The SFFWRTCHT Interview: Author Allen M. Steele

by Michelle Ristuccia

 Allen M. Steele was a journalist before turning to his first love, science fiction. Since then he has published eighteen novels and nearly a hundred short stories. His work has received numerous awards, including three Hugos, and has been translated worldwide. A lifelong space enthusiast, he has testified before Congress in hearings regarding space exploration, flown the NASA space shuttle simulator, and serves as an advisor for the Space Frontier Foundation. Steele lives in Massachusetts with his wife Linda and their dogs Iko and Jack.

SFFWRTCHT: When did you decide to start writing? How did you begin?
Allen Steele: My 4th grade teacher gave my class a homework assignment of writing a story based on pictures she’d given each of us. In my case, she gave me a magazine illustration of a family in a flying car. I was already reading science fiction by then, so this wasn’t a stretch for me, but unlike most homework assignments, this was one I really enjoyed. When I wrote that story, I discovered that this was something I liked doing, and so I kept writing short stories as kind of a hobby until I was 15, when I came to the realization that I wanted to be a writer.And that was it. From that moment on, my life had a purpose.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you study writing in school? How did you learn your craft?
Allen Steele: Well, considering that I was always the worst student in school – hyperactive, not much respect for authority, a low tolerance for dogma – not very many teachers took me seriously when they learned that I wanted to be a writer. And when they did, most of them tried to steer me away from science fiction. So I was largely self-taught, but trial and error can be a great learning process, even though it takes a long time and a lot of patience. I’d write a story, send it to a SF magazine, have it rejected, send it to another magazine, have it rejected again, and so on, and kept doing it this way all through high school and college, gradually improving my skills as I went along.

SFFWRTCHT: How long did you write until your first sale? What was that?
Allen Steele: I studied journalism in college and worked as a reporter for several years, and therefore my first work in print was for various newspapers and magazines. That experience did a lot to help me in learning how to write fiction, which I kept doing as a sideline when I wasn’t banging out newspaper stories. So when I finally produced a publishable work of science fiction, it was a novel, Orbital Decay, which was published in 1989 when I was 31. By then, I’d been a professional writer for several years, just in a different field.

SFFWRTCHT: What aspect of Apollo’s Outcasts came first? Characters? Plot? Setting?
Allen Steele: It’s hard to isolate a single aspect of any of my stories as the starting point. For me, writing is an organic process in which everything evolves at the same time. In this instance, it came from a long-standing desire to write a young-adult SF novel. I wanted to write a novel for my nieces and nephews, and also produce the kind of YA novel which I wouldn’t mind reading myself. There’s not a lot of YA novels published these days that aren’t dystopian or take a realistic approach to space exploration, so that was my starting point. After that, the rest was relatively easy.

SFFWRTCHT: What sort of pre-writing did you do for Apollo’s Outcasts? Did you outline?
Allen Steele: First, I tell the story to myself, just as if I was telling it aloud to someone who may be listening to me. Nothing gets written down at this point except for a few notes to help me remember names and places. When that’s done, I begin doing research. These two things are usually the longest part of the development process and can take months or even years, but once I’ve completed this, I’m ready to go. The outline is almost entirely in my head, with a loose-leaf binder full of notes and research material to help me along the way.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing time look like? Planned time? Grab it when you can?
Allen Steele: Since I’m a full-time writer, I’m able to keep a regular schedule. I write Mondays through Fridays, sitting down at my desk shortly after 8 am and not leaving it until I’ve written at least three pages, sometimes as many as five. That usually takes about three or four hours, at which time I knock off for lunch. In the afternoon I do research, which usually involves a lot of reading and note-taking. Very often, though, I’m coming up with the story while I’m doing the household chores. It doesn’t look like I’m writing, because I’m doing stuff like mowing the lawn or feeding the dogs, but my mind is somewhere else at the same time. Which, of course, means that I occasionally mow the dogs or feed the grass. Absent-mindedness is a problem for me, I’m afraid.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you use any special software or music playlist?
Allen Steele: I use the same writing software nearly every professional writer does: Microsoft Word, which has pretty much become the industry standard. And while I don’t listen to music while I’m actually writing – it’s too distracting – there’s almost always a certain body of music to which I’mlistening the rest of the time. While I was writing Apollo’s Outcasts, I was listening to a lot of the Who – Who’s Next and Quadrophenia in particular, both of which are about teenagers.

SFFWRTCHT: How do you deal with writer’s block?
Allen Steele: I seldom get writer’s block. I have two ways of avoiding it. First, I work on more than one project at a time – the story I’m writing now, and the story I’m going to write next – and that lets me switch gears when I start to get bogged down. And second, I take regular breaks from writing. Every six or eight weeks, I’ll put things aside for a few days or a week and simply relax. Read books, watch TV, go hiking or skiing, anything but work. That way I avoid burn-out.

