Major conventions like the World Science Fiction Convention and the World Fantasy Convention are the still the best way to meet authors whose work you’ve known and respected for a long time. At World Fantasy two weeks ago, yours truly had the great fortune to meet at least a metric ton of such folks, so herewith is the first of many interviews with other World Fantasy attendees. I first encountered David Drake’s work back in the 1980s with his military science fiction Hammer’s Slammers series, plus reading Ranks of Bronze, a book about Roman Legionnaires taken to serve as interstellar mercenaries. David Drake sat on a panel at WFC to discuss the conciliatory nature (or not so) of fantasy fiction, and yours truly caught up with him in the hallway while he was beset by fans. He was kind enough to take some time then to discuss an interview and now for taking the time from a busy schedule to share his experiences with the writing life.
TH: You’ve been in the writing business for some time, with a number of milestones already behind you. Can you give a brief arc of your career as a writer/author?
DD: Jeepers. As a kid I retold stories I’d read. This became formal in Eighth Grade speech class where we retold stories as part of our presentation work.
In Eleventh Grade I had a creative writing class from a working professional (he’s since changed his name to Brad Steiger). That convinced me that some day I wanted to sell a story. (Not ‘become a writer.’ I wanted to sell one story.)
I sold a story as an undergraduate, after I met August Derleth and realized that an editor (and publisher) was a real human being. After one sale, I wanted to sell another story.
Then I got drafted out of law school and sent to Nam. When I came back to the World, I had a need to write to keep myself between the ditches. Mostly between the ditches. I didn’t realize what I was doing at the time, but I kept doing it. I still didn’t want to be a writer: I needed to write. Which is very different.
In 1980 I quit lawyering and got a job driving a city bus. I continued to write and had more time to do so. My writing career took off, utterly to my surprise. I became a writer without ever really wanting to be. I like what I’m doing–but it was never a goal.
TH: What were the circumstances where you met August Derleth [H. P. Lovecraft’s literary executor]? Were you ever a Lovecraft fan?
DD: I began ordering Arkham House books in 1963, spurred by an ad in a 1949 Weird Tales which the soon-to-be Brad Steiger loaned me. In 1965 my fiancee and I drove to Sauk City, where I met Mr. Derleth (and his children) and bought $50 worth of books in person.
I was and remain a Lovecraft fan. I get more out of [Clark Ashton] Smith and [Robert E.] Howard now than from Lovecraft, but stories like The Colour Out of Space and Pickman’s Model remain very vivid to me.
TH: How many rejections did you receive before you made that first story sale? What kind of story was it?
DD: I sold the final version of the first story I submitted, but Mr Derleth demanded major changes twice and then tweaked the result himself.
TH: What is The Story of Dave? Is it a novel? A short story? A series of epics crammed with cool military hardware?
DD: I’m sort of a day calendar. There are so many neat little bits that I’ve run into here and there. I love to retail them.
In a different world, one in which I hadn’t been drafted, I’d be a moderately successful attorney who had written a few stories. In a perfect world, I’d be an antiquarian compiling bits of neat data, like Dionysius of Halicarnassus.
TH: You mention that writing fiction became a way for you to deal with your experiences in Vietnam, so one might surmise that writing about war would be difficult for you. Nevertheless, a David Drake novel most often means “military SF”. How do you account for that?
DD: Tsk. I said I was dealing with Nam, not that I was running away from it. (Which would’ve been absurd: the problems are in my own head, after all.)
Parenthetically, since the mid ’90s most of what I’ve written is either heroic fantasy or space opera of a sort that Poul Anderson wouldn’t have disowned. I’ve written a good deal of military SF over the years and may write more, but it’s at most a quarter of my total fiction output.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
DD: As I said, I didn’t want to be a writer. I wanted to tell stories very early, and I wanted to sell some later on. But I could have been adequately happy as a lawyer–or as an electrician, like my Dad–if Nam hadn’t screwed me up so badly.
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?
DD: Well, I’d like to have an NYT bestseller… but striving for, that’s different. I’m task oriented, not goal directed. Right now, I’m striving to get into the plot of the next novel, a fantasy for Tor. (Two days ago I turned in a space opera to Baen.)
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?
