James Van Pelt
Questions and Answers

What are you currently working on?
I've set a writing goal for myself of 200 words a day. That sounds pretty skimpy, even to me who thought that 1,000 words a day was the absolute minimum to consider yourself a writer. What I found out though is that although 1,000 words a day (4 typed pages) doesn't sound undoable, that it takes me anywhere from 40 minutes to 4 hours to do it. If I didn't have the 4 hours, I wouldn't get started. This condition lasted from several years, and my production was low, around 40,000 words or so a year. Obviously there were a lot of non-writing days. So I thought about the problem for a while and decided that my 1,000 word goal was too high. I did some math and realized if I just wrote 200 words a day I'd finish over 72,000 words for the year, so that's what I did. I haven't missed a writing day since September of 1999.

I'm always working on a new short story, plus I have a pair of novels percolating in the background. One's SF/F and the other is my mainstream answer to CATCHER IN THE RYE.

Who or what has been a major influence on your writing and why?
The list of influences is huge! but there are names worth mentioning: Ray Bradbury, of course, particularly THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES and FARENHEIT 451. Robert Heinlein's THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, THE PUPPET MASTERS, "The Green Hills of Earth" and STARSHIP TROOPERS. Connie Willis, for everything she's penned, but most especially REMAKE, and LINCOLN'S DREAMS. I'm also very fond of Howard Waldrop, James Patrick Kelley, Bruce Holland Rogers, David Brin, Larry Niven and J.R.R. Tolkein. I'm missing dozens of others here.

Outside of SF/F, I'm influenced by Shakespeare, Poe, Dickens, A.E. Houseman, James Dickey, Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard, and anybody else I can lay my hands on.

With which of your works are you most/least satisfied and why?
Tough question. I have an unsold novel entitled THE SUMMER OF THE APOCALYPSE, but it's unfair to compare that to short stories. Each of my stories pleases me in different ways. I liked "Night Sweats" in the February, '01 REALMS OF FANTASY because it was an honestly erotic ghost story with a happy ending. A story in ANALOG last year, "The Comeback," satisfied me because I was able to meld in a lot of baseball trivia into the work.

I don't think I've come anywhere close to writing my ultimate story though. I'm satisfied with a piece for about ten minutes, and then I start thinking about the next, hopefully better one.

What are your favorite and least favorite words?
Ha! My least favorites are "of" and "that." I have to pull them out of my rough drafts constantly. I don't know that I have a favorite word, but I think the phrases, "Nebula Winner" and "Hugo Winner" have a nice ring to them.

Who (Fact or Fiction) would you most like to meet, and what would you ask them?
That's an easy one. I think I would kill or die to write a book as fine as Robert Holdstock's MYTHAGO WOOD. I've never met him, but when I do I'd sure like to buy him dinner or a drink for that one. At the short story length, if I could have written "Fondly Farenheit" I think I could safely consider myself an accomplished writer.

If you could have one wish granted what would it be?
I teach high school and college full time. As long as I'm writing mostly short stories, I don't think there's much hope that I'll be able to change that. Teaching is gratifying, challenging, fulfilling and important work, though. I don't chafe much while doing it, and I am able to fit in time for the writing.

What was your first professional sale? How did it feel when you received the acceptance?
My first pro sale was to Dean Wesley Smith's PULPHOUSE magazine in '91, I think, but it took several years to see print. Several sales have knocked my socks off. My very first one of any sort, which was a short story to a little magazine called AFTER HOURS in '89. The editor phoned me to talk about changing a small item in the story. He didn't introduce himself; he just dove into the story. It took me about ten minutes to figure out that he was buying the piece. I walked on air for weeks. I had a similar feeling when ANALOG bought its first story from me. I'd cut my teeth on ANALOG, haunting my junior high library every day for the new issue. To make a sale there seemed to me to be the impossible dream. That first story, "The Big One," in '97 also made the preliminary Nebula ballot and got folks talking about me as a possible candidate for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. I became a finalist for that award in '99.

In general I think about getting acceptances to magazines the same way I did about getting dates before I got married. Every time seems like a stroke of lightning.

Who is your favorite author?
Well, if I had to be stuck on a desert island with one book, it would be MYTHAGO WOOD, but overall I think Connie Willis impresses me most. She blends humor and pathos and everything in between. Favorite changes day to day, however. There are so many giants in this field.

If you could give one piece of advice to a would-be author, what would it be?
Persevere. Writing is a lot like hiking in hill country: you can't see too far ahead of you, and every step is a potential discovery. But you can't make the discoveries without persevering. Every paragraph I write takes me someplace I hadn't planned on going. I trust that persevering will solve problems, break down walls and bring me to new vistas.

I made my first sale to ASIMOV'S last year. I looked through my records and found I'd been submitting there since '84, and the manuscript that Gardner accepted was the 36th I'd sent to him. I recently sold a short story to another magazine that had been rejected 40 times previously over the course of ten years.


When did you first decide that you wanted to be an author?
I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was in elementary school. I remember looking in the SF section of the library (which was darned small at the time) to see which two authors my books would be shelved between. Deciding to be and author and actually becoming one are not the same thing, I'm afraid. I decided when I was ten or eleven, but it wasn't until I sat myself down and started writing consistently 21 years later that I did what was necessary to become one.

Do you enjoy book signings/conventions?
Since I don't have a book to sign, signings don't do much for me. I am asked occasionally to sign a short story, which is naturally flattering. Conventions I enjoy a great deal, both for the networking and the emotional recharging. What I get from a convention is a reconfirmation that I'm not the only person in the world who thinks SFnal thinking is a valid and important mode of existence. Also, I've been able to meet many of the people who have shaped my world. One of my greatest regrets was that I didn't get involved in conventions or the professional side of writing until long after Robert Heinlein died. I wish that I could have had the chance to tell him how important his work was to me. By going to conventions I've been able to let those other folks know. My greatest moment of joy at a convention was talking to Ray Bradbury at the last L.A. world con. Dave Truesdale at TANGENT took me up to the SFWA suite, and I spent the rest of the evening star struck. To my right was Robert Silverberg. Gardner Dozois was to my left. Connie Willis was across the room, as was Wil McCarthy and Stan Schmidt, Larry Niven and David Brin. I thought I'd died and gone to SF heaven.

What book are you reading at the moment?
At the moment I'm doing a lot of research on Shakespeare, so I have Harold Bloom's recently done book. Looking around my work station I see Stephen King's DREAMCATCHER, a Howard Waldrop collection, the order form for Connie Willis's PASSAGE, and Tolkein's THE RETURN OF THE KING which I'm reading out loud to my eight year old.

Plug away - what do you have coming out?
I have had a phenomenal run the last few years. Last year I sold 16 short stories. Look for "The Infodict" and "Safety of the Herd" in ASIMOV'S, "Perceptual Set" in ANALOG, "The Last Age Should Show Your Heart" in BONES OF THE WORLD, "The Stars Underfoot" in REALMS OF FANTASY, among others.

My whole list of sales and upcoming work can be found at my web site (Address Below)

James Van Pelt

Many Thanks, Jim

Relevant Links

James Van Pelt Short Story Guide
James Van Pelt's Web Site