[OTHERVIEW Q&A] Steven Campbell

Steven Campbell first came up with the idea of Hard Luck Hank in the 1990s as a pitch for articles in a fishing magazine. Now Hank’s the star of Campbell’s series of comedic pulp sci-fi stories. Campbell recently took the time to answer some questions:

Steven Campbell

Wes Platt: When do you first remember wanting to write?

Steven Campbell: I first started recognizing that writing was an actual thing in middle school, I believe. We were given assignments to construct sentences out of vocabulary words for homework. I would write stories, instead. It was about the only homework where I went above what was requested. The stories would be funny and include classmates as characters. Every day, the kids would pass around my homework, reading it and laughing. I couldn’t understand why other kids didn’t do the same thing when it got me a lot of attention and popularity. Every once in awhile, some other kids would attempt to do the same thing and inevitably their stories weren’t very enjoyable. It took me a while to realize that making stupid stories required “some” level of talent.

In 7th grade we had to write essays as one of those Determine Your Future standardized tests. I heard later that the test was abandoned because kids had such trouble with it. All the kids were very nervous about taking it. I received a perfect score. I only remember one of the essays, but I recall my whole process. I knew adults would be evaluating the test, so I wrote specifically to that audience. In one essay, we were supposed to propose a new school club or sport. I came up with the idea to make a Young Corporate Raiders Club. It was a riff on the 80s and Reaganomics. I didn’t truly appreciate the humor behind it, only being 13 years old, but I had heard enough late night comedians joking about it that I could make a funny story.

At some point, we also had to take a computerized test that would recommend future careers to us. Two careers were recommended to me. One was journalist. I asked if it was possible to get “writer” as a result and they said that wasn’t even an option. So a computer program thought I had some kind of ability in that arena long ago.

I submitted my first short story for potential publication when I was 16. I suppose I had wanted to write a bit before that. But there was a long period of time when I didn’t know what writers were. At least not as a profession that someone could embark upon.

WP: Describe any notable experiences you’ve had with rejection and what you learned from that.

SC: So much rejection! For some years, I kept every single rejection letter I ever received. They were on a long nail hanging above my bed. The sword of Damocles. I was sleeping one night and was awoken by the stack of papers finally proving too much for the nail and falling down and hitting me. And let me state it was like a two-inch nail. I’m really glad I started submitting young and kept at it. It thickened my skin to an unbelievable degree. I think that’s the biggest takeaway I got. I’m kind of surprised that older writers can be so touchy. How did they ever survive those early rejections? My favorite rejection was for my first book-length work that I wrote in my early twenties. In short, the letter said that not only was my writing bad, but I was a bad person for having written it. First of all, I was amazed that it was a personal letter. I’ve seen hundreds of form rejections so I would always take extra time on an actual rejection that was written by a human. I stood there reading it. Then I read it again. Then I burst out laughing. Just thinking about it today makes me smile. It’s hard to imagine receiving a harsher rejection letter and it’s the favorite one I ever received. I think you need to have that kind of attitude if you want to be a writer. For any piece of writing, probably 99% of the planet will dislike it. That still leaves about 75 million people who might enjoy it. If you can sell that much, you’ll be well off.

WP: Did you read a lot as a teenager? What kinds of fiction and particular authors drew your attention?

SC: In my early teens I don’t think I read much. I played a lot of roleplaying games and read comic books. Then I rushed into reading all at once. When I was a teenager, there was a huge independent comic book explosion. That pushed the mainstream comics to get edgier and a lot of graphic novels came up. So I spent a lot of time and money on that. I was into pulpy fantasy and science fiction when I started reading short stories and novels. There were a lot more fiction magazines back then and you could spend an awful lot of time reading short stories and novelettes and novellas. When I look back on that period, it seems like every month I’d discover some new subgenre and would just devour it. Like I remember getting into pulp short stories of the Great Depression. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard stuff. Weird Tales. Then I would discover something else and read whatever I could find. This was all before the internet so it was a lot more difficult to actually find things and related works. You couldn’t just click a page and research all the influences and related material. You had to go to the library or used book stores or comic shops and take what they had. I’d do that a lot. I’d go into a used book store and try something out, then go back and buy up the whole shelf. A comic I really enjoyed was Dave Sim’s Cerebus. Chris Claremont on Uncanny X-Men. Frank Miller and Alan Moore on whatever. Robert Jordan (Wheel of Time) put out a bunch of Conan novels in his earlier career and I enjoyed those. TSR (Dungeons and Dragons) had a book division and I read a lot of those. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic series was great. Gaiman’s Good Omens led me to Terry Pratchett and Gaiman wrote a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy guide and that led me to Douglas Adams. I liked the old Fighting Fantasy/Choose Your Own Adventure books which were a brand new concept at the time, computer games not having made a strong presence yet. I discovered hard science fiction with Niven and Asimov and got really into that. There was about a year when I was 19 that I read every layman’s book on theoretical physics that I could find. But mostly my teen years I was into lots of action.

