|features: interviewanne mccaffrey
The Encyclopedia of SF says that your first published work was a short story in 1953 and your first novel was in 1967.1 thought that said something about those times.
Yes. I was raising children. I remember they did an interview about me because Sam Moskowitz had me winning an award. I got a hundred bucks for a thousand words which, in those days, wasn’t bad. There was publicity in the local papers and one of the questions was, ‘How did I find time for my writing with my housework?’ Now, that was in 1953 and over the next ten or fifteen years the answer changed and I finally got snotty about it and said, ‘No you’ve got it wrong, how do I find time for my housework with my writing?’ I haven’t been asked that question in twenty-four years.
People are probably afraid to ask it.
They may be, but I’m older now and it’s obvious I don’t have small ones around and I don’t have housework and I don’t have a husband. I like what Hilary Clinton said, ‘One time there’ll be a time when they won’t ask who’s at home minding the children, they’ll ask how you get good child care when you’re at work.’ It’s the attitude towards women working that has changed, even in my field where you’re allowed more latitude. Once the
kids are away at school – which is how I got to write a novel. In 1965 my daughter, who is the youngest, went to school full time. It was like, who pulled out the plug? I had eight hours I could plan my time in. Okay, so I put on a load of wash or I’d start something for dinner in between writing chapters, but I had the time I could devote to the concentrated work that a novel requires.
When you look back over that period, from 1953 to now, can you see how your home situation, as it changed, changed what you were actually writing about?
I don’t know. I divorced my husband in 1970 and picked up my two younger children, Alec was in college, and moved to Ireland with my mother, which was a major step of tremendous importance. Then I was a wage earner and a single parent. Though I only woke up to that about two or three years ago. Hey, I was a single parent. But from the time I had to earn my own living everything else was geared, including my three children, to writing and where I could fit it in. I remember at one point Alec was about eleven or twelve and he had some burning question that he had to ask me. I was busy writing something and I just wanted to stick with it long enough to get it down on paper. He turned to me and said, ‘You’ll never make enough writing to pay the phone bill.’ I tell you he got sent to Coventry so fast. But they learned then that Mother was not just Mother, but she was a person who had her own rights, and sometimes her rights were more important than theirs. I think it’s actually a lesson that, even if you’re not a writer, working at home as a career person of any kind, you still need to make that distinction with your kids so that they think of you as a person , not just Mom and there for their convenience. That can be very devastating later on when your kids grow and they’re not there all the time.
In the early days did you publish regularly?
I published the first story in 1953 and then not again until’59 and that was The Lady In The Tower’. And then in ’61 The Ship Who Sang’. Then in 1963 I went down to The World Science Fiction Convention in Washington DC and I met Isaac Asimov and Gordie Dickson and Keith Laumer and Judy Merrill and H. Beam Piper- unfortunately he was dead not too long after that. Well I met a lot of people and Jim Blish came up to me, he said, ‘Anne, you wrote such good stories, what happened?’ Well that couldn’t have been more crucial because he was Jim Blish telling me I wrote good stories. So all the way home in the car from Washington to Delaware I kept telling myself, Jim Blish says I can write. Jim Blish, JIM BLISH, says I can write. And that was the turnaround point and I tried again to get back into writing and get my stories done. If he hadn’t come along at that particular time I might have given up. But he was there at the right moment and I’ve always been grateful to him.
How important were your peers to you at that time?
I suppose, very important. So few people were writing science fiction. I mean the SFWA started with 145 people, of which I did not happen to be one, although a year later I was. And I went to the Milford Science Fiction Conferences that were held with all published writers. Damon Knight, Judy Merrill and Kate Wilhelm were the administrators of that. You had to submit a story to be criticized. Boy, moment of truth. Now listening to twenty-five or thirty other writers in the field criticize stories, you got an awful lot of information on how to put a story together and also how to look for flaws in your own work. So it was extremely good. Although I never put any of the stories that really meant a lot to me, like the ship stories or the Pern stories, into the conference I still learned a great deal about writing from that. So the peer group was extremely critical at that point in time.
Did you miss your peer group, as a writer, when you came to Ireland?
