When I asked Mark Tiedmann to give me a writing interview for my blog, his response was, “Sounds fun.” I think this is a good indicator of the kind of fellow he is. I had a lot of fun with this interview too, mainly because it’s my first interview with a Science Fiction author, and also because Mark’s answers were in equal parts thorough and thought-provoking.
I have always had a firm respect for Science Fiction due to the complex nature of it. I’ve often wondered what kind of mind could possibly come up with such intricately formulated worlds… and I’ve always known that such a mind couldn’t possibly be anything like my own! I still believe that, so I’m especially happy to be able to spend a little time in the mind of an awesome Sci-Fi writer like Mark.
Mark Tiedemann is the author of many Science Fiction and Detective Fiction novels. He is a past president of the Missouri Center for the Book, the Missouri state adjunct program to the Library of Congress Center for the Book. For more on Mark, check him out at:
Q: In researching the backgrounds of authors, I’ve found an interesting common thread among them: many of them began, oddly, in photography. This is true of you as well as myself and many others I’ve met, so before I get into the writing questions, I have to know: what is your take on this unusual commonality? What do you think the connection is (if you think there is one), and what do photography and storytelling have in common for you personally?
A: Until I began knowing other writers as friends and acquaintances, I didn’t realize the coincidence. Now I see it as part of the urge to chronicle. Chronicle what, you may ask, but I don’t think it matters. Chronicle life, the world, the particular way you see things. In my own case, I’ve always been involved in the visual arts, all the way back to before I entered school. I drew, I painted. I love movies. Photography was a natural progression for me. I got into out of a love of the work I found from photographers like Ansel Adams, Edward Weston—but also Bert Stern, Elliot Erwitt, Dorothea Lange, Henri Cartier Bresson. The encapsulation not only of story but of place seemed undoable in any other medium.
But I always told stories, too, and for several years I wrote and drew my own comics. They went together, again quite naturally, and of course movies have it all (I’m a bit of an amateur musician as well). I think it’s all communication and we go through stages of discovering which form will dominate. But they never go away. I still draw.
Photography has been very useful to me in how it teaches you to frame things and allows for a thorough study of detail. I try to write a very visual prose.
Q: I’ve also often found that most writers seem to have very supportive spouses. What role has your wife played in your writing career?
A: I simply wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without her. She encouraged me to try to do it professionally before I’d made that decision. I wonder now if I ever would have. I was certainly writing before I met her, but it was all in boxes, never submitted. She crystallized the entire effort for me.
But the role she has played in my career has been to continually support my decision to do it and to work with our situation in order to see the end result. When I applied to the Clarion SF Workshop in 1988, it did not occur to me that I’d get in. When they accepted me, it was a shock, and I wondered aloud “Now what?” Her immediate response was “You’re going.” If I had had to quit my job to attend, she would have backed me up.
She’s my first reader/editor, therapist, sounding board, and takes care of us when I’m deep into a project. So when I say I doubt I’d be doing this without her, I mean that in a very concrete way. I wouldn’t have the time or the foundation on which to base any kind of career. It would be a hobby at best, but “hobby” doesn’t begin to describe the obsession that a career in writing becomes.
Q: In 2005, you were named president of the Missouri Center for the Book. What is that exactly, and what are/were your roles and responsibilities in it?
A: The Missouri Center for the Book is the state affiliate of the Library of Congress Center for the Book. Its purpose is to promote and support Missouri’s literary heritage and the state community of the book in any way they can. MCB put out various publications, held conferences, and now manages the state Poet Laureate program, in which the third poet laureate has just been named. It is a nonprofit hosted by the state library and therefore attached to the Secretary of State’s office. MCB receives some staff support from the state library, but no direct funding from the state of any kind. I suggest you check out their website for more information:
I was made a board member in 2002, took charge of the programming committee, and in 2005 they elected me president, a position I then held, with one year off, till my retirement from the board in 2011. As president, I was there for the creation of the state poet laureate under Governor Blunt. I oversaw the reorganization and reinvigoration of the board, tried out new programs, represented us along with the board coordinator and others at the National Book Festival in Washington D.C. and generally steered the MCB through the various channels of difficulties any nonprofit with an arts mandate experiences.
Q: You’ve written novels set in set in Isaac Asimov’s Robot universe. What inspired you to do that and what has it been like?
A: What inspired me was I landed the contract to do it. An opportunity presented itself, my agent at the time found out about it, and I got the chance. Of all the possible franchises I might have done, though, this one gave me no pause. I loved Asimov’s robot stories and I thought I could do them justice.
They were not exactly based on I, Robot, though. Asimov had constructed a universe called Robot City back in the 1980s which he set up with the express purpose of letting other writers play with his concepts. It gave a number of relatively unknown authors a chance at more exposure. When I came along, there’d been numerous spinoffs. Mine were based on the last open contract signed by Asimov with Byron Preiss before Asimov’s death.
There were a number of constraints on what I could do, specific requirements which resulted in some peculiar criticisms. Some critics thought writing the novels had been my idea entirely and wondered why I chose to do things the way I did, without considering that I was constrained by the work that had gone before and the requirements of the franchise.
