NOTE: This interview occurred last fall via telephone. It is the best experience I’ve had to date as a student/writer. I had originally written the paper for a Human Communications course that I took; however, after thinking about it, I realized that if the professor was the only one that read it, then it wouldn’t be serving the purpose that Mr. Anthony and I both hold dear. We both want to make life easier for beginning writers/authors, so if I hold the advice that he gave me to myself, I’m not doing that audience much good. So, here is my paper in its entirety with a few verbiage changes and two corrections he provided me with after I had sent him a copy to review. (I’d done the math wrong on his years of marriage, and misheard him when he said “Tatham Mound”. My ears had heard “Tape and Mount” and my brain didn’t bother to tell me that my ears were inept.)
Also, Mr. Anthony’s site is a wonderful resource for writers, especially those looking to self-publish. His blog/newsletter that he maintains on the site is also fun to read, so I strongly encourage you to give it a click. www.hipiers.com
You can also follow him on Twitter: @PiersAnthony
The majority of his books are available through Amazon, including his recently e-published works: Piers’ Amazon Page
May the Force be with you. Enjoy:
My Interview with Piers Anthony
When I was eleven, I went to the school library looking for something I hadn’t read before. I had sucked in most of the books that looked interesting to me. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, (located handily on the “literature” shelf) several versions of Arthurian legends, and what I’m sure was the entirety of the sparse Young Adult section. I had avoided the Fantasy shelf for fear that it would be quite girly, filled with frog kissing princesses and a million Sleeping Beauty knock-offs. However; after running out of everything else, I figured it couldn’t hurt to dig through it. After all, nobody else was in the library to see me looking at the “girl books.” Eventually, I chose to check out a book entitled A Spell for Chameleon, by Piers Anthony. I read it over the weekend, and checked it back in that next Monday – so that I could check out the sequel, The Source of Magic. The books were part of what is now a 38 book series, with publishing dates spanning from 1976 to future release dates in 2014. And, perhaps most importantly, they were the equivalent of a gateway drug. I was soon as addicted to fantasy and science fiction as any drug user is to their chemical of choice. I began taking in books written by Terry Brooks, Robin McKinnley, Robert A. Heinlein, and C.S. Lewis.
I’ve wanted to be a writer since that weekend in 1988, when I first read Piers Anthony’s novel. I had a few brief moments daydreaming about being a computer programmer who helped develop androids or a superhero, because, you know, I’m practical like that. I always come back to writing though, and I think that’s for a reason. I just don’t think I would be happy doing anything else. What other job allows you to daydream all day long and get paid for it? It’s perfect, and my interview succeeded in confirming my dream. This wasn’t the first time I’ve experienced such a thing, Mr. Anthony has always reaffirmed that goal. When I was fifteen, I wrote my first short story. It was wonderful(ly horrible), and I just HAD to have someone’s feedback that I respected. So, I dug through book after book in the library, and found an address to submit correspondence to Mr. Anthony. I printed the whole thing out on our high school’s dot matrix printer, stole all of the stamps in my dad’s desk, and popped it in the mailbox. Several weeks later, I had given up on ever seeing my precious story again, when my mom handed me a packet as I walked in the door from school. It was my story, reviewed in detail by Mr. Anthony with red pen marks skittering across the page and comments throughout the margins. I probably should have been devastated that my masterpiece had been so thoroughly criticized, but all I can seem to remember is bragging, “The dude that writes Xanth wrote me back!” Every time I’ve written him since then, I’ve always gotten an answer and been encouraged. Even if it were only a short note, every letter has gotten a respectful and dignified answer.
So, when I was assigned this interview project, I decided to ask one of the three professional fantasy and science fiction authors I’ve had correspondence with to do it. I decided to ask Mr. Anthony because his books were where my obsession began, and so it seemed appropriate. I sent an email to him on Friday, September 14 at 12:56pm, asking for an hour of his time. Three hours later, he checked his email and called me. I picked up the phone wondering who would be calling me from a Florida area code. As soon as he began speaking, my heart skipped a beat, and I was knocked into a dreamlike state one might expect would happen when a youngling meets Yoda for the first time. I stammered through the conversation, and we had an appointment set up for that following Saturday at 4:00 PM.
