A Life of Writing, James Gunn Interviewed

James Gunn is an award-winning author, editor, anthologist, scholar and educator. His long career has spanned more than sixty years, during which he has authored twenty-six books, edited eighteen, and published nearly one-hundred stories. Additionally he is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Kansas and the Director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. In 2007 he was awarded the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master by the SFWA.

I met James Gunn in 1993 as a student of one of his writing classes. At the time I had no idea of his successful career, and still kick myself for not taking advantage of the opportunity to get to know him better. Being able to interview him has been a pleasant step toward correcting some of that mistake.

On Writing and Publishing:


There’s a lot of talk about the death of books or the end of publishing during your long career – how often have you heard this or a variation on it (with the rise of television, etc.)?

It’s true that book publishing has been in trouble for some time now, but when I got started in 1948 (my first novel was published in 1955; my second, too) the publishing business was still strong and still expanding. The slick magazines (The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s…) got killed when television captured most of the advertising revenue and then some of the audience. The book industry didn’t come under attack until the rise of the book-selling chains and then digital publishing, which also attacked the chains.

How has the publishing industry changed since you’ve been involved with it?

The main change has been the growing influence of the sales force and then the accountants. When I was starting, the editor decided what was worth publishing and the salesmen sold it; now the editor has to get the sales force (which hasn’t read the book) for an estimate of how many copies it can sell and the accountants have to agree that the book can make money. Maybe the small publishers, who sprang up to market the “mid-list” books that the major publishers stopped publishing do things the old-fashioned way.

What has changed for the better?

Digital publishing means that the built-in costs of returns and remainders have to be reconsidered, and, also, that every author has a recourse. It isn’t clear yet how the author is going to get fair compensation that will support a writing career, or even motivate a part-time writer, or how readers are going to select what is worth reading out of a plethora of choices.

How has the pay changed (when what’s considered pro-rate – $.05/word – hasn’t changed forever)?

There a lot more opportunities to get paid for writing, some of them remunerative. There is more room at the top; more writers are writing full-time, and the best-sellers make out quite well. The short-story doesn’t have much of a market, and those that exist have not kept up with inflation. The magazines once were important, even critical, to a writer’s development and career; now the book market is where the action is.

If you were a writer just starting out now what would you be doing differently? Do you think you’d still be a Sci-Fi writer?

My interests have always been in idea-fiction, and I’d be an SF writer today. But I’d probably focus on the novel, even though my love has always been the short story.

What makes good writing today, versus what you saw previously?

We and my predecessors were motivated amateurs, more interested in story than technique. Today’s writers, often graduates of MFA writing programs are more interested in technique than story. The writing is marvelous, but the stories are usually not as involving.

How have the tools (word processors, writing software) changed the market and the craft for better or worse?

Anything that makes the process easier is good. I know that some writers still write by hand or typewriter, and think that they write better because of it. I used to think I was the same until I tried a computer and found I could get my thoughts into language almost without effort, as well as all the other advantages of revision, transmission, etc.

What should the writers of tomorrow be reading today?

I’d still read the magazines, and support them with subscriptions (because if the magazines go the center will not hold). But I’d read the better novels and the reviewers you trust (I’ve always depended on reviewers for guidance and insights).

What elements of style are getting better or worse?

Language and sentences are better because writers focus on them. Imagery, too. Story, not so much. The avoidance of a good story, like artists avoiding representation, is a fear of being found out.

What makes a good story today?

The nature of story has changed from the obvious (“shoot the sheriff in the first scene”) to subtlety, but the reader must care for the characters and what happens to them. John Ciardi once defined fiction as “interesting people in difficulties,” and that’s still true.

You started out using a pen name? In hind sight would you have still done it?

No. Then I was under the illusion that I would save my real name for scholarly works, but I merely lost some name recognition.

On Science Fiction:


What is it about Sci-Fi that has drawn you to it?

I’ve always been drawn to idea fiction and how to make readers emotionally involved in them. And, I think, in how present decisions lead to outcomes. And, maybe, by SF’s Darwinian belief in human adaptability: people, like the rest of the animal kingdom, are shaped by their environments, but, unlike the rest, humans can recognize their conditioning and decide to do something because it’s the right thing to do.

