AZ Edge Interview: Prescott's Alan Dean Foster has exactly the write stuff
Alan Dean Foster loves playing hooky.
Extending him an invitation to come over, talk and catch up on a Wednesday morning gets a sure-fire RSVP. He lives just down the road in the Southview section of Prescott off Williamson Valley Road, where he and JoAnn, his wife of 36 years, have lived for the past 31. He's not a famous writer who lives in Prescott; he's a guy who lives in Prescott who happens to be a famous writer.
He's an early riser, reads all sorts of newspapers and walks a few feet to work - to his study. Not a workaholic, just steadily committed. In one year alone, nine of his books were published, a feat he admits years later "was too much." His nearly 40-year science fiction/fantasy writing career has included the influential "Icerigger" series in the '70s and '80s, both "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" franchises, and novelizations everyone has heard of: "Alien," "Clash of the Titans," "Starman" and 2009's "Star Trek."
More recently, his "Predators I Have Known," about encounters with nature's most fearsome animals, was published in February and transplants the fantasy fiction writer into the world of nonfiction. An avid traveler who has visited more than 100 countries, Foster, 64, immerses himself in continent-hopping in search of inspiration and creative foundations. "Predators" chronicles his 40 years of travels. "Rich in detail with a good sense of self-deprecation mixed with genuine cultural and animal insight, Foster herein challenges all of us to live a little more bravely than we might so that we can write better, understand better, and experience the world better," wrote one reviewer at goodreads.com.
His website (alandeanfoster.com) is a showcase for his playful writing, such as this post from this month: "Recent wildlife discovery apropos of absolutely nothing: If you have a fly wandering about on your computer screen and you move the cursor toward it, it will fly away (the insect, not the cursor)." He also writes an occasional letter to the editor to the Courier opinion page when the mood strikes. And, by the way, he's also a competitive power-lifter. At an Arizona state meet in March, Foster set a new state record in the 198-pound division for RAW powerlifting in the 60-64 age group by bench pressing 287 pounds.
In the late morning, Foster stops by the Courier offices for some casual conversation. He wears a gold polo-style shirt with "Galapagos Islands, Ecuador" stitched over his heart, black jeans and sandals; his gold hoop earring is a perfect fit.
He loves having a chat because it pulls him away from work; i.e., he'll happily use the excuse to take a break from working, and it's not even lunch yet.
Foster is a native New Yorker but spent his young adult life in Los Angeles. JoAnn is from a West Texas town of 300. Choosing Prescott in the early 1980s was a compromise. "We wanted to live someplace where there were no fires, no floods, no earthquakes, no tornados, no hurricanes, mild summers and mild winters, within reason. That omits every place in the continental U.S. except parts of Arizona and New Mexico," Foster said. "I happened to see an issue of Arizona Highways and the cover story was Prescott with a Victorian house. We said, 'Let's go look here.'"
While still in his 20s back in L.A., Foster was approached by George Lucas to develop the novelizations for both "Star Wars" and an original sequel to the first "Star Wars" which had the working title "Splinter of the Mind's Eye." He also developed the storyline for the original "Star Trek" motion picture and later wrote 10 "Star Trek Log" books and the novelization for the 2009 smash movie.
When he's not writing or swimming laps at the Prescott YMCA pool, he's traveling. He learned early on that his trips, which he takes by himself mostly, fed creative juices to his writing and story/character development in a process that combines international field research with daily writing sessions back home.
"I write to travel; I don't travel to write. They're all obviously intimately bound up together. I couldn't write a lot of the things that I've written - even if they're set 1,500 years in the future - on another world if I hadn't been to these other places."
In 1983, Foster traveled in Morogoro, Tanzania, for six weeks, at a time when local Communist rule still made it difficult to get around. Before he went he had outlined an entire novel that he intended to set in that part of the world, complete with local flavor.
"The stuff I saw and the people I met and the things I experienced were so different basically from what I anticipated that I threw out the outline and wrote a completely different book," he said of the manuscript that later became "Into the Out Of" in 1985. "Ever since then, when I take a trip, I no longer go with any preconceived notions storywise in mind. I soak everything up, and when I come home it just kind of sits and simmers."
He's currently finishing the first draft of his new book, "Madrenga," which is named for the title character. Typically "90 to 95 percent" of his first drafts become final.
And he's got a lot of stories, including the guaranteed only story you'll ever hear about him and Alice Cooper discussing classic Warner Bros. cartoons just before the cast and crew screening of the original "Star Wars" at a rented theater on Hollywood Boulevard. He describes "Star Wars" as "real space-opera science fiction."
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Q&A, with Alan Dean Foster:
Q: What led you toward nonfiction for "Predators I Have Known"?
A: People had asked me for years to write a travel book. They said, "you've been to such interesting places and done interesting things; you ought to write a travel book." I didn't want to do "here we are today in Rome and over here are the Spanish Steps, and next we're going to the Borghese Museum, blah blah blah blah blah." 'Cause there are a million books like that. And it occurred to me one day that everybody likes animal stories. So they said, "Why don't you write a book about animals?" and then, to further heighten the commercial prospects, I said, "Let's restrict it to dangerous animals, at least marginally dangerous animals that I've had encounters with." And that became "Predators."
