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Sean Stewart Interview

Sean Stewart  
Interview by Gavin J. Grant  

Sean StewartSean Stewart is an energetic writer whose seventh novel, Galveston, recently came out in paperback. His novels run the gamut: He's written fiction, fantasy, thrillers, and a young adult novel. From January to July of 2001 he was the main writer behind the A.I.: Artificial Intelligence web game. A novel based on that game is due in November 2001. He lives with his family in Davis, CA and is hard at work his eighth (or was that twelfth?) novel. We interviewed him by email. Introduce yourself.

GalvestonSean Stewart: Always wanted to put my books in the imaginary section of the bookstore called "Meaning Of Life Thrillers" -- books that tackle the profound questions of human existence, but don't skimp on the swordfights. I like that section of the store -- Moby Dick and MacBeth and A Perfect Spy and Heart of Darkness.

That goal -- to make thoughtful books that are still fun to read -- has prompted me to spend my early career mixing and matching the moves of Serious Literature and Adventure Fiction. In principle I don't see why this isn't a good idea, but I am aware I may be like a guy standing on the street corner saying, "Chocolate -- and mayonnaise! Mayonnaise and chocolate! Why doesn't the world see how perfect they are together!"

Your last two novels, Galveston (2000) and Mockingbird (1998), are set in Texas. I take it you are familiar with that state?

MockingbirdI was born in Texas and spent all my childhood summers there, while spending my winters in northern Canada. Thus I am one of the select group of people who has both read Ulysses and understands offensive-line blocking schemes. (Not, by any means, the only such person. Pete Axthelm, a football commentator from my youth, also used to publish papers on topics like "Bicycling in Marcel Proust's A la Recherché du Temps Perdu.")

My Texan family is especially gentrified; the grandparents who raised me in the summers will still occasionally bust out with aphorisms like "he was the runnin'est ol' dog you ever did see" or "we were so poor we couldn't pay attention." It's hard not to love this language. This summer I was back in Dallas and asked my cousin Dale, who ranches, what is was like to have so much riding on something as arbitrary as the weather. "'Bout like putting your daughter in a slot machine and pullin' the handle down," he said.

Thanks to this amphibious Canadian/Texan upbringing, I am also a hard man to win a Bad Weather Experiences contest with.

How do you feel the USA will do under its third Texan president in 40 years?

I direct the interested speculator to consider the fortunes of the Texas Rangers under this same president.

Poker -- and risk-taking in general -- plays an important role in Galveston. Do you play poker or other games?

I do play some card games -- bridge, mostly, and hearts -- but I'm a lousy poker player. I also don't take a lot of risks in most areas of my life. The fundamentally risky and arbitrary nature of life is something so scary that I would probably work hard never to acknowledge it at all if I weren't in a job where your innermost thoughts and fears are your capital.

Do you think there are "lucky" or "unlucky" people?

The Night WatchEven the best poker player can't be lucky (or unlucky) by choice (cheating excepted, of course). What he does is try to manage the arbitrary vicissitudes of life better than his opponents. I guess I would say the universe is too big and impersonal to bother keeping track of individuals. We are dealt the cards we're dealt; but some people seem to play them a little better than others.

How did you research Galveston?

I spent a lot of time in Galveston, to start with. I was living in Houston while writing the book, so I drove down pretty frequently (often on days my eldest daughter was out of school) and we would kick around the Strand, or drive down to the beach, or stop for lunch at this one cantina she liked where we could order sopapillas for dessert.

Galveston: A History of the IslandI also spent a lot of time talking to a couple of good ol' boys who befriended me, one of whom was B.O.I (born on the island). He loaned me Gary Cartwright's interesting (but I have since been told somewhat unreliable) Galveston: A History of the Island. This good ol' boy who loaned me the book was a manager in the family business, a nut-and-bolt manufactory. He had a very large belt-buckle and regaled me with stories of gigging for flounder while taking me out to a shooting range and encouraging me to fire off his really enormous collection of handguns. He also happens to like painting in oils, and quoted Thomas Jefferson on the sovereign importance of the arts. This is pretty typical of a complexity in the Southern character that both Yankee and Hollywood-based portrayals of the South usually seem to miss.

