Simply Fred Saberhagen, an interview by Ken Rand

Intro & Credits

Simply Fred Saberhagen

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Intro & Credits

This fantastic interview with Fred Saberhagen was conducted and written by science fiction author Ken Rand. It was originally published in the Spring 1997 issue of Talebones Magazine. The interview has been reproduced here by special arrangement with Ken, and may not be further reproduced without permission. Special thanks go to N. Katherine Hayles for her help in making this reproduction possible.  Please visit:

Ken Rand's website

Talebones Magazine

This interview will also be appearing in Voices of Wonder--20 Interviews in Fantasy & Science Fiction, from Wildside Press

Additionally, check out Ken Rand's recent releases:

Phoenix, from Zumaya Publications. "Phoenix is an intriguing story of betrayal, survival, and redemption, set on a richly conceived alien world. It's an excellent exploration of otherness, both environmental and societal." --Jerry Oltion

Tales of the Lucky Nickel Saloon, from Yard Dog Press. "Ken Rand's TALES OF THE LUCKY NICKEL SALOON is cleverly written, imaginative, and highly entertaining.  It's fiction of an entirely new flavor." -- Kevin J. Anderson, coauthor of Dune: The Butlerian Jihad.


Simply Fred Saberhagen
Ken Rand

Your first encounter with a shelf full of Fred Saberhagen books at your favorite bookstore may be intimidating. Where to start? Saberhagen's own answer is simple: "I usually say, 'Do you like vampires or robots?' If they say vampires, I start them off with Dracula, and for robots, of course, I start them off with Berserkers. Or if they have another comment, well, I have about sixty books now, so there's quite a variety there."

Indeed. Saberhagen has been writing, and little else but, for thirty-five years. "It's hard to picture myself working at anything else," he says, "and certainly nobody is going to pay me to do anything else the way they pay me to write books."

When he offers a modest shrug and says simply, "It's just what I do," you begin to understand his formula for continued success is just as simple. "If people ask me for the ingredients of success, I say one is talent, two is stubbornness or determination, and third is sheer luck. You have to have two out of the three. Any two will probably do. One isn't enough and if you have all three, the sky's the limit."

How did he get into it?

"I didn't seriously start writing until I was about thirty years old," he says. "I finally decided one day, reading science fiction magazines of the time, I could do at least as well as some of these people are doing. So I finally made a serious effort."

That was in 1961. "I had immediate success in the sense that I sold something right off the bat. I thought it was going to be a piece of cake and it really wasn't. I have drawers full of--or I did have--drawers full of rejection slips."

Still, an early lesson learned well: "I think you learn to tell what's going to sell and what isn't before you even start to put that much effort into it."

Take, for example, the seemingly mundane origins in the early days of Saberhagen's career of the successful Berserker series. "I had what I thought was a good idea for a space adventure short story," he says, "and I needed some kind of a menace, a villain, to be overcome. It really didn't matter that much what it was in terms of that story. And I thought, 'Well, I know. I'll have this huge space-going automated warship that's been programmed to destroy everything that lives. So, I used it. Fred Pohl bought the story and he said, 'Why don't you write some more of these, about these Berserkers?' And I said, 'Okay, I will.' Thirty years later I'm still doing it. I've just finished another one."

Probe further into the subconscious origins of the Berserker idea and you'll hear Saberhagen admit "off and on, I'm a technophobe."

He had a computer once that scrambled random paragraphs.

"If I even go to check the e-mail now, our modem doesn't work for three days and so Joanie [Mrs. Saberhagen] handles the interfaces between me and the world."

Next time you see Saberhagen, ask him about the robotics convention held in his hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, a few years ago. He was asked to help judge a warehouse full of little domestic robots. One robot, designed to find small household fires and douse them, singled out Saberhagen and proceeded to pee on his shoes.

True story.

"But I used to work as an electronics technician," he insists, "believe it or not. I got through most days on that job without being like Inspector Clouseau or anything. But I much prefer just writing about it."

Saberhagen says he didn't have to dig very hard into his subconscious to find the Berserker idea. "It just stuck its head up and there it was." Simple.

He describes the concept as being somewhat like Frankenstein's monster. "The background I eventually worked out, how the Berserkers came to be," he says, "is that there were two races of live beings who were at war and one of them invented this ultimate weapon, this machine that would go through the enemy's territory and wipe out everything that lived. And they couldn't turn it off, or they didn't know how to, finally, when the time came, so it ate them both up and now it's still making its way across the galaxy."

It was a good idea back then. It still is. "I'm still doing it. I just finished a book called Berserker Fury. [Tor, August 1997] I think it's a pretty good book. It's what Tom Doherty wanted me to do. It's the moving of the Battle of Midway into a future space adventure scene. The Japanese, of course, are played by the Berserkers. And the idea is to save Earth from an ultimate, overwhelming attack."

