SPEAKING TO… Larry Niven

Long before I moved to Los Angeles I knew who Larry Niven was. You can’t have read science fiction without enjoying his novels and short stories. For a fan, LA is very much a science fiction town. Their SF fan group, LASFS, is the oldest continuing SF society in the country. I became a visiting member back in the late 70s when I used to travel up to LA after each San Diego Con.

When I moved to LA, I started joining the LASFS “after meeting,” a dinner where a number of people got together after the LASFS meeting to have dinner. I was readily welcomed into their group. That’s also when I met Larry and his wife, Marilyn, known to one and all as Fuzzy for the fuzzy pink slippers she used to wear at college. It’s also where I met my wife, Noel.

For awhile, Larry and Fuzzy lived a few blocks away from me in Tarzana. A few years ago they moved to a stunning new house which they open up frequently for wonderful parties and barbecues.

Somehow, and very happily, I got put onto the Niven party list, and that’s when I really started to know and like Larry and Fuzzy. They are remarkably giving hosts as well as good friends who, among other things, helped me out tremendously when I decided to throw a birthday party for my wife – at their house. But that is so like them.

Larry is a major league comic book fan – you can find the latest comics scattered about the Niven house which is filled with incredible glasswork and art, including the originals of many of his book covers.

Larry, being on the high end of the A-list of writers, could, like many others, avoid the fan circle. Instead, Larry and Fuzzy embrace it and are right in the middle of it, working conventions (you can usually find Fuzzy heading up the art room or green room), doing panels, and going far above what would be expected. Despite their position, Larry and Fuzzy have remained fans.

Because of my basic shyness (don’t laugh, it’s true) I’m not always chatting up Larry about writing and such as much as I would like to, and I don’t always engage in chit-chat - which I’m pretty bad at - but I really enjoy spending time with both Nivens, who have time and again proven to be caring and wonderful people. I’m pleased to call them friends.

I asked Larry if he had a bio to go along with the short Q&A. I should have known better than to ask. His bio is more interestingly written than most people’s stories. Take it away, Larry…

The Niven File

Born April 30, 1938, in Los Angeles, California, USA, to Waldemar Van Cott Niven and Lucy Estelle Doheny Niven (now Washington.) Raised in Beverly Hills, California. Hawthorne

Public School (Beverly Hills,) Cate School (Carpinteria.) California Institute of Technology, September 1956 to February 1958. Flunked out after discovering a book store jammed with used science fiction magazines.

Honest employment: gas station attendant, summer 1960.

Graduated Washburn University, Kansas, June 1962: BA in Mathematics with a Minor in Psychology. Half the university was scattered to the winds by a tornado a month after I left. They later gave me a D. Litt., an honorary doctorate in Letters.

First story publication: “The Coldest Place”, Worlds of If, December 1964. Met Marilyn Joyce Wisowaty at the Nycon World Science Fiction Convention, 1967. Married September 6, 1969. We reside in Chatsworth, California. I have written fiction at every length, and speculative articles, speeches for high schools and colleges and conventions, television scripts, political action in support of the conquest of space, graphic novels, and a couple of comic book universes. I’ve collaborated with a wide variety of writers.

My interests:

Science fiction conventions. Role playing games, live and computer. AAAS meetings and other gatherings of people at the cutting edges of science. Comics. Filksinging. Yoga and other approaches to longevity.

Saving civilization and making a little money. Moving mankind into space by any means, but particularly by making space endeavors attractive to commercial interests.

In 1980, Jerry Pournelle talked me and Marilyn into hosting a gathering of the top minds in the space industry in an attempt to write a space program for the Reagan government, with goals, timetables, and costs. The Citizens Advisory Council for a National Space Policy met four times during the Reagan Administration, and twice since, for harrowing three day weekends. Attendees have included spacecraft designers, businessmen, NASA personnel, astronauts, lawyers. Adding science fiction writers turns out to be stunningly effective. We can translate! We can force these guys to speak English.

We’ve had some effect on the space program. SDI (Space Defense Initiative, or Star Wars) was drafted at our house in Tarzana. In ’93 we watched the DC-X1 fly. It was a toy version of a single-stage ground-to-orbit spacecraft, and the Council generated it. Our design lost out to the current Skunk Works X-33, but the Council caused the revival of the X Program itself.

I grew up with dogs: Keeshonds, the breed my mother has raised and shaped for nearly sixty years. I live with a cat, and borrow dogs to hike with. I have passing acquaintance with raccoons and ferrets.

Associating with nonhumans has certainly gained me insight into alien intelligences. I’ve written on computers since 1978.

