Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Jack McDevitt
by Jamie Todd Rubin
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
He started writing novels in 1985 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 seventeen additional novels since then, ten of which
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 Firebird and Echo, both from Ace, and Going Interstellar, a Baen
anthology on which he served, with NASA manager Les Johnson, as co-editor. The Cassandra
Project, a collaboration with Mike Resnick, will be out in November. McDevitt claims it will
reveal the truth behind the Watergate break-in.
His other interests include chess, classical history, the sciences, and baseball.
He is married to the former Maureen McAdams, and resides in Brunswick, Georgia, where,
assisted by the requisite German Shepherd and four cats, he keeps a weather eye on hurricanes.
RUBIN: Were you a fan of science fiction growing up? Were there any specific authors or
stories that left a big impression on you?
McDEVITT: When I was four years old, my father took me to the local movie theater
presumably to watch Saturday westerns, but what caught my attention were the Buck Rogers and
Flash Gordon serials. I never recovered. When I was able to find them again, as a teenager, they
were still magical. Even though by that time I noticed that the rockets weren't really rockets, and
that they had no airlocks or washrooms. (The latter could become a serious issue during a flight
to Mars.) But it didn't matter.
An eight-year-old friend introduced me to A Princess of Mars, another life-altering experience. I
don't think there were any paperbacks in those days. And there was very little SF in the library.
But eventually I discovered Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder. My mother, who must have
been shocked by the half-naked women being carried off by robots and aliens for purposes that
could only induce shudders, was kind enough to look the other way.
The Superman radio show also provided a substantial dose of SF, though the science tended to
be a bit weak. Superman, e.g., used to fly to the Moon without the need of any breathing
apparatus, yet there was at least one instance that demonstrated even he could not hold his breath
I fell in love with Bradbury, Clarke, and Heinlein. And Murray Leinster. And a dozen or so
others. My favorite books during those years were The Martian Chronicles and Heinlein's
Future History. I can remember sitting on a dentist's porch waiting to get my teeth drilled (not a
pleasant experience in 1948) but forgetting my nervousness because I was so caught up reading
the Heinlein collection. I especially remember "Gentlemen, Be Seated" and was absolutely
blown away by "The Green Hills of Earth." By then I'd been exposed to a lot of poetry through
about seven years of school. But it was that story that gave me an appreciation for what a poem
In 1949, I picked up a copy of 1984. It had just been published and it was obviously science
fiction. So I charged through it, and kept waiting for the good guys to show up. Of course you
know how that turned out. No kid should be allowed anywhere near that book. And by the way, I
never looked at my TV again in quite the same way.
RUBIN: "The Green Hills of Earth" was one of Heinlein's better Future History stories. (My
personal favorite is "Requiem"; the ending of that story really helped me understand the notion
of a "bittersweet" ending.) When you were reading these stories as a youngster, did you recall
feeling any desire to emulate? Did you want to be a writer when you read Bradbury, Clarke,
Heinlein, and Leinster, or did that come later?
McDEVITT: I had two ambitions as a kid: To play shortstop for the Phillies, and to become a
science fiction writer.
The writing started with comic books, which were one of the best things that ever happened to
me. They inspired me, well before Dick and Jane showed up, to figure out what the Phantom was
saying. Kids don't have to wait until they're six to learn to read. If they're lucky enough to have
parents who read to them, and supply them with the right materials, they can get off to a running
I went through a phase at about third grade in which I tried to become a comic artist. Don't know
about the writing, but I couldn't draw a circle.
A year or so later, I began my first novel, writing it in an old ledger book. The only thing I can
recall about it now is the title: The Canals of Mars.
The Boy Scouts took over my life at twelve. We had a chaplain, Father Conway, and I must have
said something to him because he gave my father an old typewriter. The first thing I did with it
was to write a story about invading Martians - I guess I had a thing about Mars - who picked up
radio broadcasts of Buck Rogers clobbering interplanetary bad guys, mistook them for news
reports, and got scared off. I submitted it to Fantasy and Science Fiction, and actually received
an encouraging response from Anthony Boucher. At the time I had no idea how significant that
might have been. The only thing it meant to me was that my story had been rejected.
The Phillies, of course, didn't work out. But if I could get only one of those two careers, I'm
glad it happened the way it did.
