Talking with Ti

with Ti Mikkel

Q&A with Stephen Leigh

TI: Hello Stephen! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk today. Let’s jump right in — I’m always eager to hear everyone’s Wild Cards origin story and where they were when George called. Tell us a little bit about how you got involved and how long you’ve known George.

 

STEVE: Hey, Ti! Good to talk to you. So, to answer your first question…My spouse Denise and I have known George since 1976 (I think) when we went to a convention called Chambanacon, which took place on Thanksgiving weekend in Champagne, IL. At the time, George was living in Dubuque, Iowa. I’d sold a few stories by that point and knew George from the magazines. Actually, it was Denise who met him first. I didn’t meet George until a few hours later when I found ‘Nise in one of the party rooms deep in conversation with a writer whose name I knew by his growing reputation in the field. We talked a fair amount there; we got to know George and would get together at conventions and even visited each other’s homes occasionally.

TI: I’m going to interrupt you here just to give a shoutout to the person who dubbed their convention “Chambanacon.” Carry on.

STEVE: That con’s still going on, and I should probably note that they write it as “ChamBanaCon” or we’ll get incensed comments. But back to our story! I honestly don’t remember the exact day when I was recruited into the WILD CARDS project. I’m fairly sure it in late 1985, but I do remember that it was evening when the phone in our bedroom rang; George was on the other end. This is approximately how the conversation went:

“Hey, Steve, you’re a comic book fan, right?”

“Yeah, I guess. I don’t collect ‘em anymore, but I’ve always read ‘em. Still do, now and then.”

“And you like role-playing games too, right?”

At the time, I been running a fantasy RPG of my own devising for a couple years as the DM/GM. “Yep. In fact, there’s a game here tomorrow night.” I didn’t know then where George was heading with this, but so far I was interested.

“Good. I have a proposition for you…” George went on to tell me about the SuperWorld RPG he, Melinda Snodgrass, Walter Jon Williams, John J. Miller, Vic Milan, and Gail Gerstner-Miller were playing, how they were spending all their creative energy on the game and had come up with a way to hopefully meld the basics of an RPG with their writing careers by turning it into a shared world series. He outlined what would become the Wild Card universe and how an alien virus had been released on our world. “90% of those infected die almost immediately. Of the survivors, 9 out of ten of them turn into horribly malformed beings (jokers); but that lucky one out of hundred is gifted with a superpower of some sort (ace)…” They’d already come up with several characters and George suggested to me that they needed at least one character connected to the politics of this world.

George asked if I was interested in writing for this project; I enthusiastically said sure and told him I’d send along a few character ideas. The very first character I put together for WILD CARDS was Senator Gregg Hartmann, aka Puppetman, who would be my main character through the first several books of the series though several others would follow in rapid succession: Gimli, Oddity, the Howler, Succubus, Peanut…

Now, some of the details above might be disputed by George and I’ll admit that three and a half decades on, my memory of the whole conversation is, well, fuzzy. But that’s the gist of it.

 

TI: You’ve been part of the Wild Cards universe from the beginning and have created quite a few characters (Babel, Bloat, Drummer Boy, Gardener, Gimli, The Oddity, and Puppetman). It’s been said before that parents with two or more children have a secret favorite child. Is it the same for authors? Do you have a favorite character?

STEVE:  You never give anyone the name of your secret favorite child!  But…I’ll admit to a secret affection for Gardener, even if she wasn’t the character I used the most—not even near that. But she came to vivid life for me in SUICIDE KINGS, and I had a great time working with Ian Tregillis to put together the Gardener/Rustbelt plot and romance. Sadly, it was her fate to die in that book—after all, the title was SUICIDE KINGS; someone had to die and I volunteered Gardener. I still love the bittersweet ending of that book.

I like all of my characters though, even the awful ones like Puppetman. As my friend Frank Johnson once told me: “Steve, you’re a nice guy, but your characters do such terrible things.” But then throughout the first sequence of books especially, my characters (like Hartmann and Bloat) were often the ‘heavy’ in the book: the supervillain more than the superhero. Maybe that’s why I liked Gardener so well as she was an unapologetic and unrepentant good person—a rarity for me.

TI: I loved Gardener so much. Ugh. I still don’t think I’ve fully accepted that she’s gone.

