Last month I had the pleasure of attending ICON 38, Iowa’s long-running science fiction convention. After closing ceremonies, I sat down with SFWA Grand Master and ICON co-founder Joe Haldeman, and his wife Gay, and asked him some questions.
[Alvaro Zinos-Amaro] How has ICON changed over the last 38 years? Has it changed?
[Joe Haldeman] It has. Oddly enough, not the people. The people are the same. But it’s much bigger. And fandom has changed around it. To my mind, there’s less conventional fandom and more new kinds of stuff which holds less interest for me. And I guess our basic thing is, we come here to see all of our old buddies, which is true of most regional conventions, I think, for us. It’s always wonderful to get back to Iowa because the years we spent here were among our best.
[AZA] From when to when were you in Iowa?
[JH] It was ’73 to ’77. Basically, that covered the period when The Forever War came out, and I went from being an unknown writer to a well-known writer. Iowa City is such a literary town. The University of Iowa, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, traditionally does not like science fiction. In fact, for most of the time it has existed, it has hated science fiction. Right now, it’s not so bad. But when I was here it was a great embarrassment to the workshop that I was a famous science fiction writer. It was ironic. The head of the department at the time wondered how I was earning larger advances than he was. I mean, he was literary, and I was just a guy who wrote that rocket ship stuff.
[AZA] What would you say is the best memory you have from this or any con?
[JH] You know, most of the best memories I have are writer memories rather than convention memories. We went to cons from 1963 on, but that’s only a couple of years before I became a writer. I have interesting memories from our immature period as mere fans. Like one time, after just returning from Vietnam, I was sitting in a room party, and someone bumped against a table and a full bottle of liquor almost fell on Robert Silverberg’s head. But I snatched it out of the air, because I had my combat reflexes. I saved Bob Silverberg from a nasty cut, and I don’t think he ever knew that.
[AZA] Well, he will now. Do you remember where that was?
[JH] Washington D.C., Disclave ’74.
[AZA] Is there anyone in science fiction you wished you would have met but never got around to meeting? And if so, why that person?
[JH] I met Edmond Hamilton once or twice, and he was a giant. I wished I would have known him better. Of the old guard, the one who affected me most as a writer was Olaf Stapledon. The first science fiction book I read after I knew I was going to be a writer that really blew me away was Last and First Men. I thought, “What a huge, monumental book.” A great book, and a long one. So I guess Olaf Stapledon would be one of the people I wished I’d met. Another would be Philip Wylie. But I think more than that, there were people who I did meet who I’d like to have spent more time with. I’d love to have been a friend of Heinlein back in the 60s. I could have met him then. I was around. I didn’t meet him until 1975. By that time he was getting pretty old.
[AZA] Moving now from the past to the future, how do you think your life will change when you retire?
[JH] I like to see it in terms of freedom. I enjoyed teaching. I enjoyed it enough to do it for thirty years. But it’s always hanging over you, like a lightweight, not-too-severely-sharpened pocket-knife of Damocles. It’s always there, you know. You can’t make long-range plans without thinking, “Oh, but in the fall my time is not my own.” The idea that I will be able to go a full year, and then another year, and then another year after that without any classrooms, without any grade sheets, is amazing. You have to be seventy years old to find your freedom—in a very subdued and ironic way that’s true. But it’s not as if teaching was a total destruction of my time. I should compute this, but I believe that in the 30 years that I’ve been teaching, I’ve written 20 books. So you can’t say I’ve had my hands tied. I’m not retiring from writing. The main reason for retiring from teaching is so I have more time to write. When you’re seventy you have to admit to yourself you’re an old man, and you have to ask yourself, “How do I wish to spend my remaining time?” In my case, I want to write. Others can teach.
[AZA] Speaking of writing, how did your forthcoming novel Work Done for Hire come about?
[JH] I had a false start on it. I wrote a two thousand-word introduction featuring the same guy who winds up being the main character. It was highly dramatic. He was out in a cabin in the woods and he chops off his own little finger. No other explanation is given, but we watch through this camera eye point-of-view how he bandages it, drinks a lot of whiskey, and falls asleep. He wakes up the next day and the finger has grown back. That was originally the beginning of the novel. But I changed it because I realized I had used something too similar in a previous book. When I was writing it I’d forgotten that some years ago I’d used that as a scene in Camouflage. I didn’t want readers of that book to think I was recycling my stuff. So I looked at it and looked at it and decided I could get away with something less dramatic. I still have the drama, but it’s in the guy’s recent past, not something that happens on stage, and he does lose a finger. He’s a soldier, and he’s had to kill people, do this and that. He’s obviously PTSD and in a very difficult life situation. Then he receives an offer for $100,000 to kill someone he doesn’t even know. He’s a nice man, not a rough-and-ready guy. So he says “I wouldn’t do anything like that.” He declines the offer to the woman who has contacted him. She says, “What if you say ‘No’ and we kill your girlfriend? Or what if you say ‘Yes’ and we don’t?” Click. I wanted to set up a scene or situation that starts out with ambiguity, in terms of moral responsibility and so forth, but in the final analysis is not ambiguous. Because yes, he would kill other people to save his loved ones. But he’s kind of a philosopher—he’s a novelist, anyhow. And he’s thought this through before. “Here I have a cartoon of a moral situation, so what do I do?”