It was in 1970 and they decided to start a Milford UK group and I was their chairperson for about five years. Until I wrote a story they all liked. ‘Okay, come on kid, you can quit, you’ve made it.’ So I did. Actually it was about time to turn it over to the English group. Jim Blish was dead by then and John Brunner and Brian Aldiss were fighting. So I was the legitimate midpoint for everybody. Actually people began moving in here, like Katherine Kurtz. Of course that was not until the mid-eighties. I was too busy really, trying to keep the kids together and trying to write, to really worry about associations. And I went to the English conventions as well, which gave me some time off.
Do you like going to conventions?
I did. But the arthritis has sort of put a hiatus on it. It’s just not comfortable for me to travel any more so I’ve sort of cut it out. I’ve had enough. I’ve figured it out, I’ve been to over seventy odd conventions since I started in 1963. That’s enough for one person.
One of the words I would associate with you is prolific. There always seems to be something happening.
I can’t not write. So I’m busy with something most of the time. I’ve had a bit of a slack period this last year but I think that’s as much ill health as anything else. It takes a lot of energy to write. I’ve been a bit shy on that. I have a book that I’m very keen on – Black Horses For The King – which is a recreation of the start of farriery- balcksmithing, putting shoes on horses – which I finished and is coming out in both the UK and the USA in Spring 1996. This is a historical juvenile which was not what I intended to write but that’s what it ended up as. I had a lot of fun doing to research for it. Set in Arthurian England – but I used the historical not the Hollywood version – around 500AD.
Is that Arthurian period one of your favourites?
No I hate the Arthurian period because I feel everyone’s done it to death. But Jane Yolen asked me could I do a young adult story set in Arthurian times. And I though that seemed like a good idea and I had always been fascinated with the fact Arthur had had to go to Europe to get horses big enough for his men to ride. Because of course the indigenous stock were all ponies and you couldn’t have six foot guys riding on thirteen twos. And because they moved the horses from their locale they would have needed shoes. And about that time is when they started using Hippo Sandals, iron rims to protect horses hooves, so I’m historically correct. Though it’s not so much about Arthur as it is about one of his minions.
Do you feel now that you can write about whatever you like and are there subjects that you haven’t felt able to write until now?
I do write pretty much what I feel like writing at the time. Since I’m a popular author I get away with it with my publishers. They’ll take anything I care to write. This can be bad because maybe you’re not writing up to what should be your standard. So I rely on good friends and my agent to tell me that this is not right. So I keep the standard up.
Have you always relied on other people?
No. I’ve relied on my own instinct about the story because that’s what I am, a story teller.
In the early days you had the Milford people. Was that purely a technique thing?
It covered every aspect of writing: technique: viewpoint, characters, development of plot. Because at that point in time science fiction decided it needed to improve the product if we wanted to get better pay and if we wanted to get more popular. Of course in 1969 we put a man on the moon and suddenly science fiction was not so stupid after all. We’ve seen an increase in that over the years, where people who might have thought science fiction was for kids realising we have postulated quite a lot of things that are now in constant use. We didn’t make it with the PCs but then we do have a few flaws.
What do you think of sf as a product now?
I think it has improved tremendously. For one thing you have decent characterisation, you have plots. The hard science is not so much the pivot on which the plot turns. The pimply faced kid at fourteen who was reading Astounding and Amazing, wants more meat to the story and he wants more characterisation. And we’re winning, thanks to Star Trek and Star Wars. Women have decided they can read science fiction too. It’s not too much for them.
And write too.
I think there are more women in the SFWA who are making a fine living out of sf than men.
If you look at the split of the awards, it seems to be shifting…
With Connie Willis and Lois Bujold grabbing everything in sight. And Nancy Kress.
When you started were you ever tempted to take a pseudonym to hide the fact that you were a woman.
No I never did, but then I was always very proud of being, not only Irish, but a woman, and it never occurred to me to hide my light under a barrel. Of course my ex-husband, whose last name was Johnson, did not want me to use Johnson. In fact he refuses to be listed in my biographies. He’s ashamed of me as a science fiction writer – that’s his problem not mine.