Awards

Hugos (or Science Fiction Achievement Awards) for “Neutron Star”, 1966; RINGWORLD, 1970; “Inconstant Moon”, 1971; “The Hole Man”, 1974; and “The Borderland of Sol”, 1975. Nebula for Best Novel: RINGWORLD, 1970. Ditmars (Best International Science Fiction, Australian) for RINGWORLD, 1972, and PROTECTOR, 1974. Japanese awards for RINGWORLD and “Inconstant Moon”, both 1979. Inkpot, 1979, from the San Diego Comic Convention.
Latest novels
RAINBOW MARS, TOR Books, March 1999
THE BURNING CITY with Jerry Pournelle, Simon & Schuster, March 2000
SATURN’S RACE with Steven Barnes, TOR Books, June 2000
Work in progress
BURNING TOWER with Jerry Pournelle
CREATION MYTH with Brenda Cooper
SCATTERBRAIN, a retrospective akin to 1989’s N-SPACE.
THE MOON BOWL with Jerry Pournelle and Michael Flynn
PURGATORIO with Jerry Pournelle
RINGWORLD’S CHILD

Other work clamors to be written, as if I had the time. Greg Benford has challenged me to return to short stories; I’ve written a few since. I’m writing a column for <space.com>.
Larry is a believer of not using five words when one will do (unlike me). He is fast and his wit is sharp, and his tact, well, a bumper sticker on his car proudly proclaims him as “Tactless.” That he may be, but he’s also right to the point and always very funny. I remember one person went up to him and, in the way we all sometimes do, said, “Can I ask you a stupid question?” His immediate reply was “From you I expect nothing else.” Another person was going on and on and on about every problem in her life – and there were hundreds of them – when Larry interrupted with, “When your life becomes a soap opera, it’s time to change the channel.” I wish I could write lines like that let alone toss them off the top of my head.

At any rate, here’s Larry Niven:

MARV WOLFMAN: HOW DID YOU BREAK INTO THE BUSINESS?

LARRY NIVEN: I sent out stories for over a year, while improving my skills with the "Famous Writers School", until Fred Pohl bought "The Warriors". Fred ran it down the street to Betty Ballantine. Thus, my first novel.

MW: WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR MOST SUCCESSFUL WORKS, AND WHY?

LN: We (me and Jerry Pournelle) got paid the most for FOOTFALL. I get the most feedback for RINGWORLD the novel, and "Man of Steel/Woman of Kleenex" the medical article. "Inconstant Moon" is the only story to reach film.

MW: KNOWING WHAT YOU KNOW NOW, WHICH OF YOUR MORE FAMOUS WORKS WOULD YOU REDO IF YOU COULD. WHY AND HOW?

LN: I guess I'd rewrite RINGWORLD in a slower-than-light universe. And I sure as Hell wouldn't sell the rights. LN: I write for an imaginary Larry Niven who needs things explained to him in detail.

MW: WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS WHEN YOU SIT DOWN TO WRITE A STORY?

LN: Generally I know the story in broad outline, particularly the ending. Beyond that I'm telling myself a story, counting on it to entertain me.

MW: HOW DO YOU RECOGNIZE WHEN A STORY ISN’T WORKING AND WHAT DO YOU DO TO FIX THE PROBLEMS?

LN: I might put it in a box for awhile. I might look for a collaborator. Most often I give up. Playing with a story too long makes it too involuted to work.

MW: WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A FIRST DRAFT AND FUTURE DRAFTS?

LN: When I write the end, most of the text has become final draft. My early drafts disappear: I use a computer, after all. In polishing I usually go for greater clarity.

MW: HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT CREATING A CHARACTER?

LN: I let the story generate the characters. They start out a little more than masks in a play.

MW: WHAT MAKES A STORY?

LN: I leave that to reviewers and critics. Writers don't need such definitions and divisions.

MW: HOW DO YOU PITCH AN IDEA TO AN EDITOR/STORY-EDITOR/PRODUCER?

LN: I don't write television. (I once did, briefly.) I sell a novel by describing what I intend; usually I write an outline, and it's more for me than a publisher. A short story, I write it and send it.

MW: WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS AND WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO DO WHEN WRITING IN OTHER PEOPLE’S UNIVERSES?

LN: I do that for fun. What else would it be? I'm doing nothing for my reputation by writing a story for Fred Saberhagen's berserkers. A shared universe doesn't advance a career; it must be for fun.

MW: WHEN YOU ARE IN CHARGE AND OTHER WRITERS WRITE YOUR CHARACTERS, WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR AS THE EDITOR AS WELL AS THE CREATOR?

LN: Consistency, excellence, and something new to say. (Yes, it's tough to write something new without contradicting whatever I've already put in the Man-Kzin Wars, but I deal with tough people.)

MW: HOW DO YOU DEFINE YOUR RELATIONSHIP UP FRONT WITH YOUR EDITOR/STORY-EDITOR/PRODUCER/THE WRITERS WHO WORK UNDER YOU?

LN: Carefully. I don't want them facing any surprises.

MW: WHAT IS YOUR GENERAL ADVICE TO WRITERS AND WOULD-BE WRITERS?

LN: The hours are good. You're your own psychiatrist. You go to work by walking across the hall from your bedroom. But it can be a lonely life, and too sedentary.

***
I want to thank Larry for answering all my questions as well as for playing a mean game of croquet.

And I want to thank all the readers for their wonderful comments on the writing interviews I’ve had so far. If any of you have craft oriented questions you’d like to ask writers (or artists), please send them in as I will incorporate them in my next round of interviews.
In the meantime, see you all in seven.

-Marv Wolfman

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