This is not an attempt to gloss over the numerous and appalling ways in which the redneck stereotype is justified, of course. But like all places and people, Texas and Texans are a good deal more complicated up close than when seen from a distance.

Did you read Isaac's Storm, which is about the September 1900 Galveston Flood?

Nope. The book came out after I had finished writing Galveston. I am happy to say that I could bore people to tears with the details of the disaster a year before just everyone was liable to. (Though why the Big Blow was so obscure for so long is a fascinating question. More people died in it than in the Jonestown flood, the San Francisco quake, and the Chicago fire put together). Two simple numbers are maybe the best gateway into how stupefying the devastation was:

1) Height of the storm surge generated by a hurricane like the Big Blow: 20 feet.
2) Highest point on Galveston Island: 8 feet.

Is Galveston prepared for a hurricane of that size?

Clouds EndYup. They hired a company headed by a couple of ex-Army Corps of Engineers, including one John Roberts (more famous as the author of Roberts' Rules of Order) to revamp the island, which they did with a vengeance. They raised the whole thing 12 feet, lifting every building on it up with jackscrews -- including the cathedral -- and stuffing sand dredged from the channel underneath them. They also built a giant seawall, which is still there today. Galveston was hit with another big hurricane in, I think, the teens or twenties, and came through with flying colors.

Remember, this was the era of Engineering Hubris, when we built the Panama Canal and decided to run the Chicago river backwards because it would be more convenient that way.

You've published seven novels in eight years. Are you a fast writer?

Passion PlayNot especially. I was an unpublished writer for a long time, though. I had written nine books before selling one of them (Passion Play -- the fifth novel I wrote). I subsequently sold books seven and eight, so really I've written -- um, give me a minute to do the math -- five books since 1992, if you include the one I just sold to Morrow, which has a little revising left to go yet.

I used to be a very fast writer. Once, in some Zen space I can't even imagine now, I drafted 400 pages in 10 days. But that just means more work later while revising. My guess is that it takes me 18 months to two years to write a book now, which is not at all fast compared to many people.

Did you always want to be a writer?

Not until a month after my seventh birthday. But ever since then, yes.

Are you a 100 percent dyed-in-the-wool novelist, or do you write in other forms as well?

Resurrection ManVery rarely. I've published two real short stories, I think, although I'm working on a strange web-based project right now that takes me back many moons to my days writing murder mystery dinner parties. . . .

How has the Internet affected your life as a writer?

Mostly socially. I know and correspond with far more other writers than I would have had the Internet not existed.

What are you working on?

A Top Secret web-based project, and revising a book about an aging punk -- "I shaved off my mohawk when it began to recede" -- who sees ghosts.

What have you been reading recently?

I have been so swamped that the answer would be "nothing" if we stuck to really recently. If we broaden out over the last six months, I really liked Alan Warner's book, The Sopranos [nothing to do with the TV series]. I've also been trying to get friends to read the short stories of Kelly Link (Stranger Things Happen). And over Christmas I read two very different books I liked a lot, Wil McCarthy's The Collapsium -- great fun if witty hard SF is something you can enjoy -- and Molly Gloss' excellent [2000 James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award winner] Wild Life: sort of Annie Dillard meets Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Do you have a favorite bookshop?

A number of stores have been very good to me -- White Dwarf in Vancouver (1) and Adventures in Crime and Space (2) in Austin come to mind. The two bookstores in Davis worth going to are Bogey's (3), the used store, which has a wonderful selection of interesting titles, and the Avid Reader, the indie store -- they are very supportive of the local authors and had me in for a reading that was really well-attended. Greenwoods' (4) is the flagship indie store in my hometown of Edmonton, Alberta. They say home is where the heart is, and I guess, by analogy, that my favorite bookstores are ones in which the staff really loves books. That's something you can feel the moment you walk in the door.

Moby DickThe SopranosThe Collapsium

Wild Life Stranger Things Happen


Author photo by Biko.

(1) White Dwarf Books,Vancouver, B.C.
(2) Adventures in Crime and Space, Austin, TX
(3) Bogey's Books 223 E St., Davis, CA 757-6127
(4) Greenwoods', Edmonton, Alberta