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An Interview with Jeanne Cavelos
by Lynne Jamneck

Return to Speculative Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Jeanne Cavelos began her professional life as an astrophysicist, working in the Astronaut Training Division at NASA's Johnson Space Center. After earning her MFA in creative writing, she moved into a career in publishing, becoming a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she created and launched the Abyss imprint of psychological horror, for which she won the World Fantasy Award, and ran the science fiction/fantasy publishing program. Jeanne left New York to pursue her own writing career. Her books include the best-selling The Passing of the Techno-Mages trilogy, set in the Babylon 5 universe; the highly praised science books The Science of Star Wars and The Science of the X-Files; and the anthology The Many Faces of Van Helsing. Jeanne is currently at work on a thriller about genetic manipulation, titled Fatal Spiral. Her work has twice been nominated for the Bram Stoker Award.

Since she loves working with developing writers, Jeanne created and serves as director of Odyssey, an annual six-week summer workshop for writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror held at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, NH. Guest lecturers have included George R. R. Martin, Harlan Ellison, Terry Brooks, Jane Yolen, and Dan Simmons. Jeanne also runs a freelance editorial business. She has spoken at venues as varied as the Smithsonian Institute, the Air Force Research Munitions Directorate, the Intel International Science Fair, and on many TV and radio shows. More information about Jeanne is on her website, http://www.sff.net/people/jcavelos/.

How did you make the switch from working in the science-field to becoming a writer, mentally and professionally?

Mentally, I don't think there was a big switch. I've actually been writing since I was about seven. I won a painted pumpkin in second grade for a story I wrote about a witch. I wrote all through college and grad school and while I worked at NASA. I had some stories published in fanzines and other small magazines. Finally I realized that writing was what I wanted to do more than anything else, so I left my life in science and dedicated myself full time to finishing a novel I was working on. I had heard that common advice -- "If you want to learn how to write, then write" -- and decided that's what I needed to do. Once I finished the novel -- an 811-page, completely awful supernatural Western -- I realized that maybe I needed some education and feedback to make the switch to writer. So I earned my M.F.A. in creative writing at American University. That helped me to improve my writing style and to make my writing more accessible to others. In my early work, I often left out key pieces of information, leaving readers hopelessly confused. After earning my degree, I decided to go into publishing, so I could make a living until I "hit it big" as a writer (ah, innocence) and find out how to get published from the inside. I would work during the day and write at night, eating powdered mini-donuts for dinner.

What can you tell us about your next novel, Fatal Spiral?

It's a thriller about cloning and genetic manipulation set twenty years in the future. The book explores how much our personalities and behaviors are influenced by our genes. A common trope in SF is the idea of a perfectly obedient army of genetically altered clones. But is it possible to make people obedient (or anything else) by designing them with certain genes? Most people today would say that such control is impossible, that environment has at least as big a role in the formation of personality as biology -- and free will is in there too. Yet we are obviously constrained by our genes. I can't suddenly become a muscular seven-foot-tall man. And research is showing more and more connections between genes and behavior -- genes that predispose us to alcoholism, to violence, to leadership, to shyness, to friendship. The connections are complex, but they do exist. For me, it's fascinating to consider how much choice we really have in who we are and what we do, and whether it's possible for us to transcend our natures.

This is the most difficult thing I've written. I'm not quite sure why it's so hard, but each story has its own challenges and requires its own writing process. In this case, I've thrown out over a thousand pages and have about three hundred I like. Still need to write about three hundred more. So, with luck, I hope to finish in about a year.

Stanley Schmidt once defined a good editor as someone who can help the writer do better what he/she is trying to do on their own. How far would you agree with that assessment?

I agree that the editor's job is not to tell the writer what he ought to be writing. An editor who says, "I think horror stories are pretty silly. Why don't you replace the vampire with a homeless man and make this a satire about inequities in our culture?" is not providing helpful feedback. The author should be writing about what moves him, what he's passionate about -- not what the editor is passionate about. The editor should provide feedback, instruction, and guidance that help the author make the manuscript as strong as possible, to make it the dream story that the author envisions it being.