I waited anxiously through that long week, and eventually the day finally came for my conversation with a man who has been a mentor and positive influence in my life for 25 years. He snuck into basic training with me in the form of For Love of Evil, and even did a few brief guard shifts in Germany in the guise of Demons Don’t Dream. And now, I was going to talk to him on the phone, ask him for career advice, and request his opinions regarding the future of the novelist in the digital age. Mr. Anthony was glad to talk, and warned me that I might have to ask him to end a statement, if he were to go on too much.
As we got on the phone, I started with the usual pleasantries. The wife and family are good, and so on, until I got to my questions. The first thing I asked him was, “What first got you into writing?” Mr. Anthony responded that he initially wasn’t interested in being a writer. He was on his second year of school, having taken 8 years of art classes. At one point, he realized that he didn’t have the talent to make it as an artist, so he thought for a night and a day, and decided he’d be a writer. From there on, that’s what he did. His wife (They’ve been together since 1956 and will soon celebrate 56 years of marriage together.) followed him through a stint in the U.S. Army where he got his U.S. citizenship, and he taught English for a short time after he got out of the military. Eventually though, his wife worked out a deal for him to take a year off of all the other jobs to work on his writing career. He sold his first story during that time, and his career has grown exponentially since then. Mr. Anthony will soon have over 160 novels in print.
As I have tried to write more, I’ve found that a lot of things tend to interrupt the writing process. Kids need patched up; my wife needs help around the house; a friend is throwing a party; class work needs done; or my job needs a little more of my time. So, I asked Mr. Anthony how he dealt with that. He told me stories about the interruptions and distractions he had as he first began to write for a living. He had a young daughter that needed a lot of attention; his wife was working and he needed to be the homemaker as well as the writer; and various other issues came up. His solution was that a writer can’t let interruptions ruin his day, and that a writer had to develop the “mental muscle” to be able to take care of those interruptions and sit back down and write from the point where he left off. Over the last few weeks since the interview, I’ve tried to apply that idea to my life. It works! I’ve gotten more done at work, more class work accomplished, and – most importantly – more writing. He suggested approaching boundary setting positively. He suggested that a writer should have a space apart from the family to do his work. In the end though, it’s about the compromise. Life is more important than writing and finding a balance between real life and writing is important.
Mr. Anthony and I also discussed the difficulties of getting published initially, and what he would recommend a new-coming author do as he first sets out to get an agent, get published, and make a living in the publishing industry. He told me the story of how he first tried to become published. He had gotten together with some friends and together they had written query letters to every agent available in the market at the time. He didn’t receive a single response, and it wasn’t until after he sold his first novel that he got an agent. While he does recommend getting an agent, who can generally negotiate twice the money that an independent author can, he said that an agent is not the first step in today’s publishing world. He recommends that a writer begin by publishing electronically now, to develop a readership base. Once that is established, and you can show some success in digital publishing, then look for an agent, indicating the successes you’ve already had. He also advised that it isn’t too late to get an agent after you’ve received an offer for a book. He cited the example of a newcomer to publishing who had been offered $25,000 by the publisher for a trilogy that he would be writing. Upon receiving the offer, he contacted an agent who then took him on as a client and negotiated a six figure book deal for the trilogy.
