Interview: Rob Chilson

An Interview with Rob Chilson

By: Lazette Gifford 

©2001, Lazette Gifford

Although author Rob Chilson appears regularly at several Midwest conventions I attend -- including ConQuest in Kansas City -- I hadn't actually met him.  However, standing in one of the ubiquitous crowds at WorldCon 2001 in Philadelphia, we started talking.  The conversation, as is apt to happen with authors, turned to writing.  He had intriguing insights into problems facing new writers, and I asked if he would share those thoughts with the readers of Vision.  

Browsing Rob's web site ( gives a fascinating look at the career of a writer. His first publication was "The Mind Reader," (June, 1968 Analog), and his latest is "Talking Monkeys" (April, 2001 Analog). That's more than thirty years in the business of writing.  His bibliography lists seven novels and sixty-four short stories, including several collaborations with friend and fellow author William Wu.


Vision:  You have been publishing for over three decades -- that's a lot of different editors and different trends. Are things better, worse or unchanged for writers since you started publishing? How have the market changes affected your career?  

Rob Chilson:  Things are much worse for beginning writers.  My early stories were terrible, and I doubt if any could be published now, even in ANALOG.  John Campbell, the then editor, wanted stories that showed “some evidence of some thought about something.”  The present editor, Stan Schmidt, also wants that, but Stan and his readers both want better writing than I was doing then.  There isn’t that place “to be bad”, as George Burns said of early vaudeville, for writers.  

It’s also much worse in that publishers now are all conglomerates run by bean-counters, and no one cares much about books -- not at the higher levels.  Not so in the old days.  Ian and Betty Ballantine formed Ballantine Books partly to make a living -- and partly because they loved good books.  Publishers still have the names of book-loving founders -- Kipling described Frank Doubleday as “a large young man,” and wrote approvingly of him.  There are still editors who love books, but they no longer have the freedom to take risks.  In the old days, a Stephen King was good news to mid-list writers and bottom-feeders alike, because one blockbuster on an editor’s list would finance scores of low-earning books by the likes of you and me.  Not so now.  When Carl Sagan accepted $2 million for CONTACT, he slurped up the publisher’s whole budget for fiction for that period -- money that normally would have bought dozens of books from dozens of writers.  

As for the effects on my own career, they have been minimal.  I don’t write a recognizable “product” with a recognizable style or tone -- especially, I don’t write a series.  So I have no reader recognition, and consequently a non-career that isn’t much affected by the markets.  Other writers have overcome a similar handicap, including two of my favorite writers:  Robert Reed and Bradley Denton.  Bob does it by writing a LOT, he writes fast and (unforgivably) very well.  It’s enough to make you consider taking up running.  Brad just does it on quality, since he’s no faster than I am. But of course there’s no money in it for slow writers.  

If there’s no money, how do you survive?  By having a day job, of course. And that can be good news.  I only write what I feel like writing, and I don’t have to hack something out to pay the mortgage.  Many of my stories are so quirky they haven’t been published.  May never be.  

Vision:  Do you have a favorite 'era' during the last 30 years that you considered the best time to be a genre writer?  If so, what made it so good, and what's different now?  

Rob Chilson:  The best time in any field of endeavor is the time when the field is opening up to new possibilities:  in SF, the Golden Age, when John Campbell redefined SF in the late 30s-early 40s; the early 50s, when Boucher, McComas, and Gold did it again; the late 60s-early 70s; and the early 80s (the Cyberpunk era).  Now we’ve assimilated all these fresh streams and floated downstream into the future; the water is getting dull and muddy again.  We tend to rehash the past during such epochs, and they are necessary, so we can consolidate the gains of the revolutions.  But we don’t now have that genre-wide excitement of the new.  (Even people who despise the new stuff are energized by it.  This is a good and healthy thing, and I speak as one who has always been dubious of wild enthusiasms, especially literary ones.)  

Vision:  At WorldCon we discussed a problem new writers have with POV (Point of View) in their stories and why you think they have these problems. I found your reasoning fascinating -- could you reiterate those points for Vision readers?  

Rob Chilson:  I’ve seen this problem repeatedly in WorldCon writers’ workshops, which I’ve been doing for years now.  It’s especially prevalent in media fans who are writing story treatments of their favorite shows, openly or disguised. Essentially they give us a camera’s eye view.  We don’t get into the mind of the character in front of us. Worse, there’s no unified Point Of View; the POV (such as there is) is that of the major series character “on-screen” in each scene.  

Now, if you’ve read much fiction, you know that’s not how it’s done. That’s how a movie script or a play is written; we know only what the characters say and do, not what they think.  A good playwright -- and a good actor -- can give us an astonishing amount.  But they can’t put you, the reader, in the scene.  

I’ll never forget that afternoon on the Hispaniola, with O’Brien dead and stiff on the bloody deck, the sails rustling and the water rippling under the bow (I was raised a thousand miles from the sea), playing a desperate game of tag around the main-mast with Israel Hands, him clutching the knife he’d killed the Irelander with and grinning his murderer’s grin, and me just a boy!  No movie or TV show can give you that.  Video is a cold medium -- print is a hot one.  

