Official Author Site
Frequently Asked Questions
(Updated August, 2016)
About my books
About specific novels
About my life
Advice for aspiring writers
General information about my books
How many books have you published?
Sixteen, not counting the nonfiction anthologies I complied as a freelance editor, plus three omnibus editions. Twelve were originally published in hardcover by Atheneum between 1970 and 1981 -- six YA science fiction novels, a YA nonfiction book that I have recently updated and reissued as an adult book, two science fiction anthologies that I edited, two co-authored nonfiction books for teens, and one picture book. The novels have all been reissued in both hardcover and paperback updated editions by different publishers in the 21st century.
Three of them -- my trilogy This Star Shall Abide (1972), Beyond the
Tomorrow Mountains (1973), and The Doors of the Universe (1981) -- were republished in an omnibus edition as adult SF by Meisha Merlin under the title Children of the Star. Although Meisha Merlin has gone out of business, I have issued a new edition under my personal imprint Ad Stellae Books..
My most recent novels are two related duologies for adults: The Hidden Flame duology, consisting of Stewards of the Flame (2007) and its sequel Promise
of the Flame (2009) plus the Rising Flame duology, consisting of Defender of the Flame (2013) and its sequel Herald of the Flame (2014). These novels are available both individually and in omnibus editions.
Are your YA books still available?
Yes! Paperback and editions of Enchantress from the Stars, This Star Shall Abide, and Children of the Star are currently in print. Though The Far Side of Evil and Journey Between Worlds are out of print, they are available in ebook editions, as are all except Enchantress.
Do you do book signings, personal appearances, or school visits?
No, due to my physical limitations I am unable to do anything away from my home, and because of hearing difficulty I can no
longer do phone interviews. However, I'm always happy to answer questions from readers or school classes by email.
Which is your most successful novel?
The best-known is my Young Adult book, Enchantress from the Stars
(1970), which was a 1971 Newbery Honor Book. The original edition was sold
to more libraries than my others because it's interesting to younger readers
as well as teens; it had several paperback editions and excerpts appeared
in several 8th-grade literature textbooks. A new hardcover edition, with
reset type and a jacket and interior vignettes by the award-winning artists
Leo and Diane Dillon, was published in April 2001 by Walker, and a paperback
edition with the same cover art was published in February 2003 by Firebird
Is there a sequel to Enchantress from the Stars?
The Far Side of Evil,
which was originally published in 1971 and republished with updating by Walker in March 2003 (with a paperback edition
by Firebird in 2005) is related to Enchantress because it has the same
heroine, but she is older than in the earlier book and it is a darker story that's
less suitable for readers below teenage. I don't like to call it a "sequel" because
it's very different and is completely independent from the earlier book. Older teens
and adults can read them in either order.
Do any of the characters besides Elana appear in both books?
No. She visits a different world, accompanied by different people. It's a
world very much like Earth was in the 1950s before the launching of Sputnik.
What other YA novels did you write?
The only other is Journey Between Worlds (1970), which was written before Enchantress from the Stars but published second, and is a romance about the settlement of Mars. A new, updated hardcover edition was
published by Putnam in 2006 and a Firebird paperback edition appeared in 2007. In October of 2015 I got the rights to the book back and released a new ebook edition, replacing the too-expensive Penguin ebook edition.
Many science fiction fans have never heard of your novels. Why is
All except Stewards of the Flame, Promise of the Flame,
Defender of the Flame and Herald of the Flame
were originally issued as Young Adult books -- even though, except
for Enchantress from the Stars, they aren't interesting to most
readers below their mid-teens. This means they weren't marketed in the same
way as other science fiction; in the publishing business, YA books are
issued through the children's editorial and sales departments, which are
entirely separate from those that handle adult novels. Until recently their
hardcover editions were rarely carried by stores, and only the review media
read by youth librarians generally saw them. Yet the new editions of my YA
books, even the adult omnibus of Children of the Star, weren't
often reviewed because few media will review reprints.
If these novels aren't interesting to younger teen readers, why
were their jackets marked "ages 10-14" or "12 up"--a marking still visible
on library copies of the original editions? Don't advanced readers usually
seek books with a suggested age level higher than their own age?
The original publisher felt the books would sell better that way than
with a more realistic marking. An author has no control whatsoever over
what's said on the jacket or in advertising. Personally, I think these
labels, and the resulting placement of the books in library children's
rooms, kept them out of the hands of the people most apt to like them.
Beyond the Tomorrow Mountains and The Doors of the Universe in
particular seem boring to readers who are too young to understand the issues
with which they deal, and children sometimes find The Far Side of Evil
Since mature teenagers generally read adult SF instead of
children's books, why didn't you publish your trilogy as adult fiction in
the first place?
Enchantress from the Stars does appeal to children although it has
no child characters, and it won honors in the children's literature field.
