A Life of Writing, James Gunn Interviewed

James Gunn is an award-winning author, editor, anthologist, scholar and educator. His long career has spanned more than sixty years, during which he has authored twenty-six books, edited eighteen, and published nearly one-hundred stories. Additionally he is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Kansas and the Director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. In 2007 he was awarded the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master by the SFWA.

I met James Gunn in 1993 as a student of one of his writing classes. At the time I had no idea of his successful career, and still kick myself for not taking advantage of the opportunity to get to know him better. Being able to interview him has been a pleasant step toward correcting some of that mistake.

On Writing and Publishing:


There’s a lot of talk about the death of books or the end of publishing during your long career – how often have you heard this or a variation on it (with the rise of television, etc.)?

It’s true that book publishing has been in trouble for some time now, but when I got started in 1948 (my first novel was published in 1955; my second, too) the publishing business was still strong and still expanding. The slick magazines (The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s…) got killed when television captured most of the advertising revenue and then some of the audience. The book industry didn’t come under attack until the rise of the book-selling chains and then digital publishing, which also attacked the chains.

How has the publishing industry changed since you’ve been involved with it?

The main change has been the growing influence of the sales force and then the accountants. When I was starting, the editor decided what was worth publishing and the salesmen sold it; now the editor has to get the sales force (which hasn’t read the book) for an estimate of how many copies it can sell and the accountants have to agree that the book can make money. Maybe the small publishers, who sprang up to market the “mid-list” books that the major publishers stopped publishing do things the old-fashioned way.

What has changed for the better?

Digital publishing means that the built-in costs of returns and remainders have to be reconsidered, and, also, that every author has a recourse. It isn’t clear yet how the author is going to get fair compensation that will support a writing career, or even motivate a part-time writer, or how readers are going to select what is worth reading out of a plethora of choices.

How has the pay changed (when what’s considered pro-rate – $.05/word – hasn’t changed forever)?

There a lot more opportunities to get paid for writing, some of them remunerative. There is more room at the top; more writers are writing full-time, and the best-sellers make out quite well. The short-story doesn’t have much of a market, and those that exist have not kept up with inflation. The magazines once were important, even critical, to a writer’s development and career; now the book market is where the action is.

If you were a writer just starting out now what would you be doing differently? Do you think you’d still be a Sci-Fi writer?

My interests have always been in idea-fiction, and I’d be an SF writer today. But I’d probably focus on the novel, even though my love has always been the short story.

What makes good writing today, versus what you saw previously?

We and my predecessors were motivated amateurs, more interested in story than technique. Today’s writers, often graduates of MFA writing programs are more interested in technique than story. The writing is marvelous, but the stories are usually not as involving.

How have the tools (word processors, writing software) changed the market and the craft for better or worse?

Anything that makes the process easier is good. I know that some writers still write by hand or typewriter, and think that they write better because of it. I used to think I was the same until I tried a computer and found I could get my thoughts into language almost without effort, as well as all the other advantages of revision, transmission, etc.

What should the writers of tomorrow be reading today?

I’d still read the magazines, and support them with subscriptions (because if the magazines go the center will not hold). But I’d read the better novels and the reviewers you trust (I’ve always depended on reviewers for guidance and insights).

What elements of style are getting better or worse?

Language and sentences are better because writers focus on them. Imagery, too. Story, not so much. The avoidance of a good story, like artists avoiding representation, is a fear of being found out.

What makes a good story today?

The nature of story has changed from the obvious (“shoot the sheriff in the first scene”) to subtlety, but the reader must care for the characters and what happens to them. John Ciardi once defined fiction as “interesting people in difficulties,” and that’s still true.

You started out using a pen name? In hind sight would you have still done it?

No. Then I was under the illusion that I would save my real name for scholarly works, but I merely lost some name recognition.

On Science Fiction:


What is it about Sci-Fi that has drawn you to it?

I’ve always been drawn to idea fiction and how to make readers emotionally involved in them. And, I think, in how present decisions lead to outcomes. And, maybe, by SF’s Darwinian belief in human adaptability: people, like the rest of the animal kingdom, are shaped by their environments, but, unlike the rest, humans can recognize their conditioning and decide to do something because it’s the right thing to do.

How has Sci-Fi changed over the years? What is better now, and what is worse?

SF has changed because many of its speculations about change have been realized. As Isaac Asimov once said, “We live in a science-fiction world.” SF has had to move on, and the world today is more complex and harder to predict. Science is less certain and technology is more pervasive. SF reflects that.

Sci-Fi has been a very forward-looking enterprise, but has it become more reactionary to scientific discovery and less innovative?

SF has always drawn upon scientific speculation and technological possibilities, beginning with Hugo Gernsback and his early 20th century serials in Modern Electrics.  Today once conservative scientists are far bolder in their speculations (see quantum theory, dark matter, dark energy, etc.) and SF writers seem less innovative unless they keep up and even out-imagine the scientists.

Sci-Fi has often been about optimism. Do you think that has changed, that there’s more darkness in the recent past?

Science fiction has always had a pessimistic element (see H. G. Wells’s scientific romances) to balance its optimism (spaceflight, solving our problems through science or technology), but two World Wars made optimism seem sentimental and even solution-oriented fiction tends toward greater realism and ambiguity.

What do you think about the prospects for space with the changes at NASA and a public that seems generally uninterested in further exploration (or at least the costs associated with it)?

Clearly the promise of the moon landings have not been realized, to the dismay of many of us who nursed our early dreams. I don’t think we’ll get that back for another decade or two, but I think we will regain our love of adventure and discovery and move on.

How do you feel about seeing classic science fiction and fantasy making it to the big screen? How well do you think Hollywood handles these stories?

Hollywood has not done well by SF, with a few exceptions (Things to Come, 2001: A Space Odyssey, a few others), including my own novel The Immortals. One keeps hoping. What usually happens to produce a successful adaptation is someone involved in the production who knows SF–like Arthur C. Clarke–and someone independent of Hollywood mythology and control–like Stanley Kubrick.

What other sci-fi/fantasy stories should be adapted to film?

There are so many. For personal reasons, I’d like to see Jack Williamson’s work reach the screen (The Humanoids?) and A. E. van Vogt (The World of Null-A?) and in more recent times William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (and sequels).

You’ve recently sold some new works – anything you can talk about?

Tor Books will publish my new novel, Transcendental, probably in 2013 and probably along with my 1955 novel with Jack Williamson Star Bridge. Both of them are space epics, but of different kinds and they provide kind of bookends to a career, with Transcendental a commentary on and a tribute to the category itself.