Interview: Joe Haldeman
By Donald Mead
23 February 2004
Joe Haldeman's contributions to science fiction literature span 30 years, and he's won countless awards. Forever Peace is one of his most honored novels, earning Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell awards in 1998: the first book to win this "triple crown" in 22 years. His body of work includes 24 novels, numerous short stories and scripts for both stage and Hollywood.
His face is as recognizable as his writing, thanks to his tireless work in the science fiction community. SF conventions all over the world have benefited from his participation as guest and panelist. I asked him for an interview at Chambanacon in Springfield Illinois, where he was serving as guest of honor, and he was happy to share his thoughts of previous work and future projects.
Donald Mead: In 1973 you went to the Iowa Writer's Workshop, but at that point, you already had one novel War Year and several short stories published.
Joe Haldeman: Three novels, I think. While I was there I was writing adventure novels as Robert Graham and I wrote three of them before I left Iowa. Two of them were published. I finished The Forever War while I was there and Mindbridge was after I'd left the workshop. I stayed in Iowa because my wife [Gay Haldeman] was thinking of a Ph.D. in linguistics and she actually quit at the master's level. That was her second master's degree: she had one in Spanish already.
DM: It sounds by the name of it, a "workshop," that it's a weekend workshop, but isn't it a two-year program?
JH: It is the MIT of writing programs. It's definitely the very top: an MFA. But like most MFA's, it's what you make of it. That is to say, all you really have to do is take two courses each semester, the writing workshop, poetry or fiction, and a directed reading course, Forms of Fiction it's called. Well, I had a good time with it, and you can take any number of other courses. Some people serious about academics will beef it up to a Ph.D. They [workshop administrators] don't care what you take as long as you take those two courses and produce a book, could be a collection of short stories or a novel. Mine was The Forever War. [laughs] The only master's thesis that won a Hugo and a Nebula.
DM: It sounds like your career was well underway before Iowa. Why go?
JH: I just needed the money. I wrote to them and said "here's the situation: we've been living on a combination of my writing and my wife's teaching. She's leaving [her teaching position] now and I'm coming to Iowa if you offer me money. If you don't, I'll move to Mexico where we can live off of my short story income." I put it that way and sent them my first novel, War Year, non-science fiction, with a positive book review from the New York Times. They really couldn't refuse to take me. They gave me a teaching assistantship which was valuable.
And I also got to meet people like Vance Bourjaily, John Cheever and the gang. I got a good notion of what academic writing was like and the life of an academic and decided I didn't want to do that. There was an awful lot of BS like taking care of students' theses, committee meetings, and shepherding students through their apprenticeship.
So, combined with money from the GI bill, my assistantship, and money from my writing, we were about the wealthiest graduate students in the university. It was fun too. A bunch of writers in a "make or break" situation. They're all people with a bachelor's degree and they don't know what they want to do, so they're going to see whether they can be writers or writing teachers. Most end up being writing teachers.
DM: And you had an interesting meeting with the famous literary critic Leonard Michaels at Iowa after he had read the unpublished manuscript of Mindbridge?
JH: [laughs] He said that I shouldn't be wasting my talents on this commercial crap. And, in fact, he had only read the first page. When he saw that it was science fiction, he had evidently launched into a familiar mode. Mindbridge subsequently sold for one-hundred thousand dollars. Maybe he's right and it's just cheap commercial crap. [laughs]
DM: So what is the measure of an author's legitimacy or success, at least as far as you define it?
JH: Legitimacy is kind of a bogus term. You see, a person is a serious writer if he is seriously concerned with the art, knowing that he may not make any money at it. But I also think a person is a serious writer if he's paying the bills with what he writes and may not have much respect for what he's doing. There's nothing much more serious than the mortgage and the children. I can't say that he's not a serious writer just because I wouldn't read the crap that he writes. The word [serious] has those two basic meanings. Those are oil and water too. It's not necessary for a person to have any serious regard for writing to make a living from it. On the other hand, it's possible to be extremely serious about the art and craft of writing and hardly ever make a dime. My worldview accommodates both of them. I just wish there were two different words rather than the one being "serious."
