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WesternSFA
Interview with Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is a native and resident of Pennsylvania, and one more good reason to attend northeast coast conventions. He is the author of  Eifelheim, The Forest of Time, the Firestar series, The Wreck of the River of Stars , The Nanotech Chronicles, and the January Dancer series, featuring a character named Donovan. With degrees in Mathematics and Topology, and experience as an industrial quality engineer and statistician, his writing is usually on the harder edges of SF: well-tempered, many-folded steel is what you’ll get instead of puff pastry. At the same time, history, politics, and well delineated characters are reliable components of his stories. Flynn publishes primarily through Tor Books, and was kind enough to conduct this interview via Tor’s publicist, Alexis Nixon via our Christina Paige.

Q: In the Lion’s Mouth is just coming out, the third book featuring the character Donovan. Where does Donovan come from?

Flynn: That is difficult to say.  The original version of The January Dancer was written in high school and college and the Donovan character appeared in it.  At that time, the Fudir was simply a cover identity. 

A story in ANALOG around the same time riffed on research in which the two hemispheres of the brain had been surgically separated as treatment for a form of epilepsy, and in consequence the patient’s left hand literally did not know what the right hand was doing.  The speech center being on one side of the brain, the other side could not talk.  The title might have been “Half a Loaf,” but I can’t say for sure. 

I recall thinking: Why stop there?  So I have an ancient file, preserved by my mother, labeled “Donovan’s Split Brain,” in which the Donovan from the old January Dancer was shown as having been “divvied up” as punishment for his actions in the Dancer affair, not into two personalities, but into several.  That draft contained the notion that the various segments were personifications of the specialties a clandestine agent might need.  The few pages of draft (they are irretrievably awful) also reveals that even back then I was thinking that the segments would not get along with one another and that one of them was suicidal. 

Q: Where does all the military acumen and political intrigue originate? Personal experience?

Flynn:  Reading history.  The closest I got to the military was college ROTC Army Artillery.  After that the Draft Board classified me as 4F.  This was probably a good thing for the country.  However, I have retained an interest in military science.  I can call down supporting fire on my head; and if need be my father can tell me how to defuse an aerial bomb planted as a land mine. 

The same goes for political intrigue.  My practical experience amounts to stints as precinct committeeman, District Captain, and House District Leader in the county party.  I got to know governors, senators, and representatives, and was sent to various Assemblies and Conventions (there was a technical difference) as a delegate.  Never to the National Convention, though.  I was once asked to run for the state senate, but declined because a) I couldn’t afford it and b) I would have been doomed.  I got to see some examples of political intrigue close-up. 

In my career as a statistical consultant I have been to a number of military bases and governmental or intergovernmental organizations; in the process, learning something of their operations, methods, facilities, and laundry.  So, I have “interpreted” satellite recon photos at one client location; “piloted” a freighter on a simulator at another.  All these things are filed away for future use.

Also, a close study of Tacitus, Plutarch, Machiavelli, and other classics is always instructive. 

Q: You posit a distant future in which humanity is on a decline.  Do you also imagine a renaissance for your ‘descendants’?

Flynn:  If something cannot continue forever, then it will stop.  Matters are not cyclic, but they do go up and down.  In Western history, there has been a cycle of roughly 500 years at the end of which are either Dark Ages, Renaissances, or some other catastrophe.  Recall what Henri Matisse said: “The Renaissance was decadence!”  We were frozen for a time into abject imitation of Greco-Roman artistic motifs, and during that time there was very little advancement of science. 

I was intrigued by the example of China , which had an advanced technology but never developed science.  Both religious writers (like Stanley Jaki) and secular writers (like Joseph Needham) ascribed this to the lack of belief in a constant, singular organizing principle to the universe.  In consequence, while China kept on inventing things, she sometimes would later forget about them.  For example, the great Sung Clock was in ruins when the Jesuits arrived in China , and there was no one who knew how to repair it or even how it worked.  I used this as a model for the Spiral Arm cultures.  They know how things work (you press this button) but they don’t know why they work.  