That's more or less the limit of what the editor can do when working on a single manuscript with an author. When working with an author on a number of manuscripts, the editor can and should do more. This can happen when an editor is publishing a series of pieces by an author, or when an editor is working with an author at a workshop. In this case, the editor should search for patterns in the author's writing -- themes in the author's work, common elements. The editor can gain a better understanding of the author's goals and influences and explore these with the author. Often, when working with authors at the Odyssey Writing Workshop, I find that many have read only a very narrow selection of genre works -- and often very little outside the genre. Pushing the author to widen his experiences, readings, and influences can create great growth in the writer and his work. The editor can question the author about what he wants to achieve in his work, getting him to consider these goals more carefully and refine them. Many authors write stories in imitation of authors they like -- there's nothing wrong with that; imitation is how we learn. But many times the stories an author writes don't reflect what he truly believes and what he's truly passionate about. Helping an author to recognize this and redirect his efforts is something an editor can do in a long-term relationship.

Which editors have you learned the most from, and how has this influenced your own editing technique?

I've really learned from every editor I've come in contact with, so it's hard to pick out specific people. Frank Conroy was my thesis advisor at American University, and he was definitely a huge influence on me as a writer and an editor. He once ripped a page out of a student's manuscript, balled it up, and threw it across the room, yelling, "What have we lost? Nothing!" I don't feel that dramatics like that are helpful. But what I did learn from Frank is that an author shouldn't write unless he's willing to put in the effort to make the story as strong as he can possibly make it. The author or editor who thinks, "Well, it's good enough" is doing a disservice to the story and the readers. At Bantam Doubleday Dell, I learned a lot about the business end of publishing from Leslie Schnur and Carole Baron. Susan Kamil, the editor-in-chief of Dial Press, taught me to focus my editorial feedback on the most important issues. You can't ask an author to change too many different things, or the story gets lost (and the author gives up). E. J. McCarthy, a colleague, taught me never to put a mark on an author's manuscript unless I'm sure my comment can make it better.

Authors have really taught me the most about editing. When I see how they react to my comments, and how the manuscript changes, that tells me whether I've done a good job or not.

You recently edited a collection of original short fiction about the legendary vampire hunter Van Helsing entitled The Many Faces of Van Helsing. Apart from Van Helsing, do you think there are other characters in fiction that is maybe misunderstood, or can be interpreted in such many ways as him?

It was really fascinating to explore the character of Van Helsing. He's been such an influential figure in horror fiction, giving rise to characters like Kolchak: The Night Stalker, both Mulder and Scully in The X-Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Dracula has also proven to be a novel that resonates powerfully with almost every generation. It has that amazing ability to provide a moving story with themes relevant to the time, no matter what the time is. When written, Dracula told the story of an evil vampire who could bring out sexual urges that would be better repressed, and the good and kind Van Helsing who was able to stop him. These days, repressed sexual urges don't seem like a big threat. Many see a bigger threat in Van Helsing, the man who is certain he is right and is willing to kill based on his beliefs.

I don't know if any other fictional character has that range of interpretation. Probably the closest characters I can think of come from Shakespeare. Hamlet has been interpreted in many ways. Iago, from Shakespeare's Othello, has always fascinated me, because he refuses to explain his motivation, leaving it up to the audience to understand. There's a similar mystery surrounding Mad Max in The Road Warrior (yes, for me, Shakespeare and The Road Warrior are just a breath apart). When Max is asked why he is going to help a besieged group, he says, "Believe me, I really don't have a choice." Which leaves the audience to try to understand. Looking at genre archetypes, I think Dr. Frankenstein has a lot of potential that hasn't yet been realized. "The mad scientist" has become a cliché, as has the scientist who thinks he's God, or the scientist who does things because he can, or the scientist who innocently develops something with no idea of the horrible effects it might have. As a former scientist, all these seem kind of silly to me and don't reflect any scientists I know (though they have given rise to some good stories). My current novel is in part a reaction to Frankenstein and an attempt to turn that book on its head. Renfield is also an interesting figure -- he's a loyal servant, yet he's perceived as wretched and evil. Odysseus would also be fun to explore. He's one of the great heroes of Western literature, yet he has many of the traits we might now associate with "the ugly American."

