C.J. Cherryh Interview
with Edward Carmien
SFRevu Article: ISBN - PubDate: 06/15/04
The sequel to Hammerfall appears on shelves this month. Forge Of Heaven carries this tale of nanotechnology even farther into the future. I interviewed Cherryh as part of the preparation for editing an anthology of articles about her literary life and career. The Cherryh Odyssey is due to see print within the next several months. Here is a portion of my contribution to the text. It is largely based on the interview, but clever readers will note formal references to other sources, such as James Gunn’s The Road To Science Fiction.
In between those two dates Cherryh grew up in Missouri and later in Oklahoma, attended the University of Oklahoma (graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Latin in 1964) and Johns Hopkins University in Maryland (Master of Arts in Classics, 1965), and became a high school teacher in her home state. Early in her teaching career she studied computer science at Oklahoma University.
Cherryh’s path to writing began in the adventure-oriented television shows of her youth. Disturbed when one favorite show went off the air, she started writing her own yarns. A self-taught fiction writer, Cherryh devoted herself to the study of narrative from a young age, building concepts and skills she would later put to use in her professional writing.
These and other details are available from many sources, as Cherryh’s frequent convention visits and published interviews have provided hundreds if not thousands of opportunities for these and other biographical details to see print over the years. Her decision in 1976 to leave teaching was at the suggestion of Donald A. Wollheim of DAW Books, a key figure in Cherryh’s literary development.
“I quit teaching at about the time I was working on The Faded Sun; Don told me ‘quit the job’ and gave me a three book contract with no due date and no specifications. I figured since it amounted to more than a year’s income as a teacher, I could take the risk, if I started in September,” says Cherryh (Cherryh). Following on the heels of her success with her first novel, Gate Of Ivrel, Cherryh’s move to write full time led to the beginning of an extremely prolific literary career that has led to 60+ titles as of 2004.
Space travel is one of Cherryh’s many specific abiding interests. When asked about the current efforts to win the Ansari X Prize (ten million dollars for the first team to achieve certain spaceflight goals, such as flying to 100km altitude), Cherryh’s optimism was expressed through a solid grasp of the physical challenges faced by the various teams attempting to win the prize. “Private enterprise may get into orbit and launch satellites, or even tourism, but doing the exploratory projects requires more than companies can do—unless the government follows the Greek model and gives them a tax rebate for doing it” (Cherryh).
Dick Rutan’s SpaceShipOne project, as of this writing the closest to winning the Ansari X Prize, is a good case in point: it is not a “heavy lift” project (though one might conceivably be grown out of the technology Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites, is developing) but rather a small, passenger-oriented space craft appropriate and useful for a quick visit to low orbit.
It may be many years before spaceflight is commercially viable for ordinary working folks, but Cherryh is certain it will eventually happen. And if America doesn’t do it? “The Chinese…may well beat us, and then we’ll run from behind” (Cherryh).
...The Business of Writing
Cherryh is a successful, commercially viable writer. She is not, however, Stephen King. Writing and selling books is for many a workaday career—often a passion that serves as a second job, sometimes a living, and rarely a career that enriches (often via movie deals and tie-ins) beyond common understanding.
Cherryh could achieve such success, or at least provide for a greater chance of such success. “To have a breakout commercial success,” she notes, “you have to hit it lucky, or write shorter sentences. I don’t expect it” (Cherryh). The key signal here is a denial of, or more likely the absence of, an overriding commercial expectation about her craft. Much of science fiction and fantasy literature is highly commercial—pulp, in one manner of speaking, or hack work: product for the hungry popular culture.
This is one of the key charges against the genre, that it is “sub-literature” or in some way of a different nature than so-called mainstream literature, the kind without fantastic elements. That Cherryh has so consistently through her long career written prose that is thoughtful and at times experimental is a sign of her strong commitment to the literary aspect of her writing.
