Interview: Jeanne Cavelos
By Cristopher Hennessey-DeRose
11 June 2001
©1999 Laurie Stuart
Jeanne Cavelos, while being known as a scientist and teacher, is no stranger to the world of speculative fiction. Following her time as an astrophysicist and mathematician, teaching astronomy at Michigan State University and working in the Astronaut Training Division at NASA's Johnson Space Center, she signed on as an editor at Dell Publishing, where she created the Abyss line of horror, introducing the world to the works of Poppy Z. Brite, Dennis Etchison, and Tanith Lee, among many other notables. Six years ago, she went on to pursue her own writing career, producing The Science of the X-Files and The Science of Star Wars, as well as the Babylon 5 novel The Shadow Within.
Her current release, Casting Shadows, is the first volume of her Babylon 5 trilogy The Passing of the Techno-Mages, in which she was given the daunting task of not only playing in someone else's universe and tackling one of its most mysterious sects, but also of succeeding in making it accessible to those who have never seen the television series. When she comes up for air, Jeanne runs both Jeanne Cavelos Editorial Services and Odyssey, a six-week writing workshop geared towards the speculative field, working with budding writers.
Cristopher Hennessey-DeRose: How did you end up moving from a scientific career to a writing and editing career?
Jeanne Cavelos: I wrote since I was little (I won a pumpkin in second grade in a Halloween story contest, and wrote and produced a science-fiction musical when I was about ten), but I always thought I had to do something more "important" with my life. My career goal was to become an astronaut just like Charlton Heston in The Planet of the Apes. I'm not quite sure why he was my role model, since he blew up planet Earth and everyone on it in the second movie, but I loved the idea.
As I studied astrophysics, and later worked in the field, though, I slowly found myself becoming dissatisfied. I loved thinking about the wild scientific ideas raised in science fiction, and I also loved thinking about the big issues -- where did the universe come from? Where was it headed? These are questions of astrophysics, but not questions you could really focus on in research or at NASA, where work had to be narrowed to smaller, more practical issues. I also realized that one thing I loved about Planet of the Apes and other science fiction was the freedom fiction provided -- the ability to explore ideas and their consequences. And I realized that writing was what I most wanted to do, and that whether it would change the world or not, I should do what would make me happy. So I went off and wrote a novel, then earned a master of fine arts in creative writing, and got a job in publishing to support me until I made it as a writer.
CHD: How did you get the B5 tie-in spot?
JC: I was a senior editor at Dell when B5 debuted. I was very excited about the show -- I thought the pilot and first few episodes were terrific, and the interviews I read with Joe Straczynski indicated that this show was going to be different from anything that had been done -- a five-year story with a beginning, middle, and end, virtually an epic novel told over five years. I was really enthusiastic about that idea, and called Joe and asked if he would like Dell to do some novels based on the series. He agreed, and I talked my boss into going ahead with the line. So I got the Dell novel line started. Later, I quit publishing to focus on my own writing career. When the woman at Warner Bros. who handles book rights learned that I was leaving Dell to write, she said, "Why don't you write a Babylon 5 novel? You'd do a terrific job." I said no, I had a half-finished novel I was determined to finish, and had never thought of writing a tie-in novel before.
I moved to New Hampshire, and after a few months I got a copy of a form letter that Joe had written to possible authors, giving a couple ideas for possible B5 novels. I actually stumbled across this letter a couple days ago. There was a phrase in it -- "the discovery of the Shadows by the Icarus and Sheridan's wife." That's all it said about that idea. The second I read that phrase, though, I was taken with the idea. I started thinking of what that would have been like, and I wanted to figure it out.
The next thing I knew, I'd put aside my half-finished novel and written a 25-page synopsis of my proposed novel. I sent it to Dell, they liked it and sent it to Joe, and he liked it and gave his okay.
CHD: How do you approach writing a tie-in novel?
JC: In many ways, I approach it the same way I do a regular novel. I actually believe that tie-ins have the same worth and potential as any other novel. I believe, if done well, they can be great art. I know that idea may seem ridiculous to many people, because the quality of many tie-ins has been inferior to other types of books, but I don't think it has to be. I approach these books with the goal of creating great art. Readers can decide whether I succeed to any degree.