What is the attraction for you in writing media tie-in novels?

Since I was little, I've alternated writing stories about my own characters with writing stories about characters from books, comics, TV shows, and movies. I wrote a story once where Han Solo met Spider-Man, and another where Snake Plissken met Norman Bates. During my teen years, I used to go to sleep every night making up new adventures for Starsky and Hutch. So writing media tie-in novels was a natural outgrowth of all that. I'm pretty critical these days about movies and TV shows, but when I find one I really love, I often think about areas I wish they would develop, or different directions a story might have gone. Writing a tie-in novel allows me to develop one of those areas, to play in someone else's universe for a while, with characters I've come to love, and make my own contribution to that universe. It's like writing an episode for a TV show (but without the restrictions of structure, time, and budget) or like producing my own interpretation of Hamlet. Since you have to be consistent with all that's come before, it's a special challenge, and one that I really enjoy.

Having an insight and experience into the field of astrophysics, what do you think will be the new frontier in the field -- the new Big Thing?

This isn't quite astrophysics, but I feel it's very likely we're going to discover life within our solar system in the next five years. Our probes on Mars have been finding amazing things.

No-one ever seems sure about the stability and long-term potential of short fiction these days. What are the pros and cons of starting either a print or electronic speculative fiction magazine?

People don't read a lot, and most of what they do read is not short fiction. However, one of the strongest short fiction markets is in speculative fiction. I think the total number of people reading SF short fiction is slowly declining -- they're generally older and are gradually dying off without equal numbers of young people replacing them -- but that is a more long-term effect, not something that would make or break a new publisher today. But it's not a growth industry. Another factor to consider is the significant number of electronic 'zines that have started up in the last ten years. This splits the total audience into smaller bits, making it harder for a big-budget magazine to survive. Print magazines are certainly in the greatest danger, since they cost the most money to produce. I wouldn't advise starting a new print magazine unless you can afford to lose a lot of money, because that's probably what will happen. With an e-zine, you'll lose less money but still a lot of time, and there may never be any payoff, except in personal satisfaction. If someone could find a way to draw younger readers into reading short fiction, that would be a wonderful thing and a path to huge success.

As an editor, what do you look for in a story-- what makes you sit up and take notice?

A compelling narrative voice, a story that has something of import to say, an element or twist I haven't seen before. I like stories that move me, that make me feel something. Many stories by developing writers are predictable, unfocused (they wander and have no discernible point, and the climax doesn't fit), or just never come to life (cardboard characters floating through white rooms).

What are your pet peeves, editorially?

After all these years, the list is endless. Probably my number one peeve is writers who don't know when to use commas. I wouldn't hire a carpenter who didn't know how to use a hammer, and I don't trust an author who doesn't know how to use a comma. If you decide you want to tell stories through the medium of language, then you must know the language and the rules by which it works. Some developing writers -- especially writers of SF/F -- feel that if their ideas are good, nothing else matters. Professional writers know that the idea is only the first step down the road to a good story and that every step matters.

Other peeves: undescribed settings, derivative settings, multibook epics that have nothing to say, characters that are no more than archetypes, characters that are the author's puppets, passive, uncaring, or reactive main characters, scenes in which nothing changes, plots with no causal chain, shifting or weak point of view, filtering, weak verbs, telling, unfocused sentences, looking/eye words, said bookisms . . . You get the idea.

Have you noticed writers from different countries explore specific themes in their fiction?

I see individual differences more than differences based on country, I think. But certainly authors from South America and Africa tend to write more about political oppression. I love Magical Realism, much of which is written by South American authors. I'm fascinated by the way characters in Magical Realist fiction have personal power, but not power in the sense American characters usually have power. American characters usually have power they learn to control and wield, which helps them defeat evil. The Magical Realist characters more often have power that is an outer manifestation of their inner nature; they can't control it and it doesn't help them beat the bad guys. It just creates beauty, wonder, and chaos.

Should we still be classifying fiction in terms of genre?