However, because it was looser in other ways, I was able to write more “into” Asimov’s work and I took the opportunity to address a couple of things Asimov himself never really had a chance to talk about, like nanotech and what became of his Spacers. I had a great time doing the books.
One thing, though, that I had hoped would happen did not. I thought they would, in fact, give me more exposure for my own work. This flat out didn’t happen. It seems the audiences have so balkanized that people interested in the Robot books had apparently no real interest in the individual authors and I experience zero cross-over to my own books. Apparently, the people who bought my original works wanted nothing to do with a “franchise” universe. The cross-pollenization that occurred in the 80s failed to occur for me, so as far as I can tell I wrote for two completely separate, unmingled audiences.
Q: How does it differ from your own original universe, the Secantis Sequence?
A: Well, mainly in my own universe, I didn’t have to follow anything other than my own instincts, interests, and impulses, or adapt someone else’s characters to my own plots. For another, I wasn’t on deadline writing my own novels, while once the decision was taken to do the Robot Mysteries as a trilogy I had to deliver one a year, more or less.
Q: How did you go about developing the Secantis Sequence?
A: That is a long story, but I’ll try to encapsulate it as succinctly as possible.
First off, I always wanted to write something with scope. It’s one of the reasons I love space opera, with vast interstellar settings. The sheer size and potential complexity of such a setting has always appealed to me. I began setting up a background universe in which to write stories some time in the late 70s, early 80s. Of course, except for the star map I laboriously constructed, virtually none of that original bible survived.
Secondly, I started teasing at a question that, to that point, never seemed to get raised in that kind of science fiction—or, for that matter, in most SF of any kind—which is: how do they pay for all this stuff? It seemed to me that the economics of the future has been left largely untouched. We watch Star Trek in any of its incarnations and with one or two exceptions, money is never an issue, not in the sense of how things are funded. The major economic scheme in Star Trek is what we lately term Post-Scarcity, which is the concept that once we collectively reach a certain level of technology, the scarceness of resource ceases to be a problem. For instance, if we’re mining asteroids for minerals, shepherding comets into close orbit for the water they contain, and constructing orbital platforms for collecting solar power to beam to the surface, then costs become secondary as a function of availability. If well-managed, costs frankly disappear in the sense of contemporary distribution and relative value models.
I know, enough of that can be truly mind-numbing, which is what I discovered upon embarking on research into economics to build a basis for my own universe. But it goes directly to the heart of the problem, which is—how are we going to pay for an interstellar future? And furthermore, what benefit is that future from the perspective of having to go there?
Fast forward through the economics and we come to the problem of what kinds of stories to write. And what immediately fell out of all this was: where are all the underclasses in this bright future? William Gibson wrote a fiendishly subversive short story called The Gernsback Continuum in which he depicted the future as predicted by 1920s and 30s pulp SF and it was frighteningly sanitized upper middle class and very white. I realized that with a few notable exceptions, poor people or oppressed people rarely appear in SF, at least not as part of the normal background. They’re invisible or it is assumed that in our bright future there won’t be any.
But there are always people who don’t fit in, who don’t go with the program, who can’t assimilate, or just plain fall through the cracks. Where are they? It seemed automatic from that point on that at least the first novel—Compass Reach—was going to be told from the standpoint of a disenfranchised habitué of that star-spanning civilization. So the Freeriders were born and the whole scavenger existence and the characters of Fargo and Lis.
The rest came together in the process of writing the novel—the solutions to social constructions, technical aspects, cultural questions.
The next question was: given the barrier in communication that will definitely exist when we meet the aliens, how do we go about overcoming that and what will be the consequences, especially if the way we solve the problem does not meet with their approval? The first meeting is mentioned in Compass Reach and the disaster it was implied. Later I wrote a short story, called Texture of Other Ways, describing that meeting. That story has been reprinted this past year in Marty Halprin’s anthology Alien Contact.
Once the framework was constructed, I started fleshing out the history through new stories. To date there are three published novels and about a dozen short stories set in the Secant.
Q: So many books, including several of your own, are set in St. Louis. What do you think makes St. Louis an interesting place to read about?
A: I didn’t set out to write about St. Louis, but I began using it mainly because I’ve lived here my whole life and I’m familiar with it. Later I realized that there are aspects of the city that simply make for good fiction, even good science fiction. Samuel R. Delany once commented that all his stories are New York stories after a fashion and I can now understand that. There’s a gestalt to a place that requires and offers a deep familiarity that facilitates good fiction.
But from my standpoint, especially since I’ve begun writing about historical St. Louis, it turns out that this is the ideal petri dish for colliding cultures. St. Louis is a layered city in terms of the wave upon wave of inhabitant that came, collided with the already-established residents, and then made something new out of the mix. It’s happened here again and again. French and Indian, French and Spanish, French-Indian-Spanish and American, American and German, and so forth. It was a hotbed of sectionalism during the Civil War, a mighty hub city that got bypassed and had to become something new. The transformations St. Louis has undergone are striking and yet it retains a singular identity.
