Professional astronomer David Lee Summers spends his nights assisting scientists on staff bi-weekly at Kitt Peak Observatory near Tucson, Arizona. On his off weeks and daylight hours, he edits and publishes Tales Of The Talisman, a quarterly print magazine of SF, F and Horror. He´s also edited anthologies like Space Pirates and Space Horrors for Flying Pen Press. His seven novels include Owl Dance, The Solar Sea and Vampires Of The Scarlet Order. His short fiction has appeared in anthologies and magazines such as Realms Of Fantasy, Human Tales and 2020 Visions, along with the Full Throttle Space Tales anthology series. He also was the editor who gave me my [Bryan’s] first story sale. His lives with his wife and two daughters in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Find David online at http://t.co/CLubgQwm and http://t.co/7ZFubl99 , also on Facebook and Twitter as @davidleesummers.
SFFWRTCHT: As usual let´s start with the basics: Where did your interest in Science Fiction and Fantasy come from?
David Lee Summers: Watched Star Trek as a kid, then Star Wars came out when I was ten. That hooked me. Watching the original Trek, I noticed the writer credits and started looking them up.
DLS: It’s a wide range – David Gerrold, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein early on. People like John Nichols, Anne Rice, and A. Bertram Chandler also influenced aspects of my writing. Nowadays, people like Ernie Hogan, Richard Harland, and Cherie Priest are big influences.
SFFWRTCHT: When did you start writing seriously and how long until your first sale?
DLS: Wrote as long as I can remember. Became really serious about submitting circa 1991. First small press sale was 1995 to a ‘zine called Story Rules. First pro sale was 2001 to Realms of Fantasy.
SFFWRTCHT: Did you study creative writing at all in school? How´d you learn your craft?
DLS: I didn’t study creative writing at all in school. I learned by reading my favorite writers and seeing what they did. I got better when I started editing. I saw a lot more of what didn’t work in stories and avoided that. All kinds of no-nos I could share. Biggest one is: don’t talk back to an editor!
SFFWRTCHT: Let’s talk a bit about your day job. You’re an astronomer. So you have a science background, correct?
DLS: Yes I got my degree in physics. In grad school, got a bit more interested in telescope engineering.
SFFWRTCHT: So no pressure to get the science correct in your stories then, huh?
DLS: Yeah, when coworkers who are scientists buy your books, better get it at least close!
DLS: My wife and I started what was going to be an audio small press back in 1995 called Hadrosaur Productions. Hadrosaur Tales was going to be an anthology series showcasing the authors. It became a magazine in its own right. We changed the name and format in 2001 to better meet the expectations of the Science Fiction and Fantasy magazine audience.
SFFWRTCHT: What made you want to edit a magazine?
DLS: As I indicated earlier, I didn’t really intend to “edit a magazine” when I started. We took submissions to find stories and authors we might want to work with in audio format. The audio format was abandoned for price (it was 1995/6), but I loved the stories, so kept going! Tales of the Talisman came about when trying to actually “create a magazine.”
SFFWRTCHT: How did you learn to edit? How much does editing help you improve your own writing craft?
DLS: The technical side of editing came from my science work. Few things are edited more rigorously than scientific papers. The process of selection is primarily exercising one’s taste in stories. You develop that by reading lots!
SFFWRTCHT: Talisman has four issues a year. Current issue is horror and you have a steampunk issue coming next right?
DLS: Next issue of Talisman is fantasy. Spring 2012 is steampunk. We’re trying the experiment of themed issues in volume 7 and 8. Before volume 7, issues were a mix of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. And poetry has always been a big part of the magazine. Authors have included Jennifer Brozek, Rick Novy, Jaleta Clegg, Ernest Hogan, Jack Mangan, Richard Harland, Neal Asher and you, to name just a few.
SFFWRTCHT: Speaking of fantasy, what does fantasy allow you to do as a writer that science fiction does not?
DLS: Fantasy is just a different way of looking at the world. Science Fiction is about likelihoods, fantasy about magic. And magic could well be real!
SFFWRTCHT: Where did the idea for The Solar Sea come from?
DLS: Years ago, I was a member of the Planetary Society and one of their newsletters talked about solar sail designs. The idea of a solar sail caught my imagination and I wanted to write a book about exploring the solar system with one.
SFFWRTCHT: How long did you spend writing the book before you sold it?
DLS: I made an attempt at writing this about 25 years ago. Got about half way through and threw it away. I made a second attempt about ten years ago. Got about three chapters in and didn’t like where I was going. Finally wrote and finished it during NaNoWriMo in 2007. It sold within six months. In some ways Solar Sea was both the longest and shortest to write!
SFFWRTCHT: Agent first or publisher first, and did you submit after completing only one novel?
DLS: I had an agent first. They went to jail for fraud. That’s an exception, but I lean toward publisher first. Long story on the agent thing.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you start with characters sketches or outlines or just let it unfold as it comes?
DLS: Yeah, I try to write like storytellers tell stories – with a good idea of story before I try to tell it! I develop a solid mental image of my characters when I start. In most cases, I do a chapter-by-chapter synopsis first thing. A lot of my creative time happens on long walks and long drives.
SFFWRTCHT: And how very scientific of you that is! Do you dictate on those long walks/drives or do you record it in some other way? Or is your brain just awesome at remembering?
