Nebula Awards Interview: Jack McDevitt

by John Ottinger III

Jack McDevitt is a Philadelphia native. He has been, among other things, a naval officer, an English teacher, a customs officer, a taxi driver, and a management trainer for the US Customs Service.

He started writing novels when Terry Carr invited him to participate in the celebrated Ace Specials series. His contribution was The Hercules Text, which won the Philip K. Dick Special Award. McDevitt has produced sixteen additional novels since then. Ten of them have qualified for the final Nebula ballot.  Seeker won the award in 2007. In 2004, Omega received the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best SF novel.

His most recent books are Echo and Time Travelers Never Die, both from Ace.

McDevitt won the first international UPC competition for “Ships in the Night.” The Phoenix and SESFA awards have lifetime body-of-work citations, and are given to writers with a Southern connection. McDevitt is believed to be the only Philadelphia taxi driver to have won both.

His interests include, especially, chess, classical history, and the sciences. A diehard Phillies fan since the days of the Whiz Kids, he has high hopes for 2011.

He is married to the former Maureen McAdams, and resides in Brunswick, Georgia, where he keeps a weather eye on hurricanes.


You have been writing SF since before the Space Race formally began. You’ve seen a lot of changes in mankind’s love affair with the stars. What are your feelings about the end of the shuttle program and the new directions the US is taking in regard to space science?

Actually, the space race began back in 1957, more or less, when I was still playing sandlot baseball in South Philadelphia.  Still, I can remember watching that first Soviet satellite tracking across the night sky.

I’ve never been a big fan of the shuttle. We went to the Moon for political reasons, and then dropped the program. The shuttle, for all of the advantages that have accrued from it, nevertheless became the symbol of that failure.  Finally, we’ve discovered that wars tend to crowd out everything else we want to do.   I suspect we’ll look back eventually and realize there was a window if we were serious about manned space travel. I’m not sure that window hasn’t closed.

An oddity of Echo is that Chase Kolpath is our narrator, but Alex Benedict is the protagonist – so I felt that I knew more of Chase than Alex and was therefore more connected as a reader. Was this something you intended?

More connected to her? It’s probably unavoidable. But I don’t have a problem with it. I started the second Alex & Chase novel, Polaris, with Alex as the narrator. And I figured out about halfway through that it just didn’t work the way I wanted it to. Alex had narrated A Talent for War, the first book in the series, and that went okay. But it just didn’t feel right in Polaris. Maybe Alex was too far ahead of the game. If he narrates, he has to tell the reader what he knows. It’s why Sherlock Holmes has to have Watson.

Echo is a novel of first contact, which is a recurring theme in your novels. Why do you keep coming back to this idea again and again?

I don’t know. I guess I’m just fascinated by the notion that there’s someone looking back. Or that we’re alone. Beyond that, it’s all just physics.

You can also call Echo a science fiction mystery novel. What appeals to you or are some unique challenges to setting a mystery in space?

John, I don’t think of unique challenges so much as possibilities. Most mystery fiction is strictly crime fiction, and most of that is limited to figuring out who pulled the trigger. The Father Brown mysteries are a brilliant exception. There, the issue is rarely, if ever, a matter of identifying a guilty party. Rather, the reader, along with Chesterton’s imaginative priest, is trying to figure out what on earth is going on. How does a guy in a sealed room at the top of a skyscraper die with an arrow in his heart? Why does a celebrated British general with a reputation for caution charge a heavily-armed enemy position with no real hope of breaking through, and no advantage to be gotten if he does?

These are the kinds of mysteries that work. And science fiction is a field filled with possibility. How does the captain and passengers of the starship Polaris disappear from the vessel when they have nowhere to go? And  leave behind their pressure suits and the lander?

What did the starship Tenandrome see, which authorities are now trying to cover up?  In Echo, an anthropologist has spent a lifetime looking for intelligent life while his colleagues write him off as a crank. Eventually he gives up and retires. Thirty years after he dies in a boating accident, evidence appears that he may have succeeded. But why did he keep it quiet?