WP: Like me, it seems like you had a lot of fun incorporating storytelling into your classroom as a student. I wrote a crazy serial space soap opera starring kids on my bus when I was in high school. How did this go over with other students for you? And what did teachers think?

SC: I touched on this above. I was one of those kids that teacher had trouble with because I used teachers as straight men to my jokes. They often would ask the class questions, “What does this tell you?” And if you’re fast on your feet, you could get a lot of laughs. My writing was one of the only times they let me get away with stuff. I didn’t remotely follow the instructions but I was writing so much material that they figured it was okay. When assigning homework, they would say how long our writing had to be at a minimum. I would ask how long was the maximum.

WP: So I understand you’re a dog person! Why? What’s great about dogs in general – and your dog, specifically?

SC: I’m a dog person because I have a dog and he takes up a tremendous amount of time and energy. In general, I think I’ve become a more boring person because I spend so much time with my dog. I don’t have as much time to do drug running or overthrow governments like I used to. (I’m just kidding, FBI.) Dogs are simple creatures. I think I’m a relatively simple person. The transition to high school was tough for me. Not that I think I was tremendously unpopular, it’s just that all the cliques and backstabbing was something I could never understand. I played sports and I was in the gaming club and the chess team. And members of each of those groups kept asking me why I hung out with those “other” people. I really enjoyed my youth and one of the great things about kids is that they are so non-judgmental. You stick two kids in the same room and walk away for a minute and they’ll start playing, regardless of backgrounds. So I appreciate dogs because there isn’t a lot of subterfuge. If my dog is hungry, he’ll tell me. If he wants to play, he’ll play. My dog is an Alaskan Malamute and he’s unbelievably strong. I live at the beach in California so he looks a bit out of place, but he’s a really gorgeous dog. He’s got all his papers and his parents were show dogs. My breeder, for whatever reason, supplies at lot of the classic rockers of the 70s with malamutes. I think my dog is related to the dog of Gene Simmons of KISS, among others. I just came back from the park and my dog, Sasquatch, spent a good ten minutes wrestling with dogs 1/3rd his size. He’s very gentle when he needs to be. Because of my dog, I probably smile and laugh about 50% more on any given day than I did before I had him. Of course, I also get annoyed probably 25% more. He’s destroyed two remote controls, a laptop computer, my carpet, and countless other things.

WP: What inspired Hard Luck Hank and the world he inhabits?

SC: I got the name Hard Luck Hank from submitting stories to fishing magazines. Like I said earlier, I would get into all kinds of odd writing. I wrote to a fishing magazine about the idea for some stories where nothing except bad stuff happens. The editor wrote me back and said he liked the idea and I should submit some. I got so excited! My future was clear. I’d be a sportswriter. I wrote a few articles and never heard back. They probably realized that I was a teenager and not a very good writer.

The genre is a hodgepodge of tons of different things I read when I was younger. I tried my hand at writing nearly every genre at some point or other. I think that’s valuable in that you learn what you are good at and what you enjoy writing. Just about everything I did would inevitably have some comedy in it. I tried writing a horror once and it became a horror parody without me intending. The problem with pure comedy, I found, is that it doesn’t age well and it often doesn’t stand up to repeat exposure. If you hear a joke and laugh your head off, it’s very unlikely you’ll react the same on the second or third or tenth hearing. I made the decision early that I wasn’t going to write strictly comedy, because it doesn’t have legs. I like the craziness and dark humor of things like Hunter S. Thompson and Bukowski and Jack Kerouac and Kurt Vonnegut.

I used to love comic books and HLH takes some sensibilities from that genre. I also like violence as humor. Not Three Stooges slapstick, but more realistic. I grew up with Star Wars and had a pile of action figures and toys, so that kind of science fiction was always appealing. I stumbled upon old noir short stories and potboilers that led to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and I came up with the idea to hang a mystery as the through line. I’m not such a big fan of Detective, like the butler did it, but I enjoy the hell out of noir.

And I guess lastly, I don’t like bullies and don’t care much for heroes. Even as a kid, I really disliked that Tom of Tom and Jerry and Wile E. Coyote and Elmer Fudd and such, could never win and were the perpetual bad guys. The so-called good guys in those cartoons were usually arrogant pricks and I always wished the bad guys could win. I like the fact that Hank is kind of a sad sack character, a reluctant hero, and not the nicest or smartest of guys. He’s an everyman even though he’s an alien mutant.

WP: What surprised you most about trying to break through with comedic space opera?

SC: Well, I can’t say I was tremendously surprised, but no one wanted it. No one was remotely interested on the traditional side of publishing. No agents would look at it. No publishers cared. No one. Just saying it was “science fiction-comedy” closed so many doors that I stopped saying it was comedy. Every once in awhile, someone would ask if it was like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and I would say, “not really,” and that would be the end. It was very frustrating to put so much effort into a novel and not be able to get anyone to even look at it. I had several agents straight up tell me that the people who like science fiction don’t like comedy, or at least don’t like to mix the two. There simply isn’t a track record for it, so in a way I can understand their reluctance.