Classification is an aid to readers, who are searching for works they want to buy. The more information out there, the more critical classification becomes. So I don't see any way out of it. Certainly genre classification has a lot of negatives, but it also has positives. A new author may be discovered by a reader because she's shelved beside other books the reader likes.

Tell us something about Jeanne Cavelos no-one else knows….

I love Elijah Wood.

If Fantasy is concerns itself (in a nutshell) with What is Real, and SF What is Human -- what is the particular demand behind horror fiction?

It's tough to distill a whole genre into a phrase, so I'm not quite comfortable with these, but if these are so, then perhaps horror concerns itself with What is Other. We are terrified of the other, the unknown, and much horror forces us to confront the other. Sometimes we find a completely alien sensibility, which brings us back to our fear of the dark and the boogeyman; sometimes we find our neighbor, which reveals how twisted humans can become; and sometimes we find ourselves and learn that the other resides within.

Who are some of your favorite authors, past and present?

Past: Joseph Conrad, Franz Kafka, Shakespeare, Aeschylus, H. G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, J. R. R. Tolkien

Present: Ian McEwan, Tim Lucas, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Michael Chabon, Ursula K. LeGuin, Peter Schaffer

You wake up one morning and little green men have really invaded the Earth.

(Or gray ones -- color is irrelevant and resistance is futile). How do you think they'll

react to our literary interpretations of them?

They will probably be so powerful they won't bother reading our stories and won't care. If they do bother to read them, they may find it useful to use our expectations to help them take over, as the Catholic Church co-opted local mythologies to gain converts.

Alternatively, you wake up the next morning and the whole world as we've known it before has turned into a decidedly Philip K. Dick environment. How will humans react?

If it's truly a Philip K. Dick environment, then they won't know what's real and what's not, and they'll probably go along in a confused way for a short time, then decide what they believe is real (the new world, the old world, or the world where Elijah Wood runs everything), fight for it, and perhaps triumph, revealing the giant conspiracy in which I have turned the world topsy turvy in order to bring myself and Elijah Wood together as benign co-dictators who live in luxury and love, surrounded by a troop of purring cats and bowls of M&Ms as blue as Elijah's eyes . . . Oh, got carried away there . . .

If you had the chance to collaborate with any writer, living or dead, who would it be?

Wow -- what a great question. I think it would have to be Shakespeare. Just to know how that mind worked would be incredible.

Any exciting new projects on the horizon for you?

I'm considering a couple different topics for anthologies, revising a short story (the first I've written in years), and working on a book about my beloved iguana, Igmoe, who died last year.

I'm also working on launching a new service for developing writers, but I'd rather not go into detail until everything is set. This service will be an offshoot of Odyssey, the writing workshop I hold each summer at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire. Odyssey is a six-week program for fantasy, science fiction, and horror writers whose work is approaching publication quality. The service will be aimed at helping developing writers who aren't quite ready to attend Odyssey or who are unable to attend. People who want more information can go to the Odyssey website (http://www.sff.net/odyssey) and sign up for our free newsletter.

The five things every aspiring writer must know before picking up a pen are:

  1. what you have to say
  2. how it's different from what everyone else is saying
  3. that becoming the best writer you can be is a lifelong journey and takes a lifelong passion and commitment
  4. that you won't find the time to write if you don't make the time to write
  5. oh, forget all this. You don't need to know anything to start. That's why so many people are sucked in. Just learn how to use a comma!

Copyright © 2005 Lynne Jamneck
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Lynne Jamneck is a writer/photographer from South Africa. Her work has been accepted to and published in a number of diverse markets, including Best Lesbian Erotica 2003, H.P Lovecraft's Magazine of Horror, Harrington Lesbian Fiction Quarterly, On Our Backs Anthology Vol. 2 and anthologies Raging Horrormones (Oxcart Press) and Darkways Of The Wizard (Cyber-Pulp Books & Specficworld.com). She was the editor and creator of Simulacrum: The Magazine of Speculative Transformation. Her first Samantha Skellar mystery, Down the Rabbit Hole, was published by Bella Books in 2005. Lynne currently lives in New Zealand with her partner Heidi.


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