Sunday, September 18, 2011

2011 DragonCon #2: S.M. Stirling

One of the panels I had the chance to sit in on at DragonCon was that of noted science fiction and alternate-history author S.M. Stirling.

"Currently, I'm working on a sequel to Tears of the Sun," was his answer to someone asking him about his current projects.  The sequel was originally titled The Given Sacrifice, but the story took longer than he thought.  It is now called Lord of Mountains and it will complete Rudi MacKenzie's story arc--make of that what you will.  He does intend for more Emberverse novels taking place afterward--he and John Birmingham are working on one set in Australia.

"Galleys ramming each other Salamis-style off the coast of Darwin," is how he described that project.  He also made a reference to a future Emberverse novel entitled Eric the Strong, which is (I assume) about the foundation of the Norse-reconstructionist pagan culture that our heroes come across in Maine during one of the later Emberverse novels.

He referred to the Change universe as his Hyborean Age.  Robert E. Howard created the Hyborean Age so he could include things from different historical periods.  Stirling wanted to have knights in armor and cowboys existing in the same world, and voila.

He is also pondering an alternate-history project in which Teddy Roosevelt won the 1912 presidential election.  It will feature dirigibles, biplanes, guys in leather helmets with goggles, and, just maybe, an underwater base.

Stirling also said he may return to the world of Island in the Sea of Time, although he didn't go into detail.  He said he can produce roughly a novel a year, so he only has time for 20-30 novels, barring rejuvenation technology.

Someone's phone rang during the discussion. "Die!" Stirling shouted.  I thought that was pretty funny.

When asked if he has given any thought to opening up his world like Eric Flint did in his 1632 novels, Stirling said he has given thought to a shared-world anthology of Emberverse stories. However, his publisher vetoed it.

Stirling then revealed the Emberverse series has been optioned for a TV program. He warned that hundreds of properties are optioned every year, so that doesn't mean it will be made. He said the series would be like HBO's Game of Thrones, with each book corresponding to a TV season.  He said TV series are more appropriate for books than movies are--a movie is more akin to a short story or a novella.

Stirling also revealed he will have a short story included in a Barsoom anthology timed to come out at the same time as the John Carter film next year.  His story manages to include the Moon Men and Pellucidar. He will also have a Time Patrol story in a Poul Anderson tribute anthology.

"Short stories are sort of a Judas breed these days," he said. "You don't make enough money from them to be worth your time, but it's a hell of a lot of fun."

Ironically short stories used to be bigger sellers than novels.  Robert E. Howard was the richest man in his hometown.

A woman asked Stirling about including maps for battles in his books because the battles were written confusedly.  He said he tries to be as clear as possible when he writes battles.

"It's hard to be both realistic and clear about battles and fights," he said. "Especially on a large scale."

He then said that in real life, actually being a king is boring.  Lots of meetings and reports.  No wonder the fantasy stories end when the hero actually becomes king.

Another participant asked how the Draka series would end, or would the status quo continue for thousands of years.  Stirling said the Draka were alternate-history horror, an "AH Cthulhu mythos."  He said he wrote the series when he was in law school, which would explain why it was full of anger and hate.

He told the participant he was not interested in the Draka anymore, since he wrote the last book over 20 years ago.

He then discussed his life before he made it big.  He spent eight years working odd jobs while trying to write, including picking tobacco and working as a bouncer in a bar for two days.  He sold a short story to a British magazine for a quarter-cent a word.  The magazine went under, but someone bought the rights and the story appeared 20 years later.

"I got my quarter-cent a word," he said.

He told a funny story about how he sold a story to Jim Baen, the founder of Baen Books.  Baen said it was a good story, but the ending was ambiguous--what happened was the last page had gone missing.

Stirling's work began selling after he married.  His career really took off with Island in the Sea of Time and things have been getting better ever since.

"You've got to have talent, you've got to have persistence, and you've got to be lucky," he said.

He said fiction sales have withstood the recent economic downturn well, but publishers have gotten more cautious.  Publishing profit margins are typically three to five percent--people try to get 15 to 20 percent returns and they can't.  Writing is one of the last individual craft industries.  He signed a multi-book contract before the crash and he is safe.

"For people trying to break in, it's hell," he said.

An audience member asked about EBooks.  Stirling said as long as people were paying for them, he is happy with them.  He has a Kindle and it helps him read more, since he spends $6,000 per year on books.

As far as fan-fiction is concerned, if copyright is acknowledged, that's free advertising for him.  There are people who post fan-fiction on his site.

(Hmm...that might be something to keep in mind when I become a novelist.  I got a lot of practice for novels with my Harry Potter fan-fiction and so I couldn't non-hypocritically condemn fan-fiction, but I can easily imagine getting upset if someone wrote Grendel/Andrew slash fiction, romanticized the captivity of Catalina Merrill, or something icky like that.)

I got the chance to ask him a question during the session.  What happened to all the Protestants in the Emberverse?  I asked why it seems everyone in the Emberverse is either a neo-pagan or a Catholic.  Even Frederick Thurston, who was brought up as a Methodist, became a worshipper of the Norse gods.

Stirling said that was  of a joke--everyone he knows who is a member of some exotic religion started out as a Methodist.  Rarely does one see, say, an enthusiastic Orthodox Jew becoming a Wiccan.  He said the "either Catholic or pagan" situation was in the Pacific Northwest only and Iowa is still majority Protestant.

Someone else asked him what his long-term plans for the Draka were--who wins?

"The battle would have continued as long as I wanted to write the books," he said.

He said one doesn't kill off a good villain, unless you give them children.

Stirling then read a selection from Lord of Mountains out loud.  Rudi has had a big meeting at Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood and he and a bunch of others investigate a supernatural occurrence nearby.  He gave Rudi and Edain faux Irish accents, which I found really funny.


  1. You get to talk to authors? Neat! Maybe I should finally go the next time DragonCon comes to town.

  2. You just gave me a huge incentive to seek out a convention. Kudos on the report on Sterling!

  3. Glad to hear you're getting in on these things. Sorry I wasn't able to make it - had to run my own meeting this weekend.

  4. Sweeeeeeet!

    I enjoyed this report very much.

    I know Stirling isn't the most pro-Muslim fellow in the world, but I still get a tremendous kick out of his work.

    And the Draka! Wow. The boogieman in the closet of any sane right-thinking person, or something like that.

    modelcitizen/Ben Shoer

  5. Yep. Conventions are great opportunities to meet with actors, writers, and publishers. A small press seemed interested in "Battle for the Wastelands" after I talked with them, while I only became aware BattleCorps existed when I visited in 2008. From this came the sale of "Skirmish at the Vale's Edge."

    About the Draka, he said there are people who actually want to visit the Draka world. He said something to the effect of, "Have fun in the mines!"

  6. Dragoncon - the Kahn of Cons!
    Even if you aren't at all interested in outrageous or merely odd costumes, it's well worth going once to meet people like Turtledove, Stirling, and many another fine author. For those of you fond of weapon props. Atlanta police are very accomodating and will not hassle you about them.