Interview with L.E. Modesitt
L. E. (Leland Exton) Modesitt, Jr. is an author of science fiction and fantasy novels. He is best known for the fantasy series The Saga of Recluce. He graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts, lived in Washington, D.C. for 20 years, then moved to New Hampshire in 1989 where he met his wife. They relocated to Cedar City, Utah in 1993.
He has worked as a Navy pilot, lifeguard, delivery boy, unpaid radio disc jockey, real estate agent, market research analyst, director of research for a political campaign, legislative assistant for a Congressman, Director of Legislation and Congressional Relations for the United States Environmental Protection Agency, a consultant on environmental, regulatory, and communications issues, and a college lecturer and writer in residence.
In addition to his novels, Mr. Modesitt has published technical studies and articles, columns, poetry, and a number of science fiction stories. His first short story, “The Great American Economy”, was published in 1973 in Analog Science Fiction and Science Fact.
At what point did you know you wanted to be a writer? Describe your journey a little.
Somewhere early in high school, I gradually “discovered” the beauty of poetry. The fascination and love of poetry crept up on me, and I began to read poetry that hadn’t been assigned, lots of it. Then I started trying to write it. I had a poem published in a regional scholastic anthology. Then, in my senior year, my French teacher – who was Russian and reputed to be a former Russian countess – asked me to translate a poem by Francois Villon. She clearly appreciated my translation and said I had a gift for poetry. In college, I worked on poetry, although my major was political economy, and I was fortunate enough to be able to study under William Jay Smith, who went on to be named a U.S. Poet Laureate, and the brilliant Clay Hunt.
After graduation, while first serving as a Navy pilot and then working full-time in various occupations, I wrote more poetry, but never got any farther than being published in very small literary magazines. Then, someone suggested that I should write a science fiction story because I read so much SF. I did. I sent it to ANALOG. Ben Bova rejected it, but said that he’d look at it again if I could fix the mess I’d made of page 13. I did. He bought it. I had to write and submit something like 25 stories before I sold the second one, again to ANALOG. Over about five years, I wrote probably 70-odd stories and sold four more. Then I got another rejection letter from Ben Bova, telling me he wouldn’t consider any more stories from me until I wrote a novel because I was clearly trying to cram novels into short stories. I’d never thought about writing novels, not with the low percentage of success I’d had with stories, but decided I’d give it a try, and almost two years later, I finished The Fires of Paratime. In turn, it was rejected by almost every major publisher, but finally David Hartwell bought it for the Timescape imprint of Simon & Schuster. Ben Bova was right, though. So far I’ve sold every novel I’ve written.
You started out writing science fiction. What inspired you to branch out in to Fantasy?
There’s a very long story behind that, far too long to tell here, but the short version is that I realized that one of the reasons I didn’t like most of the fantasy that was being written in the late 1970s and the 1980s was because it didn’t have workable economics or practical technology. So I decided, as a challenge to myself, and to certain others, to write something that did. The result turned out to be The Magic of Recluce.
What was the initial reaction to The Magic of Recluce? And was it always your intention to write a massive saga spanning over 20 novels?
The initial reaction was enough sales for Tor to consider it a modest success and for David Hartwell to ask for another book in that world. I’d never even considered writing a series when I wrote The Magic of Recluce. It was written as a stand-alone. Even after it was published, I still thought of myself as a science fiction author.
Many of the Recluce novels seem to feature philosophical concepts that relate to real life. What themes and concepts from the real world do you want to convey in your work?
My answer to that is more that I take a wide range of themes and concepts from our world and mix them with my own ideas and then explore the results in different settings in the world of Recluce. I’ve also described a considerable range of government/social systems in that world, ranging from the female-led military power of Westwind to the traders council on the isle of Recluce. All of my novels explore the issues of power and responsibility in various ways.
How have your previous vocations, specifically in politics, influenced your writing?
How could almost twenty years in politics, largely in Washington, D.C., not have influenced my writing? Probably the aspect that shows through the most is the costs, of all sorts, imposed by the use and misuse of power… and, as David Brin has stated, how power tends to attract the corruptible.
Have you had a chance to read any of the newer fantasy authors on the scene? If so, any that you’ve particularly enjoyed and would recommend?
For the last ten years or so, I’ve made it a practice to read as many new authors as I can every year. I’ve listed a number of those several times each year in the “What I’m Reading” section of my website [www.lemodesittjr.com], but any listing here would have to be limited and end up emphasizing a few and ignoring others. Also… since I don’t have “favorite authors,” but favorite books, listing authors by name, and not books, would also be misleading.
You’ve written an immense number of novels. What is the secret to your continued prolificacy?
There’s nothing else that I find as satisfying as writing, and when I get paid for doing what I find so rewarding, why wouldn’t I keep writing?
While The Saga of Recluce is your flagship series, you have also just reached the end of another massive 12 book epic with The Imager Portfolio. Describe this fascinating series for the uninitiated.
