Pushing Humanity's Envelope
How far can the human spirit go? That's a question Fred Saberhagen asks himself and his characters every time the multi-published, award-winning author sits down to write. Saberhagen's explorations take his readers from the far-flung reaches of outer space and heroes and heroines defining human courage in the face of overwhelming odds to fantastic realms where a mask can change a man into a god -- weighted with all the baggage that godhood entails.
But how does Saberhagen segue so faultlessly from writing about deadly space behemoths to heroic bloodsuckers to magical swords -- without missing a step? Consumed with curiosity, Crescent Blues tracked down this elusive author and managed to pin him down long enough to ask him a few questions about life, the universe and a little rumor regarding a Berserker® movie.
Crescent Blues: The Arms of Hercules -- your latest book and installment in the Book of the Gods series -- deals with one of the most enduring heroes of mythology. What drew you to write about this demigod? Did the almost overwhelming amount of literature and film already done hinder or help?
Fred Saberhagen: The vast amount already filmed, drawn, carved and written shows the enduring interest. I'm not trying to faithfully recreate the world of ancient Greece, or any other historical setting, but just to play entertainingly with the aspects of the characters that seem the most fun.
Crescent Blues: The next book in the Book of the Gods series deals with the Golden Fleece -- could you tell our readers a bit about it?
Fred Saberhagen: In re-reading the original sources on the Golden Fleece, what struck me most sharply was the way the Fleece utterly disappears as soon as Jason has won it and succeeded in bringing it home. Not a miraculous vanishing, but just as if no one cares about this glorious object any longer. I felt I had to try to take this loss of interest into account.
Crescent Blues: You've used certain characters in different series -- Vulcan, Zeus, Apollo, etc. What is it about these (and other) mythological characters that entice you to write so much about them?
Fred Saberhagen: They are all really humans, with special powers and attributes that make them push the envelope of humanity in different ways. Probably all the books I've ever written have been efforts to define the boundaries of humanity.
Crescent Blues: Baen has just re-released The Dracula Tape and also an omnibus, The Vlad Tapes (featuring An Old Friend of the Family and Thorn). What inspired you to take Dracula, one of the world's classic monsters, and make him into a very believable hero?
Fred Saberhagen: My version of Dracula was launched by my re-reading Stoker's original, and being struck by the fact that this titanic character was hardly ever on stage, though of course central to the book. Naturally in my contrarian way I wondered what he was really doing and thinking while the other characters made their plans to hunt him down, and as soon as I started listening for his voice, I heard it. By the way, when writing, I always visualize him as Yul Brynner. I know the physical details are wrong, but that kind of presence.
Crescent Blues: You seem to have quite a lot of historical fun with Vlad. He's sleuthed with Sherlock, flirted with Morgan le Fay and outgeneraled Napoleon. Do you have any more historical personages lined up to interact with everyone's favorite bloodsucker?
Fred Saberhagen: Someday, maybe, Ivan the Terrible. More immediately, I'm currently working on another Dracula in which there will be connections with ancient Egypt. That's about as far as I want to go in commenting on current work.
Crescent Blues: Your version of vampire lore seems to almost suggest that they're another species.
Fred Saberhagen: Sure. A subspecies, I think -- a good name would be Homo dirus, translated as "Man inspiring dread."
Crescent Blues: In 1992 you co-authored (with James V. Hart) an adaptation of Francis Ford Coppola's film Bram Stoker's Dracula. What was it like writing the antithesis of your own version of Dracula?
Fred Saberhagen: I recall the experience as eight weeks of well-paid fun. Jim Hart kept sending me updated versions of the screenplay, as it kept changing, being revised, out from under our feet. I always had Stoker's text to fall back on. Just a fun job, really, nothing to do with my own books.
Crescent Blues: Do you look at the books you've written (and are contracted to write) for Earth: Final Conflict in the same light? Is it easier or tougher to write using someone else's character and worlds?
Fred Saberhagen: Yes, doing The Arrival for Earth: Final Conflict was pretty much the same, though not as well paid. There was never any question of contracting for more than one book in the series, as they were all supposed to be done by different authors. Doing a work for hire is not necessarily bad, whether it's an encyclopedia article or a tie-in novel. Itıs just that you get no royalties.
Crescent Blues: You also co-authored two books with Roger Zelazny: Black Throne and Coils. What brought the two of you together for these books? How easy or hard did you find writing with another author?
Fred Saberhagen: Working with Roger was extremely easy for me, and I believe he found the process easy as well. As I said in a recent book introduction (Lord of the Fantastic, ed. Greenberg, Avon 1998 -- stories in honor of Roger Zelazny), I doubt Iıll ever do another book collaboration; I've been spoiled. Roger and I both happened to move to New Mexico at about the same time, when we each had a family of young kids to raise. Socializing seemed to lead naturally to working together.