DLS: I don’t tend to dictate, but I do write notes on key elements as soon as I’m stopped! I do treat shorts differently than novels. I like to know the ending before I start with a short. Novels are a bit more fluid and change more as I’m writing.
SFFWRTCHT: How do you define steampunk? What are the key elements in writing it?
DLS: I think of steampunk as science fiction or technofantasy with a distinct Victorian or 19th century sensibility. To me, steampunk needs that 19th century feel plus some element of science or technology that feels like it could have been.
SFFWRTCHT: Tell us some of your favorite steampunk authors/books?
DLS: I love Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century novels, Richard Harland’s Worldshaker novels. I also love “going back to the source” to Wells, Verne and Burroughs for inspiration.
DLS: The idea for Owl Dance came out of listening to stories of the Old West for years from parents then from friends. Among those stories was a tale of a witch in Las Cruces and I started researching stories of New Mexico witch trials. The first three chapters of Owl Dance were short stories. I pulled them together and formed a narrative arc. The arc of it was heavily inspired by the Civil War in New Mexico. Billy the Kid was tried a few blocks away from where I live and Pat Garrett is buried a quarter mile behind my backdoor!
SFFWRTCHT: Actually Billy the Kid is one of the historical figures you include in Owl Dance. Also Czar Nicholas, amongst others.
DLS: I like to include historical figures to give a sense of authenticity.
SFFWRTCHT: Is it easier or harder to include them since history buffs are as picky as scientists about facts it seems?
DLS: Some of the trick is to use historical characters sparingly. Too much and you reveal what you don’t know! Also, I often like to use lesser known historical figures.
SFFWRTCHT: Yes lesser knowns would make sense. Less facts known, less to argue about. Tell us a bit about the plot of Owl Dance please.
DLS: The book starts when a healer gets in trouble with a local businessman and the sheriff comes to her aid. In the meantime, a highly advanced alien being comes to Earth, sees that humans could be a danger to themselves. When the alien interferes, he sets a chain of events into motion that lead to the Russians invading the US in 1877.
SFFWRTCHT: What kind of responses have you gotten from readers/reviewers so far on Owl Dance?
SFFWRTCHT: Where do you see the industry going? 100 % digital? How long will that take?
DLS: Not sure about 100% digital, but paper will become more “boutique.” I see digital books taking over the niche filled by mass market paperbacks and it’s mostly already happened.
DLS: VSO is about a group of vampire mercenaries who discover that the US government is tampering in things best left alone. It’s part historical novel and part modern day action/thriller.
SFFWRTCHT: Vampire mercenaries? So they go after the government? Or stop them?
DLS: Mostly they work for governments, until the government doesn’t think they’re needed!
SFFWRTCHT: Why vampires? Anne Rice inspired, perhaps?
DLS: Why vampires? Two grandparents were dead when I was born. Two more were gone by the time I was eight. Dad gone by thirteen. I feel like I understand the temptations of immortality. That, plus working at an observatory, I feel a certain kinship with creatures who never see sunlight. I read Anne Rice early on and her reasons for writing were much the same as mine!
SFFWRTCHT: For a minute there I thought you might say vampires took your elders…
DLS: Maybe, but I didn’t see it happen!
SFFWRTCHT: Fair enough! What´s your writing process like? Specific time set aside to write? Grab it when you can?
DLS: My day job has me working a well-defined block schedule. I do my best to set aside time to write in my days off. Sometimes an idea will grab hold and won’t let go. I’ve been known to write when I can at work or elsewhere!
SFFWRTCHT: What role do beta readers play for you in the process now that you have a publisher?
DLS: Beta readers aren’t a substitute for a publisher, they’re a critical first step before an editor even sees my work. Beta readers tell me what works and doesn’t work and I can fix them before an editor has a chance to reject!
SFFWRTCHT: Do you use special software or Music when you write?
DLS: For writing, I mostly use Word or Open Office. I often listen to music while writing. I have a good collection of soundtracks and other similar music to set mood. Elmer Bernstein is great when writing Westerns. Hans Zimmer for steampunk. I love Popol Vuh for vampires. Popol Vuh was a studio band Werner Herzog worked with when doing his movies including the 1979 Nosferatu.
SFFWRTCHT: Tell me about your work with the SF Poetry Society.
DLS: I’m the vice president of SFPA. We discuss spec poetry, have market lists and awards. Great organization. More info about SFPA at http://t.co/lSuSUZNs.
DLS: I was the first editor for FTST and helped to conceive of it. David Boop also played a big role.
SFFWRTCHT: What projects are you working on for the future that we can look forward to?
DLS: Dragon’s Fall is a prequel to Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Look for the ebook and print book in early 2012. Also, I’m outlining three sequels to Owl Dance. If all goes well, the first will be ready sometime in 2013. “The Vrykolakas and the Cobbler’s Wife” will be in Cemetery Dance #66, on newsstands in early 2012. Vrykolakas: A creature from Greek lore with elements of both werewolf and vampire.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best writing advice you were ever given? And follow that please with the worst writing advice you were ever given?
DLS: Best writing advice came from Ray Bradbury: Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it! Worst advice wasn’t a specific thing, but more general: Trying to please too many people at once. The result: watered down stories.
SFFWRTCHT: Owl Dance is available from Flying Pen Press and Amazon.com. What about Talisman and Solar Sea?
Interviewer Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SF Signal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.