When author Robert Buettner visited my bookstore in the beginning of 2005, I didn’t have a single book left for him to sign. They’d all sold. His debut science fiction novel, Orphanage, flew off the shelves from the day it was released. In fact, Orphanage went into its second printing after a mere 17 days, and would prove to be the first book in a bestselling series. At that time, though, with no way to get more books for my own store’s shelves, I resorted to writing the ISBN on scrap paper and handing it out to any customers looking for exciting new military science fiction. Fast-forward a few years to his latest book, Orphan’s Triumph. I was lucky enough to catch up with Robert Buettner again and find out the real secret behind his critically-acclaimed Jason Wander series.
Sci Fi Bookshelf: Did you originally imagine Orphanage as the start of a series, or did it grow naturally from there?
Robert Buettner: First, thanks for asking. Series? No. True, the first book’s conclusion made clear that there was a lot more story to tell. But I never expected to be able to tell the whole story over five books. The series grew more because of success than because of a detailed, preconceived artistic vision.
Orphanage sold as a completed manuscript, and quickly. But the publisher, Time Warner Aspect, wanted a two book deal, with the second book continuing the story and distinctive voice of Jason Wander. A two-book is pretty common for first novels. If your first book hits, the publisher has pre-bought your second, cheap. If your first book flops, and most do, well, the publisher hasn’t lost much. Not that it’s a one-way street. A debut novelist is ecstatic at the chance to be published once, let alone twice. So I had the opportunity and responsibility to address, in Book 2, Orphan’s Destiny, how soldiers deal with coming home.
Meantime, Orphanage became a critical and commercial hit. The likes of the Washington Post compared it favorably to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Orphanage made Barnes & Noble’s paperback Top 50 within two weeks of release, and was nominated for the Quill Award as best science fiction, fantasy and horror novel of 2004. Science Fiction Book Club picked it up as a featured alternate selection, and it was translated into Chinese, Czech, Russian, and Spanish.
However, just as Orphan’s Destiny was released, Time Warner sold its book business to the French publisher Hachette. The transition chilled not only promotion of Orphan’s Destiny but acquisitions across the board. The street talk was that Hachette would completely drop science fiction/fantasy as a line.
Months passed. Happily, when the dust settled, Hachette reinvigorated its US science fiction fantasy line as Little Brown Orbit. Orbit not only wanted to finish the saga with the three more books that I proposed, but reissued the first two books with fresh covers, to regain lost marketplace traction. The UK market finally got its own editions, and the series was released in the popular ebook formats, too.
SFB: The Jason Wander series follows the protagonist over the span of his career, from inexperienced recruit to commander of Earth’s garrisons. Has it been hard to keep the character consistent over such a span of time?
RB: Unexpectedly, no. Jason’s first person voice may have matured with him a bit over the years, but the changes have grown naturally from his life. The hard part has been to tell the story of an interstellar war that spans a lifetime through the viewpoint of a single character. Heinlein did Starship Troopers in first person, but it ended with Rico perhaps a couple of years older, and barely a Platoon Leader.
Starship Troopers is a bit over two hundred pages long. That’s shorter by a third than any one of the five Jason Wander books, which total 1,642 pages. That is a long time to sustain one character. I’m pleased with the result, but I won’t first-person a long series again, either.
I’ve said before that choosing to write this series in first person was like choosing to paint the Death Star with a manual toothbrush. That’s just the sort of punishment that Jason Wander the smart-ass trainee was likely to have received. But as a result of his life experience, it’s something that Jason Wander the general would never have sentenced a grunt under his command to do, even though General Wander remained a smart-ass.
SFB: Has your background in military intelligence had a great influence on your writing?
RB: Less as the series progressed. I, and many people, have been through basic and have worn the uniform. Virtually no one has commanded an army. The deeper the series went, the more I had to fill in gaps with experiences gleaned from autobiographical and biographical materials about generals from Lee and Wellington to Eisenhower, Rommel, Schwarzkopf, and Powell.
SFB: Foreign-language translations of your books have been doing very well. Is there a key aspect of your books that you believe appeals to a worldwide audience?
