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Rich Christiano

Interview: Lars Walker

[Photo of Lars Walker] Lars Walker is the author of the Baen Books titles Erling's Word (later republished as part of The Year of the Warrior, Wolf Time, and Blood and Judgment. He joined the list November 2007. Shannon McNear, Donna Farley, Greg Slade, and Jo Grove asked questions and made comments, and here is an edited version of the question and answer sequence. More information about Lars and his work can be found at http://larswalker.com/.

SM: Tell us about your background, birthplace, where and when you grew up, what your childhood was like, etc.?

Thank you for having me. Born in 1950. I grew up on a small farm in southeastern Minnesota. It was a pretty dysfunctional family, but we had a godly church where I was grounded in Scripture.

SM: Educational background? What did you take, and why?

After high school I attended three different colleges, taking my BA from Augsburg College in Minneapolis in 1974. My major was English. I didn't really have a career plan, except that I wanted to write.

SM: What is your family situation? (Married? Kids? 1.7 dogs?)

Single; never married. I suffer from Avoidant Personality Disorder (a fancy name for extreme shyness), which makes it difficult to find a wife. I own a house in a Minneapolis suburb, where I rent a room to a guy to help cover expenses.

SM: How did you get started writing?

When I was a kid I wanted to be some kind of artist – an illustrator or cartoonist. I drew incessantly. But in high school I started experimenting with writing stories, and soon I stopped drawing altogether. I felt much more in control with the written word.

SM: What works have you had published? (not restricting yourself to SF/F titles) Articles, short stories?

My first professional sales were some humorous pieces for The Wittenburg Door (now just The Door) in the 1970s. In the '80s I started selling fantasy stories to Amazing Stories Magazine. The editor of Amazing at the time was George Scithers, who became my agent, until he closed up shop recently. In the late '90s we finally sold my first novel, Erling's Word, to Baen Books, and Baen went on to publish three more from me. This year I started selling occasional columns to The American Spectator Online. And I blog at www.brandywinebooks.net.

SM: Of your works, which one is your favorite? (including works in progress)

I guess The Year of the Warrior would be my favorite. It's my big Viking saga, the book I wanted to write from the time I was a kid.

DF: Welcome Lars, and thank you for your candid replies to the questions thus far. Would you tell us a little about your research for your books? I saw the Stavanger photos on your website – did you travel for the express purpose of research?

I've been researching the Vikings since I was about 10 years old. I've gone to Norway for local color and research, as well as to visit relatives, but the time I was photographed with the stone cross was after my Viking books were published.

GS: Nothing intelligent to add here. I'm just enjoying the interview, as I always do. But I thought I'd pop my head up to say, "Hey! My sister lives in Stavanger!"

She's a lucky woman.

SM: Who are your influences as a writer, and why?

I suppose everything goes back to C.S. Lewis. Screwtape Letters, which I read in Jr. High or High School, was nothing less than a bombshell in my life. I'd never read anything like it. Although I was raised in a good church, there were theological truths there I'd never guessed at. I wanted them to be true, but thought they were too good to be true. The very idea that faith didn't mean rejecting reason seemed too good to hope for.

I think T.H. White's The Once and Future King also influenced me. That was another book I read in High School. I wasn't a perceptive enough reader at the time to grasp what White was actually writing about, or to assign the book a place on a continuum of political positions. But the characters were so rich, the humor so bright, the detail so generous, that I couldn't help loving it. I knew I wanted to write something of the same sort, but never thought I could aspire to such a thing.

It was another author, Robert E. Howard, whose (very different) Conan stories really sparked my writing ambition. Although I think he's an underappreciated writer, when I read his stories I thought, "I can imagine myself writing this sort of thing. That I could do." Of course I'd write my stories about Vikings, because Vikings were already my hobby. So that's where the plan came from.

Tolkien (as Lewis said), was "good beyond hope." Another work too wonderful to imagine emulating.

Of the other authors I've enjoyed over the years, I think perhaps John D. MacDonald was the strongest influence. He worked in a different genre altogether, but he was able to turn genre books into true and resonant stories about the human heart. The main thing I've always asked of an author is that he treat his characters with compassion – even the villains.

You don't have to be morally neutral to recognize that everyone has his own story.

SM: What was the first exposure you can remember having to SF/F as a genre?

I guess I dealt with that above. I'd consider Screwtape Letters a Christian fantasy. Pilgrim's Progress is a fantasy too, of a sort, and I'd read that quite early.

I used to read juvenile science fiction when I was young. Read most of the Heinlein juveniles. I haven't been able to enjoy SF much as an adult, though. I find most science fiction writers repellently cold-blooded. Perhaps they figure we'll all be cyborgs in the future, and they might as well adopt the mindset preemptively.

