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A Chat with Jack McDevitt
June 2013
by Catherine Book
Jack was a Guest at a local convention last May – LepreCon39 – and was kind enough to agree to an interview.  Jack writes wonderful hard SF and has a plethora of award nominations to his name including a Nebula win.

Since Jack has been writing for over three decades, I wondered if social media had a place in his life now.  Funny enough, Jack observed, no one foresaw the advent of the internet or its impact.  He commented on how, as a SF writer, he should have been on top of it.  And the fact is he finds it hard to make time for social media.  Although he admitted that it is significant; after all, writing is about forty percent public relations.  And, while it is important to him to connect with the public, he regrets, I think, not having the time to be more responsive on his website.  He tries to answer all his email and even gets phone calls from time to time asking if Priscilla Hutchins is available…really.

Currently, Jack is working on another Alex Benedict novel.  Alex is an antiquarian in our distant (8000 years) future who solves historical mysteries. The working title is “Coming Home” and, for the first time, Alex and Chase are heading to Earth for something more than a vacation.  Jack took a minute here to let me know that it’s really Chase who writes the stories, he just channels her.  This got Jack thinking about what Earth might be like in 8000 years.  He finds the little things interesting – like, will there still be SF writers, and if so, what are they writing about?

So what, I asked him, is most important to him in his writing – plot, setting, characters?  Oh, you can’t put one above another, he replied.  You need all of them.  He paused for a moment and added that you have to have real people – not just stereotypically good and bad guys – facing real situations.  For him, his characters have to be real people, and he looks for a good storyline for them.  I asked him what he thought he is most strong in and he surprised me.  He said his readers are better judges of that than him.  Jack also believes strongly that a writer has to have at least a second set of eyes looking at the work.  For Jack, that means his wife.  And this person has to be able to tell you exactly what they see, whether it’s good or bad.  A beta-reader who just says everything is wonderful is worthless.  Jack has seen would-be writers who get angry when told something in their story is weak.  And, as he observed, that reader will not be as forthcoming the next time.  So finding a reader who knows what they’re talking about, and isn’t afraid to tell you, is worth a lot – Jack recommends you marry her, at least, take her to lunch. 

Jack wrote a story when he was eighteen and got a very encouraging letter from Anthony Boucher at Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine .  But then he admitted to falling into the trap of comparing his work to David Copperfield and then he didn’t write another word for 25 years until his wife encouraged him to go back to it.  He knew after he sold his first story that he would never look back.  He quoted an Emerson line:  Once you start to believe in yourself, you can do almost anything.  Jack’s experience as a teacher and parent taught him that most people are smarter than they realize.  We don’t know how good we are because we are all surrounded our whole lives by authority figures who tell us what we do wrong.

I asked Jack what he thought the impact of the internet is on our children.  He’s worried a little about the kids using the internet for more gaming than reading.  But he’s also concerned about the faith they put into what they read.  Just because someone put information on the internet that they believe in doesn’t necessarily make it true.  Conviction doesn’t equal fact.  We need to be making smarter kids.

I then asked him what he thought would be an apocalyptic event that could destroy mankind.  He answered: technology.  He worries that increased technology will continue to eliminate jobs and allow the wealthy to continue to concentrate their wealth.  He sees that available technology allows a certain small percentage of the population to inflict greater and greater harm on the rest.  We become more vulnerable as we become more dependent on technology.

What significant trait would Jack like to see mankind develop?  He’d like to see more open-mindedness and tolerance.  He wants to see this sort of thing taught in the schools.  We need to get away from the convictions that what we believe is more right than what our neighbor believes.  He’d like to see children taught to examine their own convictions and beliefs.  And what trait would he like to see mankind get rid of?  Well, aside from the obvious that it’s the same question turned inside-out, Jack wants to see us quit taking care of ourselves first – the idea that if someone isn’t successful, then they probably deserve it.  Which brings us back to the ideal of tolerance; I think we can see what drives Jack.

What’s in Jack’s future?  He tends to not think past the current book which, he confessed, has gotten him into trouble when he has to ‘repair’ things he shouldn’t have put into an earlier book.  Right now, in addition to the Alex Benedict book he’s working on, he has a Priscilla (Academy series) prequel, Starhawk coming out in November.

Thank you very much, Jack, it was a great pleasure talking with you and thank you for the stories.  Please keep ‘em coming.

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