So that was the field in which I had sufficient reputation to sell the
later books. Moreover, I didn't want to address my work exclusively to the
"in-group" of SF fans; I wanted to reach readers who don't have background
in the SF genre. That meant making the stories intelligible to reviewers not
familiar with the ideas and conventions on which genre-oriented SF relies, and
yet publishers won't issue books set in the distant future as mainstream.
If most of your books are for older teens, why did you choose to become
a children's author?
I didn't! And it is frustrating to me to be called a children's author, since I don't
consider older teens "children." I had one idea for a book that appeals to children,
and that couldn't have been written in any other form -- and of course I'm happy that it
became a Newbery Honor Book, though that meant it has been given to a great
many children too young to understand its themes (even Enchantress was originally
intended for teens). But because it did, I was "branded" as a children's author, which I
never wanted to be, and it has kept the rest of my work from reaching more than a fraction
of its intended audience.
The structure of the publishing business was responsible for this; at the time my
books were first published, novels for teens were
edited and marketed by children's departments and sold for the children's collections
of libraries. Therefore, publishers promoted them as children's books although it was
acknowledged that many such as mine were only for "special" readers -- in other words,
the minority of gifted children who read at an adult level. This is less true today, when much
more mature books than in the past are being issued as Young Adult and sold directly to
teens rather than just to librarians. Their authors are not labeled "children's authors" since it's
well known that most teens don't want to read books intended for children.
Many Young Adult science fiction novels are reprinted in
mass-market SF paperback lines. Why weren't yours?
For one thing, it was felt that they weren't sufficiently action-oriented to
attract large paperback audiences -- I think that in the 70s I was the only
author of YA science fiction whose books were successful in hardcover, yet
weren't sold for mass-market reprint. Later, the publishing field changed
somewhat; in 2000 the omnibus edition of the trilogy was issued in a trade
softcover line as adult SF, and during the next decade the rack-size trade paperback
editions of Enchantress from the Stars, The Far Side of Evil and Journey
Between Worlds were supposedly marketed to both teen and adult sections of
However, there is also another reason. Mass-market paperback lines are strictly
organized by genre, and my books don't appeal to the majority of science fiction
fans, who generally have a lot of background in that field -- whereas they do
appeal to readers who rarely if ever choose science fiction and wouldn't be looking
at the SF shelves of bookstores. This makes them virtually unmarketable in
the mass-market format.
Weren't there some earlier trade paperback editions?
Not of the trilogy. Enchantress from the Stars, The Far Side of
Evil and This Star Shall Abide appeared in children's paperback
form, and Enchantress had a Troll Book Club edition distributed in
schools. There were also 1989 Collier Books paperback editions of
Enchantress and Far Side; these did reach the SF sections of
some chain stores, although their covers (unfortunately, in my opinion) were
designed to attract a younger audience.
Why were your books suddenly republished after being out of
print so long?
In the case of Children of the Star it was because the Internet and
other new technologies have made it economical for small presses to offer
books that don't have the huge mass-market appeal major publishers now
require. In the case of my Young Adult books, it was largely due to the
phenomenal success of Harry Potter, which created a demand for hardcover
fantasy and science fiction for teens and is causing bookstores to carry
more of it than in the past. The original hardcover editions of my books
were sold almost exclusively to libraries, whereas the new ones were
available in retail outlets.
Have there been any foreign editions?
Enchantress from the Stars and The Far Side of Evil were
published by Gollancz in England during the 1970s, as was This Star Shall
Abide under the title Heritage of the Star (which also had a UK
paperback edition). Enchantress appeared in Japanese at that time.
German, Spanish, Portuguese, Finnish, Chinese, Hebrew, and Korean editions
of Enchantress were published after the 2001 Walker edition appeared.
Why did the British edition of This Star Shall Abide have
a different title than the American edition?
Because Gollancz didn't happen to like the original title. It is quite
common for the U.S. and U.K. editions of the same book to have different
titles (even the first Harry Potter book!) This is very confusing,
especially now that books can be obtained so easily via the Internet by
readers all over the world. But title decisions are made by publishers;
authors' preferences are not always accepted.
Why did you drop your middle name from some reprint editions of
Originally, I used my full name, Sylvia Louise Engdahl, on my novels.
But my British publisher felt that a double feminine name might make them less
attractive to male SF buyers, and on reflection I decided that this is
probably true. Furthermore, my full name is associated with my reputation
as a "children's author," which I have tried to overcome in the case of
books other than Enchantress from the Stars because I don't consider
older teenage readers "children," and because recently I have been writing adult
novels. Therefore I have not used it on the paperback or ebook editions of my books.
What awards have you won for your writing?