SM: What is your personal all-time favorite SF/F work, and why?

I think it's C.S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength. It's far from his most popular novel, and many people consider it a failure. But I think it's one of the most effective efforts ever made to avoid the novelist's common temptation to paint evil as romantic, and rather to show it as what it is – banal and dull and essentially dead. Which is why it has those difficult stretches that make such hard reading. They're there as a contrast to the depiction of real, vibrant Christian community at St. Anne's.

SM: What is your faith stance, and how does it affect your writing?

I continue in the faith in which I was raised – a pietist branch of Lutheranism. In many ways that's a great advantage. I'm part of the evangelical, born-again culture, so I know what it's about, but I can also write about more sacramental Christianity with a fair amount of authority.

Several people assumed I was Catholic because of Father Ailill in The Year of the Warrior. I was quite pleased that I'd pulled that off.

SM: What Christian book(s) (fiction or non-fiction) have had the greatest impact on your thought and writing?

Again we're back to C.S. Lewis. I think I've read everything he wrote in the theological vein. I differ with him on some points, but he invites that. I also fell under the spell of Francis Schaeffer while I was in college. I think he's indispensible for understanding how western culture has changed over the centuries. And if I'm not mistaken, everything he predicted has come true. G.K. Chesterton is also a delight (when he's not being an ass), but I think I enjoy him mostly for the intellectual choreography, rather than for the power of his ideas.

SM: What NON-Christian book(s) (fiction or non-fiction) have had the greatest impact on your thought and writing?

Someone gave me a copy of Mark Twain's short stories in high school, and his attacks on Christianity and Christian morality gave me something to wrestle with (I don't think I've ever hated anything I've read as much as I hate "The Mysterious Stranger"). Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind was a very important book at a very important moment in history, and in my own life.

SM: Are you still involved in reenacting? And what do you enjoy most about that? I loved your webpage about Vikings ... I have a critique partner who's writing a time-travel story with Vikings, and we've had a lot of fun comparing what people think is true, and what was actually so.

Yes, I'm involved with a reenactment group here in Minneapolis. We think we have two of the oldest live steel combat fighters in the country in our group (and yes, I'm one of them). The combat is definitely my favorite part. I have a lot of bottled up anger to work out.

SM: And could you share something of your writing journey? What are you working on now?

That's a sad story, but I suppose it's instructive as a cautionary tale. At the present time I'm not really working on any fiction. (I am still writing columns for The American Spectator Online.) I missed a deadline on my last book, mostly due to family emergencies, and lost my publisher as a consequence. Then my agent went out of business. At this point I ought to be hunting down a new agent, but my employers (I'm librarian for a small seminary and Bible school) would like me to get my Master's in Library Science. That won't leave much time for writing books for the next couple years. So it looks as if I'm an ex-novelist now. I'm currently in one stage or another of grieving for that dream. Maybe God will give it back to me someday.

SM: Live steel combat ... oh, man, I wish I lived closer. The Viking just happens to be my favorite of all the longsword styles. :-) Any particular sources you particularly recommend for someone studying medieval swordsmanship? I have the John Clement book and used to hang out quite a lot on SFI ...

I don't know of any books about swordsmanship. There are various live steel groups, and various systems. We hit a little harder than the English reenactors, for instance (I know a group in Canada that hits even harder, but they use anachronistic heavy armor). There tends to be a fair amount of friction between the fighting schools.

Most people learn by doing. If you check out the Viking message board I frequent, you might be able to find a group in your neck of the woods.

SM: When you write, have you ever come across theological "puzzles" you had to sort through to your own satisfaction before you could continue with the story?

I don't think so. My theology's pretty settled, and I generally make my fiction serve it. I take some poetic liberties, such as using ghosts, which I don't really believe in, and giving personal existence to heathen gods, which is a confusing and arguable matter.

SM: What do you do when you aren't writing?

I have a day job. I'm a Viking reenactor, so I spend some weekends doing that, which also doubles as research to some extent. I read a lot of books, mostly mysteries and thrillers, because I haven't found a lot of fantasy being currently written that's much good. And I have to admit I watch a lot of TV. Actually I do a lot of my writing with the TV on. I don't like writing in a sensory vacuum. I like something else going on in the room.

SM: What sorts of things stir the pot of creativity for you? Music, artwork, certain films, etc. ...

I don't have any regular tricks for coming up with ideas. Sometimes having Bach on the stereo as I write seems to help. My best ideas seem to come either when I'm falling asleep or waking up, but there's no way to organize that.

