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