I hadn’t chatted with L.E. Modesitt in any depth since I last saw him a few years ago at the World Fantasy Awards. The recently released (then upcoming) 20th anniversary edition of The Magic of Recluce offered a fine opportunity for us to catch up. (You can refresh your memory of that book by reading the free excerpt here on Tor.com.)
This interview was conducted by email during January 2011.
MATTHEW CHENEY: Given the anniversary, we should probably focus on The Magic of Recluce, but I have all sorts of things I’d love to chat with you about, so I’m going to be self-indulgent. First off, you have admitted that you started out as a poet. I’m curious what led you from poetry to Analog. How did the transition happen?
L.E. MODESITT, JR.: I started writing poetry in high school because I wanted desperately to write, but somehow, writing stories didn’t appeal to me, and I loved the flow and the feel and sense of poetry, especially that of what one might call formal verse. Even to this day, most “modern” free verse seems self-indulgent, not that I haven’t occasionally self-indulged as well… but call that one of my guilty pleasures. I wrote poetry through college, with more verse published in the college literary review, and then, while I was in the Navy, both as an amphib officer and then as a pilot, and for a time thereafter I managed to get my work published in a number of very small literary magazines, as well as getting rejected time after time from the Yale Younger Poet competition.When I was in my late twenties, a friend suggested that, since I was an avid SF reader, and had been since I was barely a teenager, that since it didn’t look like the poetry was going where I wanted, I might try writing a science fiction story. I did, and the first story I ever wrote was “The Great American Economy.” Interestingly enough, it was unconsciously prescient because it was about a junior government economist in Washington D.C., and it was written when my only involvement in politics was as a Republican precinct committeeman in Colorado. I sent the story to Analog, and Ben Bova rejected it, with a note to the effect that I’d made a terrible mess of page 13, but if I’d fix that he’d look at it again. I did, and he did… and bought it.
As I’ve said at many times and in many places, I wrote and submitted, and had rejected, more than 25 more stories before I sold the second story… and probably 15 or so before selling the third. Even before I’d sold the second, however, I’d taken a job as research director for a congressional campaign. With a wife and four children and having failed as an economist—not political enough—which is another irony, and then failed as a real estate agent, I needed a paying job. I was better at political research and speechwriting and economic analysis than at pleasing corporate bosses by providing economic reports that supported what they wanted to do, rather than what was really happening in the marketplace, and ended up with a job as a legislative assistant for Congressman William Armstrong in Washington D.C. And I kept writing stories on the side, a greater and greater percentage of which got published, but far from every one.
Eventually, Ben Bova threatened not to buy any more stories until I wrote a novel. So I wrote The Fires of Paratime, and after three or so rejections (including one by Jim Baen, who told me for over a year he would publish it, until he finally rejected it because it wasn’t his kind of story, and he was right) David Hartwell bought it for Timescape.
CHENEY: Has David Hartwell been your editor on every book at Tor Books?
MODESITT: As a matter of fact, David was my first editor, when he was at Timescape and purchased The Fires of Paratime, which he later republished at Tor in close to its original length as “The Timegod.” His assistant at Timescape was John Douglas, and after Simon and Schuster folded Timescape, John went to Avon where he bought my second novel. Then Hearst bought Avon and froze acquisitions, and David joined a start-up publishing operation called Tor, and I sold my third novel to him… and every single one since then.
CHENEY: Are there any secrets to a good editor-writer relationship that you’ve encountered during your career?
MODESITT: I’ve actually talked this over with David, and he’s pointed out that he has a different relationship with every writer for whom he’s an editor. In my case, from the beginning, I asked him never to give me suggestions, only to tell me what he thought was wrong or unclear and to let me fix it my way. If I couldn’t fix it to his satisfaction, then we’d talk about his suggestions. We’ve seldom gone to step two, but that’s what happens to work for us.
CHENEY: It took a while for your work to find a fairly wide readership. What kept you writing during the early years?