Q: The book is at once wholly satisfying, and yet it ends on a suspending note. How many more installments do you have mapped out? Will Donovan be in all of them, or does the story eventually go beyond him?

Flynn:  There is a fourth book, On the Razor’s Edge, that is ready for submission.  After that, there are none in planning, although there are several other stories that could be written.  For example, The January Odyssey, which would tell the story of New Angeles and her efforts to escape from the Lower Tier; The Journeyman, which is the backstory of Teodorq Nagarajan; and an untitled story that follows on from Razor’s Edge, the nature of which is not ready for prime time.  None of these directly involve Donovan.  It’s a big Spiral Arm, after all. 

Q: That’s true, and a good series does eventually outgrow its central protagonist.  Now, as recently as 25 years ago, most protagonists and even most satellite characters were male.  Several ground-breaking female protagonists, including Ripley from Alien, were originally conceived as men.  You write tremendously strong female characters.  I hope they are based on experience! Is that true?

Flynn:  Beats me.  The way I was raised, I never thought of women as necessarily inferior to men, even if they played different roles in society.  Half of my ancestors were women, after all.  Besides, our mothers ran the households.  Then, too, there was the good ol’ BVM and all the nuns who taught us, so we were always hearing about important and powerful women: Catherine of Alexandria, Joan of Arc, and so on.  Ripley is not too far removed from a nun with yardstick.  

Q: Do you have to make a conscious decision over which character is what sex, or to adjust relative numbers?

Flynn:  Depends on the character needs.  If I have a character who uses seduction as a weapon, that character will probably be female.  If it wants physical strength, it is more likely to be male.  Then, too, much depends on the society in which the story takes place.  In medieval Europe , for example, women played a more active and prominent role in the public square than in, say, Republican Rome or Victorian England.  I do not think that if men represent half the population that they must also account for half the members of any particular segment of it.  If you find equal splits in everything, you can be sure there is force or coercion behind it, because when people are free to make their own choices, the results will not always be the same. 

Q: Clearly you love to play with languages. Which languages do you speak/read?

Flynn:  I can get by reading Latin and German, though I am rusty; and I used to be pretty good in Russian.  The Latin gives me a handle on Italian and Spanish – I can usually winkle out the meaning of signs and such.  The time I really felt illiterate was in Budapest , because Magyar has no resemblance to any Indo-European tongue. 

Q: I so want to attend a convention where both you and Steven Brust are panelists. He can bring in the Magyar while you hold up the Gaelic side, and you both take an interest in historical-political trends.

Flynn:  I have an interest in language’s structures and grammars, and over the years collected grammars and phrase books in a wide range of different tongues, like Irish, Choctaw, Igbo, Yoruba, and so on.  I spent some time in Chennai and if I did not learn Tamil – Tamilians claim no one can learn it – I did learn some things about it.  I also have access to native speakers of Tamil, Arabic, Cantonese, and Swahili.

What is most useful is the pattern, which can be used to impart an accent.  Most English is SVO: subject , verbs, and object; but another languages might be OSV: object, then subject  and verbs.  Think Yoda.  In Choctaw, one would say “Trees sassafras green big three those.”  Tamil does something similar, which enables the taverner in Lions’s Mouth to state a sentence and wait until the end to add “not.” 

Q: Very Wayne’s World. What sort of feedback have you gotten from readers over your use of polyglot in the Donovan series? 

Flynn:  None, whatsoever.  Go figure.  The exception is Juliette Wade, a fellow writer and linguist. 

Q: Well, I, for one, loved it. Because of all her artful shifts in language, Rav’n was my favorite character from In the Lion’s Mouth.  I felt like the Jamie Lee Curtis character in A Fish Called Wanda, when John Cleese starts speaking in Russian. It’s kind of embarrassing to fall in love/lust with a character based on how they play mind games with dialects.

