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I want to be just like Marshall Thomas when I grow up.
By that I don't mean I want to retire from a 35-year US Foreign Service Office career with postings in a variety of East Asian countries. Nor do I necessarily want to be the author of one published SF novel with three sequels in the pipeline (though that does sound pretty cool).
What I find most inspiring about Thomas is that after a lifetime of "deal(ing) with the real world" - having a career, getting married, raising children - he had the guts and determination to re-invent himself and turn an avocation into a successful full-time occupation. And he's having the time of his life doing it.
I first met Marshall Thomas via email, after learning that he would be a guest author at Balticon 39. The face-to-face meeting took place during the first few hectic setup hours in the Dealers Room at Balticon, where Thomas manned a table to meet his fans and sell copies of his first novel, the military SF thriller Soldier of the Legion. Articulate yet soft-spoken, Thomas' enthusiastic enjoyment of the writing life was quite evident during our conversations, both in the Dealers Room and later over dinner.
Following is my interview with Marshall Thomas.
BookThink: Philip K Dick once said (in "An Interview With America's Most Brilliant Science-Fiction Writer" by Joe Vitale, The Aquarian, No. 11, October 11-18, 1978) that "a writer writes because it's his response to the world." Dick's need to write was a response to his fundamental sense of indignation with the world. You began writing seriously in 1982, but it wasn't until 2002 that your first book was published. What motivated you to keep going in those twenty years?
Thomas: I think Phillip Dick was correct - a writer writes because he must. As to indignation with the world, sure, anyone who isn't outraged by what he observes around him isn't thinking, although there can be wildly differing ideas about what's outrageous. H.L. Mencken said anyone who is able to think things out without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos will conclude that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable. Most writers spend a lot of time thinking things out and reflect their beliefs in their writing. I don't think I'm any different.
I had wanted to write SF ever since I was a teenager, in the late '50's, but I had to deal with the real world first. By 1982 I was serving in Bangkok and decided I was going to get serious about my long-suppressed desire to write. I began writing my first novel, Soldier of the Legion, in the little spare time I had. This was at the very beginning of the computer age and I bought an Apple clone, thinking it would help me in my project. Luckily I was still writing longhand and typing it into the computer later, because the longhand came in handy after I accidentally deleted most of the electronic version. Welcome to the computer age!
As I worked on the story I found that I loved writing. I loved creating imaginary worlds with believable characters and throwing them into challenging situations and seeing if I could generate emotion or excitement in the reader. I realized early on that stories are about people, and if the reader doesn't care about the characters, he will not care about the story, no matter how many whiz-bang, hi-tech gizmos I throw in there. An example is the movie version of Lord of the Rings. People loved that series, but it wasn't because of the special effects. It was because of the characters and the horrific challenges they faced - and the hard choices they made. When Frodo says he'll take the ring to Mordor, when Boromir redeems himself by fighting the Orcs to the death after trying to steal the ring, when Sam is rescued from drowning by Frodo and says he promised he'd watch over Frodo, no matter what, you know there is still hope for humanity, no matter how grim the situation appears. It's all about people. My characters are very human. They're not supermen. They bleed, they strive, they die. And hopefully the readers will care. If they don't, I've failed.
What motivated me to keep going for twenty years? Well, time flies when you're having fun! When I finished the first book, I did a sequel, and then another, and another. I couldn't stop writing, and at first I had no particular goal other than writing exciting stories that I hoped would inspire emotion, thought, and maybe even tears. After awhile, however, I began to wonder if I was really a good writer. I never showed my writing to anyone. I was unpublished and didn't have any readers. I was just writing for myself. I was on the other side of the world, in the days before e-mail, and I had no writing contacts and knew nothing about the rules of writing. That's when I began to think about publication. How did I know I was really good? The only way to prove that was to get published, I thought. If a publishing professional was willing to bet real money that my book would sell, it would probably mean I was a good writer.
