Interview with Larry Niven

I’ve conducted many interviews over the years of running this blog. Some have been with bigger authors than others, and with each of them I’ve had some feelings of nervousness. I tend to gripe about that to those around me in the hours preceding an interview. With this interview, be glad you weren’t anywhere near me in the days leading up to it.

It’s not so much that I am, or was, terrified of Larry Niven. He’s an absolutely sweet guy and a pleasure to chat with. No, the issue came with the 130 or so people who would be watching this interview. I don’t do public speaking… So, for those of you whom will be listening to the audio, I’d like to apologize in advance for how terribly awkward I was.

https://www.audiomack.com/song/rmlovatt/interview-with-larry-niven

[For convenience LN = Larry Niven and RL = Rebecca Lovatt, and TD = Tom Doherty].

RL: I’m Rebecca Lovatt, a fantasy reviewer for the Arched Doorway. I am here with Larry Niven, who probably needs no introduction since you are here anyways.

LN: If you need an introduction, check your program book.

RL: Obviously everyone [here] knows who you are, so could you tell us a story about yourself that we don’t know?

LN: Give me a minute. Hmm. Yes I’ve got stories that you don’t know. I’m just trying to select.. Let me tell you a longish story, ok?

RL: Alright.

LN: There’s a movie out, or it came out a few years ago called Battlefield Earth. Many of you are nodding your head, you’ve all seen it. Here’s my story. I’m a judge for the Writers of the Future and Galaxy Press which are Scientologists and I get along with them mostly. It’s easy and they are doing good in the world. They are giving the first big breaks to a number of science fiction writers and other writers too. Anyone who has a pulpish mind could compete for these. 

The rewards are great, not just money, though there’s money… thanks to me. But publicity also. Ok, they made a movie called Battlefield Earth and they were ready to publicise it in their usual way, which was flamboyant and get it done. They invited several, perhaps all, of the judges of Writers of the Future, and they ran a red carpet up and down Hollywood Boulevard, up and across and back down, and put up stadia and invited a lot of fans to sit in the stadia and watch us walk the red carpet.

So that’s the first time that me and my wife Marilyn had done such a thing. It was fun. We go into Grauman’s Chinese which I had been familiar since I was a kid. Grauman’s Chinese now called something else; pavilion in the front, built in the grand style that was popular when movies were just coming on the scene. We collect free popcorn and soft drinks and look around. There are two more judges and their wives, that is Jerry Pournelle and Roberta Pournelle, and Tim Powers and Serena Powers.

We obviously all gather, we don’t see any other judges and we are waiting for the movie to start and Jerry says “What are we going to tell Joni?” Joni Labaqui is the publicity director for Galaxy Press–and for Battlefield Earth of course. There is no avoiding her because we are going to be crossing the street and have dinner in the building next door. The Galaxy Press building. Jerry says “cause the movies going to be awful” and we all nod our heads. There’s a ghastly silence and I said “I’m going to tell the exact truth” and Tim says ‘that’s horrible idea’, and tells an awful story about rejecting a bad story as a judge and then lying to the guy who had written it.

Now the movie comes on, and many of you have seen it, it’s wild, and Jerry’s position is that the guy who played the head villain was the only big name they actually had, because he’s a Scientologist, and nobody was willing to tell him when he was overacting. So you saw the movie, make your own judgement. The movie ends and we spill toward the restrooms. A young lady intercepted me and says she was Joni’s acolyte and how did I like the movie? And I said, “I came expecting to have a wonderful time and I did.”

We use the restrooms and we spill out into the lobby. I link up with Marilyn, we find Jerry and Roberta outdoors and Jerry says “did Joni’s acolyte get to you?” and I said “Yeah.” and I told him what I said and Jerry laughed. And then Tim and Serena appear, and Tim is distraught; he’s in great distress, Joni’s acolyte got to him and asked him how he liked the movie, and he said “it was the best thing since Shakespeare.” Or some such, he said “it was a wonderful work of art and bound to win an Oscar.” She said she wanted to videotape him. Jerry then says, “Niven is a master of diplomacy” and told Tim what I had said–came expecting to have a wonderful time and I did. That was that, until the next morning because we went to dinner but we didn’t run across Joni.