Now, this interview is primarily for the SF community, so I’m going to ask about a book that features SF fen. Back in 1990-91, you collaborated with Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle on Fallen Angels.  How did the three of you get pulled together, and who did what in the writing process? 

Flynn:  Larry and Jerry were contractually obligated to deliver the next Niven-Pournelle collaboration to a particular publisher; but were under no such obligation regarding a Niven-Pournelle-X collaboration.  Jim Baen wanted them to write Fallen Angels, which they had been discussing for some time, so they recruited a third writer.  This fellow, I was told, did almost nothing; so they invited him out and asked Jim Baen to pick a third collaborator.  Since he had just published In the Country of the Blind, he suggested me, and it worked out okay. 

They supplied me with the first four chapters, an outline that grew progressively vaguer as it went on, and sketches for the characters and for fans that they planned to include in cameos.  I researched East Coast fandom and added characters from that part of the county.  Then I rewrote the first four chapters, added two more and sent the results to them.  They approved, gave the green light, and I continued doing first draft. 

Then they finished their prior obligation and began to do rewrite behind me.  With two of them full-time and me part time, they caught up fast.  Some of my stuff they kept as I wrote it; some they transformed; and some they wrote new. 

Q: In Escape from Hell, Niven explains how the Fallen Angels premise of a new ice age was founded on misinformation widely current at the time of writing.  The arguments in the book are still used to counter alarm about global warming.  Recently, however, Niven has expressed serious concern about climate change trends.  And yet, Fallen Angels was recently republished – it is, after all, a very good story. Was there any pressure to alter the presentation in any way? 

Flynn:  It wasn’t misinformation.  It was the best science of the time.  But as Hillaire Belloc once wrote, we tend to give too much weight to the recent past and expect that trend to continue indefinitely. 

The world has obviously been warming, and has been doing so since the close of the Little Ice Age around 400 years ago.  Make that a monotonic increasing linear trend.  Then add a multi-decadal oscillation of about 50/60 years on its back.  The result is episodes of cooling alternating with “accelerated” warming.  It was cooling from the 1940s to the 1970s.  That triggered worries about a new ice age.  See John Gribben’s Forecasts, Famines and Freezes.  But one can find in the newspapers worries about the earth warming up in the 1920s and 30s (complete with predictions of ice-free Arctics and so on) and again during the 1970s-2000s warming phase.

There has been little or no net warming since ca. 2000, and astrophysicists are now talking about another 30-year cooling phase.  Some, like the head of the solar section of the Russian Academy of Sciences, have suggested the onset of another Maunder Minimum, another Little Ice Age.  That’s because, unlike earlier coolings, the 2000-2030 cooling phase is associated with the collapse of the solar magnetic field and a very anemic Schwabe cycle. 

Q: And now I have to look up half those references. Fair enough. How did the three of you gather the intel to portray all those actual writers and the fans of SF that appear throughout Fallen Angels? It really is those cameo appearances that make it one of my favorites to this day.

Flynn:  Basically, they knew the West Coast fans, and I met the East Coast fans at cons. 

Q: Are there any parts of Fallen Angel you are particularly proud of having shaped?

Flynn:  While signing copies at a con in Los Angeles , Jerry pointed to the next person standing in line and said, “Do you know her?”  I looked and… It was Sherinne.  I hadn’t known this character was based on an actual fan; but somehow, using only the notes Larry and Jerry had provided, I had managed to flesh her out, quite accurately as she claimed.  Now that is Way Kool.  

Q: You mentioned conventions. Which do you regularly attend?

Flynn:   I usually attend Boskone and Philcon.  Worldcon if it is in-country.  Others like Balticon and Lunacon if expenses hold up. 

Q: What have been some of your favorite panels? 

Flynn:  There were some one-man presentations I sometimes gave: How to Lie with Statistics, Those Terrible Middle Ages, and The Autumn of the Modern Ages.  Those were always fun. 

