Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Interview: Time, Space
and Mark Tiedemann

by Russell Gifford
2004, Russell Gifford


When Jeffrey Carver, Jack McDevitt, Allen Steele and David Brin write blurbs for your first novels, you know the work inside must be good. Equally important, you know it must be good SF. Mark Tiedemann is a journeyman writer, with a solid history of short story sales before he embarked on the Isaac Asimov's Robot City novels. Mirage, Chimera, and Aurora were published by iBooks in 2000, 2001, and 2002, and are currently being republished in mass market paperback now.

Also in 2001, he published the acclaimed trade paperback novel Compass Reach for Meisha Merlin Publishing. The story earned him a nomination for the Philip K. Dick Award for 2001, and has generated two more novels in the Secantis universe, Metal of Night, and Peace & Memory. (Unabashed plug - read this interview, then go to www.meishamerlin.com and order all three. You'll get a great deal, and a great read!) 

For up to date information about his publications and appearances, visit Mark Tiedemann's web site at http://www.marktiedemann.com.

Vision caught up with Mark Tiedemann at home, shortly after his Guest of Honor appearance at the Chattanooga SF convention in January. 

Vision: Where did you get your start in writing? What was your first sale, and when? Was it a dedicated effort, made after many tries, or something sent in on a whim and simply the first of your many sales? 

Mark: Emulating comics as a kid.  I used to draw all the time and as I grew older I began putting stories to my illustrations.  I think I really wanted to make movies, but this was as close as I could get.  My first sale came in 1982, I believe, to Space & Time magazine.  I spent far more than the fee buying the original illustrations!  

Oh, I became serious about getting published a year or so before, when my companion, Donna, suggested I could sell my stories.  I turned it into a daily ritual and did the rounds of all the major magazines.  We had begun making jokes about wallpapering the apartment with rejection slips when Gordon Linzner accepted a story.  That sale just whetted my appetite.

Vision: You've sold to most of the short story SF magazines of the last 20 years, including Asimov's, SF&F, and Science Fiction Age. What is your preferred genre? (Assuming it is SF) The page in Compass Reach reads like a who's who in today's SF/Fantasy genre! Who do you credit as your major influences?  

Mark: I prefer science fiction.  Most kinds.  I'm old enough to be part of the generation that lived and died by the periodicals.  They were beginning to decline when I discovered them, but I remember getting Galaxy, The Worlds of IF, Venture SF, Vertex, as well as Analog, F & SF, and Amazing.  Admittedly, when I started reading novels, the short fiction kind of faded for me.  By high school I'd pretty much stopped reading the magazines. 

But I caught the reading flu around nine or ten and my mother still had a trunk full of her Doubleday Book Club books.  So I cut my teeth on a lot of mainstream writers few people talk about today.  Costain, Yerby, Marshall, Slaughter.  So for me, there was an overlap of genre from an early age.  I was very much an omnivorous reader then.  When I started really getting into SF, I found myself looking for the same level of -- I wouldn't call it craft; maybe immersion is the word, which is a consequence of good writing.  So early on I embraced people like Zelazny, Pangborn, Asimov, Moore. 

The book that made me want to actually write science fiction was Asimov's Foundation series.  I thought "This is the real thing!  This is what I want to find in a story!"  It took a long time before that came to fruition. 

Lately, I've been getting back to an omnivorous diet of reading.  As long as the writing is good, I don't care what the genre is so much.

Vision: What do you think makes good science fiction today? Or: DO you feel science fiction today IS good?

Mark: In some ways, SF today is better than it has ever been.  The stories feel better-realized, the scope of imagination is richer, and the characterization is by far the best it has ever been.  The bar has steadily raised since Campbell took over Astounding back in 1938 and has culminated in works of luxurious depth and marvelous detail.  It has always been true that the best material is about what people will go through in the face of the various unknowns SF explores, but the range has been extended.  The ways in which the challenges of new science, new discovery, and new history work through people have multiplied to include every possible human attribute.   

The primary strength SF claims for its aesthetic is the evocation of Sense of Wonder.  That's still true, but more and more it's combined now with the evocation of all the other human emotions -- those things other genres have based their aesthetic potentials on and which SF through a good portion of its history underplayed.   When you run across a novel like Kelley Eskridge's Solitaire or Jamil Nasir's Distance Haze or Carter Scholz's Radiance you can't help but think we're in a terrific period of really great writing. 

So, yeah, I think SF is good today.  It is very good today. 