These days there’s less reason to be ashamed because, as you say, sf has grown up. Do you feel that it is now accepted as literature rather than genre.
Some sf is certainly literature. I’m surprised to be in that category myself, because I’m a storyteller not a literary writer. But I think that some of the finer works deserve an accolade from all over. You have people from outside the field like Margaret Atwood with her Handmaid’s Tale. Michael Crichton says he doesn’t write science fiction but we all know he does. Even Kurt Vonnegut has written quote, sf classics, unquote. People like Clive Kussler and Wilbur Smith try a fantastical theme now and again. It fun to write like that. Something like Inca Gold by Clive Kussler is very good. They’re getting in on our action but we’ve paved the way for them so that it would be acceptable. Ten or fifteen years ago it wouldn’t have been.
How much difference has science fiction’s popularity in the movies and in other entertainment media made to you as a writer?
I don’t know it means anything to me as a writer but it has broadened the readership which means more books are being picked up and read by people who did not think they could ever understand or like science fiction. And that has increased the female readership as well, which is important. And authorship.
I heard that Dragonflight is in process as a movie.
Well if we ever get the script I will approve of, yes. But I’m being very difficult. I don’t care if it ever gets made but they’re not going to mess up my dragons. They did it recently to such a classic as Narnia which is now politically correct and updated to the nineteen-fifties which I think is a tragedy.
So what is the current state of play?
We’re held up for a studio and a script that I can approve of.
Does that mean there is a director?
There’s no director yet. I want live action with CGI computer generated imagery, which is now cheaper than it was before and certainly a better bet to really investigate the rapport between dragon and rider. And that’s what the dragon books have had as their main lure, if you want, the fact that here’s this marvellous creature who’s telepathic and fire breathing and all the rest of it, who’s your best friend. That’s what’s so important about the dragon series and I’m not going to have that messed up.
The minute I saw Jurassic Park I knew it could be done.
I did too. I knew it was coming. I have friends who are in the business and they’re saying you just wait a few years and it will be less expensive and then the dragons could be done properly. I’ll wait as long as it takes because I’m not shortchanging the dragons of Pern.
Is the Dragon series what you are most proud of? (Pause) As a writer.
I don’t really know. Certainly they have paid for my life. From a short story to two and a half million words. It’s a good leap. I’m on my fourteenth dragon book at the moment. I think you’re always proud of the book you’ve just finished and hope that will be the one that makes your mark. It’s hard to say. I’m not very good at analysing my own thing. If I figured out how I do It I probably wouldn’t be able to do it again, so I leave it alone. I get a lot of theses and masters and doctoral dissertations on Anne McCaffrey, the writer. I always have to laugh, they haven’t got it right yet. They’re bringing their own experience into reading my books so of course they’re going to differ from what I thought I was doing at the time.
Does what you think you were doing change as you look further back?
I never go into it that way. I let other people worry about why I was doing something. There’s no doubt that what’s happening in the world around me creeps into what I’m writing no matter what century or far distant future I’m in. Because people haven’t changed since the Bible was written and I don’t see that they’re going to change in the next six thousand years either. So you can use the reactions of people today and put them in different situations, where they are tested, and still have valid characterisations. That’s what I do; extrapolate everything and make people work a little harder in a different environment.
How much of your love of horses is there in those dragons?
Well, dragons aren’t horses. Fire lizards are cats. Horses are rather stupid creatures. Certainly they sort of helped but I wanted a different partnership between the dragon and the rider it had to be an equal one instead of subservient. The animal is maybe a different critter but it’s not an animal as we think of animals, it’s its own self and unique. That’s what I was exploring as much as anything else.
What prompted you to go down that line?
Well, it was 1966 and I’d just sold Restoree and I had Decision At Doona fairly well done and I was looking around for a new sort of critter to put in books and I wrote this short story which John Campbell at Analog, bless his heart, picked up. The next thing I knew I was producing dragons. It was a good days work. A very good days work.
One of the most important things, it seems to me, with Anne McCaffrey is your family and I was wondering if any of them feature in your work?
