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Adam Interviews...Alastair Mayer!

Hello again, and welcome back to your break from the Mondays!

Now we're setting back in with Alastair Mayer, a fellow science fiction author.

Alastair Mayer is a near-ancient British-Canadian-American who traces his science-fiction roots trace back through his father, Douglas Mayer (who published some of Arthur C. Clarke's first works). Before his own kids sapped all his energy, he was a pilot, scuba diver, space activist, and probably other things he doesn't remember, but they all influence his writing.

Mayer studied astrophysics, biology and computer science at Queen's University at Kingston, Canada, before pursuing a career in software development. A SFWA member, he has written for Analog, Byte, High Frontier and Final Frontier magazines. Now that his kids are adults, he has plenty of time to write, especially since leaving his day job at a Colorado-based satellite company.

He has 10 novels and numerous short stories in print, and is still going. He attends sci-fi conventions when possible, and enjoys meeting and talking to fans.

Star Trek or Star Wars?

Stargate, perhaps, although if I had to choose between Trek and Wars, it would probably be Trek -- but the earlier-era stuff (TOS and Enterprise), not so much DS9 or Voyager. Nor any of the Paramount+ stuff, with the possible exception of Lower Decks, but I won’t diss the fans of any of those. Same for Star Wars. Loved the original trilogy, but of the recent movies only Rogue One really holds up for me. I’ve seen very little of the Disney series, although I enjoyed season one of The Mandalorian.

Of the three franchises, I think Stargate holds up as the hardest science fiction, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Star Wars is, IMHO, sword & sorcery fantasy where the wizards also get (flashy!) swords ... The Mandalorian excepted (well, until that whole dark sabre thing).

Firefly – gone too soon or overrated?

Gone too soon, but -- heresy among Browncoats, I’m sure -- probably too limited in scope to have held up beyond two full seasons. But what a glorious two seasons those could have been!

Coffee, tea, or cacao?

Coffee, usually.

Favorite hangover recovery recipe?

Hard-won experience has taught me that here, prevention is the best cure. Not that I don’t drink, but I haven’t drunk that much since, oh, shortly after college, some decades ago. And while I don’t recall any particular recovery technique (let alone many details of the nights before), my two worst hangovers were after an engineering students’ pub crawl in college, and after a couple too many hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s bar in New Orleans, during a computer conference.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

I don’t remember ever not wanting to write -- I wrote my first science fiction story in second or third grade -- but never thought about doing it professionally until I was in my thirties. I took -- and enjoyed -- creative writing in my senior high school year, but that was because I could count it as my mandatory English credit. It turned out to be more fun than I’d expected. (So kudos to Mr. Davidson, the teacher, for his Milford conference style approach.)

Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?

I read. A lot. But not just reading.

I’ve always had an insatiable curiosity about how everything works and had a family who supported that. (I got my first chemistry set for, I think, my seventh birthday, and my first microscope before that. It had been my father’s when he was a kid.) I also went out and did stuff. Like getting lost in the woods, or exploring caves, or diving, or jumping out of airplanes, or joining the army. All before I was out of my teens. Writing is about more than information or ideas, it is also about experiences. If I want to tell a reader how something feels, it helps to have experienced it (or something very much like it) myself. Sure, you can get an idea for it by reading what others have written -- and I read a lot about all those things above before actually doing any of them (okay, maybe not so much the joining the army part, and I didn’t intend to get lost in the woods) -- but it’s not the same as doing it.

I like to get the science right in my fiction, and that includes everything from the microbiology to the astrophysics. I’ve taken college-level courses in all that and more (I was doing a double-major in life sciences and computer science, most of my career came down on the computer side of that), and I regularly keep up by browsing science news websites and reading books on specific subjects that interest me. Also, lately, YouTube videos, but there is a lot of crap (including downright misinformation) out there. Sturgeon’s Law applies.

When did you write your first book and how old were you?

I started my first book-length story back in the late eighties, so I was in my mid-thirties. It was set on Mars, and it’s not finished. In part life interfered (I got married, had kids, etc) but I also realized my skill then wasn’t up to doing it justice, and we’ve found out a few things about the solar system since that rendered my initial premise moot. (Not that I’ll let that stop me if I ever decide to finish it. Astronomical discoveries between acceptance and publication made the first story Larry Niven ever sold obsolete. He offered to withdraw it, but his editor told him it was still a good story.)

