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)
“VWC: 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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