And just that sense of being there is exactly what the camera’s eye view POV does not give you.  

The funny thing is that the would-be writers who do this are totally unaware of it until it’s pointed out.  And they are not non-readers!  But neither are they writers, for they have not learned to study the things they read.  Worst of all, not all of them are media fans.  But all watch TV and movies.  People read less, because they can absorb their pulp fiction visually now.  So they are less aware of literary methods.  You must not only write and throw away a million words, as has been said, in learning to write; you must read and think about ten million words.  

Vision: On your web site you list some very simple rules to follow when writing  ( Do you think that there are any rules that you followed when you started writing that might be outdated for today's new writers?  

Rob Chilson:  The major changes have been on the marketing side.  And of course nowadays you can use naughty words and even talk about “grown-up things” which we couldn’t do in SF, and even in mainstream, when I was learning.  Though that had loosened up by the time I started publishing.  So that is a change to our advantage, though we often haven’t used it to good effect.  

But no, writing per se is as always, more art than science.  The rules really don’t change much, maybe because people don’t change much.  As for “experimental” fiction revolutionizing the world, or even fiction, I’ll believe it when I see it adopted in “Archie Comics”.  I mean that -- think about it.  

Vision:  What do you like about writing SF and fantasy -- or any other genre?  

Rob Chilson:  The thing I like best about SF/Fantasy is the readership.  They’re keen -- they’re like hounds on a scent.  You drop a word, a phrase, and they’re on it.  “The door dilated,” as Heinlein famously wrote, and Harlan Ellison instantly knew he wasn’t in Cincinnati any more.  So you don’t have to explain things to them.  You just drop a hint here and a hint there, and the reader puts it together into a picture of the world you’re trying to convey.  Mainstream writers have no such bag of tricks, except at the very top of the literary line, where they use indirection to hint at emotional subtleties.  Self-conscious literature of the sort that’s written by and for professors could make good use of our techniques to present an aberrant picture of the world, one of their main concerns.  

SF is serious about the real world around us, and is aware that it has changed, and I like that.  Most “serious” mainstream novels, especially literary ones, would read the same if all the cars had running boards. They are not aware of the changes in our society in the same way as SF (and when they exhibit any awareness, it’s always negative; no change is for the good).  Fantasy, the real stuff, is aware of our relationship with our myths, and our emotions toward these symbols.  It can point out things other fictions find hard to deal with.  Although with the importation of “magical realism” from our Latino friends (“The good stuff is always foreign,” say the critics), mainstream is opening up in this area.  

Vision: You have done a few collaborations, especially with William Wu. Can you tell us how you worked together, and what you would suggest to others who might want to collaborate on stories?  

Rob Chilson:  Well, Bill & I were lucky, in that we happened to be very compatible.  Not only did we like each other (a plus, but not necessary), but our themes and moods meshed well.  He writes a deceptively simple style, and I also can write with a simple surface.  He’s very good at character depiction (and very economical, he can do more in a phrase than most can in a paragraph), and he taught me much.  We also were lucky in that we shared a house for a year or so then, and often went on long car trips to conventions.  So we had extended opportunities to brainstorm stories.  I generally functioned as idea man, but not always.  Our early stories were old ones I’d failed on, but still thought had potential.  Later we dreamed them up together. One story idea was given to us by Stan Schmidt, who got it from John Campbell.  

Bill and I were operating on about the same level of expertise on writing qua writing -- Bill writing well consistently and me less so.  About then I started collaborating with Lynette Meserole (now Lynette Burrows).  She was at a much lower level then, and was rather in awe of me (that didn’t last).  I remember making a conscious decision never to use my supposedly greater expertise to bulldoze her, which I might have done.  I remember when we were going over our first story, and she hesitantly said that she had a problem with one sentence.  I saw that the sentence was “super-erogatory” and struck it out with one bold swoop of my pencil.  I still cherish my memory of the expression on her face.  She says she learned a lot from me, but I learned as much from her.  (Your words aren’t sacred -- writers have to learn that over and over.)  

Never ignore criticism.  (Obviously if we’re talking reviewers, friends, relatives, etc, you have to make allowances.)  But criticism from fellow writers on any level of expertise, and from casual readers with no emotional investment in your writing -- if they have a problem with something, you must think about it.  Even if you make no changes, be aware that you’re going to lose some of your readers here, and decide if it’s worth it to you.  

On collaboration, you must be compatible in mood and theme, and to a lesser extent in “style” (you should never worry about your style, just tell the story).  You need not share politics or religion, but there must be large areas where you do agree.  You must not dislike each other.  You must be able to trust each other.  (Example:  I had not upgraded, so Bill’s computer wasn’t talking to mine when we did our last collaboration.  He did the last draft, and totally rewrote the ending, sending me a copy on a disk I couldn’t read.  He had told me generally what he’d done, but I never read it till it appeared in print.  I had no problem with that.  Writers, including me, find it easier to trust someone with their money or their spouses than with their words, yet I found I can trust Bill.)  

MOST IMPORTANT:  Listen to everything your collaborator says, especially if he/she has trouble articulating what’s wrong.  Writing at the final level is a verbal process, but composition is a right-brain activity like all other art forms.  It has to be communicated in grunts, but don’t let yourself be fooled -- he/she has surfaced something important.  

