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August 15
New reviews in
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Illustrated Corner
Odds & Ends and
Voices From the Past

August 1, 2021
Updated Convention Listings

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Interview with Joe Haldeman
by Chris R. Paige

Usually interviews are conducted during conventions and published when it’s too late for readers to do anything but heave a chagrined sigh and say, “If only I’d knoooooown!” This time, we’re doing it right.  Joe Haldeman is scheduled to be the Guest of Honor at LepreCon in Arizona , April 6-8, 2012. You’ve been alerted, now you know, now you can meet the author of The Forever War and "The Hemingway Hoax", both of which won Hugo Awards, serious and humorous SF that often features mathematicians in major roles, and some of the best dam’ SF poetry ever written.  Joe Haldeman has  a BS degree in physics and astronomy from U of MD, which has one of the best physics departments in the country; he is a Past President of Science Fiction Writers of America; he teaches writing at MIT; and he is a Viet Nam veteran. 

CP: Which panels will you be on, Mr. Haldeman?

JH: Do We Need A New Definition Of Literacy? You Are Responsible For Your Own Career - How to manage your life as a writer. Also Science Fiction and Ethics, Interstellar Transportation, Getting Past the First Chapter, and The Comics Process.

CP: Are there any panels you hope to attend as an audience member?

JH: I’ll figure that out when I get there.

CP: You also paint. Will any of your artwork be in the art show?

JH: Not unless they ask me.  I draw and paint a lot, but don’t do fantasy/sf subjects.  Mostly naked women.

CP: That’s exactly what most fantasy art consists of. How did you start painting?

JH: My mother started me painting when I was nine or ten; I’d gotten a bad sunburn at the beach and had to stay indoors.  She bought me a paint-by-numbers set.

CP: Who came up with the idea for the design of the Spaceship/Fountain Pen for the cover of the Bookclub edition of Dealing in Futures? That’s really cool!

JH: The cover artist [James Stagg].

CP: You agreed to filk, if someone provided a guitar. (Mark Horning, that means you.) Are you willing to dredge up the disreputable shades of your past and perform the decidedly un-PC, but very funny “’Locked up in a Spaceship for a Year without No Women’ Blues,” and the one about Orbital Hubris?

JH: Sure – Orbital Hubris, anyhow.  The other is way too long, and I’m out of shape.

CP: Oh, well. I still have a recording. Re another one of your songs, “SF Editor’s Lament”  –  did you ever really work as a first reader for a publishing company? 

JH: No . . . I’ve never been to Mars, either.  You can write about any damned thing.

CP: Much of your fiction deals with war in may of its forms: hot wars, cold wars, espionage. Some of it’s pretty brutal. And that seems to be something that was characteristic of the Viet Nam War. Of all the veterans I’ve met, and that includes a bunch of family members, the ones who fought in that war are by far the most self-isolating. You seem to have dodged that particular bullet. Did writing make a difference?

JH: Maybe yes, maybe no.  The problem with a question like that is I only have the answer that reality has provided.  Maybe if I hadn’t written about war, re-opening the wounds, I would have adjusted to peacetime better.  I suspect not, but that’s only opinion.

CP: I first encountered your writing when I was in college and read There Will Be War, which contained your double sestina “Saul’s Death,” the original novella “Ender’s Game,” and a devastating story called “I am Nobody.” It’s still one of my all time favorite anthologies. What was it like being involved in that publication? Did it make a splash?

JH: It was a little controversial in sf fandom, which is left-leaning.  (The editor, Jerry Pournelle, is not.)  I don’t think it had much influence outside of our microcosm, though of course “Ender’s Game” became one of the most influential sf stories ever.

CP: What drew you to the sestina format, with its complicated canon of word repetition?

JH: It was the complication that intrigued me.  In general, formal poetry is more interesting to me, as reader as well as writer, than free verse.

CP: Where on Earth –or out of  it – did “Literary Cubism Saves the Universe” come from?!?  For puzzled readers, this is a poem about a galactic heroes’ quest, a riddle that has defeated every taker, until a time-traveling Gertrude Stein is conjured to do what no man before her has succeeded in doing.

