Q&A with James Van Pelt

James Van Pelt has been contributing to Analog since 1997, and tearing through our pages since thirty years earlier! His seventeenth story for us, “Minerva Girls” [on sale now] is a coming-of-age (or perhaps coming-of-space-age!) tale about three inventive friends who just know that they’ve got what it takes to visit the Moon. Read on to learn more about James’ history as a writer, his process and inspirations, and the least comfortable he’s ever been conducting research for a story.


Analog Editor: What is the story behind this piece?

JVP: Most stories for me come from a collision of thoughts. This one started with the earliest series I read in the ’60s, the Tom Swift books that instilled a love of super-science stories, which I define as tales where the science is big and backyard. The idea that the amateur inventor could create marvelous devices in their basement workshop fascinated me. I’d never written one, though. At the same time, I’d been thinking about my three sisters, and their friendship. It wasn’t too long before I’d transformed my sisters into the Minerva Girls: three best friends who are smarter than the limits the world wants to impress upon them.

AE: What is your history with Analog? 

JVP: I started reading Analog in the mid 1960s. I remember going into the junior high library every week to see if the latest issue had come in. I had a weak understanding of “monthly.” Also, it didn’t occur to me I could subscribe to the magazine myself! I wish I could remember the first issue I read—all the covers look familiar—but I do remember being particularly struck with the July ’68 issue that featured Dean McLaughlin’s “Hawk Among the Sparrows.” It combined two of my obsessions: time travel and WWI aviation.

Analog introduced me to dozens of new authors, thrilled me with stories of the impossible (so far!), and allowed me to become an explorer or adventurer or inventor or scientist. In grade school, one of my teachers put up a bulletin board about literature. The board’s main message was “Reading: Your Ticket to Other Worlds.” Analog gave me those tickets, literally.

My own writing as I neared my 30s, though, tended toward fantasy. I didn’t think I’d ever write a story that could land on the pages John W. Campbell had consecrated for me in junior high. However, every once in a while I’d write something with a science fictional leaning that I’d send to Stan Schmidt, who became the editor in 1978. In 1997, he finally bought one, “The Big One.” I met Stan at WorldCon the next year for lunch. He set me up with Jay Kay Klein for a photograph. I asked Stan why he wanted the photograph, and he said, “When we buy your next piece, I’ll need it for your biolog.”

I laughed to myself at the time. Lightning surely could not strike twice, but he did buy more stories from me. When Stan retired, Trevor replaced him and continued to like my work. “Minerva Girls” will be my 17th appearance in the magazine.

AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?

JVP: I’ve been a reader for as long as I can remember, and I started as a science fiction fan. Every book in the children’s section of our library with a rocket ship or atom symbol on the spine attracted me. At first, authors didn’t matter. If it was science fiction, that’s what I read, but two early authors stood out, Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein. For each, a single book lit me up, turned me onto the rest of their work, and compelled me to write.

For Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles hooked me. If you haven’t read any Bradbury for a while, you should revisit him. Of course his stories were awesome. “The Silent Towns” made me laugh. “Way Up in the Middle of the Air” introduced me to racism. “Usher II” scared me (and made me reread Edgar Allan Poe). “The Long Years” brought me to tears, and “There Will Come Soft Rains” showed me pathos in the unhuman. But just as important as his stories was his language. No one writes like Bradbury. I often think of how Bradbury sounds out loud when I’m writing.

For Heinlein, The Green Hills of Earth stands out. I know, most people talk about his novels, and I certainly enjoyed Starship Troopers and The Puppet Masters among others, but his short story collection impressed me most, starting with the title piece. I tried writing poetry after reading about “Noisy” Rhysling, the blind and profane song-writer of the space ways. Not all the stories stand up as well to my adult self as they did to my young teenage self, but “The Long Watch” is still strong, and Heinlein’s confident protagonists and prose inspired me to tell my own stories.

AE: What is your process?

JVP: I love process questions because they are so interesting, and so unhelpful at the same time. Dalton Trumbo wrote screenplays while in his bathtub. Vladimir Nabokov composed on index cards. Victor Hugo wrote naked. If you really want a deep dive into process, look at Mason Currey’s book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.

So, with the premise in mind that everyone’s process works for them but may not be transferable to anyone else, here’s how I go about the odd ritual of turning a blank page into a story of made-up people doing imaginary things in worlds that don’t exist.

I discovered about myself very early that I’m at my core lazy. There’s no task that I can’t put off to another day, including writing. This came home to me in the years after I finished my masters degree in creative writing at U.C. Davis in 1990. I knew that I wanted to write, and I was even doing some writing and selling of stories, but I did so little! Weeks would go by where I didn’t write anything. At the end of the year, I would total up how much writing I did. Inevitably, I would be disappointed. Isaac Asimov claimed that he wrote eight hours a day (the libraries full of his titles show he wasn’t lying). I couldn’t do the eight-hour routine, but I heard that Stephen King did a thousand words a day. That didn’t seem tough. A thousand words is about four pages, double spaced. If I’m on a roll, a thousand words takes an hour. Surely I could devote an hour a day to doing what I so desperately wanted to do.

Sadly, I CAN do a thousand words an hour, but I’m not always on a roll. Sometimes a thousand words takes four hours. In the evening, when I sat down to write, after teaching high school English all day, I often couldn’t make it to a thousand words. Pretty soon, if I thought I didn’t have the time or energy for my four pages, I wouldn’t write at all. “Why bother,” I thought. “I won’t make my goal.”