I had a lot of fun with this because it’s the first novel I’ve ever written that has a novelist as the main character. So he gets to go through all these things, and he has little problems with his publishers along the way. I enjoyed it at that comic level. But the novel is dead serious most of the way. I’m afraid people are going to see the rough outline and think it’s going to be a funny book. It’s funny in places, but most of it is not too funny. It’s called Work Done for Hire and as you’re probably aware, that’s a technical term used in publishing for works written without a copyright. But in his case, though he’s been offered that sort of literary work done for hire, he now has a rather more literal version on his hands.
[AZA] Look forward to it. A question related to writing. Did you ever receive a review of your work that was helpful, and if so why was it helpful? Do you read the reviews?
[JH] I read them and try not to be upset by the ones that are negative. In the aggregate they’ve helped me, to be sure, because reviewers point out things about your work that you’re unwilling to admit to yourself. And even if you just walk away from it and think, “It’s only someone else’s opinion,” the idea is now in your head, and it affects your thinking. I get largely positive reviews, which provides positive reinforcement. Which is not the same as positive feedback, something the engineers and audience provides.
[AZA] Very well. What are your Thanksgiving plans? Do you usually cook?
[JH] We’ll be at a friend’s house. Normally if I’m home I’ll prepare a huge feast. I’ll start cooking a few days ahead of time. We invite fifty people. I like it. I like to do projects. Our Christmas or New Year’s meals are pretty big. When Game of Thrones is on, we have Game of Thrones parties. I make a bunch of stuff. And my niece’s husband is a great cook and he does a dozen things too. He uses the Game of Thrones cookbook and makes something from that. Basically, we have the biggest TV set, so we’re like the de facto ministers of communications. It’s almost like having a social life, which I’ve never been good at doing!
Warning: What follows contains graphic descriptions and is not for the squeamish.
[AZA] Lastly, any interview questions you wished you’d get, or have been surprised by?
[JH] Yes, indeed. One brilliant one. It was an extended interview that wound up in a book and a PhD thesis. Tim Blackmore said, “Do you realize that in all of your serious novels about combat, someone is beheaded?” I said, “What?” He replied, “Yes, someone is always beheaded. Why is that?”
And I knew immediately after he asked why it was, though I hadn’t until that moment realized I inserted it in my work. When I was in combat, I saw a man beheaded—after-the-fact, but even after-the-fact is pretty awful. I was in charge of a small squadron and we were investigating an area we were setting up for artillery fire to protect our encampment. That is to say, we had large, 175 mm guns which could swivel down and shoot at people. There was someone dead in the area. Putting up blasting lines and detonation cords, waiting for the attack, we could smell that someone had died there recently. The area had been saturated with artillery a few days before. So we’re going around, and if anyone found the dead person, they were supposed to tell me where he was. Well, I found him myself. He was in his twenties, and he and his assistant, similar age, had been very close to where an artillery round had gone off. They were North Vietnamese regulars. One of them had been decapitated by artillery, which is rare. Artillery normally vaporizes you if it hits you. The other guys helping me with this project saw the guy’s head. One of them kicked it like a soccer ball. Then another guy kicks it. They start laughing maniacally. I said, “Guys, for Christ’s sake, what kind of animals are you?” That made things even funnier to them, that I should be upset by it. Finally someone who outranked all of us ordered us to get back to our positions. Philosophically, what is this? The guy was already dead. It’s really an extended aesthetic problem, rather than a moral problem. But denying the veneer of civilization is what helps you do inhumane things, and I wanted them to recognize it’s not a simple thing to be a soldier, or deal with death. I had to realize, though, that they were kids. I was twenty-five and had finished college. Most of them were eighteen or nineteen and had not been accepted to college. They weren’t deep thinkers, or really thinkers at all. But it was difficult. And it seems that it worked its way into my fiction. Thank you, Tim Blackmore, for pointing it out.
[AZA] Now that you’re conscious of it, is it still making its way into your fiction?
[JH] I don’t vet my fiction to take out something like a beheading if it’s not gratuitous.
[AZA] Right. You and George R. R. Martin.
[JH] Exactly! I guarantee, you’ll never sell a book if it has a beheading…