A Writer’s Flashback: My 2005 Interview with Alan Dean Foster
“Do something every day, whether you think it’s good or not.” — Alan Dean Foster
I interviewed author Alan Dean Foster in 2005, along with nearly 75 other creatives, for a motivational non-fiction book, “How to Survive a Day Job.” My intent with the book was simple: I would interview a number of successful writers, actors, and others who have worked in a given creative arts field, to motivate those of us who had not yet attained our own artistic career goals.
At the time of his interview, Alan was one of the day’s more prolific authors, whose work to then included excursions into hard science fiction, fantasy, horror, detective, western, historical, and contemporary fiction.
He had written numerous non-fiction articles on film, science, and scuba diving, as well as novelizations of popular genre classics such as “Star Wars” and the first three “Alien” films. Other works include scripts for talking records, radio, computer games, and the story for the first “Star Trek” movie. His novel, “Cyber Way,” won the Southwest Book Award for Fiction in 1990, the first work of science fiction ever to do so.
Though he is restricted (for now) to the exploration of one world, Alan remains an avid traveler. He invites visitors to share in his journeying via his website, www.alandeanfoster.com, where you can also find updated information as to his literary endeavors.
I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, except travel and see the world. All of my junior high and high school evaluation tests said I should be a lawyer. Later on, I was actually accepted to USC Law School.
However, in my senior year at UCLA, I discovered that I could write.
My bachelor’s was in political science. At the time it was considered a good precursor to going to law school. I took a lot of writing classes along with film history classes to fill out my senior year. I was accepted to the UCLA Graduate Film School, thinking I’d stay for a year and a half in the screenwriting program and then go to law school, but while I was there I sold a couple of short stories. I thought I would then try a novel. One thing led to another, and I never did go to USC Law School.
When I graduated, I looked for a writing job to support myself. I managed to fall in with this very small Studio City firm called Headlines, Inc. Most of the clients were restaurants, and it always chapped me that I rarely got any of the freebies, you know, as far as the free dinners and stuff. They had some pretty good clients, too. It was interesting for a little while but quickly got very boring, because you tended to repeat yourself. There are only so many ways to describe prime rib. I don’t care who you are.
I got a part-time teaching job at Los Angeles City College teaching film history and screenwriting, and that eventually enabled me to quit for a year. I’d saved enough money to live for a year very cheaply, a single guy living at the beach. Between the part-time teaching job and what I was making from writing, I was completely happy.
I suppose when the third book sold, I knew I could write as a profession. When the first book sold, I wasn’t sure. You’re never sure, you know, unless it’s “Carrie,” or something like that, or the first “Harry Potter” book. But the third book that I sold was a book called Icerigger, and it did extremely well. It even startled the publisher. Judy-Lynn del Rey at the time was the editor, and she said, “Well, maybe it was the cover.”
And I kind of gnashed my teeth and said under my breath, “Well, maybe it was the writing.” And at that point I thought, Yeah, I can sell a hundred thousand copies of this … I think I can do this.
I’ve always been interested in science fiction, but I came to it kind of late, oddly enough. I did everything rather backwards. When I was in junior high and high school, when everybody was listening to popular music and reading science fiction fantasy, I was reading the classics and listening to classical music. I didn’t get into rock music until I met my wife, who was a big rock fan. As far as the science fiction goes, I really didn’t start reading much until my senior year in high school and then on into college.
I had a master’s degree, a master of fine arts in motion pictures, and at that time — we’re talking the early to mid-seventies — movie novelizations were not a known quantity among publishers, much less among movie studios. Judy-Lynn del Rey had taken over the editorship of the science fiction line at Ballantine books — which then became Del Rey Books — from Betty Ballantine, and she knew that I had that master’s degree in film. They had bought the rights to this really atrocious Italian film called “Luana,” and she asked if I would be interested in trying to make a book out it. I said, “Well, sure.”
It was an assignment, and they had no script. The only script was in Italian, so I had to go in and look at a sixteen-millimeter print of the film at the producers’ offices in Hollywood. It was a horrible film, and what I ended up doing — other than not contradicting the film directly — was basically novelizing the cover, because somebody had the brilliant idea of hiring Frank Frazetta to do the advertising art for the movie. There are two excellent paintings of Luana as she should be — not as she is in the movie — in Frank Frazetta’s various art books. That’s how I got started with that.
On the basis of “Luana “and the novelizations of an expanded student film of some legend called “Dark Star,” I was asked to novelize the animated “Star Trek.” Judy-Lynn del Rey had found a loophole in the clause that the publisher had with Paramount Studios to do literary adaptations of “Star Trek.” Apparently, the lawyers had forgotten to include the words animated film or cartoon. They tied up everything else, but they’d missed that, and lo and behold, Filmation Studios comes out with two years’ worth of animated “Star Trek.” Judy immediately jumped on that and then asked me if I would take a crack at it.
