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A Stirling Job

01/02/2002. Contributed by Stephen Hunt

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American SF author S.M. Stirling shares a cup of tea with fellow author Stephen Hunt, and tells us what it's really like to create a damn fine British-dominated parallel universe.

SMS is best known for his Islander Novels (On The Oceans of Eternity, Island in the Sea of Time, and Against The Tide of Years).

His latest work is The Peshawar Lancers, a fast-paced action novel set in a fascinating alternative reality where a comet strike in the 1870s has knocked a Victorian Earth back into the stone age.

The novel is set in the 21st century, where the remains of a steam-powered British Empire has relocated to the Indian Raj and is now fighting an imperium of devil-worshipping cannibal Russians based in Eurasia.

SH. So, do you still practice law to keep your hand in?

SMS. No, I've had my dorsal fin surgically removed, and have been writing full-time since 1988.

SH. How does your previous line of work compare with being an author?

SMS. That depends on which one; I did a lot of odd jobs after leaving law school. It beats being a bouncer all to hell, since that consisted mostly of having people vomit on me.

SH. Do you get much fan mail?

SMS. A fair amount on-line.

SH. How do you see the future of science fiction literature in the 21st century?

SMS. I expect it to expand, and -- taking speculative fiction as a whole -- heavily influence literature in general.

SH. Do you tend to read the work of many other SF/F authors?

SMS. Yes, although unfortunately not as many as I'd like. Work and research take up a good deal of the time I once devoted to reading fiction.

SH. What's your favourite science fiction-fantasy movie and TV show?

SMS. 'The Fellowship of the Ring' - certainly a classic, probably the best fantasy movie ever made -and 'Stargate SG-1' respectively.

SH. Do you ever read your early works and think 'I could write that much better now'

SMS. No, although I do occasionally wish I could do something over in terms of backgrounding, since my knowledge base has increased.

SH. When did you decide to write full-time?

SMS. I always wanted to write full-time; it became financially possible in 1988, due to getting a couple of multi-book contracts. The pay was fairly miserable, but then so was what I was earning from the temporary jobs I was doing to feed myself while I wrote.

SH. Do you use an agent?

SMS. Yes. Russell Galen is my agent, and a very good one.

SH. How long did you spend in rejection letter hell before you were first published?

SMS. Six years, more or less.

SH. Did you come up through the writing short-stories route, or did you get published in novel-form first.

SMS. I sold my first short story about a month before my first novel. The editor phoned me up to say that the short story was a trifle ambiguous, which I thought odd... until we realized I'd left out the last page!

SH. Have you ever had a novel option for its film rights?

SMS. Not yet, but I would very much like to.

SH. Which of your novels would you think would make the best film, and who would be your dream producer and actors for the role?

SMS. As a movie, I'd chose "Drakon", with James Cameron as the director. I'd let the director pick the actors!

SH. Do you ever attend SF-cons, and what has your experience with them been?

SMS. Besides cons which invite me as a GOH, I usually go to World Fantasy and WorldCon, plus Bubonicon, which is here in New Mexico. Generally I find the programming to be interesting, and of course it's a way to meet absent friends and also editors and other people in the field. Generally speaking I enjoy them and like talking to the fans.

SH. Do you ever hanker to break into different genres,or are you content with SF/F?

SMS. I'm reasonably content, although I've occasionally thought of doing a straight historical. However, ideas for books are far more plentiful than time to write them, so it probably won't happen.

SH. Are you from the 'writing tightly against a full outline school' or the 'make it up as you go along' school?

SMS. Generally the latter. I usually have a fairly detailed idea of the setting for a story and the characters, but only a loose conception of the plot.

SH. How much do you base your characters against people you actually know?

SMS. I tuckerize occasionally, but usually only for minor characters.

SH. Have you always been published by ROC, or have you moved through a couple of different publishing houses?

SMS. I started out with NAL/Signet, moved to Baen, and am now publishing with ROC - which is a corporate descendant of NAL/Signet. Publishing tends to be a game of musical chairs.

SH. When it comes to your drafts, how much do you tend to re-write?

SMS. I usually rewrite as I go, tweaking what I've written to get myself into the mood to do new material. Then I give the ms. a final going-over before I submit it.

Computers have definitely changed writing, in this respect. It's much easier to revise. I did my first novel ms. on a manual typewriter, back when "cut and paste" meant crawling around on the floor with piles of paper and a pair of scissors.

SH. What other books do you have planned?

SMS. Innumerable books! In terms of contracted material, I'm doing a stand-alone alternate-history, crosstime novel titled CONQUISTADOR for ROC Books, a third and final 'Terminator'-based novel for HarperCollins, and a collaboration with Ray Feist entitled JIMMY THE HAND.

SH. How would you summarize your Islander series for readers who haven't experienced the novels?

SMS. It's about an island community off the coast of the eastern US, Nantucket, which is displaced in time to 1250 BC. The 7500 people there have to survive, and then decide how they'll interact with the people of that time; the books study how ordinary people rise to the occasion, or fall to the temptations.

SH. Given the Peshawar Lancers starts off with a comet strike, how did you react to news that we came within 300,000 miles of being struck by a nation-killer asteroid the other day?

SMS. I think we need much better surveillance of visiting rocks, and a practical means of doing something about ones on a collision course with us.

We know that such collisions happen, that sooner or later one will happen again, and that they've been responsible for mass extinctions in the past.

I'd very much rather that H. Sapiens didn't go the way of the velociraptor.

SH. What research did you do for the Peshawar Lancers, and was it more intensive than your previous works?

SMS. The research was roughly similar. History is my hobby, and I was already fairly familiar with Victorian Britain and the Indian Raj; most of my specific research on this work was with Indian materials. Luckily, sitting down with a stack of books on history, anthropology and so forth is my idea of a good time, so it's no burden.

SH. How long did it take to write the novel?

SMS. That depends on whether you count only keyboard time or the pacing-and-thinking part, plus the research. All in all, about a year.

SH. What gave you the original idea?

SMS. There's a small shop in Poughkeepsie, NY, that sends out ideas... No, in fact I simply don't know. It came to me while I was daydreaming, inspired by various "Oriental Adventure" stories.

SH. Any more works in the Peshawar Lancers universe planned?

SMS. A novella, "Shikari in Galveston", will be appearing this summer in WORLDS THAT WEREN'T, an anthology of alternate-history stories from ROC, with myself, Harry Turtledove, Mary Gentle, and Walter John Williams.

SH. Where did you get all the vocabulary for the novel from?

SMS. Dictionaries, and "Hobson-Jobson", which is a classic dictionary of Anglo-Indian slang which Harry Turtledove gave me as a Christmas present some time ago, bless him.

SH. Being American, did you find it a challenge writing about and for British culture, society and characters? Were you ever tempted to re-cast the story from the survivors of the USA's point of view?

SMS. I'm a Canadian by citizenship, and my mother and three of my grandparents were British-born; I spent a good deal of my childhood in British environments. A school run by an ex-Colonel in the British Indian Army, for example.

SH. We read a snooty comment from the 'Publishers Weekly' which said: "Given recent events in Peshawar and the Northwest Frontier area, this novel is bound to attract more than usual attention. But since its tone is so at odds with today's grim reality, it may be considered by some in dubious taste."

To be blunt, we thought this comment was horse manure. What did you think?

SMS. You're too kind. I thought it was bat manure.

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