After 40 years in publishing, Alan Dean Foster looks back at H.P. Lovecraft, and ahead to the end of his Flinx & Pip saga
By Michael McCarty
2008 marks Alan Dean Foster's 40th anniversary as a professional writer. He has written in a variety of genres, including science fiction, fantasy, horror, detective, western, historical and contemporary fiction.
He is the author of the New York Times best-seller Star Wars: The Approaching Storm
and the popular Flinx & Pip
novels, as well as novelizations of several movies, including Star Wars
, the first three Alien
movies, The Black Hole
, Alien Nation
, The Chronicles of Riddick
His novel Cyber Way
won the Southwest Book Award for Fiction in 1990, the first science fiction work ever to do so. His novel Shadowkeep
was the first-ever book adaptation of an original computer game. In addition to publication in English, his books have been translated into more than 50 languages and won awards in Spain and Russia.
The science fiction writer is an adventurer, having camped in French Polynesia and traveled to exotic spots in Europe, Asia, South America and Africa. He roughed it in the "Green Hell" region of the Southeastern Peruvian jungle, ridden 40-foot great white sharks in the remote waters off Western Australia, rappelled into New Mexico's LeChugilla Cave and white-water rafted the length of the Zambezi's Batoka Gorge.
Foster and his wife, JoAnn Oxley, reside in Prescott, Ariz., in a house built of brick that was salvaged from a turn-of-the-century miner's brothel. He is presently at work on several new novels and various media projects, including the upcoming release of the short story collection Exceptions to Reality and Quofum
, a Commonwealth book.
His Web site is at: www.alandeanfoster.com
.Your writing career began when August Derleth of Arkham House bought a long Longcraftian letter of yours in 1968 and published it in the magazine The Arkham Collector. How did you go from that to becoming a science-fiction novelist? And what do you think H.P. Lovecraft would make of the 21st century?Foster:
Having finally sold a story after a dozen misfires, I subsequently sold a couple more. I then decided to try a novel, thinking that, if nothing else, it would make good party conversation 20 years down the line ("What are you doing these days?" "Oh, I'm working on a novel. ..."). It [The Tar-Aiym Krang
] sold, however, and I was off and running.Lovecraft would hate the 21st century. Too far from his preference, the 18th. How did you get into writing movie adaptations? Which ones do you consider your best and worst?Foster:
Back in the early '70s, someone at Ballantine Books had bought the book rights to a truly awful Italian film called Luana
. Ostensibly about a female Tarzan, a la Sheena and others, in reality it featured a bunch of actors who spent most of the film walking through brush talking silly. The female Tarzan of the title was only on screen for a small portion of the film's length, and was portrayed by a dainty Vietnamese girl. A long way from Irish McCalla or even Cheryl Ladd, much less the figure created by Frank Frazetta for the film's advertising campaign.
Judy-Lynn del Rey, who had taken over editorship of the SF line at Ballantine, was aware that I knew my way around a film script (I have an M.F.A. in film from UCLA) and asked if I would be interested in trying to make a book out of it. Shortening this remembrance lest we take up half the magazine, I agreed. Given how little there was to work with (for one thing, there was no copy of the screenplay in English), I am happy about how it turned out.
Novelizations tend to be only as good or bad as the source material. I'm particularly happy with those for Alien
and Dark Star
, because so much of the stories take place within the minds of the characters and within single starships. I think Transformers
also turned out well, since it gave me the opportunity to get inside the characters' heads and a bit away from the nonstop action of the film.