Well, Todd is actually Jaxom as much as anybody. I used Gigi, sort of, for Moreta. The most unusual condition was I started the dragon stories in the late sixties and moved to Ireland in the seventies. Dave Gerrold came to live in Ireland and he called me up and said, ‘My landlady is Lessa.’ I said don’t be ridiculous, I made her up. ‘I don’t care if you made her up or not, she’s here, she’s my landlady. And guess what she does for a living?’ I said, She’s your landlady. He said ‘No. She rides racehorses for Seamus McGrath’s racing stable.’ Well that’s about as near as you can get to riding dragons. And I met her and she was Lessa. Definitely. That was uncanny, that I had invented this person and she was alive and well and riding racehorses in DunLaoghaire. Well, these things happen. F’nor turns out to be a first mate on a fishing trawler, named Bernard Shattuck. And that was totally off the wall too.
And the interesting thing was that they were very much like the characters I had written about. Master Harper Robinton was my vocal and opera coach in Wilmington Delaware – Frederick R. Robinson – and he is now, God love him, dead. He came on as a spear carrier and he’s dominated all the major books -seven or eight books. I tried to write a story without him and he barged in and said I really do have something to say about this, Anne, and went ahead. Characters will do that and then you know you’ve got a good one. I find that some characters just live it up on Pern.
Obviously Robinton is a favourite, but who are the others.
I was always very fond of F’nor. Piemur is another one. He was modeled after a young friend of mine, Eamon Hanrahan, who was an engineering student and a friend of Todd’s; they both motorbiked together. Helva, of course is one of my favourite characters and I’m very fond of Killeshandra, bitch that she is. And wouldn’t Sigourney Weaver make a great Killeshandra?
Have any of the other books been optioned by Hollywood?
Oh yes, every book that I’ve written has been optioned at one time or another. You grab the money and run. But the only series I’m really careful about is the Dragonriders. Nothing has ever happened. Hollywood goes through dozens and dozens of scripts trying to find something they can use, misuse, abuse, when they get a hold of it. Even to Helva I don’t mind what happens, cause if you take Helva out of the ship you don’t have a story. So you’re fairly safe there. We’ll see. There’s a big search in Hollywood for science fiction films. They may not call it science fiction but that’s what it is. And it’s selling really well. Even such odd things as The Terminator1 are tremendous box office.
Would you be interested in actually writing the scripts?
I would with the dragons but not with anything else. I’m too close to them. For instance the Dinosaur Planet group would make an excellent children’s animation series. I wouldn’t care what they did with them. They want a planet that smells, fine. But Jurassic Park got there ahead of me.
How close to the Dragonflight book would you see the movie being?
Somebody told me recently that the movie uses the novel as the toolbox. That’s fine because everything they need is in Dragonflight. But I have had several folks – the Dragon series has been optioned about six times now – who wanted to turn everything around and put in elements that have nothing to do with the book and you don’t need it. I mean, you have to reorganise the events within the book to make a film because they were short stories originally. That said, anything they need to do is in the toolbox of the book. It’s when they start being Hollyweird I get upset. For instance one group wanted the dragon to speak a garble which the rider would then translate. The whole point of the book is this marvellous telepathic communication between rider and dragon. So they speak intelligent English. “So how can we have Dragon voices?” Very simple. You use a tunnel effect on the actor’s (rider’s) voice and that becomes his dragon’s voice. I’m open to suggestions about keeping Fax, who’s renamed Raxol, alive. But then at one point these clown heads did not want the dragons to go between. It’s a large planet; how do you get there fast? They didn’t want them to breathe fire. Okay, so you’ve got this core of large fighting creatures; it’s analogous to having General Patton have his men polish the outside of the tanks and when they go into war they’ve had no practice with maneuvering or with using their weapons. Come on, guys, let’s be real. One of the things the Hollywood group wanted to do was to make an action adventure film like Star Wars. Well, Dragonflight is not like that. It’s like a Star Trek script in which you have a problem which you have to solve in the course of the book. So they had totally the wrong slant. You could talk yourself sick with them and they were not listening. They had their preconceoptions. In fact one group had not even read the book. They were going from my original script. I’ve learnt a lot about script writing since then. That’s why I have script approval.
How strong a hand does script approval give you?
