Best known for his Xanth series, Piers Anthony is one of the most popular authors of fantasy and science fiction today and is followed by a large group of devoted, long-lasting fans. To date he has had over twenty novels hit the best-seller list, and he is the author of over 160 books in such varied categories as science fiction and fantasy, horror, historical fiction, and non-fiction. With an average of 3 new books published every year, Piers Anthony is one of the most prolific authors in science fiction and fantasy. We are extremely happy and honored to have the opportunity to interview Mr. Anthony, and learn a little bit more about his career and life.
Iulian: It’s always fascinating to me to learn about the beginnings of prolific writers’ careers, even if just scratching the surface. I know that your initial catalyst was an issue of Astounding Science Fiction, but from that to over 150 novels is a long way, and I assume that the first part of that journey was filled with hurdles and hardship. Tell us a little bit about that beginning—what made you go this way, who helped, who was in the way, and how did you manage to push through this winding road, littered with rejection and criticism?
Piers: I realized in college that I wanted to be a creative writer, but it took eight years after my decision to make my first story sale, and another four to sell my first novel. Then my publisher cheated me on royalties, and blacklisted me for six years when I protested. When new editors came in, one of whom had also been cheated there so he knew the score, the blacklisting ended. They put me on the national bestseller list. Unfortunately, ironically, I had to leave because the editor got old and started cutting out whole chapters, not seeing why that would bother an author. So it’s been a roller coaster. In effect, over simplified, I had to choose between artistic integrity and bestseller status. So I am no longer a best seller. It’s a choice other authors face, unfortunately.
Iulian: As a married father of two, I know that the family life and the writing life are two sides of a fragile balance, and it’s not often that the two find themselves in perfect harmony. How did your family life affect or influence your writing, both growing up and later as an adult?
Piers: It seems that the root source of successful writing is to have an unhappy childhood. I was not abused, but I seriously questioned whether my life was worth living. I resolved to do better by my own children, and believe I did; my daughters did not become writers. My wife has always been supportive, and I believe having a long—58 years and counting—and quiet marriage has contributed to my success. In sum: you need to start unhappy, but thereafter you can get away with being happy.
Iulian: Your world-building is almost an art form, and over time you’ve created several worlds, each captured in various series or separate novels. Out of these, Xanth obviously stands out—an amazing achievement, adored by fans and publishers. But if you are to take a birds-eye view at your entire career as a writer, what would you describe as your best achievement? Once you said, and I paraphrase, “write for the readers, not for yourself.” How does this circle back to you, the writer?
Piers: I regard the historical Geodyssey series as being my best work, and the ChroMagic series as my best fantasy. Xanth is easy, fun, and it pays my way, so it continues. In effect, it makes my more serious work possible. It is my most commercial fiction, and yes, it is written for my readers, a number of whom contribute to it.
Iulian: You received several awards and quite a number of your novels reached the status of best-seller. Was this ever a goal for you? Did that shape the way you approached writing in anyway? And given that your career is far from over, what is your next goal?
Piers: The main award I received was The British Fantasy Award for A Spell for Chameleon. I’ve never had a Hugo or Nebula. Early on I wanted awards but time and experience have satisfied me that many have become corrupted, being in-group popularity contests rather than indications of merit, and my interest in them has diminished accordingly. My goal is simply to write what pleases me, and to please my readers. I never dreamed of becoming a bestseller; that was a pleasant surprise.
Iulian: You write a lot of long fiction, much more than short fiction. Has that changed over time? It is said that today it is impossible for a writer to make a living from short stories, but perhaps this wasn’t the case a while back. What are short stories for you today? Are they unfinished novel ideas, or perhaps just sprouts for future, extended works?
Piers: I regard myself as a natural story writer, but I couldn’t earn a living from stories, so I switched largely to novels. Now two things have changed: I no longer need money, so can write what I want, and do. And self-publishing has flowered, so I can get my stories published. I have an ongoing series of collections going, Relationships, and sometimes I place one in a magazine or anthology, as with “Descant“. I am also doing more short novels, 40,000 words, and novellas, 30,000. So my pieces are trending shorter today. I don’t think most writers ever could make much of a living from short stories.
Iulian: In your long career, I am certain you had your share of interactions with editors and publishers. What was your general experience working with them? Was there someone in particular who inspired or supported you, or was the relationship more or less transactional, lacking emotional substance?
Piers: The only editor I cared about was Lester del Rey. I had admired his editing in the magazines and wanted to work with him. I retain fond memories also of his wife, July-Lynn del Rey. She was a dwarf, physically standing maybe three and a half feet tall, but what a publisher she turned out to be! My daughters knew her personally, too, and loved her. Other editors it’s pretty much business. Well, there’s Dan Reitz, my leading fan, who started Mundania Press to republish my dirty fantasy Pornucopia, then branched out enormously.
Iulian: I find that the larger the bibliography, the harder this question becomes, but I will ask it anyway: if you were to select your top 3 favorite works, which ones would those be? Were there surprises, such as one you thought would be great, but wasn’t so greatly received by fans, and vice-versa?
Piers: 1. Tatham Mound. 2. Tarot (published in 3 parts originally.) 3. Macroscope. All were major projects from the outset. None were bestsellers. The popularity of Xanth was the main surprise. Of my shorter novels, I really like Aliena, self-published, about a nice girl with the brain of an alien starfish.
Iulian: I’ve always wondered why your novels haven’t been turned into movies or TV series? Was this ever something you hoped for? Were you ever actively trying to pitch some of your works through agencies or movie producers? It seems like, and it’s unfortunate, that some writers with long careers got their well-deserved fame only when Hollywood entered the scene. Do you think that’s being a sell-out? Either way, which one of your novels would you love to see on the big screen?
Piers: I’ve been trying for 25 years to get movies made from my novels, and there have been some close calls. With luck it still might happen in my lifetime. Any Xanth would do, or Split Infinity, or Balook, or Aliena.
Iulian: Your short-story “Descant” leads our magazine’s Issue #3. Give us a little bit about this story. Where did it come from? What was the inspiration?
Piers: Ideas constantly come to me, and I summarize them in my voluminous Ideas file, then write them when their time seems right. “Descant” was a favorite long before I wrote it. It started with the idea of singing being a better way to relate than appearance or information. When you solicited a story from me, I suggested it, and was glad for the chance to get a home for it. It was one notion among many. I don’t know why I like it so much, but it still holds me. My favorite line is “You look and sound like a queen.”
Iulian: With the amount of words you produce every year, it is pretty obvious to me that your free time must be very limited. However, there must be some… So, what are other things that interest you and occupy that free time?
Piers: Free time? What’s that? But I do take breaks playing Free Cell on the computer, and I watch videos. Hamilton had a sale, and now I have hundreds of movies to catch up on. But mainly, I really do like to write, so free time = writing time. I am most truly alive when deep in a story or novel.
Iulian: I like to end my interviews with this question because I think there’s no better advice than the one coming from those who have struggled and have succeeded: what is your advice for young writers who are trying to break through in this never-settling publishing world? Is your advice today vastly different than that from twenty or thirty years ago?
Piers: Yes. Today is vastly different, because with electronic publishing and self-publishing any writer can make his dream available for others to read. I worked to help bring this about, and I still maintain a list of electronic publishers at my HiPiers.com site, so I tell aspiring writers to check that list. I do it in significant part because I can; no one can blacklist me today for telling the truth. That’s not true for most writers. But I still do tell newcomers “Don’t give up your day job,” or have a working spouse or a rich inheritance.
Dear Mr. Anthony, thank you very much for participating in this interview and for your contribution to our magazine.
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