DD: I started writing a historical novel after I quit lawyering. I got it over 100K, but there’s no proper plot and I very much doubt that the tone would have been acceptable even back in 1980 when historicals sold better than they do now. It kept me busy at a time that was useful.
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
DD: In writing terms–watching somebody do something right. Either in prose or on screen. “Wow, that’s a neat bit! Look at how much information she got out in that little exchange!” That sort of thing.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you? What is the most fun?
DD: I’m my own boss. I use writing as protection from the world. No matter how much trouble I’m having in my life, so long as I can pull out my plot and resume work, I can keep a lid on my… psyche, let’s say.
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?
DD: I don’t feel I’ve made it. My Dad was an electrician, a very darned good one. He got up and went to work, and I get up and go to work. We both kept learning techniques to do the job better as we went along.
Dad’s gone, but I’m still learning, bit by bit. I have no goal greater than to do it a little better the next time–and I’m not sure that there _is_ a greater goal than that.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
DD: I behave in a businesslike, professional, fashion. My word is good. I deliver what I promised to deliver in a timely fashion. This has proven to be a good basis for a writing career–as it would be in any career.
But the notion of a Drake Brand is offensive to me. I’m Dave Drake; I write for a living. No big deal.
TH: You say that being able to write for a living is no big deal, but the percentage of published fiction writers able to do that (or choosing to) is vanishingly small. When did you make the jump from day job (city bus driver?) to full-time fiction writer, and how were you able to do that? Was it a difficult choice?
Umm. I never said that I wasn’t good at what I do; just that there are a lot of equally good lawyers and electricians and secretaries and whatever. What I do–writing–isn’t qualitatively better than what they do.
My last real ‘day job’ was lawyering, which I quit in 1980. I was a part-time bus driver and a part-time writer. I expected each to make up about half my (meager) income for the foreseeable future. Instead I made more in my first year of freelancing than I had the previous year as a lawyer. Believe me, I didn’t expect that to be the case.
I intended to continue driving a bus, but the management screwed me over in the course of punishing another driver who’d screwed up. I muttered, “I don’t have to take this shit!” And suddenly realized that I didn’t have to take it. So I quit.
No, I guess it wasn’t difficult. I was afraid I’d go nuts if I didn’t have more human contact that I feared I would get as a writer. But I knew at that time that I’d make more money without the three days a week driving a bus. (And it was onward and upward very abruptly from that point.)
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
DD: Ah! Well, as I said above, an RCN (Leary/Mundy) space opera went off to Baen on Tuesday. It’ll be out in September, 2010. I’m figuring out–I hope I’m figuring out–how to start the plot of a fantasy for Tor, a sequel to the new one that is coming out in July, 2010.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
DD: At WFC in 1987, I had a pleasant breakfast with Beth Fleisher, a wonderful editor for Ace. I was just back from 17 days in Iceland. I had books under contract with Baen and Tor; I wasn’t looking for an additional publisher.
At the end of the waffles, Beth said, “If you ever get an idea that you’d like to try on a bigger house, let me know.” I paused, then sat down again and said I would like to do a trilogy of SF novels based on the Norse Eddas–but that I wanted $100K for the trilogy. (At the time I was getting $20K/book.)
Beth checked that I meant three books for $100K, not $100K/book. I said yes.
Forty-eight hours after we were both home from the con, she called me and said it was a deal. Just like that. And I realized that although I didn’t really trust my own skills, a very good editor with whom I hadn’t worked _did_ trust them. That was mind-boggling to me. In a good way.
TH: What’s the biggest (or most consistent) hurdle that you have yet to overcome as a writer of fiction?
DD: Jeepers. Well, you asked: the hard thing is not hanging myself in the middle of a novel. I get very depressed every time, convinced that I’ve blown it and am creating a pile of boring crap. And that I’ll never get it right again.
But I keep on plodding forward, following my written plot despite wishing I were dead. And eventually I finish and read over the complete book… and it’s not nearly as bad as I thought. Not bad at all, in fact.
Every time. Every single time.
TH: Is there anything else you would like to talk about that I haven’t mentioned?
DD: I’m a writer. I’m a good craftsman and I deserve credit for that, just as I would if I were a carpenter or an electrician.
But the fact I’m a writer isn’t a big deal. I see folks get full of themselves because they’re writers (generally they call themselves authors, come to think), and I can’t imagine why. I’m not that way myself.