Crescent Blues: You've explored the private lives of mythological figures and modern legends -- e.g. Hercules and Dracula. How do you feel about the current fashion for metafiction?
Crescent Blues: Do you feel like the leader of a trend or do you feel like this is nothing very new?
Fred Saberhagen: I am generally way out of touch with trends, except now and then I am surprised to find myself leading one, like sympathetic vampires.
Crescent Blues: In 1967, the first book in what is arguably your most beloved series was published. Thirty-some years, nine novels, five collections and one omnibus later readers still find the Berserker® saga going strong. What do you think is the secret of this series' longevity?
Fred Saberhagen: You did not include a couple of imitations and, when nothing less would serve, one federal lawsuit against two publishers, successfully settled. The Berserkers® seem to be the enemy that people love to hate, and to copy.
Crescent Blues: Speaking of lawsuits, how do you feel about fan fiction written by devotees of the Berserker® universe? Do you ignore it -- or are you like many authors who feel that fan fiction infringes on their works' copyrights?
Fred Saberhagen: I canıt recall coming across any actual Berserker® fan fiction. I've had queries about it from time to time. I don't see that it does much harm, and maybe some good, but on legal advice I always discourage it, so no one can ever point to evidence that I have failed to defend my trademark and copyrights. Actually it seems to be trademark, not copyright, that offers real protection.
Crescent Blues: Is there any truth to the rumor that there might be a Berserker)® movie in the near future?
Fred Saberhagen: No more a rumor, since the recent announcement in Variety. I have the option money in hand from New Line Cinema, and Alex Proyas (Dark City, The Crow) is in line to direct. I think he'll do a great job.
Crescent Blues: Your fiction always seems to contain a strong element of romance, even in your most "hard" science fiction. Are you a romantic at heart?
Fred Saberhagen: I guess I am.
Fred Saberhagen: I started writing seriously about 1960, at the fairly advanced age of 30. I wrote speculative fiction because I loved to read it, and thought I could do better than some of the people who were getting published.
Crescent Blues: Who are your favorite authors, and which authors do you think influenced your writing most?
Fred Saberhagen: I don't want to name people in the SF and fantasy field, because I would be sure to inadvertently leave someone out. If anyone wants to study how narrative should flow, let them get The Big Sky, an old Western by A. B. Guthrie.
Crescent Blues: What advice would you give a budding science fiction or fantasy writer?
Fred Saberhagen: The advice would be the same for any kind of fiction. Keep writing, and keep sending things out, not to friends and relatives, but to people who have the power to buy. A lot of additional, useful tips could be added, but this is fundamental.
Crescent Blues: Which do you feel is more important -- critical or commercial success -- and why?
Fred Saberhagen: Commercial, at least to a moderate extent. Because, as Churchill said about the virtue of courage, it makes all the other kinds possible. The critics and reviewers of a hundred years from now, if they remember any of us at all, may have opinions much different from those of today. The comments I most appreciate come from ordinary readers who've happened on one of my books at some time of stress in their lives, and who actually credit the book with helping them through a bad time. It's happened a few times in forty years.
Crescent Blues: You've written everything from time travel to heroic vampires to menacing machines. You've even written adaptations for movies and television. Is there some other writing venue you've always wanted to turn your hand to?
Fred Saberhagen: At this stage, my chief professional goal is simply to keep on writing and making a living at it. I have some good stories yet to tell.
Crescent Blues: What kind of materials do you draw on for research? How important is research to your fiction?
Fred Saberhagen: Research is of considerable importance in certain fields, such as science and history. For some of the Dracula books, the microfilm files of the Times of London have raised fascinating possibilities. And what we know, or think we know, about the universe of space and time is changing very quickly.
Crescent Blues: What kind of fiction do you read?
Fred Saberhagen: I find I read less science fiction and fantasy as the years go by (maybe it's just too much like work), not much "mainstream" fiction, more history, science and biography. Mysteries I read for fun, so I will probably never write one, for fear of spoiling the fun.
Crescent Blues: From the time you were first published in the 1960s to the present day there's been major changes in not only the world around you but in the publishing and science fiction/fantasy communities. How have these changes affected you?
Fred Saberhagen: If I ever do my autobiography I'll try to cover that.
Crescent Blues: What do you think are the greatest obstacles facing a writer in the new millennium?
Crescent Blues: Do you see electronic publishing as the New Jerusalem or merely another false oasis in the trek through the desert of getting published? What do you think electronic publishing and the Internet in general have to offer new writers and veterans of the craft?
Fred Saberhagen: My gut feeling is that paper and ink are going to be with us for a long time yet, and in substantial quantities, though certainly books are now going to be available in other forms.
Crescent Blues: Are there any special projects or personal rants you'd like to air? Soapbox and white space are no problem -- feel free to let us and our readers know what's on your mind.
Fred Saberhagen: Thanks for posing some intelligent questions, and I hope your readers will enjoy.
Click here for Fred Saberhagen's official Web site.