The novels of The Imager Portfolio take place across roughly 800 years in the world of Terahnar, a world in which a minuscule percentage of the population are imagers. Using the physiological strength of their bodies, they can visualize objects into being. Because the talent requires physical strength and nearby materials, it is so dangerous to its users that most untrained imagers almost never reach adulthood. As seems to be my habit, I wrote the first three books about the latest period in the history of the nation of Solidar – a period similar to 1840s France, except there is no electricity and steam power is more advanced. In Solidar at that time, all imagers are required to belong to and be trained by the Collegium Imago, and the first book deals with Rhenn, a journeyman portrait artist trying to become a master painter, who is a latent imager… and doesn’t know it. The discovery of his abilities nearly destroys him, demolishes all his hopes of being a master painter, and thrusts him into the Collegium while also setting him on a path leading to a conflict with the most powerful noble family in Solidar. The second set of books takes place more than seven hundred years in the past and deals with the Wars of Consolidation and the attempt by one ruler to use imagers as military weapons. Then the last four books take place midway between the first two sets and deal with a period of transition from a traditional society into a more market-driven society against the wishes of the hereditary nobility. The final book of the middle period – and the last book in the series – is Endgames, and it just came out in hardcover in February.
What is it about jumping through periods of time and featuring different characters perspectives and not spending too much time on a particular POV or MC that you find so appealing?
I wouldn’t say that I don’t spend enough time on a particular character, particularly since none of my fantasy books [except one] can be called short. It’s just that I enjoy giving readers a historical sweep of the worlds about which I’m writing. The novels and stories in the Recluce Saga cover a span of over 2,000 years. The events take place on five different continents, and in more than 20 different countries. The countries have different cultures and varying forms of government, and over the course of the novels empires and countries rise and fall. By telling the stories from differing points of view at different time periods, I believe I’m giving readers a richer experience, but I have to admit that what I do isn’t for everyone, particularly since I don’t write nonstop action.
How do you feel your writing style has changed, specifically in the Recluce novels, since you began writing in the world?
I don’t think my basic style has changed all that much, except technically I’ve learned a lot from writing and working with good editors. I did learn early on, however, that almost no reader liked the “sound effects” in The Magic of Recluce, and I quickly phased out the majority of those. In the beginning I wrote the first draft of a book in a more disjointed fashion before piecing it all together. Now, I don’t need to do that quite as much.
What takes up most of your time these days when you are not writing?
Writing and writing-related work take up most of my time. Even when I’m reading, most of what I read these days is non-fiction, generally in the sciences, aviation and space, history, archaeology, and politics. I try to squeeze in exercise – usually a long walk at a good pace – on a daily basis.
You have inspired many writers, and are quite influential. What one piece of advice would you give to authors that are either just starting out, or attempting to make a full time career out of writing?
Don’t quit your day job until you can live on your writing income… or unless you have a spouse who’s willing to pick up the slack without straining your relationship, but even that’s chancy from what I’ve observed… and experienced.
You always seem to have a couple of projects on the go. What can we look forward to in 2019 and beyond?
This coming August will see the release of the next Recluce book – The Mage-Fire War — and in mid-2020, Tor will release Quantum Shadows, or Forty-Five Ways of Looking at a Raven, which is a far, far, far future science fantasy.
Is there an end in sight for The Saga of Recluce? How long do you think you will continue writing in this world?
Not at the moment. Besides the The Mage-Fire War, I just recently turned in another Recluce novel to my editor. And, no, I’m not about to say anything about it until she’s finished reading it and I’ve addressed any and all issues she may have.
How important is reader interaction to you as an author?
Readers are important to almost all authors, and I’m no exception. But different authors have different needs from their readers. I’m more of a loner than most of the writers I know. I’ve never felt I needed a writing group or alpha or beta readers. That said, it’s always helpful to get reader input and feedback. Sometimes, reader inquiries lead to other books and stories. The story “Black Ordermage” never would have happened without a reader’s question. Nor would the novella “Heritage” or Cyador’s Heirs or Heritage of Cyador. And, frankly, the best support for an author is a dedicated and enthusiastic group of readers who are fans, and I’ve been fortunate in that, as well.
Your essays and commentary have inspired me, and I thoroughly enjoy reading your thoughts and philosophies. With so many profound writings on your blog, do you ever have any intention to jump on to social media in order to reach more people, or is it simply something you’ve always wanted to stay away from?
My website is the extent of my personal media presence, and it’s likely to remain that way. Even that presence takes quite a few hours of my time every week. Doing social media would take even more time, and because there are only so many hours in the day, a social media presence would mean that I’d be able to write less. I’d rather write more and have a lower social media profile.
Your Recluce covers by Darrell K. Sweet are extremely iconic. I do notice, however that there have been some new designs on the first few novels. What sparked this decision?
While Darrell’s covers are indeed iconic, there was one big problem. Darrell’s no longer around to paint them, and while Tor tried to find artists to replicate that “feel,” they couldn’t find anyone who could put the “fire,” if you will, into the covers. Darrell was a superb colorist, and even today many of his covers stand out from across the room, but there was a second problem. It turned out that a great many younger readers turned away from the covers, feeling that because the art was “dated” the stories must be as well. And if younger readers weren’t picking up the books…
In any event, Tor and I have both been pleased with Marc Simonetti’s covers, not just the recovering of the first three Recluce books, but also the recent covers beginning with The Mongrel Mage.