Writing was fun for me. Getting published was a long hard trail and not fun at all. It involved a serious examination of my work and a serious commitment to re-write, edit and improve my writing. I did that after I returned to the States in 1998, when I went on-line with a group of other unpublished writers who were serious about improving their writing skills by critiquing each others work. I was amazed at how much I learned. It took years, but I had years. I knew I was never going to stop writing and decided if I wanted to get published I was going to improve my work, no matter what, until it was good enough to find a publisher. I was willing to continue submitting my story, indefinitely, until I found a publisher.
BookThink: Just about every reader of SF has at some time thought about writing a story or novel. Some even try, only to find out that it really is harder than it looks. What are some of the most important things you would tell an aspiring writer?
Thomas: This is a very important question! There are three secrets to success in the writing world, and I tell this to every aspiring writer who asks:
Some thoughts on this advice: if you're serious about wanting to write, you have to enjoy doing it. You have to love the craft. You have to derive satisfaction from what you write. When you start off, you may not have the skills to create anything that anyone else would want to read. However if you really want to do this, just do it. Write. Write a lot. Don't be discouraged. You'll get better. And what's the rush? We've got our entire lives to do this. It's like becoming a champion gymnast in that it takes years to become really good, but in writing we don't have to worry about the body atrophying. We can become champion writers in our 60s and 70s, if necessary (hopefully you'll do it faster than I did!) By then the champion gymnasts of our generation will be retired.
Writing is the first challenge. Improving your writing is the next. Once you are comfortable writing, once you have produced something that you're proud of, you have to show your product to unbiased observers and listen to what they say. That can hurt, but you have to be open to criticism, make judgments about what you hear, and make changes if necessary. Publication is the last big hurdle. That can take years. You have to have a good product, but you also have to have patience and determination. The publishing industry does not think in terms of days or weeks or months, like normal people do. They think in terms of years. Sometimes I suspect they think in terms of decades.
I have plenty of other advice for aspiring writers, but I don't want to fill Tim's entire edition, so I'll just repeat: Never give up!
BookThink: Soldier of the Legion is set in a richly imagined universe, with lots of attention paid to the details of military hardware, tactics, and traditions, as well as broader elements such as human and alien cultures and politics. Did you develop this backstory first before plotting out the novel, or did the two co-evolve?
Thomas: The story and the background evolved together. As I wrote the story, I had to add the details to make the environment seem real. I had to create two major galactic empires, more than 55 planets, almost 30 named spacecraft, and more than 30 important characters with plenty of minor players. Each of the major characters had to be an individual with hopes and dreams and nightmares - real people. I had to create political systems, star charts and organization charts for the Confederation of Free Worlds and the United System Alliance and, later, for seven other major political groupings. I had to people all these with a host of different races, human, alien and biogen. I needed advanced weaponry, technology and science that was convincing. I needed realistic stellar military organizations and tactics for the ConFree Legion, the System's DefCorps and the alien Omnis. I needed a galactic history, a timeline, a system of dates and measurements and a list of common terms. My publisher, Timberwolf, challenged all my science and forced me to defend it, which kept me on my toes. I compiled a cutting-edge science notebook for my own purposes and keep it current. All of these myriad details had to be instantly retrievable when I needed them.
BookThink: Speaking of the backstory, I was struck while reading some of the technical documents (such as the Legion Training Manuals) how much they resembled role playing game (RPG) manuals. Have you had any thoughts of developing the Legion universe as an RPG?
Thomas: Yes, I've often thought Soldier of the Legion would be perfect for a role-playing game or for an SF military video game. At one point Timberwolf was exploring the possibility of making it into a video game, but I was never told the result. I've certainly got enough details for role-playing or video gaming. I have full character studies for all major characters, for example, as well as details on all weapons systems. However, I know very little about role-playing games. Perhaps this is a project for the future. Right now I'm concentrating on generating publicity for the book. That's a lot harder than I thought.
BookThink: When can your readers expect the second book in the Legion series?
