Science fiction writer Joe Haldeman is a writer’s writer. He’s one of the people other writers go to when they want to learn more about the literary craft. While it is not uncommon to find a science fiction writer teaching other writers the art of writing science fiction, it’s less common to find a science fiction writer teaching scientists “to be” to write science fiction, but that’s exactly what he does at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – one of the premiere science and technology universities in the world. However, there is more to Haldeman than his role as a writer or as a teacher.
Haldeman lived through the Vietnam War, he attended the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop when it wasn’t cool to write science fiction in an MFA program, and he has won a host of literary awards for his work. Even more remarkable, than his extensive list of accomplishments and successes, is that he did it all while maintaining a happy and strong relationship with his wife, Gay.
It was a sincere honor to interview Joe Haldeman about his career as a writer and teacher, and I hope that this interview, at least in some small way, has captured the depth of knowledge and experience that he has acquired over his career, spanning 40 years and counting.
Joe, you earned a B.S. in astronomy from the University of Maryland. Then, several years later, you decided to get an MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. What inspired you to want an MFA?
I was curious about what you could learn in that environment, but it was mainly about the money. With my GI Bill and two years’ income as a graduate assistant (and Gay’s income as a graduate assistant in linguistics), we could live pretty well even if I only sold short stories.
What I didn’t realize was that the MFA would eventually lead to a professorship at MIT. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about an academic career; if I had been, I would’ve gone for a Ph.D. in astronomy.
You were drafted into the Vietnam War in 1967, how did that experience inform your writing and your teaching?
A war gives you at least one novel’s worth of subject matter; it gave me my first novel and, later, my first science fiction novel. Even later, my longest and most ambitious novel, 1968.
I don’t know that the war itself did much to inform my teaching, but having been a soldier made public speaking relatively easy. I used to be really nervous about it. But hey, what can the audience do to you? Chuck a grenade at you? Been there, done that.
Of all of the works you have written, looking back, what piece would you write differently today? What would you want to change about it?
In an important way, that’s a question without meaning. Every piece would be completely different; I wouldn’t write the same books at all. I probably would write a war novel, since I’m not stupid, and I would probably write a science fiction novel about war, because I love science fiction. (But if WAR YEAR had been wildly successful, it might have led me into a career as a more “literary” novelist.)
You are a voracious traveler. If you could visit any time, anywhere in existence, where would you most like to go and what kinds of things would you like to discover?
I think in terms of people rather than places. I would love to sit and listen to Samuel Johnson and Boswell chatting, or watch Shakespeare in the rehearsal of plays he wrote. Einstein talking astrophysics with Hubble. Sample the charms of a world-class seductress like Mata Hari or Cleopatra. Work in the kitchen with Charles Beard and enjoy the results. Watch Louis Armstrong find his new voice in Chicago.
Step onto the moon with the other Armstrong.
You have lived in a variety of locations in your life. How did you end up in Cambridge, teaching creative writing at MIT?
Well, we’re only there for 3.5 months of the year, and otherwise live in Florida. I got there more or less by accident. Frank Conroy, who was a professor at MIT, had visited the University of Iowa in the early 80’s, and someone mentioned that someone who’d graduated from the workshop had become, of all things, a science fiction writer.
A few weeks later, Frank was in the MIT Writing Department office and overheard someone complain that all the fiction students were writing science fiction, and none of the faculty knew anything about it. He said they ought to call Iowa and find out who and where I was. They called me in Florida and I wound up doing a one-year visiting professorship. They offered me a full-time position, but I didn’t want that, and compromised by agreeing to be an adjunct professor, coming in for one semester a year.
You have taught quite a few science fiction writing workshops during your career. What is it like teaching creative writing to MIT students? Are there any special challenges or benefits?
The big benefit is that no one is stupid. It’s a real world-class challenge, trying to teach writing to people who aren’t intelligent. The students at MIT may not be natural writers – they often aren’t interested in writing at all – but if you tell them how to do something they will understand, and give it a solid shot.
One negative thing, related, is that I’m unlikely to find students who’ve always wanted to be writers. (They all went down the street to Harvard.) Even teaching in a small community college, I’ll have several people in class who would give anything to be able to write for a living. At MIT, not so much . . .
Hollywood. THE FOREVER WAR made me contacts in movies and legitimate stage that made life a lot more interesting and somewhat easier financially.
Movies are a different world from books; even a small movie involves money several orders of magnitude larger than even a successful novel. You meet a lot of different kinds of people, with radically different views of life, and life itself takes on a new pace and color.
I wouldn’t want to do it for a living (in fact have twice turned down lucrative studio writing jobs), but as a sort of out-of-body experience it’s like nothing else.
The most interesting thing I’ve learned about teaching is how common writing talent is. In most classes I have one or two or even ten people who have enough talent to write for a living. Whether they can handle the difficult aspects of apprenticeship, and whether they can keep coming up with interesting stuff to write about – those are qualities unrelated to talent.
More so than other careers, perhaps, writing is a succession of “firsts” – first story published, first novel, first awards, first movie rights – and it’s something that gets you through lean times. You never know when lightning is going to strike.
For new writers who want to focus on science fiction specifically, is there any advice you can give them about writing in this genre?
Understand that it’s crowded. There’s less opportunity in SF than there was when I entered the field, and a lot more competition. If you’re good, you’ll get published, and if you’re lucky you’ll be able to make a living at it. If you’re real lucky, you can make a good living.
It would be smart to have something to fall back on. Marrying someone with serious money is a good career move. Learn a trade, like hit man or safecracker, that leaves you a lot of time to write.
If you’re a student, I’d recommend getting a degree in something other than writing. Everybody who becomes a writer learns how to do it by reading. If you pursue studies in physics or social work or art criticism, you’ll have things to write about that fall outside of common experience, and that’s especially valuable in science fiction (but isn’t a bad idea for any kind of writing).
What new projects are you working on now?
I’m finishing up EARTHBOUND, the third book in the Marsbound trilogy, and have begun preliminary writing on the next two, tentatively titled WORK DONE FOR HIRE and PROJECT PHOBOS.
A couple of days ago I told the editor of F&SF that I’ll do a short story based on a cover painting, and the painting looks sufficiently weird to make it an interesting project.