JH: That started out with a request for a story about Excalibur, the sword in the stone.  Martin Harry Greenburg was doing an anthology of them.  I had read about Gertrude Stein’s last words, and so incorporated them.  The poem started out a sestina, with the end words stuck/sword/question/words/hero/power, and as those six rotated through the poem, they suggested Gertrude Stein’s last words.  (Her lover, Alice B. Toklas, was at her bedside.  Gertrude opened her eyes and said, "What is the answer?" [Toklas was silent ] "In that case, what is the question?"  Then she died.

CP: What story or novel has most of your heart in it?

JH: The Forever War, of course, and oddly enough, The Hemingway Hoax.

CP: That story garnered a great deal of attention. Were readers grateful to have something to read that didn’t presuppose their intellects had been reduced to sludge?

JH: The ones with sludge-like intellects probably didn’t get too far.

CP: No, they wouldn’t. Have you ever gotten feedback from readers telling you that a story of yours made a difference in their life?

JH: Often.

CP: Do you read new sf, and if so, which authors, or are you kept too busy to keep up with your confederates?

JH: I read very little sf.  Not much fiction.

CP: Do you and your wife Gay share favorites, is there a lot of overlap in your likes?

JH: She reads a lot of sf/f (no horror) and sometimes makes recommendations.

CP: Do you ever consult her when you are writing about a woman protagonist?

*[Gay herself actually replied to this one]
GH: He doesn’t really consult me, but I think aspects of me show up in some of his characters. He was once called to task because some of the more feminine stereotypical behavior of Marygay in The Forever War. We had to laugh, because every example was of some way I would react in a similar situation. Note that my maiden name is Mary Gay Potter, too.

CP: Did you and your brother, Jack Haldeman, talk shop much, or did you pretty much keep your work lines separate?

JH: Jack (Jay to me) died ten years ago this month.  He and I (with our close pal Bill Nabors) used to talk about writing and literature a lot, but rarely about the novels we were writing.  That never seemed very productive.  Besides, Jay and I found out when we collaborated on a novel There Is No Darkness that we didn’t work too well together.

We had a lot in common; we both wrote fiction that was transparently realistic with hidden agendas.  Sometimes not too well hidden.
Jay hosted a series of short story workshops, the Guilford Gafia, at his place in Baltimore in the seventies and eighties.  We had a high old literary time there with Jack Dann, George Alec Effinger, and Bill Nabors.  Bob Thurston dropped in a couple of times, and Roger Zelazny would visit at the end of the workshop, for the extended party.

CP: Rudyard Kipling seems to be the one author almost every SF writer read at one time or another.  That being so, I have to ask, do you have any favorite Kipling stories or verses?

JH: I love the idea that Kipling had a favorite kind of ink, and special paper which he had shipped all over the world as he traveled.  My favorite Kipling story is also a poem:  “Tomlinson.”

CP: “Tomlinson gave up the ghost in his house in Berkeley Square …” There’s a lot to that one. The devil gets most of the good lines.

How did you land a post at MIT, of all meccas?

JH: They called me.

CP: Is The Accidental Time Machine your valentine to the university?

JH: A funny valentine.

CP: Sounds like Rogers and Hart songs were part of your growing up.
Do other professors ever come up to you and say, “I’ve got this idea for a story….”?

JH: God, no.

CP: Do classroom discussions ever actually provide the starting point for a story?

JH: Yes.  I give the students an arbitrary topic the first day, and ask them to write the beginning of a short story.  Then I let them confer and come up with a horrible starting point for me.  I do the beginning and often go on to write the story.

CP: Can you share any good MIT stories?

JH:  I didn’t find out the whole story about this until a couple of years ago.  The students at MIT had complained that they wanted to write science fiction, but none of the teachers in the writing department knew anything about sf. One of the professors, Frank Conroy, happened to go out to the University of Iowa , where he mentioned this, and someone said, well, we had a guy who graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop in the seventies, who’s writing science fiction down in Florida .

Iowa gave Frank my number, and MIT called and asked whether I’d like to come up for a one-year visiting professorship.  I was deadlined and so said no, which surprised them.  But Gay was appalled – that’s the Massachusetts Institute of Technology! – so I called them back and said, as a matter of fact, I’m coming up to Boston this weekend (a total coincidence; I was talking to the Zork people about a Forever War computer game), so let’s have dinner and talk.