On the other hand, I see a lot of SF that has embraced the jargon of the genre so much that it leaves inexperienced readers behind.  Or outside.  The stories are often being written for the benefit of other SF writers and the dedicated fan at the expense of leaving a little room for a new reader to find a way through the text.  The writing is still technically good, but it's specialized way too much. 

What has always made SF good, though, hasn't changed: it is potential to ask complex questions and tackle philosophical issues in ways that are beyond mere theory.  Science fiction has always had the ability to act as a test bed for new ideas.  We build our models -- testing a new way to see mind-body dualism or the problem of Other Minds or the moral problems of genuine biological improvement or the economic questions that arise out of a post-scarcity civilization -- wind up the Cartesian clockworks, so to speak, and see how these ideas play out through "real" people, namely the characters.

Vision: Tell us about the Asimov Robot books - that seems like quite a project. How did it come about? Assuming you are "of a certain age," you remember a time when Asimov nearly defined science fiction to most of the country.   How does it feel to be in the driver's seat for the expansion of such a key part of SF history? Can you share any moments of excitement (or panic!) on the creation/extension of these works?

Mark: Quite literally, I was in the right place at the right time.  The Robot Mysteries are based on the Robot City universe created by Asimov in the '80s.  This was the last contract open in that milieu and Byron Preiss was looking for someone to write the material.  I had to "audition" for the job, which led later to the publication of my own novel, Realtime  

It was less intimidating than I expected.  I grew up reading Asimov, the universe was familiar to me, and the idea of using the Three Laws in what became essentially "locked room" mysteries seemed a natural fit.  

The best part of it came during the writing of the last volume, Aurora, when I realized that I had a chance to comment on one of the central mysteries of the whole Asimovian construct.  What became of the Spacers and, more importantly, Why?  The problem I saw with the Three Laws is that there is no criteria set forth on what is meant by Human.  Asimov had no aliens in his universes so that small problem was sidestepped.  But with the advent of genetic alteration and advanced cybernetic prosthetics, what definition of Human are all these robots using?  Clearly, Asimov used a biological definition.  But the Spacers had changed themselves and, in the case of the Solarians, were continuing to change -- so on what basis do the Three Laws maintain?  I gave an answer, which I won't spoil here, that I think is a direct response to the dilemma Asimov set up.  I have to say, that was exhilarating. 

Vision: Your scenes are VERY clearly painted, almost like a picture. Readers can see the trash on the floor and the graffiti on the walls, yet it never overwhelms. The action and the situation flow from the picture into the moment for you. Is that a result of your years of photography?

Mark: Probably.  But I've always read with a motion picture screen running in my imagination.  When I was a kid I'd play games with new books, casting actors in the various parts as if I were watching a film.  I've always been strongly visual in my approach to, well, everything.  As I said, I drew comics as a child.  Photography came naturally to me.  Getting the action right, getting the scene right, I think, is vital to the writer's craft.  Stories from which the visual elements are difficult to imagine fail for me.

Vision: Speaking about photography....(smile) which do you prefer - digital or film? Darkroom or computer? How deep into photography are you, and how do you feel it affects your writing?  

Mark: I started doing my own darkroom work when I was fifteen.  Maybe that suggests my preference.  I'm of the Edward Weston/Ansel Adams school of printmaking.  I honestly haven't even looked at a Photoshop program, although it's becoming increasingly clear that this is how the future will be. 

I am a very serious photographer.  I've made my living at it for thirty years, in the lab, the studio, and for a short while in retail.  It has affected my writing as I indicated above by enhancing my visual sense.  But also, I'm very much an advocate of black & white, which I think goes directly to writing in that it enforces an appreciation of composition, texture, and form which color very often obscures.  It makes you see what is important more clearly and this translates to writing very well. 

Vision: 1999 or 2000 seems to have been a breakthrough for you. You wrote sold short fiction for 17 years, then your chapbook comes out from Yard Dog Press, you get the Robot City series from iBooks, and Meisha Merlin bought Compass Reach. What happened that it all seems to have come together at once? Had you been writing novels all along? Was there a big change that made it all come together at that one moment?

 

Mark: Momentum.  When I talk to students or people who aspire to being a writer, the question that always comes up is "What's the most important thing?"  They expect some advice about the art.  And that is important, but it's something that is always in need of improvement, in need of practice, in need of honing.  You do that whether you're trying to publish or not.  Journal writing requires improvement. 