The basic rule in making these plotlines work is that the solution is not out of left field somewhere. It’s not that aliens took everybody. Or that someone has a time machine. Rather, it has to be of a nature that when the reader gets to it he thinks Oh, yes, I should have seen it coming.

How do you ensure you keep people reading without giving away too much?

It’s possible to make things even more mysterious as you go. For example, a key character who has critical knowledge commits suicide for no apparent reason. Or Alex asks tantalizing questions: ‘No, Chase, it’s not that the secret is in a church. It’s in the churches. Plural.” And of course there are also false trails. And subplots. Or an unconnected mystery that Alex gets involved with. Or a piece of art disappears from a moving train. (These references are from Firebird, which will be out in November.) And of course Alex doesn’t always get everything right.

Except for perhaps Eternity Road, you have stuck mostly to science fiction writing. Have you ever thought about trying your hand at a fantasy?

I suppose you could argue that anything using a time machine or FTL is fantasy. I’ve done some fantastic short fiction. Stories like “Deus Tex,” “Auld Lang Boom,” and “Welcome to Valhalla” (co-written with Kathryn Lance), are all fantasies. I tend to think of it as a vehicle for short stories, though. Not sure why.

What kind of research do you do for your novels? How do you keep it organized and what sort of preparation do you do before you tackle actually writing the novel?

The research is simple. I pick up phone and call a physicist. Or whomever. I don’t trust myself to do my own research because I don’t have the background. I should mention that, across thirty years, I’ve made countless calls, often to strangers who just happened to be at the office, say, in the Lowell Observatory. My questions are frequently off the wall. Like, “Dr. Parker, my name is blah-blah-blah. I wonder if there’s any way we could blow up a star?” I’m happy to report that over thirty years, no one has ever failed to respond. Not once.

Organization sometimes requires charts and timelines. Time Travelers Never Die was the most complicated of the novels to keep organized although there was no technology involved. I learned long ago, by the way, to keep technical explanations to a minimum. (This was advice from Dr. Asimov after I’d blown a detail in a story published in his magazine.) And I’ve applied it since.  How does the star drive work? Nobody really cares, and I don’t know either. So we just push a button.

Before actually starting to write, I need to know, obviously, where it starts, and how it ends. The climax is especially critical in a mystery, since we need to know the resolution. But it can be significant in other types of books as well. In Deepsix, for example, several characters are trapped on a world that is about to be swallowed by a gas giant. There are starships in orbit, but both available landers have been destroyed in an earthquake. I thought the rescue would be simple enough, just a very long cable tossed out of one of the ships. My characters would grab hold and be lifted to safety. It would be a dazzling ride through the sky. I was three-quarters of the way through the book before I thought to show my solution to Walt Cuirle, a physicist who’s helped me on a number of occasions. “Simple enough, Walt,” I said before explaining what I planned. He laughed for fifteen minutes.

The beginning is usually a set-up prologue designed to grab the reader and plunge him into the narrative.

You have written some characters that keep readers coming back for more. What do you think makes for a good character?

The characters should behave like real people. They get scared, sometimes they talk big, generally they have a sense of humor. If there’s an antagonist, he’s also human. And we understand his motivation. Despite all the good he’s done, Alex Benedict is at heart a tomb robber. Priscilla Hutchins is inclined to go along with the guys, as women often are, even when she knows they’re wrong. Basically,  every character should have some vulnerabilities, and the reader needs to see that. In Moonfall, e.g., the Moon is about to be shattered by an incoming asteroid. They are evacuating Moonbase, but they cannot get everyone out.

The Chaplain has been designated nonessential and given a place on one of the outgoing ships. He’s in his late twenties and looking forward to a happy life, and hopes one day to meet a lovely woman whom he will marry. But he cannot imagine that Jesus would clear out and leave someone else to die in his place. What, he asks himself, do I really believe? He wants to call Operations and tell them he’ll stay. Send someone else home. But he desperately wants to live. He stares at the phone. If I play him as classically heroic and he just makes the call, the sequence has no power. It works because we can all see ourselves in the Chaplain. We want to be heroic, but we also want to survive.

Echo is part of your Alex Benedict series of novels, which stand alone, but have recurring characters and settings in them. How do you keep your writing fresh when reusing familiar people and places?