MODESITT: My experiences in the military, the private sector, and as a congressional staffer were at times almost enough to drive me crazy. Writing offered the all too often cited creative outlet. It also provided extra income, which was more than necessary trying to support four children… and then six… in Washington D.C. Then too, I could put some of the experiences I’d had into fiction, because no one who hadn’t been there, and some who had, couldn’t believe some of the things I encountered. I also kept writing because, simply, it was something that I had to do. That compulsion/impulsion isn’t always the best for those around a writer, since it was certainly a factor in the collapse of my second marriage. The other factor was that, since I’d started as a poet, and I knew poets never lived off their writing, and since what I’d gotten from writing short stories didn’t come close to paying the bills, I didn’t have any expectations that the writing would support me for a long time, if ever. So I just kept at it, and even when The Magic of Recluce was first published, I was holding down three jobs, one as an adjunct lecturer at Plymouth State College (now Plymouth State University) in New Hampshire, a second as a telecommuting consultant for a Washington D.C., consulting firm, and the third as a writer. It wasn’t until after The Towers of the Sunset, the second Recluce book, and the paperback version of The Magic of Recluce came out that I could finally give up most of the consulting, and then, another year or so later, the teaching position, although that was largely because my wife took a position as the director of voice and opera at Southern Utah University and we moved to Cedar City, where we still live, and where she is a full professor and still head of the voice and opera programs.
CHENEY: The move from New Hampshire to Utah brought you back to the western side of the country. Did the change in geography have any effect on your writing?
MODESITT: The return to the west didn’t have much impact on the way I wrote, since that was where I was born and raised, but it had a huge impact on what I wrote, more so because of the cultural change than the geographical change, per se. Without having lived in an LDS culture, I never would have even thought about writing The Ghost of the Revelator, The Parafaith War, The Ethos Effect, or sections of other books, such as Flash, Haze, and The Eternity Artifact.
CHENEY: Up to the time The Magic of Recluce was published, you were primarily a science fiction writer, and one of the beautiful elements of Recluce is its rather science fictional logic. Had you read a lot of fantasy before writing the novel, and did you have a sense of creating a fantasy world that was in response to other writers’ approaches?
MODESITT: I had read far more science fiction than fantasy, but I had read fantasy, from the Oz books as a child to The Lord of the Rings right after it was published in the U.S., as well as a number of other fantasy authors. What bothered me then, and still does, although current fantasy authors are better about it today than they were before 1990, was the lack of understanding those authors had about how societies work, in particular in the areas of economics, politics, and technology, because the combination of those three factors determines to what degree technology can be used—or whether it will ever develop beyond a certain point. Most early fantasy authors also failed to comprehend that man is a tool-user, and that as a species we will try almost anything as a tool, and discard it if it doesn’t work on a consistent basis. Fantasy-book magic that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t drove me nuts and still does. That was the impetus for my developing a logical and consistent magic system, but, especially initially, my approach wasn’t always appreciated. I can recall one then-fairly-well-known fantasy author who told me that I didn’t write fantasy, but wrote science fiction disguised as fantasy. Interestingly enough, just last week I ran across a blog review of my latest SF book, Empress of Eternity, in which the blogger complained that I wrote SF as if it were fantasy.
CHENEY: So now you’ve come full circle! Speaking of bloggers—which I try not to do too often, because, as we all know, they’re very strange creatures—the internet has had a strong effect on the world in general, but also very much on the world of publishing. My generation was the last to enter adulthood without the internet as an everyday fact of life, and your career has spanned the pre-internet age to now. SF writers are, I like to think, particularly sensitive to cultural and technological changes, so I’m curious about what you think of the transition. Any guesses for where we go from here?