Q: You have a Master of Fine Arts from UCLA, you wrote "Mission to Moulokin" in the "Icerigger trilogy," and 10 other books based on "Star Trek" ... Power-lifting?
A: I was a nerd. Before there were nerds the word was "bookworm." Bookworm evolved into nerd, that's the current term. My wife will tell you that I'm a nerd. She's right; I am a nerd. Obama's a nerd. It doesn't bother me. ... I never did anything athletically in school. I was never much of an athlete. I wasn't the 90-pound weakling, but I never made any of the teams. I made the swim team, but I preferred my science teacher - there's a nerd decision for you right there.
About 30 years ago I figured I had to do something athletically. Every kid does something, but I couldn't see myself doing basketball when I was 50 or 60 for exercise. I've got to do something because I sit at my desk. You talk about a nonphysical profession! It's hard to find one with less physical activity than writing. So I was looking for things I could do till I dropped dead, and I narrowed it down to golf, swimming ... and then you would see these pictures of these weightlifters. From the neck up they would be their actual age, and from the neck down they were all 30 years old, 35. I didn't see getting anything out of golf, which I regard more of a hobby than a sport. I love swimming, but it's boring. Up and down, up and down. There's no variety, and it's hard when the pool's full of kids, even though we have a nice facility here in Prescott. I thought, "I'll try the power lifting/weight lifting. I'll give it six months and see if anything happens." And it did - it works.
Q: Indulge me. What do you know about the storyline for the "Star Trek" sequel? I can't find anything on the Internet.
A: (hearty laugh) With good reason. Simon and Schuster commissioned four sequel novels, or "spinoff" novels, which take place after the events of the 2009 movie. And all the authors got paid, and I finished the book, which I'm very pleased with. And Paramount killed it. They said, 'You can't do that.' And the assumption is they don't want anything coming out, however trivial, that could possibly conflict with anything that (Roberto) Orci and (Alex) Kurtzman want to put in the screenplay for the sequel film. That's not to say the books will never appear, but at this point in time it's just dead. And I know Simon and Schuster didn't like that. But however they worked out the financials, those four books just disappeared. So I wrote this lovely sequel novel which takes place right after the events in the film, but nobody's gonna see it, at least not in the foreseeable future. As for the sequel film itself, I know zip.
Q: You ghostwrote the original 'Star Wars' for George Lucas when you were, what, 30?
A: Well, that was '75 when I wrote the book; the film came out in ... '76? I would've been 29.
Q: What are your memories of sitting at the typewriter during that project?
A: Oh, typewriter, you remember typewriters! Yes, indeed, it was a typewriter, an IBM Selectric; I had moved up from my Smith Corona portable by then.
My then-film agent got a call and said, "Do you know who George Lucas is?" I said "Sure. 'American Graffiti'; 'THX-1138.' She said, "Well, he's making a film, and they need somebody to do a book version of it." I had done the "Star Trek Logs" at that point. And apparently someone had read a book of mine called "Icerigger" (1974) and felt that it was similar in spirit to what Lucas was doing. So I said, sure. I'm a young writer, I'll take any job. ...
They said, "Before we can make a deal here, George would like to meet you." They said he had this little special effects outfit called Industrial Light & Magic; it's in a warehouse in Van Nuys, which is five minutes from the house I grew up in. So I drive over there, and it's a standard industrial area just like out at the airport here. And the first thing I see when I get out of the car are these huge wooden tables with all these plastic buildings on it. This is the tunnel for the Death Star. It's too big to fit in the building, so they've got to put it all outside. I go in and there's one whole wall completely covered with World War II model kits - battleships, planes - they're cannibalizing the parts to build things like tie-fighters and Imperial star cruisers and all that. All pre-CGI, obviously.
I go in and meet George - to this day, the nicest guy I've met in the film business. And he's showing me around. "Here's the Death Star." It's about this big (holds hands about 12 inches apart). And he said, "Do you want to stay and see some dailies?" There were some tie-fighter shots with just green screen. Nothing in the background, no sound or anything. Apparently I passed that test, too. He said, "I need you to write the novelization of the film, and I'd also like you to write a sequel novel." So it was a two-book contract. So, that's how that all came about.
Q: Do you remember how much your two-book contract was for?
A: (long pause) The first book was a straight work-for-hire, and I don't remember how much it was. It wasn't a lot. Novelizations aren't a lot, no matter who does them. And I don't remember the second book either, but I had a standard royalty on "Splinter" ("... of the Mind's Eye," which became "Empire Strikes Back") because it was an original novel, even though it was all based on his universe and his characters.
Q: Favorite "Star Wars" character?
A: Oh yeah, Yoda, sure. For sure Yoda. Yoda's the intellectual. He's the nerd.
Q: How much writing time do you devote to your stories while you're in Prescott?
A: I work every day when I'm home, every single day, and people say, "How do you write so much?" I say, "If you work everyday at something, you will get a lot of that something done." You want to write a book, you write one page a day. Even if it's terrible. Make sure you get from page 1 to page 2. Forget about revising page 1; you can do that later. The important thing is to get from page 1 to page 2. If you'll do that, at the end of the year, you will have a 365-page novel. I get more than a page a day done, but again I've been doing it a long time. I work every day.