It's odd, isn't it? They both use the same tools and often have the same backgrounds and read the same books for pleasure. You'll meet people who grind out really hackneyed crap who read Joyce all the time or keep up with the blue-blood writers. But then again, I'll meet a lot of serious writers in academia who'll confess they read mysteries and even science fiction. A lot of us got into writing because of the intense pleasure we got from it when we were very young. And it was often reading stuff like Edgar Allen Poe and murder mysteries: the kind of writing that really grabs you and pulls you into another world, which science fiction does when it's done well. But so do mysteries and the artifice of solving a crime and the feeling of danger than hangs over a mystery plot. It keeps kids involved and keeps me involved at sixty. [laughs] I'm still not immune to that.
DM: You're teaching writing at MIT. Have you ever encountered any genre bias from other professors?
JH: No. Not so much at MIT. Most of them are science fiction readers and they don't mind who knows it. When MIT opened this position twenty years ago, they wanted a well-known science fiction writer who had a background in academic writing, who had teaching experience and who had a degree in science because the kids are all scientists and engineers. It was between me and Isaac Asimov and, who else, David Brin maybe. So they called me and offered me this job and I said "no" because I had just taught a writing course at the University of North Florida and I didn't want to teach again that soon. But then my wife prevailed and said "you know, it is MIT, and New England is lovely in the fall." So I called back and said "sure." It was just a one-year deal, but then they offered me a regular professorship where I could come just in the fall and spend nine months of the year being a writer and three months being a professor.
DM: Gay characters in books don't raise eyebrows nowadays, but you wrote such characters in the seventies. Why?
JH: Well, it's an interesting thing. I was at Iowa. Iowa City is a very progressive sort of place. It was the center for gay consciousness in the Midwest. I had gay friends and students, and it was important at the time. I suppose it was a little bit daring at time; it was very daring in science fiction. So I had gay characters in The Forever War (1975). That was for a specific purpose. It wasn't about homosexuality. It was about being isolated. I had my character being the only straight in a universe of gays just to show what's "queer" is being different from everybody; there's not a universal set of things that makes one person queer and one person not queer.
Robert Silverberg brought out this collection of stories based on classics of science fiction, and he asked me to do a story based on The Forever War. I did a story called "A Separate War." I took the main character's girlfriend and put her in the same universe, that is to say everybody is homosexual except for her. And she has the opposite reaction to his. She says "well, if that's the way it is, then that's the way it is" and she gets a girlfriend. She fits in, whereas the main character [Mandella] couldn't even think of it. And he mirrored my own sentiments which were, everybody should be free to do what they want, but I couldn't see it at all. But by that time, [1975, the writing of the novel] I'd known too many people who were not just gay, but transsexual or people who just dress up, [not] to see that it's just behavior. I can't draw any moral lines. Deep in your heart you know what you are, and as much as I love these guys, they were my closest friends, I just couldn't get into the notion of having sex with a man.
DM: At that time, did you get any negative feedback for introducing gay characters?
JH: Oh, I did from readers of Analog who thought it was just absolutely sinful to write about a gay person as if there were nothing wrong with what he did. I got some real static from the gay community about ten years later. I wrote the stage play The Forever War and it was put on by the Organic Theater Company in Chicago, an all-gay company. They loved it, but the gay press said "this doesn't say very much about homosexuality. So what if the characters are gay?" I responded, well, read the book. It's not about homosexuality; it's about being isolated. Yes, many people are isolated by homosexuality, but that's not what I was talking about. It ran for a month, which is good for a first play.
DM: I understand that you have both a novel and an anthology currently in the works.
JH: A novel and a collection. It's interesting. Did you know the word "anthology" comes from the Greek word meaning "gathering flowers?"
DM: <shrugs and shakes head>
JH: A collection is from one author. An anthology is from several authors.
I'm working on a novel called Old Twentieth, which is largely about how you would live if you were to live indefinitely. In this society, they're not exactly immortal. If they get hit by a truck, they'll die. But they'll live until they get hit by a truck, which may be thousands of years. So I'm investigating what that's like.
The collection is basically just the short stories I've written since my last collection. I have a three-book contract with my publisher: two novels and one collection of short stories.
DM: Your last collection was thematic: anti-war stories. Will this collection have a theme?
JH: No, that was the anthology. Study War No More. [laughs]
No. None of my collections have been thematic. I've been the editor of several anthologies, one of which was called Study War No More. No, [the collection] is just whatever I wrote. A lot of them are stories I wrote just for friends because they had a book they had to bring out. You have to look at it realistically. Per word, a novel pays twenty to thirty times as much as a short story, and it takes as much time per word to write a novel as a short story. So, what, do I look stupid? [laughs]
I enjoy writing short stories and I wish they paid more. The end is always in sight if you're writing a short story, whereas in a novel you're driving cross-country with the headlights on in the middle of the night. That's what John Irving called it. Or out at sea and not being able to see the shore.
