wrote SF before I wrote anything else. That's simply because I lived SF before I had much life of my own to speak of. Sputnik happened just as I was getting my first library card (which is a great story that I tell elsewhere) and after that I lived on Space Cat, the Danny Dunn books, Tom Swift, Jr, and anything else that the Carl Roden branch of the Chicago Public Library had on hand. My family life was protective and uneventful. There weren't a whole lot of guys my age in the neighborhood. I went to Catholic School. What else would a nerdy kid with an overactive imagination live but SF?

In third grade I wrote a story in imitation of Space Cat, only with dogs instead of cats. (We were not a cat family.) The next year my grandmother, who was much impressed, (and a bit of a writer herself) gave me her ancient Underwood typewriter. This was, shall we say, tossing fuel on the fire. In fifth and sixth grades I concocted yarns in flagrant imitation of Tom Swift, Jr., finishing none of them. Later on I discovered collections of SF short stories in the adult section of the library, and when I was 14 I began writing short stories in the same patterns. I wrote a lot of them, in fact—I believe there were fifty-four in the drawer before I sold the first one, when I was 21. When I was fifteen I read Lord of the Rings, and tried my hand at a massive fantasy mishmash that ran to four volumes and actually got finished. In senior high I wrote and finished two full-sized SF novels, A Question of Flatness and Maxwell's Ragtime War. What they lacked in emotional maturity (which was a lot) they made up in sheer smoothness, which I achieved by dint of endless practice imitating people I enjoyed reading.

I wrote quite a bit in college but didn't finish very much. College, unlike high school, was not a cakewalk, and besides, I had a major girlfriend, Carol Ostruska, in whose presence I finally began to achieve the emotional maturity my writing required and did not have.

But what put me over the top was attending the Clarion SF Writers' Workshop at Michigan State University in the summer of 1973. There was no magic in the technique, really—we just passed one another's stories around and then dumped on them—and with the sole exception of the amazingly prolific Darrell Schweitzer, I finished more material at the workshop than any of the other attendees, who apart from Darrell included the later successes Alan Brennart, Carter Scholz, George Ewing, and Dan Dern. What happened at Clarion is that I finally realized that the stuff I was writing was reasonably good, and certainly smooth enough to pass muster in most of the magazines. I wasn't writing literature—I was writing entertainment, and after the hundreds and hundreds of hours I had put into it in my earlier years I was suddenly getting good at it.

It took me only a month after the workshop ended to sell a short story I wrote at the workshop to an original anthology, Harry Harrison's Nova 4. The story was "Our Lady of the Endless Sky," which impressed Harrison, in spite of his being a pretty overt atheist. Not longer after that I sold "The Steel Sonnets" to Damon Knight's anthology Orbit 17. Off and on over the next several years I sold short stories to original anthologies and Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine.

Two of the stories I sold to IASFM made it to the final Hugo Awards ballot, both in 1981. That's not a common trick and I'm glad it worked out that way, even though Clifford Simak actually won the award for "The Grotto of the Dancing Deer."

Nancy Kress and Jeff Duntemann in 1982When George Scithers left IASFM I lost an editor who really liked my style. Not long after I collaborated with Hugo and Nebula award winner Nancy Kress, on a novelette called "Borovsky's Hollow Woman," which we sold to Omni for the October 1983 issue. I had begun the story the previous year but got wedged on and could not finish it. Nan got involved, broke the wedge with some vigorous coaching and some significant additional copy, and taught me a great deal about the writing process itself. In return I demonstrated to her the power of writing direct to a word processor screen. (Remember, this was 1983.) We both came out of it changed writers. The photo of the two of us below is from about that time, when I was in my muttonchops phase and still had a few hairs on top of my head. (Thanks to Peter Frisch for the photo; neither of us was "ready" when he shot this one, but I've always liked it.)

If I have an SF mentor it's Nan, who has been bugging me for years to get out of short SF and into novels. I took her advice and began two novels, figuring at least one would survive to completion. Alas—in 1985 my I changed careers, and went into technical publishing rather than programming. To my chagrin I found that a lot of the energy that I used to have available at the end of the day was sucked up and expended in my routine duties at PC Tech Journal magazine. That's key, kiddies: If you want to be an SF writer, don't be a writer in your day job. It's true that I had to do this to make a living (since I'm a better writer than a computer programmer), but it stopped my SF career cold for fifteen years.

Neither of the two novels I began in 1984 has gone very far, although one of them I still consider (barely) viable and may recast as a juvenile someday. Doesn't matter much now: In November of 1997, I got back to novels in a big way. It took two and a half years, but in April 1999 I finished The Cunning Blood, and then spent the next six years looking for a publisher. In August of 2005 I got a contract with startup ISFiC Press in Chicago, and the novel will be published in November. The Cunning Blood is hard SF in the grand tradition: Starships, diabolical plots, nanomachines, zero-point energy, mastodons, and a human society utterly unlike our own. It's not literature, but it's a rollicking good adventure, consciously designed to be a page-turner. After I get that one into print this fall, well, I have a list of concepts as long as my arm. I've begun a novel set in the world I introduced in my novelette "Drumlin Boiler" in 2002. I don't know how long it will take to finish The Anything Machine, but who's in a hurry?

If I have a secret in writing SF, it's simply to read a lot of what I enjoy, and write stuff that I would enjoy reading. In fact, when I want to get down and make progress on a novel, I pull down a similar work from my shelf of favorites, sit down for an hour and just wallow. Then when I move over to the keyboard, I'm thinking in all the right patterns, and the images and situations are emerging from my subconscious. It's like a spring: You push on it, and when you let go it pushes back. When I pour SF into my ears for a while and then stop, SF starts pouring out of my fingers.

I'm working on putting together an anthology of my short work, including a few stories that never found homes. In the meantime, you can still find some of the anthologies and magazines online.

SF was the first sort of writing I ever did, and it's my intention to make it the last. Now that The Cunning Blood is about to be published, I suspect I'm back home forever.

Contact me at the address below; alas, to avoid the attack of the spambots, this is not a live mailto: link.

Return to Jeff Duntemann's Home Page