 

STEVE:  I feel the same way, though I like how Rusty continues to carry a torch for her and keeps her name alive. I’ll admit that I sometime wish I hadn’t let her die so I could continue to use her in stories.

 

TI: Let’s go back to Puppetman. I hear from a lot of authors that pitching characters can be a tough process, but you said earlier that Hartmann was the first character you put together. That’s pretty incredible.

 

STEVE:  Maybe not so much, honestly. Remember that I was one of the first set of writers drafted into WILD CARDS and there weren’t many characters around yet, and George had specifically told me he wanted a politician. The longer this has gone on (and it’s been a LONG time now) and the more characters that have appeared in the books, the harder it’s become to devise characters  that have abilities that haven’t already been used in one form or another. George and Melinda are pretty ruthless about not allowing that kind of duplication to occur. So yes, nowadays pitching a new character can be a lengthy and difficult process.

 

TI: If you could have dinner with any of your characters, who would it be?

 

STEVE: The Oddity—because it would be a dinner with three other different people with some interesting tales to tell as well as terrifically interesting lives both before and after having been infected by the wild card virus. I mean, here’s three people who used to be lovers forced to co-exist with each other in a body wracked by constant pain. There are all sorts of conversation starters: How do you deal with this? If you could suddenly be back to being three individuals, would you still be in love with each other? Do you miss your previous occupations? Is there something good about what happened to you? Do you consider yourselves to be collectively an ace or a joker?

And I’d be able to see what their intermingled face looks like since they’d have to take off the fencing mask in order to eat…

TI: Ooo, nice. Okay now pretend that you have to pick one of your characters to babysit your children. Who do you choose?

 STEVE: Luckily, our kids are long beyond needing babysitters—they’re both now in their 30s. (I think this means that Denise and I must have had them when we were 6 and 8, respectively.) Denise and I have been empty nesters for several years now.  But… if our kids were still little enough to require supervision while Denise and I went out, I sure wouldn’t be calling Gregg Hartmann, Drummer Boy, or Bloat… That would obviously lead to three different kinds of disasters: Gregg would make them do horrible things to each other, Drummer Boy would probably get distracted and just forget about them—

TI: Or introduce them to the percussion group of musical instruments. *clutches pearls*

STEVE: With Devon, it was Phil Collins and the soundtrack to the animated Tarzan movie. He left that movie at 11 years old saying he wanted to learn how to play drums… and we let him do that. Drummer Boy (as a Wild Cards character) would follow a few years later. Now Bloat would surround them with Boschian nightmare visions. Just wouldn’t work. Gardener could be a good choice, or maybe Gary Bushorn. They are/were two of the ‘good’ and reliable characters in my stable. Babel might be okay. Maybe. And Steam Wilbur would do his best but end up accidentally scalding one or the other.

 

TI: You teach Creative Writing at Northern Kentucky University, so let’s move onto questions about the craft itself. You’ve said that writing what you know simply doesn’t work for anyone writing science fiction and fantasy and certainlynot in the Wild Cards universe. With that in mind, what are your top three tips for aspiring writers?

STEVE:  1: Write. 2: Write more. 3: Write even more. I know; that sounds flippant but it’s true. Writing is no different than any other art like playing a musical instrument or learning how to paint. It requires practice to gain proficiency, Lots and lots and lots of practice. It’s from practice that you (eventually) gain your own individual voice. It also requires that you read. What would you think of a musician who had never listened to other people play music, or a painter who has never been to an art museum or gallery? You have to read good fiction so you can see how it constructed and how it works; you have to read extensively in whatever genre you prefer so that you’re not simply telling clichéd stories that the editors have seen a million times before.

I even tell my students that you don’t need to take creative writing classes in order to become a published writer. I never took a creative writing class until I had to get a Master’s degree in order to teach at university level—and at that point, I’d already published 15 or 16 novels and lots of short fiction. Taking classes can help and maybe move you along a little faster, but you can certainly become a published writer without formal training, in the same way that you can play in a band without ever having music lessons. However, it can be helpful to have a workshop group or some trusted first readers to give you feedback on your drafts so that you can revise them effectively. I always tell my students that the real work of writing is in revision—that’s where mediocre work can become good work. But ultimately, it’s actually writing that makes you a better writer.

