What’s it like to collaborate on a work of fiction? Can two award-winning, well-published authors create more fluidly together than either might alone? Or is creative vision so individualistic that a collaboration inevitably breeds creative tension?
To find out, I interviewed *Kathryn Lance, author of fiction and non-fiction, and **Jack McDevitt, Nebula Award-winning author of SEEKER and other works of science fiction. Lance and McDevitt recently collaborated on the short story, “Welcome to Valhalla,” a tale that asks: what might the composer Richard Wagner have done if he’d known that Adolph Hitler would one day use his masterpiece, The Ring of the Niebelungs, as a Nazi propaganda tool? The story appears in the December 2008 issue of Asimov’s.
AB: How did the story idea come about?
JM: Not sure. There’s seldom a moment of inspiration. I’ve always loved Wagner’s music, and I was shocked when I learned what had happened during the war. I could never get past wondering how he might have reacted had he known he would become part of so immense an atrocity.
AB: Who approached whom – and how – or is this something you’ve been discussing for a while?
KL: Maybe ten years ago Jack and I were on a Science Fiction Writers of America committee together. I mentioned my Wagner fanaticism, and he linked me to a story he did about Brunnhilde during the Vietnam
War. (GREAT story, by the way.) He suggested collaborating about a Wagner idea he had. But we never got it together till this past spring.
AB: Who took the lead?
JM: Kathryn did, in the sense that she provided the fuel to get the operation off the ramp. She said ‘let’s do it,’ and she had a much better idea for the messenger than I did. I kept thinking about a time traveler, and I was never comfortable with the idea. It lacked the emotional high this kind of story demanded. Kathryn produced
Brunnhilde in her first draft. And I knew from that moment the story would have an impact.
AB: Can you tell, when you look at the final published piece, which parts were contributed by which author?
KL: Mostly not, I think.
JM: Except for Brunnhilde, I’d say Kathryn is correct.
AB: Which of the following feelings pre-dominated: that you compromised on story or character or form to work together – or that you felt energized by the other’s contributions?
KL: I don’t know about Jack, but I felt totally energized by everything he did. There was no real compromise.
JM: We were both headed in the same direction. I don’t think there was any real difference in the way we saw the narrative.
AB: Have either of you collaborated on fiction previously and if so, with whom?
KL: Not I.
JM: I’ve done collaborations with Stan Schmidt, Mark Van Name, and Michael Shara.
AB: How was this collaboration different?
KL: Well, for one thing, this was FUN! I much prefer fiction to nonfiction, but have always paid the bills with nonfiction. Most of my nonfiction collaborations were with doctors. And they were similar to this in a way, but usually the doctor provided the material and/or rough draft and I labored to get it into shape.
JM: Because of the context, this was a far more emotional story than any of the others. I suspect we both stood with Wagner outside the theater and thought about what was coming, and how it overwhelmed art, no matter how brilliant the level. There was nothing about this story to divide us. I’d wondered for years how to provide the right vehicle for Wagner’s glimpse at an appalling future, Kathryn provided it, and the rest, as somebody said, is history. “Welcome to Valhalla” is a story of which I’m especially proud.
AB: Fiction is very personal turf. What advice would you give other writers considering a fiction collaboration?
KL: Go for it! Two heads can sometimes be at least as good as one.
JM: I think you find out early on what your partner’s perspective and priorities are. The question is whether both writers can put their egos aside, and their natural assumption that their contribution is stronger, and work with an open mind. If you don’t bring those qualities to the table, the story won’t work, and you might lose friend.
* Kathryn Lance is the author of more than fifty books of fiction and nonfiction, for adults and children. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her husband and four cats.
** Jack McDevitt has written 15 novels and about 60 short stories. He’s won several awards, including the John W. Campbell and the Nebula, each in the novel category. He’s a former naval officer, teacher, customs inspector, and for years conducted leadership seminars for customs managers. He lives in Brunswick, Georgia with his wife Maureen, and six cats. And don’t ask me what it is about all these cats.