Besides being a 1971 Newbery Honor Book, Enchantress from the
Stars later won the Children's Literature Association's 1990 Phoenix
Award, which is given each year "from the perspective of time" to a
children's book first published 20 years prior to the award's presentation,
and it was a finalist for the
2002 Book Sense Book of the Year in the Rediscovery category.
This Star Shall Abide won a 1973
Christopher Award for "affirmation of the highest values of the human
spirit." My adult novel Stewards of the Flame won a bronze medal in the 2008
Independent Publisher (IPPY) Book Awards.
Where do you get your ideas?
My novels grew out of my lifelong interest in space and my strong desire
to convey how important our viewpoint toward space is to the future. As to
the ideas for the central events in the stories, I wish I knew! They came
to me than ten years before I wrote the books, and I didn't have any more
until recently -- although, of course, I had lots of ideas about issues I wished
I could express in the form of fiction.
Have you ever published any short stories?
No, I've never had ideas appropriate for short stories -- mine required
complicated backgrounds. I co-authored two fairly long stories that appear
in my anthologies: "The Beckoning Trail," co-authored with my friend Rick Roberson,
in Universe Ahead (1975) and "Timescape," co-authored with my mother
Mildred Butler, in Anywhere, Anywhen (1976). These were based on the
ideas of the co-authors, not mine. They are now available in the
expanded ebook edition of Anywhere,
Anywhen, along with one other story, "Tranquility," written long ago but never
published in print.
Why didn't you publish any novels between 1981 and 2007?
There have been only short periods in my life during
which I could create stories at all. Thinking up the action in fiction has always been
very hard for me -- I've had plenty of themes, settings and characters in mind, but in a
story something has to happen! It's the happenings that I can't often
come up with. Strange as this seems to my friends (and for that matter, to
strangers) it's something I can't control. This is not "writer's block."
I never have any trouble expressing thoughts in words. But my thoughts don't
normally take the form of eventful narrative. Actually, the mystery is why I
was able to write fiction during the late 60s and early 70s; before
and for many years thereafter, my talents were more analytical than imaginative.
To be sure, part of the trouble is that unlike most science fiction
authors, I am not interested in imagining "what if" situations that don't
match my actual convictions about the universe and about future human
evolution (though of course, I often present ideas metaphorically rather than
literally). What inspires me to write is the expression of my views on these
subjects through the experiences of fictional characters. I could not, for
example, write about an advanced form of life that solved its problems
without expanding beyond its home world, because I believe that space
colonization is the only solution to the problems that arise at the stage of
evolution where it becomes possible. And I couldn't write about the Service
of my Elana books intervening in the affairs of a world that could survive
on its own, because I believe truly advanced beings wouldn't do that. So I'm
limited by more than lack of imagination; any story situation I use has to
fit my opinions.
In 2005 I was, to my great surprise, "struck by lightning" with the idea for
a story again and wrote my adult novel,
Stewards of the Flame, which I published in 2007. The ideas
for the three later "Flame" novels came to me one at a time, without my
having any prior expectation of continuing the story. These novels are not suitable
for children or young teens and are intended for an entirely different market from
the one in which I have been best known.
For a more formal and detailed explanation of why I haven't written more
novels, see my essay in "On Writing III," original published online by Critique
Magazine and now available at this website.
Why aren't the Flame novels suitable for YA readers?
It's unlikely that the story of the first duology would interest teens, as there are no young people in it -- the hero and all the main characters are in their 40s or older. And they are concerned, among other things, with adult problems such as death in old age.
There are two other reasons why I emphasize that the books aren't appropriate for YA readers. First, they contain some sex and profanity, mild by the standards of adult fiction but more than readers expect from me on the basis of my YA novels. This would be objectionable to some parents, considering that my YA books are often given to middle school kids even when I say they're for older teens. Please read the Flame Duology FAQ for more detail about this.
Second and perhaps most significantly, Stewards of the Flame is strongly critical of today's medical dogma and advocates ignoring government health advice, including much that is taught in today's schools. To be sure, it deals with a future society, and I hope makes plain to adults that today it would not be possible to reject orthodox medical care to the extent the characters do, since we lack the means to implement their alternative. But young readers might not make the distinction. To them the story would say "Avoid doctors, if necessary by hiding your symptoms." And a lot of parents and schools would object if they thought a noted YA author was trying to undermine the official view on this subject in the minds of kids! I don't want to damage my reputation in the YA field by upsetting parents or teachers, and I don't want to mislead kids by offering them material that they haven't the maturity to interpret.
Of course, if teens who read other adult fiction want to read it, that's okay, and I think many would enjoy the second duology, Defender of the Flame and Herald of the Flame, whose hero is quite young at the start of the story. But because I'm known to librarians as a YA author, it's important to make clear that they shouldn't order any of them for the YA collection offered to middle-school kids.
Why did you publish your adult novels yourself?
Because publishers of adult fiction demand that it be strictly categorized by genre, and these novels donít fit genre requirements. Since they're set in the future on another planet, they're considered science fiction -- yet like my YA novels, they appeal more to general audiences than to those with extensive science fiction background. This means they're not suitable for adult SF lines, and in any case I want them to reach other readers, too. At my age, I feel itís unlikely that marketing criteria will change during my lifetime, so the only way get the story into the hands of adult readers was to publish on my own.
