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WesternSFA
A Chat with L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
by Catherine Book
August 9, 2013
I met Lee Modesitt (pronounced MOD-e-sit) years ago for an interview and it was a pleasure to meet him again when he appeared as a Guest of Honor at our local SF/F convention, CopperCon33, this month.

The last time I talked with him, social media was not the popular concept that it is today.  I asked him how that has changed for him.  Not a lot, he admitted.  He does have a website and he blogs, in detail, twice a week.  He doesn’t use Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn.  He does keep a forum on his webpage where fans can ask questions.  I wondered if he found this has added to his success with his fans.  He acknowledged that an author does need a way to communicate with his fans and he answers every email that he receives.  But he’s not sure if his older fans find this sort of communication to be necessary to feel ‘connected’ to him.

He has a new book coming out soon, Rex Regis, which is the last of the current sub-series in the Imager Portfolio series.  The first three books in the series are about the character Rhennthyl. The next five are about Quaeryt and Rex Regis will complete that sub-series.  It should hit the bookshelves around January 2014.  Lee said that five books are more than he’s ever devoted to a single character before, and that’s “plenty.”  It was never meant to be more than three books but Lee found the story to be bigger than he anticipated.  It’s always possible he will revisit this world but it will probably not be about either of these characters.

I asked him about all his other series: are any of them ‘finished?’  Not necessarily; he feels he could always go back and write more in any of them.  It doesn’t mean he will, it just means he can.  He has a new Recluce story that should be ready to hit the shelves in late 2014.  And he’s writing another Recluce story after that.  I asked him if that was all he was contracted for in that series and was surprised when he confessed he never starts work on a book under contract.  He says he’s always worked that way.  He isn’t comfortable selling a book until he has a first draft.  This actually gives him a bit more editorial control over his work as no one is suggesting he do this or that with a character, or change this or that. 

Lee also has a new hard SF novel coming out “The One-Eyed Man” in September this year.  Pretty much all his hard SF can be read as standalones; even the ones that had two or three stories have been repackaged as omnibuses.  I wondered which he preferred writing: fantasy or science fiction.  He doesn’t really prefer either one as he’s found he enjoys doing different things in each genre.  And it’s no problem moving from one genre to the next from book to book but when I asked if he ever works on more than one project at a time, he emphatically said no.  He tried it once but it must’ve been a bad experience because he never intends to do it again.

So, how does he write?  Is there a routine or a particular environment?  He likes working in his office.  He does write while on the road but he’s more productive in his office where he has more resources.  He hates wasting time so he’s found he can do more with short stories when he’s on the road.  He starts his morning walking 2-1/2 miles and does the usual shower-eat-walk the dog things but spends the rest of the day either writing or doing writing-related tasks.  He tries to average 2000-2500 finished words a day.  He has written two and a half books a year for the past twenty years – no mean feat.

When I asked him what was most important to him: plot, setting, characters?  He responded characters, very quickly, with setting second.  For him, he told me, setting is a sort of character.  I asked him if he felt world-building was one of his strengths.  He answered that it is more a combination of world and culture building.  He felt that many think of world-building as actually building a world while he tends to think more of building the culture.    So he considers both geography and culture and likes to have maps in his books because they will influence where things end up.

I asked him what he felt might be the most probable apocalyptic ending to mankind.  So many possibilities, he mused, and they all depend on cultural factors.  He thought the greatest probability for disaster is excessive interdependence.  He pointed out that we are extraordinarily vulnerable to solar electro-magnetic pulses.  If we experience a solar pulse on the scale of the one in 1856, called the Carrington Event, he felt that would destroy most of the electric grid across the whole planet.  Given our level of interdependence, while it may not be the end of mankind, it would have a major impact and things could get very nasty.  And, he pointed out, we don’t really know what the whole effect would be.  We don’t have enough solar history to draw good conclusions.

Has our technology advanced faster than our society?  He didn’t think so.  He pointed out that in many areas there hasn’t been much advancement in the last forty years.  For example: we had instant communication forty years ago and that while aspects of it have improved, instant communication is still instant; it hasn’t gotten faster.  Neither have planes; planes today don’t go much faster than they did forty years ago, they’ve just gotten more complex.  So, smaller things, that are generally less expensive, tend to evolve more quickly.  But what bothers Lee about technology is the trend of society fragmenting along lines of shared personal inclinations. Fifty years ago there were only a handful of TV channels available to pick from, current music was available through whichever local radio stations there were.  Today, one can pick a news channel that best suits one’s individual tastes.  The same for music or other interests.  Fifty years ago, everyone shared the same TV or radio experiences.  Today, we go our own way and Lee worries that this is splintering our society.  It’s no longer a communal experience but much more individual.

How does he see the effect of the internet and this instant communication gratification on our younger generations?  He does see some problems.  For example:  younger people don’t seem to learn basic math before they are handed a calculator.  When was the last time you saw a young person make change without depending on a computer to tell them?  Computers correct your spelling and grammar but without a comprehensive understanding of vocabulary and grammar, how do you know the program is doing the job correctly?  This has ramifications that most people don’t consider.  If we depend on the computer to spit out answers and conclusions and yet have no understanding of the concepts that underlie the answers, then we are developing a generation of people who can’t reason.

What characteristic would Lee like to see mankind develop?  He was hesitant to answer.  He didn’t really want to say anything specific as the gods might be listening.  And there’s some old saying that when the gods want to curse us, they grant us our prayers.  Or:  be careful what you wish for.  It may not be exactly what you intended.  For example, while he would like to see people “think things through”, they may not be thinking it through in the right direction.  He also doesn’t believe there’s a single, simple solution to anything.  He sees that as a big problem in our society today.  Everyone would like to believe there’s a simple fix.  He thinks people are unwilling to recognize that we live in the most complex times – both technologically and societally –in the history of mankind.  That means that any solutions need to be equally complex.  But that doesn’t stop some people from promulgating their own idea that they have the single, simple answer:  more guns or no guns, pick your favorite issue.  Simplistic solutions don’t work anymore.

Lee was a very interesting guest to interview; I can see that he has some very strong, deep opinions if you can ask the right questions.  I wish I’d had more time with him…

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