Shaun Farrell interviews Michael A. Stackpole
Shaun's Quadrant—May 2005

Michael A. Stackpole is the distinguished author of more than thirty books. I had the pleasure of meeting him several weeks ago at a book signing, at which he admitted that to some people he will always be known as a Star Wars writer. His success with the DragonCrown War Cycle and A Secret Atlas, however, proves that Michael is much more. He is a talented writer who, as you will see in this interview and in the review of A Secret Atlas, is not afraid to take risks and toy with readers’ expectations. He has also worked as a game designer for many years. I am pleased and honored to have Michael, along with Ray Bradbury, kick off Shaun’s Quadrant. It is a good omen, indeed.

See Michael’s website(http://www.stormwolf.com).


Shaun Farrell: Michael, thank you for taking the time to chat with me. Our readers at Far Sector SFFH are getting a special treat as this is the first interview ever conducted for the magazine.

I first want to ask you about a report entitled Reading at Risk that was conducted by the National Endowment of the Arts (http://www.arts.gov:591/pub/index.html.). The report shows that less than half of the U.S. population reads literature, meaning one short story, or one poem, or one novel per year. But other studies would seem to indicate that readership numbers could be even lower. How do you feel about this and what can writers and readers do to reverse current trends that look down on reading?

Michael A. Stackpole: Reports like this are tricky because their percentages are down compared to some arbitrary point, but when you apply those percentages against population growth, the pool of folks reading has grown. The internet also promotes reading, since it's a literary medium in that sense. The core problem is that over the past thirty years there are many more things to do for entertainment than reading, so the shrinking percentage doesn't surprise me.

How do we reverse the trend? Beg J. K. Rowling to write more than seven Harry Potter books. The bottom line is simple, if publishers publish books folks want to read, and promote the good books so readers will have a satisfying experience, more folks will read. If you had a restaurant and 80% of the food was unappealing or tasteless, you'd expect to go out of business. Publishers put books out that are not very good simply to fill slots in publishing schedules, so readers really don't know what they're getting when they pick a book up. The publishing business model is one that is only rivaled by TV and movies for encouraging mediocrity.

In short, good books, happy readers means more sales, more readers.

SF: Andre Norton passed away recently. She was a major figure in science fiction and the only female Grand Master. She was a true pioneer in the field. What impact do you think Norton had on science fiction and fantasy and how do you think her work will affect future generations?

MAS: Andre Norton turned out very good books that entertained and challenged readers. She respected her readers and gave them more than their money's worth. Many, if not most, of the fantasy/sf writers today have read her and found her to be an inspiration on one level or another. In this way her legacy will carry through the industry for a long time. As for her impact on future generations of readers, that will depend entirely on how long her books are kept in print. If the books are available, she will continue to entertain and inspire. If not, we lose a wonderful storyteller and are all much poorer for it.

SF: Let’s talk about A Secret Atlas, the first installment of your new fantasy series entitled The Age of Discovery. The story centers around several generations of the Anturasi family in a land still suffering from an event called the Cataclysm, when magical powers nearly destroyed the land. The novel is full of political intrigue, treachery, and a spirit of discovery. How did you come to conceive of a family of cartographers as central characters for a story?

MAS: A comment in the book The Island of Lost Maps said that until cartographers put a place on a map, it really didn't exist. That idea kind of resonated around in my brain and linked up with other ideas that were floating around. The Anturasi family are cartographers, but as the series unfolds, readers will see that they, and others, are very much more.

SF: Did your experience as a game designer influence the appeal of using cartographers? After all, when you design a game, you are essentially mapping out the terrain of a world.

MAS: Every fantasy writer and gamer is a cartographer, so the appeal was there. Plus, every fantasy series benefits from having maps. The idea that a huge chunk of it could be about maps and discovery was a lot of fun. Instead of ignoring the camel in the tent (since much of fiction hinges on discovery) I got to play with it.

SF: I saw on the reading list posted on your website that you’ve read a great deal of Patrick O’Brian. How did his work influence A Secret Atlas?

MAS: Well, if nothing else, I understand a lot more about how ships run from O'Brian than I ever did before. Those books also dealt with exploration: finding new animals, new cultures and places. I loved that about those books and wanted to recreate a sense of that in these books. That said, O'Brian is a powerful writer and someday, if I keep working hard, I might get close to being that strong.

SF: What can you tell our readers about the future installments of The Age of Discovery? When can we expect the next installment?

MAS: The next installment is Cartomancy, which should come out in the spring of 2006. Bigger, better, more sprawling, with characters expanding in directions you might not have expected. A chunk of this series is exploration for me, which makes it a lot of fun. Discovering connections between characters and situations means I get to share in a sense of wonder which I hope gets communicated to the readers.

SF: You dedicated A Secret Atlas to Senator John McCain. How has Senator McCain inspired you?

MAS: While I don't agree with McCain on every point, he's stood up and showed he has some guts. That's rare in a politician and is a quality I admire. While I disagree with a number of his stands, I do like the fact that he's willing to makes stands. (Shutting up now before I run off into a political rant.)

SF: For readers who may not know, you helped develop the world of BattleTech, a popular game and novel franchise, with creator Jordan Weisman. I know from articles you’ve written on your website that the franchise is taking a different direction to give it new life and to expand the environment of the BT universe, but many fans have resisted the idea of changing what they’ve come to know and love. What can you tell us about the developments within BattleTech and when can we expect your next BattleTech book?

MAS: Readers resist change because it makes them uncomfortable. Change has to get worked into any series, or it stagnates. Probably the best thing I can say about that universe and any future work I do in it, is that we won't let it get old. New angles, new approaches (like doing a novel first person), will keep the universe exciting. At least, that's the plan.

SF: Besides your franchise novels, such as Star Wars and BattleTech, your own original novels are all works of fantasy. Do you have any desire to create your own SF universe?

MAS: Sure. I actually did create one for a series of short stories. I call the universe "Purgatory Station." The stories revolve around the interactions of three chaplains (two human Catholics) on an alien space station so far from Earth that the light that shined on Jesus hasn't even made it out there yet.

SF: What is one thing you would like readers of Far Sector SFFH who are unfamiliar with your work to know?

MAS: When they pick up one of my books, it's not going to be the same-old, same-old. Characters grow, characters live and they die. They'll always be entertained, often challenged and, I hope, never disappointed.

SF: What is the best book you have read this year?

MAS: Steel My Soldiers Hearts by David Hackworth. It's a Viet Nam memoir that is enlightening and entertaining at the same time.

SF: What would you have liked me to ask that I failed to ask, and what would be your answer?

MAS: Hmmm, nothing comes to mind right away.

SF: Michael, thank you for your time. I hope we can do this again when the second book of The Age of Discovery is released.

MAS: Sounds like a great idea.

Copyright © 2005 Shaun Farrell. All Rights Reserved.