Habitual readers of Blogging the Muse may recall that I interviewed Kristine Kathryn Rusch, prior to taking my first trip to the World Science Fiction Convention, and we discussed the nature of the publishing industry at length. At World Con, I had the good fortune to meet Kristine and her husband, Dean Wesley Smith, another author of perhaps slightly less renown (at least under his own name) but certainly no less accomplishment. He has published over ninety novels under numerous pseudonyms–that’s right ninety, 9 – 0–with his real name being better known for media tie-in works, such as Star Trek novels. Dean is a nice guy who, along with Kristine Rusch, made a fledgling author feel a like long-time colleague. His modified series of Heinlein’s Rules inspired me to kick my short story efforts into high gear. When a long-time pro and industry veteran tells you the best way to accomplish something–especially someone who teaches a class on the business end of the publishing industry–one would be wise to listen.
TH: Can you give a brief arc of your career as a writer/author?
DWS: I started off as a poet, way back in the 1960’s, playing with a poem or so, usually while doing laundry. Then in 1974 I quit playing professional golf and went back to college, where I again started writing poems. (I could not type, could not spell, could not put a decent sentence together, but I was having fun.) I had to take a basic English class for my Architecture degree, so I took a basic poetry class, and in that class the instructor had an assignment to mail out a poem to College Poetry Awards anthology. Well, I got second in the nation, got into the book, and started mailing out poems on my own, selling about 50 or so in two years. During that first year I tried my hand at typing out a massive 1,000 word short story. (It felt massive compared to the poems.) Sold it right out to the Diversifier, sold a second one, ended up between Isaac Asimov and Manly Wade Wellman on the table of contents. Then for eight years, the two stories I wrote a year couldn’t get anything but a form rejection. Finally, in 1982 I got serious and fired up on the short story a week. Started selling regularly in 1983 after I had over 70 short stories in the mail. Sold my first novel in 1987 and it went from there. 90 plus novels sold now and over a hundred short stories. I still write poems, but never mail them.
TH: What is The Story of Dean? Is it a novel? A short story? A poem? A limerick?
DWS: It would be a series of books, considering that over the years I have had a life as a hot dog skier (now called freestyle in the Olympics, but I was in the first two years of that starting up), a professional golfer, an architecture student (worked only six months as an architect), a law student (all three years), a bus driver (14 years), a bartender (17 years), a store owner (owned three different stores over the years including a book store and a comic store), an editor and publisher (both with Pulphouse and with Pocket Books) a poker player (I play semi-professional poker in tournaments, including the World Series of Poker and others), and a novelist. A long series of books. <g>
TH: A phenomenon that I’m seeing through doing these interviews is that the majority of professionals to whom I have spoken have a drive or an urge to write or escape into stories that goes back to childhood, but they often put it aside and come back to it later in life, perhaps around or after age 30. Aspects of this seem to apply to you as well. Why do you think that is?
DWS: In the modern world of writing fiction, it takes a far more mature adult to get to the real stories with real depth. And it takes longer to learn the craft these days, since the skill that is required to reach publishable levels is higher. That’s part of it, but I think the coming back part is just the need to get settled and get serious. And that takes years.
TH: Another phenomenon is that many writers seem to have a laundry list of “previous lives” that are all over the map. Is this kind of checkered background a hallmark of most good writers or just a sign of misspent youth?
DWS: I think it is a part of what makes a writer. Writers like to take chances, since the entire business is a huge chance for the first years. Writers don’t settle either, which means they can’t seem to stay in one job very long. And often writers search for their true calling, as I did, before finding writing is it. And of course, even though I wanted to be a writer, I bought into the old myth that you can’t make a living writing fiction for decades, which slowed me down and kept me turning to other things like law school because I thought I had to. I’ve made a ton more money as a fiction writer than I ever would have as a lawyer.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
DWS: In the fall of 1981, I was sitting in my bookstore all alone, staring at the walls of books around me. I was in law school at the time and hating it. Staring at those walls of books, it suddenly dawned on me that actual people wrote all those books, and if they could do it, why couldn’t I do it? I had never met a real author, so that thought had just never gone in very deep, even though I had sold poems and two short stories back in the mid 1970’s. It was at that moment that I knew I would get serious, spend the same time and money I had just spent to go through law school on learning how to write fiction. So I did and have never really looked back or changed since.