If people are interested, I have several essays on writing on my website at

http://www.farrellworlds.com/onwriting.html

 

TI: In your blog discussing your character Puppetman, you mention that you love doing research for stories and bringing to life certain locales. Do you go to a library or stick to, say, Google? Do you travel to different locations to make sure you’ve gotten it right or talk to certain people?

STEVE:  All of the above. The library in my office consists largely of nonfiction books that I’ve read for research. Trips to various locations have served as inspiration and eventually the setting for several of my books. I’ve been to Ireland a few times now, and that provided the spark and inspiration for the CLOUDMAGES trilogy, for A CROW OF CONNEMARA, and for my current work in progress (as well as a few short stories). Our first trip to France became the impetus for the NESSANTICO trilogy (and helped provide the Paris settings for IMMORTAL MUSE.) Speaking of that book, for sections of IMMORTAL MUSE I read at least a dozen separate books researching information about artists from the 1300s to today. The protagonist of that book is a genuine Muse who can enhance the creativity of the artists that she’s with, and who is also virtually immortal with a body that can heal from nearly any wound. One of the artists she becomes involved with is Gianlorenzo Bernini, the Italian sculptor of the 17th century; my protagonist in that era is Costanza, who was Bernini’s lover and model for a time. In researching Bernini and Costanza, I found this tragic tale that became the final bit of that section. The following is from the Afterword of IMMORTAL MUSE, where I talk about what’s real and what’s fiction in the book:

“Costanza was Bernini’s mistress, and yes, she was married to one of Bernini’s assistants. When Bernini began to suspect that his brother was also having an affair with Costanza—Bernini supposedly saw him leaving Costanza’s house and kissing her when she was dressed only in her night shift—Bernini hired someone to slash and disfigure poor Costanza’s face and tried to kill his brother. For that, his brother was exiled, while Bernini was ordered to pay a fine. He wouldn’t ever pay that fine…” Such a nice guy, Bernini!

TI: Holy crap.

STEVE:  That was pretty much my reaction too. Poor Costanza—especially for the genuine historical Costanza who had to endure the pain, the humiliation, and the results for the rest of her life. I wanted to know more about her afterward, but she seems to vanish from historical records following the incident.

Anyway…

A nonfiction book, THE LIFE & DEATH OF A DRUID PRINCE by Anne Ross and Don Robins, about the real-life discovery of a bog body in 1984 England became the spark for DARK WATER’S EMBRACE, where the discovery of a bog body on a distant planet becomes the central mystery of the tale.

And, of course, there are many, many times where I need a fact or three and I use Google or other internet search engines to find what I need. I do love research and I especially love how it tends to send you down unexpected paths if you remain open to coincidence and synchronicity.

TI: I love research, too, but is it possible to go to far down the rabbit hole? At some point you have to leave the library and start writing. Did or do you ever find yourself worrying about pleasing both casual readers and historians alike?

STEVE: You can get lost in endless research—well, I can sometimes. That’s a real danger for someone (like me) who enjoys that process and enjoys reading about different places,different cultures, and different times. To use IMMORTAL MUSE as an example once more, in the Vivaldi/ Anna Giraud section, I had Anna (Perenelle’s identity in that section) attend an opera in Venice. Nicolas Flamel is in the company of Carlo Goldoni, a playwright and librettist who didn’t much care for Vivaldi. Now, I could have just made up a name for the opera house, but no, I wanted to use the name of an historically genuine Venetian opera house, so I started looking up opera houses in Venice that existed in the 1730s. I found a few, but I also discovered that one of them, the Teatro San Salvatore, still is in use but is now named the Teatro Goldoni. That was just too much of a cool coincidence to ignore, so Anna and Vivaldi attend an opera at the Teatro San Salvatore and meet Goldoni (and Nicolas) there.

Not only that, but I could look up the Teatro Goldoni on Google Earth and actually see the interior, the façade, and know what’s around it—which I used in that scene in the novel. Now, I’m certain that no one but a well-versed Venetian historian would ever notice that literary connection. I seriously doubt that any reader of IMMORTAL MUSE ever looked up the Teatro San Salvatore and realized that it was now the Teatro Goldoni and muttered “Aha! That’s cool!” But I knew, and that was enough.

TI: You live in Cincinnati (whose steamboat industry made it one of the most important cities in the West prior to the Civil War) so I imagine that for MISSISSIPPI ROLL all the information you needed was at your fingertips.