This went on for nine years. I would get to the end of my year, add up my writing total, and be disappointed. The Stephen King goal said I should reach 365,000 words. I was never over 50,000.

In 1999, I looked at my total toward the end of the year, and I was at 35,000 words. This disheartened me so much that I decided I needed to look at my goal. Maybe it was unreachable, so I asked myself what would make me happy. Would writing twice as much as I did that year make me happy? Well, it would be way better than what I’d accomplished, so I did the math. Writing 70,000 words in a year meant I’d have to average about 200 words a day. Less than a page a day. But I couldn’t miss a day.

I sat down at my computer on that late November, 1999 day and wrote 200 words. I haven’t missed a day since.

That’s my process. All the other stuff, like research, reading my stories out loud to hear the rhythms, making sure I make multiple appeals to the senses on each page, and always trying to have something unique on each page, fall away to the mainstay of my process: Respect the streak. Write every day.

That’s what works for me.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

JVP: For me writer’s block is like any other block: it’s a lack of momentum. I’m a lifetime runner, but despite years of running as a habit, I will sit on the couch by the front door with my running shoes on, not moving. Mentally I’ll be listing reasons why I don’t want to run that day: It’s too hot! I’m sore! There’s a wind! Whatever. What I have to do when that happens is to get out the door and run the first few steps. Once I start going, I can keep going. Writing is like that. I deal with writer’s block by forcing myself to write even if that means writing in a journal about why I can’t write. Eventually I’ll find my way back into the story.


“All the other stuff, like research, reading my stories out loud to hear the rhythms, making sure I make multiple appeals to the senses on each page, and always trying to have something unique on each page, fall away to the mainstay of my process: Respect the streak. Write every day. That’s what works for me.”


 

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

JVP: I’m mostly a short story writer, and since I never miss a day writing, I’m always working on the next story. In November, Fairwood Press will be releasing a huge collection of my stories, The Best of James Van Pelt, so there has been a fair amount of effort this summer putting that together.

AE: What is the weirdest research rabbit-hole that working on a story has led you down?

JVP: Nicely worded question! Research is surely a rabbit-hole. For some writers, research can become the great time-killer. I know it is for me. Most of my stories generate folders of research much thicker than the story itself. Often I want to know things that are hard to find out. I called my doctor once to ask if a person inflicted with bone cancer might have to have both legs amputated. He became very concerned and launched into questions about my symptoms. It took a while to make it clear that I didn’t have symptoms. I was researching a story.

I bought a dozen blues CDs to research a story that involved the blues. I had to explain to my wife why blues research was important enough to blow our budget for the month.

Most story-vital questions are like that: What did a German soldier during WWI eat in the trenches? How fast does an orbiting one-mile in diameter cylinder have to spin to create Earth-normal gravity on the inner surface? How do wolves communicate their moods through body language, and what are the human equivalents?

The research question that turned out to be the most delicate, however, involved writing about contemporary teenagers. I recently retired from teaching high school, so you might think this would be easy for me, but the question that started me down the rabbit hole is that I wanted to know what was the 2020 version of the 1960s question, “Do you want to go to the drive-in?” In 1965, when a boy asked a girl that question, it was straight-forward code for “Do you want to make out?” No drive-ins in 2020, though. As clueless as I am, I know that “Do you want to Netflix and chill?” is already dated. What’s the new code? 

There’s no socially acceptable way for a teacher in his sixties to ask a seventeen-year old that question. I eventually received some answers, but I’ve never been less comfortable doing research in my entire career. 

AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?

JVP: The SFnal universe that looked most attractive to me exists in the 2015 movie Tomorrowland. I loved the hopeful underpinning in that film as Britt Robertson’s character and George Clooney’s character worked against a dystopic future. The line that encompasses all of its themes comes when Britt follows a group of young adults who are going somewhere twenty lightyears away. The group exudes happiness and enthusiasm about being alive. Before they leave on a hoverail, the last traveler turns and appears to say to Britt, “Come on. We saved a seat just for you.”

Britt’s disappointment at being snapped out of Tomorrowland mirrored my own. I’d go back in an instant.

AE: What careers have you had and how do they affect your writing?

JVP: I taught high school English for thirty-seven years. The impact on my writing from teaching has been profound.

First, they say you should write about what you know. That’s not a particularly helpful piece of advice since it appears to limit writers to just their own experiences. I prefer, “Write what you think about,” or “Write what you know and find out about the rest.” Still, I have been watching teachers and students most of my life. I’ve written often about schools, teaching, learning, and being a young adult.

Second, teaching English meant that I spent most of my time thinking about writing and reading. All that effort surely spilled over into my writing!

And third, high schools are intense places where character, emotion, conflict, and story are happening constantly. On any day, dozens of tragedies and comedies played out around me. Lots of heroes. No real villains. Courage, cowardice, nobility and craven self-interest springing up everywhere; in the teachers’ lounge, in the classrooms, and in the hallways. A high school presents itself as a perfect laboratory of humanity.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

JVP: I have a website at www.jamesvanpelt.com where I post news irregularly. More often I’m on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/james.vanpelt.14. I also post stories for free at www.curiousfictions.com.


James Van Pelt is a full-time writer in western Colorado. His work has appeared in many science fiction and fantasy magazines and anthologies. He’s been a finalist for a Nebula Award and been reprinted in several year’s best collections. His first Young Adult novel, Pandora’s Gun, was released from Fairwood Press in August of 2015. His latest collection, The Experience Arcade and Other Stories was released at the World Fantasy Convention in 2017. His next book, The Best of James Van Pelt, will come out in November. 

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