I did a panel with Bro. Guy and John Farrell on the medieval roots of science, and another one with John Farrell entitled “Galileo, Guilty as Charged!”  Those were informative. 

There was a panel on “beginning your story” that discussed how to open the text and hook the reader.  We read some openings from various well-regarded stories and discussed what made them work. 

A Philcon panel, I think it was, concerned the place of religion in SF and Fantasy.  There was a fundamentalist atheist and a fundamentalist Protestant on the panel; but since it was about the portrayal of religion in fiction and not the truth-value of the religions, the moderator (me) kept things mostly on track and everyone agreed it was a good panel. 

Q: I actually have the little book How to Lie with Statistics, by Darrell Huff.  I think it ought to be required reading for every high-school student, and revisited in college math. What are panel discussions you would like to see offered in the future?

Flynn:  Now there you’ve got me.  Are there any panel topics that have not been done?  I tend to favor panels that question unquestioned assumptions or turn them upside down. 

a.  Empathy in fiction.  Can you portray favorably in fiction a person whose beliefs or habits you find personally objectionable?  Will the readership tolerate such a character?  This is a real problem in any fiction set in the past.  We tend to disapprove of our ancestors for not being as enlightened as we are.  Note how often historical movies or miniseries feature characters with modern sensibilities.  

b.  The Future Doesn’t Like Us.  A panel I once attended asked: Of what features of our present will the future disapprove?  The panelists all suggested things of which they personally disapproved.  (Smoking, for example.)  Since the Men of the Future™ will obviously be even more enlightened than even the panelists, they will also obviously disapprove of all the things they disapprove of.  I challenged the panel to name one thing of which they themselves approved, but of which the future might plausibly disapprove.  No one could actually come up with anything. 

c.  The death of science.  While medieval science was based on an appreciation for and understanding of the beauties of nature, Baconian science is based on producing useful products.  (That was the main reason for the shift from final to efficient causes.  Knowing that the final cause of a bird’s wing is to fly may lead to an appreciation of the beauty of flight and the bird’s place in the ecosystem; but knowing the efficient causes of flight leads to Useful Stuff like airliners, jet-setters, and strategic bombing.  Finality is inherently non-metrical and so is invisible to metrical methods.)  But the Hegelian worm in the apple is that if science is dedicated to useful goals, the goals can easily gobble up the science and all science becomes political science; that is, spun to the purposes of the funding source.  Careful method gives way to the social or political agenda it is supposed to advance: racial hygiene, continued profits, save the planet, or what have you.  How likely is this scenario?  Are there signs it is happening already?  If so, what “post-modern” approach to science might replace it? 

d.  Consistency: Jewel or Hobgoblin?  Your fictional world ought to hang together.  But sometimes it is a pastiche of elements lifted from here, there, and everywhere that don’t really fit together.  You can’t have a republic with an absolute god-king.  (Or can you?)  Do the contradictions between elements of your society result in an incoherent milieu (swordsmen of Mars who also have blasters) or might they be a fruitful source of conflict for a story?

Q: I quite like that second one. Let’s hope an enterprising ConCom member reads this and adds it to the next schedule of a con, preferably one I attend.  How do you monitor developments in various sciences?

Flynn:  I keep an eye on various science journals, internet sites.  I belong to a group that trades such things around.  

Q: When you were a kid, what were you like?

Flynn:  A nerd.  Wasn’t everyone?  There were seven of us that formed a club called the Adventure Club.  We had our own flag.  We explored the world – well the immediate environs – made maps, collected and classified wildlife (which our mothers threw out), built rockets, electrical circuits, and performed chemistry tests.  Dinosaurs were a big topic.  Much of this would be regarded today as too dangerous for unsupervised children to engage in.  I recently saw a chemistry set for sale that claimed “Contains no Chemicals!”  Rather misses the point, I thought.  But then there are no TV shows entitled “ America ’s Next Research Chemist.” 

Q: How did the writing bug bite you?