DM: I had the title Sea Change as one of your future novels. Has that already been released?
JH: Oh, that's in press now. In fact, it's coming out as a serial from Analog, but they changed the title from "Sea Change" to "Camouflage." One-word titles sell better than multi-word titles, especially literary ones.
DM: Your Hugo and Nebula winning novel, Forever Free, is being made into a graphic novel. How involved were you with that?
JH: I had some input since the artist is an old pal. When we did [the graphic novel for] The Forever War, I was down at the level of storyboards and I actually supplied all of the dialogue and scripted it like a movie. Then I did three more [graphic novels] with him that were in the Dallas Barr series, a character in my novel, Buying Time. I wrote three of them and then I rented him the franchise. Now he's working on 1968 as a graphic novel which I can't wait to see. He's a wonderful artist. Mark van Oppen is his name, and he works under the name Marvano.
DM: The Forever War will appear as a miniseries on the SciFi Channel in 2004. You've had a varied experience with Hollywood. Did you have direct involvement with this miniseries?
JH: No, I just cashed the check. The guy who bought it has never replied to any correspondence of mine. My agent was finally able to get a hold of him, and he told my agent to "get out of here." So, he can make his movie and I'll just spend his money.
DM: Did you see SciFi Channel's treatment of Frank Herbert's Dune and Phil Farmer's Riverworld?
JH: Yes! I liked both of them. I was surprised to find people who didn't like Riverworld. I thought it was just cool. Given that you really can't take such a complex story and boil it down into two hours, but everybody knew that. I thought they did a good job of hitting the high spots. And Phil Farmer and Betty loved it. I talked to them the day after it showed.
DM: Philip Jose Farmer, a man with Grandmaster status, is still quite popular many years after he stopped publishing. I understand he has a vibrant fan base. How do you come to know him?
JH: Gay met him in 1968 at the WorldCon when he was Guest of Honor; I was in Vietnam at the time. But I met him in the '70s when we were at Iowa and we'd see him all the time. He'd come over for I-Con and our tradition was to go have a big, pig-out dinner. We [Gay and I] love them both, Phil and Betty, and he's the funniest guy. He has this wry sense of humor and Betty is such a sweetheart.
DM: You accepted an award for Mr. Farmer at the most recent Hugo awards in Toronto [TorCon 3: 2003]. Can you talk about that?
JH: That's a funny thing. It was part of a subterfuge to get Rusty Hevelin, unsuspecting, up close to the stage because we were going to give him a surprise award for fannish activity. He wouldn't normally come to the award presentation because it's just boring. So we had seats up front and Gay urged him to come. So I gave this award to Phil, which I didn't know very much about, but the next one was for Rusty for science fiction collecting. He is the most gonzo collector in the world. He has a house -- basement, through the first floor and up to the second floor -- it's all floor-to-ceiling books, books, books. I don't know how many, fifty thousand books maybe. Incredible.
[note: Rusty Hevelin was expected to attend Chambanacon on the date of this interview, but had an accident and injured his wrist. Gay Haldeman, who also would have attended, instead went to visit Rusty]
DM: You've either written or have been quoted as saying that the mid-list writer is a vanishing breed. Could you explain that?
JH: When I started writing I got this pattern of business, mostly from Gordon R. Dickson, but also from other writers. The notion was that after you'd written ten, twelve years, you had a backlist of work you sold over and over. You sold it in as many foreign languages as you could manage and you'd have new editions coming out here and there. As they went out of print in their major incarnation you could bring them out again in smaller press runs and special runs until finally, in Gordy's position for example in 1972, more than half his income was coming from that. And it was a good income. He'd been writing over twenty years.
So I started out that way myself. But now I've written twenty-some books. If it's a really good year, I'll find three of my titles at a bookstore, but usually it's two and sometimes one. You can't make a living that way. Or you can, but it's nothing like the solid, predictable income that mid-list writers had back in the old days. This is part of a complex legal tax decision, but it became impractical for publishers to keep a backlist of your titles. They couldn't deduct the warehouse space year after year that it took to keep them. So there is no backlist except for e-books, which are kind of chancy right now. I'm sure something is going to filter down.
