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Grand Master Joe Haldeman tells all (or some, anyway) to Sci Fi Bookshelf

Joe Haldeman has just been named to the Grand Master Award, joining the ranks of science fiction giants like Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein and Ursula K. Le Guin.  He has also won three Hugo awards, four Nebula Awards, a World Fantasy Award and more.  He’s perhaps best known for The Forever War, which won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards.  His latest novel, Starbound, just recently hit store shelves.  Somehow, in between teaching writing at MIT and winning staggering amounts of acclaim, it seems Joe still manages to find the time to write.  He was generous enough to share some views from the top, infused with his own unmistakably dry sense of humor.

Sci Fi  Marsbound was met with some great reviews, and Starbound is in stores now.  Was there any particular idea that inspired this series?  And can you tell us anything about the upcoming book, Earthbound?

Joe Haldeman:  MARSBOUND started off as a stand-alone novel.  I’d written the novella “The Mars Girl” for a Dozois/Dann anthology of Young Adult sf stories, and I wrote it with the idea of expanding it into a YA novel.  I used the novella to pitch the story to a YA editor, and she said no, thanks.  (Later she told me she’d been wrong; her daughter read the novella and loved it.)

Anyhow, that made me think.  I’m not a YA author anyhow.  So why not make the protagonist a bit older and write it as a regular novel, sex and all.  So that became MARSBOUND.

I was literally a few days from the end of the novel when it occurred to me that it needed a sequel, with the two main characters upping the ante and going off to the stars.  I wrote an outline pitching that book, STARBOUND, to sell it to my publisher.  But in writing the outline, I saw it required a third book, EARTHBOUND.

So what started out as a novella became a trilogy.  Trilogies do sell better than stand-alone novels, but that wasn’t my motivation, at least consciously.

The books follow the same characters in an unbroken series of events, but I tried to make each one enjoyable as a stand-alone novel.  It was a challenge to write the second and third books so they would work both for a reader who was following the series and for one who had picked up the book without preparation.  Background information has to be presented in a way that’s not boring to the reader who’s seen it before.

I started EARTHBOUND with a literary problem in mind.  I’d just taught Cormack McCarthy’s THE ROAD, which was well written but mindnumbingly depressing, and I wondered (since EARTHBOUND had a similar opening situation) whether I could make my book work without it being so psychologically painful.  I don’t know whether I’m succeeding; I’m only halfway through the book.

SFB:  Is it true that you write everything longhand?

JH:  I write the first draft of my novels in longhand, with a fountain pen in bound blank books.  Other writing (like this) I do on the computer.

SFB:  The rumors are flying about Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Legend) doing a film based on The Forever War.  Is there any news you can pass along?

The Forever WarJH:  He bought the rights.  The astounding success of AVATAR makes me think the project is more likely, but I haven’t heard anything from Scott about that.  (Except that he also loved the movie and intends to do THE FOREVER WAR in 3-D.)

SFB:  What’s the biggest change you see coming in the science fiction genre?

JH:  We’re in the middle of a long slow change that reflects the reading public’s lack of interest in science, and their concomitant ignorance of it.  Hard SF is a hard sell, and a lot of writers are leaning toward fantasy.  I stick with hard SF, but I’m not selling as many books as the ones about dragons and mighty-thewed heroes. 

Do you have any advice for aspiring science fiction writers who haven’t been fortunate enough to take your class at MIT?

JH:  Writing can be fun (for the writer) and can be a tool for personal growth.  Writing for other people, in the sense of writing for a living, is relatively difficult.  Most writers make very little money and see little or no fame while enduring criticism and the excruciating pain of watching terribly written books outsell their gems.  The best advice is not to do it unless you can’t see yourself living any other way.  Or you could marry someone with money and write what you want.

SFB:  If this isn’t too obtuse to ask, how does it feel to win the Grand Master Award and join the ranks of some of the greatest science fiction writers of all time?

JH:  I don’t feel old enough for the honor.

SFB:  Joe, it’s been a real pleasure.  Thank you so much for your time.

JH:  Thanks.

Joe Haldeman’s web site:
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  1. Peta

    An interesting interview – thanks. I do hope that a film version of The Forever War does get made as I'd love to see that brought to life. Although there is the worry that it won't match with my imagined version!

  2. RAB

    A Forever War film coming about thanks to the success of Avatar is odd to consider…because I can easily imagine filmgoers who don't know the original novel thinking “Wow, they made this film to be a perfect hybrid between Avatar and The Hurt Locker! I guess they wanted it to be a sure thing at the Oscars!”

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