[updated November 24th, 2011 – Sorry to hear that Anne passed away today, according to the BBC News website. She struck me as a lovely lady and I’m sorry I didn’t get to see more of her in the last few years.]
I was recently interested to learn that Anne McCaffrey lived quite close to me (a ten minute drive) and so I thought it would be neat to conspire to meet her. That’s one of the nice perks of the job, I have an excuse to meet people who seem interesting, when otherwise accosting people you don’t personally know is just stalking. : )
We actually talked about a lot more than made it into the article, because the piece was for publication to a mainstream audience. I still have the notes and tape recordings, so I may put something together specifically for writers, as she really has a wealth of knowledge, and like all truly successful people, she shares it quite freely.
Anyway, Anne was a delight to meet, a really charming lady and we spent a very pleasant couple of hours chatting at her kitchen table, surrounded by her cats and dogs. Seeing as this is already on the web elsewhere, I thought why not put it here. Enjoy!
Unless you are a devotee of her genre, the odds are you probably haven’t heard of Anne McCaffrey. McCaffrey has written more than 70 books in her 40 year career, and in 1978 her novel The White Dragon was the first science fiction book to make the New York Times hardcover bestseller list.
This weekend, the 79-year-old author picked up the top accolade, the Grand Master award, at the Nebulas, the science fiction world’s equivalent of the Oscars. Previous winners have included Robert A Heinlein, Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Brian Aldiss.
In short, McCaffrey is sci-fi royalty.
However, this stalwart of the world of speculative fiction chooses to live a distinctly low-key life in Co Wicklow, where she indulges her dual loves of writing and horses.
McCaffrey is best known in the science fiction world for her Dragonriders of Pern series, a collection of 17 books set on a future planet where fire breathing dragons are employed to burn deadly acid-rain type ‘thread’ out of the sky. Despite this, the author is adamant her novels are at least partly rooted in – albeit speculative – reality. “The dragons themselves were biogenetically engineered from an indigenous life form. They are not magical, which makes them science fiction and not fantasy,” she says.
For the uninitiated, the difference between science fiction and fantasy is that fantasy deals with the impossible – magic, elves, wizards and the like – while science fiction deals with the potentially real.
McCaffrey was born in 1926 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She published her first novel, Restoree, in 1967 as a reaction to what she describes as the “absurd and unrealistic’‘ portrayals of women in science fiction novels in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
“Science fiction has evolved from the era of bullet proof bras and all that nonsense into a genre that can pose reflective and intellectual questions,” she says.
“The beauty of the genre is that it is essentially born of metaphor, and you can explore topics you probably couldn’t in mainstream fiction, merely by giving them a fantastic backdrop.
“There are also quite a few good mainstream writers that dabble in science fictional waters. Iain Banks is definitely a science fiction writer who has successfully straddled both sides of the fence. Clive Cussler and Wilbur Smith come close to writing pure science fiction,”
The genres of science fiction and fantasy aren’t always as far fetched as some might think. Many of the high-tech gadgets we take for granted today have their origins in the science fiction of yesterday.
The communications satellite was first mooted by Arthur C Clarke, the flip-top mobile phone by Star Trek. In a world obsessed with the evils of genetic engineering and cloning, it’s interesting to note that McCaffrey has been writing about bio-engineered creatures for more than 30 years.
“Mankind is ever ingenious in finding ways of subverting proper diligence and discretion. When I look at the world today, from the Terri Schiavo case to the debate on euthanasia, I’m disturbed by what I see. There are some choices which really should be left to God,’’ McCaffrey says.
“I try not to state any moral position in my books, I prefer to demonstrate and I rarely come up with a moral tone, unless it suits a character’s position. I don’t know enough myself to start preaching to other people.”
For bookstore owners, science fiction and fantasy novels are strong sellers. Fans are extremely loyal to favourite authors and eagerly snatch up each new title in a series.
Occasionally, this level of fervour reaches the mainstream; for example, when JK Rowling produces a new Harry Potter novel. Despite this, sci-fi and fantasy are still the skeletons in the closet of the literary world.
While it is unusual not to find a fantasy or science fiction title in both the hardback and bestseller lists, it’s even more unusual to see an sci-fi title reviewed by a mainstream publication.
Most science fiction and fantasy novels are considered by non-fans to be little more than juvenile escapist nonsense – a book buying phase intelligent adults grow out of.
Despite this, it would be difficult to find a mainstream bookshop anywhere on the planet that didn’t have a bookcase of the stuff tucked away somewhere. And the odds are it would include a title or two by Anne McCaffrey.
McCaffrey believes the stereotype of the average science fiction fan as a spotty teenage boy is unfair. She says as many women as men read her books, and that the majority are not the nerds they are sometimes made out be.
“Most of them like my books probably partly because I have victims who become survivors, people who also don’t fit in and don’t conform but who find a place where they do fit in and they do conform. This has been a motif that appears in every lead character – I try to focus on someone who will change for the better or find themselves in the course of the book.”
McCaffrey is one of several internationally successful US writers to have made the move to Ireland, attracted initially by the favourable tax breaks offered by the government.
“I was divorcing my husband and wanted somewhere else to live. I was raising three kids and I thought that a move to Ireland might give me the push I needed. So in 1970 I moved the family here and put my kids into school. My mother came too and she felt safe here in the last few years of her life. That was important to me,” she says.
“The move here can allow people to advance their earning power considerably. Not having to pay tax means that writers have an amount of money in their pocket equivalent to earning substantially more. It can make the difference between being able to write as a full time occupation, and not.”
McCaffrey is aware of the contentious nature of the tax breaks. “In the past I worried about being an unwanted guest. But then it occurred to me that I have around 40 to 50 people who come to visit me from all over the world each year who wouldn’t come otherwise and who spend their money here. I probably make the money back for Ireland, so it’s not necessarily a one-way street.”
With dragons, heroes and stories that catch the imagination, McCaffrey’s Pern series seems ripe for a movie adaptation, but book-to-film adaptations are not without risk.
For the studio, because a successful book will deliver a ready-made audience. But for the author, there is significantly more risk: frequently once contracts are signed, they have no control over how their work is depicted on screen. This is a problem McCaffrey knows only too well.
Past attempts to adapt her Pern series have collapsed amid creative differences, but not at McCaffrey’s behest.
“The studio took the original scriptwriter’s work and gave it to a script doctor who dumbed it down to the point where, when it came time to shoot, both the director and the main lead actor refused to do it as it was not what they had signed on for.
“I had no opt-out clause and couldn’t have stopped it, so their integrity was much appreciated.
“Authors have little to do with films made of their books; I understand JK Rowling is an exception to this,” she says.
McCaffrey is still writing Pern novels, but has also passed the torch of the series to her son Todd, who has a keen interest in science fiction. The most recent Pern novel, Dragon’s Kin, was a collaboration between mother and son. Todd McCaffrey has also recently published his own solo Pern novel, Dragon’s Blood.
For McCaffrey, the pleasure in the writing process comes from telling the story. “Todd plans his books but I have never planned mine. I have written exactly two synopses in my career and I wrote neither of the books they describe. Once the story is told, I lose interest in it. I’m lucky my publishers don’t require me to write synopses.
“Writing takes a lot of discipline, and as I had to support both myself and my children, I just sat down and did it.”