Joni Labaqui phones me at 10AM at my office at home and she says, “What did you think of the movie?” and I said that “I came expecting to have a wonderful time and I did.” and Joni laughs like a maniac and then she says “that is exactly what Tim Powers told me.” You’re never going to read this story because I don’t dare write it.

RL: Alright thank you for that.

So Ringworld, you returned back to that in 2009 with Ringworld’s children..

LN: Oh okay, I have trouble keeping track. 

RL: So what was it like returning back to that?

LN: Uhm, it went like this–Ringworld in 1970 I think, and then Ringworld Engineer is 10 years later, and then the Ringworld Throne 15 years later, and then Ringworld’s Children not very long after that. A few years, a couple of years, I don’t know. 

Ringworld and Ringworld Engineers… Robert Heinlein said they read like one long novel, which I thought was wonderful. Particularly since it had taken me so long to write the sequel.  This is David Gerrold style, if you guy’s have been following The War Against the Chtorr you probably got old doing it. That’s the way it was with the Ringworld series.

The Ringworld Throne… that’s when Barbara Hambley phoned me and said “I’m putting together an anthology of women vampire stories called Sisters of the Night, and two of my regulars bailed out. Would you give me a vampire story?” I said, “I don’t do vampire stories.”

She said Ringworld vampires from Ringworld Engineers and I started thinking and a whole novel involved, including a novella that was too big for her book so she had to publish a section of it.

Ringworld’s Children emerged from the internet, there’s a website that exists just to discuss my stuff, at least on the surface and they were arguing about ‘Could Seeker have had a child from Teela Brown?’. The answer to that one was no, but they had the wrong answer, you don’t get a story out of me unless you’ve got the wrong answer.

Lets see that’s the story of the Ringworld Sequence up until Ed Firman wanted to write stories that started with the Fleet of Worlds as described in Ringworld. Ed wrote five books essentially with me, but using my stuff and without much input from me in the way of text. The last one followed Ringworld’s Children. You’re up to speed on the Ringworld without those stories, you can read them for fun, they are good, but canonical they are not quite.

RL: Alright thank you, and I believe after almost every one you’ve said you will not be writing more in the series.

LN: That’s correct.

RL: Will you be writing more in the series?

LN: Just like I have been telling you for about 40 years now, I am not going to write more in the series.

RL: Any hints as to when we can look forward to you not writing more in the series?

LN: I have no ambition to write more about the Ringworld. I sent it out of sight, it’s out of reach of known space, and let’s leave it that way.

RL: Alright then, is there anything you are currently working on, or anything we can look forward to from you that’s not Ringworld related?

LN: Sure. You’ve seen the Dream Park series? There are four books in Dream Park and Steven Barnes is tired of them, my collaborator. Steven wanted to write a swords and sorcery novel and that sounded like fun. We set it in the Magic Goes Away series, in which history shows that magic grows less powerful as you approach the present. It’s called the Seascape Tattoo. Let me tell you about the Seascape Tattoo, we’ve got a character who resembles Conan the Sumerian and his name is Aros. Aros has got lot’s of scars, and some of those scars he’s had them tattooed. 

[Larry stood up and began pointing to different parts of his chest at this point. I’m also not sure on the spelling of the character’s name. Aros could be wrong.]

Your first sight of Aros is without a shirt, he’s got a seascape with ships down here, and a sun up here and maybe there are two suns because he got bitten by some spiders once upon a time and that left marks, and he got slashed with a sword. It’s easy to see he got slashed by a sword because that’s the horizon, and ships down here.

Sounds like a detail but we made a good use of the seascape tattoo, and there is some time travel involved and some magic. Aros is one of the main characters and the other is a wizard. They don’t get along too well at first. You’ll be seeing this in maybe a year, we want to fiddle with the ending. What else? You’ve seen Shipstar and The Bowl of Heaven, read The Bowl of Heaven first because this is a two-part novel. Steven, Jerry Pournelle and I are working on a novel. We’re just getting it started. This is set in the Legacy of Heorot universe, I guess this is a good time to apologise for that title, it is my fault.

