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The Dust Of Stars

Interview with Robert E Vardeman



I remember when Robert E Vardeman contacted me to make the cover of the first book of his new space opera, Engineering Infinity. You probably won't be surprised by my rapid pulse and the overpowering influx of blood into my head when I learned how great this person is as an author. I'll tell you a secret. I could barely sleep that night from the mad excitement.

Robert E Vardeman, End of Trail SASS, 2010

Robert E Vardeman has published 200 westerns under various pen names and more than 100 science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and high tech thrillers. He has worked as an editor for My Family Magazine, the SFWA Forum, and still works on the editorial staff for four magazines, including the 2013 FSTA award-winning Fantasy Football ProForecast and the 2016 FSWA award-winning Fantasy Sports Diehards. He co-edited Golden Reflections with Joan Spicci Saberhagen and Career Guide To Your Job In Hell with Scott S. Phillips. Vardeman's awards nominations include five Arizona-New Mexico Book Awards nods, in addition to Scribe, Peacemaker, and World Science Fiction Convention Hugo fan writer nominations. In 2017 he was honored with a lifetime achievement award for his western writing from the Western Fictioneers.


He taught at Longridge Writers Institute and has served as a judge for the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers and awards chair and three-time short story judge for the Western Fictioneers. He holds a BS in physics and an MS in materials engineering and worked at Sandia National Laboratories in solid-state physics research before becoming a full-time writer.


Creating a space-themed book cover was a challenge because it was my first one in the genre. That means countless layers, light effects, and many hours of work until I get this great cover.


Working with the author, you manage to catch the essence of his worldview and get to know a small part of him. It is so exciting for me. I was interested in knowing where the author's inspiration came from and how he develops his characters and stories. Who are his favorite authors and books, and many other questions. I want to present the first book of the space series Engineering Infinity - The Dust Of Stars by Robert E Vardeman.

What is this novel about? Tell us more about your new series Engineering Infinity?


The idea is a new science fiction universe, space opera, rich and deep, with lots of aliens, humans, robots, and bad guys.


Remagen Roullei controls an ancient device capable of building an entire solar system from nebular dust. Such an undertaking requires a team of experts - and each build needs a rare, expendable Key to activate the World Engine. Remy's crew of humans and not-so-humans often must seize the Key from ruthless competitors, pirates from a dozen worlds and then battle the elements on strange and deadly worlds. Helping him are the modular-cube Robo sapiens, a beguiling computer expert Siren, a Jack of All Trades and quick-frozen weapons specialists aboard his time-drive enhanced ship, the Tumblebug.


What starts as a routine construction for Sir Trig Danwell turns into a dangerous, cutthroat project with unforeseen results. The Dust of Stars is crammed with breathtaking adventure, double dealing on a galactic scale, exotic alien characters and worlds created to be destroyed in cataclysmic collisions.


Let there be light! Let there be the thrill of Engineering Infinity!


The Dust Of Stars will be out in a few days when Shatter Time is published, followed by The Crown Joule and Crystal Virus (this one will be written during the three month time the others are being put on sale).  These are full-length books, ranging from 65k to 105k in length, with the bookkeeping of details from book to book most challenging. 


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Especially for fans of science fiction, I decided to turn the cover into a HD wallpaper for desktop and mobile with the consent of Robert E Vardeman. Free download here.


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How you became a Science Fiction fandom?

I grew up reading sci-fi and became a fan (active in sci-fi fandom) in 1965 while still in high school.  I was working my way down a row of old Astoundings in a second-hand bookstore and ran into a guy working his way in the other direction.  Roy Tackett (Horrible Old Roy Tackett–HORT) started the Abq SF Society and I was a charter member.  There were four of us and, alas, I am the only surviving one.  Roy convinced me Abq needed a sf convention.  We kicked off Bubonicon in 1969.  I was the chairman for three years and named it.  That year we had a bubonic plague outbreak and Egypt refused visas to anyone from NM.  This struck me as funny and, looking for a name people wouldn't forget, I came up with Bubonicon (now it'd likely be Hantacon, for Hantavirus).  I had to fend off bland suggestions like New Mexicon, and did so successfully.  At first we picked guests of honor who were up and comers rather than established names.  Over the last 40 years this has changed and well established writers (usually two now) are GoHs.  Bubonicon 1 had 29 people.  The biggest one in recent years has been close to 1000 attendees.  We've always drawn fans from all over the world but now it usually requires them to fly in rather than drive.


I've only missed one of the 51 conventions, so in this respect I'm still active in fandom.  But I no longer publish a fanzine (fan magazine–I was nominated for a Hugo as best fan writer in 1972) or go to many sf conventions.  MileHiCon in Denver is one still on my occasionally attended list and lately have been a regular attendee at Wild Wild West Con in Tuscon, a steampunk convention.  I regularly autograph at the AZ Renaissance Faire but have drifted away from World Fantasy Convention and others in the sf and fantasy arena.


What is your method of writing? How do the stories and characters in your books come together?


I always work from a complete synopsis, even for short stories. When I'm doodling notes, it doesn't matter where I start, beginning, middle or end. If in the middle I work out in both directions. If I have a nifty ending, it's easy enough to figure out what came just before. Usually a grabber of a first sentence or situation suggests itself and I write the synopsis from that. Tin Stars's protagonist gets himself shot up and left for dead. From there, the story of revenge unfolded, with a few twists thrown in along the way because he uses a fake Pinkerton badge after people refuse to talk to him otherwise.


