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Interview: Alan Dean Foster on Predators I Have Known

Alan Dean Foster and Friend

Born in New York City in 1946, Foster was raised in Los Angeles. After receiving a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and a Master of Fine Arts in Cinema from UCLA (1968, l969) he spent two years as a copywriter for a small Studio City, Calif. advertising and public relations firm.

His writing career began when August Derleth bought a long Lovecraftian letter of Foster’s in 1968 and much to Foster’s surprise, published it as a short story in Derleth’s bi-annual magazine The Arkham Collector. Sales of short fiction to other magazines followed. His first attempt at a novel, The Tar-Aiym Krang, was bought by Betty Ballantine and published by Ballantine Books in 1972. It incorporates a number of suggestions from famed SF editor John W. Campbell.

Since then, Foster’s sometimes humorous, occasionally poignant, but always entertaining short fiction has appeared in all the major SF magazines as well as in original anthologies and several “Best of the Year” compendiums. His published oeurve includes more than 100 books.


John Ottinger: Where did your interest in animals come from?

Alan Dean Foster: Like many authors, I learned to read very early. By the time I was five, my parents were buying me books called the Golden Nature Guides. These were small paperbound volumes each of which focused on one aspect of nature: trees, insects, flowers, and so on. The language was scientifically accurate but simple enough for a child to manage, and the illustrations were beautiful. I was enthralled from the first volume. I’m still enthralled.

JO: How did you educate yourself about the animals in Predators I Have Known?

ADF: I always do research before taking a trip, whether it’s to London or Borneo. I like to have an idea of what I’m getting into and what I’m likely to encounter. Being a non-specialist, I can’t keep track of everything, but I can acquire a general idea of what I’m likely to see. That also leaves room for plenty of surprises. Tiger leeches, for example.

JO: How did you keep a record of all your adventures?

ADF: At first I shot 8mm film, then when it became available, video. I think it’s important to have a record of movement as well as simple still images. Plus, video allows you to record audio, which is more important for recalling ambiance than many people might think. I also keep a short journal for jotting down names, statistics, and the occasional scene I can’t capture on video.

JO: Have you ever regretted any of these encounters?

ADF: Not one. Everything is an experience (yes, including the leeches). I did acquire a fine case of ameobic dysentery while rafting down the Zambezi, but that was an encounter that was as unavoidable as it was unsought. The only real encounters I regret are the ones I didn’t have.

JO: From your book it’s obvious you have a love for Chuck Jones’ animation. Did his work inspire you to explore/learn about wildlife?

ADF: A question no one has ever asked me. When I was growing up in Los Angeles, Jones’s work certainly juiced my interest in the ecology of the American Southwest. What’s funny is that for the last thirty years we’ve lived in central Arizona, and especially in warmer weather I see coyotes and roadrunners in my neighborhood on a weekly basis. The coyotes aren’t at all interested in the roadrunners, however. Too strong and too quick. There are so many rabbits that the coyotes don’t even have to hunt. They just stand in the road and wait for the cottontails to run into them.

JO: Are you currently involved with any conservation groups?

ADF: I belong to the Coral Reef Alliance, and a local Prescott-area group that focuses on keeping riparian habitats flourishing.

JO: Will any of the proceeds from your book go toward conservation?

ADF: Probably. I’m waiting to see what materializes in the way of proceeds. I’d like nothing better than to spread some money around.

JO: I’m actually a bit of a world traveler myself, even living for a time in Slovakia, so I have a definite method for preparing for a trip. How do you prepare for a trip/how do you pack?

ADF: Nice country, Slovakia. Easy day trip from Vienna.

Unless I’m traveling to a cold clime that requires heavy clothing, or unless I’m traveling with scuba gear, I pack only a rollabout carry-on bag. Mine (Eagle Creek) has a zip-off backpack attached to it, and both it and the main bag have backpack straps. You want as much versatility as possible. New cameras (including video) are so compact you no longer need a camera bag. New video cameras can record to built-in hard drives or flash drives, which eliminates the need to pack tapes or blank DVD’s.

Two weeks before departing I start laying out, on the floor, everything I plan to take. That way I can visualize how much room I’ll need in my pack. I can also see where I have room for extras and where I might need to cut and leave something behind. As departure time nears, I’ll begin winnowing things down. I always include imodium, aspirin, a small battery-powered electric toothbrush, a box of breakfast bars (emergency rations), a couple of rolls of lifesavers (instant energy), extra batteries, a compact lightweight flashlight , foldable rain poncho…nothing exotic. Anything large that I might need two of, I plan to buy the extra on site as needed.

JO: Does Joann always know where you are going or what you planned to do?