RB: The UN military of the Jason Wander series looks a lot more like the US military than like, say, the Red Army or the Swedish Air Force. Non-Americans ascribe to the US military a certain seven-league-boots omniscience and omnipotence. But curiosity about the US military is a guilty pleasure at best. Sort of like watching a You Tube video of a tiger mauling a poodle. But whether you think Iraq was a liberation or an invasion, you can stand comfortably in Jason Wander’s American GI boots for awhile, free of political baggage.
A root of modern science fiction has always been its ability to address disturbing issues with a certain emotional distance. During the decades before World War I, there was much scholarly hand-wringing about post-industrial-revolution total war. Guns would spray death like lead water. Chemists would poison the very air. Flying machines would ladle out mass produced bombs that would rubbleize entire cities. These predictions proved all too accurate, but too disturbing to really contemplate. So H.G. Wells dropped the bomb at an accessible level, in The War of The Worlds.
The Jason Wander books have done fine in Chinese, Russian, Spanish and in the UK edition. But they are doing disproportionately well in the Czech Republic, where military science fiction flourishes. In fact, the Czech science fiction magazine Pevnost devoted its January issue to military science fiction. The Jason Wander series rated a feature article. When I was interviewed, I was struck by the interviewer’s obvious familiarity with the nuances of voice that characterize Jason.
That brought home to me an overlooked factor in the performance of any foreign language edition: translation quality. The Czech publisher, Fantom Print, produced an outstanding translation. By the way, the Pevnost issue featured even more prominently another American military SF import, Avatar. Actually, the Czechs define it as a new sub-sub-cross genre, military science romantic fantasy. The military science fiction foxhole keeps getting bigger. All of us in it are, I think, flattered to share it with a landmark like Avatar.
SFB: There are obvious parallels between the Jason Wander series and Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Considering that you also wrote the afterword to the upcoming edition of The Green Hills Of Earth and The Menace From Earth, would you say that Heinlein had a major influence on your work?
RB: I have yet to talk to or listen to a science fiction author who didn’t acknowledge a debt to Heinlein. For that matter, so do legions of astronauts and rocket scientists, not to mention such diverse entities as film critic Roger Ebert and the United States Marine Corps. The list of techniques and tropes in the SF genre that Heinlein invented is too long to reproduce here. As for specifics, well, I did address those in more detail in the afterword to the Green Hills anthology, which was an honor and a privilege to write.
I read Heinlein from elementary school until puberty redirected me to the likes of Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum. When fans and critics started comparing my work to Heinlein’s, which I personally think are like comparing the invention of the electric light to changing a bulb, I reread Heinlein from the vantage of an author rather than an adolescent. Today the dialogue and science of Heinlein’s futures are dated, but his command of the craft of writing, of heroic themes, and of character and story stand up beautifully.
RB: Overkill, which is the first novel in the Orphan’s Legacy series, will be released by Baen books in early 2011. Overkill is military SF flavored space opera. It’s set in the same universe as the Jason Wander books. I’m reluctant to say more because the book is so newly turned in that I’m not sure what the editing process may change. I’m also working on some short SF for an upcoming anthology, and a mainstream fiction project.
SFB: Do you have any advice for aspiring science fiction writers?
RB: 1. Write. Don’t just think about writing and read books about writing, though by all means do those things. Do it. Until you take that step you won’t know whether you want it bad enough. And if you really expect to learn the craft well enough to be New York published, you had better want it pretty bad.
2. Write lots. They say that a writer has to write a million words to develop the skills to produce salable commercial fiction. I believe Stephen King had collected seven hundred short story rejection slips before he sold his first one. I completed seven novels of varying degrees of awfulness, now boxed up for eternity, before Orphanage.
3. Write well. Study The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and anything Mark Twain wrote about writing. The best contemporary treatment of the art and craft of writing that I’ve seen is King’s On Writing. Find a cooperative critique group of people who know what they are talking about, take your lumps, and learn from them. If you write well, you will be ahead of ninety percent of the twenty-five thousand or more unsolicited slush submittals that a reputable agent wades through annually.
4. Rewrite well. There is no good writing. There is only good rewriting.
5. Last but not least, persevere. When you have written, then rewritten, a novel so good that it can’t be ignored, be prepared to reinvent yourself and your craft when it is, anyway.
Author web site:
Wikipedia entry on Robert Buettner: