Robert Buettner is the bestselling author of the Orphanage series of book. His debut novel Orphanage made the Barnes and Nobel Top 50 paperbacks, the Locus Magazine Top 10. It was also nominated for the Quille Award in 2004. That first novel has since seen 6 reprintings and been translated into Chinese, Czech, Russian and Spanish. Each of Buettner's books are now available in various hard cover, soft cover and electronic formats. Buettner himself a former Military Intelligence Officer and Paleontologist who creates both military actions and other world's in such detail the reader will be amazed. This attorney turned writer recently took some time to answer some questions for Book Reviews and More.
1. To date all of your books, and those announced, are set in the same universe. Do you have any projects on the backburner or works in progress not in the Orphanage world? If so can you give us some insight into possible future projects?
First, good to talk with you again, Steven. Well, the most interesting recent project I've been connected with is the film adaptation of Orphanage by Olatunde Osunsanmi, the rising director and screenwriter (The Fourth Kind, forthcoming Dark Moon) for Davis Entertainment (Predator, I Robot, Eragon). We're light years from Orphanage the Movie, so I haven't mentioned it much. But the news got outed all over Hollywood press last October. Like this. It's totally Tunde's screenplay. My input has been, to overstate grossly, minimal. But I was flattered that he chose to lift more of the writing direct from the book than is usual in an adapted screenplay. Audible.com is doing the new series as audiobooks. Overkill's already out. It was great fun working with MacLeod Andrews, the young (everybody's young to me) actor who read Overkill so well. I'm doing an original short story for the new John Joseph Adams anthology "Armored," but that story will be loosely within the same universe. Beyond that, as you mentioned, Undercurrents, the sequel to Overkill, is set for release July 5, 2011, and there will be a third book in that series.
2. What led you to a writing career after being a military intelligence office and successful lawyer?
Too many hours in airports and hotel rooms and too little captivating fiction to help the hours pass. So I started writing my own.
3. Your novel Orphanage is considered the Starship Troopers for a post 9/11 world. Were the political ramifications and commentary on war part of the original intent when writing the book?
Science fiction reflects the zeitgeist of the time in which it is written more than it predicts the future. 9/11 moved me to lay out for a North American population blessedly devoid of military experience what it means to be a grunt, because a tiny sliver of that population was about to go and fight a long, distant, dirty war against enemies and in places as incomprehensible to us as aliens on the moons of Jupiter. Orphanage resembles Starship Troopers partly because making soldiers consists of remolding disparate human individuals into parts as hard and interchangeable as engine bolts. It also resembles Starship Troopers because I, as a thirteen year old, had found that book profoundly true, not to mention really cool. But I chose Starship Troopers as a template more because, with the fullness of life experience, I had come to believe that Heinlein was - now, this is blasphemy in the science fiction community and even within the hemispheres of my own tiny brain - dead wrong. Heinlein was a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, briefly thereafter a peacetime junior naval officer, and an unabashed Cold Warrior. His life and his work demonstrate that he was prepared to fight and die for duty, honor, and country. His works assume that his inner convictions also drive kids who enlisted or were conscripted for the most muddled reasons. I disagree. Especially when those kids aren't debating over coffee in the officer's mess of a capital ship, but crouching in a mud hole with shrapnel whizzing past their helmeted ears. Orphanage's epigram, is, therefore, the words of an infantryman scrambling down to a landing craft bound for Omaha Beach on D-Day: "In that moment I realized that we fight not for flags or against tyrants, but for each other. For whatever remains of my life, those barely met strangers who dangled around me will be my only family. Strip away politics, and, wherever or whenever, war is an orphanage." Orphanage isn't pro-military, like Starship Troopers. Orphanage isn't anti-military, like Joe Haldeman's equally brilliant post-Vietnam classic, The Forever War. Orphanage is simply pro-foot soldier.
4. Many attorneys end up writing courtroom dramas, yet you turned to Science Fiction. What drove you in this direction?
They say the law is a jealous mistress, but I found her perverse and emotionally exhausting, too. I've no desire to reconnect with her, either in working life or in fiction.
5. Which books or authors had the greatest impact on your work?
Heinlein, obviously. Not just because I read his stuff as a kid. Heinlein invented or perfected so many techniques now commonplace in speculative fiction. I wrote about them in detail in the Afterword I was privileged to write for last year's Baen re-release of Heinlein's short story collections The Green Hills of Earth/The Menace From Earth. Also, anything Mark Twain ever wrote about writing is pure gold. Joe Haldeman practices the craft of writing as well as any author in the genre ever has, and as such is probably the most underappreciated SFWA Grand Master ever.