I'm not very happy with Krull
, but again, you have to consider the source material. I've never turned down a novelization that I later regretted, though I'm sorry the producers of Alien 3
forced me to cut much of what I originally wrote, exploring individual characters and their backgrounds, struggling to rationalize the obscenity of Newt's death, and more.What can you tell us about Quofum, your upcoming Commonwealth novel?Foster:
Those who have read the Commonwealth stories may remember a brief early reference to the world called Quofum that is rumored to wink in and out of existence. This not only makes it hard to find, it makes it hard to rationalize. Doing so one day led to a storyline that, while not featuring Flinx, bears directly on who he is and the final resolution of his situation. Del Rey was going to publish it after Flinx Transcendent
but, when made aware of how it relates to Flinx's story, very thoughtfully rescheduled it to appear prior to Flinx Transcendent
.As a member of the Writers Guild of America, what impact did the strike have on you?Foster:
Actually, due to a lack of income in that area, my membership in the WGAW had lapsed prior to the strike, so it had no effect on me. I regret the lapse and hope to be able to reinstate myself soon. Even as a nonmember, I would not have taken work during the strike in any case. You stand with your fellow scribes or not. The cause is what is important, not membership in a particular organization.You have an upcoming short story collection, Exceptions to Reality. How did you put together such a collection?Foster: Exceptions to Reality
is my seventh collection of short work. After a few years, there is usually a sufficient backlog of published stories to comprise a collection. In a couple of instances these are composed of related tales ("Montezuma Strip," "Mad Amos"). At the request of Del Rey, the last two collections of each featured an original Flinx & Pip
story. These, like the novels, all fit into a continuous chronology of the Commonwealth, which readers can keep up with on my Web site.What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing a series?Foster:
They're pretty much one and the same. The advantages include not having to create entirely new worlds or a new background, and if you wish you can utilize some or all of the same characters over and over. The disadvantages are those same things. It's very hard to keep readers interested in the same characters and the same settings book after book.Talking about series, next year, in 2009, you will be publishing Flinx Transcendent, a climax to the Flinx & Pip saga after 37 years. How do you feel about parting with these characters after writing about them for so long?Foster:
I actually can't answer this one without giving away part of the story.You have written a few Star Wars books in your time. You ghost-wrote the original adaptation of Star Wars, and you've also written Splinter of the Mind's Eye and The Approaching Storm. The Star Wars phenomenon has been a part of popular culture now for over three decades. Why do you think everyone still loves Star Wars?Foster:
A good movie is a good movie, regardless of the subject matter. Further, Star Wars
provides a vision of an alternate future that is easier for the general public to grasp than much written science fiction. The underlying themes are not complex (deliberately so), and the films are made with respect.You've written over a hundred books and hundreds of short stories. How do you keep your writing fresh? How do you maintain an active fascination for the genres? Is there a fear you'd run out of ideas eventually?Foster:
To a professional writer, everything and anything is a subject for a story. As to keeping fresh, after decades it becomes difficult. I try to challenge myself from time to time by tackling a genre in which I rarely work, such as historical fiction or even songwriting. As to the genres, well, it's impossible to be bored by science fiction, or to run out of ideas. The problems is too many ideas, not a lack of them.Tell us how you discovered martial arts, and that aspect of your life. What was it like having Chuck Norris as a teacher?Foster:
When I was in the sixth grade my parents, wanting me to be able to defend myself on the schoolyard, signed me up for a year of judo. I enjoyed it, but not sufficiently to continue. When I finished college, I was looking for something to do besides weekend basketball to keep myself physically fit. Karate seemed interesting, so I thought I'd give it a try. At that time, Norris had a string of dojos, or schools, scattered around the Los Angeles area. He would rotate between them, occasionally giving instruction, but also had administrative work to deal with. As I progressed upward through the basic grades, my principal instructor became Aaron Norris, Chuck's brother.
I attended dojos in both Santa Monica and Sherman Oaks. Steve McQueen used to come into the one in Sherman Oaks for private lessons with Chuck. I suspect he may be the one to have talked Norris into giving up his teaching business to enter show business.What was the inspiration for your book Primal Shadows?Foster:
I've made three trips and spent a number of months in Papua New Guinea. It is in many ways the most interesting place on Earth ... certainly the most primitive. The people, the terrain, the wildlife, are utterly fascinating, as is the history of the place. So fascinating, in fact, that I saw no need for SF embellishment, and when finally setting a story there, decided to do it as a contemporary novel and not as science fiction. I'm very proud that people who have lived there find it an accurate and involving portrait of the country.The Mocking Program is a fascinating book of yours. What was the inspiration for that novel?Foster:
I had written two novellas and three novelettes utilizing the same setting and main character, the intuit police inspector Angel Cardenas. Betsy Mitchell, then editor of the SF line at Warner Books (and now with Del Rey/Ballantine) asked for a novel employing the same. The Mocking Program
was the result. As to direct inspiration, living as I do in Arizona I am intimately aware of the issues that dominate border relations with Mexico, and felt they should be explored in story. Since nobody else I was aware of was doing so, I felt compelled to take a crack at it.