Jerry and I were going to write a short story with intent to win a Nebula Award, and we chose a high falutin title that only an English student would recognise, and I regret we kept it. But it’s a good series, it’s among the best things I’ve done and we did it with Steven Barnes, and did a lot of lecturing. It was a crazy scene, Steve would appear with a block of text on his computer and Jerry and I would tear into it and rebuild it. And that’s an awful experience, except it’s also an education, and Steve took it as an education.

We did that with what is by now two novels plus a novella called the Secret of Blackship Island that is only on your computer. Plus the one we’ve just started which doesn’t have a name yet.

RL: Alright thank you, I know I for sure am looking forward to those, and I reckon there is probably one or two people in here who are as well. 

As you’re speaking of collaborators… What are some of the challenges that you face when you’re with new authors that you are collaborating with, or just in general when you are doing collaborative works?

LN: I do a lot of collaboration and I like it. But every collaboration is different from all the others. There are a few basic rules and I wrote about them once 20 or 30 years ago and they haven’t changed much. You don’t collaborate with a novice, and you don’t collaborate with someone you don’t trust to come through. You get that trust by talking about a collaboration until you are both sure. That is recreation, you are not doing work until you write text, you’ve got to think of it that way. 

You’re going to do about 80 percent of the work, collaborations are about 160 percent as much work as a solo flight, because of the interaction factor. You’re doing it to get a better book, if you think you can do it better alone you should write it alone. This has worked out for me throughout my entire career.

Including the first novel which was written totally for fun with David Gerrold, the Flying Sorcerer’s, with a title like that you know it’s not intended to be serious. We rebuilt the space program using balloons on another world, a world of two suns.

What was the question again?

RL: What are some of the challenges you face on collaborative works?

LN: Yeah, challenges with collaborators. It’s the communication thing. Let me tell you this, tell you a little long… Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett were within range of me, because they were publicizing Good Omens. A book I highly recommend, it’s wonderful. I have read it more than once, and that’s unusual.

Terry’s plane had been delayed by six hours, I took him home, I didn’t know what we were going to do there but it wound up we started talking collaboration, and we were going to write a book together involving a beanstalk. We had a lot of fun, but at the end of it were weren’t going to write it. Writing it with Terry Pratchett would have been a disaster, he writes so much faster than I do.

He would have run away from me and it would have been all Terry. That is the only challenge I can lay out as something you’ve got to face, if your pacing is different you’re in trouble. If your collaborator gets a stroke you’re in trouble. So you may have to face finishing it yourself, that’s not my story, that’s Arthur Clarke and Frederik Pohl. 

Frederik Pohl finished it for the title. His most recent Frederik Pohl and Arthur C. Clarke, but by then Clarke was not able to write anymore and what Frederick started with was a handful of notes. You’re taking a chance when you start a book of your own as well. You don’t know you’re capable of finishing it, you always could before if you’ve got a record. But your first one, god knows.

My first was a novella that appeared in Worlds Of Tomorrow magazine, and Fred Pohl took it down to Betty Ballantine and suggested it could become a novel. I didn’t know how to expand it into a novel, I didn’t know I could do that. It turned out I could, but it’s just under 60,000 words which is tiny by today’s standards. Writing is a risk, if you’re going to do it, don’t do a collaboration yet if you’re just starting.

Particularly don’t do it with someone who is just starting, because he doesn’t know and you don’t know and it’s a big risk.

RL: Alright, just keeping with that last bit do you have any other advice for people who may be looking to get into writing perhaps? 

LN: Ok. I ran across a woman at a convention party room and she said as follows. When we got into conversation she said ‘I’ve talked to some of the best writers in the field. I’ve talked to Anne McCaffrey, Gordy Dixon and several big names and they gave me advice on how to write and I still can’t seem to produce anything.’ 

And I said tell me a story, and she blocked. If you don’t have a story there is no point in getting good advice. What else could I tell you? There are mechanics you need to understand, and the truth is, I don’t anymore. My memory reaches back to when the tools of a writers trade included a reel of paper and the delusion that you were talented. I got that off a cartoon, but also you needed scissors and scotch tape. You’d use those instead of rewriting a whole page to fix one line. you need lines that were that much apart [he indicated with his fingers] so you’d have room for notes scribbled in. That was for your first draft and intermediate drafts.