How has Sci-Fi changed over the years? What is better now, and what is worse?

SF has changed because many of its speculations about change have been realized. As Isaac Asimov once said, “We live in a science-fiction world.” SF has had to move on, and the world today is more complex and harder to predict. Science is less certain and technology is more pervasive. SF reflects that.

Sci-Fi has been a very forward-looking enterprise, but has it become more reactionary to scientific discovery and less innovative?

SF has always drawn upon scientific speculation and technological possibilities, beginning with Hugo Gernsback and his early 20th century serials in Modern Electrics.  Today once conservative scientists are far bolder in their speculations (see quantum theory, dark matter, dark energy, etc.) and SF writers seem less innovative unless they keep up and even out-imagine the scientists.

Sci-Fi has often been about optimism. Do you think that has changed, that there’s more darkness in the recent past?

Science fiction has always had a pessimistic element (see H. G. Wells’s scientific romances) to balance its optimism (spaceflight, solving our problems through science or technology), but two World Wars made optimism seem sentimental and even solution-oriented fiction tends toward greater realism and ambiguity.

What do you think about the prospects for space with the changes at NASA and a public that seems generally uninterested in further exploration (or at least the costs associated with it)?

Clearly the promise of the moon landings have not been realized, to the dismay of many of us who nursed our early dreams. I don’t think we’ll get that back for another decade or two, but I think we will regain our love of adventure and discovery and move on.

How do you feel about seeing classic science fiction and fantasy making it to the big screen? How well do you think Hollywood handles these stories?

Hollywood has not done well by SF, with a few exceptions (Things to Come, 2001: A Space Odyssey, a few others), including my own novel The Immortals. One keeps hoping. What usually happens to produce a successful adaptation is someone involved in the production who knows SF–like Arthur C. Clarke–and someone independent of Hollywood mythology and control–like Stanley Kubrick.

What other sci-fi/fantasy stories should be adapted to film?

There are so many. For personal reasons, I’d like to see Jack Williamson’s work reach the screen (The Humanoids?) and A. E. van Vogt (The World of Null-A?) and in more recent times William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (and sequels).

You’ve recently sold some new works – anything you can talk about?

Tor Books will publish my new novel, Transcendental, probably in 2013 and probably along with my 1955 novel with Jack Williamson Star Bridge. Both of them are space epics, but of different kinds and they provide kind of bookends to a career, with Transcendental a commentary on and a tribute to the category itself.

Origin Awards Interview: Stuart Boon, Author of Shadows over Scotland

The 38th Annual Origin Awards were presented at the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio on June 2nd. Cthulhu Britannica: Shadows over Scotland, written by Stuart Boon and published by Cubicle 7 Entertainment, won for Best Roleplaying Supplement or Adventure. The transcript of my interview with the author follows.

You’ve been involved in the role-playing game community for the past 30 years. How did that experience aid you when you wrote Shadows over Scotland?

I think it helps on a couple of levels.  First, being immersed in the gaming world allows you to appreciate what works and what doesn’t, to be able to differentiate good writing and good mechanics from bad.  Just having read, played and experienced a wide selection of games, resources, and other materials give you a rich composite picture of what can be done in the genre.  It informs your boundaries and your choice of tools for a particular piece of writing.  Second, my experience running games over 30 years provided me with a clear wish list for Shadows Over Scotland.  I wanted the book to be a really solid resource for Keepers—the people running the show in a Call of Cthulhu game—to meet their needs in developing and managing the adventures in 1920s Scotland.  So, that experience allows me to call upon a breadth of knowledge and simultaneously bring a criticality and focus to the writing.

As both player and creator, what aspects of the gaming experience are you most passionate about?

I’m most passionate about storytelling and world-building.  In his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’, Tolkien used the terms sub-creation and secondary worlds to discuss the creative potential inherent in stories.  I see that same potential writ large in role-playing games.  Games provide players with opportunities for immersion into fantastically creative, secondary worlds where stories come alive.  One thing that is especially attractive about table-top, role-playing games is the ability to participate cooperatively in the telling of those stories.  Game writers and developers provide the initial ideas, themes, and background, but the story and the world are the creation of those people seated around a table sharing a goal and vision.  That’s exciting.