MODESITT: Science fiction writers have usually been very poor prognosticators of the future, either in literary or technological terms, and that’s because we’re all too human, and, I think, have the tendency to see what we want to, or in the case of those more paranoid, what we fear. What concerns me about the future is the impact the internet and mass “personal” communications are having on a wide range of cultural and political institutions. Such mass communications tend to reinforce what I’ll bluntly call the lowest common denominator, paradoxically because, with the multiplicity of outlets for views and opinions, minority opinions become even more fragmented and lost in the noise, and only views held by a great number of people tend to prevail. As a result, there’s a growing feeling, especially in the United States, that “popular” culture is good or even excellent, and that politicians should follow the will of the people, even when it’s clear that what the majority wants is economically and financially impossible. In addition, mass personal communications are leading to a paradoxical combination of polarization and homogenization in all too many aspects of society. Even economics, through the profit motive of supplying only popular “items,” has resulted in a proliferation of “same stuff, different brands,” or “either/or.” You’re a left-winger or a right-winger, a PC person or a Mac person… and the list goes on. I’ve seen a decrease in the range of real choices in meaningful areas and a proliferation of choice in small areas. There are scores of types of candies and chewing gum, but only two or three (if you count Linux) computer operating systems. These days, every car looks like every other car, especially compared to the times before 1970, and you can’t even find a stick-shift in a four door American SUV or non-luxury sedan. With the growing emphasis on short-term (popular) profitability, both existing companies and entrepreneurs are having a harder and harder time developing and implementing new and cutting edge technology on what I’d call the “macro” level, although I do hope that the initiatives in the area of private space development take hold. While there’s been a lot of rhetoric about the altruism of the younger generation, I frankly don’t see it in wide-scale practice, but, then, given the current drift of culture, I’m surprised that there’s any altruism left at all.
CHENEY: Ecological concerns have been an element of many of your plots. How do you think we’re doing at discussing ecology these days, or addressing environmental matters?
MODESITT: Certainly, no one wants to talk about the overall underlying environmental problem, at least not very loudly in public fora, and that’s the fact that demographics have enormous environmental consequences. Nations with falling birth rates need more and more technology to maintain services (or more immigration), both of which have negative environmental consequences, while the soaring birth rates of developing nations strain and degrade the environment. Dealing with environmental issues initially costs more money than it saves, and while the long-term savings may be greater, almost no one wants to pay more for goods or government services at a time of 10% unemployment. The environmental issues have essentially vanished for now because of the economic ones. That’s not surprising, but it’s unsettling, because the problems are getting worse, and there’s still a significant fraction of the American public that cannot seem to understand that anthropogenic causes are a major factor in global warming. A recent study just published predicts that if we don’t stop the increases in carbon emissions and stabilize them before 2040, the process of melting the Greenland ice cap will become irreversible—and that will result in a twenty-two foot increase in sea levels. This wasn’t even mentioned in the most recent international environmental talks.
CHENEY: I hadn’t heard that, and it’s terrifying. In the face of such predictions, how do we maintain hope?
MODESITT: There’s always hope, and human beings are pretty adaptable, but we’re also stubborn and conservative, in the sense that, as a species, we really don’t want to change much. So… the odds are that matters will get worse before they get better, because we won’t make enough change until it becomes so obvious that the majority of people in industrialized nations finally will accept it. There will be change; the only question is when and at what cost.
CHENEY: Has your perspective shifted over time?
MODESITT: I don’t see how an intelligent person’s opinion can’t be at least modified over time as more knowledge becomes available and we learn what works and what doesn’t. I’m certainly more environmentally concerned now than I was when I worked at EPA, although even then I was more environmentally concerned than most of the other Reagan political appointees.
In terms of specifics, I think it’s become more and more clear, for example, that in terms of energy use and generation, there is no absolutely clean power source in the sense that every single power source has negative environmental consequences in some way or another. Solar power, as a source, is clean, but the technology to use it either requires enormous local heat concentration or components whose manufacture and construction create toxic wastes, if not both. Wind power, because of its geographical requirements, necessitates building up and adding to the nation’s power grid, not to mention the waste products involved in constructing all those turbines. Similar trade-offs exist with every form of energy generation, although one can certainly note that the overall impacts are far worse for certain forms of fossil fuels, especially low-grade coal.