As for the first book I finished writing, that would be The Chara Talisman, under the working title of Pyramid Scheme. It was significantly different and about 28,000 words shorter than what was ultimately published. I wrote it for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writers Month) in 2004, so a bit past my fiftieth birthday. Over the next few years I edited it to a more commercially acceptable length and sold part of it to Analog magazine (June 2011) as the short story “Stone Age.” The book was finally published at the end of 2011, then reissued with a much-improved cover and a few minor edits in 2019.

First and second covers for The Chara Talisman. Lessons learned.

And I just realized that technically, the above applies to the first novel I wrote. The first book I wrote was the reference manual for the FORMAL text processing language (whose software I also wrote), officially titled Computer Centre Handbook 9: Text Processing, at Concordia University (Montreal) in 1980.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Read. Surf the web (does anyone call it that anymore?) Learn stuff. Interact on social media (I’ve been doing that for nearly 40 years now, although we didn’t call it “social media” back then, it was “computer forums”. I wrote conferencing software that ended up being used by major computer magazines (such as Byte) so their subscribers could interact with each other over a decade before the web. If you ever used BIX, or CIX (UK), or NIX (Japan), you used my CoSy software.)

I tend to go through phases in my hobby interests, although the common denominator seems to be some combination of working with my hands, on something technical, where I can learn things. For example, hobbies that I’ve engaged in for a while and keep cycling back to include building scale models (mostly spacecraft), model rocketry, building and flying radio controlled aircraft (planes back in the day, quadcopters more recently), electronics and robotics, 3D printing, and so on. I guess I’m too ADHD (or as I like to put it, “differently attentive”) to stick to one thing for any long stretch of time, but if something has really interested me once, I’ll probably come back to it in future.

What does your family think of your writing?

My ex still reads almost everything I write, but then, she’s my editor. My son Robert enjoys it and we have occasionally brainstormed ideas together. He has degrees in geology and biology, which helps with the world-building. His slightly older brother (they’re twins) and sister are both more into fantasy genres, so haven’t read as much of my stuff. I have no problem with that.

How many books have you written? Which is your favorite?

Not counting collections or anthology appearances, or the couple of computer software manuals I’ve written (the other was a guide to a statistics package, SPSS), I have ten published novels, with two others more than half complete, and a few others in various stages of “started, but I need to finish the other projects first, dammit!”

As for favorite, would you ask me to pick my favorite child? Seriously, though, Chara Talisman has to rank up there simply because it was my first and taught me a lot about writing long-form. Also up at the top is Sawyer’s World, the second volume in my Alpha Centauri trilogy. Although I had a lot of fun with that whole trilogy, and the series has done well for me sales-wise, there are a couple of scenes in Sawyer’s World that I still can’t think about, let alone read, without tearing up. (Whether they affect the reader that way is another question; it might if they have kids. The scenes play into why the planet gets named after Elizabeth Sawyer, although that happens at the end of the third book.)

Alpha Centauri: Sawyer’s World cover:

Do you have any suggestions to help someone become a better writer? If so, what are they?

Yes. Read. (If you’re detecting a theme in some of my answers, you might be right.) Read outside your preferred genre, and read non-fiction too: biographies, histories, technical manuals, whatever. It’s all good. If you don’t already like to do this, you’re probably not cut out to be a writer.

Read books on the craft. Every author has their own list of “best books about writing,” so I’ll just say pick those written by people who have demonstrated success at the craft. There are too many “how to write” books written by folks whose only credential is that they wrote a “how to write” book. It’s certainly possible to write a good novel without formal training, but I’m not sure it’s possible to write two without learning at least some basics. At the very least, you’re going to have to learn enough about the craft to have intelligent (and intelligible) conversations with your editor, publisher, and other authors.

Join a critique group, attend a workshop, do something to both get feedback on your own writing from other authors (who will have different insights than regular readers), and just as important, to see what problems and successes other writers have during their processes. Be aware, though, that some people fall into the trap of “writing-to-the-group.” Don’t try to please everyone, and (in my opinion, anyway) never submit the same (revised) work to the group more than once. You’ll end up with a story written by committee. There’s a movie, Authors Anonymous [], about a writers’ group, which I highly recommend. It’s a bit dated (indie publishing, as distinct from vanity publishing, was still fairly new when it came out in 2014), but highly enjoyable.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?