STEVE:  Not necessarily, or rather, not necessarily enough. George is a huge steamboat aficionado, after all. In the past, Cincinnati has hosted a few “Tall Stacks” festivals where steamboats from around the country filled the riverfront landing with steamboats as if it were the mid-19th century again. George has stayed at our house for those festivals, touring the boats and taking excursions on them. George has a vast set of knowledge about those vessels—just look at his book FEVRE DREAM (still one of my favorites of his).

 

TI: Love FEVRE DREAM.

STEVE:  Ditto. So…some extensive research was essential since I knew George would catch me out on any mistakes! (For instance, never use the term ‘steamship’ when talking to George about steamboats!)

TI: Or insist dragons have four legs.

STEVE: There weren’t any dragons in MISSISSIPPI ROLL, so I didn’t have to worry about that (though I’m in total agreement with George–the wings are the dragon’s arms, just like a bat or a bird.)

I also made my main character a grandson of an actual steamboat captain, Thomas P. Leathers (1816 – 1896) and the boat in the book is the ninth Natchez (Leathers built the first eight; in real life, the ninth Natchez was built in 1975 and is still running in New Orleans). In MISSISSIPPI ROLL, Leathers’ grandson Wilbur Leathers built the ninth Natchez in 1948—and that’s the boat in the novel. I read everything I could on the Leathers family (did you know that Captain Leathers’ daughter-in-law, Blanche Douglass Leathers, was the first woman master and steamboat captain on the Mississippi River?)

TI: Go Blanche.

STEVE:  Yep, Blanche has a pretty impressive resume for a woman of that time. And yes, there’s a plethora of information about steamboats in our area—Cincinnati was one of primary locations where steamboats were built in the 19th century.  But yes, there’s a plethora of information about steamboats in the area—Cincinnati was one of primary locations where steamboats were built in the 19th century.

TI: Let’s touch on your writing schedule. Do you write seven days a week? Do you prefer the morning or evening?

STEVE: I realized early on that if was ever going to have any kind of career as a writer, I needed to learn to write in whatever scraps of time I could find. No waiting for Muse! For most of my life, it was necessary for me to work a ‘real’ job in order to pay our bills, which meant time for writing was limited. So yes, I write every day, seven days a week, with the goal of producing 500 words or more every day—maybe two pages in proper manuscript format. I usually make that goal (though not always), and there are wonderful days where I might double or triple that goal. I don’t write at any set time, nor do I have a morning/evening preference. I write whenever I have the opportunity, wherever I am at that moment. Which is why I tend to drag my laptop along with me wherever I go, so I can kick up Scrivener, my preferred writing program.

TI: Holy discipline, Batman. How do you deal with writer’s block?

STEVE: I simply refuse to believe in it. As I said in talking about teaching creative writing, I strongly believe in revision as the essential work of writing. When I was younger, I stupidly believed what my literature teachers (usually non-writers themselves) said about how writing at Art, not Craft, and therefore writers had to have divine inspiration. In their view, the Muse would descend from the heavens with a story fully formed, touch the writer, and the story would then flow in a glorious golden stream from the writer’s pen onto the page, perfect and complete.

So early on, that’s how I tried to do it: I’d wait for the Muse to give me a complete story, I’d write it down once, and that was the end of the process. If it wasn’t good, well that was the Muse’s fault, not mine. Writing wasn’t supposed to be work; it was supposed to be capital-A Art formed entirely through capital-I Inspiration. Of course, that’s not how it works. It took me awhile (I’m a slow learner) but I realized that I had to just start working. If things flowed, great. If they didn’t and what I was writing wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, don’t stop writing. That’s where the proverbial Writer’s Block occurs: when you sit and wait for things to start flowing again.

I’ve studied the martial art aikido for decades now, and what I found in that art was that the hardest thing about it was getting myself out of the house and to the dojo. Once I was actually there, I always enjoyed myself and learned a lot. But over the decades, I had a few hiatuses in my attendance. I’d skip a week, then I’d find that it was easy to give myself more excuses not to go the next week, and the next…and all of the sudden I hadn’t been to the dojo in months. Aikidoist’s Block. Same as Writer’s Block.

And it has the same cure: get back to work!

