Robert Reed was born in Omaha, Nebraska and he received a B.S. in Biology in 1978 from Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Nebraska. He worked several jobs, but since 1987 he has been prolific enough to make his living as a full-time science fiction writer. Bob has had twelve novels published, starting with The Leeshore in 1987 and most recently with The Memory of Sky in 2014. Since winning the first annual L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest in 1986 (under the pen name Robert Touzalin) and being a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in 1987, he has had over 200 shorter works published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. Eleven of those stories were published in his critically-acclaimed first collection, The Dragons of Springplace, in 1999. Twelve more stories appear in his second collection, The Cuckoo’s Boys . In addition to his success in the U.S., Reed has also been published in the U.K., Russia, Japan, Spain and in France, where a second (French-language) collection of nine of his shorter works, Chrysalide, was released in 2002. Bob has had stories appear in at least one of the annual “Year’s Best” anthologies in every year since 1992. He has received nominations for both the Nebula Award (nominated and voted upon by genre authors) and the Hugo Award (nominated and voted upon by fans), as well as numerous other literary awards. In 2007, he won his first Hugo Award for the 2006 novella “A Billion Eves”. Robert continues to live in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his wife, Leslie, and daughter, Jessie.
Iulian: Dear Robert, your earliest work dates back to 1986 when your story “Mudpuppies” won the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. Since that time, your writing career has exploded—to date I can count 11 novels and 200+ short stories. Tell us a few words about the time before the fame: How did you grow up, any particular influences in your life, and, of course, what jobs have you had before going full-time writer? Since writing, have you ever considered any other career?
Robert: The “time before the fame” is pretty much my entire life. As a kid, I watched Gilligan’s Island and The Big Valley after school, and in the glow of the black-and-white TV, I tinkered with bloody stories involving superdinosaurs and the like. Very little has changed. I watch different shows and I write what catches my interest, as always. Most pieces sell, and maybe I’ll read reviews. Maybe several times a week I get appreciative emails. Maybe. This is a very subtle fame. The money made as a full-time writer has been minimal. My writing went full-time because that was the only way to get enough work done. I managed the trick because Lincoln is a cheap town and I was able to survive just above the poverty line. I worked in a local factory for years, sometimes full-time and sometimes half-days. I did some mentoring for gifted students, and I married well. My wife has always been employed, and her paychecks have never bounced, and I am daycare for my daughter, except now she’s a teenager and mostly I just bother her enough to make sure she isn’t doing something too wicked for words.
How did you start writing? Was it an Eureka moment for you, or was it built over time? The world is filled with people who wake up every day saying: “one day I will be a writer.” You actually did it. Is there a secret to that success?
My Eureka moments are constant. I endure them every day, sometimes several times a day. I’ve learned to ignore most of them. I can’t stop myself from figuring out a hard story, though the next Eureka might wipe away that solution—so I don’t get attached to these moments of false brilliance.
In part, I wanted to be a writer because I thought I would be a good writer. A bigger part is that I couldn’t imagine myself being successful at much else. I like science, but I hate labs. I can teach, but I rarely want to stand in front of people and tell them what to think. I can be a writer because it means too much to me. I love playing story-games in my head. Signing autographs is a neutral event. Seeing my books in Barnes and Noble is a good reason to move to a different department.
What would you call the defining moment in your writing career, the moment when you knew you turned pro? What story, market, or anthology had a part in that? Was there anyone who helped you along the way, or was an internal struggle?
One of my favorite writer moments was at the end of BLACK MILK, my third novel. I had a tense situation involving a treehouse and armed stand-off. I didn’t know what would happen next. But then several parents to the main characters walked off to get a ladder, which is what older, wiser souls would do. Those characters knew more than the writer, and the writer wasn’t too proud to deny them that chance. Ever since, I listen to my characters, and probably to a fault.
People have advised me along the way. Good advice, bad advice. But always honest, and in most cases, I try to forget what they say.
Let’s talk about editors for a little bit. Without naming names, unless you want to, do you find working with editors difficult, helpful, annoying, etc? Any bad or enlightening experiences you’d like to mention? How important is the editor?
