Bewildering Stories

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Interview with David Drake

Reprinted from the Smoky Mountain News by permission

by Eric S. Brown

David Drake, North Carolina author and legend, chats with the Smoky Mountain News.

In North Carolina we have a lot of sci-fi authors these days. I, myself am one, and people like Orson Scott Card of the Ender’s Game books reside here. But of all of North Carolina’s authors in the genre, there can be no question that David Drake is the most prolific one. Over the years, he has written or edited over 50 mass-market books and is one of those rare people who can honestly say he writes science fiction as a full-time job.

Mr. Drake began his career long ago writing horror short stories and sold his first-ever tale based on the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft to Arkham House, a major publisher. However, it wasn’t long until Drake discovered the military sci-fi he is known for today, and history was made. At the age of 31 he was able to retire and make a living from his craft, quite an achievement for any writer.

His first book in the Hammer’s Slammers series developed a huge cult following and suddenly Drake was a national hit. Recently one of his tales was even reprinted in a collection entitled The Best Military Science Fiction of the 20th Century alongside authors like Arthur C. Clarke and Phillip K. Dick.

For years, I have read Drake’s work and in truth he is reason that I, like many others, am a writer myself today. I somehow managed to catch up with him recently and chat with him. For someone so famous, he is a really nice guy and he agreed to do an interview for this paper. So here is some of what we discussed. I hope you enjoy it as much I did.

Mr. Drake, you have been writing for quite some time and have been rather successful at it. To what to do you credit your fortune and what advice would you give to young writers today?

I’ve stuck with writing, largely as self-therapy, I believe, during times I wasn’t selling any of what I wrote. That’s why I had a chance at a career, I suppose — because i didn’t quit. I suppose another part of what you call my fortune was being drafted out of law school and shipped to Viet Nam. That gave me the need to write.

If there’s any advice for a writer beyond black ink on white paper, double-space — and that’s the most important thing — it would be not to write for the money. Don’t do anything just for the money. Do something because it’s what you want to do, and don’t complain if you don’t become rich.

Has Hollywood ever came knocking about your Hammer’s Slammers series? The books have a huge cult and mainstream following.

There’ve been discussions with Hollywood at various levels. When I have the money in my hand, I’ll talk about it. Until then, I don’t believe in anything but the deadline on the book I’m working on.

What are you working on now?

Which is the third in my RCN series of space operas from Baen Books, The Far Side of Heaven. It’s due out in hardcover in October, and I’m not quite done with the rough draft (with two more drafts to come).

What made you decide to stay in North Carolina even after making it into the “big time” as a writer?

Oh, heavens, I moved here for Duke Law School and found the winters wonderfully nicer than those of Iowa, where I grew up. I live here because I love the weather and the house we built in the middle of 23 acres; and our friends are here by now also.

Tell me something the world may not know about the sci-fi legend, David Drake?

Gee, don’t call me any kind of legend, please. Well, I’ve got a couple motorcycles (and my wife has a car) but I haven’t driven a car for 15 years. (Another reason to prefer North Carolina to Iowa. Most years.)

What do you do when you are not writing?

Mostly I’m writing. To settle myself, I target shoot in my side yard and translate Latin verse (which I put up on my website).

Do you ever wished you had just practiced law instead of picking of the pen? (Drake was a lawyer in Chapel Hill, North Carolina before becoming a writer.)

Good God, no! I quit lawyering to drive a bus because lawyering was killing me. I was able to write more as a bus driver and my career took off — which really pleases me. But I didn’t expect this level of success or anything close to it.

What is your biggest regret in life?

I regret some of what happened when I was in the army. I regret hurting people over the years; there were a lot of things I could’ve handled better — but I did handle them better the next time around, pretty much, and I won’t regret a learning experience.

How does it feel to be the writer you are and has your success changed you in any way from those days when you were working odd jobs? And does it feel odd to have inspired so many young writers like myself?

I never had “odd jobs” in the normal sense (except summer work and while I was in school, of course). I was a salaried bus driver for a year after quitting the law. Believe me, I work harder for myself than most people do for an outside employer.

I’ve never understood why what I do should be inspiring. I have a feeling that a lot more people would like to be what they think I am than what I am. (Which is OK.)

A lot of your work, even in the Slammers series is very clean in its language even though it is some hardcore military stuff. Was this intentional and why?

The Slammers series was started for mass-circulation magazines. It’s quite true that in ’Nam, every other word was a form of ‘f*&^%’ (at least in the field), but it doesn’t read the same to somebody who hasn’t been there. Folks wouldn’t understand.

What are some of the awards you have won over the years?

Hmm. The only award I’ve won was a special presentation by my Legal History Class at Duke: they gave me a one-off Pedant of the Year Award with a nice plaque.

Some years ago I was on a Sunday morning panel with seven other writers. They were going down the list of what awards they’d won. It came to me, and I said I hadn’t won any. Whereupon the moderator noted that I was the only person on the panel who was a full-time professional writer... which also was true.

Back when you first started out you wrote some horror, what led you away from this genre and into sci-fi?

I got away from horror as my head came up from Viet Nam bit by bit. Nowadays, of course, horror is dead as a commercial genre — but I refused attempts to get me into it at the time it looked like a good way to make money. (Note what I said about money earlier.)

And finally, you have worked with a lot of editors and writers over the years. Who were some of the best to get to work with?

I’ve worked with the same editors and publishers from the beginning. On my first book, Tom Doherty was publisher and Jim Baen was his SF editor. Tom now runs Tor, Jim runs Baen Books; and those are the people I work for.

Copyright © 2003 by Eric S. Brown