The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, September 26, 2005

My Life and Goals part II

I first became interested in writing...God, I can't say.  I've always enjoyed telling stories (unimaginative adults called them "lies.") and tales of the fantastic always held my attention for some reason.  Possibly because ordinary life held pain for me.  Of course, pain in life is inevitable, so why this?  I can't really say.  Perhaps it was because I felt so excluded from the mythologies that my friends and culture embraced.  I do remember that my first story was called "The Yeti" and dealt with an abominable snowman in a Canadian lumber camp.  The hero's name was Bill Conway, a character I continued to write about through High School.  That first story was written in 3rd grade, I think. 
I started by writing short stories and scripts and comic books--all kinds of stuff, whatever held my interest.  But all of it was adventure, or SF, or fantasy.  I read tons of adventure and SF/fantasy novels--all of the usual Tarzan and Conan stuff, plus lots of James Bond, The Saint, Mike Hammer, and so forth.  When I was in college I tried to stop writing for a couple of years, but then entered a writing contest where we read our stories to an audience.  I remember the expressions on people's faces when I read, and it touched something very deep inside me, and I decided to drop out of school and concentrate all my attention there.  NOTE: THIS WAS A STUPID DECISION.  I SHOULD HAVE STAYED IN COLLEGE.  Ah, well, live and learn.
For years following this I wrote stories and sent them to be published.  At some point, probably when I was about 26, I decided that I was getting a bit discouraged, so I set myself a goal: 100 stories all finished and circulating to the various magazines, and I had no right to evaluate the success or failure of my efforts until I reached number 100.  That gave me a concrete end-point to aim at.
About a year or so later, I decided to find a role model, a mentor.  I knew I was good, but I wasn't good enough to sell.  Something was missing.  So a friend's advice sent me looking for Larry Niven, who attended the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society meetings in Burbank every Thursday night.  Larry graciously agreed to look at a story I'd written, and I subsequently convinced him to give me a shot as a collaborator.  NOTE THAT I'D ALREADY DONE MY HOMEWORK.  If I hadn't been able to show him polished work, I would have been blown out the door in my first encounter.
Everything else came after that.  I listened to what he said, and did as he told me.  I did most of the lifting and carrying in those collaborations, because that was the way for me to learn most rapidly.
My first work with Larry, "The Locusts", was nominated for Best Novella in 1980.  Our next project was "Dream Park," my first novel.  By the time Dream Park came out, I had a dozen other stories in print.
Niven and his great friend and collaborator, Jerry Pournelle, came to me with an idea for an SF horror piece suggested by an odd ecology lectured upon by genius biologist Jack Cohen.  They wanted me to work with them on a novelette based on this.
They'd just had a NY  Times #1 bestseller, FOOTFALL, and I knew I'd be an utter ass to do this as anything less than a novel.  I pushed for that, and to this day, Jerry thinks it was his idea.  Of course, maybe MINE is the misty memory...but that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.


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