I also try to write my tie-in novels so that people can read and enjoy them even if they don't know much about Babylon 5. If a story is strong enough, it should be able to carry readers along without requiring any preformed motivation to read. I had a number of people critique the trilogy who had never seen the show, and they seemed to enjoy the books just like regular novels, which is what I'd hoped for.
If I've done my job right, people familiar with the series gain extra enjoyment from seeing how events in the books relate to those on the show, and from learning more about various characters. In several cases, the events in the trilogy intertwine with events we've seen on the show, and B5 fans learn that what they thought happened on the show is actually not what happened at all. A whole new layer of truth is exposed.
CHD: When you were going over the outline for the Techno-Mages trilogy provided by Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski, did you find yourself slipping into editor mode, thinking "No, no; it should be done this way?"
JC: Not really, because the outline wasn't written in so much detail that it activated the editor lobe of my brain. (Yes, I have many lobes and many personalities. Sometimes I worry about that, but I just tell myself to shut up and get back to work.) I looked at the outline more as a writer -- here was the general arc of a story, and how could I develop it, what could I do with this opportunity? I thought Joe was very smart to keep the outlines general, conveying more the emotions and motivations the mages might be feeling rather than establishing everything in great detail. That allowed me the freedom to create something of my own within the parameters of that story arc.
As I developed the plot and characters, I began to see places where I wanted to change elements in the outline or add elements, so that I could better tell the overall story Joe had envisioned. For example, I added story lines for Anna Sheridan and Kosh that were not in the outline. I felt that having the perspectives of someone on the Shadow side and someone on the Vorlon side would better illuminate the situation of the techno-mages, who are caught between these two.
To give you an example of something I changed, Joe's outline called for a love triangle in Book One between Galen, Isabelle, and another male mage. This would trigger a fight between Galen and the other mage. I felt that the fight between Galen and the other mage (who became a character named Elizar) would tie into the overall plot better if it was not motivated by rivalry over Isabelle but by a desire for power on Elizar's part (why he wants this power is something that we figure out only later. . .). So I cut the love triangle and added other motivations, but the fight between Galen and Elizar remains.
CHD: How did writing The Passing of the Techno-Mages differ from the first Babylon 5 novel, The Shadow Within?
JC: The techno-mage trilogy is much more complex than The Shadow Within, so it required much more planning. After I received Joe's outline, I wanted to flesh things out, develop characters and plot events in detail, so I wrote what turned out to be a 200-page outline (yes, I'm crazy). Luckily I had more time to write the trilogy. I had eight weeks to write The Shadow Within. For the trilogy, I took several months to do research and write the outlines, and then about six months to write each book. The additional time was necessary because these are longer and more sophisticated books, and it also allowed me to do more revisions, after receiving feedback from my many critiquers.
CHD: Is your background in astrophysics and astronomy a kind of liability in science fiction, as opposed to science fact?
JC: I don't think so, but that's because my science knowledge is in a different part of my brain than the writing part. I do try to set up situations that are scientifically believable, but at the same time I realize that our understanding of the universe is changing all the time. Things that scientists would have laughed off as impossible twenty years ago are now commonly accepted as truth, or at least as possible. And a lot of science fiction is about technologies far in advance of ours, technologies that create awe and wonder. I have no problem creating a technology that can do something that currently seems impossible. If I didn't do that, it would hardly seem believable as something far in advance of our technology. And if the characters in the story don't understand how it works, then I don't feel any explanation of it is appropriate or necessary.
As a writer, I'm only concerned with science when it will further the story. It should be relevant to plot, theme, and character in order to be included. The science should serve the story, not the other way around.
CHD: Do you have a theory, or subscribe to one, about dark matter?
JC: So many new facts about the universe are now coming to light -- for example, the recent discovery that our universe is expanding at a constantly accelerating rate, which defies everything we've believed -- I don't think we can definitely say whether dark matter even exists or not. I believe other questions have to be answered first before we can make any judgements about dark matter.
CHD: What do you think about the international space station?
JC: I'm glad we've got something up there, though it's sure a far cry from the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I hope that we can send more missions to other planets, both manned and unmanned. The space station should be able to help with that, though we still have to make the commitment of money, and these days, people don't seem to have space exploration very high on their list of priorities.
