures he gave, which were interesting ones, I wrote a
story called “Kirinyaga.” It made my reputation. It won the Hugo. It made me
decide that yeah, you can occasionally do something with short stories. It has
re-sold thirty-four times to domestic and foreign venues. From that day to this
I've written and sold about three hundred short stories. I found out I love doing
have to understand that unlike most beginners, I wasn't one. I probably had ten
million words behind me so the fact that it sold wasn't the thrill that it
would be for most people. Everything I wrote sold. Most of it I didn't want to
sign my name to. It was very gratifying that I was able to get away with it. I
didn't have to do Burroughs books and Howard books. I could do Resnick books
and sell them. That was very satisfying, and so was the fact that I had
a legitimate New York publisher say, in essence, "Okay, I'll buy
three a year from you, any subject you want.” It was gratifying to know that I
could finally write what I had been training myself to write for fifteen years,
I could write stuff I could sign my name to, that when people came over and
said, "What do you write for a living?" I wouldn't give them any
titles because I didn't want anybody to know those titles. It was very
satisfying to be able to write at a more elevated level. Howard and Burroughs
were fine for their day and they wrote at the peak of their ability, but those
are not the peak of most of our abilities. Totally different kinds of things.
happened was Lin Carter was a friend of mine and he was probably the greatest
literary chameleon of them all. One day I am in New York, probably around 1970
or so, having lunch with him. He was telling me what he was working on. He
said, "Two weeks ago I did a Burroughs book and right now I’m doing a Lee
Brackett book. Next month I’ll be doing a Robert E. Howard book.” I said, “That’s
fine, Lin, but when are you going to do a Lin Carter book?" He looked at
me and I could tell he didn't understand the question. That made up my mind
then and there. I didn't want to spend the rest of my life writing Robert E.
Howard and C. L. Moore, the way Lin did. So I stayed out of the science fiction
field for ten years. I wrote more adult books. I wrote other things. It really
made up my mind that I didn't want to write that stuff. I'd rather not write
science fiction at all than imitate other people.
it was really gratifying to be putting my own views down. This is the kind of
science fiction I want to write, nobody else was writing exactly like this, and
to be able to sell it and get good reviews, to have a publisher and finally a
number of publishers who continually encourage me and say do more of it – well,
it finally made writing both fun and satisfying.
also meant that I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life, and I do
a lot of it. I'm pretty fast. One thing you learn writing in that Other
Field for a thousand a book, no royalties, and publishers who may go to jail in
three weeks, is that you learn how to be fast. Well, to give you an example,
I'm seventy-four years old. I should be slowing down and in ways I am. But when
I was seventy, four years ago, I had ten books out. Last year, at seventy-four,
I sold fourteen new stories and delivered eight books as well as editing Galaxy’s
Edge. I’m not impoverished. I do it in these quantities because this is
what I love to do more than just about anything else in the world.
most satisfying part of being a writer, probably for the last twenty-five,
thirty years, has not been seeing my name in print. I do that all the time. I
love winning awards, and I've certainly won my share – but the real highlight
is at the end of the day when I look at what I've written and it comes out
pretty much the way I hoped it would when I sat down in the afternoon to write.
To me, that's more gratifying than any good review or anything else. I know the
difference between good and bad. I also know when I write, even though its
saleable, isn't as good as it should have been and I have to go back and do it
again. But again, it’s really very gratifying when it comes out the way I hoped
most memorable award was probably the first Hugo I won because you never expect
to win one. Nobody expects to win one.
were sitting in the audience right behind George Effinger in 1989 and I was up
for best short story. It was the first time I had ever been nominated. I looked
at the field and David Brin was up. David Brin was as hard to beat in the late
eighties as Harlan was in the early seventies. I knew I was going to lose to
him so I was talking to George Effinger. Then Carol pokes me in the ribs and
says, "Go up there. You won!"
said no, you must have heard wrong. David Brin had a lock on it.
says to George, who had been turning to me. "George, will you tell him he
she didn't know was that George was deaf in one ear and he had turned the good
ear to me and the deaf ear was facing the stage, so he didn't know. Finally a
bunch of other writers who were sitting near us told me to go get the goddamned
award so we can find out who won the next one. That was probably the most
surprised and the biggest kick I got. Thereafter, not that I ever felt I had a
lock on a particular Hugo, but at least I knew it was possible. I didn't know
that the first time.
JW: You have a love
affair with Africa.
MR: Yes I do.
the top, it’s a beautiful and fascinating continent. More to the point, it's as
close to an alien society as a science fiction writer is going to find on this
world. I think every science fiction fan will agree with two statements. One,
if we can reach the stars we are going to colonize them. Two, if we colonize
enough of them sooner or later we are going to come into contact with more than
one sentient race. Africa offers fifty-one separate and distinct examples –
because it was colonized by so many countries – of the effects, usually
deleterious, of colonization, not only on the colonized but on the colonizers.