RUBIN: Wow, an encouraging response from Anthony Boucher! That must have put your
submission sometime in the early 1950s? "The Emerson Effect," which I believe was your first
published science fiction story, appeared in 1981. That's about a 30 year gap. Did you stop
writing after that first rejection?
McDEVITT: I'm not sure about the date, but I doubt it was later than 1952. I have it in my head
that I was still in grade school, but that would make it 1949 at the latest. Not sure when Boucher
was at F&SF. But the submission was probably made in the early 50's.
The only thing I wrote after that was an entry for LaSalle College's Freshman Short Story
Contest. That was in 1954. I won with an SF story, "A Pound of Cure," which they published in
the college literary magazine. I thought I was on my way, but at about the same time I started
reading the classics. David Copperfield was among them. And they blew me away. There was no
way I could write at that level, and the message seemed clear enough. I'm still not sure what
convinced me I had to compete with Hemingway and Dickens. But whatever, I decided I was in
over my head, and did not write or submit another story until "The Emerson Effect" in 1980.
That story, ironically, was about a guy who wants to date a postal clerk, but fears rejection.
Ultimately he encounters a long-lost letter from Emerson, arguing that if you can believe in
yourself, you can do almost anything.
RUBIN: Boucher started editing for F&SF in 1949 and did so through 1958, I believe. So 1952
was still the early years of the magazine. 1980 seems to be a pivotal year for you and your
interests. Not only did the Phillies win the series that year over Kansas City, but you published
your first story. What happened in 1980 that made you decide to try your hand at writing again?
Is that when you decided that you just couldn't compete with Larry Bowa?
McDEVITT: I was on a one-year TDY, training customs inspectors at the Federal Law
Enforcement Training Center. It was a routine assignment. Shortly before that, in 1979, I'd
filled in for a few days in the Customs office at the Grand Forks, ND, airport. While there, I'd
discovered that a science fiction convention was in town. I'd never been to one, so I went.
It revived old dreams, and left me regretting that I hadn't done what I'd expected, or hoped, to
do. That I hadn't even tried. But at that point in my life, I had no doubt that coming up with a
story idea was well beyond me. When a few months later I drove from North Dakota to my new
assignment at the training center, I was alone. Maureen and the kids would follow when the
school year ended.
During the trip, I spent a lot of time trying to construct a plot. By the time I arrived in Georgia,
I'd given up again. I just didn't have a clue. I spent the next few months training inspectors.
Maureen arrived, and I guess I must have said something to her. She encouraged me. Told me I
could do it, but that meant I actually had to do it and not just talk about it.
I wrote that first story, about the postal clerk. It came back twice. We invited a friend over to
take a look, and we went through the thing, and made some fixes. I sent it out again, to F&SF.
And it came back again. But that third time there was a letter from the editor, Ed Ferman. He
apologized that he couldn't use it. He was, he explained, backlogged. But, he said, the story was
That was enough for me. I thought Ed was just being polite. Left to myself, the story, titled "Zip
Code" at the time, would have gone into the bottom of a desk drawer and never been seen again.
A day or so later, Maureen picked up a copy of The Twilight Zone Magazine, and pushed me to
try again. Sigh. Okay. We sent the thing off.
A few weeks later, I completed the Brunswick assignment and we headed back to North Dakota.
When we arrived, a postcard was waiting. It was from TZ editor T.E.D. Klein. That postcard has
since been framed and now hangs over the computer where I work. The story title eventually
became "The Emerson Effect." It was, oddly, about a guy who was too quick to give up.
RUBIN: So you attended your first convention in 1979. These days, it seems, you attend several
each year. I've seen you at RavenCon, at Readercon, and of course, we were just at the Nebula
Weekend. You are generous with your time at these conventions, and always seem willing to
chat with fans. I was wondering if there was ever any writer that you admired and really wanted
to meet. And did you get to meet them, either at a convention or elsewhere?
McDEVITT: I would have liked to share a Coke and pizza with Robert Heinlein. Unfortunately,
it never happened. Others who were writing when I was growing up whom I would have enjoyed
meeting, but did not get the opportunity, include Fred Hoyle. I loved The Black Cloud and
October the First Is Too Late. Also John Wyndham and Murray Leinster. Given the opportunity,
I would also have enjoyed meeting H. G. Wells, Mary Shelley, and Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Where's a time machine when you need one?