CHD: What's your opinion on expenditures for the U.S. space program?
JC: I think we ought to be spending a lot more. Our understanding of the Earth is extremely limited, and one way that we can learn a lot more is by having data on other planets for comparison. We need a better understanding of the Earth if we're to survive here.
Also, we should make it easier for independent companies to explore space. I have no doubt they can do it more cheaply and efficiently than the government.
CHD: How have The Science of. . . books been received by your colleagues in the scientific community?
JC: When I started working on The Science of the X-Files, I thought I'd have a very hard time getting scientists to talk to me. My plan was to interview experts in the various fields I discussed in the book, and to get their opinions on particular episodes. Instead, everyone I contacted agreed to be interviewed, and they even agreed to answer some of the most outlandish questions (I'd always work up to those, leaving them until last, in case the scientist would get mad and hang up on me): "So, Dr. X, could eating human livers possibly have any effect on the aging process?" Many of them actually got excited during my interviews, because my questions led them to speculate in areas they hadn't thought of before. One scientist doing cancer research actually got an idea for a possible new cancer treatment from one of my questions!
In writing The Science of Star Wars, I found many scientists who were fans of the movies. One roboticist actually watched the movies on video before our interview, so she could study Artoo and Threepio. She was completely freaked out that their behavior reflected some of her own research.
Both books have gotten surprisingly positive feedback from scientists. They realize that, amidst all the fun, readers actually learn a lot, and many of them become more interested in science.
CHD: Is it more common than some may think that scientists are able to suspend disbelief?
JC: Absolutely. As I mentioned, many of the scientists I interviewed had watched and loved The X-Files and Star Wars. They didn't particularly think these shows were scientifically accurate, but it didn't matter to them. They weren't watching the shows as research; they were watching them for entertainment. That's the same way I do it -- turn off the science part of my brain and have fun. Only when a scientific goof is really prominent and critical to the plot do I have a problem.
When I'm talking a movie over with friends later, or if I'm asked to analyze the science, then I start thinking about it. For some people, I know, looking for science nits is part of the fun, so they keep that part of their brain active all the time. I'd rather just enjoy the story, if I can.
CHD: How did you make The Science of. . . books accessible to the average reader?
JC: I first had to have a thorough understanding of the subjects myself -- some of which I was familiar with, and some of which I wasn't. So I did tons of research. For each book, I read about 100 books and about 1,000 scientific articles, then interviewed scientists. Once I felt I understood the issues involved, then I imagined I was explaining them to my mother, or my husband -- intelligent people with no real science background, but with a love for The X-Files or Star Wars and curiosity about what they'd seen. I wrote the books as if I was talking to them.
CHD: Religion was given quite a bit of attention in the B5 universe. . . . Can religion and science truly co-exist?
JC: This is actually one of the major questions explored in the trilogy. Some of the mages have strong religious beliefs; they would say that science reveals an order and design to the universe established by God. Others don't believe in any god; they feel the nature of matter itself dictates scientific principles, not any higher power.
As for myself, I'm in the former camp. I haven't held onto many of the Catholic beliefs I was raised with, but when I imagine the universe, and all the energy in it, including us, I believe there is some kind of unifying or organizing power, which you may or may not call God. What survives of my religious beliefs actually survives because of my attachment to science, not in spite of it.
CHD: Do you use the same writing influences for SF as you would for horror?
JC: I don't really think of "using" different influences. I've been influenced by many different writers of all genres, and I think all those influences sort of combine inside me and affect the various choices I make in my writing. I don't really think those influences change if I switch to a different genre.
Whatever I'm writing, I try to think of other books, TV shows, or movies with similar plots, so I can examine the common elements in those plots what made them work or not work, and how mine compares to them. Hopefully I discover a way in which my work is distinct from what's been done before, and also discover some underlying requirements of this type of plot and make sure I've fulfilled them.
I saw a few minutes of The Dead Zone movie on television last night. That's one of my top five favorite movies; I just love it. I realized, as I watched it, that some hints of the things that I love in that movie had made it into The Passing of the Techno-Mages. The Dead Zone is about a character who has a special power, and that power brings him mostly pain. In the trilogy, Galen has a similar problem.
CHD: Have you been able to apply science in horror?