An aspect of the Berserker world that has kept Saberhagen's interest over the years is that it's an "open-ended series." He contrasts the concept with something like Robert Aspirin's Thieve's World, for example, which he describes as a "closed series, where things get more and more crowded. You're working in the same territory and you have to remember not only what you did but what these six or twelve other writers working in the same world had done with their characters and how they all interact. That's a closed series.

"The open-ended, Berserkers for example, is where characters come and go and they might come back or they might not and you can go to another world where things are entirely different, except the Berserkers are still the same, basically, when you show up there."

Saberhagen, you see, simply likes variety. "By the time I finish a book," he says, "I'm always bored with that particular book. I can't stand to look at it. Let's get it out. Then of course I look at it again later and I usually think, well, this is pretty good. But I do like to change worlds."

In part, it's a matter of artistic temperament. "I wouldn't like to just do one story or one type of stories all the time."

Consider his ten book Book of Swords series. "They've probably been my most successful books," Saberhagen says. "The early books especially. Then I guess sales kind of fell off and I started to lose interest in the whole thing after about eight books, whatever it was. The Swords were still interesting but by then a cast of characters had started to appear and go on from book to book, and other things about the world began to feel constricting. And there were other things I wanted to do, so I closed the series up and stopped it."

His varied output is also fueled in part by commercial considerations.

Saberhagen knows, for example, that series sell better than other books, "all other things being equal. There's no question about that. If I can think of a good story to tell in a series, then I tend to choose that over a story having nothing to do with a series. I guess if one set of my books was selling like Stephen King's, and the other wasn't selling at all, editors would want me to do the ones that sold like Stephen King's. But they seem to be willing to let me pick what I want to do next."

Like Merlin's Bones, an exception to the series concept, released last year in paperback. "It was a vague idea, this Arthurian alternate world kind of thing," Saberhagen says. "Another was something like Dancing Bears. My wife became very interested in Russia and Russian women mathematicians over the last ten years and so the house is kind of stacked around with things about Russia. Naturally, I got into this. The history is horrifying and fascinating at the same time, like a horror novel. I finally decided I had to do something about this and Dancing Bears is the outcome of that."

The book is set in 1905 Russia. "The idea is there are people who turn into bears from time to time. And these people tend to thrive in this environment of ruthless competition, assassinations and bomb-throwings and so on."

Saberhagen says he has no idea how the book is going to sell. "If it becomes a success, I suppose it might even turn into a series."

The world of computer gaming has also influenced Saberhagen's commercial decisions. "My wife and I had a computer game company at one point," he says. "I don't know if the company came before I started writing the Swords books or vice versa. But I remember thinking consciously that I should write something that would make a great computer game because there's a lot interest in that, or there's going to be. Computer games are going to be very big.

"When we had our own company, we had a programmer who actually started working on trying to make some kind of game out of it. I think, like a lot of programming tasks, it expanded, and once we got started, you could see how huge it would be. It never got off the ground and our gaming company never prospered either. I think we made some nice games, but we couldn't get distribution and it wasn't worthwhile to sell them out of our house by mail or anything like that."

Saberhagen says Swords was also optioned once to a game company "and a couple of times other people have expressed interest," but nothing came of it.

Saberhagen is a long-time accomplished chess player and enjoys working jigsaw puzzles.

Another boost to Saberhagen's interest in computer gaming came when he heard that Arizona-based gaming company Flying Buffalo was using Berserkers in a space warfare kind of game called "Starweb." He wrote the company and got them to say the term "Berserker" was used with his permission.

"I didn't figure I could get any money from this," he says, "but I'd get some publicity if they used it. And they said, 'Do you want a free game?' I said, 'Sure, I'll try it out.' It was kind of fun, but it was one of those things you could sink endless amounts of time and energy into.

"Having gotten to know something about how these games went, I used it in a book [Octagon]. When I wrote the book, I think the code names that you could have in the real game of 'Starweb' was like six letters each, so I used a longer word--Octagon--just so it wouldn't be anybody's real code name. And then they revised their computers after that and it became possible to use longer code names. But I think the name 'Octagon' is still reserved for me if I come back to play another game."

Saberhagen says he was very impressed by the computer game "Myst." "It seemed to be different from other games, most of which I haven't played, but from what I've heard about them, you're not in fear of being killed [in Myst] every time you turn around. There aren't things jumping out at you or trapdoors opening beneath your feet or anything. Those surprising things sometimes happen. But you kind of relax exploring Myst and trying to figure things out.

"There are interactions with characters within the game which I think are pretty neatly done considering the limitations that you have to work with. I mean, a computer can't really generate a character that talks back and forth with you successfully."

He adds: "I don't know why a computer game can't be an art form just as a puppet show or an opera is. I'm still interested in computer games as something I would like to work on someday,"

But that may be down the line somewhere. "It's like Hollywood now," Saberhagen laments. "You can't just do it on your kitchen table anymore. You have to have armies of production people and programmers and actors, and I don't know what all."