Sit your ass down at the computer and put words in the file. If the story doesn’t flow, just keep writing anyway. Eventually the flow returns and if there’s garbage behind you when things start moving again, that’s okay: you’re going to go back and revise and you’ll either throw out what you wrote or you’ll fix it. But if you never sit down and put your fingers on the keyboard, you’ll never get any writing done.

So don’t believe in Writer’s Block. Believe in moving forward and revising.

TI: Aikidoist’s Block. I love it. You’ve said that your wife Denise is your first reader (ACE IN THE HOLE being the only exception). Does she give you notes? Is she a writer as well?

STEVE:  She’s not a writer, but she’s an excellent reader. I’ve learned over the years that when Denise tells me something’s not working, I really need to listen to her! And since (for some reason) in recent years I seem to have been using female protagonists more frequently than male ones, when she tells me “Nope, no woman would do that,” I know I need to ask “So what would she do?”  Heck, Denise just finished reading the latest chapter in my current novel-in-progress and told me that she thought the transition from the previous chapter was too abrupt. I obviously need to go look at that.

TI: How about TV–binge watching anything right now?

STEVE: I try not to watch a lot of TV, but when I do, it’s generally whatever Denise is watching. We both lean toward PBS/BBC programming rather than broadcast TV. And yes, we watch GAME OF THRONES. However, I’m looking forward to being able to watch WILD CARDS on Hulu sometime in the relatively near future!

TI: And reading? Who is your favorite author?

STEVE: Any writer who doesn’t answer “Me!” is probably lying, but that’s a little too egotistical for any of us to openly admit. Therefore, I’m going to assume the actual question is “Other than yourself, who is your favorite author?” That is, by the way, a question that’s terrifically difficult for me to answer. I read pretty widely and not just in sf/fantasy, and there are lots of writers I enjoy reading and who can make me go “Wow, that’s some terrific writing there.”

Early on as a reader, Ray Bradbury was my favorite, though. I loved the poetry of his prose and his ability to evoke an emotional response. I have a signed copy of R IS FOR ROCKET on my bookshelf. Some of my favorite books from when I was forming my own voice as a writer were LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS by Ursula K. Le Guin, LORD OF LIGHT by Roger Zelazney, and Samuel Delaney’s collection of short fiction DRIFTGLASS (and yes, some of George’s early stories would also make this list).

There are writers I admire for one aspect of their writing but not necessarily overall: Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy springs to mind—incredibly extensive and massive world building that was marvelous, but the actual prose is often stilted and the characters (especially the female ones) were rather one-dimensional. And there are some incredible new writers in our genre now—too many to name (several of them work in the WILD CARDS universe too). Nnedi Okorafor has a fantastic voice and vision, as just one example. A single favorite writer? That’s way too limiting!

 

TI: Tell me a little bit about growing up in Cincinnati. What was your childhood like?

STEVE:  I grew up in Reading, OH, a northern suburb of Cincinnati. My parents had built a house there in a new development, and for at least the first few years I lived there, we were the last house on the street with nothing but untouched woods beyond the end of the pavement. Even after they added a new circle to the neighborhood just past our house, there were still acres and acres of woods behind the houses.

I spent most of my time in those woods along with several of the other kids my age. Those woods could be any landscape we wanted: Sherwood Forest, an ancient forest where dinosaurs or mythical beasts till roamed, a WWII battleground, Africa (we’d do a lot of Tarzan-like swinging on vines—even after one of the kids nearly broke his leg when the vine broke as he was swinging over a ravine). There was an area of young trees overgrown with a covering of ivy that we called The Seven Caves. And in the mid-to-late 1950s, when I was growing up, we could walk to a good-sized creek, the Mill Creek, with some extensive pools that were full of minnows and bluegills, with frogs, toad, salamanders, and turtles in abundance on the banks.

TI: That sounds magical.

STEVE:  It was for me, at least for a time. By the 60s and the time I reached my teenage years, though, this idyllic little refuge had been largely destroyed. The Mill Creek was green with sewage and polluted overflow from the nearby industries, the fish were all dead along with most of the amphibian population, and the areas behind the houses were beginning to be filled with trash like abandoned refrigerators and broken furniture. But that place had shaped me, had given my imagination free rein, and started me on the path that would lead to the books and stories I’ve written.