Your final draft had to look neat, so you had to do it all over again. Everyone my age remembers whiteout, which is used to erase, and lots of people my age remember the selectric II typewriter, which would do your erasing for you. There were two ribbons, one was whiteout. You would type the whiteout letter over the one you wanted to remove, and it would be blocked, not gone. You could still tell it was there but you could fix it. And Jerry once reminded me that if you hit the wrong letter at the start of a sentence you would spend a few seconds trying to rewrite the sentence trying to start with that letter. I’m reminding some of you, and telling the rest of you that this was the way it was before computers. Computers are wonderful.

Advice for writers? Get yourselves a computer and understand computers. Harlan Ellison still writes with a typewriter but I don’t recommend this. In fact I don’t recommend trying to write like Harlan Ellison. It’s too difficult, and certainly never try to write like Ray Bradbury, it is too difficult.  Ray has ruined a lot of good writers.

RL: Thank you, and can you tell us about Niven’s Law? 

LN: Well, sure, why not? Niven’s Laws have changed over the years, but these are what I figured are basic truths. Not always though, one of the basic truths is to never let a waiter escape. A waiter hovering over your elbows while you’re in deep conversation is rude, don’t do that.  Remember that the waiter doesn’t have to come back, or doesn’t have to come back at your convenience.

But basics, Niven’s Laws One: A and B. Never throw shit at an armed man. Never stand next to somebody who’s throwing shit at an armed man. Most of you probably don’t remember the 1964 democratic national convention in Chicago. Outside there were people called Yippies and they were throwing shit in baggies at the policemen, forgetting that the uniform doesn’t matter if you go straight to the hind frame through the nose. It’s basic.

Lets see… I’m not remembering all of Niven’s Laws, but there is an important one and it’s wordy, sorry about that. Sorry about that, I always try to be as concise as I can, always. But there is no cause so truthful, so good, so clearly virtuous that you cannot find a fool following. Next time you liberals read some quote from Rush Limbaugh remember that there are  conservatives who are as bright as you are. You can always find a fool following a cause you want to denigrate.

Others… well there’s Fuzzy Pink’s Law, my wife’s law is never waste calories. whether you eat that hot fudge sundae is up to your doctor and your dietitian, but whether you eat a bad hot fudge sundae is a violation.

As for the rest of Niven’s Laws you can find them. There is a book called Niven’s Laws that was put out by one of the convention publishers.

RL: Alright thank you very much, and what would you say your proudest moment has been over the course of your writing career?

LN: I’ve been told that I am this year’s Grand Master for the Science Fiction Writers of America. I’m very proud of that, but I was very proud of my first Hugo Award for Neutron Star, and all subsequent Hugo Awards too. I think that stopped around 1975, I haven’t had a Hugo in a dog’s lifetime, in two dog’s lifetimes. But I’ve won other awards, but those I think were the most important. That first Hugo really nailed that for me, I was going to be a writer.

RL: I think by the time you’ve won a Hugo you probably already are a writer.

LN: Yeah, and you wouldn’t think I’d need verification, and you’d be probably right. Getting published was a very proud moment. A check for 25 bucks from Frederick Pohl for the Coldest Place, a story that was obsolete before it was published. Many or most of you know that story–the coldest place in the solar system was supposed to be the back side of Mercury because Mercury was supposed to be a one face world. Facing the sun with just one face as the Moon faces the Earth with just one face, and then some Russian scientist demonstrated that Mercury can’t keep an atmosphere it’s too small. It loses its atmosphere at all times, the difference is that Mercury is close enough to pick up more atmosphere, hydrogen atoms, protons from the solar wind at all times. So there will be an atmosphere to carry heat from the hot side. 

That was the problem till someone else demonstrated that Mercury rotates one and a half times per year so that there aren’t any spaces on Mercury that don’t see sunlight except at the poles.

So, obsolete.

RL: And I’m going to ask you a question that you probably aren’t going to like. Who is your favorite author?

LN: How many people do I want to insult? No I can’t name a favorite author. In particular I have this software problem, or character flaw, I can’t remember peoples names easily. So by the time a new writer has established himself I still haven’t memorized his name. I haven’t memorized his name until he is middle aged author. So I would be ignoring some really good writers. 

There is one called Stephenson? Snow Crash.