It means they can’t do a movie of a script I won’t approve. Most Hollywood studios won’t accept this sort fo situation. Disney Warner Brothers… In fact Iturned down a million dollar offer from Warner Brothers, because I knew what they’d do. They would not give me script approval and they’d mess mess the whole idea up. The best of all possible worlds would be an independent production, where people I know and trust rather than Hollyweirds have complete control.
You seem to have had nothing but bad experiences with Hollywood.
Not to read the book, I mean it’s stupid. How are you going to know what you’ve got.
How important were awards to you?
They were important in terms of getting the booksellers to give me decent space on the racks. It’s exposure that makes you important.l have eight foot of shelf space in some of the larger US chains and this gives me a lot of exposure. I keep constantly winning the Science Fiction Book Club Award. I’ve got eight of them now. Almost embarrassing. Fortunately Sue Grafton keeps getting the Mystery Book Club Award.
How is that award decided?
That’s by polling the readership of the Science Fiction Book Club. You’ve got forty to fifty thousand people. Now whether they all vote or not or not, you know how people vote, is immaterial. But enough of them vote for me so that I keep getting the award. And it’s much more prestigious than, say, the World SF Convention awards which might be voted on by six or seven hundred people.
When you talk about prestige, which is your favourite award of all that you have had?
I actually think the Hugo was because I never expected to win it. I was out in Berkeley California in 1968. It just blew my mind. I was sitting at the same table with Gene Roddenberry and Majel Barret, who were not at that point married, although they looked like it to me, and Betty Ballantine. Dave Gerrold was at the next table and he had a story up for an award. We sat there holding hands. I did not believe my name when it was called out. That was the most important one. It proved conclusively that I was someone who could be watched, that I was a saleable name. At this point I have probelms with publishers because they’re always trying to publish something by Anne McCaffrey so they can get the sales. It can be embarrassing. There’s such a thing, believe it or not, as too much popularity. It can be a headache.
Do you find that it creates a problem for you, in that you’re not able to slow down and make it exactly as you want because of a deadline?
No. I do try to write to deadlines but sometimes I don’t make it. My publishers, particularly Del Rey, have been understanding. For instance The Girl Who Heard Dragons came out in the States and everyone thought it was a full Pern novel because the publisher deliberately did not state that it was a collection of short stories. And I’ve gotten some letters of complaint from people that this was unfair publicity, and it was. So the UK copy very definitely says a collection of fifteen short stories. Because I don’t like to mislead my public. But I also don’t seem to have as much control as I think I do.
Do you get any control over the images they put on the cover?
I have cover control. Particularly in England where the covers are not as good, generally speaking, as they are in the States. Of course I was fortunate enough to get Michael Whelan for The White Dragon. That cover sold the book. It just leapt off shelves into people’s arms. He’s done most of my Dragon book covers.
Why do you say the UK covers aren’t as good as the US?
Well they weren’t. When Dragonquest came out from Rapp and Whiting it was a black cover with a distorted blue female figure on a Chinese doll. What does that have to do with Dragonflight for God’s sake. I refused to publish with that man ever again. Gradually I worked it into my English contracts that I had cover approval. Orbit does some of my collaborations and I made it plain I did not like the first cover that came out and that they should look at their contact and see that I had cover approval. So I have managed to get better covers. Butthey’re still not great on some of the books but they’re an improvement on what was originally submitted to me.
Is it the artists, or the lack of imagination?
Science fiction is still sort of a stepchild in England. The art director doesn’t have that much money for books. Some of them were okay but the covers in the States are much better. Ballantine books was the one that started having proper covers on their paperbacks in the fifties and sixties and that started the trend in the States so that you had covers that actually had something to do with the book inside them.
If you were going to have an artist who was recognised as the Anne McCaffrey cover artist as Josh Kirby is for Terry Pratchett, is there someone…?
Michael Whelan in the States, if he’s not too busy. Steve Weston in England. He always calls me up and says, “Okay, Anne, what will we put on this book?” So we usually arrive at something.
What covers has he done?
He does the Corgi covers for me. The Dragonriders of Pern and some other stuff. I think England used the Ed Romas covers for the Tower and Hive series. Sometimes they’ll take the American cover just to keep the editions, particularly the hardcovers, consistent.
