This week I have the distinct pleasure of interviewing a person who has had a tremendous impact on me (and hopefully my writing career!), Jeanne Cavelos. Jeanne is a former senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, and these days is the brains and (most of) the brawn behind one of the premier writing workshops for genre fiction, the Odyssey Writing Workshop. In addition to Odyssey, she also teaches fiction writing at St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH. One doesn’t have to look very hard to find praises being sung for the quality of the Odyssey experience, and that is due to Jeanne’s astonishing insights as an editor, her love for all things science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and her ability as a writer herself. Aside from the numerous authors she worked with as an editor, she has edited several anthologies, and her essays on writing have appeared in On Writing Horror, Writers Workshop of Horror, and other publications. In this interview, she even reveals double-secret plans for the Odyssey Writing Workshop. So read on!
TH: Can you give a brief arc of your career as a writer/author?
JC: Through my childhood, I wrote plays and musicals for my friends and I to perform, as well as short stories. I wrote a lot of fan fiction in high school and college, creating weird mash-ups–stories where Han Solo met Spider-Man, where Norman Bates met Snake Plissken. I also wrote a lot of horror. In college, I got my first story published. After college, I decided to follow that standard writing advice, “You learn to write by writing” and I wrote my first novel, an 811-page psychic Western. I guess these days it might be called “horsepunk,” but whatever you call it, it was awful. I decided at that point it might be a good idea to learn more about writing than what had been covered in the creative writing classes I’d taken. I got my MFA in creative writing, wrote an SF novel, and went into publishing, figuring I’d learn how to get published from the inside. I had some more stories published, but as I rose up through the ranks at Bantam Doubleday Dell to senior editor, my job took over all my evenings and weekends, and I did less and less of my own writing. I loved editing–I launched the horror imprint Abyss and was in charge of the SF/F program, and I won the World Fantasy Award for my editing. I found it very rewarding to discover new writers and to help them improve their work. But after 8 years in publishing, I felt I had to make more time for my writing and I left my job in NYC. I had a half-written novel I was very excited about and wanted to finish. As life would have it, though, a contact at Warner Brothers urged me to write a BABYLON 5 novel (B5 was produced by Warner). I had been editing the B5 novels at Bantam Doubleday Dell, and we’d had a hard time finding strong authors to write them, since our budget was modest. I pooh-poohed the suggestion immediately. I had my Great American Novel to finish, and while I loved B5, I didn’t see myself as a tie-in writer. But her suggestion took root in my brain, and the next thing I knew, I’d written a proposal for a B5 novel and sent it off. They liked it and asked me to write it, and that became THE SHADOW WITHIN, my first published novel.
People enjoyed it, and after that, editors started coming to me and asking me to write books. I wrote THE PASSSING OF THE TECHNO-MAGES, a B5 trilogy, as well as two science books, THE SCIENCE OF THE X-FILES and THE SCIENCE OF STAR WARS. Since I love those TV shows and movies, it was a joy to write about them. The offers became overwhelming, though. I was getting about one offer a month to write some new book. I realized I needed to take control of my career and make the time for what I most wanted to write. I’d had time to write some more stories here and there, but I’d completely lost track of my half-completed novel and now had a new idea for a novel I wanted to develop. So I told my agent not to tempt me with anymore offers and launched into work on the novel I’m currently writing, FATAL SPIRAL.
TH: Who are some of the writers you’ve most enjoyed working with as an editor?
JC: I had wonderful experiences with so many writers–Poppy Z. Brite, Patrick McCabe, Robert Anton Wilson, Peter Dickinson, William F. Nolan, Kathe Koja, Brian Hodge, Michael McDowell, Melanie Tem, Dennis Etchison, Jeanne Kalogridis, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and lots more. It was a joy to work with them.
TH: What is The Story of Jeanne? Is it a novel? A short story? Does everyone die a horrible, gruesome death?
JC: I think it’s a long, wandering journey of discovery–an odyssey, one might say–following me from one career to another, building toward an exciting existence as a basket weaver once I hit 100 (this has been my plan since childhood). Then, maybe, I fall into an abyss with an endless, echoing scream.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
JC: I’ve always written stories, but when I was young, I thought that writing was frivolous, simply for entertainment. So I thought I had to do more with my life–to boldly go where no man had gone before, make some great scientific discovery. I decided I wanted to become an astronaut, just like Charlton Heston in THE PLANET OF THE APES. That was my career goal.