RL: Neal Stephenson 

LN: Yeah, I like him very much. Once upon a time, no writer really likes to name all writers he doesn’t like as much as this one. Arthur C. Clarke was in town and do for a party to be held at Jerry Pournelle’s that night, but that morning he was on a radio show and they asked him “who’s your favorite writer?” He said “Larry Niven”, and then he had to apologise to Jerry. In fact he felt called on to apologise to Jerry, who forgave him almost at once. 

RL: Thanks, and my apologies for that. So of all of your books, which one would you say was the most difficult one to write?

LN: That’s easy, there was Destiny’s Road. I had this neat idea for a spacecraft that leaves a colony, winding around to leave a lava surface as a road for future generations and disappears off into the distance and never comes back. 

Pick it up 200 years later with a kid growing up and write a man’s life story. A life story in fiction is likely to be until he is in his 30s or 40s, because you probably don’t want to carry on till his death. I didn’t at any rate, but I flinched from writing a man’s life story. Robert Heinlein did it all the time, I had never done it before.

I turned in Destiny’s Road four years after the contract lapsed, and occasionally it got mentioned by Bob Gleeson and Tom Doherty, but they never nagged me. I guess they had faith I’d come through, or else their business plans included a few failures. At any rate I’m extremely proud of Destiny’s Road, and there was a reviewer who said ‘Niven usually does fireworks. He doesn’t in this book, but without the fireworks going, by god the man could sing.’

As I say I’m proud of it. 

RL: That’s awesome, and you should be proud of it. It’s a good read.

LN: Thank you. 

RL: Which do you prefer, ebooks or paperback?

LN: Ebooks or paperback? Of course there are three choices, the third being hardback.

RL: I just meant physical copies…

LN: I don’t have a preference, I’ll sell it to you in any form. I like ebooks a lot more than the publishers do; the publishers are having trouble with their sales. I’ve talked with Tom Doherty on this and his take is that it’s ruining the field. It’s destroying the bookstores, people used to wander into bookstores because bookstores used to be right next to the bakery or something. 

And if they wandered in they would walk out with a book, they don’t do that anymore. They have to consciously want to buy a book and go looking for it, or something that will suit. That’s Tom’s take and I don’t say he’s wrong.

TD: I didn’t say that ebooks were ruining bookstores, what I said was they served a different need entirely. What they do — if you know what you want they are great. They are not great for discovery, there is too much out there. It’s like finding needles in haystacks, if you don’t know what you want. If you want your backlist, it’s great; you can look there and find it all. But for new authors it’s much harder, there is good stuff out there but there is an awful lot of bad stuff too. 

We get a lot of feedback on Tor.com and people are so disappointed by the last three books they bought, because they bought books from just a couple of lines. They weren’t edited, they weren’t polished, and the person didn’t have a particular talent. Now there’s very talented people out there too, but it’s very hard to take the time to tell the difference on the internet.

LN: If you heard that, good. If not, Tom will be around and he’s going to be on panels so you can get this elaborated. The one thing he said that is well-worth noticing… and what was it? Sorry guys it’s Saturday morning after a Friday night with a lot of music. 

My point however is… I work through my agent Eleanor Wood, who puts my lapsed stories from my backlist onto the internet, and I’m getting 85 percent royalties. I got 4 percent royalties from World of Ptavvs (my first novel), and I’m used to getting 8. It’s hard to fight that Tom.

TD: It’s hard to fight that if you’re Larry Niven, and people are looking for your stuff. 

LN: Yeah, that’s the point I wanted to make. Tom’s point is that if you’re a well-established writer everything is golden for you on the internet. If you are a novice, how are you going to get noticed? Your editor from a magazine isn’t going to run down the street to Betty Ballantine with a something that could become a novel. Betty is in another field now, and the bookstores keep closing, and the publishers need to notice you.

People complain about the editors these days, they aren’t doing as much work to produce a really good book out of something that is the high end of mediocre. They used to do that, well Bob Gleeson still does that, but they don’t all.

RL: Thank you, and I have to say it’s probably quite nice having the person you’re quoting in the audience to correct you as you quote them.

LN: Yeah, I was hoping that would happen.

[The second half of the interview was a Q&A with the audience. If you’d like to listen to that. It starts around the 38:30 mark.]

RL: Alright, thank you everyone for coming to listen, and thank you Mr. Niven!

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