JC: I think most of the fiction I've written in the recent past has been a science fiction/horror combination -- I would classify all my Babylon 5 novels that way, and many of my short stories. So science definitely comes into it. I found myself thinking a lot about H.P. Lovecraft while writing The Shadow Within. That book has many parallels with Lovecraft's novella "At the Mountains of Madness," which is one of my favorites. Lovecraft combined science and horror in that, and I did the same in The Shadow Within. In The Passing of the Techno-Mages trilogy, I'm working with characters who are part scientist, part magician. In a way, they are the perfect characters to embody a combination of science fiction and horror -- they often think of things in scientific terms, yet at the same time there is an aspect of the mystical about them -- a sense of mystery and the unknown that can easily lead to horror.
CHD: How has writing and editing changed since you first made the decision to pursue those kinds of work?
JC: I don't think writing has changed much at all, but getting published certainly has. Publishers' lists are shrinking, with more slots now devoted to best-selling authors and fewer slots devoted to "midlist" writers, meaning writers who aren't New York Times best-sellers (i.e., almost all SF/F/H writers). Publishers are less interested in building an author over time and more interested in grabbing onto the next big thing. It's easy to get very pessimistic, but I still believe that most editors love books and want to publish good books, so good books still have a chance. Science fiction and fantasy remain strong, commercial genres.
Editing has changed in that these big conglomerate publishers don't reward, teach, or encourage actual editing any more. An editor might turn a mediocre book into a great book, but since most people at the publishing house don't read either the original version or the edited version, no one knows what the editor has done. Because of this, there's not a lot of motivation for editors to put much effort into actual editing. Quality is not valued. Sales are. Pushing for a large marketing/publicity campaign, or convincing the sales reps that a book has a good "buzz," can be more helpful to an editor's career. Since editors change jobs often, they usually aren't around to reap the benefits of a long-term effort to improve a writer's skills. The appearance of success is more important than actual success.
CHD: Many publishers have questioned the legitimacy of webzines. What are your thoughts on web publishing?
JC: Right now, in SF/F/H, I believe there are only a handful of webzines that are maintaining standards comparable to those of a print magazine or book publisher. It's not that print is inherently "superior" (though I will admit I prefer reading a printed page to a computer screen), but print magazines have had to prove themselves commercially in order to survive. If they don't provide quality fiction and nonfiction that pleases their readership, then people will stop buying their magazine and it will cease to exist. On the web, many people post fiction and articles, and since this costs minimal money, there's no requirement that many people read the work or enjoy it. In many cases, it's like reading the stories that would be rejected by a print magazine.
There are exceptions, however. The fiction on scifi.com is of magazine quality, due to Ellen Datlow's expert editorial direction. I just learned of Strange Horizons recently, when I met editor-in-chief Mary Anne Mohanraj at a symposium. I was very impressed with her understanding of the field, and when I took a look at the fiction published here, I found it to be of very high quality. So those are two, and I'd say there are maybe two or three more. In time, I think we'll have a few more high-quality webzines.
As far as whether having a story published on the web will help your career as a writer, editors are aware of those few good webzines. If you are published on one of them, it will be a useful credit. If you are published on one that they haven't heard of, then it won't hurt or help you.
CHD: Is Print-On-Demand an asset or liability?
JC: At this point, it's useful mainly for authors who have a book go out of print. These days, the huge conglomerate publishers require a certain rate of movement for a book to remain in print; it must sell a certain number of copies each month. Few authors, particularly in SF/F/H, are able to maintain that rate of movement. Thus many books, some real classics, become difficult to find. An author could have his earlier books available through print on demand, so he could continue to make a bit of money on them, and readers could still buy them.
Launching a new, original novel through print-on-demand is extremely difficult, particularly if you are not a well-known author. Your friends and family may buy copies, but chances are few other people will. They just won't know that it exists.
CHD: The line between small and large presses seems to be more distinct than ever; what can those two groups keep in mind in order for speculative fiction to continue to grow?
JC: The growth of the small press is a good thing for SF/F/H, because it offers more outlets and more opportunities. People working at small publishing houses have to be very focused in what they publish. They have to find a successful niche and publish for that niche. Small presses can go under when they start acting like big publishing houses and try to target the mainstream. They don't have the resources or manpower to do that. Thus you'll find small presses that focus on vampire fiction, or on high-quality limited editions of works by famous writers, and so on. They've found what works and are sticking with it.