But isn't it unprofessional for an author to pay for a book's publication?
I did not pay anything other than small registration fees (and fees for licenses to use the cover art). I have desktop publishing and professional copyediting experience, so although the books are printed and distributed by Amazon.com's print-on-demand subsidiary, I did the design and typesetting personally on my own computer, and even designed the covers. It is not unprofessional to pay for these things individually, however, and authors who lack the skills are strongly advised to do so. This is different from "vanity press" publishing where an author pays a publishing company to issue the book as if it were traditionally published.
During the past few years self-publishing has become common and respectable. Now that authors can easily publish ebooks at no cost and get them distributed to major retailers, independent publishig is thriving, and many believe that in the future it will dominate the publishing field. I have personally issued all the YA books to which the rights have reverted to me, as well as my self-published novels, both in ebook editions and in some cases paperback, as many other professional authors are doing with their backlists.
What is Ad Stellae Books and why is it listed as the publisher of your recent books?
Ad Stellae Books is my personal imprint, not a publishing company. I preferred having my own to using ISBNs belonging to print-on-demand companies, which mark a book as self-published when it is listed in a catalogs even though not on the book itself. The time may be coming when there will be no disadvantage to this, but it's not quite here yet. (However, I found that it is not possible for self-published books using special ISBNs to be listed in the distributor's catalog from which libraries buy, so in order to make mine available to libraries I have recently republished many of them under the printer's IBSN. This means that although "Ad Stellae Books" appears on their title pages, it is no longer as the publisher in catalogs.)
Why do you write only science fiction?
I write about space and other worlds because I believe that expansion
into space is essential to human survival, and that how people feel about
the universe beyond Earth is therefore becoming more and more crucial. I
have been convinced of its importance for nearly 70 years (my interest in
space exploration began in 1946, long before it was either a reality or a
subject popular with the general public). For more about my views on this,
see Space and Human Survival
at this website.
I also write about future human powers such as ESP because I believe
that these are advanced capabilities that will be developed as humankind continues
to evolve, and they they will lead to greater understanding among people--and
ultimately to understanding between ourselves and species that have evolved on
Do you intend to write more Young Adult novels in the future?
For many years I did not, because there was a long period when it
wasn't possible to publish long, complicated books like mine -- which have
college-age characters and are considered "difficult reading" -- in the Young
Adult field; for marketing reasons, YA novels had to appeal to younger teens
who weren't advanced readers. The market is changing again, so I no longer
rule out the possibility. Nevertheless, if I get more ideas for fiction
they're likely to be for adult novels.
Have you ever considered writing books for younger children?
That requires a gift I don't have. Besides, I don't know children well
enough to write about them -- I've never had any contact with them, apart from
working as a summer camp counselor when I was in college and one year of
teaching at which I was not very successful.
Some of your novels appear on feminist reading lists. Did you aim
I never thought about it. Enchantress from the Stars was the first
science fiction novel with a female protagonist to be issued as YA (a classification
that depends not on the age of the characters, but on which department of the
publisher edits and markets the book).
Feminists liked her, especially in the related novel The Far Side of
Evil where she assumes authority over a male colleague. But I'm not a
women's rights activist; I wrote about a young woman because I found her
easy to identify with, and I assumed that in a culture as advanced as I was
portraying, men and women would naturally be equal. (Then with the trilogy,
where I wrote from a male viewpoint, feminists complained that his world's
society was sexist -- which indeed it was, because I was trying to show that
it had reverted to a backward level socially as well as technologically.)
What has been your most gratifying response from your readers?
For many years I said that apart from the awards I'd received, I was most
pleased by the remark of an adult reader of Journey Between Worlds
who told me it convinced her that the space program is worthwhile.
But in 1997, within two weeks of the opening of this Web site, that
changed. Nothing in my experience has ever pleased (or astonished) me more
than the discovery of how many adults remember my books from their childhood
or teen years and feel that they were influenced by them. In my pre-Internet
years, I received praise from reviewers and librarians and sometimes got
mail from children assigned to write letters to authors in school, but only
on rare occasions did I hear from readers who reacted personally to the
novels. I have been deeply touched to learn they've had lasting impact.
Why isn't Journey Between Worlds better known?
Because it was placed on the children's science fiction shelf in
libraries, when as someone once said to me, no science fiction enthusiast
wants to read about a girl who doesn't want to go to Mars! It was meant to
go on the Young Adult romance shelf, and if any librarians are reading this,
I wish you would go and move it there. The original edition of Journey
is now outdated in minor ways that I fixed in the 2006 hardcover edition;
details needed altering because of what has been learned about Mars; moreover,
it contained assumptions and phrasing acceptable 30 years ago that now strike
even me as sexist. Also, it appeals to a somewhat different audience than my
other novels since it contains no element of fantasy or the paranormal, nor does
it have an interstellar setting.
However, although the new edition received praise from romance
reviewers on the Web, it did not reach the readers most apt to like it because the
publisher, over my protests, nevertheless marketed the paperback edition only
as science fiction and did not publicize it as a YA romance novel. Furthermore,
they used a cover designed to appeal to teen romance readers which not only
wasn't seen by them, but gave a false impression of the story to readers seriously
interested in space. I am especially unhappy about this because with renewed
public interest in Mars, the story is more timely than ever; and I'm hoping that the
new ebook edition will reach a wider audience.
Why doesn't the heroine of Journey Between Worlds seem
more like a woman of the future?
Because of the way she is intentionally characterized. There wouldn't
be any plot conflict, or room for character growth, if she were eager for new
experiences and wanted to go to Mars! Personalities will differ among
people in the future, just as they do now. Moreover, there is another reason for the
way I portrayed her, a parallel with the attitude of many people today toward the
need for eventual space colonization. Please read my more detailed comments
about this on the Journey Between Worlds page.
Is there anything you regret about your books, that you wish you'd
I have been sorry that I connected The Far Side of Evil to
Enchantress from the Stars instead of using another protagonist.
The two novels, despite being set in the same SF "universe," are otherwise
independent and appeal to different audiences, although many older teens and adults
like both. The younger readers of Enchantress are often disappointed that
the second story isn't a continuation of the first, or are depressed by the
subjects with which it deals -- if The Far Side of Evil were a movie I
would rate it PG-13. Of course, when I wrote it, I had no idea that Enchantress
would become a Newbery Honor Book and be given to as many pre-teen readers
as it was, so I didn't foresee that problem. Nor did I realize that few of the older
teen readers for whom The Far Side of Evil was intended would discover
a book that was labeled as a "sequel" to a children's book (a label I now want to avoid).
This problem is not as serious with the new editions as it was in the
past, because bookstores are now carrying more books for older teens and
more libraries have Young Adult sections patronized by teens. I hope,
however, that adults who gave Enchantress to 10- and 11-year-olds
will not assume that the related book is equally appropriate for them. And I
certainly hope that it won't be passed up by older readers who didn't care
for the fairy-tale aspect of Enchantress, because it's a very
different kind of story.
Why do you say that your adult novels Defender of the Flame and Herald of the Flame will be of particular
interest to older high school and adult readers who like Enchantress from the Stars and The Far Side of Evil?
To explain much about how they're related would be a major spoiler. Briefly, I'll say that they deal with some of the same themes
("paranormal" human abilities among others) and take a similar view of humankind's place in the universe. I have been disappointed that
so few of the adult fans of Enchantress have read them. They are quite different from Stewards of the Flame, which is more
controversial and, in the eyes of some readers, slower moving.
What nonfiction have you written?
The Planet-Girded Suns: Man's View of Other Solar Systems (1974)
is the history of opinions about extrasolar life -- which, contrary to common belief,
was assumed to exist throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. I got most of the material
for it from books and magazines of that era and I once intended to revise it
someday for an adult audience; the original YA version is too difficult
reading for most teens, yet too oversimplified for scholars despite being
based on original research in primary sources. The original edition's chapters
about modern scientific views are now somewhat outdated, and scholars have
by now written excellent books on the subject for academic audiences, so for many
years I assumed it could never be reissued and I put the historical chapters online.
But that was before it became possible to publish my own books. In
2012 I published a new, updated edition of
The Planet-Girded Suns for the general public without background in history
or science, with a new subtitle The History of Human Thought about Extrasolar Worlds.
(The non-inclusive language standard in the 1970s has been replaced, starting
with "Man's" in the subtitle.) The new edition has endnotes, which I was not
allowed to include in the YA edition. I also added an Appendix containing
many more passages of poetry from the 17th through early 20th centuries that
mentions extrasolar worlds. And the book includes a new, long afterword titled
"Confronting the Universe in the Twenty-First Century" that should be of interest
to all space enthusiasts.
The Subnuclear Zoo: New Discoveries in High Energy Physics
(1977) and Tool for Tomorrow: New Knowledge About Genes (1979) were
co-authored with Rick Roberson, who at that time was a science student
with more training in those subjects than I'd had. These books were meant
for 6th to 8th graders but turned out to be hard for most of them, yet too
oversimplified for high school. The information in them is by now outdated.
Our World is Earth (1979) is a picture book for young children.
Ironically, though my books have usually been called too difficult for their
intended age level, some reviewers thought this one was too easy--they
assumed it was a "science book" for primary grades whereas actually I meant
it to be read aloud to preschoolers.
I've also written a few essays; most are online and the few that aren't can be found in large libraries.
Those most like to interest readers of my books are "The Mythic Role
of Space Fiction," which was my Phoenix Award acceptance speech and has been reprinted in several places,
and my autobiography. See the Essays tab at the top of this page for those online and the About tab for a complete
Recently, I have edited many nonfiction anthologies for Greenhaven Press.
These appear under my name in book catalogs, but I merely chose the material
for them and wrote the introductions. They do not reveal my opinions on their
subjects, as the aim of the series was to present conflicting views impartially.
Comments on Specific Novels
FAQ about my Elana novels
(Important! Please look at this if you have read either of them, especially if you are a teacher leading classroom
discussions about Enchantress from the Stars.)
FAQ about my Children of the Star trilogy
(Contains major spoilers, but there's a link to jump out before you reach them. The earlier part is of interest even
if you haven't read the books.)
Comments on Some Reactions to Journey Between Worlds
(The reasons for my characterization of the heroine: a reply to those who criticized it.)
FAQ about my adult novels
(Their section of my site also contains extensive
background information about the topics with which they deal.)
Personal information about my life
Where do you live?
Since 1988 my home has been in Eugene, Oregon. Before that, I lived in
Portland, and earlier, in Los Angeles, with short stays in other places. I
like Eugene best and am settled here permanently.
Do you have a family?
No, not since my mother died at the
age of 90. For many years we lived together; she too was a writer (under her
maiden name, Mildred Allen Butler). I have no close relatives.
Receiving the Phoenix Award
at the Children's Literature
Association Conference, 1990
When and where were you born?
Apparently this is something teachers feel should be stated in school
book reports, since students have written to ask me! It's no secret: I was born
in Los Angeles in 1933.
Your last name is unusual--what nationality is it?
It's Swedish; my father was born in Sweden in 1881. However, he came
to America as a small child and remembered nothing about Sweden, so I
have no knowledge of my Swedish heritage.
Where did you go to college?
I got my degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara
in 1955. Before that, I briefly attended Pomona College in Claremont,
California; Reed College in Portland; and the University of Oregon in
Eugene. Later, I did graduate work at Portland State University.
As a child, did you hope to be a writer?
No. I never wrote stories until I was in college, and then only about
experiences I'd had on childhood vacations and as a camp counselor (none
of which had enough substance to be publishable). I didn't get ideas
for science fiction until my early 20s.
What inspired you to become a writer as an adult?
I wanted to express my beliefs about space and the future. At first I
tried writing short stories, but my ideas proved unsuitable for that, so
I put them aside. Later on, when I had more time, I developed my novels
Are you a full-time writer?
While I was writing my YA books I listed my occupation as "writer"
because during those years I had no other profession, but I never earned my
living by writing. (I wouldn't want young aspiring writers to think that writing
a few books like mine can support a person.) My main responsibility at that
time was serving as companion to my elderly mother. More recently, I worked
as a freelance editor of nonfiction anthologies; I wrote my adult novels in
my spare time.
Did you have an earlier career other than writing?
Yes, two separate ones. In my youth I taught 4th grade for a year; that
was what I had trained for in college, what I'd always thought I wanted.
I also hoped to become a camp director; I had been a counselor or unit
director at several camps (my favorite was Camp Sweyolakan on Coeur d'Alene Lake in Idaho) and
then in the summer of 1956 I was resident director of a small camp in Oregon.
But I found I wasn't suited to teaching, so I no longer had summers free
for camp work.
After that, from 1957 to 1967, I was a programmer and then computer
systems specialist for the SAGE Air Defense System, at a time when
programming was a brand new field and trainees with degrees in other areas
were being hired. I worked entirely in assembly language, doing mainly
what's now called systems programming; higher level languages did not yet
exist. Times have changed . . . I wrote a series for a BBS once titled "Rip
Van Winkle's View of Microcomputing" and even that is now very ancient
Have you done any programming since then?
In the early 80s I wrote and attempted to sell assembly-language software
for my TRS-80 computer, but I couldn't pay for enough advertising to get the
venture off the ground. Then when I first got an IBM compatible in 1987, I
quit programming, because all the software I needed was already available as
shareware and there seemed to be no point in reinventing the wheel. I miss
it sometimes, but my knowledge is now far too obsolete to update without
more time than I could devote to it.
What else have you done since besides freelance editing?
From 1985 until 1997 I was a part-time online staff and faculty member
of Connected Education, Inc. of White Plains, New York,
which offered online courses for college credit. I taught "Science Fiction
and Space Age Mythology" several times through Connected Education for
graduate credit from New York's New School for Social Research. That course
(which dealt with pop-culture rather than literary SF) was based partly on
my background in anthropology, a field in which I did graduate study in the
late 70s. My "lectures" for it are now here at this site.
I also taught "Technology and 21st
Century Medicine" and team-taught "Computer Conferencing in Business and
Education" through Connect Ed for New School credit. All of these were Media
Studies courses, focused on analysis of our culture's outlook.
I created and maintain a site author
Shirley Rousseau Murphy. And until recently I was active in volunteer work for the
Eugene Public Library, for which I desktop-published a bimonthly newsletter.
What SF and/or fantasy books have influenced you most?
My all-time fantasy favorites are Tolkien's Lord of the Rings,
Ursula LeGuin's Wizard of Earthsea, and The King Must Die by
Mary Renault. As for science fiction, in my youth I especially enjoyed
Robert Heinlein's YA novels -- which I read one by one as they came out -- and
some of his other early fiction (I didn't like his later novels as well).
I was also particularly fond of Zenna Henderson's "People" stories and some
of the work of Arthur Clarke. I don't want to single out any more recent science
fiction, as it hasn't influenced ny own work and I haven't read enough of the
novels most familiar to fans of the genre to declare meaningful preferences.
I will say, though, that currently I have been enjoying Nathan Lowell's "Golden
Age of the Solar Clipper" series, which unlike most sci-fi about starships, is
focused on merchant ships rather than space battles.
Despite my lifelong interest in space, I have never been a "science
fiction fan" in the sense the term is generally used, because I don't
personally care for fiction that goes out of its way to portray lifeforms
and civilizations far removed from humanity as we know it, or that's in any
sense "weird"-- nor do I often enjoy action stories. Thus I don't have wide
background in the SF/fantasy genre and have had no connection with the
subculture that surrounds it (although this doesn't mean I don't admire
the skill and imagination of authors in that field, especially of those who
have inspired members of the subculture to believe in a spacefaring future
On the whole, I prefer novels that focus less on adventure
or "far-out" concepts than on the ordinary activity, feelings, and/or moral
dilemmas of the characters. And however great its literary quality may be,
I have no patience with fiction that presents a pessimistic -- and therefore,
in my opinion, false -- view of human progress or of humanity's place in the
Now, because of vision problems, I read only ebooks, which are much
easier on my eyes than print. This means I have a houseful of books
(mostly nonfiction) that I have long intended to read or reread, but no longer
could even if I had more time for reading.
What are your hobbies?
Mainly, the Internet! I surf the Web a lot, in addition to the extensive
online research my editing work requires. But more than that, online
communication has meant a great deal to me since I got my first modem in
1984. While caring for my aging mother I wasn't able to leave the house
often and had few outside personal contacts. Now, though because of health
problems I'm confined to home again and am unable to travel, through the
Internet I'm in touch with the world. I welcome e-mail from my readers.
Where can more information about you be found?
My autobiography is now here at this site.
(It was formerly available only in the reference books Contemporary Authors
Vol. 195 and Something About the Author Vol. 122, which can be found in large
libraries, or online in libraries that offer access to Gale databases.)
Advice for Aspiring Writers
What advice do you have for young people who want to write?
First of all, read a lot! You can't learn to write unless you become
familiar with what has already been written -- with how good writers use
words, how they describe characters and turn imagined events into stories.
Especially if you're still in school, it will get easier to find words for
your ideas after you've spent more years reading.
Second, if you have ideas for stories, write them down, even if you can't
express them as well as you'd like to. Don't worry about how good your
writing is while you're working on a first draft; write simply because you
enjoy it, or have a story you want to tell. The time to perfect it is later,
after you have let it alone for a while. Save everything you write, whether
or not you think it is worth saving! Ideas tend to disappear unless they are
preserved in written form. Besides, someday when you have more skill you
may want to revise your early work.
What training is needed to become a writer?
Well, of course you need to do well in English in school. Beyond that,
a writer may or may not have formal training; some do and others don't.
If you are seriously interested in writing fiction, go to your public
library and get some books on how to do it. There are many, which your
librarian can help you find. I started reading such books when I was about
12 -- long before I had any intention of being a writer -- because my mother
wanted to write and she had them around the house; that may be why as an
adult I didn't need any formal training.
In college, or if you have finished school, you may want to take classes
in creative writing. Some writers are greatly helped by sharing their work
with fellow-beginners and/or having it critiqued by a teacher. For others,
it's inhibiting; they freeze up and cannot write well if they think somebody
is going to see their work before they themselves are satisfied with it. And
even experienced writers may lose enthusiam for a story if they show it too
soon. If you are like this, don't listen to people who urge you to join a
The people who benefit most from classes and workshops are those who
have lots of ideas and find that words flow freely, but who have trouble
in choosing the right words or in organizing their material into
well-structured stories. The latter is a skill that can be learned; the
former comes naturally, if it comes at all.
Where do writers get their ideas?
There is a fine explanation of the creative process on my friend Shirley Rousseau Murphy's
FAQ page, which you should read if you want to write fiction.
How should a person prepare for a career as an author?
By acquiring other skills with which to earn a living. You can't plan to
support yourself by writing novels; very few authors earn enough to do so,
and in all but rare cases it happens only after they've had many years of
experience. The vast majority have some other means of support, either a job
or the income of a spouse. This is not a bad thing, because a writer needs
to gain experience in living, in active involvement with the world;
otherwise he or she would have little to say to readers.
Of course, you can prepare for a related profession, like journalism, in
college. But if you intend to write regularly, you may prefer to take some
kind of job that will leave your evenings and weekends -- and your creative
energy -- free for writing. On the other hand, if you choose a demanding
profession, you can still write in what free time you do have, and switch
careers later if your books are successful. Your first career may even give
you material to write about; for example, several well-known authors of
bestselling novels started out as doctors.
How do you get a book published?
By submitting it to publishers that have published similar books. Be
warned that it is very difficult for a new author -- or even for an
experienced author -- to get published nowadays. It normally takes many months
or even years to find a publisher that is interested, because publishers
receive far more manuscripts than they can accept. But don't be discouraged
by rejections. Books that are eventually successful are often rejected by
many publishers before acceptance.
Unfortunately most publishers require now submission through
literary agents, and getting an agent is not easy.
To find the names and addresses of publishers that will still consider
unsolicited manuscripts, look in a book called The Literary Marketplace,
which you will find in most public libraries. You can also learn from
library books how to format your manuscript and what to say in the cover
letter. Never submit a manuscript to a publisher that places ads in
newspapers or magazines saying "Authors Wanted"-- those publishers require
authors to pay the cost of editing and production. Such publishers are known as
"vanity presses" because although they publish books under their own imprints
as if they were traditional publishers, they accept all books submitted to them,
regardless of quality, instead of only those selected by an editor.
I should say something here about self-publishing (now known as indie
publishing) which has become common since the development of technology
that allows "on demand" printing of books -- that is, printing just a few at a time,
which costs far less than the traditional system of printing thousands and taking
a chance that they will sell. There are now companies that print books without
charging the author anything, or at most a small set-up fee, if he or she produces
the actual files from which the printing is to be done -- something that requires
experience, copyediting skills, computer skills, and expensive software -- or
personally hires experts to do it. This is not the same as sending a manuscript
to a vanity press.
Until recently, neither self-publishing nor vanity publishing was a wise
thing for a young author to do, because -- contrary to what many amateurs
assume -- having a book published that way does not help an author
to get later work published in the traditional way. It does just the opposite;
publishers prefer new authors to those who have self-published unless their
indie books have sold exceptionally well. On the other hand, because there are
now so many more good books being written than the traditional publishing industry
can possibly issue, the majority of writers have to choose between self-publishing
and never publishing at all, and there is much less stigma attached to it than
there used to be -- in time there may be none.
I myself self-published my adult novels. (I did produce the actual files
myself, because I'm a professional copyeditior and I also have
desktop-publishing experience.) But that is a special case, because
I had already had novels published by major publishers. The new
novels, which are for a different readership, don't quite fit any genre market
and so would not meet the requirements of a publisher of adult fiction,
which involve potential for sales to mass audiences within a specific genre.
If I had been younger, I would have waited in the hope that the market
might change in the future. Self-published books do not reach nearly as
many readers as traditionally-published books -- although, on the other hand,
they stay in print indefinitely and remain available to new readers, whereas
traditionally-published books, if not bestsellers, generally go out of print quickly.
In the past few years a new, major trend has developed: the self-publication of
ebooks. This may change the rules of the publishing game, because it is now possible
for anyone to publish an ebook that will be offered in the catalogs of Amazon.com and
other major retailers. It doesn't cost anything except a percentage of each copy sold
(though a writer without editing experience would do well to hire a professional
copyeditor to go over the manuscript before publishing it). Many thousands of books
are now being produced in this way, and the chief problem is how prospective readers
can tell the good ones from the bad ones; a sample of each book is available
but there are far too many to sample. Some kind of reviewing system apart from informal
reviews on individual blogs is badly needed.
It is very important for a new writer to avoid publishing an ebook too quickly
before being sure that it won't strike readers as amateurish. Some, but not all, of the
things that make an ebook look unprofessional are errors in spelling, grammar or punctuation;
inconsistent tense within a sentence or paragraph; informal word usage that's okay in
dialogue but considered unacceptable in narrative (for example, "like" in place of "as if");
overuse of hackneyed phrases; and statements from the author's viewpoint that intrude on
narrative from a character's viewpoint. If a book is issued by a publisher, the publisher's
copyeditor will catch these things. But if you are publishing it yourself and cannot
afford to hire a copyeditor, you need to pay careful attention to them. Correct formatting
of your word processor file is also essential. A good guide to ebook formatting is the free
one available at Smashwords.com.
Can I send you a story I've written?
I'm sorry, but I just don't have time to read and make comments on
unpublished stories. I've often gotten this request, and it wouldn't be fair to
look at a few people's work when I can't do it for everyone who asks.