Still Waters Run Deep

Jeffrey A. Carver is a writer I’ve worked with longer than perhaps any other. He’s a nice guy, and someone who has been active in the field since the mid-1970s. He’s one of the writers who to me exemplifies the fusion of hard science fiction adventure and humanistic literature in the best of his works. He’s been a Nebula Award finalist, published on three continents, and translated into a number of languages.  He’s given me and others many hours of reading pleasure, and he’s one of those writers who often challenges himself and his editor by writing in an intuitive fashion…without necessarily knowing how his story will end up until after he’s written it.

When I became an editor I thought—and I suspect most editors feel this way when they start out—that editing manuscripts is fairly straightforward. Before you start editing books, the only real experience you have with books is as a reader of the finished product. I have interns in my office from the University of Wisconsin, and they’re all English majors, as I was. They’ve been reading lots of the classic literature written in the English language (including Middle English) for two or three years before they come to intern for me, and they’ve never seen book manuscripts that haven’t already been published.

So they’re sometimes appalled by the fact that we’ll have a manuscript in the office that needs to be read, and—ohmigod!—it’s not perfect. As a matter of fact, it’s often far from perfect. How could this be? Quelle tragedie! What they don’t realize is that there is an editorial process between when a writer submits a manuscript that may very well end up being a wonderful work and when that manuscript is finally published. Some authors spell very badly. (Spellcheck doesn’t always help, as people have been discovering for a while now. Sometimes a spellcheck program will very kindly substitute a completely wrong word when it’s not sure which word was intended. And this can have comic or less comic consequences.)

Some writers are good spellers, but they may have stylistic habits that they’ve kept since they were the very best, star student in every single English class. And that’s not surprising. Having read the prose of many students, from our children to the students who have interned for me over the past twenty years or so, I’m constantly amazed at how brightly a really good writer stands out, even when all the others are English majors and presumably have learned the fundamentals of grammar and style.

When I started out, I figured that my job was to weed out the good stuff from everything else, and when I found something really good, publish it. Ha! What I didn’t expect was someone like Jeffrey A. Carver. I first encountered his work in 1977, when I was editing at Dell Books. His agent, Richard Curtis, sent me a novel called Star Riggers Way. I liked it. It had a lot of the qualities I’ve always liked in SF: a great sense of wonder about what might be “out there,” characters I liked a lot, interesting aliens, and an adventurous plot that kept me involved to the very end. So I bought the book for Dell, and it was pretty successful. The Science Fiction Book Club bought it, we sold a reasonable number of mass-market paperback books, and we were all happy. I asked him to revise some of the manuscript, but it was mostly small things: some word choices, some phrases that just didn’t flow trippingly off the tongue, a few places where I thought it wasn’t completely clear what was going on, a few other places where I thought the pace of the story dragged a little. But this was pretty small stuff.

Then I bought a second novel for Dell, Panglor, which was another space adventure, like Star Riggers Way, set in the same universe, but with different characters and a different sort of story. That, too, was pretty straightforward. But the next book his agent sent me, in the form of a proposal, was a different story entirely. The Infinity Link was also science fiction, but it was set in the relatively near future…and as I read the proposal, I thought to myself, “This is incredible!” The first two books had been straightforward space adventures set in the far (well, at least a few hundred years) future. This was…it was very special. But I couldn’t understand how he thought he was going to write this book in about 350 pages of manuscript. It was the story of what happens when the people of Earth experience alien contact for the first time. A lot of the action was seen through the eyes of a lonely young woman who volunteers for a psychology experiment—or so she thinks—that is actually part of the process of training an Artificial Intelligence that is on board a drone ship on its way to meet—and perhaps intercept—the aliens, whose ship has been detected on the edge of the solar system.

I very vividly remember calling up Jeff Carver after having read the proposal and saying, “You do realize that this book is going to be much longer than you think, don’t you?” and he said something like, “It is?” I proceeded to tell him what I thought the book would end up being like, with multiple viewpoints—the aliens, the young woman, whales (yes, whales!), a news reporter, the AI personality, a military person involved in the potentially hostile interception of the aliens’ ship….

We talked for a long while, and I wished I could have been in the same room with him as I told him what I thought his book was really about. At the same time, I was seized with the terrible fear that any second he would stop me cold, with an admonition to not mess with his work. It took a certain amount of chutzpah to talk to him about his book as if I somehow knew better than he did what he was doing.

Thankfully, after a few pauses and silences, he started to talk about the book as if I wasn’t crazy; as if the things I was pointing out about it, which would make it a much longer book with a totally different, more diffuse focus than his other books, made total sense to him. We became secret conspirators, because it was clear that it was going to take him longer than a few months to write the book we were now talking about. And in order for me to be able to spend more for this book than I had paid for the first two books, I knew I would need to have a longer, more impressive proposal and a longer chunk of text than the few short chapters that came with the original submission. Enough material and impressive enough to allow me to convince my boss that this was not just another SF adventure, but potentially a real breakout book. And I had to do that, because I felt deeply that this was all true…and besides, he’d need more money to live on while writing it than he would need to write a much shorter, less complex book.

