Arts interview

Science fiction writer and MIT professor Joe Haldeman on his newest book

Joe Haldeman is a well-known science fiction author and adjunct professor in CMS/writing at MIT. He recently spoke with The Tech about his latest novel, Work Done For Hire.

The Tech: I’d be tempted to classify Work Done For Hire as at least partly a war memoir, even though the war or the PTSD are only a backdrop. How did this story draw on your experiences as a vet or the experiences of people you know?

Joe Haldeman: A lot was from people I’d met long after my own war. It seems to me that the people who fought in the Gulf and are fighting in the desert now are much more susceptible to PTSD. I think it’s partly the separation and partly the isolation from the culture that they’re supposedly defending.

To me, PTSD is not an abreaction. It’s a normal reaction for a normal human being if he has to kill people. You have to be pretty hard to do that for a living, and even tough guys are not that hard. Fictional people go ahead and kill when they have to and go on with business, but most actual people are a little more sensitive than that.

TT: I learned a lot about sniping from this book. Are those parts all true?

JH: I don’t know! I read all the books. In fact, I have a sniper manual from the Civil War, and the way to get a good shot hasn’t changed much, because there’s wind between you and the target and it’s all about nerve.

I’m a pretty good shot, but I don’t shoot regularly. If I had to do what snipers do, I’d have to start over. I don’t think I could do it, because actually killing somebody with a rifle is such a weird thing. You squeeze the trigger, and you get the immediate physical reaction — the blow back in the shoulder —and then three seconds later some guy falls over a mile away. What is that about? I never had to do that because I was an engineer. Sometimes I’d set booby traps that could ultimately kill people, but I was never there when that happened.

TT: You have the horror story, where people are attacked when they’re relatively isolated, and then you have the outer story, where somebody is trying to escape surveillance by isolating himself. One of the main themes seems to be the difference between what people fear and what they should fear.

JH: I’m not that methodical. What I had in mind, insofar as I can put it back together, was just a couple of scary situations with specific kinds of people. I didn’t have a market in mind. I didn’t have a publisher in mind. I just started writing. Then I had to put it away for a couple of years while I worked on another book.

I’ve written dozens of books, most of them science fiction, so this is a different kind of a book for me because I didn’t consider it as science fiction. My original idea for the monster was that there was nothing supernatural about him. He was just a big, mean guy in a very dangerous situation, but then I thought, “I’m going to push the envelope and make him an unexplained monster.”

TT: It’s interesting that you started writing the book and then you put it away, because the parts about state surveillance are very topical. It seems to be a warning tale.

JH: Well, I never think that way. You want to make the thing as scary as can be, and the more likely it is, the scarier it is. Some satellite of Neptune a couple hundred years from now doesn’t have immediacy, but this guy in the woods could be there waiting for you right now.

I wanted a protagonist who was not scientific, and not even really very rational when it comes right down to it, but a likeable guy who’s in a bad situation. I wanted his girlfriend to be a foil, so she’s smarter than he is and actually more level headed, too. I had fun playing with that because he’s not a hero, but he’s thrust into a role that seems to ask for a hero, and he just does the best he can. I think he’s a very honorable guy.

TT: When did you start writing the book?

JH: It was at least ten years ago. There are two different openings to the novel that I didn’t use, and I might do novels of them some time.

TT: Is your writing process like that of your main character? He gets up early in the morning, he writes for a few hours, and he doesn’t seem to go back and revise. He already has an outline because it’s given to him, but then he decides to go off on his own.

JH: I’ve done that once, just writing for hire. It’s easy because you just have to follow the story this other person thought of, and this other person in my case was a corporation, Paramount. That was the second Star Trek novel I did.

TT: On your website, you have a travelogue from 1996 when you actually biked a route that is pretty close what you describe in the novel.

JH: It’s very close. In fact, I used some of my notes from the trip in the novel. I was keeping very precise notes, and I was going to write a horror novel about a guy who was on this bicycle ride, but I decided to not chain the novel to that particular set of circumstances.

TT: What part of this book was the most fun to write? I hope you don’t say the part about skinning people, because that was the hardest to read.

JH: No, that was the easiest to write. That’s really just research. I’ve never even skinned an animal, unless you count bass.

The whole book was fun to write because it wasn’t intellectually demanding the way a science fiction novel is. The most fun part was the monster, where he’s demonstrating how inhuman he is, because he’s the only science fiction or fantastic thing in the book, and that is my territory.

TT: What was the hardest to write?

JH: I guess the last third or so of the book, where all of the loose ends have to be brought together. It was a strange book for me because I wrote some of it in Europe, some in Japan, some here, and some down in Florida.

There’s a contemplative aspect to writing a novel. It’s a long book, and so the idea is being able to get back to that mindset that you had in Japan when you’re on the other side of the world, and your character’s sitting in a forest in some state that you haven’t identified, and he’s about to kill somebody. You have to put all these things together, and relate them to your own corpus, which is the novelist’s game.