Big publishers, of course, should be monitoring the work of the small presses and feeding off it. When a niche grows and becomes big enough, major publishers need to get into that trend and start publishing works for that audience. That's really how all popular culture works. Some kid in New Hampshire decides to shred his jeans and wear them to school. Other kids do the same, and the trend spreads. Major jean companies observe the trend and start to sell pre-shredded pants. The trend gets incorporated into our culture, kids lose interest because it's no longer edgy, and they come up with something new.
CHD: Has Odyssey turned out the way you intended?
JC: When I first thought of starting up a six-week summer workshop for SF/F/H writers, I had no clue how much work it was going to be. I also had no idea how much it would enrich my life. Every year there comes a time -- usually just before Odyssey begins -- when I ask myself why the heck I'm doing this. And then every year there comes a time -- usually a couple days after Odyssey has started -- when I realize how much I love running the workshop. When I left the rat race of New York publishing to focus on my own writing, I knew that I still wanted to work closely with authors, as I had as an editor. Helping an author make his manuscript the best it can be is something I really enjoy. In a way, it's sort of like solving a math problem -- figuring out what's not working right in a story, and how it could work better.
The thing I didn't anticipate was the intensity of working with authors for six weeks straight, and the wonderful relationships that form. It's great working with people who share the same passions I have. I've met many extremely talented writers, and when the workshop ends they are no longer students, but colleagues and friends.
CHD: Have there been any shortcomings to Odyssey you've had to correct?
JC: Every year I try to improve the class, adding new information and figuring out better ways to convey particular ideas about writing. I've also expanded the time spent on certain topics that tend to cause a lot of trouble for developing writers, while reducing the time spent on others. Point of view is something that I find again and again is a weakness, and if the point of view isn't working well, the story is dead in the water.
CHD: What does Odyssey offer that other programs don't?
JC: I approach Odyssey as an editor, giving an editor's feedback on stories, letting students know how an editor would react to their work, why an editor might reject one story and buy another. As an editor, I have a somewhat different perspective on things than an author does. I've worked with many different authors, so I realize each author has his own process and his own goals. Rather than pushing students to do things my way, I try to help them improve their own process. We're the only major workshop run by an editor.
There are some other differences as well. Some workshops have a different instructor each week, which can have advantages, but also has disadvantages. At Odyssey, I am the main instructor for the six weeks. I plan out the lectures so that by the end of the workshop, we'll have covered all the major elements of fiction writing. I also work very closely with students throughout, starting with reading two stories by each student before the workshop begins to get a sense of each person's strengths and weaknesses. We have individual meetings over the course of the workshop to chart each person's progress, and I suggest individual exercises and goals. So there is a coherence and comprehensiveness to the lectures, and a continuity of feedback over the six weeks.
We also have guest lecturers who come in once a week, for about 24 hours, to lecture, answer students' questions, critique students' work, and meet individually with some students. That gives students other perspectives and techniques to use.
For the fifth week of the workshop, a writer-in-residence takes over the lecturing. This summer that will be Terry Brooks. I work closely with the writer-in-residence in advance, so his lectures will be integrated into the rest of the workshop. He and I then both critique stories submitted during this week.
CHD: How do you choose a writer-in-residence for Odyssey?
JC: I look at the most respected and successful writers in our field, and search for those who have teaching and critiquing experience. It's important not only that a writer write well, but that he also can explain or describe what he does. Dan Simmons, whom we had last year, is not only an incredibly talented writer, he's also an award-winning teacher. In addition, I try to provide, over the years, a variety of perspectives and backgrounds.
CHD: How does a writer know when to stop revising?
JC: I think you have to develop an instinct for it, just as you have to develop a sense of when something is working in your story, and when it's not. Getting feedback from others can be very helpful in identifying your weaknesses and going through a story and fixing them one by one. I always think of writing a first draft as creating a bunch of big messy problems. When I revise, I'm solving those problems. The number of weak areas decreases until at last I feel I've dealt with them all to the best of my ability.