In the UK you must have three or four different publishers. How come you main publisher doesn’t grab everything?
Corgi recently have brought under their logo the five books that still belonged to Andre Deutsch. And then they decided to keep to ‘pure’ McCaffrey, so when the collaboration came up… I had a contract with Futura McDonald which is now Orbit, or something like that, I can’t keep up with the changes. That was to do the Dinosaur Planet series, which was supposed to be for juveniles, but they changed their mind mid-stream. I asked not to do the third book in the group because I just couldn’t spin the story further on, not as an adult. Then I did collaborations with Elizabeth Moon and Jody Lyn Nye and Corgi did not want to take them up. So Orbit did for me and they took the other collaborations, the five ship stories I’ve done. I only have two publishers now in England.
How did the collaborations come about?
There are a lot of mid-list writers who’ve been having a wretched time, both here and in the US. Publishers found it was cheaper to find a couple of unknowns and pay them the low rate. It was cheaper to do that than to give the mid-list writer what they were worth. So Bill Fawcett decided that what he could do was to pair up names of upcoming writers with big name writers. They’d get the same attention that the big name writer got and maybe they could move off on their own, and they all have. Like Mercedes Lackey, Steve Sterling, Elizabeth Moon, Jody Lyn Nye. Then Elizabeth Anne Scarborough came to live with me when she was researching an Irish book and we got to talking one evening and decided to write a book between the pair of us. So we would work on our own books in the morning or the afternoon then pass the magic disk between computers and get on with the story. That was The Powers That Be, using Annie’s Alaskan background. I’d been to Alaska too so I knew something. There hadn’t been an ice planet, I notice there are two new ones out now.
Did you enjoy the collaboration?
Yes. We each had special characters and we would do the scenes which involved them and then seam it together.
You didn’t find the seaming together…?
…no problem. I was senior author. No, we agreed on this, that one of us had to be top author. And since I had more experience, I got to do it. So I did the final draft polish.
Have you any further collaborations coming up?
No. I have just about as much work as I have energy for without taking on anything new.
Will you begin to take it a little easier?
I have to. I’m looking at my seventieth birthday in April (1996) and I think I’m going to have to take it a bit easier.
When you look back, what are the high points? The ones from purely your perspective.
That I only see? When I got onto the New York Times bestseller list. Me? In a science fiction novel? And I was the first avowed science fiction writer to get on it. Because Crichton says he doesn’t write Sf. Neither does Kurt Vonnegut. But I beat Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert. With the White Dragon.
I get letters occasionally that just blow me to tears. People who’ve read one of the books at a critical point in their lives and have got turned around because of something I wrote. Most of my heroines are victims who become survivors, so when I see someone who has been a victim become a survivor because of something I wrote, that’s glad-making. It’s one of the unsung triumphs of being a writer, because you don’t brag about those, but boy do they mean a lot.
You seem to have a very close relationship with your fans. They always seem to be welcome to just walk up and have a chat.
I’ve never bitten anybody yet. There are one or two I would like to but fortunately they’ve stayed out of reach. I’m currently involved in a copyright infringement on some on-line nerd who decided he would get in on the action and he had the audacity to copyright work of mine which he had copied word for word. That’s a no no.
How do you track something like that down?
It was tracked down for me. Somebody said did I know about it and I said no, tell me. And as it was so obviously a copyright infringement we have decided to take action.
That is an area that is going to proliferate.
It’s proliferating right now with the World Wide Web. I don’t mind people roleplaying on Pern – there are about fifty fanzines, that sort of thing, about Pern -I do insist they put my copyright notice. I also have a trademark now, Dragonriders of Pern, which is registered to me. I don’t mind people enjoying Pern. I do object when they decide they can do it better and put in totally extraneous things. I made it clear there is absolutely no contact with Earth on Pern. I’ve set that up. You can’t have Red and Black Dragons, sorry, or Silver Dragons. You can only have the existing colours. You can’t use any of the main characters, except offstage.
A small part of the interview (at the end) has been omitted as it related only to a story published in that issue of Albedo One.