I love some editors. Well, no. Let’s rewrite the line. I adore some people who happen to be editors, and I respect what editors can accomplish. Don’t I want a better product? Of course, if it is genuinely improved. But good editors are not as common as some might believe. One old stallion of the business warned me that he was an exceptional editor, far better than the gal I had before him. He got me ready for a heavily marked-up manuscript. For months, I was waiting for hundreds of pages of difficult choices. The book was pushed back because of delays, and then finally, Fed-Ex delivered it. But I was under a strict timetable, what with problems beyond his control. (He had a life full of problems, and usually someone else’s fault.) And here’s the thing: The manuscript was heavily worked, but usually only for ten or twenty pages at a shot. Then, nothing. For thirty pages, nothing. Then a new pen and more good help. And it was good help, don’t doubt that. But his voice came and went, and that pattern was repeated for years. Looking back, I assume that the fellow was attention-deficit, or more likely, an attention-deficit pothead. Not that all dopers are vague and manipulative users incapable of meeting deadlines. But that’s what he was, and despite some very successful work together, I have a hard time conjuring reasons to miss him.
If you were to choose one favorite novel and one favorite short story from your own works, which one would it be? Related to that, for people who haven’t read your works yet (e.g. those stacks of people living under rocks)—what would be the best place to start getting to know your world?
MARROW is the novel for those who like big space-opera work. It’s also my most successful work, in terms of financial rewards. BLACK MILK has just been reprinted in e-pub form, from Diversion Books. That might be a good read for a more personal, character-driven work.
As for a favorite story: Try “Truth”. The novella was a runner-up for the Hugo, and it’s being made into a movie right now. In Canada, on a tight budget. Google PRISONER X. From what I understand, the movie makers are keeping my story intact. Which is the biggest thrill.
What is your writing process, and how do you manage to juggle so many things? Do you have clear goals set ahead of time, or are you more of a spur of the moment kind of writer?
I juggle. I set goals. I spur of the moment, yes. Every year, I make a list of working stories, but lists are meant as guidelines only. If I sign a contract, I focus hard, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been more than a couple days late on a manuscript, and it’s usually in good shape.
Other people think of me as being disciplined. I’m more of the mind that the rest of humanity is undisciplined, and if I ever did achieve order in my life…well, then stand back.
As of the time of this interview, “The Memory of the Sky” is your most recent novel, published in the beginning of 2014. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
MEMORY is three novels in one world-sized volume. The first story was written several years ago, and it went hunting for a publisher. Prime Books eventually took it and wanted two more in a series, and Barnes and Noble wanted a single volume. That’s how things get made. Dark matter, baryonic matter. What is the universe built on? Silly crap, mostly.
MEMORY is a Great Ship book. That’s the same universe as MARROW. Both volumes are part of an ongoing saga that I won’t finish in this life, but I will try to.
How do you feel about the alternative publishing platforms? For example, our magazine is an online venue and e-book publisher. Self-publishing and indie-publishing are growing every year. I feel like the writers today have a lot more choices than what you had available back in ’86, but is that a good thing or might it lead to a lot or lower quality content out there? How do you think these movements are affecting the publishing field?
I love the idea of being able to publish what I want, when I want. I hate not having qualified editors to help. I love the ease of finding an audience waiting for me. But most writers don’t have that advantage…an advantage built for me on years of ordinary publishing. I also fear that all of these markets and this extraordinary focus on “social” networks crushes every chance we have to earn a fair-shake in the world. The system has never been noisier, and the only people who think the system is successful are the ones who won the lottery.
What is your advice for the young writers of today? Is there a secret handshake we should learn about?
An anecdote: Last year, I met a young writer who just a sold a story to a market where I sold a story. He didn’t like his work and wanted to pull it. I cautioned him not to. “Believe me,” I said, “in twenty years, you’ll hate everything you wrote today.”
He didn’t act all that pleased with my advice.
If you were able to have a conversation with any writer, alive or dead, and try to convince them to co-write a book with you, who would that be?
My younger self. I would go back and we would write one monster book, and then he’d never speak to me again.
I am a runner and I see that you are a runner too. What does running do for you and are there any other activities you enjoy doing when you are not writing?
I am a runner, if I heal. My right arch has some kind of tear in it, and that happened a month ago, and I’m 58 and see no point in doctors for what needs rest, not surgery. Except I’m 58 and who knows how long before I can run without pain?
So I use an elliptical. In warm weather, I sort of garden. I ride a bike. But running is my love, and it does nothing for me but keep me sane and heading in the right directions.
What’s next for you? Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I do work part-time for Bungie, helping them with their chaotic Destiny game. Mostly, I play with voices they invented and their universe. Very small stuff. They say that they’ll hire me back. And after playing their game for several months, two hours a day, I think I have some stories to tell.
Robert, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us. I can’t wait to read the new installments in your series!
Find below a selection of Robert Reed’s works:
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