Flynn:  My father used to tell bedtime stories to my brother and me.  One was about aliens who came to Earth “to serve man.”  They even had a book about it.  Turned out to be… (wait for it) …a cookbook!  Okay, good night, sleep tight.  Another story was about a trip to Mars in which the spacemen think they see their childhood homes and dead parents and grandparents.  Turns out to be Martians playing mind games, who then kill all the space men!  Okay, good night, sleep tight.  (Only later did we find his stash of Worlds of IF and Galaxy.) 

So naturally, my brother and I began writing those stories.  (I still have some.)  We filled spiral notebooks with stories.  So I guess you can say the bug bit early. 

Q: Who are some currently influential authors, scientists, artists, etc? 

Flynn:  I greatly admire authors like Nancy Kress, Harry Turtledove, Michael Swanwick, Jack McDevitt, Geoff Landis, and a number of others.  Some are for plotting, others for characters, still others for their handling of language, or some combination of these and other facets of the art. 

Among mainstream writers, William Trevor and the late Rudyard Kipling stand out as masters of language.  Walker Percy is a bit more difficult.  In the mystery genre, I have liked Lawrence Block, Michael Connolly, and especially John Dunning.  I’m not sure how to count G.K.Chesterton, whose style is more antiquated, but whose mastery of paradox and word-play has been highly influential.  Some of these authors are “current” only in the sense that I am currently reading them. 

Scientists, I often notice less than the science.  Especially now when most papers have a dozen names under the title.  John Cramer, who writes a column for ANALOG, has been very useful.  James Shapiro of Chicago has an interesting new approach to genetics and evolution.  William Wallace wrote a nice textbook on science using an Aristotelian framework.  From an SF point of view, the edgy science is usually more interesting. 

Q: I like Chesterton’s skillfulness too, and I love his poem about the Irish, but I find his agenda a little annoying. I prefer C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce –fantastical and thought provoking. 

It seems to me that genetic and cultural factors profoundly affect us, on many levels. What is your heritage? 

Flynn:  Flynn in Irish is O Flainn or O Floinn.  It means “descendent of Flann” and flann means “ruddy complexioned/red-haired.”  Given the commonality of ruddiness among the Gael, the name arose independently in at least three different regions.  Our family derives from the O Flainn of Sil Maelruain in the Co. Roscommon.  The eponymous Flann was a chieftain in around AD 1000 who took possession of our traditional homeland in the usual fashion – by taking it from the previous Pictish inhabitants. 

In addition to Lynches, Dolans, and McGovern of the Glan, there is a French ancestor from Pas de Calais .  But my mother’s side is pure German – mostly Schwabbis from Baden near where Eifelheim is set.  She told my father that made me more German than Irish, but my father countered that one Irish bloodline was sufficient to cancel out all the others.  Besides, although Schwabenfest used to be a big deal and annual parade in town here – I live on what used to be called German Hill – there has been little celebration of the German heritage since the World Wars. 

Nearly all of my ancestors were in the US long before Ellis Island was built.  But my wife looks on us as newcomers.  Her ancestors were in colonial Virginia , at Valley Forge, with Andy Jackson at Horseshoe Bend, and with Sherman in Georgia .  And on her father’s side her ancestors came over around 20,000 BC.  Add in the Arabic son-in-law, and a little Hispano-African in a granddaughter, and what you get is pure 100% American. 

Q: I loved Firestar, and how you pick schools as a pivot point for which way a society will go. In that book, Mariesa uses wealth as a lever; if there is no family fortune to function as an initiating deus ex machina, how can changes like that get realized? 

Flynn:  Right now, charter schools seem the only channel.  My brother teaches history in high school and my cousin retired from teaching math in middle school, and from what I hear, there are terrific students and dedicated teachers, as there have always been, but don’t hold your breath for the next Renaissance.  Attention spans are too short, students too distracted, and too many have little interest in learning.  Curricula have been encumbered with political mandates.  A schoolmate of mine who teaches math in South Central LA once told me that he had been chastised for not giving out enough As.  So he told the principal, okay, tell me how many As I have to give out, and I’ll do that.  Well, they say that the best education is a log with a student at one end and Socrates on the other.  The problem has never been a shortage of logs. 