TH: A lot of established writers seem to have a stack of writing somewhere that will never a see the light of day. I’m talking about stuff that perhaps helped you learn and develop your craft, like the five novels the author had to write before he could get to the good one. Do you have anything like this?
DWS: Nope. My house burned down in 1985 and pretty much took care of me ever worrying about having a stack like that around. Lost my first two novels and most of the short stories I had written, since back then everything was on a typewriter.
TH: Of course, most writers want to have bestsellers or make some sort of artistic or literary impact. Is there some unrealized accomplishment that you’re striving for in the near future?
DWS: New York Times Bestseller is the next step on the goal meter.
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
DWS: Paying the mortgage.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you?
DWS: I get to set my own time, go to work in shorts and a sweater, and make a ton of money entertaining people. What’s not to like?
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 ?
DWS: I write the next book. Self promotion for major books is a bad myth and often hurts more than it helps. If a publisher asks me to help promote a book, I’m there, or if I sell a book to a small press publisher who needs the help, but otherwise, the best promotion for any major book published by New York is for me to stay home and write the next book. However, that said, I do have a web site at www.deanwesleysmith.com that I do new posts for regularly. That’s fun and takes very little time.
TH: You make the distinction between NY publishing deals and small press publishing deals. Can an author with a small press deal afford not to promote?
DWS: Of course. No law, unless you sign a contract that says you have to promote, that an author needs to promote anything. Promotion is a fairly new myth that has grown up over the last 20 years or so. Started in the romance field. There is a partnership in publishing. Authors provide the product, publishers agree to print and promote and sell the product. The line in the partnership is the book contract. The moment the author steps across that line without the other partner asking, there are problems. Often career killing problems.
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? Do you recall how that felt? If not, what is the milestone you’re seeking?
DWS: My early goals, like most newer writers were very short sighted. I wanted to sell stories regularly, and then publish a novel. One day in 1989 I woke up and realized I had hit all my goals and I didn’t have anything beyond that. So it took a few months of hard thought to reset the goals. Now, my goals are pretty simple. I want to continue making a living with my fiction, continue writing novels and short stories, continue having fun. Sort of an ongoing goal instead of something out in the distance. But have I “made it” yet? Ask me when I turn 100 years old and I’ll let you know.
TH: Looking back on your career fifteen years from now, what do you hope to see?
DWS: Another 110 novels published, so I can be enjoying a party celebrating book #200. Another 10 million or more copies of my books in print. All that 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?
DWS: Of course I’m a business. I supply product for the publishing industry. The best product I can produce on any give day. Every long term writer I know looks at themselves as a business person. Only way to survive. Are we also artists? Sure, but that’s in my office with the door closed. When the books or stories come out of my office, they are products in a business that I sell to make my living.
TH: How many pseudonyms have you used?
DWS: Counting books that I ghosted, I have written published books under about 16, maybe 17 different names. Not sure, I’d have to go and count to be exact, but it’s in that range.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
DWS: I write thrillers, young adult books, and mystery novels under other names I can’t disclose. I even wrote a western under another name. As for Dean Wesley Smith, I hope to have a new fantasy novel out in the next year or so, and I wrote a fun gambling satire fantasy novel that should be out in a year or so. And maybe some science fiction novels as well.Time will tell on those. Who knows, I might even dig back into a few media books.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
DWS: The phone call from the editor selling the first novel tops that list. However, one day I had a young kid, maybe 13 years old, come up to me with a Star Trek novel for me to sign. I got him talking and he described how books, many of them mine, kept him going in a very bad family relationship, how my books helped him escape, just as books from Burroughs and Heinlein had helped me escape when I was his age. Maybe at that moment I knew I had made it, that no matter who put down what I was writing, I knew I was doing the right thing. A very important moment.