Q: What originally got you interested in Science Fiction?
A: Wanting to leave. I wanted to hop a starship and book. Being unable to do that, stories about other worlds became the natural substitute. That and the visuals. I must have seen Forbidden Planet when it came out, even though I don’t remember—I was two. But I had dreams of scenes from that movie for years before I finally saw it again on tv. Science fiction was just the coolest thing I found.
That and the idea that brains counted for more than brawn. I was a small, not very brave, and uncoordinated child. I was never good at sports (in fact, never cared about sports enough to know anything about any of it, and in this town, growing up not caring about baseball was a good way to get the wrong kind of reputation) and so didn’t get included very much. So I read a great deal. SF valued intelligence and knowledge in the same way other genres valued a fast draw or speed or the ability to punch or shoot.
Q: Is there anything about any of your books you wish you could change?
A: I would like to write better first drafts. I would also like my books to sell better. Realistically, I would simply like to write better. I’m working on that.
Q: What were some of your greatest frustrations as you began in the business of writing books?
A: Form rejection slips. You can’t learn anything from a printed form. I realize editors don’t have time to write personal notes to every wanna-be that sends something across their transom, but this was frustrating. Feedback—good feedback—is one of the most valuable and hardest to get things in the business.
I am one of the least patient people in the world, so imagine the difficulty of sending out stories and waiting two, three, sometimes four months before hearing anything. Longer with novels.
I once signed with an agency that decided I would be fit training for new agents and went through four of them before the agency finally decided that I wasn’t marketable.
I suppose the strangest period of frustration for me was for years being rejected because, and I quote, “We don’t know how to market you.” I was sending them Secantis novels, which I considered space opera, and I thought, “What do you mean you don’t know how market me? Put a spaceship and an alien on the cover and send it out!” But then I was told, a couple of times, that whatever it was I thought I was writing, it was not “space opera.” This flummoxed me. I’ve gotten past all that now but from time to time I still hear that I don’t know what to make of it. I was told once that I was writing novels of character, as if that explained anything—what, you can’t write character-driven space opera?—but apparently there were certain technical markers that I was ignoring and so forth. It was odd. Suffice it to say none of my readers have had a bit of trouble with this issue, so…
I suppose the biggest frustration—and this is true for all of us at some point—is how long everything takes to happen.
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
A: Run away. No, just kidding. The standard advice, while boring and clichéd, is true.
Read a lot. Not just in the genre you want to write in, but everything. You can’t learn to write well reading just one thing, not even the one thing you want to write, because good writing draws from everywhere. But read. (I have encountered of late young writers who declare quite openly that they don’t read, and some of them get resentful when you tell them they have to, that this is the basic school work of becoming a writer. In my opinion, they don’t want to be writers, they want to be authors, to “have written”, but without having to do the hard work or learn their craft or even care much about what they’re doing. A few such might get lucky and publish something, but they are likely never to have careers and possibly will go to their graves wondering why the world has ignored them.) So, read!
Then you have to write. Every. Damn. Day. It’s a muscle, it’s like weightlifting or running, you have to train yourself to do it by doing it. Yes, you can take a course, yes, there are workshops, yes, writers groups, but before all of that develop the discipline to sit down and write every day. Something. Without that, all the rest is a waste of your time.
The key to having a career, assuming you have any talent and you develop the discipline I mentioned above, is persistence. The people who fail are the ones who gave up. Rejections are no excuse. Someone rejects your story, send it to someone else. Write another story. Send it out again and again.
It helps to find someone who knows something about the craft who will give you honest feedback. Not your friends who love you and want to be kind, but someone who will look at your work and tell you it’s crap and then offer a suggestion as to why it’s crap. We all write crap when we begin, it’s part of the process. You make a zillion mistakes before you get that first worthwhile story. Some people make a dozen mistakes and sell, others struggle for years before they get it down. If you have an honest reader it is priceless.
Avoid writing groups that do not require you to submit your stories to markets. They are not likely serious groups but mutual admiration societies. A serious group insists not only that your finish what you write, but send it out when it’s ready. It is very easy to lose yourself in a group that pats you on the back and commiserates rather than demands you move to the next level.
Most importantly, if you are serious about writing as a career—-and primarily I mean fiction, art—you must understand that you and your writing are functionally equivalent to a relationship. With a person. So when your significant other enters the scene, there aren’t two people, but three, and if you don’t realize that and deal with it that way, you’re headed for hurt feelings and misery. The reason serious artists seem to go through mates so fast is, I think, for this reason. Your art is your first spouse and the flesh-and-blood one has to know this and understand, otherwise jealousy and resentment result. Understand this yourself and you may find that you aren’t as confused by the reactions of other people when you get surly over not having enough time to write. If you have a companion that understands that and is okay with it, cherish that person.
Those are the only pieces of advice that are universal. Otherwise, everyone is unique in what they write and how they feel about it. Seek out the tools that work for you.