Considering that Charlton Heston’s character nuked the Earth in the sequel, killing everyone, a perceptive guidance counselor might have referred me for psychiatric treatment. But that didn’t happen, and I stuck with my career goal through college, majoring in astrophysics and math, doing graduate study in astronomy, and working at NASA. Finally, as I rushed home from work each night to write, I realized that I was more interested in exploring the big ideas of science through science fiction than in doing research in a narrow discipline of science. I decided it didn’t matter whether that was “frivolous” or “important”–it’s what I wanted to do. That occurred when I was in my mid-20s.
TH: Every writer has things they would like to accomplish, e.g. first sale, next sale, first novel sale, first bestseller, etc. What accomplishment are you striving for right now?
JC: While I’ve had a fair number of short stories published, the only novels I’ve had published under my own name are B5 novels. Joe Straczynski, the creator of B5, allowed me to explore areas not covered much in the series and to bring a lot of myself to those novels, which made them very rewarding to write. And they’ve all been best-sellers, which is great. I’ve also ghostwritten novels that have been published under the names of other writers. But I’d like to hit the milestone of publishing a non-B5 novel under my own name. That’s what I’m working toward now.
TH: Do you have any writing stuck away somewhere that will never see the light of day, but nevertheless helped you build your skill to publishable?
JC: My whole basement is full of it! Besides the psychic Western, I’ve got the SF novel that was my MFA thesis, the half-novel that went nowhere, tons of short fiction I wrote when I was young, and many, many bad drafts of things.
I go through a lot of drafts on everything I write. For example, I estimate my current novel, FATAL SPIRAL, will end up around 110,000 words; I’ve currently thrown out over 500,000 words. I hate to throw out work, but my writing process generally involves writing a sucky version of a scene, agonizing about why it is so awful until I finally figure out how I can make it better, and then writing a half-decent version of the scene. I’d like to be able to write the half-decent version initially, but for some reason, I have to write the really sucky version first. Ultimately, I come back to the half-decent version and revise it heavily to get it into a decent version. So a lot of material gets thrown out. I like to tell myself that I may someday realize this material is brilliant, so I print it out and put it in the basement. That makes me feel better than just throwing it out.
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
JC: New discoveries in science, the unknowns in our universe, family members, pets, bad books and movies, dreams, odd turns of phrase, nature, frustrations, striking personalities.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you? What is the most fun?
JC: I’m afraid I find it fun or exhilarating only about one minute per month, when I’ve just had a breakthrough and think it’s totally brilliant. The rest of the time, I mainly slog along, convinced that most of what I’m writing is garbage.
Relatively speaking, I guess revision is the least painful part of the process. I feel I’m creating problems when I’m writing the draft and solving problems when I’m revising. I like crossing problems off my list and feeling like the manuscript is getting closer and closer to good.
TH: Is that quest for moments of brilliance that drives you to write? Something else?
JC: I really don’t know. I’ve created stories all my life–sometimes in my head, sometimes while playing with dolls, and sometimes on paper. It’s just something I do, like breathing. I become very ill-tempered when I don’t write. So pray that I keep writing.
TH: On a typical short story, how many rounds of revisions do you make? What about a novel?
JC: I go back and forth a lot while writing, so it’s hard to measure precise rounds. The final manuscript has gone through at least 4 rounds of revision; most of it has probably been revised more than that. My first drafts stink.
TH: Have your 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?
JC: No, I don’t think I’ve made it. I think that most professional writers realize they haven’t really “made it” in the way most people think of that term. As an editor, I’ve seen countless writers with multiple books published find their careers have died due to poor sales, or find they’ve got to start their careers all over with a pseudonym. Publishing is a tough, fickle business. Only a tiny percent of published writers have “made it” in the sense that they will have careers for as long as they want and their books will always sell reasonably well. I don’t expect ever to reach that point. Or to win the lottery. Though it would be nice. 🙂
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
JC: If a writer has success with a certain kind of book, then his best chance of future success is to write more books in the same vein. That’s the way it is. That doesn’t mean a writer *has* to write more books in the same vein.