I have met Ray Bradbury. Isaac Asimov gave me some advice one evening at a con in New
York. I traded emails with Arthur Clarke, and spent the better part of an evening once talking
with Algis Budrys. I've enjoyed multiple conversations with Ben Bova and James Gunn.
Among those writers who've appeared more recently, I'd be hard-pressed to find any I haven't
had the opportunity to talk with. Most of those currently active tend to show up at cons and
award ceremonies, so we all get to know each other pretty well.
(During our interview, word came in of the passing of Ray Bradbury. I mentioned this to Jack
when I asked him the following question.)
RUBIN: You mentioned Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke, the Big Three of science fiction. Stephen
King once said of you that you are "the logical heir to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke." How
does it feel to be compared to two of the Big Three?
McDEVITT: Ray is the best there was. I don't know of any contemporary writer who compares
As to your question: I'm still at a stage where I'm amazed at all the good things that have
happened to me. I spent enough time wishing I could launch a career as a writer to understand
how fortunate I've been. As to the comment you cite, I'll take it and run with it.
That's probably not much of an answer, though. Clarke and Asimov? I'm probably a better
writer than I might have been as a result of that. Because it made me more confident in my
abilities. That never hurts. I'd like to think that, thirty or forty years from now, a few people
would hold that view.
RUBIN: That confidence certainly comes across in your writing. We were both just at the
Nebula Weekend in Arlington, Virginia, where your most recent Alex Benedict novel, Firebird
was nominated for Best Novel. This was your 11th Nebula nomination, a remarkable
accomplishment. Firebird is a fantastic book about a missing physicist, disappearing spaceships
and quite an original twist to it all. Alex and Chase are called in once again to investigate. These
novels seems incredibly popular and are among my favorite that are published today. What is it
about the Alex and Chase novels do you think that appeals so much to readers?
McDEVITT: Alex and Chase have done pretty well. I suspect the secret behind their popularity
is the nature of the mysteries they're called in to resolve: an exploratory mission that finds
something the government wants to keep secret, the disappearance of crew and passengers from
a starship, a vacationing writer's conviction that "they're all dead" when in fact nothing unusual
seems to have happened, a man who'd spent his entire career looking for aliens apparently
succeeded but told no one. We all love a mystery, especially one in which the issue does not
involve finding out who did something, but rather coming up with an explanation for a strange
It's been an enjoyable series to write. Each novel introduces an occurrence for which there seems
no plausible explanation, and then challenges Chase and Alex (or the reader) to find an
explanation. It has to be one that makes sense, that doesn't incorporate aliens or somebody with
a time machine or whatever, but rather something that, when we get to the end, we wonder that
we didn't see it coming.
Or maybe sometimes the reader does.
RUBIN: The mystery aspect certainly appeals to me. I love science fiction mysteries and I'm
hard-pressed to think of anyone who does them as well as you do. I include Isaac Asimov's
mysteries in this assessment, all of which I have read. But another thing that really appeals to me
about the Alex and Chase novels is their setting. Far, far future, post-scarcity, but not post-Singularity. The future that Alex and Chase live in is a recognizable one. People still eat in
restaurants. They still go to shows. They date. They work (if they want to). Where many writers
have made the far future seem unrecognizable to us today, you've kept yours familiar. Why is
McDEVITT: I don't think we will change much over a few thousand years. If we survive, we
will inevitably get smarter. That means a more peaceful, cooperative existence, where people
recognize, as they always have, what really matters: That people still fall in love, still understand
the value of a friend, still take care of their families, still like to leave a mark of some kind, still
understand that the secret of a happy life is knowing when to break for a pizza and a beer. If we
lose any of that, we will no longer recognize ourselves.
RUBIN: You've also got the Academy series of novels featuring Priscilla Hutchins. Recently,
you've written several short stories featuring Hutch in her early days at the Academy (I'm
thinking of "Maiden Voyage" and "Waiting at the Alter"). Why go back to the beginning with
Hutch and was there a reason you chose the short form instead of a novel?