Vision:  What are your thoughts on writing groups? Are there any differences between "in person" or on-line groups that you've noticed?  

Rob Chilson:  I’ve never been involved with online groups, so I can’t comment on them. Holly’s site is astonishing, and seems very successful.  An earnest student can learn in almost any environment, and I would have committed serious crimes, when beginning, to be allowed to join something like this.  

I’m still hosting the group Bill, Lynette, and I founded years ago. Perhaps you’d like a few words about it.  First, nobody “runs” the group. We use Clarion rules -- no cross-talk, the writer being critiqued does not answer till the end of ALL critiques unless asked a specific question, etc.  We read MSs for 2-3 hours, and then start critiquing.  We each take a different color pen, sign and date page 1 in our color. and write comments on the MS, mark up typos, etc.  (We also disagree with each other in the margins, sometimes hilariously.)  

Having worked in WorldCon and other convention workshops, and talked to lots of writers, I am aware that there are bad groups out there.  They fall into a couple of main types:  First, the kind dominated by one person, sometimes a published writer, sometimes a large-ego fan, whose word even on critiques is law and nobody disputes it.  With this kind of group, you’re not getting a group’s input, only one person’s.  Second, the kind dominated by wish-fulfillment would-bes who want to be respected as writers without doing the hard work.  If you find yourself in either kind of group, get out.  If you can take some serious writers with you, go for it.  (You will be hated, ostracised, and lied about by the “loyal” members.)  

Vision:  What suggestions would you give to new writers?  

Rob Chilson:  Think of it as a cheap and wonderful hobby, which may eventually bring you money -- even respect!  You can do it with a clipboard and a pen (that’s how I got through high school).  Even if it goes nowhere, even if it is read by nobody but yourself, your writing has value, and will be far more important for you than almost anything else in your life -- I except only your family as more important.  Even if you merely write a journal, even if you write musing, personal essays, your writing is immensely important.  Take it seriously.  

And also take it lightly:  play with it.  

Other advice:  you should use “the little book”, Strunk & White’s ELEMENTS OF STYLE.  Make sure you know how to form the possessive of Charles, and when (and when not) to put the apostrophe in “its”.  (And why did I put the period after the apostrophe in the previous sentence?)  I learned the “its” rule in grammar school, about 3rd or 4th grade.  What’s the plural of TV? (Hint:  TVs, never TV’s -- look it up).   Read Stephen King’s ON WRITING. Read a lot of books on writing, put ‘em on your shelf, go on trying to write.  Next year, read the books again.  

Vision:  You apparently attend a few conventions during the year.  Do you think conventions help with a writer's career? If so, are they equally valuable for beginning writers and established writers? Or are they really just a social event -- a chance to meet with friends and fans?  

Rob Chilson:  All of the above.  

It helps for editors to have a face to put to the MS coming in the mail. It helps for writers to meet or at least see the editors.  It helps for beginning writers to go to panels on writing or the business of writing. And when the beginner starts appearing on panels, assuming he/she is not a total jerk who alienates the audience, it helps to have readers say, “Hmm, he/she sounds knowledgeable (or enthusiastic, or whatever)” or “Hmm, sounds like a good book/story -- must try to find it.”  This last applies to established writers too -- there are always folk out there, especially young ones, to whom you’re not established.  

And of course, writing, even with a collaborator, is a lonely business. It’s just you and the blank slate.  To meet other writers, to meet readers, to meet people who share your craziness -- that alone justifies going to cons.  

Vision:  What do you have coming out that we should look for?  What sort of things do you plan, or hope, to write in the future?  

Rob Chilson:  At the moment, nothing is forthcoming.  I have two projects going and another on the back burner.  One is the “Prime Mondeign” stories, set on Earth 60 million years in the future.  “The Gardiners” on my Web Page, “The Hestwood” referenced in my biblio, are both “Prime Mondeign” stories.  I hope to write a few more stories in this sequence, and then shop them around as a sort-of novel, where the Earth (First World) at that time is the true central character.  

The other project is much more long-range.  It’s an Oz-like series of childrens’ books.  I mean to write all 16 of them in first draft before starting to offer them to publishers.  I’m partway through book 3.  

On the back burner is another novel set in the same background as “Black as Blood”, which is probably my best book.  

Vision:  Thank you for taking this time for this interview.  Any last words you'd like to say to our readers?  

Rob Chilson:  I wish you hadn’t told everybody how long I’ve been doing this, especially me.  I hadn’t realized it’s been so long -- I don’t feel a bit tired, I could go on as long again.  And the good news is, that (if you’re any good at all) you keep on learning and growing all the time.  It never stops. That’s why writers live so long.  --Think of the brilliant Japanese artist Hokusai.  Nearing a hundred, he said, “Nothing that I drew before the age of seventy-five is worth taking into account.”  Save a place for me, Hoke! And I’m nowhere near 75!  

Look for Rob's book

Bookcover with artwork by Charles Keegan

*Cover by Charles Keegan* 

And read an excerpt at his web site