Q: For the sake of newer writers who are trying to do both gracefully, how do you balance being a writer with being a family man? 

Flynn:  When I was employed full time, my job took me on the road a lot, and I got a lot of writing done simply because in a hotel room in Paducah, there isn’t all that much distraction.  Nowadays, the family stuff is being handled by my daughter while my wife and I look on benignly and play grandparents to the hilt. 

Q: You’ve written short stories; which ones are your favorites? 

Flynn:  My next one.  Well, okay.  Lessee.  “The Clapping Hands of God,” “Dawn, Sunset, and the Colours of the Earth,” and “Where the Winds are All Asleep.”  And people still speak kindly of “Melodies of the Heart.”  There is a collection coming out soon from Arc Manor in ebook format that will include three old stories and three new ones written especially for the collection.  “Places Where the Roads Don’t Go” may also become a favorite story. 

Q: Have you ever gotten a character wrong, or do they all come out right for their part in each story? 

Flynn:  I can’t think of an occasion when I have had to retool a character or replace him with another.  Mostly because I’ve usually started with idea or plot and considered the kinds of characters needed by the story.  Usually, those who would be most hurt by the plot idea.  That’s why the central character in “Soul of the City” was a graffiti artist and not the scientist who invents the paint-shedding coating. 

Q: Have there been any stories you were not able to write, for one reason or another?

Flynn:  Usually, once I have seriously started a story, I have finished it and (eventually) sold it.  Those that were abandoned were seldom much more than an idea and a title.  I recently finished the first draft of a story that had been languishing partly done for several years. 

Brady Quinn was to have been a prequel to In the Country of the Blind, set in the old west and concerning the war between the two factions of the Babbage Society.  But I never got to the point of actually putting the story together because the key points would already be known to anyone reading In the Country of the Blind.  There are a few other stories of that ilk.

There was one story that was completed but did not sell because it sucked.  The story was little more than an idea with some talking heads and a minimal plot.  Now and then I think of going back to it and rewriting the thing from scratch.  I’m talking a project with another writer, and this story might fit into it.  

Q: Do you think we have a fundamental flaw, or are our quirks just part of what make us interesting?

Flynn:  I would not call quirks “flaws.”  A flaw is actually a lack or deficiency in something which we ought to have to perfect our nature.  The fundamental flaw, I suppose, is pride.  This does not mean a deserved satisfaction with a job well done, but rather the unwarranted belief that you stand on no one’s shoulders.  Hey, “I” wrote a story; but my ideas did not come out of a vacuum, but out of a history, a culture, out of books and writings of others; and I did not build the keyboard or write the software.  Closely allied with this is an unrestricted wanting.  Since, as the poet Jagger once said, you can’t always get what you want, this is a recipe for chronic unhappiness and, if pride suggests that you deserve what you want, a recipe for disaster.  And story ideas. 

Q: What do you consider a good death – for characters, and by extension perhaps, for a human being?

Flynn:  A death by which the story problem is resolved or the goal accomplished.  Or which advances the plot in a meaningful way.  When Evan Hand dies at the beginning of The Wreck of “The River of Stars ”, the removal of his benign influence is what triggers the inevitable disaster.  Jack McDevitt’s Eternity Road contains a number of deaths, and it would be well to study each one and why it mattered, even when it was through accident.  But the meaningless body counts of a typical action story are not good deaths even when they are bad guys. 

A death surrendered in service to something higher: to a sweetheart, a family, an ideal may also be admirable, even in service of ideals we don’t share.  The soldier often admires his enemy’s fortitude. 

Q: What do you love best about human beings?

Flynn:  That they are in fact human beings. 

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