McDEVITT: Hutch made her second appearance in Chindi, but I blundered when I dated it a
quarter-century after her debut in The Engines of God. I've wanted for a long time to do what I
should have done first: to give her a chance to enjoy a few adventures when she was still coming
to grips with who she was. I wrote a few Priscilla Hutchins short stories to cover this period
simply because I wanted to. No long range plan there. It was just a chance to use some ideas that
blended with her world.
But Hutch will complete her training and start her career in Starhawk, a novel that I'm currently
RUBIN: In his speech introducing Connie Willis as the newest Grand Master of science fiction,
James Patrick Kelly noted that while some authors write short stories and then move into novels,
never to return to short fiction, Connie was not one of those writers. She returns to short fiction
time and again. So do you, Jack. In addition to the Priscilla Hutchins shorts, you've had several
other recent - or fairly recent - short stories appear. There was "The Cassandra Project" in the
debut issue of Lightspeed a few years back. And more recently you had "Dig Site" and "Listen
Up, Nitwits" in Analog. Given that you've written so many successful novels, what is it about
short fiction that keeps drawing you back?
McDEVITT: The short story seems to be the natural venue for science fiction. Ask someone to
name the most memorable pieces of SF she can remember, and you'll probably get things like
"The Star," "The Green Hills of Earth," "There Will Come Soft Rains," "Nightfall," "Mars Is
Heaven," "The Cold Equations," "To Serve Man," "A Subway Named Mobius." As compelling
as many of the SF novels are, you have to go fairly deep before their titles begin appearing.
I'm not sure why this is so. It might be that so much of the power of SF is wedded to the impact
delivered by a new idea. Dropping a mini-black hole into the skull of an irritating captain so that
he "ebbs and flows to death." Or discovering a superdense moon that orbits Mars three feet off
the ground, drilling holes through any hills or mountains that get in its way. "Look out, Louie,
here it comes again."
Concepts like these deliver maximum impact in a short story. Surround it with 120,000 words of
whatever, even the most compelling story line, and you cannot help diminishing it.
RUBIN: Since we are on the subject of short fiction, I wanted to mention that you recently co-edited an anthology called Going Interstellar with Les Johnson. The anthology combines stories
by some leading names in the genre, coupled with non-fiction articles about the challenges of
interstellar travel. How did this anthology come about and why did you decide to work on this
RUBIN: I've known Les for about ten years. He's Deputy Manager for NASA's Advanced
Concepts Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center. The idea for the anthology was his: it
would use both fiction and nonfiction to look at the issues involved in trying to leave the solar
system with technology that's either currently available or probably will be within the
reasonably foreseeable future. No FTL. No long-range transport. Take a good book.
He invited me to join as co-editor. No way I could resist that. I'd seen Les's work, and had no
reservations about jumping into a project with him. Especially this project. Of course we decided
immediately that he and I would contribute two of the stories. It was a rewarding experience, and
I got to work with some of the field's top writers.
RUBIN: Was Going Interstellar the first anthology you worked on as an editor? What was it like
being on the other side of the desk, so to speak?
McDEVITT: Yes, it was the first.
I discovered how much easier it is to keep track of one story than eight or nine. But having an
opportunity to work with some old friends and a couple of writers I hadn't met before was an
enjoyable experience. I hope the book is as much fun to read as it was to put together.
RUBIN: Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask you about your next book. The Cassandra Project
is coming out later this year and it is a collaboration with Mike Resnick. This, I believe, is an
expanded version of your story in Lightspeed. Why did you decide to expand the story and how
did the collaboration with Mike come about?
McDEVITT: Mike and I had been talking about doing a collaboration for years. After I'd
written "The Cassandra Project" for Lightspeed, it occurred to me that I hadn't begun to explore
the possibilities inherent in the basic scenario. Mike agreed. For one thing, we realized that we
had discovered the truth behind the Watergate break-in. Once we had that, there was no way
either of us would walk away from the novel. So the collaboration was locked in.
I should add, by the way, that Mike is inordinately easy to work with.
RUBIN: Jack, I want to thank you for doing this interview. I've heard other people describe you
as one of the nicest people in all of science fiction - a kind of modern day Clifford D. Simak -
and I absolutely agree. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.