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Interview: Jim Baen (with Toni Weisskopf) by Ernest Lilley
Date: 30 March 2007

Links: SFRevu's Jim Baen Tribute (July, 2006) / Baen Website /

When I think of Jim Baen and his sort of story, I compare him in my mind to Clint Eastwood. They have a similar sense of what they value, and though critics may have started out dismissing them, their works have matured and the value of their visions and the tremendous influence on their industries has gradually been acknowledged. Since Jim died last year, this is the only year he'll be eligible for the new Editor (Long Form) Hugo and we wanted to be sure fans knew more about him than just the sort of story he loved. Toni Weisskopf, who has taken over the reins at Baen helped us out with the answers to some questions about this man who did more than give us the terrific stories of authors from Lois McMaster Bujold to John Ringo, but someone who brought SF publishing kicking and screaming into the future it had dreamed of, but always seemed hesitant to actually dive into. More than an editor or publisher, Jim Baen was a bold pioneer on more than one frontier...and though he left the world better than he found it, we'll miss his hand on tiller.

(Image: Jim Baen with Toni Weisskopf, courtesy Locus)

SFRevu: Since you knew Jim pretty well, we're hoping you can offer us some insight into his formation as an editor. We know he had a passion for publishing stuff he liked, and that he believed in sense of wonder stories whether they were in fashion or not. Can you tell us anything about his early experiences as a reader? Do you know what books he liked when he was young?

Toni Weisskopf: One way to get an idea of the stories that molded Jim is to read The World Turned Upside Down--it's a compilation of the stories that rocked his world, and those that similarly influenced Eric Flint and Dave Drake. I know, too, that Jim really liked a Jim Kjelkaard short novel about a band of early humans discovering fire, originally called Fire-Hunter; we actually published it years later as The Hunter Returns with Dave Drake writing episodes interspersed with the original narrative to flesh it out enough to make a modern-sized paperback. Jim was pleased to be able to use as cover art a Charles R. Knight painting he'd seen in a show; Dave Drake reminds me that the title for our book comes from the title for the painting. Knight was a nature illustrator best known for his work at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Stories by Philip Jose Farmer and Arthur C. Clarke were also early favorites of Jim's. And, of course, Heinlein.

SFRevu: Did Jim ever want to be an author?

Toni: No, I don't think he ever did. He was a great copy writer, but getting copy out of him was like pulling teeth. I think he much preferred leaving the storytelling to the pros. He was offered co-writing credits several times on works he heavily edited, and only took up one author on the offer and that fairly early in his career after much pressure. He really just wanted to be an editor and knew it very early on.

SFRevu: Can you tell us a little about Jim's history in the field? Do you think his first gig as an Ace Gothics editor affect his sense of story?

Toni: Well, it was really just a stepping-stone for him to get into SF at Ace. I'm sure he did learn a good bit about publishing from his time as the romance editor's assistant, but he got out as quickly as he could. Jim also learned a great deal working as managing editor of Galaxy after Judy-Lynn Del Rey left. It was a magazine in trouble when he inherited it (not Judy-Lynn's fault, I should say, but the owners'), and Jim learned a lot about money management and story selection in that cauldron.

SFRevu: What was Jim's role at Tor when it started up? Why did he move on?

Toni: Jim left Ace to start Tor's science fiction line when Tom Doherty left Ace to start Tor. As an independent editor he acquired Tor's first 175 or so SF titles. He moved on because he was given the chance by Simon & Schuster to start his own company, and he took it with Tom's blessing.

SFRevu: You've said that Jim more or less created the current genre of Mil-SF. Of course, he was standing on the shoulders of folks like E.E. "Doc" Smith, Robert Heinlein, and Keith Laumer while he painted on the ceiling...but what did you mean by that?

Toni: To be sure, there was military SF written before there was Jim Baen; what I meant was that Jim refined it as a recognizable subgenre of SF. By publishing Drake and Pournelle and Laumer etc. under one roof, and by identifying the military themes as marketing points, Jim helped refine readers' perceptions of all these works as belonging to the same subgenre.

SFRevu: What was Jim's relationship to the books Baen published? Did he read incoming manuscripts? Did he work directly with authors? What and who had he worked on (and with) in the last few years that he was really excited about?

Toni: Jim did indeed read incoming manuscripts and always had. Most recently he worked closely with Pam Uphoff, our electronic-slush editor, to find new writers. He would then help develop a new author, working on iterations of manuscripts with them, from line edits (and he was a great line editor) to helping them see the big picture. The most successful of these authors in recent years is John Ringo. I think Jim really got a lot out of working with John. Jim's last "discovery" was John Lambshead, a biologist whose first fantasy novel, Lucy's Blade, comes out this summer in July. John worked closely with Jim to develop the characters and storylines and approach. So yes, Jim worked directly with authors. Like Campbell, he would also sometimes throw out an idea to several writers to see what they came up with. Some of that would occur on Baen's Bar, our on-line discussion forum. Jim was a natural citizen of the Net; it was his milieu.

SFRevu: A lot of people and publishers in SF seem to be put off by the very technology they like reading about so much. But not Jim. He gave editors computers when most folks thought they were just good for accounting, hosted chat rooms before they were hot, and pioneered giving away not just chapters, but whole books online. Can you talk a bit about his feelings about technology, and what the results of his pushing Baen into the future have been?

Toni: Jim was a true SF person and always enjoyed computer technology. At Baen's founding we also sold computer games and programs and Jim wrote some of our bestselling programs, including a keyboard program and one adapting the I, Ching for computer. He was also always interested in space technology and kept up with innovations there—you can already see that interest in the articles and editorials in Galaxy. In later years, human sociobiology and genetics took his interest. In The Best of Jim Baen's Universe (June 2007) you'll find a nonfiction article he wrote about the role of death in human evolution. So he wasn't just a science voyeur—he participated.

SFRevu: Is Jim's legacy in Baen's and SF's past or their future?

Toni: Both, I think. Baen Books has always tried to publish the sort of sense of wonder stories that identify the field, new and old. I don't think that will change. And I think many of the authors Jim edited will continue to be a part of the field and in print for a long time and thus will continue to influence readers and writers for a long time.

SFRevu: What would you like people to know about Jim that they might not already be aware of?

Toni: He was a big fan of the Muppet movies....

SFRevu: Thanks for all and any assistance, and belatedly for everything Jim did for the genre.

Our Readers Respond

From: Walt Boyes:
    Thanks for a great set of stories about Jim. I am very hopeful that he'll finally get his Hugo. He deserves it, and he needs to be acknowledged, finally, for what he did to improve the field, and for being a great man. He wasn't always easy to work with, or for, but you always knew where you stood with Jim.
From: Neil Frandsen:
    Jim also had a deft touch, when digging for ideas about Technology! The series of posts, about the Tower of Power, to get moving air really moving in a very, very, tall chimney so as to keep a wind turbine working, were a true hoot! You see, it seems the wind does not have to go UP the Chimney, there are ways to make it come down....
    And Jim got us to look, thoroughly, at both airways!
From: Jason Cordova
    Jim was an amazing man. When I first spoke with him about a novel, he encouraged me to not give up after I received some horrible remarks from readers.

    It was his inspiration that allowed to finally complete my first novel. I owe him a lot.

From: John Lambshead
    I can personally testify that Jim was incredibly supportive to his authors, not just in the strictly professional sense of improving a novel but in a personal sense of inspiring confidence and shoring up battered egos. I would never have written a novel without Jim's encouragement. The last conversation I had with him he finished with 'Ring more often, John.' I wish I could.

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