Science-Fiction Writer Wilted in Hollywood

By J. Stephen Bolhafner
Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Monday, July 20, 1992

JOHN VARLEY fans can relax. He wasn't kidnapped by a UFO or snatched by a time-traveler from the future. He's back writing novels again, after an absence of nearly 10 years from the science-fiction publishing scene.

Varley was the guest of honor recently at Archon 16, the annual St. Louis Science Fiction convention. During the period between publication of his novel "Millennium" (1983) and his current novel, "Steel Beach," Varley said he was successfully plying his trade as a professional writer, but he has little to show for it but tax returns.

"I was writing screenplays, mostly," he said. "But most of them never got made. I was working steadily and made a lot of money, but each one took up a year out of your life, it seemed, and then most of the time it got dropped."

Varley emerged on the science-fiction scene in the mid-'70s, earning several awards for his short fiction and producing a blockbuster trilogy that some consider a classic of extravagant invention.

Varley's first Hollywood project was expanding his short story "Air Raid" into a full-length screenplay. That movie, renamed "Millennium," was finally released in 1989, the only tangible result of Varley's decade in Hollywood.

"We had the first meeting on 'Millennium' in 1979," he said. "I ended up writing it six times. There were four different directors, and each time a new director came in I went over the whole thing with him and rewrote it. Each new director had his own ideas, and sometimes you'd gain something from that, but each time something's always lost in the process, so that by the time it went in front of the cameras, a lot of the vision was lost."

"Millennium" jumps back and forth between the present and the future, as an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board stumbles across time-travelers during his investigation of a mid-air collision between two jumbo jets. The contemporary scenes, which were not in the original story, are very close to the novel version published in 1983.

"I was pretty satisfied with that part," said Varley. "I'd done a lot of research, and I spent a day at the NTSB in Washington and learned a lot about what they do, and I thought that part came out very well. It's the future stuff I wasn't satisfied with. It didn't really hang together. A lot of it didn't make sense."

Working in Hollywood, where most people think "science fiction" means it doesn't have to make sense, didn't help.

"It doesn't matter if it makes any sense. It doesn't matter if it's got characters. It doesn't matter if it's got the same old hackneyed plot. . . . Actually, I shouldn't say too many bad things about them, though. There are several people I had good experiences with."

Foremost among them is a man listed as one of several producers in "Millennium's" credits. "John Foreman was wonderful throughout the whole 10 years. 'Millennium' would never have gotten made without his determination."

Varley worked on several other Hollywood projects, "two of which," he said, "I think were really good. On the other hand, there was one that, frankly, I did because I needed the money very badly and should never have gotten involved with." Good, bad or indifferent, however, none of them ended up being made.

Meanwhile, since 1981, Varley's publisher had been expecting another novel.

"I feel that even though I was working, doing screenplays and whatnot, I seemed to be blocked somehow. I didn't have any ideas for novels."

Had his advance from Ace Books been bigger, lawsuits might have been filed as the new book dropped years and years behind schedule.

Finally, having gotten Hollywood out of his system, Varley finished the book and has already started another.

"I don't think I'll ever be as prolific as I was in the early years, knocking out stories left and right. But I think you can expect to see a novel every other year from me, from now on. It seems to take me that long to write one the size of 'Steel Beach.' "

It's the story of Hildy Johnson, a reporter living inside the moon who works for a "padloid," an electronic newspaper. Hildy writes a story, early in the book, by typing keys on his palm and watching the words scroll by on a screen implanted in his wrist. It may seem odd, then, to discover that Varley himself still uses an electric typewriter and doesn't even own a computer.

"Harlan Ellison and I must be the only science-fiction writers who don't use one," he mused. Varley has nothing against computers, he just hasn't seen one that's as good for typing on as his IBM Correcting Selectric II.

"I'm open to the possibility that I'll own one someday. But I've got some stringent standards. It's got to be so user-friendly that you take it out of the box, plug it in and write with it. I like the Selectric as an object. It's solid, you can bang on it. A lot of the computers I see have flimsy keyboards. I also like the sound of it, the clicking and clacking. The sound of the golfball hitting the paper."

Varley has been a professional writer for more than 15 years and, unlike many of his fellow practitioners, has stuck almost exclusively to the genre.

"The basic reason is that it's what I know the most about," he said. "I grew up reading science fiction in junior high school. For a while I didn't read anything but science fiction, although I now think people like that are awfully dull. We all go through phases.

"When I decided to be a writer . . . or when I decided I could be a writer - I wanted to be a writer for a long time, but I never thought I could do it - I just naturally fell into it.

"I started off in college majoring in physics. When I saw how much work that was, I switched over to English. When I felt that wasn't really teaching me anything, I dropped out and became a hippie for five or six years. I think I learned more from that than I could have in a college classroom."