As a fellow resident of Nebraska (how few of us there are), I first encountered Robert Reed some years ago at a local science-fiction convention in the early days of his writing career. He has built an extensive and award-winning body of work as a science-fiction author, primarily along hard-SF lines. In spite of a tremendously busy writing schedule, he still finds time to attend and support the local cons. If there’s a magazine that publishes science-fiction, it’s a good bet you’ll find Robert Reed stories.
RR: I have been a professional writer for a little more than two decades, and in that time I’ve published eleven novels and probably more than 170 works of shorter fiction. My work has been lucky enough to be nominated for the Hugo Award seven times, plus a Nebula and a World Fantasy Award. During the Reagan administration, I was the first winner of the L. Ron Hubbard Writers-of-the-Future Award. Last year, my story, “The Billion Eves”, won a Hugo as the best novella of 2006. Perhaps I‘m best known for a series of stories and novels about a giant starship, the enigmatic Great Ship, and its hidden world, Marrow.
TH: What is The Story of Bob? Is it a novel? A short story? A poem? A limerick?
RR: I‘ve managed some fine little stories and worthy novels, or at least that’s what I tell myself. But my best work is usually about 25,000 words long, and it feels much like a compressed novel—a lot happens, much time and great distances are crossed, and at the end of the story, my devoted readers come away wishing that it didn‘t end.
TH: It‘s said nowadays that novellas are the most difficult form to market because print markets are on the downturn and there just isn’t the page space to print a 25k piece. Perhaps this isn’t true after one has been nominated for a Hugo Award seven times. Do you find that novellas are a more difficult market than short stories and novels?
RR: I don’t know when selling these odd ducks was easy. No magazine can afford to publish more than one or two of them per issue, and that’s both a shame and an opportunity. Sell a novella and you gain instant attention, if only because you’re the biggest bird in your neighborhood. I do enjoy an advantage or two, what with being a SF writer with a good track history. But I get rejected too, and I’m sure that there have been incidents where a 5,000 word tale on the same subject would have been taken without hesitation. As for the vagaries of novel sales…well, my experience is that big books exist in an entirely different ecosystem. With more than a thousand titles a year, or something like that, the new writer might have better luck in finding a market. And then later, when he or she doesn’t garner enormous sales figures, the easy market dries up. Hence, writers sometimes reinvent themselves later under a new name.
TH: Is there something in particular that attracts you to this length?
RR: In a novella, a whole lot of crap can happen, and you can build momentum and suspense and leave room for a surprise or three. Stories are cut down to the most essential elements, and novels (this might be an unfair generalization on my part) are big fat clumsy efforts where the reader can snooze for a couple chapters and miss nothing of consequence. Hence my love for the middle way.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
RR: I wrote when I was a young teen, but I didn’t put an eye on the available markets until I was seventeen. The next ten years felt like a self-centered experiment in personal abuse. I quite write, at least once intending never to try it again. There were days when I hoped that I could move on, finding an ordinary happy life. But I kept tinkering with stories, and then I started to sell. Yet even the early years of success felt like an in indulgence. I can’t point to a moment or incident that made me see that this business, this putting down words on paper, was what I would do for the rest of my lucid life. But apparently, that is my calling.
TH: Do you have a stack of less than stellar writing stuck away somewhere? I‘m talking about stuff that perhaps helped you learn and develop your craft, but will never see the light of day. Most established writers seem to have something like this, like the five novels he or she had to write before they could get to the good one. Describe yours.
RR: I’ve got a stack of early promise buried somewhere. I never reread my old work, although I seem to remember enough that I can occasionally still steal the better ideas for current projects. “A Billion Eves“ was a dramatic retooling of something strange but immature: The idea that a young man who could move matter to an alternate universe would gladly steal away a house full of sorority girls, colonizing an empty earth with himself as the only male.
TH: I sift through the slush and critique a lot of short fiction for a couple of online venues, and I see a lot of stuff where the writer simply does not have a grasp of basic story structure and character. Was there a point where you had an epiphany, where suddenly some major cornerstone of publishable writing fell into place for you? Or has it been more of an ephemeral/incremental evolution, an organic process?
RR: A thousand little epiphanies, and when I look back, I can’t remember most of them.
TH: Of course, most writers want to have a bestseller or make some sort of artistic or literary impact. You‘ve already won some of the most prestigious awards in science-fiction, but do you have an immediate close-range goal or a writing dream that hasn’t yet been achieved? Is there some accomplishment that you‘re striving for in the near future?
RR: Some years ago, two different friends, acting independently, insisted on giving me the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator. There are questions about how robust the test is at determining anything about personalities. Fill out the questionnaire on two different occasions, and maybe your category changes. But to friends and others, I always seemed wired in peculiar ways, and they wanted answers. Both times, I turned out the same: INTJ. (Intuitive, iNtroverted, Thinking, Judging.) My label was “The Scientist.” I like to play with my own work, and I don‘t relish applause, and I’m not all that social, and what matters most is my next project, and I have this powerful indifference to what the world thinks about my work. That’s not to say that I’m without feelings and can‘t be stung by criticism. But generally, I don‘t lie awake at night wondering if anybody will remember me when I’m gone. They won’t. I can‘t change that. I just want to have fun with my work for as long as I can. What matters most is my next works, nothing else.
By the way, I have a friend who also tested out as INTJ. We Scientists are supposed to be compatible with a type called The Journalist. She married a reporter for the local paper, and so did I. Is that coincidence, or is the grand scheme of the universe being unveiled?
TH: What are some of the things that most inspire you?
RR: Writing for me is reading on steroids. I love building a new story because I often grow so involved with the characters—a blessing that rarely hits me when I read other people‘s work. I live for those rare and delicious moments when the words on the page take off and I am the bystander, watching as the tale shows me what will happen next.
TH: What are the most successful ways you have used to promote yourself and your work?
RR: I’ve done a few local readings and signings, but in general, they are useless sinkholes of time. In any one location, SF fans are demographically thin. The best promotion–besides writing well and getting lucky in selling to a publishing house with PR resources and the willingness to use them–has been going to conventions where I can be seen and talked to and people get interested enough in my work to seek it out in the dealer room. Although in the last couple years, I‘d guess that my web page, www.robertreedwriter.com, is probably an even better means of getting my words out to the world at large.
TH: Do you have some promotional ideas or avenues in mind that you haven’t tried yet?
RR: I’m thinking of flying into Pakistan and capturing bin Laden. That or dating Britney. That’s how you get attention for yourself in our age.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Have you reached that point? How do you handle the financial side of writing?
RR: I’m cheap and I remain organized enough to pay taxes. Those are my main attributes. I know writers who are very, very good at being businessmen and businesswomen, but while I can both recognize and applaud their talents, I am not wired that way.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
RR: I always have stories in the works. I just finished a quickly written but surprisingly competent novella for a SF Book Club original anthology. “Alone” is the story‘s name, and it will help define what my Great Ship is and why it matters to humanity and the universe at large.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your writing life?
RR: I could mention half a hundred moments while writing that are blessings to me. This story, that scene–the stuff that makes me glad to be a good typist who knows when to get out of the way of the story. But for no particular reason, I‘ll share an incident at one of my earlier autographing sessions. It was the first time that I had an actual line waiting for my arrival—a big surprise, not unpleasant in and of itself. But the quirky memorable incident involved a young man who waited patiently for his turn, and then he kneeled in front of my table, and with an impressed and very serious manner asked, “So what kind of childhood did you have, anyway?“
I’m still not sure what to make of that question. I can see implications, good and bad, and that‘s why it sticks in my skull.