An interview with Robert E. Birnschein – Author of The Starseeker Gambit

Do you have a day job other than being a writer? And do you like it?

I am currently employed as a manufacturing manager at a steel fabrication company. I manage the day to day operations, supervise nearly sixty factory workers, and maintain the schedule and flow of work through various departments. Though I’m very good at managing people and the daily problem solving that comes with my position, I admit that “like it” is not the term I would use. In recent years I’ve realized that I don’t feel fulfilled by this type of work and honestly have grown tired of my salary growth being dependent on the hope that an employer, whose focus is on the bottom line, will reward my stoic hard work with appropriate raises. I haven’t tied my future financial hopes solely on being an author, but wouldn’t it be nice?!

Who is the most supportive of your writing in your family?

My two children are the biggest supporters I have. It started out as storytelling at bedtime when they were little. And though they are both adults now and off on their own life adventures they to continue to encourage, support, and give friendly pushes to keep me writing and creating.

Have you ever incorporated something that happened to you in real life into your novels?

My father and son adventure MARTIAN RUNAWAY contains many elements that my own son and I can relate to. Perhaps not one clear scene, but situations and the way that the characters acted or worried over the situation, those were often drawn from real hopes, fears, parental humor and adolescent tribulations.

Any advice you would like to give to your younger self?

Oh my, would I ever! But it’s a conundrum to decide what age self I’d go back and give advice too. As a science fiction author, the whole paradox of trying to change one aspect of my past self without messing things up even more….yikes! But, honestly, I think I would like to go back and tell my college-aged self to enjoy those years more. I was so focused on just getting through them and graduating, always my eyes on the future not the here and now. I also was madly in love with a girl who years later turned out not to be “the one.” So I spent a lot of time in a relationship off campus and missed a lot of the social and community aspects of college. Oh, and save and invest money, lots of it, even when you think you don’t have any to spare!

Do you believe a book cover plays an important role in the selling process?

Very much so. I’ve recently released new editions for two of my novels primarily because I wanted them to have better cover images. The cover and the brief book jacket summary are like a movie trailer for your novel. You have to get it right if you want someone to open it up and read further. I also find I am disappointed when an author uses stock imagery for their novel that has very little to do with the actual story. Certainly reading requires you to be able to visualize in your own mind the scenes and characters you’re reading about. But a bit of key visual from a book cover can give a reader a great starting place to imagine the world you are writing about.

What, according to you, is the hardest thing about writing?

Two things actually: Getting started, knowing when to stop. Once I latch onto a great idea, the characters and story flow onto the page. But that initial launch is tough for me. Many of my story concepts grow out of a scene that happens later in the book, so determining how the story begins in order to eventually get the characters there is daunting. And once it’s all there, start to finish, I spend a lot of time picking and tweaking the bits of the story and dialog. Admittedly I’m too much of a perfectionist and I can’t seem to stop trying to make the story better. But there comes a time when it is important to let yourself be pleased with the work and let it stand as is.

Do you need to be in a specific place or room to write, or you can just sit in the middle of a café full of people and write?

I definitely need the quiet of a familiar room to be the most creative. I’ve never been good at blocking out conversations or the hubbub of the world around me while trying to write. Even music gets distracting! In many parts of my life I am a solitary figure, but I do like to be out and people watch or daydream under a sunny sky.

Have you ever destroyed any of your drafts?

Very unintentionally yes! I had been working on my first novel off and on for more than a few years and was about 3/4 finished with the first draft. I had only been saving it on the hard-drive of my laptop and sadly was to learn a hard lesson about keeping computer files in backup locations. The laptop died and so too did all the electronic files for that novel. That was a dark day. I had about 1/2 of the novel printed out for editing so was able to painstakingly retype it back in. But there had been a lot of revisions along the way that took time to remember and recreate. I now have two backup hard drives and NEVER save to my computer!

How critical are you in your evaluation when you are reviewing someone’s work?