Science fiction isn't as bad as literary fiction, but it's got some of this: the idea that publishers make their main income from best sellers and they're willing to print other books hoping that one of them will break out. I'm not the kind of writer who'd write a best seller; I don't have that large an audience. I write fairly complicated books that take a certain amount of care to read. That's not a description of most best sellers. It is of some. [laughs] I once had an agent years ago who said I'm not bad enough to be a best seller, but on the other hand, I'm not good enough either.
DM: What is the Heinlein Award?
JH: I'm on the board for the Heinlein Society. But I'm just there. I've never been asked to judge for any awards. Let me back up. I have judged one that they have for non-fiction that promotes space travel and space industrialization. <JH glances at my notes> Is it just called the Heinlein Award?
Basically, there were several people and their works nominated. We had decided to give one to Virginia Heinlein for obvious reasons and [there was some debate whether to give a second one and who should receive it]. The idea was not to give it to a fiction writer that year because that might in someway diminish the award given to Virginia, so we found a good science writer.
It [the Heinlein Award] doesn't loom as large in my life as things like the Hugo and Nebula. I'm kind of "ho-hum" about honorary awards. They tend to be committees deciding among themselves, throwing them out. I've gotten them before; I get them left and right. The thing is, the Hugo is the actual readers deciding what the best book is that year, and that's really important. The Nebulas are the same, except you have to admit, there's a certain amount of politicking. When the same novel gets both, which happens about half the time I think, there's a pretty good guarantee that it's a good novel. But when the Nebula goes to something you've never heard of, you sort of wonder. Sometimes the Hugo can be politicked too. When the Hugos are given in Australia, and an Australian wins, you think well, it's because all of his buddies are there and have read his novel, whereas most science fiction readers haven't. It happened in Canada when a Canadian writer won this year .
DM: You live in Gainesville, Florida but teach at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, so over the year you do some commuting. Have you ever been tempted to teach, or had the opportunity to teach at the University of Florida? That's in Gainesville, isn't it?
JH: Yes. I have a lot of friends at the university there in the Writing and English Department. Frankly, they can't afford me. They've told me that. But also, I don't want to teach more than one semester a year. If I'm going to teach I want to make top dollar. I looked at my taxes last year, and the MIT salary was less than a tenth of my income after you subtract the rent, which I wouldn't pay if I weren't up there. So I would make a lot more money if I just stayed home and continued to write. But you know what? One part of it doesn't have anything to do with prestige or job titles.
What it has to do with is not being a hermit.
I came to realize that being just a writer for all those years, you sit in a little room and stare at your navel and type out what you see in your navel. After a couple of decades of that you can get to be weird. Teaching college at least you meet a bunch of new people every year, and you have to be more or less presentable. Then you have to communicate with them. I love the idea that every year I have to reassess what science fiction means to me and try to reform my lectures so that they reflect the way I feel now. It's a challenge. Writing isn't that intellectual of an occupation. Writing is more about feeling than it is about thinking. Teaching is very intellectual, so it's interesting to have to go over onto that side of it for a quarter of my life.
DM: You've taught at both Clarions, the west coast and Michigan, and I'm sure you know of the situation with Clarion in Michigan losing its university support. What do you think would be the best situation for Clarion? Can they continue without a major benefactor?
JH: They need a central force, certainly. They need people who are tenured and a university that can throw some weight behind it. I think about such ongoing programs at MIT, and they're almost always associated with at least one faculty member who's able to keep it going year after year. I have to admit, I've just been a teacher at Clarion and I've done it seven or eight times, but I've never gotten involved in the administration. I meet the professors who are the mainstays and say "hi" and have a meal and a couple of drinks together.
Maybe I should've gotten involved more, but then again, I'm ambivalent about Clarion itself because you basically are training people to come up and take the bread out of your mouth. [laughs] Only a finite number of books can be printed and here, you're training these young chickies to come onto the market. That doesn't really bother me at my advanced age and stature; I'm not really challenged by young writers.
DM: I understand you were in the middle of a cross-country bike tour and had a bad accident?
JH: I had a bad accident. Landed on my head and broke my helmet. The shock broke my collarbone and ground up my knee. I wasn't hit by a car; the cars managed to evade me. We were close to the Louisiana border and the doctor who bandaged me up said that I had to spend five or six weeks healing before I could get back on the bike, so we just drove around Louisiana and ate for five or six weeks. Oh my! So we pedaled on and tried to burn off the calories. But that was fun.