Someone had apparently read “Icerigger.” This was the story that I was told, anyway. This person thought it was something on the lines, content-wise, of what George Lucas was doing; again, we’re talking mid-seventies. I was asked to go up to the offices of Tom Pollack, at that time Lucas’ lawyer and now one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. We had a chat and then he asked me if I knew who George Lucas was.
“Sure. ‘THX 1138,’ ‘American Graffiti’ …”
“Well, George is doing a science fiction film called “Star Wars” and they need somebody to novelize the screenplay. We’d also like to have a sequel done to the first film in book form. Would you be interested?”
They sent me out to Industrial Light and Magic, which at that time was a warehouse on Kester Avenue in the San Fernando Valley. I met George, and he showed me around. Here’s all the cannibalized World War II tank and battleship kits that they’re making X-wing fighters out of, and here’s the Death Star, which is this little plastic thing the size of a beach ball … It was great fun, like two fans, basically. Saul Bass also showed up, a legend in the business who revolutionized the way film titles were designed. We watched some dailies, and I got the job.
If you’re not starting from scratch, you can’t be as creative in a novelization as in an original work. It’s like taking a block of marble, where somebody has chiseled the outline of the finished figure — much as they did in old workshops in Italy and so on — and then they hire somebody else to finish the sculpture following the original artist’s instruction. It’s a collaboration, but it is creative in its own way.
My typical day goes like this. I get up in the morning, and I read stuff off the Internet for a couple of hours — because I read newspapers and magazines from all over the world — and then I sit there, and I stare at the screen and the keyboard until something happens. If nothing happens, I get very grumpy and unpleasant and go have lunch someplace, usually in town, sometimes here at the house. I’ll then come back and stare at the screen again until something happens. I won’t do anything else all day long unless I’ve written something, even if it’s just half a page.
That’s the key to getting a lot of work done. Do something every day, whether you think it’s good or not, whether you think it’s a sufficient number of words or not. Just do something every day, because if you can get yourself into that mindset, into that routine, then invariably there will be many good days in addition to the rough days. On the good days, you might get five or six or ten pages done, and that will make up for the days when you only get a half a page or a page done. You put them all together, and you turn out a fair amount of material.
I run into a lot of people who say, “I have this great idea.”
And I’ll say, “Well, okay, tell me,” although I usually don’t have to say that, because they tell me without being asked. And sometimes I’ll say, “You know, that really is a very good idea. You really should do that.”
“Well, I don’t know how to get started.”
“Well, you get a computer, or you get a little tape recorder, and you just start putting words down on the computer or talking words into your little recorder. But you have to start.”
If your dream is to go ride a camel across the Sahara, you have to save the money. You have to find out who rents camels or sends people across the Sahara on camels. You have to make time for it in your busy life, and you have to do it. Otherwise, you turn around, and you’re one of these all-too-many people who are sitting around in a rocking chair at age seventy-five or whatever, saying, “Gee, I wish I’d done that when I was your age.”
Self-discipline is a funny thing, especially when it comes to doing something like writing a book or composing a symphony, doing sculpture, running for political office or anything else that you have to sacrifice for. I’ll give you a perfect example: I take a lot of trips; I do a lot of traveling. I always run into people that say, “Gee, you go to such interesting places. I wish I could do that.”
And I’ll say, “Well, here’s where I’m going next, why don’t you come with me? I’ll make all the arrangements. I’ll do all the reservations. I’ll handle everything. All you have to do is pay for your room and your food and come along.” And except for one person in thirty-five years of traveling, nobody’s ever done that.
It’s very hard for people to break out of their routine to do something they really want to do. I’ve never had that problem.
I’d like to keep entertaining people. If you can educate people a little bit here and there and drop these little nuggets that people open somewhere deep within the story, and they get something out of it more than just entertainment, that’s great. I’m perfectly happy to keep doing that. I’d like to write music, but then that’s a question of me having the discipline to make the time. I have the music composed in my head; I just don’t know how to write that particular language. And there are still a lot of places on the planet that I haven’t seen yet.
Sometimes I’ll get an entire book out of a trip. For example, something like “Drowning World,” which just came out recently, is based very largely on a trip I took to a place called Manaus in Western Brazil, or “Into the Out Of,” which is based on a trip my wife and I took to East Africa. And if not an entire book, then sometimes I’ll get characters or places or scenes or a line of dialogue or something just from my trips. I find it difficult to understand how people can write about other cultures and other worlds without traveling on this one. But, you know, every cap to his ash can; everybody works differently.
I have a new trilogy coming up from Del Rey. The first book is called “Lost and Found.” It will be out sometime this summer. The first novelization I’ve done in ten years is called “The Chronicles of Riddick,” which is based on characters from a very nice little science fiction film called “Pitch Black,” although it’s not a true sequel. The film was released in June 2004, and the novelization in May.
Thank you for reading.
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