6. Do you use a playlist when writing? Are certain books written while predominantly listening to the same music?
I'm too easily distracted already without extraneous noise. Jonathan Franzen writes in a bare room on a computer not connected to the internet. I should, too.
7. What does your writing process look like? Take us through the steps from idea to publishing?
At the risk of telling your readers more than they want to know: I don't outline, as more disciplined authors do. I begin at the beginning with a loose idea, then tell the story to myself. That's inefficient when I go down a blind alley, then backtrack, scrapping days' or months' work. But if I know what happens next, writing it down becomes drudgery and the product shows it. So my process resembles a roller coaster ride. Initially, the writing is like climbing that first big hill. Clanking, halting, perhaps even slipping back downslope. Most importantly, during this phase, the ride ahead is hidden behind the hill ahead that I'm climbing. As with the 'coaster, this uphill phase of the ride takes most of the total time, and is anxious, yet boring. Writing days during this phase are dreary slogs. So I'm easily distracted, and waste bags of time. Then I crest the climb. How do I know I've reached the top? Suddenly I look ahead and see the whole ride stretched out below, with all the twists and turns to the finish. Where is that top point? Usually it's when about a third of the book's total length is complete. Finally, all the characters are interacting with one another and with their world in voices and with behaviors that ring true to me. Heinlein called it the time when his characters started talking to one another. Then whoosh. Downhill. I can't type fast enough to get it all down. I write until I'm exhausted, then pick up after a few hours sleep, day after day. Then suddenly the ride stops, the safety bar pops off. The end. After a good sleep or two, I rewrite once. For me that goes fast, because my first draft is better polished than many authors'. Not because I'm "better," but because my daily routine begins by rereading and rewriting, almost from the beginning, each day, to get back into the world and characters. I turn the rewritten manuscript in to my editor. Then what? Depends on the publisher. Time Warner Aspect, which became Little Brown Orbit, published my first five novels. Aspect/Orbit follows the New York-based Big Six imprint routine, because that's what Aspect/Orbit is. I got back a detailed, line-by-line edit letter from my primary editor within a month following turn-in. In another month or less, I would rewrite per the editor's suggestions, occasionally sticking to my guns and defending my original submission. Then I would turn in a revised manuscript that was even stronger, thanks to my editor. Then the publisher would formally "accept" the book, which meant that I would get paid the balance of my advance. Baen, publisher of my current series, is similar, but less rigid. Less rigid because Baen is very much an "independent" publisher, physically based outside New York. But Baen began as, and kind of remains, the defacto science fiction imprint of Simon & Schuster. S&S distributes Baen books with all the clout of the New York Big Six publisher that S&S is. Toni Weisskopf, Baen's publisher, actually does the first, hands-on, edit of my work, and, I think, all Baen books. Baen publishes as many titles, if not more, than the other major SF imprints, so I don't know how Toni keeps up. But her edit suggestions are New York quality. Next I receive a copy-edited manuscript, offering usage and punctuation corrections (I overuse non-standard capitals) and stuff like "a military saddle doesn't have a saddle horn, as you described." I take or reject those suggestions. Then I review galleys -copies of the typeset pages - for a final tune-up. Again, Baen's less formal than Orbit, and kind of telescopes copy edit and galley review. But the end product books from either publisher are of equivalent, first-line quality.
8. What is your favorite book that you have written and why?
Which of my children do I love best? Overkill 's probably my current favorite, because it's the newest and I like to think I'm always improving my craft. Orphanage rates second, because it's my first born. Also, Orphanage seems to have touched readers most, especially veterans or currently serving military personnel. Their praise means a lot to me.
9. I once heard Madeleine L'Engle state that her characters were real to her and almost an extended part of her family, she said once that at the dinner table she sat up and stated "Meg just finished her PhD." Are your characters real to you, do you ever get glimpses of what they are up to now, or once you finish a book is that it?
Nope. I meet them in the writing process, not at the grocery store.
10. What were some of your favorite books or authors in your youth?
The Heinlein juvies, of course. The adult Heinleins came out after I had graduated to James Bond and Jason Bourne.
11. What are your favorite books or authors now?
I read little fiction these days, like many authors. For one thing, I can't get into a story because I'm so busy analyzing technique, good and bad. For another, if I'm impressed by what I'm reading, my stuff starts sounding like it. If I'm unimpressed, I'm frustrated that resources are being wasted on the book.