We got together at a French restaurant and gabbed and drank wine until the place closed down. Walking me back to my hotel, the Dean of Humanities noted that we talked for hours but I’d never said anything about salary.   I asked him how much a job like that paid, and it sounded pretty good to me, so I said sure.  (I later found out, of course, that I should have held out for considerably more.  Sometimes I’m too naïve to live.)

CP: Would you go into space/off world if you got the chance?

JH: Yes.

CP: Is a film version of The Forever War really happening, or was that a tease? If so, are you a consultant?

JH: It’s on Ridley Scott’s list of future projects.  They don’t consult novelists.

CP: They ought to. What have been your favorite sf shows and films over the years?

JH: I tend to like most of them, like popcorn.  Alien blew me away, and I loved Firefly.

CP: There is a Twilight Zone episode that had your name in the credits, the one about the devil, whose tee-shirt keeps changing, played by Ron Glass, of Barney Miller and  Firefly. How exactly were you involved as a writer for that show, and were you involved in any other Twilight Zone projects?

JH: They bought the rights to the story while I was out of the country.  I think it was in the can before I found out it had been accepted.  (I never submitted the story; someone read it in my book COSMIC LAUGHTER and asked for it.)

CP: There are so many great short fiction authors and anthologies out there; isn’t it time to revive The Twilight Zone? One could start with thematic anthologies, like the Esther Freisner confections, or the time-travelling space bar collections – I liked the recent one with Gilgamesh – or zombie and vampire stories, and have enough material for 7 seasons. Stories like John M. Ford’s “Green is the Color,” or “Calling Pittsburgh,” by Steven Brust, or your “None So Blind” are perfect for the slightly horrific, sometimes humorous and often heartfelt tone of The Twilight Zone. Actually, a lot of your stories would qualify. So who could make a new TZ series happen? Do you have any strings you could pull?

JH: I don’t know anybody out there.  It would be great to have a new sf/f/horror anthology show.

CP: You have a good screen presence – I watched the Authors@google interview – so would you like to have a part in an SF episode or movie?  If so, what character would you like to play?

JH: I’d do anything amusing as a one-shot goof.  

CP Growing up, there was a PBS TV show written by Steve Allen called Meeting of Minds in which 4 historical personages met each week and chatted. Marie Antoinette was in one episode, and several American Revolution patriots, and writers like Victor Hugo. If you could conjure any group of characters, historical and/or fictional, who would you summon, and what for? Would you host the world’s most awesome convention ever, or would you all go hunting snarks?

JH: I guess this is kind of unexciting and conventional, but I’d like to get together the gang of writers and artists who hung around the Domé and all in the twenties, the cast of characters assembled in Midnight in Paris.  Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Dos Passos – not to mention Picasso and his pals.  Partly because they’re good writers and artists, but even more the exciting atmosphere of boundaries being tested, new worlds to be discovered.

It’s a pretty decent bar, too.  While I’m wishing, I’ll wish that I could drink like a kid again, and get snookered with the greats.

CP: What projects are you working on now?

JH: The novel Work Done for Hire.

CP: That’s an … ambiguous title.  It conjures up an image of a reporter/assassin.
Last question: what is the question you are never asked, that you would like to be asked?

JH: Okay . . . if I were interviewing me, I might ask a meta-question:  “What is the best author interview you’ve ever read?”

Answer:  That’s complicated.  Off the top of my head, I’d say George Plimpton’s Writers at Work interview with Ernest Hemingway – and generically, that series in general.  I think a student who sat down and studied all of those interviews would come away with a better education in writing than most people get in MFA programs.

The best author interview in the language, though, is book-length: James Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson.  A fellow writer turned me on to it before my first book came out, and I’ve never read a better book about writing – the occasional passion and the quotidian labor.  A brilliant old writer being interviewed by a kid from the sticks who nobody knew was probably even more brilliant.  (Ah, the curse of Google . . . I just found out that when Boswell met the old man, Johnson was twelve years younger than I am now.)

CP: You have certainly been prolific, and we’re appreciative. Thank-you for sharing time with us. See you in April.

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