by Robert Brown

The following interview appeared in the SF trade journal Chronicle, February 2004.

William Sanders is best known for his alternate history SF, but that is only a small part of a writing career that spans three decades. Two-time winner of the Sidewise Award for alternate history, Sanders has also been nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards. He gave this interview on November 17, 2003, at his home in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

Standard opening question: how did you get into writing SF?

Well, you see, it all started back in nineteen ought seventy. There we were, me and Norman Mailer and Scott Momaday and Bob Dylan and the Andrews Sisters - Patty, Laverne and, uh, Shirley - and Harlan Ellison and Screaming Jay Hawkins. We were standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, waiting to sign up for our food stamps when a man drove up in a blue Shelby Cobra and asked me if I'd like to become an award-winning speculative fiction author. The rest is history.

Seriously -

It's true, you know. Would I utter untruths?

Of course not. Not for less than eight cents a word. But seriously -

What is it that you are trying to say, my son?

Right. Okay. You're best known for your SF these days, but most of your work has been non-fiction, thrillers, and mysteries. Do you think of yourself as an SF writer? Or do you think about those categories at all?

Categories are mainly a matter of labels for sales purposes. If you mean genre - which isn't quite the same thing - then no, I wouldn't say it's very important to me whether I write speculative fiction or mysteries or even Westerns. In fact I'd really like to write a Western, if only there were some market for it.

Which gets us to the only reason I pay attention to genre. Speculative fiction happens to be the area in which I have a reasonable chance of getting someone to publish the sort of thing I write - short fiction, with intelligible plot and, I hope, interesting characters. I quit writing mystery novels because I wasn't getting anywhere as a mystery writer, just as I quit writing SF novels because I wasn't getting anywhere doing that either.

My only real success as a writer has been in speculative fiction, in the short form. So that's what I do. And so I suppose I'm an SF writer. But in my own mind, I'm just a writer.

Actually in my own mind I'm Zoltan, King of the Gypsies. But I'm seeing a professional about that.

I notice that you say "speculative fiction" rather than "science fiction." Are you one of those writers who reject the older term?

Not at all. I use "speculative fiction" to cover the larger field - science fiction, fantasy, alternative history, and horror. I work in all the first three of these, without any particular preferences. Some of my work is science fiction and I don't have any problem with the term.

Of course it's a silly term considered logically, since all fiction is by nature speculative. But most such terms are illogical. After all, do most of the people who listen to country music live in the country? Are the Democrats really democratic? What do monkeys spank?

Speaking of spanking, many writers use a schedule, or a wordcount goal, to keep them at the keyboard every day. Do you do anything like that?

Oh, Christ, no. In fact I have a hard time believing those writers who claim they operate like that. If somebody's that organized, why isn't he doing something that pays better than writing? I mean, why else would anyone become a writer except because he can't get his shit together enough to hold down a real job?

But I couldn't do it anyway, because I don't write at the keyboard. I'm afraid I work in a very idiosyncratic way: I do most of my composing in my head. When I'm skulling a story I might do just about anything - take the bike out on the road, play with one of my flight simulators, paint the living room, maybe just wander aimlessly around the house - and maybe I won't even be thinking consciously about it, but at some submerged level the process is at work. So by the time I get to the keyboard stage, I already know pretty much what I'm going to say. Not just in general terms, I mean whole chunks of text, word for word, I'll have them laid out in my head. I have to do it that way, I'm no good at winging it, I've got to know where I'm going before I begin, even though half the time the story says, "Oh, no, you're not either," and takes off in some unexpected direction.

So the keyboard time is really just the final phase. And since I'm also a very fast typist, it doesn't take me very long to get it down. Then I'll go for a few months till I get an idea for another story. Or until somebody asks me for one.

Now that's when it all changes. Wave some money in my face, give me a deadline, I'm liable to sit down and write the whole damn story in one pass and send it off next morning. There's just no motivator like that green stuff.

Quite a few of your characters are pilots. Do you have any background in aviation yourself?

Only if you count tourist cabin. When I was a kid I wanted to be a pilot - I grew up on those old flying-adventure books for boys, like the old Dave Dawson series - but then my eyesight went to hell, so then I decided to be a writer instead.

But I never got over my fascination with aviation, and it's still one of my favorite subjects to read about, both fiction and non. And yes, to write about as well.