ADF: She knows where I’m going, generally. “Hi Hon…I’ll be in Brazil for a month.” She no longer bothers asking for specifics because I’m not sure exactly where I’m going to be myself from day to day. She also doesn’t ask what I’m going to do because a) She already has a pretty good idea from previous trips and b) She often would rather not know because, as she says, I sometimes do “stupid things”.

JO: What places do you still hope to go that you have not been?

ADF: So many. Tibet, Siberia, deep Indochina, Columbia, the Sahara, the Middle East…and especially the Chagos Archipeligo. And let’s not forget Paris.

JO: What has been your favorite place overall?

ADF: For culture and history; Prague, London, St. Petersburg, Rome, Istanbul. For diving, Papua New Guinea and the Galapagoes. For animals, the Pantanal in Brazil, Manu National Park in Peru, Kruger in South Africa and anywhere in Tanzania. For sheer color and human spectacle, northern India. For food, New Orleans.

JO: Any future plans to write about your trips to “civilized destinations”?

ADF: That’s up to publishers. I’ve written a fair number of travel articles. It’s all to do with time. And maybe also a book about encounters with non-dangerous animals.

JO: Did you travel much as a youngster? If so, where to?

ADF: Interestingly, no. My parents were very much homebodies. My father got enough of traveling in five years of being shuttled around the globe in WWII. When Germany surrendered, they promptly sent him to the Philippines.

JO: Do you have children? If so, have they travelled with you? If you do, would you let them do what you have done, knowing what you know now?

ADF: No, but if I did, I’d certainly let them do the same things. For their respective bar-mitzvahs, I took my two nephews to, respectively, Hawaii to go diving and Costa Rica to go white-white rafting and jungle trekking. They loved it all.

JO: What has your life journey taught you?

ADF: People are basically the same everywhere. They want enough to eat, to be able to speak their minds, and to have a better life for their kids. That’s the cake of life. The rest is all icing, and often nonsense.

You can’t talk politics to a hungry man.

JO: Who has most influenced you, in writing, but also in your life/worldview?

ADF: Carl Barks, who created Uncle Scrooge and who wrote and drew all the great Scrooge and Donald Duck comics. There’s more real life in those books than in your average thick and impenetrable philosophy tome. The British writer Eric Frank Russell, who first introduced me to the notion of unified ecology…and who could be funny as hell. Robert Sheckley, whose writing was like a continuous Fourth-of-July celebration. Fireworks everywhere, all the time. Herman Melville, who could also be funny, but whose musings on morality and mortality made me pause and think.

JO: What is your writing routine?

ADF: I’m usually up and in my study by 7:00. I skim a number of national and international news sites on the web. Then I stare at the computer until something happens. After breaking for lunch, sometimes I’ll work some more in the afternoon. Otherwise I do the shopping or other necessary household chores (my wife suffers from chronic back problems). I go to the local YMCA twice a week to lift weights and play basketball. But in my head, I’m always working, writing.

JO: Where did you develop your sense of humor/irony?

ADF: Some from Barks, some from Russell, some from Sheckley, but mostly from reading and watching the news. I find human behavior unutterably funny. The illogicity of the species is side-splitting. George Carlin and Mort Sahl made careers out of simply pointing out the world around them…not to mention Voltaire and Jonathan Swift and Aristophanes. Nothing’s funnier than what human beings do to themselves.

JO: What do you treat yourself to when you are writing?

ADF: Nothing. I treat myself when I’ve finished writing. That’s when I take my trips. Of course, that involves work as well. It’s like what Donald Trump said when an interviewer asked him what he did for relaxation. “What’s relaxation?” he replied.

JO: Who were you writing Predators I Have Known for, if anyone?

ADF: Over the years a number of fans and friends asked if I would write a travel book. I never could think of an approach sufficient to stimulate me to do it. Eventually I thought, “Everyone likes animal stories.”

JO: What is the best “life advice” you have ever received? Best “writing advice”?

ADF: Life advice from Melville, from Moby Dick. “There are times in every man’s life when he takes his entire universe for some great cosmic joke”. In other words, don’t take yourself too seriously. The galaxy doesn’t care. Writing advice, from the editor John W. Campbell. “Don’t make your hero too powerful. Nobody empathizes with Superman.”

JO: What do you want written as your epitaph? How do you want to be remembered by friends? By your readers?

ADF: Epitaph: “Earth: been there, done that.” I hope my friends will remember me as someone who forgave their trespasses and stood ready to offer help if ever they needed it. As for my readers, I quote Conan Doyle’s introduction to his THE LOST WORLD. “I have done my simple plan, if I give one hour of joy, to the boy who’s half a man, or the man who’s half a boy.” And maybe said something mentally stimulating, now and again.

JO: How do I get invited on one of your next expeditions?

ADF: Fund it.

Thanks to Alan Dean Foster for taking the time to answer these questions, and to my father and brother, for their significant input in writing the majority of the interview questions.