In fact, that cross-country trip, I'd say without any reservation, was the most fun thing I've ever done. I'm trying to figure out how to do it again before I'm too old. It's something I'd wanted to do since I was eighteen years old. Then in my mid-fifties, I thought do it now or don't do it. So I was going to join one of these groups and pay a couple of thousand dollars and they take care of all the meals and all of that. But my wife wanted to do it too, and she wasn't up to seventy to one hundred miles a day, so we made this compromise and did it ourselves with Rusty Hevelin as our RV driver. It averaged out to be thirty-five miles a day, which for non-bicyclists sounds like a lot of work, but for a serious bicyclist: "Ah! Foo! Thirty-five miles wouldn't even get me warmed up!"
There's a trail now that follows the Lewis and Clark expedition.
DM: Tempted to take that one? Like a summer vacation?
JH: Yes. I'd probably do it in two springs rather than the summer. You don't want the real heat.
DM: What's the best advice you got in your early career?
JH: Gordy Dickson said "when you have money, borrow money." That's good advice to anyone who's self-employed. The thing to do is when you're comfortable, you apply for a bank loan. I said I had to upgrade my computer system, which I didn't have to do. I borrowed like five thousand dollars and paid it back the next month, so their computers said "he's a good risk." That stays with you the rest of your life. When you're a freelance writer or freelance programmer or a freelance anything, what you need is that kind of cushion so that when you're facing a dead period, you can borrow it.
DM: The worst advice?
JH: Besides Leonard Michaels telling me to quit science fiction? Let me see. The cumulative one is the eighteen publishers who turned down The Forever War, saying no one wanted to read a science fiction novel about Vietnam. That's the accumulated wisdom of every science fiction editor except one.
I shouldn't keep perpetuating a myth that's only ninety-five percent true, because the first person who got the manuscript for The Forever War did accept it: Terry Carr, who was editing the Ace science fiction specials. This was a series of science fiction novels that were challenging or out of the ordinary in some way that would make them difficult to publish otherwise. He was unfortunately fired right after he accepted The Forever War and Donald Wollheim, who was his boss, said "you can take all of your novels with you." [laughs] So it was accepted by the first and then not for another eighteen, and then accepted by a publisher who didn't do science fiction at all.
DM: I mentioned to some people at Windycon that I might have the opportunity to interview you, and someone said that I should ask you about your seven telescopes.
JH: Well, amateur astronomy is like a lot of other hobbies, like trains or whatever. You start collecting these things and finally you have to build another house to hold all of your junk. I probably do have seven telescopes, but there are four that I use with regularity. One is a big, what they call a "Dobsonian:" a twelve and a half inch reflector, which takes two people to move. The [second] is a seven inch Maksutov, which I can move by myself but wouldn't want to move it very far. It weighs about a hundred pounds. It's a good, all-purpose scope. The third one is a three and a half inch Quest Star, which is an elegant telescope. It fits in a small case and you can carry it onto an airplane and guarantee that it will be cloudy where ever you go. The [fourth] is a Pronto: a short, powerful telescope of a design that was not possible until the nineteen nineties. Computer-designed, apochromatic refractor, which is really a heck of a telescope in a very small package.
There's too much light pollution in Gainesville. When we moved there, we had pretty good skies, but then they built a mall nearby and they quadrupled the candlepower of the athletic stadium at the university, so it just absolutely washes out everything. But I can go about thirty-five miles out of town and get very dark skies.
DM: If you took one of the larger telescopes out, would it be with an astronomy group?
JH: Oh yes. I belong to the Alachua County Astronomers and when there's a lunar eclipse or a meteor shower or whatever excuse we have, we'll put out a bunch of telescopes in the town square or in a mall and see how big a crowd we can get. Mars -- we got thousands of people looking at Mars through six or seven different telescopes. It's good fun; it's outreach as we call it.
Copyright © 2004 Donald Mead
Donald Mead lives in Bloomington, Illinois, where he works as a Payroll Specialist. His previous publications include articles in criminal justice and martial arts magazines. "Interview with Joe Haldeman" is his first SF/F publication. He is currently working on the Feral Wizards fantasy series, which will be ready for submission in 2004. To contact him, email DONALDMEAD2@msn.com.