Christopher Anvil
conducted by Toni Weisskopf

August 2006

Christopher Anvil has a career in science fiction spanning five decades. Some of his first sales were to legendary Astounding/Analog editor John Campbell, and Anvil was a stalwart of the 1960s magazines. He influenced many of today's writers, including David Weber, who did the introduction to Interstellar Patrol, one of our recent collections of Anvil's fiction compiled by Eric Flint, and said, "I'm delighted that someone is making Christopher Anvil's work available once again. Especially the Interstellar Patrol stories. Vaughan Roberts, Morrissey, and Hammell have always been three of my favorite characters, and I've always loved Anvil's . . . peculiar sense of humor." I have found it a pleasure to work with Mr. Anvil, and am happy to give our readers the chance to get to know him a little bit better.

As usual, I begin at the beginning, and asked Mr. Anvil how he got started writing. "Well, it's an easy question, but the answer, even in a condensed version, is complicated.

"The high school in the New York suburb where I grew up had a splendid appearance, and was situated within a modest walking distance of our home. My parents, however, had some doubts as to how well it educated its students. When my cousin came to stay with us while her mother moved to be nearer my uncle, who was stationed on the West Coast, we had the advantage of actual first-hand descriptions. I spent the next four years, despite howls of complaint at the beginning, in a military school with less splendid-looking barracks, but a more solid curriculum.

"As the time approached to start college, I was surprised to find that my major was to be chemistry, though I'd chosen physics. My father, who was paying the bills, defended the change on the basis that chemistry was as broad a field as physics, and equally creditable. His unspoken reason may have been that there were more jobs for chemists, a point his seventeen-year old son wasn't yet equipped to appreciate.

"The Depression had ended not long before, the Second World War had broken out, and no-one knew what might happen next. The Japanese had smashed the U.S. Pacific fleet, captured the Philippines, and invaded the Aleutians. The Germans dominated Europe, and had seized a large part of Russia. When we new chemistry majors showed up, the chairman of the department gave us a talk.

"If this turns out to be a long war,' he said, 'we are going to have real trouble from the German scientists. They are the most capable on earth. And it takes us four to five years to train a chemist. So, whatever the temptation, do not go down to the recruiting station and be a hero. If this war should be long, we are going to desperately need every chemist we can train.'

"Those of us who already felt guilty because we were not yet in uniform could now feel guilty either way.

"By the time the Second World War was over and, unknown to us, the Korean War was about to break out, I had been trained in chemistry, drafted, shipped overseas, discharged, gone back to school under the GI Bill, and, like probably a great many others, had begun to wonder if the human race was playing cards with a gap in the deck some-where. Large parts of the world were a wreck, new trouble was already getting started, and this latest disagreement might turn out to have atom bombs on both sides.

"By this time, perhaps ungratefully, I had a profound lack of enthusiasm for doing things I had never wanted to do in the first place. I underestimated the difficulty of making a living, and might well have been described as 'not too bad on theory, but impractical.'

"For reasons I believe have already been mentioned by Robert Heinlein (What, they'll pay me to put words on paper?) along with a number of ideas I did want to put there, writing appealed to me. My new wife, equally innocent, raised no objection. I did have some money saved up, why not try it? Of course, I had no writing experience worth mentioning; but that could be corrected.

"That is how I got started writing." Once started writing, Anvil credits the following as influences: "John Campbell (as an editor; save for his editorials, I hadn't read his writing).H.L. Gold, then editor of Galaxy, took the time to give advice and encouragement: but his approach was different from what I had in mind. He did, however, suggest that 'The Prisoner' be sent to John Campbell, and that was my first sale to Astounding/Analog."

Some of Anvil's favorite non-sf authors include: "Conan Doyle, C.S. Forester, William Wister Haines, Dorothy Sayers, Cameron Hawley, Ernest Hemingway, Tom Clancy, Erle Stanley Gardner, Donald Hamilton, Alexandre Dumas, Edgar Rice Burroughs. Etc."

For Anvil, there are distinct advantages to writing SF over other genres. "You can set up your own background, and make your own assumptions. The story can be set in the past, present, or future, in this or another universe.

