Known best for his Hammer’s Slammers series and his Lord of the Isles series David Drake has become an icon of military science fiction and fantasy over the years. We are happy to bring you an interview with the creator of the Hammerverse.
The Hitchhiker asks…
Question 1- You come from a history and legal educational background how did you end up in the writing business and what advice would you give to a person trying to get into the writing business today?
And Latin–don’t forget the Latin background, because it’s very important.
When I was in high school, a teacher (Eugene Olson) was a professional writer on the side. I determined that some day I would sell a story. Writing grew into a small hobby, but I didn’t dream of becoming a full-time writer.
Then I was drafted. When I got back to the World, I used fiction writing as a way to organize my memories and feelings, and to let out my considerable anger in an acceptable fashion.
After eight years of working as a lawyer, I realized that the particular stresses of the legal profession were going to kill me, so I quit and got a job driving a city bus. I spent more time writing because I had more time, and I figured the money would be very helpful. To my utter amazement, my writing career took off and I became a full-time freelance writer.
I didn’t begin writing in order to be a writer: I began writing to learn an interesting skill. I proceeded in a, well, in an obsessive fashion from 1970 on in order to control my anger and despair. I don’t really have advice for someone who Wants to be a Writer–who wants to get into the writing business today or any time–because that wasn’t me.
Question 2- How did your experiences in Vietnam prepare you for writing your fiction? Do these experiences show up in any of your books?
I served with an elite unit, the 11th Armored Cavalry; the Blackhorse Regiment or 11th ACR. In 1970 nobody I knew believed we were Saving Democracy. I suspect grunts in Iraq and Afghanistan have the same contempt for blowhards speaking similar twaddle today.
But we did our job. Everybody in the Blackhorse did his job. We kicked the ass of whoever they pointed us at, not because we believed in the war or in democracy or in any damned thing: we kicked ass because we were the Blackhorse.
I carried the attitude over into civilian life. My job is writing, and I do my job the best way I can; every time, every day. I’m David Drake, a writer, and I rode with the Blackhorse.
Yes, my military experiences show up in my fiction–even in humorous fantasy short stories. And bears shit in the woods.
Question 3- You helped start Carcosa a small publishing company, what are some of the pitfalls of publishing and how have those changed over the years especially in light of the internet. (We are interested because at the Freehold we have our own small press publications that will be coming out this fall)
I’ll give you two points; one which you probably think you know.
1) Don’t put in more money than you’d be willing to burn in the driveway. Do not assume that anyone, ever, will buy one of your books.
Jim Groce and I put up all the money for Carcosa. Carcosa books are now sold for considerable sums of money, but Jim and I lost all the money we put in.
2) Be aware that if you’re in a partnership, you may learn more about your partners than you wanted to know.
You should be publishing because you want to get certain books that you think are important out into the hands of readers. No other reason justifies small-press publishing.
Question 4- Who are the writers that have influenced you and your writing the most over the years?
There are a lot of ways to answer that. My prose style owes more to Tacitus than to any writer in English, and translating Ovid has taught me a great deal about the nuts and bolts of characterization.
In the SF/fantasy field, though, Henry Kuttner and Clark Ashton Smith. Kuttner started out as a crude stylist, but he always knew how to tell a story and he always went for the emotional punch. His stories have heart; even the hackwork is written with belief. Further, he kept learning from every story.
Smith’s vocabulary is unfortunate; he gives the impression of having taken it from a dictionary, not from the wide reading that would have permitted him to use the words in the correct context.
Despite that, his settings are gorgeous and his plot development shows that he really understood concepts about which Lovecraft merely mouthed words: his own insignificance and the insignificance of mankind. Smith’s work shows a detachment which I find in no other writer in the field, and the best of his stories are crushingly effective even after multiple rereadings.
Question 5- Tell us a little about your political beliefs, You told me in our email exchange that you are not a libertarian. What do you describe yourself as?
I have no ideology. My family in Iowa was Republican, but when I moved to NC I registered as a Democrat so that I could vote usefully in primaries.
I used to describe myself as apolitical, but my friend Eric Flint–a Trotskyist labor organizer–said I was the most political writer he knew, save for himself. It’s true that I analyze human interactions in terms of politics, so politics are at the heart of all my fiction.
I suppose I believe, as did Dickens and Orwell, that a society which ran on Christian principles (note that I did not say Christian theology) would be ideal for human beings. Again like Dickens and Orwell, I don’t believe there’s any possibility of such a society existing among human beings; but I wish it were the ideal toward which most people strove.
I don’t believe that’s going to happen either.
I try to be courteous; and honest; and even kind. I am in despair when I look at the world around me and at my own failings.
Thank you for the interview. I know there are several readers here who are ecstatic you took the time to do this for us.