In 1999, I did an interview with writer Jack L. Chalker for Lite Circle Books’ speculative anthology, Lower Than The Angels. As the anniversary of his death approaches, today and tomorrow I’ll be sharing that interview in two parts as this week’s guest author post. (Photo courtesy of Patti Kinlock).
A Conversation with Jack L. Chalker (part I)
“Baltimore-born writer, Jack L. Chalker, is the author of more than fifty books. Best-known for his series novels including The Saga of the Well World, The Four Lords of the Diamond, The Dancing Gods, The Rings of the Master, The Watchers at the Well, The Soul Rider books, The G.O.D., Inc. books, The Changewinds, The Quintara Marathon, and The Wonderland Gambit; Jack is also the author of non-fiction, non-series novels, a collection of short fiction, and the editor of a shared-world anthology. The following interview was conducted by Vonnie Winslow Crist with Jack L. Chalker on June 12, 1999.
VWC: You became involved with science fiction and fantasy writing initially as a fan, right?
JLC: Oh, absolutely. My first published writing was book reviews in a 1958 fanzine; my first Hugo nomination, in 1963, was for my fanzine, Mirage, and I was a member of the Washington (DC) Science Fiction Association from 1958 until 1992 and was a co-founder of the Baltimore Science Fiction Society in 1963 (still going strong, still a member) and creator of Balticon. In fact, somewhere on the Web there’s a reprint of my article on the history of fandom in Baltimore, which basically is my fan history as well. I did some sideline professional editing and rewriting in the Sixties, founded and edited Mirage Press, was an Air Commando (USAFR), taught history in the public schools, and helped run various local and national SF conventions. Didn’t turn pro as a writer until 1975.
VWC: From fan, editor, and little-known writer, you turned pro with the publication of A Jungle of Stars. It doesn’t seem to be part of a series, but starting in 1977 with Midnight at the Well of Souls, your novels usually are part of a continuing saga set in their own world. Do you build a world first or allow it to take shape with each book?
JLC: Well, the funny thing was, I had the idea for some sequels to A Jungle of Stars, none of which ever got done, but Midnight at the Well of Souls was never thought of as a series at the beginning. Its origins have been well chronicled – I’d watched Forbidden Planet one time in mid-1976, and wondered what would have happened if the Krell experiment had worked. I quickly decided that they’d fast run through the entire god routine and quickly become bored. No challenges, no questions, an endless and ho-hum present. From that came the concept of them deciding that they must have done it wrong and the Great Experiment to get it right the next time.
The Well World itself was formed that July in isolated Stehekin village in North Cascades National Park in Washington state. There is a trail there that descends more than a mile and goes through abrupt climatological zones as you descend from snow through rainforest and beyond. The changes were so dramatic that I realized that it was what the Well World might be like if walking across it. The final nail in the construct was when the hex concept came up. A New York SF fan, Ben Yalow, suggested the hex for easy movement and since Avalon Hill games was not far from my home in Baltimore, I dropped by and picked up a ton of blank hex maps and pads. On this, the Well World was created in an elaborate physical-political map since lost (by Lester Del Rey, it should be noted, who borrowed it).
From that it almost wrote itself. The only rewrite I did other than to editorial fiat was to redo the end sequence, the last page, which most readers find the most memorable. That was actually done in galleys. The book was supposed to be a “midlist” fill-in book for summer reading and little was expected of it. Instead, it caught on, became a Campus Cult Classic must-read, and essentially made my career. It was then that Del Ray came back waving big money for sequels, far over what they would pay for other works.
Beyond those, I did several stand-alone novels (including a World War II novel), and really didn’t go back to the long form until Four Lords of the Diamond. When that also hit, publishers were only really interested in multi-book sagas. Since I found a big canvas conductive to my own dramatic sense, that’s what most of the Eighties books were. That led to my most controversial and complex project, The Soul Rider Saga.
In all cases, the world and perhaps a scene come first. Although I’m considered a tight plotter, the plot is the very last thing I work out, after the setting and the more interesting characters.
VWC: Speaking of characters, Joe and Marge in The Dancing Gods books, begin with such mundane names, jobs, and appearances, then transform into the stuff of legends as do many of your other characters. Do you begin your characters with someone you know, say a waitress or truck driver, then imagine them a hero? Or do you design a hero and work back to the truck driver and waitress?
JLC: The names pretty much just come. I have to check them to ensure that I’m not going to get sued by anybody real, but beyond that my characters tend to name themselves. Joe’s name is hardly simple, though; it just came out that way. His original name in the manuscript was a gag: it was Joseph Raymon Felipe San Juan Mario Silvio Enrico Alvarez de Oro. Except for the first and last names, that’s the actual “real” name of Lester Del Ray. “Marge” just seemed like a good west Texas name.
Some characters come fully named. I can swear that Nathan Brazil just up and introduced himself to me at Stehekin Lodge. Mavra Chang was a bit more complex; her first name, like the first name of a few others in the first Well World cycle, are titles of lesser known Stravinsky ballets, for example. A vast majority of the Well World hex names are also gags or tongue in cheek place names. I had just been ordered by the Del Rey legal staff not to name anything after anybody real because they were trying to fend off a lawsuit from an ex of Bill Rotsler’s, who was threatening to sue them after Rostler used her as a major villain in his novel. So I created the ultimate “Tuckerism” as it were, almost a challenge. It was quite easy. The northern hemisphere is mostly anagrams of editors and SF writers, the south places, friends and SF fan clubs and members.
Sometimes, the names are obvious in retrospect. Matson was a mover of cargo; his name came from a major trucking line. Still, those who look for meanings in the character names should stop; in most cases they simply fit the character in my own mind.”
Please stop by for A Conversation with Jack L. Chalker (Part II) tomorrow.