But what they want to know -- and often don't ask -- is what does it take to Get Published.  Beyond basic storytelling skills and a professional approach to the manuscript and polish, the key thing is Persistence.  The people who never make are those who stop trying.  Some people never get the hang of how to write for publication.  But there are many who can write perfectly well but won't tolerate the rejections.   

As for that particular year, well, the Robot Books I explained.  The Secantis Sequence has been making the rounds for a long time.  When Stephen Pagel began Meisha Merlin, he remembered the books from his days at another publishing house.  Phone calls were made. 

But, yes, I'd been writing novels all along.  I had them ready.

Vision: Now - to Compass Reach and the beginning of the Secantis Sequence. When did you first conceive of the story, and the series?

Mark: The series emerged from an amalgam of short story ideas that never quite worked.  They were better suited to novel-length treatment.  I had been trying to come up with a plot for my first novel the year I decided to apply to Clarion Writer's Workshop.  The one element that anchored it was my decision to write about people you almost never think about -- the poor, the disenfranchised.  A lot of writers have touched on the subject, but I didn't recall one at novel length.  So the idea of the interstellar hobo emerged.  I wrote the opening scenario, let it lie for a while until another idea joined it. 

Then the problem of telepathy teased at me.  I don't really buy telepathy, but it's a useful conceit in SF.  One of the main sources of a rich thematic material has always been the question of Other Minds.  Bit by bit the story of the first contact between humans and aliens came together around the use of telepaths as interpreters -- with, of course, disastrous results.  At some point, this merged with the hobo, and Compass Reach took shape. 

Once I had the background universe -- the Pan Humana, the Seven Reaches, the Commonwealth Republic -- other stories developed.  There are several short stories (including one about that disastrous summit between the telepaths and the aliens, called Texture of Other Ways) and more sketches for novels. 

It's a very versatile story-generating machine and I can't see any real limits. 

Vision: Along with the earlier chapbook at Yard Dog Press, we hear there's something new coming on that front. Can you illuminate just what a "Double Dog" is, and what your part of that will be?

Mark: The "Double Dogs" are like the old Ace Doubles -- two short novels published back to back in one binding.  I've written a space opera that takes apart the notion of the interstellar empire, but I've done it as a kind of homage to Jack Vance and Poul Anderson, two of the greatest space opera composers.  Of Stars and Shadows will be in one of the first couple Double Dogs. 

Vision: Any other hobbies or passions besides Donna, SF and photography that you'd like to talk about?

Mark: Music.  I'm woefully out of practice, but I play keyboard and guitar, and I compose.  I've written some pieces based on SF stories.  The first one of these I did because the title was too hard to pass up -- Blues for a Red Planet, based on Allen Steele's short story.  It's okay, he's heard the piece and given it his blessing.  So I thought it would be fun to do a series of them.  Usually I do them for friends -- I've done one for Nicola Griffith, one for Kelley Eskridge, and one for Laurell Hamilton -- but I've done some "incidental music" for my own work.  I'm hoping that some time in the next couple of years I'll get the opportunity to record them and produce a CD.  

Vision: Any other things you'd like to share, like the secret to selling lots of short fiction to lots of different magazines, or how you broke into the New York Times Review of SF? Perhaps the secret to sustaining a long term relationship - you and Donna have been together for over twenty years now? (Feel free to add anything you'd like here!)

Mark: Donna and I have been together for (by the time this is published) 24 years.  She likes to read, she likes SF, and she really likes me.  Secrets?  Hm.  Only one observation that came to us in time to keep us together.  Relationships are hard to keep together and relationships with artists seem particularly so.  We realized that one reason for this is the level of obsessive commitment the artist has -- has to have -- to a given craft to be successful.  It is, in fact, a complete relationship all on its own.  It's much more than just a job.  It's much more like having a three-way partnership.  The art is, at least in its impact on the artist, very like another person. 

Now, realizing this, some people might still choose to break up.  But if you don't realize this, the stress on the relationship doubles because you end disregarding the true nature of the relationship. 

I'm sure there are couples who find a way to manage this without going through this particular process of discovery.  But the reverse seems to be more the case. 

Donna is my first reader, my first editor, the person I talk stories over with, the person who helps me at every stage of the process.  I'd go so far as to say she's more of a collaborator.  She doesn't do any of the writing, but the writing wouldn't be as good as it is without her input. 

Besides -- we really like each other (which I sometimes think is more important that love: love is the reason, like is the glue).

Vision: Congratulations on all your successes, and we look forward to many more great stories. Thank you for your time!

Mark: Thank you.