He can take chances, try different things, challenge himself and grow as a writer. I hope that I will always do that, because my goal is not to become a brand but to become the best writer I can be.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
JC: I hope to be finishing the draft of FATAL SPIRAL in another 4 months or so.
Then it’ll take a year of revisions. Then, I hope, you’ll be seeing it in a bookstore near you.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
JC: The moment I saw my first novel in print, and I realized that everyone was going to be reading the words that I had typed in the privacy of my home.
It was a horrible feeling, like being caught with my pants down.
TH: What was it that led you to launch the Odyssey Writing Workshop?
JC: As an editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, the part of my job I loved most was working with writers, helping them to make their work the best it could be.
That was only a small percentage of the job of an editor, and these days, the percentage is even smaller, as publishers put less emphasis on the editorial process and more emphasis on finding publisher-ready blockbusters.
When I left NYC to focus on my own writing, I wanted to find some way to be able to work closely with authors over an extended period of time. I became a freelance editor, but with most freelance jobs, you’re called in by the publisher like a hired gun to clean up the town and move on. It doesn’t usually allow for the formation of a close author/editor relationship. So I decided to start Odyssey, an intense, six-week program for writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror that would allow me to work very closely with writers as I did as an editor.
As I worked to design the program, I was inspired by my experience earning my MFA in creative writing. None of the professors knew anything about science fiction or fantasy, so they were limited in how much they could teach me. I thought it would be great to create an MFA-level program in which all the teachers and students read SF/F/H, wrote SF/F/H, and loved SF/F/H.
TH: What are some key ways Odyssey has evolved since its inception?
JC: The curriculum has undergone huge expansions, revisions, and improvements.
Originally, Odyssey met for 2 1/2 hours per day–that was for lecture/discussion and critiquing. Now, Odyssey meets for 4 hours per day, and often runs over. The lectures cover the elements of writing in much more depth. Content is packed into every minute.
We started out having a guest lecturer come in each week for about a 24-hour period. In 1998, we added the “writer-in-residence” to our schedule, which provides students an opportunity to work in depth with a master of the craft for an entire week.
In 1999, I started critiquing two stories by each student before the workshop began, so I had a clear sense of the strengths and weaknesses in their writing by the time I met them.
Around 2000, I created a structure in which each student would meet privately with me a minimum of three times over the six weeks, to chart their progress and discuss areas they were working to improve. Originally, I had encouraged students to meet with me outside of class; some would and some wouldn’t. Creating a more formal structure for the meetings made them much more helpful, and allowed me to work closely with everyone. Just this year, I typed up a handout listing what students should try to get out of each meeting, and that made the meetings even more productive.
We’ve made lots of other changes–the addition of an administrator who lives on campus with students in 2004, the addition of Friday night writing games to encourage creativity and group bonding. I’m constantly looking for ways to make the program even stronger.
TH: What would you most like readers to know about Odyssey?
JC: It’s a unique program that combines an advanced, comprehensive writing curriculum with in-depth feedback, so you learn the weaknesses in your writing and have the tools to overcome those weaknesses. And you get to experience the close author/editor relationship that writers used to get from publishers years ago, but which is vanishing today. You can find out more at www.odysseyworkshop.org.
TH: Do you have any plans to expand Odyssey?
JC: Okay, you’re going to get some exclusive breaking news here. I’m about two weeks away from announcing the formal launch of Odyssey Online Classes. So many people have contacted me over the years, saying they can’t get away for six weeks to attend Odyssey. While no series of online classes can replace Odyssey, with the intensity and focus and fellowship that experience offers, I want to offer writers the tools and techniques that can help take their writing to the next level.
We started the Odyssey Critique Service in 2006 to offer feedback for those who couldn’t attend Odyssey. But learning about your weaknesses is only helpful if you know how to address those weaknesses. Odyssey’s Online Classes will teach those skills.
TH: Is there anything else you would like to talk about that I haven’t mentioned?
JC: I have a Cornish Rex cat who looks like an alien and sleeps on my face.