Two of the proudest moments I've ever had as a writer were when a couple of former military aviators - one who had flown B-25s in the Pacific, one who had flown Intruders in Vietnam - asked me, after reading some of my work, if I'd been a pilot. That meant more to me than anything any critic could have written.

Even just within your SF work you've written about a wide variety of characters and backgrounds. You don't seem to do sequels, much less trilogies or series. Is there a reason for that?

On the contrary, quite a few of my published books have been sequels. The Hell-Bound Train was a sequel to Pockets of Resistance. Then there was the Hardball adventure series I did for Berkley, and right after that the Taggart Roper mysteries for St. Martin's. Those two wound up as trilogies - never got past the third volume - because the publishers, as usual, botched the marketing.

But I'd have been entirely willing to go on writing series novels, if I'd had a publisher who didn't go about marketing them like somebody trying to stick his dick in his ear.

Still, it's just as well. The steady income would have been nice, but I wouldn't have wanted to turn into one of those series hacks, turning out one clone after another, basically recycling the same book over and over again. Like those Travis McGee books, that McDonald had to color-code so you could tell them apart - you'd be clear to page 200 and still thinking, "Didn't I already read this one?"

Some people seem to think that the ending of J. is a setup for a sequel. That's not the case?

No. It's a lady-or-the-tiger ending - leave it to the reader to consider what happens next. Edgar Pangborn, you might recall, did it with The Judgment of Eve. I was surprised when people thought it was a setup for a sequel. I suppose nowadays there's an expectation that everything will be wrapped up and tied with a pretty bow. But then too the SF business has gotten heavily into sequels and trilogies - the publishers seem to prefer it; for that matter The Hell-Bound Train was written at the publishers' request for a sequel to Pockets of Resistance. Maybe I should have done a whole series: Lapels of Resistance, Cuffs of Resistance....

You've said, to the disappointment of your fans -

Both of them?

- that you don't plan on writing any more novels. Is there any chance you'll change your mind?

There's always a chance of just about anything. As my father used to say, a man has nipples because there's a chance he might have a baby. At any higher order of probability, though, no. I've had it with novels. Not so much writing them - they're easier to write than stories, after all - but with all the bullshit that goes with publishing them and trying to promote them and all that.

And I like magazine writing. The level of editorial competence is much, much higher. I'd rather deal with Gardner Dozois or Gordon Van Gelder or Warren Lapine than any book editor I've ever worked with.

I like doing antho stories, too, but I don't get as many invitations as I used to. (Cups hands to mouth.) HELLO? ANYBODY OUT THERE?

It's no secret that you regard yourself as one of the best writers working in SF today.

This is true. Your point being?

Who else would you consider at the top of the field?

Hmm. As the page said to Richard the Lionhearted, that's a hard one. Not that I don't have some pretty definite opinions, I just hate to name names because sure as hell I'll forget somebody.

I can tell you straight up who I consider the best writer currently working in SF: Walter Jon Williams. On a really good day I can just maybe match what he can do on an average day. When he's cooking, as in "Daddy's World", nobody can touch him. Or if anybody can, hoss, I want to read it.

Otherwise - let me put it this way. If I were to make a list of the people I regard as the best in contemporary SF, it would include - but would not be limited to - Terry Bisson, Pat Cadigan, Kage Baker...who else? Rick Bowes. Howard Waldrop. God damn it, I'm leaving people out, I hate that. Liz Hand. Resnick. Probably about an equal number of others...sorry, I think I better stop, I'm just asking for trouble with this. Sorry.

Have any of those writers influenced your own work?

Not really. Because most of them are roughly contemporaries. By the time I started reading their work, my own style was pretty much formed.

If not them, then who?

Influenced my work how? In terms of style, there haven't been many influences within the genre - most of my literary influences were so-called mainstream. Hemingway, London, Kipling, Conrad, Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

But in another sense, the biggest influence on my work would have been Roger Zelazny - not because I ever tried to write like him, but because of the encouragement he gave me at times when I was ready to pack it in. In particular he was the one who got me back into SF, and who persuaded me to try my hand at the short form - which was maybe the most important single move of my career, because it turned out that was what I was good at.

In the same sense, you could count Ajay Budrys and Poul Anderson as influences, because they too provided much-needed encouragement at crucial times. For that matter I suppose Gardner Dozois has been an influence; he keeps buying and printing my stuff, which influences me to keep writing it.

