If you’ve been reading science fiction for any length of time, you know the name of Joe Haldeman, one of the Elder Masters of science fiction. He’s the author of numerous novels, but the one I know, and the one he’s best known for, is The Forever War, a story about how war changes the soldier so completely that he can never go back to the way things were. With two long, slogging wars still ongoing, today’s reality makes the book as current now as it was near the close of the Vietnam era. I remember this book as one of those that struck two chords in me, to powerful effect, one being the sense of loss at never being able to go home again, and the other being that sense of wonder and expansion of the mind that only great science fiction can produce. Joe has been writing basically… forever, and these days he also spends time teaching writing at M.I.T. In spite of all those commitments, he was still gracious enough to agree to this interview.
JH: Sold first story in 1969 (which I wrote in school, in 1967). Decided to try writing in 1970, after attending Milford Conference, sold first novel (WAR YEAR) soon after, and dropped out of graduate school in mathematics. Wrote some commercial novels and then sold THE FOREVER WAR, and it’s been novel after novel since.
TH: What is The Story of Joe? Is it a novel? A hard SF short story? A poem? An epic space opera?
JH: It’s a long (not epic) poem.
JH: I always knew I would be a poet, since childhood. When I found out in the 60s that I had a talent for fiction, and it all sold, it was natural to keep going.
TH: For many writers, their penchant for telling stories goes back to childhood. Was it like that for you, except with poetry? How much of your poetry has been published?
JH: I did entertain the other kids by telling them stories – I’d make up ghost stories, with voices and sound effects, and we’d sit in an echoing culvert for creeeepiness. I also wrote a lot of poems.
I’ve published dozens of poems and one chapbook, “Saul’s Death.”
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
JH: One answer is mortgage, groceries. Another is great writing; I often copy out poems from the Oxford Book of English Verse while the tea is brewing in the morning. When I was writing Forever Peace, I read Helen Vendler’s The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets one chapter at a time, copying out the sonnet and then reading her commentary. It’s been some years since that; I might do it again.
TH: Of course, most writers want to have bestsellers or make some sort of artistic or literary impact, but you’ve been in the SF business for decades. Is there some unrealized accomplishment that you’re striving for in the near future?
JH: I would like to have the freedom to write a long personal experimental novel; one that wouldn’t have to sell.
TH: What’s holding you back from the experimental novel? Basic needs of mortgage, of groceries, coupled with the worry that the book won’t sell? What would it take for you to be able to write it?
JH: I’m almost sure that the publisher wouldn’t market it, even if they did print a few copies. They don’t like to go out of category. I’ve done two non-sf novels that were pretty good – Tool of the Trade and 1968 – and in both cases they shrugged and said “It’s a good book but we don’t know how to market it. You’re a genre writer.”
The only way I could write it would be for me to be far enough ahead to not need the advance – it wouldn’t be high, and it wouldn’t be from my normal publisher – and I’d risk disappointing my editor and agent. Which I could live with if I had significant income from elsewhere, like a movie deal.
TH: When you say “experimental”, how do you mean? Non-traditional narrative style? Something more literary?
JH: Both of the above. I’ve written about fifty pages of it. It’s a tricky narrative, in and out of mimesis with an untrustworthy autobiographical narrator, with some visceral sex and violence combined with a consciously “literary” style. It could drop out of sight or it could be a bestseller.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you?
TH: What are the most successful ways you have used to promote yourself and your work? Are there any promising marketing avenues that you might yet explore?
JH: I hate promoting myself.
TH: Since you’re a long-time pro, you’ve seen a lot of changes in the F/SF/H publishing industry. How do you foresee that it could change in the next ten years?
JH: I would sooner try to predict the stock market. I hope the decline in fiction reading will level out (there seems to be some evidence that it is) and I don’t have to change professions in my old age.
TH: Have you reached the point at which you realized that you had “made it” as a writer and author? If so, can you describe the milestone or circumstances where you had that realization? Do you recall how that felt? If not, what is the milestone you’re seeking?
JH: I think the astonishing success of The Forever War (which initially was rejected by everybody) was a milestone I’ll never repeat.
TH: Do you feel that the meteoric success of The Forever War has held you back creatively or professionally, like a kind of typecasting? Do you think your books now are better?
JH: I don’t think it’s really held me back, though a certain kind of reader will always ask “Why can’t you write The Forever War again?” (A: I’m not 27 anymore.) Some readers and unobservant critics lump me with the subgenre “military sf,” but that’s silly. I’ve written sf about war.
Yes, I think my books now are better. I’ve learned a thing or two. They evidently aren’t as commercial, but that doesn’t bother me as long as I can make a living.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
JH: No, I can’t. Probably works for some, especially the ones who write the same book over and over.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
JH: I’m in the middle of the Marsbound Trilogy (that book followed by Starbound and Earthbound.) After that, I have three or four possibilities, though I won’t be committing myself to one for another year or so.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
JH: Meeting Robert Heinlein for the first time, and having him say he loved The Forever War.
TH: Your encounter with Robert Heinlein is interesting because The Forever War and Starship Troopers (I first read both books back-to-back) can be viewed as flip-sides of interstellar war. Was his work an influence in your early writing?
JH: Heinlein’s work definitely was an influence on my writing (as it influenced everyone, in a positive or negative way, who began writing in the sixties and seventies). Starship Troopers wasn’t a big influence, though I’d read it before I was drafted. There’s no literary influence on The Forever War that comes within two orders of magnitude of the influence of just being a soldier, but if any books directly influenced it, they were The Red Badge of Courage and my own War Year.
TH: Is there anything else you would like to talk about that I haven’t mentioned?
JH: I love drawing and painting, and have two things in the works, one large and one small, that integrate art and writing. Probably won’t be commercial, but I’ll try.