In his more immediate future is an experimental excursion into the world of electronic publishing, of a sort.

"There's a thing on the net now where you can put up one of your short stories, or a number of short stories, I guess," he says. "Readers plug in to see and browse these short stories and they can read the first half of any story for free. If they want the whole story, they have to pay a fee. I don't know how this company collects fees--modest, you know. A dollar, something like that. Then the company says they will send the authors of the stories a check every month. I suppose it'd be a very small amount of money, but someday this might amount to something. So we're going to put out one of my short stories, with Dracula in it, actually, because I think it's kind of a hooker story, where, if you get started, you'll probably want to see what happened."

Just as successful as his Berserker books are his Dracula stories. This success may be due in part to his approach: Dracula as hero.

"I usually tell his stories first person," he says, "so I tend to tell him as he sees himself, which isn't at all the way other people would see him. Sometimes I wonder. Is he too much of a nice guy?

"So the last one I did, it's called A Sharpness on the Neck [Tor, Oct. 1996], and our hero visits the French Revolution--also his wicked brother shows up. Radu. Radu the Handsome. We haven't seen him for a long time. He's historically, really, the younger brother of Vlad Dracula, the Impaler. And both were, at different times, Prince of Walachia. So Radu shows up and he is pretty nasty. No more Mister Nice Guy."

Despite that fact that his Dracula series and other books may be found in the horror section of your favorite bookstore, Saberhagen doesn't consider himself a horror writer. "I attended one horror writer's convention and I got on fine with the people there," he says. "There's a big overlap with the people you meet at the fantasy and science fiction cons. But I did not join the organization [Horror Writers of America] and, basically, I don't think I'm a horror writer. The big thing there seems to be to frighten the reader or else to nauseate them if you can't frighten them. And if this is all I can do, I don't want to bother."

Still, Saberhagen and his wife Joan are looking forward to attending a convention in London in late October. It's the hundredth anniversary of Bram Stoker's Dracula. (The original book: Saberhagen wrote the novelization of the movie, which was based on Stoker's book. True story.)

You may have noted the apparent ease with which a black-and-white, simple good versus simple evil theme is discernible as an element of the Berserker series. Contrast that with the not so easy to pigeonhole use of archetypal villain (Dracula) as hero. Confusing? Does Saberhagen have a moral agenda?


"People in my books confront moral questions," he acknowledges, "and they have thoughts about them and I suppose they may be my thoughts. Some of them I'd like to identify with. But no, I don't set out to teach moral lessons or anything like that. I like to entertain people, I like to have stories where you wonder what's going to happen next, and you can't wait to find out. This to me is a real achievement. If you have people turning the page and they just want to see what happens next."

Why Fred Saberhagen writes, then--simply for the fun of it.

Does he see a strong future for science fiction?


"There's been a great boom ever since Star Wars came out," he says. "I guess it must have been a pivotal event of some kind. I think Fred Pohl said you can't predict the future, you have to invent it."

And Fred Saberhagen's personal future?

He just turned in The Face of Apollo, a new fantasy, and he's now working on Shiva in Steel, a new Berserker novel. "I'm also starting something I don't want to talk about," he adds, "because I hate to talk about things when I'm working on them, especially when I'm just starting. Beyond that I hope and plan to keep on writing for years yet. Jack Williamson is going strong at 85 or 86 or whatever, the last I heard."

Adding "I think I have the best job in the world," Saberhagen insists he'll never stop. "There's a feeling that if I did stop for five years or ten years or something, then I would drop out of sight. I remember going to a con some years back and meeting Theodore Sturgeon, who had been, as we know, one of the very, very big names, top writer and everything. He dropped out for whatever reason, I don't know what he did, for years and years. And he came back to a convention and nobody knew who he was. Well, a few people did, but--"

He's addicted to the process. "If I don't write something for about a week or ten days," he confesses, "I start to get hard to live with, I'm told. I guess there are three times when I'm hard to live with--when I'm starting a book, when I'm finishing one and when I'm not writing. In between everything is great."

Fred Saberhagen, you see, wants to write, whereas some people want to have written. "It's the paperwork, I guess, that gets them," he says with a laugh. "I think some people fall into that trap. It means you're consciously aware of your attitudes, what you do and what you think and how you look and all this stuff. I'm not really interested in that. All I want to do is write--and sometimes come to conventions and talk about it. But just 'being a writer' is not what I want to do."

Finally, Fred Saberhagen's advice to new writers: "Keep writing, turning things out. And when you have something written, keep shoveling it in front of somebody who might buy it. Don't take it to your friend, or don't take it to the writer you know and say 'What do you think of this?' You'll get different opinions from everybody as to what they think of it and you'll try to please them all and you can't do it. The only person you have to please is the one who's going to buy it, you hope. So do it, and keep pushing it out."

Simple advice, simply put. And it works--it's worked for Fred Saberhagen for 35 years.


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