Posts Tagged ‘Jack L Chalker’

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Jack L. Chalker was a prolific and talented writer who passed away much too young. One quote from him which I like is: “If you’ve got what it takes, you’ll make it. If you don’t, Shakespeare couldn’t help you.”

Now, he never tells you exactly “what it takes,” but judging from Jack and other successful authors I know, it’s lots of things. A few that come to mind: practicing your craft, persisting against seemingly impossible odds, getting back up after rejection slips knock you down, a boundless imagination, a little luck, a pinch of talent, and faithful fans who buy your books, come to hear you read, and tell their friends about your writing.

Thanks to photographer, friend, and active Baltimore Science Fiction Society member, Patti Kinlock, for sharing this wonderful photo of Jack.

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The following is the second part of a 1999 interview I did with science fiction writer, Jack L. Chalker. Click here to read Part I. (Photo of Jack Chalker courtesy of Patti Kinlock, chair of Balticon).

A Conversation with Jack L. Chalker (part II)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAVWC: Earlier you mentioned the controversy surrounding The Soul Rider Saga from the mid-eighties (Spirits of Flux and Anchor, Empire of Flux and Anchor, Masters of Flux and Anchor, The Birth of Flux and Anchor, and Children of Flux and Anchor) and just now you mentioned naming characters in a manner that avoids lawsuits. Do you think fear of lawsuits and controversy are having an impact on today’s writers?

JLC: Well, if I really worried about that I wouldn’t have had so much fun with the Well World names. It’s crass, but publishers have insurance for this sort of thing and that’s in my contract as well. I have had some problems with legal staffs, but it was almost always because of commentary, rather than within the story itself. The only serious problems I had were with my autobiographical comments in my story collection, Dance Band on the Titanic, where the insurance company simply wouldn’t take the risk. There are other outlets, though, and other ways to say the same things.

Fear of lawsuits doesn’t affect many writers but it does affect editors and publishers through which we have to deal to get our work out to the public. This is nothing new.

The Soul Rider controversy wasn’t a legal problem, it was simply that people who see things in absolutes and do not understand what this work is about yelled because they believed it was politically incorrect. It may be, but not for what they said. My biggest critics on it, though, have all proudly admitted that they never read it. Unfortunately, at least one of these people is an influential editor for one of the dwindling number of New York publishers and he has kept a lot of writers’ work from going further based on this sort of PC lens. I have had more problems with this sort than with any lawyer.

VWC: I know from checking your website [no longer available], that you’re not convinced that e-books are profitable or that readers typically discover new authors via e-books. I happen to agree with you that many ‘people don’t read novels off screen, and they don’t have a tendency to shell out real money for books when they don’t retain anything physical for their money.’ [Remember this is 1999, before the Kindles, Nooks, etc. were mainstream.] So what do you think is the future of the science fiction/ fantasy publishing industry?

JLC: Unfortunately, I’m very pessimistic not just about science fiction, but about fiction books in general in the future. Readership overall is graying and down. The only areas of increase are tie-ins to movies and TV shows. The new distributors are MBA types who focus only on quick sell-through, maximize quick profits and invest nothing at all in the future or in the long term. These in turn drive the publishers, who can’t get books out on the shelves and racks that the distributors won’t take.

There’s a lot of excitement about Amazon.com and the like, but these are not online book stores, they are book SERVICES. That is, if you know what you want, it’s a quick and easy one stop source. But what about all the people who haven’t seen my books (or anybody you want to name as author). How do the new readers find you? Traditional reviewing sources are always inbred and tend not to have wide influence in any case, and online hype is actually paid for. If my publisher doesn’t pay the fee, Amazon.com doesn’t put those ‘If you like Farmer you’ll like Chalker’ type things up.

New and building readership comes from impulse buying, and that’s where nothing can beat the vanishing bookstore. The distributors weren’t interested in Priam’s Lens, so Barnes and Noble only bought 1,250 copies for their entire chain. Amazon’s selling a bunch, but they’re to my following, not to new people. You can see that I’m very discouraged about the future of books in general. I used to tell new writers not to quit their day jobs until they spent at least three years making more off writing than the job. Now, I tell them don’t quit unless you can retire with no book income.

VWC: Novels are like children, it’s hard to pick a favorite – but nonetheless, do you have a novel of saga that holds a slightly more cherished place in your heart? And is there a book or series that you wish you could change?

JLC: Well, Web of the Chozen was a joke done to win a bet and isn’t one of my personal favorites. It also came out due to some complexities in the wrong order; everybody who’d ignored me had to pay attention when Midnight at the Well of Souls became a spontaneous bestseller; they looked at my next book, which was supposed to be Identity Matrix. As it happened, though, Chozen came out next, and many reviewers and critics never read me again.

Favorite? The original Midnight at the Well of Souls, because it made my career and because it holds up as well now as when it was written. I’m uneven on the series that developed out of it; some are good books, but none, I think, approach the original stand-alone. Soul Rider was my most complex series, one many people could see only as a wild adventure, but that’s okay. Although I’d like to tweak the final book of the five, otherwise it’s pretty much the way I would do it again. The tweaks would be just to make clearer the sources of the wacky ideologies that emerged in the books.

My all-time favorite of all the things I’ve written is a novelette; Dance Band on the Titanic. I think it accomplished more of what I wanted to do in writing than anything else I’ve written.

VWC: Lastly, what advice do you have for the beginning writer who wants to be a novelist?

JLC: Go ahead and write. And, in fact, you can still get published even under the pessimistic conditions I outlined. But unless that first book’s a bestseller and turned into a Major Motion Picture, think of it as something you do for yourself and for posterity, not for a living.

VWC: Thanks for taking the time to talk about writing. I’ve just seen Priam’s Lens on the bookshelves and I’ll be looking for Currents of the Well of Souls and Ghost of the Well of Souls in the near future. Your productivity amazes me!

JLC: Well, I think Currents and its second half are as good as I’ve done in the Well universe in many years (and absolutely no characters or races from the past books, period!) But as to my productivity – I spent a year and a half when they took my books but didn’t publish them. During that time, there were rumors that I was gravely ill, and after Priam appeared many people said, ‘Gee, I thought he was dead, it’s been so long since we saw anything new from him!’ So one person’s productivity…

VWC: Hmm, almost sixty books, not counting re-issues in twenty-five years. I’d say most writers dream of being so prolific. As to rumors of your death, after a similar experience, Mark Twain said, ‘Reports of my death were greatly exaggerated.’ Judging from the list of titles on your website that are planned, but not yet completed, we’ll be seeing quite a few more Jack Chalker books as we move into the next millennium.”

End Note: There were additional books written and published after the interview, but not enough for his fans. Jack died on February 11, 2005. The Baltimore Science Fiction Society‘s annual Maryland Young Writers Contest was renamed The Jack L. Chalker Young Writers’ Contest in 2006, so his presence is still felt at Balticon and in BSFS. And the first SF organization Jack belonged to, the Washington Science Fiction Association, is still going strong, too. As for me – I am a better writer for having known him. – Vonnie

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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?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA 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.

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