Shadows over Scotland brings Cthulhu to Scotland in the 1920’s. What kinds of challenges did researching this setting present to you, both as a writer and as an immigrant to the United Kingdom?

In some ways, I think I may have benefitted from not being born in the United Kingdom.  The canvas was uniformly blank to me, if you see my meaning.  It was not coloured by preconceived ideas about what it was like to live in Britain in the 1920s.  I had no close heritage, cultural memory, or recalled stories to draw upon.  I had to research everything, absolutely everything.  The primary challenge was the sheer volume of material to be read and to be careful of unwittingly introducing anachronisms.  But yes, the single greatest challenge was researching the whole of Scottish history, focusing in on what made the 1920s tick, and then making that interesting for readers.  That challenge was offset by the genuine pleasure I took from introducing Lovecraftian themes and the Cthulhu Mythos into the Scottish setting.

What do you feel are critical things to keep in mind while writing Lovecraftian fiction today?

That there is a very real Lovecraftian spirit that we need to be true to.  For me the appeal of Lovecraft comes in his description of the human condition when faced with the unknown or the unknowable.  It is the exploration of that condition that drives my interest in Lovecraft and the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game.  In any form, Lovecraftian fiction should seek to produce more than chills.  What you want, in my opinion, is a hint—or an explosion, depending on your intent—of cosmic dread, incorporating a heady mix of potent themes including mutability, madness, and human frailty delivered via suspense, terror, and awe.  Behind all of this, it is the spirit and ghostly voice of H.P. Lovecraft, at once disconcerting, emotive, and powerful, that you want to animate and haunt your own writing.

What advice would you offer to someone who is new to writing games?

First, be passionate about writing for games: understand why you are doing it and what you want to achieve.  You are going to need strong motivation to get you to 80,000 words or 180,000 words.  Second, stick to your guns:  if you’ve got an idea worth flogging, flog it, and keep flogging it.  Use your group of friends and players to talk through ideas and to playtest everything.  Generating a really good piece of writing is all about development over time: use every bit of feedback and every little experience to make your work richer, stronger.  And, third, enjoy and learn from the process.  Carry your experience forward to new projects and use it wisely.  After that, rinse and repeat.

About the Origin Awards

The Origin Awards are voted on by the attendees of the Origins Game Fair and presented annually by the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design to recognize outstanding achievement in design and production in games and game-related material.

About Cubicle 7 Entertainment

Cubicle 7 Entertainment is a UK-based publisher of award-winning games, including Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space, The One Ring, The Laundry RPG, Victoriana and Qin: The Warring States. For more information visit www.cubicle7.co.uk or e-mail info@cubicle7.co.uk

About Stuart Boon

Stuart Boon was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He moved to Great Britain in 2002 and now lives in Scotland with his wife Michele. An avid film and music fan, and active role-player, Stuart spends entirely too much time indoors. He is currently working on a number of projects involving the Cthulhu Mythos whilst trying to retain his sanity. He blogs at stuartboon.posterous.com.

Origins Awards Interview: Jury Foreman C.A. Suleiman

The Origins Game Fair, held in Columbus, Ohio, is one of the largest conventions devoted to games in the continental United States. Run by the Game Manufacturers Association (GAMA), the gaming convention is home to the Origin Awards. The Origins Awards are given for outstanding work in the industry. After the awards on June 2nd, Jury Foreman C.A. Suleiman provided a rundown of how the Awards work.

Can you give our readers some background on the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design?
Sure thing. The Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design is the administrative arm of the Game Manufacturer’s Association (“GAMA”), which covers all arenas of the hobby games industry (roleplaying games, such as D&D and Vampire; board games, card games, miniatures games, and the like).

When did the Origins Awards start?
The Origins Awards were born in 1973, and are named for and conducted as a part of the Origins Game Fair, GAMA’s annual convention in Ohio, which has been running uninterrupted for decades, now. The Origins Award itself is commonly referred to as a Calliope, as the statuette is in the likeness of the Greek Muse of the same name. (Academy members and jurors frequently shorten this to “Callie.”)

What’s the process for nominations? How are the deliberations and voting process for the Awards handled?

Nominations in each category are decided upon by juries, who determine the top ten offerings of the year in those categories during a period of internal deliberation and comment. The juries then present those nominations to the attendees of the GAMA Trade Show, who narrow the nominees down to five. This slate of nominees is then carried to Origins, where attendees vote on each category’s final winner.