I outlined a second novel, Steel Yu
, but by that time Betsy Mitchell had moved on to Del Rey and the new regime at Warner expressed a powerful lack of interest in the book, so it has yet to be written.A number of your books had ecological elements in them. Are you an environmentalist? What are some of Earth's most environmental problems, and what can mankind do to solve them?Foster:
I live on this planet. I'm stuck on it. To live here and not to be an environmentalist is to be an irresponsible passenger ... though there are all too many people who are quite comfortable living as slobs and fouling their own homes. As to specific environmental problems, most can be traced to the elephant in the room that no one wants to do anything about: the fact that there are simply too many people on the planet. The ship is overloaded.
Short of solving that overlying conundrum, the most immediate problems we have to deal with are the fact that the demand for cheap and easily obtainable fossil fuel has now exceeded supply. It's nice that Richard Branson can run a 747 on biofuel, but I hold out greater hope for the electric vehicle and, in particular, France's MDI compressed-air engine technology. We need to rapidly develop more solar and wind capacity. It's absurd that Denmark can do it and the U.S. cannot ... though that is changing in regard to wind power.
Pollution: too many non-biodegradable containers, insufficient conservation of water (if 80 percent plus goes to agriculture, that means saving 20 percent would allow for a doubling of supply to every other consuming source), chemical pollution.Some of your villains' downfall is a lack of respect for alien species. What is it about this theme that appeals to you?Foster:
There is a regrettable tendency for us as individuals as well as a species to consider ourselves superior to others. Having traveled extensively, I know that it's usually the small things that get you. The dangers that are overlooked. You're far less likely to die by being eaten by a shark or a lion than you are from contracting a disease or internal parasite. There are all kinds of superiority. Wells recognized this when he had his invading Martians defeated by common germs. The U.S. may subside as an international power not due to defeat in war, but by having our economic vitality sapped through a combination of stupid policies and outright corruption.In your Spellsinger series, your protagonist is summoned into a world populated by talking creatures where his music allows him to do real magic. Do you think music is magical? What are some of your favorite types of music and musicians?Foster:
Not magical, but universally understood. I've never been anywhere where people, regardless of culture or background, did not respond to music. As to favorites, I prefer classical music and heavy metal. I'm also fond of "world" music. Don't respond to country or jazz, I'm afraid. Classically, I have a preference for modern romantic composers who, sadly, don't get played. Tournemire, Klami, Tubin, Vincent, Braga-Santos and especially Havergal Brian. Musicwise, my picks would be AC/DC, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Metallica ... Rammstein if one can overlook their political overtones. Very low-key...As a world traveler, you've headed for some exotic locales. What are some of your favorites, and what places haven't you been to yet that you are still planning to go to in your lifetime?Foster:
Favorites? I've already mentioned New Guinea. Anywhere in the Pacific. Prague, St. Petersburg, Rome, London, Vienna, Heidelberg ... I could list cities endlessly. I adore Turkey and India. Africa is always surprising. Australia is like being home, but with different slang. New Zealand is the most beautiful country I've ever visited. The Arctic is rejuvenating. South America is an unending cornucopia of wonders and charming people.
See? Like my wife says, I have no taste. I like everyplace. As to those not yet visited ... mainland China, Tibet, southern India, Myanmar (under a different regime), Patagonia, Zambia, Ethiopia, the Middle East ... another endless list. I hope to be in North Africa later this year.Last words?Foster:
Two quotes from Erasmus: "If I have a little money, I buy books. If I have anything left over, I buy food," and, "To stop learning is to start to die."