12. In many ways you are a modern renaissance man, philosopher, educator, researcher, lawyer, author and more. Very few people today are as well rounded as you are to what do you attribute this?
Ha. But thanks. Actually, I'd say that my broad resume reflects weakness, not strength. Once I achieve, say, a B+ level of competence in any endeavor, from paleontology to marathon running, I'm too satisfied to take the next step and get really good at it. Fortunately, I'm nowhere near B+ as a writer yet, so I'll be doing it for a long time.
13. If you could only recommend 10 books to a reader looking to be a well rounded and whole person what books would you suggest?
I couldn't. Every individual's list is different. The right books are the ones that fill personal voids. A bigot could grow by reading and understanding To Kill a Mockingbird. Or Horton Hears a Who. An anti-war activist who just sneered at a weary GI slumped in an airport lounge, and bound back to duty, might learn something from Orphanage. The most important thing about that book list is that it change as the reader grows and changes. Anybody who thinks they know it all because they read any ten books - or ten thousand books - will never be a whole person.
14. I once had a university professor state that the true goal of a university education should be to teach one to learn how to think. What would you state should be the goal of higher education and why?
Great goal. But, based on my undergrad, graduate, and law school experience, what matters is a student's inspirational interaction with a great teacher. The university system too rarely delivers that.
15. All of your books are available in electronic formats, from various vendors but with that comes bootleg distribution. What are your impressions of ebooks and the distribution of them through torrents and other illegal means?
I lived in Calgary one winter, and walked to work. Like the Canadians walking alongside me, each time we reached a deserted intersection, everyone obeyed the flashing "Don't Walk" sign, and froze, standing in wind and darkness. I'm of a generation and a persuasion, as, I think, are Canadians, that obeying the rules matters. Piracy is piracy, on the internet and on the Indian Ocean. However, my current publisher, Baen, makes a lot of authorial material available free online, on the theory that you give away the razor so they'll buy the blades. Maybe a better analogy is give away the first crack sample. So maybe someone who reads a pirated book and likes it will buy the rest of an author's work.
16. What advice would you give to teens today, to your readers, what gems of knowledge have you gleaned in life that you would pass on?
There's a lot out there that can't be reduced to 140 characters.
17. What are some of your favorite films?
Star Wars Episode IV, Casablanca, Chariots of Fire, King Kong (the original). Interestingly, those are all original screenplays, not adapted novels. Perhaps it's easy to make a novel a good movie, hard to make it a great one.
18. If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have 10 books to read again and again, what books would you want with you?
How to fish, grow coconuts, and build rafts. None would be fiction. Good fiction is what characters will do next and why. Once the reader knows that, it's hard for me to understand why one would wish to revisit a story. That said, fans do re-read my books often. The record is seventeen back-to-back re-readings of Orphanage by a former infantryman. The poignancy record goes to a hospitalized police officer whose survival was doubtful. When his visiting wife asked what she could bring to ease his final hours, he requested his well-worn copy of Orphanage. He recovered. Other readers' mileage may vary, but that was cool.
19. What advice would you give to young aspiring authors and artists?
Many authors say their most frequent question is "where do you get your ideas?" For me, the most frequent is "How can I become a New-York published author of those paper video games without pictures, preferably within, like, a month?" Here's the answer I give: I. Write. Don't just think about writing and read books about writing, though by all means do those things. Do it. Until you take that step you won't know whether you want it bad enough. And if you really expect to learn the craft well enough to be New York published, you had better want it pretty bad.
II. Write lots. They say that a writer has to write a million words to develop the skills to produce salable commercial fiction. I believe Stephen King had collected seven hundred short story rejection slips before he sold his first one. I completed seven novels of varying degrees of awfulness, now boxed up for eternity, before Orphanage.
III. Write well. Study The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and anything Mark Twain wrote about writing. The best contemporary treatment of the art and craft of writing that I've seen is King's On Writing. Find a mutual critique group of people who know what they are talking about, take your lumps, and learn from their mistakes and yours. If you write well, you will be ahead of ninety percent of the twenty-five thousand or more unsolicited slush submittals that a reputable agent wades through annually.
IV. Rewrite well. There is no good writing. There is only good rewriting.
V. Last but not least, persevere. When you have written, then rewritten, a novel so good that it can't be ignored, be prepared to reinvent yourself and your craft when it is, anyway.
Thank you again Robert for taking the time to answer some question.
Books by Robert Beuttner:
Jason Wander Saga:
Undercurrents (July 2011)