How did you become involved with the Origins Awards, and what are your duties related to them?
I’ve been indirectly involved in the awards for years, and have attended some thirteen or fourteen Origins shows in my time, but have been serving as a juror for three years now. As jurors, it’s our obligation to know our own field, of course, and to give all prospective nominees therein as thorough an evaluation as time will allow during our annual period of deliberation. Being jury foreman is a little like herding cats some years, but it’s a fun experience overall and I’m happy that I’ve gotten a chance to do it.
For more on the Academy, go to www.gama.org; and for more on Origins, see www.originsgames.com.

Origins Awards Interview – Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple

During the Origins Awards this year Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple won the Vanguard Award. This award is significant in that it is not given every year and honors highly innovative games. I recently interviewed Dan Solis, the game designer, along with Ryan Macklin and Lillian Cohen-Moore, the editors. The following is the transcript of that interview.

Bear Weiter: Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple is both a game and an exercise in storytelling. How did you design something that balances creative writing with the use of mechanics?

Daniel Solis: Working in advertising, I often get called on to write within constraints. If it’s a TV script, I have to include certain language or disclaimers while promoting a brand. If it’s a billboard, I usually only have three or four words to communicate a much larger idea.

Then occasionally I’ll get a client who says “do anything” and I suddenly go blank. It’s the constraint that inspires creativity. Constraint is the pressure that creates heat. That is a very ancient idea, of course. It goes back to haikus and sonnets.

In Do, I designed a game that is all about constraints and writing prompts. First, the players are all writing a story together. Second, a player can only write one sentence at a time on her turn. Third, the players win by using all of the “goal words” in their story, but can only often only use one word per turn.

As you play, you may get opportunities to use more than one goal word, but at the price of your hero getting into trouble. This acts as yet another prompt for the next player’s turn, as she must decide whether she will rescue a companion even if it means taking his place.

With all these constraints, I was worried at one point that it would hinder a player’s creativity. There certainly are a lot of factors to consider in a single turn. Yet I’m always amazed at the players’ imagination during the game. They’ll come up with the zaniest ways for their heroes to get into trouble or to rescue a friend in need.

BW: As editors, how does your approach differ when you edit a game versus other kinds of manuscripts?

Ryan Macklin: I’m primarily a game editor. A game has many different contextual channels, more than fiction or even most text books. Games books need to serve as instructional text (along with examples and other methods that facilitate learning) and sources of inspiration. That means text flow is as much of a page design consideration as what’s on a given page.

Since people learn by different methods, including having others read a book and teach, a given section needs to take that into account, as well as blend in evocative tone and color to facilitate learning the context of the game and giving additional points of reference to remember a given rule or piece of advice.

Lillian Cohen-Moore: Since I’m primarily a copy editor for games, I have to pay attention to whether I’m reading something with mechanics in it. If I don’t keep that in mind while changing passages to fit a style guide or clear up unclear text, I run a risk of taking a machete to text that’s essential for understanding gameplay.

BW: What were the first games that truly grabbed you? How have your past experiences playing games motivated you to get involved in game development? How did playing games influence you as storytellers?

DS: I played a lot of D&D as a teenager, then other role-playing games in college.

In most RPGs of the time, the critical question was “Does my character succeed at the action I just described?” You rolled dice to find the answer to that question and modified the dice results in various ways to get your desired outcome. This creates very decompressed narratives that, in total, take many hours to describe very little.

My whole perspective changed thanks to two games: octaNe by Jared Sorensen and The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen by James Wallis.

In octaNe, the question was “Who gets to decide what happens next in the story?” There were some constraints on scope and character ownership, but otherwise you were given very broad license to just narrate to your heart’s content. You still used dice and still modified those results, but the meaning of those results was very different than a traditional RPG.

By the same token, Baron Munchausen gave even broader license to each player. In that game you’re simply asked to tell boastful lies about one of your amazing, heroic accomplishments. Occasionally other players may ask prying questions that poke holes in your story, to which you must respond with wit and grace. It’s a challenging game partly because you must think quickly without many prompts.

Both games put you much in the position of a writer. That’s probably what influenced me most in developing Do.