My parents were Catholic (my father was largely Irish Catholic; my mother was originally a Methodist who converted to Catholicism when she married my father. I was raised Catholic (heck, I was even an altar boy) and educated in the parochial school system—though by the time I reached high school I no longer believed in either Catholicism or in any god at all. Still, the idea of religions—any and all religions and their intricacies, belief structures, hierarchies, rules, and mythologies—still fascinates me, and that interest shows up in my fiction relatively frequently.

My childhood, I must admit, was also a sheltered one. All the kids I knew were just like me: Caucasian, middle-class, and usually Catholic. Beyond the occasional casual meeting, I didn’t have any real experience with people of color, or of people from different economic backgrounds (either lower or higher) until high school and beyond.

That’s the way it often was in the 1950s—and I think that was a shame: it’s why Denise and I deliberately chose to buy homes in ‘mixed’ areas within the city of the Cincinnati itself and not in the (still) sheltered suburban enclaves—so our own children would have a broader experience of life. The experiences of our childhood are perhaps the prime sculptors of the adult we become, after all.

TI: You’re a longtime musician. What instrument(s) do you play? How did that come about?

STEVE: I play guitar and bass and I can bang badly on a keyboard. I also have been the lead singer (or one of them) in the bands I’ve been in. My father was a singer and played ukulele. I expressed an interest in learning guitar at some point in grade school, and my parents arranged for lessons (my two younger sisters would go on to take piano lessons). In high school, I played in several bands as the lead guitarist and singer. After graduation, several high school friends had formed a group (complete with horn section —emulating Chicago and Blood, Sweat, &Tears). They already had a lead guitar player and asked me if I knew how to play bass. I lied and said “Sure.” After all, a bass is just the lowest four strings of a guitar. At first, I was essentially playing lead guitar licks on a bass, which meant I overplayed. A lot.  However, I found I enjoyed being a bassist and forming the foundation of the beat along with the drummer. I eventually learned to leave some space and actually play like a bass player. That band, Bluestone Ivory, would become one of the well-known groups in Cincinnati at the time; we lasted until the mid-1970s before breaking up.

In BSI, the guitar player and I shared the lead vocal duties, which was fine since our voices were quite different and we harmonized together well. I still play bass in bands, but I also now do solo gigs where I’m playing an acoustic-electric guitar rather than bass. I enjoy both.

TI: Did you know when you were a kid that writing was the job you wanted or did you see a future in music?

STEVE:  I’ve been writing stories since grade school—I wrote a (very bad) long story at 10 or 11, scribbling at night under my covers with a flashlight. The story featured me and my neighborhood friends scuba-diving in Mexico. No, I’d never been scuba- diving nor been to Mexico, but I’d read a Sea Hunt novel (remember Lloyd Bridges?) set in Baja Mexico and been entranced, so my story was essentially Sea Hunt fan fiction. As I recall, there was quite a hefty pile of pages in my drawer when I was done (all handwritten, of course). At some point, that pile vanished—I assume my mother threw out the manuscript; I know I didn’t. It’s just as well; I’m certain it was horribly written. I guess I always had aspirations to be a writer, but for a long time music was the career I pursued the hardest. I put myself through college playing music (tuition was much cheaper back then and I was living at home); after graduation, for several years I played music full-time. Somewhere in there, I sold my first few stories and as the music dream slowly faded with bands breaking up and vanishing, I focused more and more on my fiction. However, I still play music, and the band I play with most often consists of several musicians I’ve been playing with since high school.

TI:  Your son plays the drums. Do you two jam together in the garage?

STEVE:  Not the garage but our basement, actually, which is also where the current band (and myself) practice. I’ve everything set up there, and Devon leaves a drum set down there as well.  I have jammed with Devon occasionally, and when my band’s playing and Devon has a (rare) night off from gigging, if he stops in to listen our drummer will generally try to get him to sit in for a few songs, which is fun.

But I have to honestly say that Devon is a far better musician than I am or ever was. He’s as fiercely dedicated to and obsessed with music as I’ve been with writing, and he has awesome chops—which I say not a doting parent but as a fellow musician. He prefers fusion and jazz and his bands play music that is beyond my meager capabilities.

For that matter, my undergraduate degree was in Fine Art, so I also thought about a career in art. I still think every so often that I need to get back to drawing and painting. But our daughter Megen has become serious about being an artist, and as Devon has surpassed me in music, so likewise Megen has surpassed me in art. I supposed I should be grateful that neither of them took up writing fiction. Not yet, anyway.