SM: Do you have a favorite place for writing?

I usually write on my laptop in an easy chair in my living room.

SM: Do you try to work each day until you're "done," or do you have certain hours, or daily word count goal?

When I was working systematically at fiction, I learned at the end to set myself a daily word quota. At first it was 1,000 words, and later I raised it to 2,000. But I made a commitment long ago, which I think I've pretty much always carried out, never to write for money on Sundays. It's a way to honor the Sabbath, and also take my writing vocation seriously.

SM: Do you tend more toward outlining, or do you work with just a general idea of where the story is going, and the characters just tend to take over on the details?

My system is to write notes to myself when I have ideas for a book. When I have enough notes, I transcribe them into a MS Word file, more or less in the order I expect to use them. Once I start the book, I compose it at the beginning of the same file, and delete each note at the end as I use it in the book. When it's finished I have a completed manuscript with a few discarded idea notes at the end, which I then delete.

JG: Welcome, Lars! The Year of the Warrior is my favorite of your books, though I think I've read them all. (trying to remember)

Thank you for the praise, Jo. TYOTW is my favorite, too.

JG: You are (or were) a Baen writer, yes? How did you decide to go with that publishing house? (Aside from the obvious "they accepted my manuscript," I mean!) What do you like most / least about working with a secular publisher, and did you encounter any problems with getting your overtly Christian writing in the door, so to speak, with a house that isn't catering specifically to a Christian market? Have you ever considered going with a CBA publisher (and why / why not)? Do you have any advice for other Christian writers (especially those who aren't aiming specifically for the Christian niche market), and specifically for those who are interested in writing speculative fiction?

Yes, I was with Baen. And, cliché or not, "They accepted my manuscript" is precisely the reason I "decided" on them. You must understand, unless you're a "name," you don't decide who will publish you. They decide if they'll have you.

What I liked most about working with a secular publisher was that it gave me access to the whole world of readers. CBA is pretty much a ghetto, say what you will. CBA publication is also assumed to be 2nd tier, unless proven otherwise. (Not that mainstream publication can't be 2nd tier too.)

My publisher, the late Jim Baen, was an agnostic, but he never gave me any trouble over the faith content of my stories. He actually practiced the "open marketplace of ideas" that so many publishers only talk about.

Since I lost my place in the Baen stable, I've made attempts to get into the CBA world. The brutal fact is, nobody wants me.

Advice? Learn to be the very best writer you can be. If you want to make it in the big market, you'll have to earn your place. Expect rejection after rejection before you find a slot, because that's what's going to happen.

JG: I want more Viking fic! ;-)

I want more Viking fic too. I'm reading Viking Warrior by Judson Roberts right now. It's a young adult book, and I'm very, very pleased with it. Exciting stuff and very well researched. I recommend it.

SM: A huge thank you to Lars Walker for being with us this past month, and graciously answering all the questions put to him. I usually save the question, "What 3 bits of advice would you give to a new writer (or those not-so-new)?" until last, but I think you pretty much answered that, and then we had the excellent excerpt from C.S. Lewis , but did you have anything to add? :-)

No, I think I've done all the harm I need to do for November. Thank you for inviting me.

Lars Walker

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[David R. Beaucage][Kathy Tyers][James BeauSeigneur][Jefferson Scott][Walker Chandler][Alton Gansky][Ray Hansen]

[Emily Snyder][Randall Ingermanson][Theodore Beale][Steve Laube][Laura Lond][Frank Wu][Donita K. Paul][Brenda W. Clough][Bryan Davis][John Granger]

[Karen Hancock][Miles Owens][Robert Liparulo][Bryan Davis, part 2][Chris Walley][Kathryn Mackel][Gene Wolfe][Sharon Hinck][Wayne Thomas Batson][Lars Walker][Christopher Hopper][Jeffrey Overstreet]

Rich Christiano

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[David R. Beaucage] [Kathy Tyers] [James BeauSeigneur] [Jefferson Scott] [Walker Chandler] [Alton Gansky] [Ray Hansen] [Emily Snyder] [Randall Ingermanson] [Theodore Beale] [Steve Laube] [Laura Lond] [Frank Wu] [Donita K. Paul] [Brenda W. Clough] [Bryan Davis] [John Granger] [Karen Hancock] [Miles Owens] [Robert Liparulo] [Bryan Davis, part 2] [Chris Walley] [Kathryn Mackel] [Gene Wolfe] [Sharon Hinck] [Wayne Thomas Batson] [Lars Walker] [Christopher Hopper] [Jeffrey Overstreet] [Rich Christiano]