‘‘The characters in my 1632 series are a bit idealized. The people rise to the occasion – not unrealistically, but within the parameters of the way they behave, they do as well as they could. That’s the kind of story I wanted to tell. These modern people are transported back to an era that had Galileo, Pascal, and Descartes – they’re not the smartest people around by a long shot. They just have a different view of the world. I mostly wrote that book because I felt that Americans tend to take democracy and the principles of liberty, equality, fraternity for granted. I wanted to take a group of people raised that way, and put them into the worst war in European history, and see how it all unfolded. The irony is, it was intended to be a standalone novel. I had no intention of turning it into a series. Baen published the first one, 1632, in February of 2000. Because of the kind of book it is, I was trying to put together all kinds of facts I just didn’t have access to, so I kind of wrote the whole book in public. Baen has a very active website, so I told people there I needed help, and a whole bunch of people pitched in. I posted chapters as I wrote them, and people said, ‘Well, that wouldn’t work.’ For instance, in the first shooting scene in the farmhouse, I had the doctor do something medically that would really have been stupid, and I had the chief Navy corpsman in Hawaii saying, ‘No! You can’t do that.’ I got a lot of help from fans writing it. The town of Grantville is very closely modeled on the actual town of Mannington. There are rules that I require everyone to follow when they write in the series. One of them is that it if it wasn’t in the town of Mannington in 2000, you can’t have it in Grantville. The one cheat I had to do was that I needed a power plant. The power plant is about 15 miles away, in a town called Granttown, so I just sorta moved it over. That’s the only real cheat.”

‘‘I’ve been a full-time author since the end of 1999. I never had a job that lasted more than five years. I thought about it the other day. Of course, I’m 69, so I don’t know that anybody would want to hire me as a machinist. If I wanted to go back to work in a factory, I couldn’t put together a résumé because most of the places I’ve worked have gone out of business. It’s ironic for me, being a writer, but that’s partly because I stayed on topic. Jim Baen once said to me, ‘You know, I’m surprised. For a commie, you haven’t made any career mistakes.’ I said, ‘Jim, it’s because I’m never caught off-guard when capitalism lives down to my expectations.’ I’ll give him credit: he laughed. He thought that was funny. I’ve had a very successful career.

‘‘Andre Norton’s prose is pedestrian, and I hear her rough drafts were even worse, and she needed a lot of editing. Nevertheless, she had one of the most successful careers in the field, because she was a terrific storyteller. I like to think that I write better than that, but, like her, I’m first and foremost a storyteller. I can teach the craft of writing, but what I cannot do is tell someone how to make a good story. I have a good friend, a photographer, and he used to be a professional for years. It’s not his eyesight – he’s got terrible eyesight. It’s just that he can look at something, and I’ll see exactly the same thing he’s looking at, but he can see that if you framed it this way, it’d be a great picture. I can’t see the frame. That’s what a storyteller does, is frame a sequence of events in such a way that there’s a point to it, it makes sense, and you go somewhere with it. I don’t know how you teach that.”

‘‘I majored in history. I’m not surprised most people find it deadly dull, but if you get a good history teacher, you’ll get really engrossed in it. Quite a few history teachers, both high school and college, quietly have their students read my novels, because they say the history is pretty damn good. I have written some pure alternate histories: 1812: The Rivers of War and 1824: The Arkansas War, set in American history in the Jacksonian period. Some little change happens and the rest cascades from that. By the time you get to the early 19th century, the people are close enough to a modern consciousness that you can deal with it. It’s really hard to tell the stories I want to tell if you’re writ­ing about people farther back. Without a modern viewpoint to mix into it, the characters can seem pretty repellent.”

‘‘I’ve got an advantage, too. I spent about 25 years of my life as a political organizer in the trade unions. It’s a skill set. I’m very good at getting people to work together. I’ve been told this for years – people enjoy working on this series. They don’t feel I’m squishing them or sitting on them. On the other hand, I do direct. There are times I’ll say, ‘No, we’re not going to go in that direction, and here’s why.’ But the other thing, too, is that whenever anyone comes up with an idea I haven’t thought of, I always try to incorporate it. That’s how history really works. Weird shit happens that nobody foresaw. That’s the way it goes. What happens with a long-running series is it tends to get predictable. Just because if you only have one or two authors, they’re going to get into a fixed mindset. I find this so far works, and we’re 16 years into it. This thing is now 21 times longer than Lord of the Rings. The 1632 series is probably a third of what I write. Alternate history is not more than half. There’s all this other stuff I do. I’ll get frustrated going into a bookstore, and they’ll have all this 1632 and 1633 books. Yeah, that’s fine, but I do a lot of other stuff.”

‘‘I tell people that the single stupidest comment about writing is the one that writers all love, which is Samuel Johnson’s ‘Only a blockhead would write for any other reason than money.’ All writers love that because it’s your armor against the wicked publish­ers. But the truth is that you have to be a complete blockhead to think that writing is a smart way to make a living. If it works, though – which it usually doesn’t – it’s a good way to make a living, because you don’t have a boss. I can honestly work anywhere there’s electricity, but if you’re looking for any kind of job that’s going to pay reliably, it’s hard. Authors in my position get a little grumpy sometimes. I don’t, because I don’t have the temperament for it, but I know some of them do, because they feel underap­preciated. They typically sell very well but they rarely get nominated for awards. I don’t care myself, but some people do. Why care? Other jobs you don’t get awards either. You go to work and do the job.”

Read the complete interview in the December 2016 issue of Locus Magazine. Interview design by Francesca Myman.