Thomas: Timberwolf tells me the second book in the series, The Black March, is scheduled for release in the last quarter of this year, as a trade paperback and as an audio production. The manuscript is now at the publisher's for editing. What I tell everyone is that if you liked Soldier of the Legion you will love The Black March. The Black March is really the conclusion to Soldier of the Legion, as it's in this volume that the young troopers of Squad Beta learn the awful, real-life consequences of their decision to walk through the Legion Gate.
BookThink: Timberwolf has also released Soldier of the Legion as an audio book, with a difference. Founder Patrick Seaman describes the audio adaptations as "dramatized editions ... with a cast of twenty to twenty-five actors" (from the Midwest Book Review Interview by Laurel Johnson). This sounds like an inspired return to the good old days of radio plays (think Orson Welles and "The War of the Worlds"). How successful has the audio release been?
Thomas: The audio version of Soldier of the Legion is simply terrific. It's an unabridged full-cast audio, nine full hours, with 22 voice actors playing the parts, wild sound effects, and spooky music. I love this audio! It's available on CD, MP-3 CD, and cassette tape. The main narrator, Bill Sebastian, plays the part of Beta Three (Thinker). He has such a clear, well-enunciated voice that it's a pleasure to listen to him. Timberwolf has a full, modern sound studio, and they do these audio releases for most of their books. The audio was a finalist in the 2002 Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Award for Audio Fiction. The book was also a 2002 finalist for Science Fiction. How successful has the audio been? In terms of sales, we're looking for more. In terms of an outstanding, exciting, artistic success, it's phenomenal! If you like action SF in an audio format, this is the CD for you.
BookThink: As a career Foreign Service Officer, you have lived in many different parts of the world, though primarily in Southeast Asia. How has your experience with the political and military history of this region influenced your writing?
Thomas: Yes, I've spent most of my life overseas, sometimes in pleasant surroundings and sometimes in very hostile environments. Like my colleagues, I've experienced totalitarian Marxist dictatorships, corrupt authoritarian police states, ruthless military regimes, lost countries bypassed by history, monarchies where the king is worshipped as semi-divine, and colonial outposts over-run by reality. I've lived in noisy, bustling modern cities, wartime capitals crowded with refugees and soldiery, dreamy tropical paradises, quiet country backwaters, horrific polluted crime-ridden slums, and idyllic suburbs on a lost continent.
I've seen revolution, terrorism, war, conquest, ethnic cleansing, religious strife and death. I've served in places that were sometimes more like comic books than countries, where artillery fire could ruin your commute, where local government found it necessary to warn the inhabitants not to celebrate Christmas by throwing hand grenades, and where the competing political factions, rebel military units and revolutionary groups all sold official T-shirts. I've seen grinding poverty and obscene wealth side by side. I've served in places where you could get killed just stopping for a red light and places that took my breath away with vistas of stunning, wild natural beauty. Quite often they were the same places.
In every country I found people, friendly for the most part, doing their best for their families and struggling to survive in whatever environment fate had reserved for them. I loved and enjoyed every place I've been, but it was kind of like a 30-year adrenaline high. I can't get rid of all those images, and it's given me a greater appreciation for my own country. Of course, all this will surface in my writing from time to time. It's not just Southeast Asia, however. It could have been the Near East, Africa, Latin America or anywhere else. People face the same challenges everywhere, often from their own incompetent governments (but I repeat myself). I believe my experiences have given me some insight into historical forces, including why we fail to learn from history, how governments tyrannize their people, why people willingly become slaves of the state, and why it is important that governments are directed by the citizenry and not the other way around. You can find all this in the Soldier series.
BookThink: A final question. People seem to either love it or hate it - what did you think o f the Paul Verhoeven movie treatment of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers?
Thomas: Starship Troopers was one of my favorites when I was a teenager, and I've never forgotten it. I had to see the movie, even though I was certain that Hollywood was going to trash the story, and I'd hate it. I was pleasantly surprised. I was pleased that they retained some of Heinlein's political philosophy in the film because I wasn't expecting it. It may not have been Lord of the Rings, but I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. And the bugs - they were super!
Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark
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