I know how hard it can be to hear critiques and other people’s thoughts on what has taken a lot of your time and energy to create and breathe life into. But authors also want to know we are doing it well, so reviews and thoughts from readers are important. I tend to wear two hats when it comes to reviews. The first is my ‘reader’ hat when I write about a book I’ve simply read to enjoy it. I try to focus on the story and what I liked. Reviews are important for sales, so I try very much to be positive and keep my words realistic but not biting and unduly hurt the author’s sales. Besides, I’m only one person, and perhaps the story resonates much differently for someone else. The other is my ‘author’ hat, and my presentation changes a bit when I am writing directly to a peer author who is looking for my thoughts on what they have written. Since this communication won’t be public, I feel able to be straight and clear in matters of story, technique, tone, etc. They’ve asked for my thoughts, and often I ask others the same, so I feel I can be polite but also honest with feedback.

How long do you take to write a book?

My first novel took years, but honestly it sat unfinished on a shelf for most of that time so it probably doesn’t count. My last novel took about a year and a half. I’ve noticed that there are a lot of great new writers in my genre on Amazon who seem to be cranking out works rather quickly. I feel that I need to expand my shelf of work as well, so need to find economies of technique to help cut down my editing time.

What is the biggest lie you have told in a book that you did not believe yourself?

When I fist starting laying the groundwork for the story in THE STARSEEKER GAMBIT I was much younger and naive as to how the world works. Of course I was inspired by many other authors who’d also laid out the idea for a united Earth government. As a middle aged adult now, sadly I feel that a united world is not a realistic possibility. Human nature is what it is, and even in good times we are a creature that likes to group together in common interests, experiences, etc. We can be generous and wise and work for a general common good, but we are also at times selfish and greedy and inwardly focused on what is good for me, or this group of us that I belong too. Certainly recent decades have brought our world societies closer through social media and other technologies. But there are still a lot of messed up parts of our global community, and the solution to those problems is likely a unity that humans may not ever achieve.

Do you often project your own habits onto your characters?

Yes, in many ways. It’s easy to write what you know. Worries, fears, hopes, sense of duty, humor, life experiences, in bits ‘n buckets both. I also imagine what if I wasn’t the person I am, what if I grew up the way this or that character did, so I think I tap into a lot of habits that way as well.

If you were given a teaching opportunity, would you accept it?

I went into teaching after graduating college, but after seven years I just didn’t feel it was my calling at that time. I think I wasn’t mature enough to be taken seriously by high school students and I know I lacked self-confidence which didn’t help. But now, the right opportunity, and I would happily consider it. I think a community college or a university would be a great environment to teach in. My daughter recently graduated from a liberal arts college and I’ve enjoyed many opportunities to talk with her and her peers on campus and gain a glimpse into that community of learning. It is refreshing and inspiring. I think I’d enjoy being a professor now, teaching and being inspired by young people.

Do you think the charm of public libraries has toned down much in the last decade?

Unfortunately I do. I fondly remember hunting through the seldom tread back aisles of school and community libraries in my youth searching for adventure books. Sadly I don’t think that is the same for young people today. In particular, I think science fiction has fallen out of fashion in today’s libraries. In many of the local libraries I’ve visited recently, the sci-fi section is merely a few shelves or doesn’t exist at all. This can be disheartening for a genre author such as me. For example, I donated six boxes of paperbacks to my local public library a few years back when I was downsizing. I offered them as a means to help build their meager offerings. Instead the head librarian put them into their bookstore and sold them, for $0.20 apiece!

I think the ready access to countless books through on-line retailers and e-books certainly have been the biggest game changer for libraries. These markets have also forced the cost of books downward, so where once you went to a library because you could read popular works for free, now you can have your own copy for very little investment. The upside of this shift from physical libraries is that we now have ready access to authors and works from around the globe, most we might never have found if only searching through book spines on a wood shelf.

Do you believe you have done enough to leave a legacy behind?

Far from it, though it’s also not really my goal to become a big name author. I would like to write enough novels in my life to feel like I wasn’t just playing at this author stuff, that I actually have the chops to create a body of work that I can be proud of.