It was the early sixties. Of course I wanted to be an astronaut. That hope was dashed when, in my mid-teens, I discovered I needed to wear glasses. At the time, that was a disqualification; it isn’t any longer. That aspiration was briefly rekindled in the eighties when Canada (where I was still living at the time) opened its own astronaut program and called for volunteers. I (along with about 4,000 other people) applied. I made it far enough through the selection process (involving filling out lots of forms, writing essays, providing references, etc) to get a “Dear Astronaut Candidate” letter, but the final six selectees were all way more qualified than me, with double-doctorates or multiple-thousand-hours of high performance jet pilot time. I’ve since met a lot of astronauts or ex-astronauts, including several of the Moon walkers, all really great folks, and learned that the actual job wasn’t nearly as glamorous as the media made it out to be. (Of course, few jobs are.)

What are common traps for aspiring writers?

See my comment above about critique groups. They’re great for feedback and perhaps uncovering quirks you didn’t realize your writing had, but don’t fall into the trap of writing to please the group. You need to have enough confidence in your work to keep your own voice. (Conversely, when critiquing someone else, remember that just because you wouldn’t phrase something a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Stick to justifiable corrections.)

Similarly, avoid over-polishing. Often (not always, but it becomes more often with practice) your first draft of a paragraph or scene is the best. Don’t fall into the trap of perpetual rewrites. As Heinlein’s Rule 2 puts it, “you must finish what you write.”

Speaking of Heinlein’s Rules, his Rule 3 (“You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order”) is often misunderstood. It does not mean “submit your first draft” (although once you’ve published as many short stories (59) or novels (32) as he did, you might be good enough to get away with it), it means “once you’re happy that it is finished, leave it alone -- unless someone is offering you money to make a change.” And then, as Harlan Ellison added, only make the change if you agree with it.

Does a big ego help or hurt writers?

Your ego needs to be big enough that you’re willing to put your work on public display, but not so big that you will ignore honestly constructive criticism. To put a quantitative value on it, forty-two.

Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?

Not really, although there are circumstances where I might. I already differentiate my fiction from my technical articles (mostly computer related, some space stuff) by using my middle initials on the latter (thus, “Alastair Mayer” vs “Alastair J.W. Mayer”) but that’s minor. Having a somewhat distinctive name helps with branding (I’m the other Alastair who writes hard science fiction), and I doubt I’ll ever be prolific enough to worry about having more than one story at a time in a magazine. (Both Robert Heinlein and Jerry Pournelle, on occasion, used pseudonyms because they had multiple stories in given issues of Astounding or Analog). I might consider it if I were doing something wildly out of my usual genre to avoid setting the wrong reader expectations.

Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?

Both, I like to think my readers want originality. Seriously, if a reader picks up a story set in my T-Space universe, they’re reasonably going to want it to be consistent with that universe -- the same places, history, maybe some overlapping characters, the same technology, and so on -- but T-Space is a big place (so far, about fifty light-years across, and the stories covering a span of about five decades) so there’s room for originality within that, and I definitely have plans for future expansion. Technology evolves, the frontier expands, new species are encountered.

That said, I don’t want to confine myself (or my readers!) to the T-Space universe. There are others I’d like to explore, either as standalone novels or perhaps a separate series. I have ideas for a time-travel series, for example. My short stories are more diverse, with everything from a high-fantasy/hard-sf crossover (“The Gremlin Gambit,” and was that difficult to sell!) to horror (set in space, so maybe not that much more diverse), to a handful of flash pieces that don’t classify well.

Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you building a body of work with connections between each book?

Since all my novels so far are set in T-Space, there are obvious connections between each book. T-Space, which is short for Terraformed Space, is loosely defined as a spheroid about 50 light years across, wherein many of the sun-like stars have planets that were deliberately terraformed, about sixty-five million years ago. There may be more such out there, but that’s as far as we’ve gotten as of when the stories take place (about a century from now for the Carson & Roberts books; FTL is assumed, but think more Millenium Falcon-sized than USS Enterprise). That being said, I try to make each book stand on its own as far as possible. Just like some TV series, I synopsize what has happened in previous books if you need to know it (or may have forgotten).

Who shot first, Han or Greebo?