"Though a story should not conflict with itself or with known facts, SF readers are generally indulgent where probability is concerned. As in life, the improbable can happen, so "What if—" is not struck dead before it's born

"The readers, and the editors and publishers, are open to new ideas. If the writer of SF has an idea, and can make it interesting, it has the possibility of a market.

"These all boil down to freedom of action in science-fiction greater than is to be found in other types of fiction."

Anvil is one of those writers, who concentrates on the work at hand. For him, his favorite character is "almost always the main character in the story presently being written or thought about. Very occasionally, the rotten villain."

Anvil's first sale was "Cinderella, Inc.," which sold to the SF magazine, Imagination in 1952. I wondered if he felt it easier or harder these days to write sf. "Much easier than at the beginning. About the same as later on, though there is probably less pressure to write when some of a writer's ideas have already been written.

"There are, also, some additional dimensions to today's writing, summed up in the word, 'computer.' This electronic idiot savant can make wearisome routine simple and quick, or, about as often, can turn writing into a kind of purgatory."

I also asked him to talk about the changes in sf. "There have been lot of changes in sf, and in all of writing. The computer is probably the change closest to the writer. But the markets, and attitudes generally, have also changed.

"Where before, magazine fiction dominated sf, now book-length fiction is a much larger market. Due to the gradual but drastic drop in the purchasing power of the dollar, the usual pay for magazine science fiction , though it sounds comparable, is actually far lower than it once was.

"What is considered 'book length' has also changed. Before, 45,000 words was regarded as a short novel, and 60,000 words as a full length novel. Today, 100,000 words appears to be regarded as a full length novel, but just barely. The price of books has meanwhile risen so drastically that the reader, who once paid a quarter for a paperback, now may see six dollars as a reasonable price—but naturally wants the book to be thicker.

"The electronic book is now a reality. [And all of Mr. Anvil's Baen Books are available as ebooks.]

"The prestige of the SF writer is, in my opinion, a good deal higher.

"Reality, meanwhile, has itself undergone such changes as to blur somewhat the line separating science and fiction.

"The SF field is itself far larger, and generally accepted.

"There have been a lot of changes, and they do not seem to be slowing down."

I wondered if Mr. Anvil had any advice for authors who intend to have long careers. "Well, other people have already written books that are useful on this subject.

"Writing to Sell, by Scott Meredith, contains many valuable suggestions. The edition I'm used to is the fourth, published in 1995, so in some ways, considering the speed of change, it might seem out of date; but the advice is well worth considering.

"Writing the Breakout Novel by the literary agent, Donald Maass, also strikes me as well worth reading.

"In my opinion, few of the books on writing consider a point that needs to be taken care of in a country with some of the most effective advertisers, easily available credit, and usurious interest rates, on earth: Namely, how to block unnecessary expenses before they sink the writer at the beginning. It's necessary to survive the beginning to have a long career.

"Probably the best defense is to think, 'Exactly how is buying that thing going to help?' But it's amazing how skillful advertising can make something as useful as a piranha in the bathtub seem to be a necessity.

"Benjamin Franklin's suggestion for deciding for or against a particular choice is a help: Divide a sheet of paper by a vertical line, put the reasons 'for' on one side and 'against' on the other side, and see how they match up.

"The 'against' side should naturally include the price (what it costs in money); the damage (how what it costs reduces what is left); the upkeep (what it will cost to keep the thing going); and the non-money expense (time needed to care for it, room for it, time lost down the rathole using it, etc.). With practice, some of the hidden traps become evident at the start.

"As for the most important quality to have a long career, opinions might differ. But President Reagan had a long career, and he admired Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge favored persistence."

In all my interviews, I ask what invention or scientific leap in understanding would the interviewee most like to see made in his lifetime. "The invention or scientific leap I'd most like too see would be an extension of healthy life-spans, somehow without turning the world into an overpacked garage. That might give the chance to see, and profit by, other inventions and scientific leaps in understanding.

Anvil has a nice variety of historical incidents he'd like to view if he could go back to one incident in all history to watch as a spectator. "There are disagreements as to what is considered 'history.' Depending on what is included:

"The appearance, to Saint Thomas, of Jesus, following the Resurrection.

"The study, by Michelson and Morley, of the drift of the ether.

"U. S. Grant's defense against the surprise attack by General Albert Sidney Johnston at Shiloh." I especially like the idea of viewing the ether experiment, since ether is making a comeback these days!