The synopsis is detailed, but only for the character's motivations. The action is put in as I write, which keeps me interested as a writer (and hopefully, works that way for readers, too). In other words, my synopsis gives a lot of what goes on in the character's head and the action might be described only as, say, Sand Creek massacre occurs but hero escapes.

The internet has vastly improved researching. Before, I read the source material, took lots of notes, culled them, did the synopsis and always came smack up against a detail I'd missed. So, write it down, back to library, look it up, back to writing. Now google lets me track down the information I need and I don't have to leave the keyboard.


What’s your history with westerns?


When I lived in El Paso as a kid, I read sf and mysteries till my eyes blurred.  It took only a couple weeks for me to get through all the kiddie titles at a really good Carnegie grant library.  The librarian realized my mother was more inclined to read Zane Grey and J Frank Dobie than Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein (my mother would check out the "adult" books for me.) So the librarian issued me an adult card with the strict instructions to check out only sf.  Hog heaven!  But somewhere along the way I wondered about that Zane Grey fellow and all the books he'd done.


Jump forward to 1983 or so.  I had switched agents and my new one asked if I was interested in writing westerns since a slot on the Jake Logan series had come open.  My western reading was limited to Zane Grey and Max Brand but, hey, Leigh Brackett wrote westerns and I loved her as a f&sf writer.  I wrote Slocum And The Hatchet Men, liked it and the editor did, too, so I was offered a couple more.  I read more and found several sf writers also did westerns, so felt in good company.  Westerns also paid a *lot* better in those halcyon days.  My advance for the first one in 1983 was three times what I got for the final one in 2014, when I got to do the series finale, Slocum And The Silver Burden.  I averaged about every 4th title in that span.


I branched out and did some epic westerns around 1990, based on real events (with the protagonist my invention).  These were in the 150,000 word range and I put them under a pen name, Karl Lassiter (Zane Grey influence there, just a little).  Later for another publisher I did more traditional westerns.  They didn't want me using the Lassiter name so I invented Jackson Lowry, a name I still use.  (Karl got retired about 20 years ago).


Of all the works you have written, do you have a favorite work of yours? I believe that they are all dear to you, but there must be a book that is more special. 


Hard to say on what book I like the best.  Of the westerns ,"The Artist" is my favorite about Charles Russell, a famous western artist I admire.  He was a great humorist, too, and did some collections of cowboy tall tales.  I may be pickier on the f&sf.  I like the way the Weapons of Chaos trilogy turned out.  As to fantasy, nothing stands out for me.  A lot of stories I like but not necessarily for the books themselves but for what went into them.  The Swords of Raemllyn books I did with my best friend right at the edge of computers/modems and the like.  It'd take 5 minutes for us to swap a single chapter, and then we'd talk for an hour about how much faster this was than using the mail. (This was back in 1981).  The entire series of 9 books could be swapped in a few seconds now, so we enjoyed the pioneering as much as the writing.


Do you have time to read on this busy schedule?


I try to keep up with my reading.  I just finished judging 40+ short stories for the Western Fictioneers Peacemaker award, did a blurb for another western, Luther, Wyoming for Mario Acevedo, and am halfway thru one of Jim Butcher's Dresden books (I'm saving the last 3 of his fantasies for later - really wonderful books.  This is the Codex Alera series.)  On the non-fiction front, I'm a quarter of the way through Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast & Slow on the psychology of thinking and how we form opinions and use experience to make decisions.  I usually read physics stuff but haven't picked up anything new in a while.  A lot of reading goes into backgrounds for projects.  All time favorite sci-fi book is Dune.  Fantasy is harder to pin down but I love sword & sorceryFritz Leiber's Fafhrd & Grey Mouser stories are probably at the top of the list.


A long time ago I found that I tear apart stories that don't completely captivate me, meaning I see how I'd do them differently.  Writers like Jim Butcher make me forget this and just go with the story - why I like his writing so much.  His steampunk story The Aeronaut's Windlass is about my favorite, that and Cherie Priest's Boneshaker.


What music do you listen to while writing?


I started with folk and folk rock.  Will listen to about anything done by Pink Floyd and was sorry to hear that Florian Schneider of Kraftwerk just died.  A lot of words have been put into stories listening to Autobahn and Radioactivity.  Perfect rhythm for typing.  Currently liking the Decemberists and writing to Explosions in the Sky and the Chromatics.  Last concerts I went to was Lindsey Sterling and, of course, Poison Garden. They wrote a great blurb for The Dust Of Stars.


I do like steampunk.  Steam Powered Giraffe, The Cog is Dead and naturally Abney Park. 


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I believe that we will have more interesting conversations with Robert E. Vardeman in the future, and until then, enjoy his new book The Dust Of Stars, which you can buy from Amazon or on the author's website.


Many more exciting adventures await us with unexpected twists in outer space. But you will read more about this in the next interview.



In the post were used parts of the interview of Robert E Vardeman with Richard Prosch, the president of Western Fictioneers on his blog.

Photo credit: Patricia Rogers



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