This may be a touchy subject, but you have something of a bad-boy reputation in the community of SF writers. The behavior that some people consider outrageous, or anti-social, is there something going on there or are you just amusing yourself?

Oh, the reports are greatly exaggerated. It's true I've been known to chimp it up a bit at various social and professional gatherings, though not as much as you might have heard. But yes, there was some purpose behind it.

Look, this is the entertainment business, like it or not, and you've got to have name recognition. Well, I wrote and published two damn good SF novels, both of which got excellent reviews. The first got me a Campbell nomination and the second was named by a leading critic as one of the two best SF novels of the year. I even had a couple of stories that made Year's Best SF, which I thought would surely put me on the map.

But when I started going to conventions and meeting people in the SF community, I found out they didn't know me from Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy. So I decided I would at least be Jo-Jo the Well-Known Dog-Faced Boy, and I did some things to make sure they'd remember me.

Did this include your famous - or infamous - plot to nominate a pornographic movie for the Dramatic Nebula?

(Snorts) No. That was a true labor of love. As one of my unindicted co-conspirators put it, an extended middle finger in the direction of the assholes who had taken over SFWA.

You have to remember, the SF writing community is mostly a lot of very nice people who have led very sheltered lives. They're very easily shocked. It's always amazed me that so many of these people who write all this stuff about strange worlds and fantastic adventures are such conventional, boring types in person. As Ajay Budrys once said to me, "They are a cautious and conservative lot, these probers on Man's ultimate frontier. A trail of sheepshit marks their passing."

It doesn't bother you that some call you arrogant?

And they call the wind Mariah. So what? I think it was Frank Lloyd Wright who said that he had a choice between hypocritical humility and righteous arrogance, and he chose arrogance. But really, how does any writer survive without arrogance? This business is full of rejection and criticism and disappointment - I don't see how anyone can stand it, can go on slogging away at it, without an armor-plated confidence in his-her own worth.

Even if it isn't justified. I told someone recently that I always knew I was great, even when I wasn't worth a damn. But it got me through until I could get to be good.

Anyway, when you think about it, what could possibly be more arrogant than expecting thousands of people to lay down their money for the privilege of reading something you wrote? And yet every writer does that as a matter of course.

You were one of the early adopters of print-on-demand publishing, which was pretty controversial at the time. Since then you've done several books with Wildside Press, most recently the short story collection Are We Having Fun Yet? Do you see the success Wildside has had with POD as a vindication of your early efforts in that area?

I don't know about vindication, but it's certainly been gratifying to see Wildside making it work. In fact the emergence of Wildside has been the best single thing that has happened in SF publishing in a lot of years.

POD got badly smeared by association, because of its use by various ethically weird outfits. In fact "POD" became synonymous in a lot of people's minds with "vanity press" - so much so that several people, including experienced professional writers, asked me if I had to pay any part of the publishing costs for my Wildside titles. Of course it's ridiculous to condemn a technology because of the uses to which it's been put, but that's how people are.

But POD has made it possible for a small publisher to put out books that aren't necessarily going to sell in great numbers, and still make a worthwhile profit. Because POD eliminates a couple of huge overhead items: the cost of the initial print run, and the expense of warehousing all those copies.

And this means a lot of writers are getting things into print that the big houses wouldn't touch. It means that some almost-extinct forms, such as the single-author story collection, have made a comeback. So have a lot of pros who got taken down when the midlist died. Some of us were about ready to give up when Wildside came along and gave us another chance.

It's certainly played a major part in the reviving of my own career, a resurrection reminiscent of that of Lazarus. Of which the Scripture says, "Mary said unto him, Lord, by now he stinketh" - but never mind that.

We've already talked about the possibility of more novels, but are there any other book-length projects in the works?

As a matter of fact, I just got done going over the proofs for a new book that will be different from anything else I've ever done. It's simply a history of the Hernando de Soto expedition of the sixteenth century, and I'm unreasonably proud of it. And even though it's not fiction, I think a lot of SF readers would find it interesting, because it deals with what amounts to an alien invasion. After all, for the Indians of the American Southeast, the Spaniards might as well have been from another planet.

There are also plans to reissue some more of my out-of-print books - I think the next one is to be Journey to Fusang - and then some time next year I'm hoping to bring out another story collection, which I'm going to call Is It Now Yet?

Thank you for your time.

Yeah, yeah. Did you bring anything to drink?

(Reproduced by permission of Robert Brown.)