WP: How do you define success as an author?

SC: I think it’s the American tradition to define success in terms of money. If someone says they’re a successful [any profession], you’re going to likely assume they are doing well financially. If someone told me they were a successful parent, I’m probably not going to think that their child is currently serving time for murder. It is a limiting definition, but I still associate “successful author” with money. I was talking with another writer at a convention a few years ago and I asked him, “how many people do you think are professional writers here?” He said, “a professional writer is someone whose spouse has a real job.” That was very depressing, but there is a lot of truth to it. Writing has always been a hard gig. If you want fortune, you’ll likely have an easier time robbing a bank. If you want fame, you’ll have an easier time robbing a bank and getting caught.

A side effect of me developing thick skin to reviews and rejection, is that I don’t place a lot of emphasis on insults OR compliments. I mean, people have told me for decades that my work was no good—or at least they weren’t interested in publishing it. Now that I’ve started to get fan emails and decent reviews, it’s hard for me to say that my critics are suddenly right.

Ultimately, you have to enjoy writing. I wrote unsuccessfully for a tremendous number of years. The majority of my entire life. I didn’t stop writing because of rejection. When I was younger, I met a lot of fellow wannabe writers and I got the sense they were doing it for the “wrong” reasons. I came up with a test to determine if someone was, in my opinion, a real writer. It’s a very sci-fi scenario:

The future you travels back in time from your deathbed. It’s you, aged 112 years old. You have tubes sticking out of you, you’re wasted away, in a hospital gown. The future you explains that he was given a chance to travel back and give you one piece of information about your future life. He says you will NEVER sell any writing. You will NEVER earn anything but ridicule and scorn from your writing. He then says, do with this information what you will, and disappears. Somehow you are certain that future will come to pass. Do you keep writing?

I would often see a pained expression on the faces the people I asked. Many were very honest and said they wouldn’t continue writing. I know for a fact I would, because I did. So while I consider the term “successful author” to be a specific definition, I think it’s important not to grade yourself on that, because it is an elusive goal.

WP: What’s your writing process?

SC: I grew up around a forest and used to go walking pretty much every day. I did a lot of daydreaming during those walks. Some of those daydreams would turn into ideas that made it into my professional writing. There’s something about doing physical activity, but routine, that kind of frees your mind to wander. I still go walking late at night to try and think and I carry my phone and make audio notes. I used to scribble on paper, but I can’t read my own writing and I can make a lot more complicated passages if I just talk. I have to walk at night because there are too many distractions during the daylight.

I stumbled across something else when I was a computer programmer and had to travel for training classes. I would go to some hotel in the most boring area of Silicon Valley and I had nothing to do. Stuck in a hotel, staring at the walls, I would write. I wrote an unbelievable amount of material in that dead time between classes. So now I will try and check myself into a hotel for a week when working on an outline. I landed on Las Vegas as one of my go-to cities. You get a five-star hotel for cheap, the city runs 24/7 so you can nap, wander around at 3 in the morning, get some food, go back and write. You can exist on whatever schedule you want. And when you get too burned out from writing or reading, you can go downstairs and be mindless at cards or slot machines or a show.

As for my writing schedule, I write whenever. I don’t believe in setting page or word goals. I think that is counterproductive. I know a lot of people do that. But building novels is like building a house. If you’re really not into it and you force yourself to create some arbitrary amount of material, it won’t be your best. And then you’re going to have to build on that substandard foundation. And then build on it some more. Then your evil twin brother that you wrote in just to get 2,000 words, becomes a major character and is putting people on train tracks and getting amnesia. Rewriting all that later is vastly harder than waiting an extra day until you’re motivated.

WP: Share some modern authors whose work you enjoy and why!

SC: Oh, I’ll have to go through my Amazon queue. I’m just going to rattle some off here. Some of these I read before in paperback and was just getting a digital copy, but all of these were ones I really enjoyed. It’s not in any order.

I’ve gotten a lot pickier in my reading as I’ve gotten older. It used to be that I would finish everything I started. Which meant I would have some books sitting around for ages because it was such a chore to read them. Now, if a book doesn’t click with me, I move on. I buy a lot of books that fit that category. It’s not that they are bad, it’s just not entertaining or inspiring me. Sometimes I don’t even know why I liked a particular work. Recently, I stopped reading one book and started another. At first my rationale for why I didn’t enjoy the first book was because it didn’t speak to me and my life. I couldn’t relate. But then the second book I read had almost exactly the same setup and I completely enjoyed it. Sometimes it’s just the style or tone that doesn’t jive with my sensibilities. But I’m merely one reader in the world.

Thanks so much to Steven for sharing his thoughts and experiences! I’m always interested in hearing from other writers and their perspectives, so feel free to reach out to me via email at jointhesaga@gmail.com.

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