In one aspect of the environmental complex of issues, my view hasn’t changed that much, in that I’ve always believed that, contrary to most economic and political models and assumptions, at least those used until the last year or so, the vast majority of people do not make decisions on a purely rational basis, but react emotionally and then rationalize their decisions, often ignoring those facts that conflict with what they wish to believe. Matters do change, of course, sometimes quickly, sometimes less so. For example, it’s hard to believe that, sixty years ago, the majority of geologists did not believe in or accept the fact of continental drift and the existence of tectonic plates, whose motion determined the fate of both continents and mountain ranges. Now, it’s been proven and is widely accepted.
CHENEY: Are there particular books or writers that have had a strong effect on you over the years? Any hints for future Modesitt scholars searching for possible influences and precursors?
MODESITT: In the field of fiction, especially in fantasy and science fiction, I’ve read so much and so widely that it would be hard to say that any individual writers had a particularly strong impact, but they all had an impact. The writers I always tend to go back to and re-read, though, are the poets, especially William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens.
CHENEY: If you don’t mind sharing some trade secrets, how do you write?
MODESITT: I simply write pretty much on the same schedule every day when I’m not traveling. The alarm goes off at 6:00 AM. After fixing and eating breakfast, I walk/run/jog some 2 ½ miles with the crazy Aussie-Saluki, then come back and shower, dress in my writing uniform—black Wranglers, boots, collared long-sleeved shirt, and vest (yes, summer and winter, but the summer vests are lighter). I go down to the office, sit down in front of the computer and check email, then set to work. Except for walking the dogs, eating lunch, and necessary errands, I write until at least seven at night and often until ten. Saturdays and Sundays I write a little less, but still average 6-7 hours a day. Part of this is enabled because my wife works a similar schedule, and the children have long since left the house.
CHENEY: Do you write one book at a time?
MODESITT: I write one book at a time. Except for one time, I always have. That one time was enough to convince me, beyond any doubt, that I am a writer who does better concentrating on doing just one book at a time, although I do have to do editorial corrections, proofing, etc., on other books already submitted.
CHENEY: How do you keep your various series straight in your mind?
MODESITT: When I return to an older series, such as Recluce, it takes me from several days to a week to go over notes and to re-immerse myself in that world and universe. Of course, I do have maps of each fantasy world, but once I get back in that world, the history re-appears in my mind (with an occasional goof or so, but I’m not about to offer details, only the admission that there have been one or two), and I seem to remember most of it.
CHENEY: Now that you’ve reached a point where you’ve published a lot of books, you’ve built a career, have a following—how do you stay fresh? Aside from the need to pay bills, what gets you to the desk each morning?
MODESITT: What else would I do that’s half so rewarding? I’ve never been a “hobby guy” or a gadget person, nor am I golf or other kind of sports type. I like to walk through the woods, such as they are here in southern Utah, and I do that every morning before I settle down to write. I like to offer my opinions, and I can do that on my website blog. And I’ve always wanted to write, and since, so far, people still want to read my books, that’s what I do.
CHENEY: Finally, let’s imagine a young person picks up The Magic of Recluce this year and loves it, then reads all your other books and ends up wanting to follow in your footsteps, to write fantasy and SF novels. Do you have any words of advice?
MODESITT: I could talk for hours, because, as my wife has noted, I could easily have become a preacher, but the shorter version goes like this. Successful writing requires that you engage the reader. In fiction, that means you must entertain while having the technical facility to tell the story. If you can’t entertain, no one will want to read your work. If you can’t tell the story in a clear and understandable fashion, no one can tell what you’ve written. Beyond that, the more you know about everything the richer and deeper your writing will become. Read widely and continuously, in fiction and non-fiction, outside and inside your genre. Then, remember that talent, technique, and hard work will get you published, but whether you’re just another published author or a wild bestseller is as much luck and the time as it is all the effort you’ve put into it.
Matthew Cheney’s work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including Weird Tales, One Story, Locus, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and the anthologies Interfictions and Logorrhea. He is a regular columnist for Strange Horizons and BSC Review, and his blog, The Mumpsimus was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005.