TI: Speaking of jazz, has Devon ever played at Dee Felice in Covington, Kentucky? I went there over Thanksgiving and had a ball.

 STEVE:  Actually, he has. He sat in for the regular drummer for at least one night there. Was the band playing on the stage above and behind the bar the night you were there?

TI: Yes!

STEVE: Not the best location for a stage I’ve ever seen. Dee Felice was a well-known Cincinnati jazz drummer and band leader. He founded his restaurant in 1984 (and for those who don’t know, Covington Kentucky is directly across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati). After he died in 2008, John Von Ohlen, another local jazz drummer who led the highly-regarded Blue Wisp Big band for decades and played with Stan Kenton and Woody Herman ‘back in the day’, played there with a trio. It was Von Ohlen that Devon sat in for one night when Von Ohlen was ill. His usual back-up drummer (who was one of Devon’s drum instructors) had another gig and suggested Devon. That was three years or so ago, I think. Von Ohlen passed away in 2018 at 77 years of age. I believe a local group called the Faux Frenchmen play there now.  This has been your Cincinnati Jazz History Moment. We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

 

TI: What did your parents do for a living? Did they encourage your writing habits?

STEVE: My father worked for Procter & Gamble (in Cincinnati, sometimes referred to locally as “Procter & God”) as a mid-level manager. Dad wasn’t much of a reader, but he and three of his brothers were singers, so there was a certain interest in the arts. My mother was a housewife and was the reader in the family. There were always books around. My parents never tried to censor our reading; Mom once told me that she figured that if a book was too ‘adult’ or sophisticated for us, we wouldn’t be interested in it anyway—which meant that I was often reading books ‘above’ my level. (This, by the way, was a trait that Denise and I continued with our own kids—they were welcome to pull any book from the bookshelf to read and were encouraged to ask questions if they couldn’t understand things or to look up the explanation on their own.)

My parents didn’t specifically encourage my writing habits but I would suggest that being an avid reader often leads to someone becoming a writer—you end up writing the stories and books that you can’t find anywhere else.

TI: George has been a part of the genre fantasy community for years. Outside of Chambanacon (sorry—it needed to be used once more before we wrap things up) do you consider yourself a convention-goer?

STEVE:  Pre-kids, in the mid-70s when Denise and I first got in fandom, we were pretty regular con-goers. We’d hit a half dozen cons a year pretty regularly around the region and try to get to Worldcon or World Fantasy when we could. But we’ve slowly cut down over the decades. Now it may be two and sometimes three cons a year. We usually try to make Worldcon, since that’s where we can usually catch up with George and many of the writers and fans we know. Our local Cincinnati con, MidWestCon, seems to be dying a slow and lingering death, with fewer people attending every year—the early MWCs we attended sometimes had as many as 500 people registered; now it’s less than a hundred. And as a college instructor, getting away for a weekend can be difficult during the school year, which also means the timing of a convention has to be right as well.

Maybe when we’re both retired…

TI: Earlier you mentioned a novel-in-progress. Tell me about that.

STEVE: I’m currently writing a science fiction novel tentatively entitled SLEEPING WOLF (though that almost certainly not going to be the final title). I have a contract for the novel through DAW Books, who I’ve been with since the start of the century (gee, doesn’t that make it sound like ages ago?) Strangely enough, the novel’s inspiration goes back to a trip to Ireland in 2017 and specifically the Dingle Peninsula, and even more specifically, the Blasket Islands that sit just off the end of the peninsula. I was fascinated by the history of the islands and the lost culture they represent and ended up transplanting some of that material to another world entirely.  I’m still working on the initial draft. At the moment (mid February 2019) I’m about 75,000 words in, so that’s maybe 75% of the way.

I’m also open to anthology invites for short fiction. I’ve just finished two pieces of short fiction for upcoming anthologies. Short fiction is a fun ‘break’ from writing novels!

TI: One last question. In ACE IN THE HOLE Hartmann loses his chance to become the Democratic nominee for president and has a confrontation with Tachyon in his hotel room. You and Melinda (Tachyon’s creator) had a long phone conversation where you role-played the conversation together. Please tell me there’s a recording of this.

STEVE: Alas, there isn’t, nor could I give you a paraphrased facsimile of it from memory. It will have to exist only in everyone’s imagination…where I’m sure it will be far more interesting!

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