Since the emergence of e-publishing, the publishing industry as a whole has changed dramatically. Corner bookstores are fading away for the most part, while online outlets like Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com are growing quickly. Anyone who types up a written work can publish it digitally with no screening process from an editor. I discussed the emergence of e-publishing with Mr. Anthony, and asked him how he thought the industry had responded to the changes. He said that he felt the publishers hadn’t done anything to establish quality in the e-publishing process. There is no editor to review a book before the author puts it up for sale on a website. It is incumbent upon the writer to develop quality material, and that quality will come with time and practice. The most important things an author can do are to practice his craft and listen to criticism with an open mind. They can’t depend on choosy publishers to edit their work until such time as they get a contract to have a book published. To help authors, Mr. Anthony has an online survey of vanity publishers and e-publishers with reviews from people who have used the services those publishers offer. He regularly receives feedback from authors, counterpoints from the publishers whose services have been questioned, and posts the notices online for authors to review.
As an established author, Mr. Anthony has embraced e-publishing because it allows him freedom of expression. Generally, he writes humorous fantasy novels, and that is what publishers that he works with have come to expect from him. However; that isn’t all that he writes and he has historically had a hard time selling works such as his recently published To be a Woman, which explores civil rights from the point of view of a self-aware android seeking legal recognition. Having been effectively “typecast” as a humorous fantasy author, publishers aren’t always open to him providing them with material outside of their expectations. E-publishing allows him to publish what he wants to write as an author, rather than what the publishing industry expects of him.
As a college student, I see comments in every syllabus passed to me at the beginning of each semester warning of zero tolerance for plagiarism. Also, I regularly read articles related to digital rights management (the software that prevents digital works from being copied excessively), and the legal pitfalls of publishing digitally. As a professional purchaser, I also see that contract negotiation is an essential skill for anyone entering into a business relationship, whether they’re buying plastic-ware for a state hospital or establishing the means of determining how much an author is paid. I asked Mr. Anthony what he thought the most common legal pitfalls were for an author, and how they might deal with them. He replied that legal issues weren’t really the pitfalls, but rather the ignorance of the author was. Any author should learn to understand contracts, and be able to point out contractual concerns when negotiating with a publisher. However; new authors who have yet to establish a reputation in the industry may need to “shut up and take it”, using polite manners to fix any missteps in the negotiating process. He suggested that the key thing for authors to look for at first is an audit clause. This is a clause in the contract which allows the author to have the records of the publisher audited to ensure that the author has been paid correctly. A good audit clause will not only allow the author to audit the records, but will also make the publisher responsible for any associated costs if the audit reveals payments that are excessively in error (more than 5%). This advice was probably the simplest I’ve heard anyone give, and probably the most useful.
In recent years, I’ve had the great pleasure of seeing many of my favorite books made into amazing movies. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and several others have all made debuts in movie theatres, with mixed results. I’ve loved every single one of them, even if they didn’t meet my expectations or match my mental picture of what I’d read. They’ve always brought me back to the books, and added imagery to my reading that I had either missed or hadn’t considered before. I asked Mr. Anthony which of his movies he had options for, and which he would most like to see made into a film. Most of his books have movie options, and he has actually done the reverse, taking a movie script and making it into a novel for the film Total Recall. He said that he would like to see all of his work on-screen, and that his novel, Split Infinity, has a movie in production scheduled for 2013. He would greatly enjoy seeing his novel, Tatham Mound (a historical novel about De Soto exploring America) on film. Currently, his most popular work, the Xanth series isn’t set to be made into a film, with Warner communications having dropped the movie option when it was last up for renewal.
After speaking with Piers Anthony, do I still want to be a writer? Yes! Emphatically yes. More in fact than before speaking with him, but that desire is also checked with a good bit of practical advice. I know that I need to be prepared to work hard. I know that my success is up to me. I know that 99 writers out of 100 won’t be published by a major publishing house, and of those that do, 99 out of 100 won’t become rich from writing. That’s ok. I’m fine with that. I have my day job. I have my family, and I enjoy writing for its own sake. I’m still aware that there are many other opportunities to work in publishing. News companies still need reporters. Publishers still have operations staff. Someone has to get all of the other jobs done that are involved in getting a book from the writer’s desk to the retail outlet (be it digital or ink on the page). I just want to be a part of it, and in the meantime, I have the joy of writing for its own sake. I’m fine with that.