Friday, July 9, 2010

Interview with Jack McDevitt

Most fans of science fiction will be familiar with Jack McDevitt (I finally discovered his work through his novel Infinity Beach). He very kindly agreed to answer some questions for me.

Thanks for the interview, Jack!

Right off the bat, congratulations on your latest novel, Time Travelers Never Die (I’m looking forward to its October paperback release!) What made you want to revisit the story of "Time Travelers Never Die" almost a decade and a half later? Did you always know you wanted to return to it at novel length?

It's only within the last two or three years that I'd thought about going back to expand the original novella. Not sure why, except that I'd enjoyed writing it so much the first time around, and I kept thinking about things I could have done with it. There was one aspect I wanted to get rid of, though, and that was the time disruptions. They were a bit unbelievable, so I replaced them with the cardiac effect. Easier to get hold of and, consequently, easier for a reader to accept. As to the writing, I've never enjoyed writing anything that much. Whichever version we're talking about.

I know this is stepping back about ten years, but I just recently discovered your work through Infinity Beach. Can you tell us a bit about the genesis of that novel? A large part of that novel involves the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Are you involved in SETI at all, or just hold a deep interest?

I have a few friends who work with SETI, and I've had the opportunity to attend one of their conferences. I can remember when the organization was first set up, and I thought it would be only a matter of time before we heard something. But there's been a long silence, and that has undoubtedly had en effect on my science fiction. I have a marked tendency to write about universes that are virtually empty. Of course, things are spookier that way. Aliens tend to be much less interesting, in my view, when they walk on stage.

I'm not sure about the genesis of Infinity Beach, save that I've always been fascinated by the notion of hiding things in plain sight. And I had this ultimate kind of idea. No way I couldn't write it.

For those of us new to your series, can you tell us a bit about your Alex Benedict and Priscilla Hutchins novels?

Hutch is a star pilot, the centerpiece for the six Academy novels. Some years ago, I did management training seminars for the Customs Service. We staged problem scenarios, and broke the classes in groups of five who had to communicate with each other, meaning to listen and think, in order to survive. For example, we'd put them in a plane and drop the plane in the middle of the Arizona desert on a hot July afternoon. Eighty miles from the nearest town. And they have to start making decisions. Like stay with the crashed plane, or head for the town?

Sometimes we divided the groups by specialty, inspectors in one, import specialists in another, Customs Patrol people in a third. Sometimes we divided them by their Region, and so on. We never saw any serious difference in the way the various groups performed. Agents lived and died as often as the import specialists. There was only one area in which there was a marked difference: Gender. All female groups almost always survived. And who almost always died? Probably not who you think: The all-male groups did okay. Got back alive about half the time. But the mixed groups always died. We watched the same process happen over and over: In a mixed group, everybody fell into their traditional roles: the males became more aggressive, and the women more passive. Mindless aggression, of course, doesn't get the job done. I thought of it as the Testosterone Effect.

For the Academy novels, I wanted a female pilot who didn't allow herself to get caught up in the social tides. So Hutch became the character who specializes in bailing out her colleagues, both male and female.

Alex, unlike Hutch, lives in the distant future. While she's only two hundred years or so down the line, Alex operates in the twelfth millennium. He's an antiquities dealer who specializes in solving historical mysteries. What did the Tenandrome sees during its exploration mission that they're covering up, and what's its relationship to the war with the Mutes (the only other intelligent race, so far, in Alex's universe)? How did the crew and passengers of the Polaris vanish out of a starship in a distant system without using either their lander or their pressure suits? What happened to the two starships that took refugees fleeing Earth during the 27th century and vanished? (That, of course, is Seeker.) In The Devil's Eye, a well-known horror writer undergoes a brain wipe to eliminate an apparently traumatic experience. But there's no indication anything out of the ordinary happened to her.

Who and/or what are the biggest inspirations for your work, both literary and otherwise?

Primary literary inspirations are Mark Twain and Ray Bradbury. Maybe the major nonliterary inspiration was the planetarium at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. It left me with a passion for astronomy, which fed my growing passion for SF. I should also mention Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. My father took me to see the serials when I was about four years old, and I fell in love with rocket ships and never recovered.

What have you read recently, in or out of genre?

Just finished reading Allen Steele's Coyote Destiny. I'm halfway through Joe Haldeman's Starbound. Waiting on my reading table are Rob Sawyer's Watch, and two books by Ben Bova, Able One, and the Sam Gunn Omnibus. Non-SF: I've just finished Idiot America by Charles Pierce, Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club, Blind Man's Bluff by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew, and am now about halfway through Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. If I can find some extra time, I am also looking at a collection of stories by James Thurber, and Sherlock Holmes: The American Years, edited by Michael Kurland.

Your stories frequently fall into "hard" SF. Do you have a background in the hard sciences? If so, do you find that you have to work top put it in stories, or does it arrive there naturally?

I was an English major. I've no formal background in the sciences, but I think I've learned just enough to know what questions to ask. Fortunately, the experts are always willing to help.

Whats next for Jack McDevitt?

A fifth Alex Benedict novel, Echo, will be released in November. An adventurer who devotes his life to trying to find another alien civilization (other than the Mutes), takes a lot of criticism, is told he's wasting his life, and finally gives up and retires. A few years later, he dies in a boating accident. Forty years after his death, evidence turns up that he might have found what he was looking for. But if so, why did he keep it quiet?

Any final comments?

Writers are often portrayed as people who keep whiskey in the top drawer, who have to work too many hours, and who would be happier as greeters in the local market. I should probably confess that's a rumor we've tried to foist on an unsuspecting public to keep the competition down. I've never been involved in a more thoroughly rewarding kind of work. Even my years as a teacher don't approach writing. (I'm talking here about writing SF, by the way. I won't pretend to speak for the other stuff.)

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