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Interview with John E. Stith

After reading Redshift Rendezvous, which I reviewed a few days ago, I got got the chance to ask the author a few questions.  John E. Stith has been writing since the late 70s and had his first novel published in 1984.  He has a large body of work, which includes short stories, and has many years of experience navigating the waters of the publishing world.


John E. StithWhat made you decide to start writing science fiction?

Love of reading. The urge didn’t hit strongly until I was partway through college, but the desire became stronger every time I finished reading a great book. Deciding to devote fifteen minutes every day made the difference between wanting to write and actually writing.


I know several authors and each of them have their own way of writing.  When you sit down to write, do you have everything already pre-planned? Or do you just start writing and see where it takes you?

I generally do several drafts, but I have an aversion to doing even more, so I want to know where I’m headed so I can layer in clues and foreshadowing along the way. I liken it to a car trip. I know where I’m starting and where I want to end up, but I don’t know if I’ll have a flat, witness an accident, or need to stop and ask for directions along the way. (Imagine my GPS is broken.)


Was there anything in particular that inspired this story?

Most of my work starts with some emotional issue and a setting I want to explore.  In the case of REDSHIFT RENDEZVOUS, I had a friend who was a suicide-attempt survivor. For the setting, I had accumulated notes about a situation in which characters could move fast enough that time dilation and other relativistic effects became part of daily life. That notion started coming to life when I realized that slowing down the speed of light to everyday speeds could have the relativistic result I wanted. At that point, I started building the conceptual model for the hyperspace liner REDSHIFT, a ship that travels in a layer of hyperspace where the speed of light is ten meters per second. And in that setting, I put a starship hijacking foiled by one man, as an homage to Alistair MacLeans’ THE GOLDEN RENDEZVOUS.


A main component of the story is the science behind how the ship operates.  How much of that is based on current science/theory and how much did you come up with?

The idea that there exist several layers of hyperspace with decreasing speeds of light, and that we can travel to those layers is fiction, as far as I know. Once you assume an environment where the speed of light is only ten meters per second, and assume the existence of a lifebelt to create a field in which a human body can stay alive, by letting neurons fire and synapses traveling as high-speed traffic, then you’re mostly finished with the Big Assumptions. From there, given an artificial black hole at the center of a spherical starship with dimensions I calculated, the rest of what happens follows consistently. As a test, I wrote a short story set in this environment, and Courtney Willis (Connie Willis’s husband) was interested enough to take the existing clues such as the speed of light on various levels of the ship, and he calculated the dimensions the ship needed to be. He came out very close to the numbers I used. By the way, the book includes an appendix where I show much more of my work.


Out of all your novels, which is your favorite and why?

The answer can vary according to my mood and the most recent feedback. Today, REDSHIFT RENDEZVOUS and MANHATTAN TRANSFER are at the top today. REDSHIFT RENDEZVOUS because of the fun involved in creating a brand new environment and for it becoming a Nebula Award finalist. MANHATTAN TRANSFER shares the top spot because it was really fun writing a big-scale novel and treating really out-there stuff as if it were in fact happening. (In MT, the entire island of Manhattan is scooped up by aliens and put aboard a giant starship with dozens of other alien cities. Our heroes must figure out why, and escape.)


Did you ever have a novel that was particularly difficult to write? 

REDSHIFT RENDEZVOUS was the toughest one to write because I’m not a relativistic physicist, and it took me a lot of research and theorizing and number-crunching to get the setting to the point where I could use it.


What advice would you give to new authors who want to write science fiction?

First of all, read a lot, both in the field and out of the field. This next part didn’t need saying in the past, but learn to use words and understand grammar. Write a lot. Ray Bradbury said, “Write a thousand words a day and in three years you will be a writer.” That’s about a million words. If you go the traditional publishing route, you won’t publish before you’re ready, but if you go the indie route, be sure you’re truly ready to publish. A significant fraction of your potential readers won’t give you a second chance after a book that ends on an unadvertised cliffhanger or contains lots of indications that you don’t yet know how to use words. Words are the only tool we have. (My website includes a page, http://www.neverend.com/manuscript_format, that lists the most common errors I used to see in workshopped manuscripts and now too often see in self-published works.)

Write on a steady schedule, not simply when you feel like it. For me, workshops have been invaluable, but a bad workshop can be deadly. Look for a group where everyone wants everyone else to succeed. And practice, practice, practice.


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