LCM: When I was a kid my parents would buy my siblings and I board games every year. We’d get bored of the regular rules and start inventing our own “hard” modes. From there I get into table-top and live-action role-playing as I grew up. Games were always a part of my social circle, but I didn’t realize I could actually get involved in games development till a few years ago. Playing games has had a very noticeable influence on my sense of pacing. Both when I’m writing and when I’m telling stories in casual settings.

RM: I used to play GURPS, back in the day. Mage: the Ascension and Unknown Armies blew my mind, and really got me thinking about writing stuff.

I have a mild reading disability, so looking at the old-school roleplaying games and how they just throw walls of text at you was frustrating. So I started looking to how other books presented information, and have been using that as a guide to developing games I’ve been involved with.

I can’t really answer how games have influenced me as a storyteller. I know that they have, but games are an integral part of my personality DNA. I can’t really remove that to tell you how it’s impacted my life.

BW: You created another game before this – Happy Birthday, Robot! – that is also a mix of storytelling and gameplay. Are there more games to come that feature storytelling so prominently? Do you do any other kind of creative writing?

DS: The irony of all this is that I consider myself more of a board game designer. I just happened to find success with these odd little storytelling games that apply simple board game mechanics to the ephemeral world of creative writing.

I explore this space a bit more with some side projects like the Writer’s Dice. These are dice with the words AND, SO, BUT, IF, AS, and OR on each face. The idea is that as you outline a story, you’ll roll a die between each story-beat to keep the story moving in unexpected directions. You can buy Writer’s Dice from my etsy store at http://www.etsy.com/shop/smartplaygames.

At the moment, I’m developing two new story games using these dice. The first is Pop and Locke’s Last Heist, a storytelling game about a father/daughter heist team recovering supernatural objects from their family of supervillains. The second is tentatively titled Rulers, which is a cross between Fullmetal Alchemist and Hunger Games.

BW: How did you get involved with the project? What were your official roles and were there other aspects you were involved with along the way?

RM: This is the world of game bookmaking; there isn’t much in the way of official roles on small projects. I was the guy who challenged Daniel when he needed challenging on rules presentation, and played clean-up on the text.

It was a collaborative arrangement, not an equal pairing but one of a friend helping another friend make a vision come to life. Daniel had many such folks; I just happened to also be his editor.

LCM: Ryan and I knew each other before working on Do together as co-editors, and was who brought me in to work on the editing with him. Since I was doing copy edits, the bulk of what I did was making sure things looked good after Ryan had come in and kicked the tires.

BW: How do writers who are interested in writing for games get into the business?

LCM: Pay attention to games publishers and industry publications. There’s regular calls for pitches and openings. Just like fiction, those submissions practices are spelled out very clearly. Outside that familiar process, you should be exhibiting the same qualities you do writing fiction. Make your deadlines and don’t be a dick.

RM: This isn’t like the world of fiction. Roleplaying games are a niche market, and you get into the business by doing stuff and being loud. Sometimes, larger companies hold contests or open calls for submissions, always for their established games. But if you have an idea for a game system or setting, just do it and put it out there. Then network. Go to conventions and get to know folks.

Being an independent publisher in the RPG world doesn’t have the dirty stink on it that it seems to have in the world of fiction. There aren’t Big Publishers that will take your new idea. Their resources are stretched working on their own properties. So if you’re going to get out there, you should strike on your own.

That said, places often look for freelancers, but they’ll mostly go with people they know or have met.

Many thanks to Daniel, Ryan, and Lillian for their time, and congratulations on winning the Vanguard Award!

More information about Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple can be found at www.SmartPlayGames.com.

By day, Daniel Solis is associate creative director at Third Degree Advertising. By night, he’s an award-winning designer of storytelling games and board games. He designs in public at www.DanielSolis.com. Follow @DanielSolis on Twitter.

Ryan Macklin is a freelance game designer, writer & editor, and frequently blogs about the creative process at RyanMacklin.com.

Lillian Cohen-Moore is a freelance writer, editor and journalist. Part of the proofing team for “Attitude” from Catalyst Game Labs, Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple was her first project as a game editor. She blogs at www.lilliancohenmoore.com. She is also assistant editor here at Booklife Now.