SFFWRTCHT: What role do beta readers play, if any, in your process as a professional author?

Allen Steele: If you feel comfortable with showing your work to someone before it goes to market, then you should do so … but it shouldn’t be something you feel obliged to do. Some writers don’t let anyone read their work in advance, and I don’t blame them … I didn’t let anyone read my work-in-progress until I found first-readers whose opinions I knew I could trust. Writing is not performance art, nor is it something that should be done by committee (which is why I’m skeptical of writing workshops, which are based on the premise that ten people can write a story better than one person). But if you can find someone who’ll give your work a fair reading – that is, with an open mind, without either stroking your ego or being unreasonably harsh – then it’s possible that you may benefit from their feedback. Caveat emptor.

SFFWRTCHT: What advice would you give an up and coming writer?
Allen Steele: A long time ago, a college student emailed me and asked for my advice. I told him the same thing everyone told me: write every day and don’t give up. Yeah, I know that sounds simplistic or like a brush-off, but it’s the only practical advice that every novice needs regardless of intent or experience. Write, write, write, and don’t stop until you’ve succeeded. That college student was John Scalzi. I think he’s going places.

Having said this, I’ll try to be a little more specific for those who’ve managed to get their first stories published or are on the verge of making their breakthrough. Don’t follow trends, and instead write what matters to you. It’s tempting to jump on a bandwagon and write the stuff that’s making the bestseller lists – paranormal romance, military space opera, vampire novels, whatever – but that can lead to a creative trap where you’ve sacrificed long-term development for short-term gain. When I was getting started, cyberpunk was the rage and a lot of new writers were emulating William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Most of the ones who did, though, didn’t last very long. Fads always peter out, sooner or later, and when they do, the writers who invested heavily in a given trend can find themselves typecast in the minds of both readers and editors. So it’s better, really, to find an approach or subject that is what you want to do, and can do well, rather than crank out the same thing hundreds of other guys are doing at the same time.

SFFWRTCHT: Are you involved with cons and fandom? Cosplay?
Allen Steele: I was a fan and played role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons when I was a teenager. I still go to SF conventions, but now as a professional which means that my interests are a bit different, and I left D&D behind while I became an adult.

SFFWRTCHT: Where did your love of specfic and science fiction in particular begin?
Allen Steele: I was reading SF almost as soon as I could read books on my own, but I think it was Robert Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo, which I read when I was in third grade, which really put the hooks into me. There was a period while I was in college, though, that I almost entirely stopped reading SF and fantasy – and writing it, too — and read (and wrote) other things instead. I eventually returned to SF, which was probably inevitable, but I’m glad that I gave myself the opportunity to diversify both my reading and writing.

SFFWRTCHT: Who were some of your favorite authors/books growing up?
Allen Steele: As I said, Heinlein was the first SF writer who really grabbed me. Ray Bradbury was next, followed by Arthur C. Clarke. I never really distinguished between adult fiction and young-adult fiction, though. If I could buy it or check it out of a library – and sometimes that was difficult if the publisher decided to put a semi-nude figure on the cover; I remember having trouble getting a drugstore clerk letting me buy Samuel R. Delany’s Nova for that reason; look at the cover of the first Bantam paperback edition and you’ll see why – then I’d read it. And I’d often read a book a day. So Monday it would be Lester del Ray’s Moon of Mutiny, and Tuesday it would be Harlan Ellison’s The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, and Wednesday it would be a Doc Savage or Captain Future novel. It took me a while to become picky.

SFFWRTCHT: How do you define hard science fiction? Soft science fiction?
Allen Steele: Although my own work is usually defined as hard-SF, I don’t usually make that distinction myself. In fact, I think these terms – hard SF and soft science fiction – are artificial categories that fans and critics have developed over time, and thus tend to oversimplify the works they’re discussing. I like David Hartwell’s definition: “Science fiction is something that I point to and say that it’s science fiction.”

SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?
Allen Steele: I’ve just gone through a period of writing short fiction for a variety of anthologies and magazines: Old Mars, Solaris Rising 2, Rip-Off!, and the second issue of MIT Press’s TRSF. I like writing short fiction as much as novels, and I’ll never leave that behind. Now I’m doing something which is a little of both: Goddard’s Spaceship, which is a novel-length expansion of “Goddard’s People,” a novelette I published over 20 years ago. And if Apollo’s Outcasts is successful, I’d like to write another YA novel. That novel was a lot of fun, and I’d love to do something like that again. Which is my last bit of advice for new writers: have fun doing what you’re doing, because if you’re not, your reader won’t either.




Michelle Ristuccia writes short fiction of all speculative fiction genres in between chasing her toddler from tree to tree. The shorter the work, the better, because 200 words looks very long on her cellphone and that keypad is very, very small. You can find out more about her rabid love of Star Trek, podcasting, and raising future geeklings at her blog,


~ by MrsMica on January 17, 2013.

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