...Conventions, Fans, and Sundries
Early in her writing career, Cherryh devoted herself to the convention circuit. For readers not familiar with such conventions, some description is in order. Where Stein held forth in her salon in Paris to the literary lights of her era, writers of fantastic literature are called forth to serve as guests (and singularly, as Guests of Honor) at gatherings of fans of the genre.
Ranging in size from dozens, to hundreds, to even thousands of participants, these conventions are held throughout the United States and around the world. On almost every weekend of the year one or more conventions are being held, typically in hotels known for more ordinary conferences. Guest writers hold forth as panelists and speakers, sign autographs, and participate in various other activities. Naturally, books are sold at such events, too.
Not a salon gathering, exactly, yet the very same activities occur—deep thought about the direction of the genre, comparisons between authors and their works, and for working writers, a chance not only to speak with fans but to network with other writers and professionals in their field. Cherry would like to see such conventions regain what she sees as a vital place in the intellectual process that is science fiction:
Cherryh commits an unusual amount of time to such salon-style activities, and she has done so since the very beginning of her writing career. There is not much direct commercial benefit to be had from such visits. In fact, when discussing her writing schedule, such visits are described as obstacles.
…Writing the Good Stuff
One way of thinking about the history of science fiction is to divide it into two piles: the “good stuff,” and the “other stuff.” Generally this view is informed by an assessment of both quality and purpose—the “good stuff” is, well, good. Readable, engaging, high quality, imaginative and thoughtful are adjectives that go along with this definition. The good stuff is of course commercial to some degree—otherwise it wouldn’t have seen print—but on a cost/benefit basis, it may or may not be an activity that leads one to a safe and secure retirement at the end of a working life.
The “other stuff” is typically not so good, by at least some measures. Hack work, trash, pulp, imitative, and dull are adjectives that go along with this definition. The “other stuff” is commercial by definition, product intended to sell quickly and end up in someone’s pocket or not and to be returned quickly, destined for the great recycler in the sky.
Of course, part of appreciating science fiction and fantasy is appreciating the “other stuff” for what it is. If nothing else, reading it leads one to many fascinating revelations about popular culture, and what such works say about the culture that produces and supports such material. In short, it can’t all be good—if it were, how would we know the difference?
When asked about trends in the field, Cherryh said:
Cherryh’s devotion to the craft she practices is clear. Trends do not define her work, as one might expect of someone who transcends or at the very least pushes at the confines of the genres in which she writes. The New Wave, as a movement, does not exactly fit, as part of Gunn’s definition includes such writers being “disposed to disregard, resent, or react against the kind of science fiction that had been published earlier” (Gunn 3: xxv). Cyberpunk, for example, came and went during the confines of her writing career to date. None of her work is representative of that energetic, enjoyable, but ultimately short-lived spurt of science fiction.
“I haven’t done anything on dinosaurs yet—one of my passions; and I haven’t done any historical [novels] yet—I bog down packing in historical detail; so I suppose I’ll just get along as always, absorbing everything that interests me and coughing it up as SF stories” (Cherryh). How long might it take for Cherryh to fulfill one or more of these interests? Her current project list is daunting, leaving little time for expression of these ideas. In short: fans, don’t hold your breath.
Historically, Cherryh has rarely ventured outside of traditional text as a means of expression. Gate Of Ivrel was made, in part, into a graphic novel. She and business partner Jane Fancher toy with the possibility of finishing that project for online distribution—but there are always book projects waiting for attention. Once a game manufacturer created a board game out of the strategic situation presented in her company war novels, and Cherryh contributed background material for the rules set. Of other ventures, such as cinematic versions of any of her work, there is not a word.
The internet might serve as a venue for new “magic cookie” fiction, but “alas, the age of the magic cookie book is pretty well past, unless I write something strictly for the internet—which I’ve thought of doing, but again, never have the time for” (Cherryh).
One thing is certain: barring unforeseen circumstances, this prolific author, who publishes better than two books a year on average, will continue to contribute to the world of fiction for some time to come.