Spotting the weak areas in your own work is the hardest thing for a writer to do. The best way to develop this ability is to do a lot of critiques on other people's stories. It's easy to see the flaws in other people's work. As you critique others' stories, you develop the editor part of your brain. You start to view stories differently than other people. You are studying them, seeing how they are put together and whether they are effective. As that editor lobe of your brain grows like a tumor, you slowly become able to apply it to your own work, and to begin to see some of the problems in your own stories.
CHD: What should be kept in mind to be the best editor one can be?
JC: First, you need to be focused on discovering what the writer intended, and on helping the writer to better accomplished that. Your job is not to tell the writer what story you wish he was writing; it's to tell the writer how better to write the story he wants to write.
Next, every piece of feedback you give the writer should be both truthful and helpful. This may seem obvious, but it's constantly violated by editors and by critiquers in writing workshops. Never say anything that's not true (don't say you liked it if you didn't), and don't say anything that won't help the author improve. Saying "this story sucked" doesn't help the author, doesn't give the author some direction to move in to improve the story. Saying "Your characters were flat and your plot lacked conflict" is helpful, because now the feedback is more specific, and the author has some clue about what to do to fix these problems. Being as specific as possible about the weaknesses of the story is extremely valuable. You need to identify the weakness clearly before you begin offering solutions.
Once you've told the author what the problem is, you can offer various suggestions for fixing it, which the author may take, or he may find a solution of his own. Sometimes it can be difficult to figure out exactly why a story doesn't work; the editor's job is to study the story and think about it until the answer becomes clear.
An editor also should have a very strong knowledge of the language and grammar, and should have an extensive knowledge of literature.
Above all, do no harm to the manuscript. If you're not sure whether a change will improve the story or not, don't make the change. Making a manuscript worse than it was when you received it is the most heinous crime any editor can commit.
CHD: Who are a few of your favorite authors?
JC: Ursula K. Le Guin, H.G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, Ian McEwan, J.R.R. Tolkien, Shakespeare, Aeschylus, and Frank Conroy.
CHD: What can today's writers learn from the authors you worked with at Dell?
JC: I was fortunate to work with some extremely talented writers. Studying the work of good writers can improve your own writing a huge amount. Look at the style of Kathe Koja or Dennis Etchison, the atmosphere of Tanith Lee or Poppy Z. Brite, the characters of Joan Vinge or Melanie Tem, the tone of Patrick McCabe, the rhythm of Barry Gifford, the villains of Brian Hodge, the voice of Jeanne Kalogridis or Peter Dickinson, the plotting of William F. Nolan -- those are great ways of learning what is possible in fiction.
I find the best way to learn from other authors is to pick a short story of theirs that I really like, read it over and over, and really pull it apart and study it. It's in reading it over many times and looking at the details of its construction that I learn some wonderful things about writing.
CHD: As an editor, you worked closely with your writers; is that sort of relationship harder to come by these days?
JC: There are still good editors out there who are committed to the editorial process. On the other hand, as I mentioned earlier, there are an increasing number of editors who don't really know how to edit and/or don't have much desire to do so. As an author, I've worked with four different editors on books (and many others on short fiction). Of those four, only one has attempted to give serious editorial feedback. Of the others, one changed one sentence in the entire book; the second edited only the openings of each chapter; and the third simply crossed out a number of my prepositions for no apparent reason. While I'd love to think that my books were so perfect they required minimal editing, the editor lobe of my brain prevents me from believing that.
Since editors change jobs so often, it's increasingly rare that an author works with the same editor for more than one or two books, so developing a relationship becomes more difficult.
CHD: Is it true that art is never finished, only abandoned?
JC: I don't believe that. I believe that art is never perfect; it could always be improved. But there is a time when it is "finished," a time after which any changes you make will not improve the manuscript any further, and a time after which you lose the mindset you had while creating it, so that you are no longer the same person and can't make a contribution to the art that would be consistent with the rest.
Cristopher Hennessey-DeRose has published about 100 pieces, fiction and non, in Gothic.Net, Science Fiction Weekly, and other publications, and is a regular columnist for Twilight Showcase. He has a novel, a novella, and a short story collection due out this year. He and wife Jennifer are expecting their first child in June.
More information on Jeanne Cavelos, Odyssey, and her iguana can be found at her Web site.