Those of us who don't learn from these warnings -- and humans aren't all that
good at learning anything-- are doomed to repeat them. You add that to the fact
that these really are alien societies. How alien? In Kenya in 1900,
there were forty-three languages and not one of them had a word for wheel.
That's pretty alien. There are many other examples. At the same time, as a
tourist, it is beautiful. The animals are beautiful.
of the interesting things is that I made friends with our private guide.
Whenever we're going to Kenya or Tanzania I will write him ahead and say I'm
going to be working on this, this and this. Find me some old-timers who can
tell me about whatever it is I'm researching. So we spend some time in the game
parks, but we also hunt up a bunch of salty old guys with really weird stories
to tell who are going to die with them untold if I don't visit them. I
ultimately transform them into science fiction, and they end up in my books and
most powerful stories are about Africa, or based on things African. My five
Hugo winners are about Africa, and except for Santiago, my better
sellers are about Africa – and that's because I feel very passionately about it
and it comes through.
JW: You have your writer
MR: That’s what Maureen
McHugh dubbed them. What happened was with Alternate Kennedys, a closed
anthology. Invitation only. I had invited Nancy Kress to it. She was teaching a
workshop and a kid called Nick DiChario gave her a story she thought would fit,
and told him to send it to me. The story came in and I must have been in a bad
mood, because instead of putting in a little note saying politely please don't
do this until you are asked, I thought let me read it and see just how bad it
is. By page four I knew nothing could keep it off the Hugo ballot. And
nothing did. It was a Hugo nominee, and a World Fantasy nominee and Nick
himself was a Campbell nominee for that story. I finally met him a few months
later at the Orlando WorldCon and I said to him, "Nick, why did you send
it to me?” The magazines at the time had three times the circulation of an
anthology. “A story that ballot worthy should get to as many people as
possible.” His answer was that he had sent it to every magazine in the field
and got nothing but form rejects. I thought they are crazy! They should have
fired the slush readers, because it never got to an editor. No editor could
read that story and not buy it. We became correspondents and friends, and about
a year later he sends me a novella and a note that he was having the same
trouble with this. Could I tell him what's wrong with it? I read it and the
only thing wrong with it was it was by Nick instead of by Isaac, Arthur or
Robert. I knew Piers Anthony was doing an anthology on that theme. I wrote
Piers and told him read this, that he was going to buy it – and indeed he did.
thought if we keep treating this poor kid like that, he's not going to stop
writing – but he's going to stop writing science fiction and go write espionage
or something else. We're going to lose a helluva talent. So I figured I’d
better do something to encourage him. I get about eight or ten invites every
year for anthologies. When they invite me it’s a guaranteed sale. So I invited
Nick to collaborate with me on four or five of these just to get him into
print, to keep him enthused. He's still writing now, he's been up for another
Hugo, and he is committed to science fiction and not some rival field.
thought: I bet there are more good writers out there than Nick who have trouble
selling. So it became my duty over the last twenty-five years to help them.
Every time I find a good one, I collaborate with him or her to get them into
print, I buy from them for my anthologies and now for my magazine, and at
conventions I take them around and introduce them to editors and agents. I do
everything I can to help them.
ask why, and the answer is you can't pay back in this field. I'm seventy-four.
Everybody who helped me at the beginning is dead or rich or both. I can't pay
back, so I pay forward. It's very, very gratifying to see some of these kids go
out and do wonderful things!
means the field that I love, that I have devoted my life to, isn't going to
lose ten or twelve or fifteen really talented writers every decade.
are people who deserve to be in print. This field, like almost any other field,
is limited. It can't publish an unlimited number of books. It doesn’t have an
unlimited number of dollars. It’s like movies or anything else: once you're in
you fight to maintain your turf. If that means being a little tougher on the
guy coming up behind you, you do it. And my helping them is a way to even the
playing field, because to be honest most people won't even define the playing
field for them. You get an awful lot of platitudes out of how-to books on
writing, many of which are quite good – but there aren't any how-to books on selling.
makes me feel that I've helped pay the field back for being so good for me. For
the last thirty or forty or fifty years I've been living a dream. When I was
six years old I wanted to write a book called Masters of the Galaxy. Now,
the subject matter has changed appreciably -- but four years ago I did a book
called Masters of the Galaxy. It happened to be about a hardboiled
futuristic detective called Jake Masters, but for sixty-five years I wanted to
write that book. This field has been phenomenal to me. It's given me everything
I ever wanted. My spare time is spent going to conventions, associating with
friends. The only people I tend to talk to now that we
are out of dogs, on the computer or just about anywhere else, are science
fiction fans and writers. And I am as much a fan as I am a writer. How do you
thank a field for giving you a lifetime? This is my way.