Actually, it’s easier as I become more familiar with the characters. Priscilla Hutchins, from the Academy novels, and Alex and Chase have almost become members of the family. I know what’s important to them, what annoys them, and what they want out of their lives.

You have mentioned elsewhere that Dickens was a favorite writer of yours. Is he still? And what about his writing appeals?

I love Dickens. He’s not perfect. He was writing serials for magazines, so he had a somewhat different set of requirements. But he was brilliant. The characters are alive. For example, the death of Barkis:

“Look! Here’s Master Davy!” said Peggotty. For he now opened his eyes.

I was on the point of asking him if he knew me, when he tried to stretch out

his arm, and said to me, distinctly, with a pleasant smile:

“Barkis is willin’!”

And, it being low water, he went out with the tide.

I discovered Dickens in college, and he destroyed any hope I had ever entertained of becoming a professional writer. There was no way I could compete with him.  And I made no effort after that to write anything for a quarter-century. That was how long it took me to realize I didn’t have to compete with him.

Read the scene in A Christmas Carol when Scrooge and the Spirit stand outside Bob Cratchett’s house, and Scrooge learns what fate awaits Tiny Tim. “I see a crutch without an owner, and an empty chair by the fireplace.”

You taught English for ten years. What grades did you teach and what novels did you include in your curriculum?

I taught high school English 9-12. I learned early that the classics are a bit difficult for the vast majority of high school students. Even those with superior comprehension have generally not had the life experiences that will allow them to appreciate Moby Dick or Hamlet. Assign them, and the chances are the student will simply acquire an antipathy for the author.

I decided my responsibility was to try to create a passion for reading, on the assumption that if I could manage that, the student would find Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky on her own. So I looked for books that would excite my students. I tried Conan Doyle, which didn’t work. And Damon Runyon, which also didn’t work. Even Mark Twain came up short. (The best Mark Twain, by the way, is the essays, and not the novels.) Eventually, I introduced a couple of classes to The Martian Chronicles. I did that by drafting a few of the students and dramatizing “The Third Voyage.”

The ship has set down on the Martian surface, and the Captain and his crew are looking out at a little town, with picket fences and oak trees and church steeples. They open the hatch, and I signal my special effects guy, who starts the record, and now we’re listening to “Beautiful Dreamer.” And then we shut it down. You want to know how it turns out, read the book. The kids loved it, and next thing I knew we had a class full of science fiction fans.

As a former English teacher and science fiction author, what science fiction books or stories do you feel should be taught in schools?

Science fiction is, in the short form, at its most compelling. Aside from the Bradbury, any good Arthur Clarke collection, and the Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthologies.  And I suspect several hundred other strong candidates. My all-time favorite story, Clarke’s “The Star,” would probably get a teacher in trouble, so we’d want to stay clear of that. Or maybe not. The reality is that there’s so much compelling SF available that finding a book to turn kids on should not be at all difficult.

Can you tell us a little about your current writing project?

Next book is another Alex & Chase: Firebird, which I’ve already mentioned. A physicist known primarily for his eccentricities returns from Skydeck, is dropped off in front of his island home. But before he can get inside, he vanishes. He was popular on the lecture circuit because he not only supported the general assumption that alternate universes exist, but he predicted he would one day create a bridge. Now, decades after his disappearance, some think he succeeded. But the truth, Alex discovers, may be stranger. And the clues lie in Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, and in the abandoned churches of a world destroyed by a massive dust cloud seven thousand years earlier.

If you could see one aspect of society change the way you would want, what would it be?

I’d like to see us break away from the tribalism. Stop holding our personal beliefs sacrosanct, and instead consider the possibility that some of our most dearly-held opinions might be wrong.  Keep in mind that it’s okay to be wrong. But not to persist at it when the evidence points in another direction.

If we can’t manage that, I’ll settle for getting rid of nuclear weapons.

Thanks for your time!

You’re welcome, John. Hope this provides what you want.


John Ottinger III’s reviews, interviews and articles have appeared in Publishers Weekly, Black Gate, Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, SF Signal, Sacramento Book Review, and at John is an affiliate member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America and editor of Grasping for the Wind.