Uh, isn’t Greebo a cat? But assuming you’re referring to the infamous retconning of the shoot-out between Greedo and Han Solo in Star Wars, it could only have been Han. If he doesn’t, his whole story arc becomes pointless. We meet Han as a scoundrel and a smuggler, looking out for himself first, who even tries that hokey “twelve parsecs” line to see what kind of yokels he’s dealing with. (Obi-Wan’s eye roll makes that clear enough.) Of course he shot first. Besides, Greedo is a bounty hunter; if Han lets him get off the first shot, that’ll be the end of Han. Solo isn’t that stupid. That selfish act makes the rest of his self-serving attitude more believable, and his return to help out the rebellion at the end of the film that much more satisfying.

Are you traditionally or self published? Or both? Do you feel there are advantages to one over the other?

Both, although all my traditional sales have been short fiction, to anthologies or magazines like Analog. I knew my novels were, as far as the writing went, good enough for traditional, based on the feedback I had from professional editors; they just weren’t long enough. Although the length requirement for trad science fiction novels has come down a bit in the past few years, it is still easily double the length of most of the books I grew up reading, and perhaps 30% longer than the length I like to write to.

Could I write longer now? Sure, but it already takes a year or two to traditionally publish a book compared to a month (not counting writing time) to self publish. That’s assuming you’ve already got a contract, not the couple of years a submission might sit waiting in a publisher’s (or worse, agent’s) slush pile. These days, there are fewer and fewer advantages left to traditional publishing. A fat advance check, if you can get one (good luck), is perhaps the biggest, but one very, very few newcomers can expect to see. It will also come with some very sticky strings attached. (This applies to novels. Most short story sales are on-spec, no advances, but the contracts are usually much cleaner and simpler.)

What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters, if anything?

Your character shouldn’t be identifiable as a particular real person (the whole “any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental” thing), so you owe them that. Nobody knows everything about another person. Even if you based a character on someone real, you won’t get it right, so don’t accidentally insult them. That said, of course I base my characters on real people, but as amalgams of several different people. (But a little consistency please, unless you’re writing a character with multiple personality disorder!)

I often borrow names (first or last, never both) from people I’ve known, mostly from my school days. I named Sawyer’s World for a young woman in my astrophysics class in college (last name only). Physically I was thinking of someone more like the astronaut Kathy Sullivan, although generally I don’t spend a lot of time on physical descriptions of characters unless it’s something plot-relevant. I’ve never met Dr. Sullivan, so any resemblance beyond them both being astronaut geologists really is coincidental.

How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?

Too many. Currently, none that are finished yet still unpublished, two that are significantly more than half-finished but not quite done, and four others that have significant work done (notes, outlines, 10K or so words) but are either pending while I finish the others (two set in T-Space) or are on indefinite hold for various reasons (the Mars novel I mentioned above, and an Apollo-era Moon novel). I also have a 9,500-word short story that, per contract, I need to cut a couple of thousand words from.

What is the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything?

Douglas Adams says 42, I’m saying 1/137. Bonus points for those of you who get that without looking it up -- and although you don’t need to know that to appreciate my fiction, if you did, you probably will. (And trust me, my writing is usually easier to parse than that last sentence.)

What do you have coming next?

The next novel is Delta Pavonis: Diversion, the third in my early-T-Space series which helps bridge the gap between the Alpha Centauri trilogy and the Carson & Roberts “Indiana Jones in space” ongoing series (which began with The Chara Talisman and is now up to five books, the most recent being The Pavonis Insurgence).

Here’s the original pitch for the Delta Pavonis trilogy:

The planet Verdigris, orbiting the star Delta Pavonis, plays a key role in the history of T-Space. Follow the adventures of young Paul Fabron, son of a tech billionaire, as he puts together the expedition to explore that mysterious green planet (Delta Pavonis: Discovery), to fight off competing claims and expand both on and beyond the planet (Delta Pavonis: Expansion), and ultimately, together with his teammates Mary Kalvak and Rick McDonald, to shape the destiny of what becomes known as T-Space, for decades to come (Delta Pavonis: Destiny).

You may wonder why the next is Diversion and not Destiny. Well, things took an unexpected turn during the writing, and what I planned as three books is now four. I considered calling it DP: Side Quest, but that didn’t quite fit the naming scheme. The cover isn’t final yet, but here’s a mock-up:

Release date is currently set for May 15 this year (2023).

Thanks for asking!

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