All this because I saw something in his work that he didn’t know was there when he wrote it.

Thankfully, he was quite capable of writing the book that we discussed in that first phone conversation. But it took a long time…six years, by which time I had left Dell, gotten married, started a publishing company, moved to the suburbs, and had a child. And he had become a very different writer from the one who wrote Star Riggers Way.

Since then Jeff and I have worked together on a number of books, and he’s gone through some of the changes I went through—he got married, had two kids, bought a house in the (Boston) suburbs, and has done other things as well. And all through our working relationship, I’ve always realized that he is the kind of writer who often has intentions or subtexts that he’s not fully aware of when he starts writing. This is a double-edged sword, of course. On the one hand, his work is rich in layers of meaning, and rewards readers on many levels, more than just the obvious. On the other hand, it takes him longer to write what he’s writing than it might take some writers. At times he’s written novels that have been pretty much ready to go when I get his polished draft; but more often than not, his manuscripts have caused me to make a lot of notes, ask a bunch of questions about what he’s trying to do in a particular scene; how this one section will affect something much later in the book; whether the apparent villain is really what we think he is, or is there something hidden that will change our perception of him (or her); and many other questions that I need to ask in order to know if what is already on the page is exactly what he meant to have there, or whether instead there is more that he hasn’t yet found out about the story, that my questions might cause him to discover in some layer of the text,  beneath the literal meaning of the text, something that he—subconsciously—really wants to say, even though he’s unaware of it.

This is not to suggest anything dark or dire. Very often he knows exactly where his story is going, and has all levels of meaning under clear and complete control when he starts out. But there have been books, like The Infinity Link, that have grown and mutated—always in a good way—after his initial conception.

His novels are terrific fun because of their complexity and richness…but he does take a long time to write them, partly because of the complexity of his process, and more recently because he’s been a husband and father, and a very responsible one. His wife, Allysen Palmer, is a writer, too, and a producer. And she’s worked full-time for long stretches, which has meant that Jeff has been a very active dad, including homeschooling the young women in the household.

These things are unavoidable, not only for Jeff but for many writers today. The first thing editors tell potential writers is “Don’t quit your day job.” It’s not necessarily easy to make a full-time living as a writer. It helps to have a fully employed partner. But life isn’t simple these days, and Jeff and Allysen have both worked extremely hard to maintain their household and be creative as well. (Actually, at least one and possibly both of their daughters threaten to commit the act of professional writing—one has already won a short story contest, with a cash prize!)

The bottom line is that Jeff’s novels have taken much longer to appear than he would like. He started writing Neptune Crossing, for example, in 1992. That’s the first book in his Chaos Chronicles series. He finished in mid-1993. Once upon a time he thought he’d be able to write a book a year. (Sounds of hysterical laughter in the background.) He finished writing the second novel, Strange Attractors, in mid-1994. Not bad at all. And the third novel of the series, An Infinite Sea, was done by the end of 1995. Then…well, all one can say is that life intervened. Between then and now he’s had another, unrelated (and Nebula finalist!) novel, Eternitys End, published, and he wrote the novel based on the miniseries that launched the current Battlestar Galactica TV series. Now, ready to be published in a few months, comes the fourth Chaos Chronicle novel, Sunborn.

Of course, he wasn’t exactly twiddling his thumbs in the intervening years. All that pesky family stuff got in the way, as it will. And he’s been working—all hours, way late at night sometimes, other times way early in the morning. Whenever he can snatch the time to get to his computer and write.

But put it all together and it’s been a long, hard road between books three and four. But, even though I know Jeff has had moments when the difficulty of getting a book written has made him wonder whether he’ll ever finish, when it’s done, with all the complexity, the layers of meaning, the excitement, the flashy effects, the heart-stopping moments of suspense and the poignant, bittersweet moments that some of his characters, especially John Bandicut, the guy who runs through all these books, trying to catch a break as he saves Earth and other planets from terrible fates…with all that good stuff, yeah, it’s worth it.

In the meantime, in the years since An Infinite Sea was published, the first three books have become unavailable in print editions, so Jeff has been making them available for free download. So far, only Neptune Crossing is available, but I have on the author’s authority that between now and the end of September, the other two books will be available as well.

Which is good. Because it’s a pretty cool series, using the science of chaos theory as the basis for galaxy-spanning SF adventures (I always think of the Green Lantern guardians of the universe). And it’ll be pretty darned exciting when Sunborn is published in late October. Hell, if you people reading this are in college, you might have been about five years old, give or take a couple years, when Neptune Crossing came out. And of course, Jeff Carver was almost that young himself then (cough, cough). Me, too.

These things do take time, sometimes a lot more time than we expect. That’s one of the reasons I tell people who ask me about my job that, yes, I love it. And it sure keeps me off the streets at night!

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