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DarkEcho Horror
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Interview
Jeanne Cavelos: Scientist, Editor, Writer, Teacher...
by Paula Guran

First appeared in
DarkEcho: 12.17.98 [V.5 #50]

When you deal with writers, you get used to meeting multi-talented people with two or more careers. But Jeanne Cavelos has enough talent and career-hats for several folks. She began her professional life as an astrophysicist and mathematician, teaching astronomy at Michigan State University and Cornell University, and working in the Astronaut Training Division at NASA's Johnson Space Center; then moved into a career in publishing, becoming a senior editor at Dell, where she created and launched the Abyss imprint of psychological horror.Cavelos is now a freelance editor, teacher, and is pursuing a writing career. Her latest book is THE SCIENCE OF THE X-FILES, and she is also the author of a Babylon 5 novel, THE SHADOW WITHIN.

[NOTE:There's a 1996 DarkEcho interview with Cavelos with more about her days with Dell and plenty of sound advice for writers.]

Cavelos claims it all started with THE PLANET OF THE APES. "I wanted to be an astronaut like Charlton Heston. Which is kind of strange as I think of it, since lots of bad things happened to him, and he ended up blowing up Earth in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES. Yet I had that dream of 'boldly going where no man has gone before,' and I wanted to make important discoveries that would change the world for the better. I loved thinking about the cosmic questions raised in science fiction, like 'Where did we all come from?' 'What's going to happen to the universe?' 'Could we ever travel faster than the speed of light?' 'Could we ever clone people?'

"As I studied astrophysics, I kept waiting for these issues to come up, and they didn't. I thought maybe they were saving the good stuff for graduate school, but when I got there, it was more of the same, more approximations and practical applications. I went to NASA very starry eyed, believing we were going to do great things. Yet the people there, while committed to space travel, were for the most part just doing a 9-to-5 job, and were more interested in talking about landscaping their yards than whether there might be life elsewhere in the galaxy. Generally, as I worked in the field, I found my interest in impractical, impossible science fiction ideas was discouraged, and I came to feel that as much as I loved science, perhaps the right place for me wasn't in science, but in fiction.

Jeanne Cavelos & Igmoe "I had been writing stories since I was small, and had always wanted to write fiction. So I left science and wrote a novel (an 800-page psychic Western that stunk to high heaven). After I finished it, I decided I'd taught myself all I could about writing, and perhaps I should see what other people could teach me. I got my MFA in creative writing at American University, wrote a second novel, science fiction, and decided to get a job in publishing until I sold the science fiction book. I got a position as an editorial assistant at Doubleday and gradually over eight years worked my way up to senior editor at Dell, where I launched the Abyss horror line and the Cutting Edge line of literary fiction and ran the science fiction/fantasy program."

Cavelos won the World Fantasy Award for Abyss and edited a wide range of fiction and nonfiction working with such authors as William F. Nolan, Joan Vinge, Robert Anton Wilson, Dennis Etchison, Tanith Lee, Kathe Koja, Poppy Z. Brite, J. M. Dillard, David Wingrove, Barry Gifford, Patrick McCabe, Phil Farrand, Syd Field, and Peter Dickinson. She edited numerous award-winning and best-selling authors and gained a reputation for discovering and nurturing new writers. But...

"When I first started at Doubleday, I would leave work every evening at exactly five PM, go home and write over a dinner of mini-donuts fresh out of the box. As I got promoted, I stayed later and later at work, and then I began taking manuscripts home to read and edit at night and on the weekends. I found myself, in 1994, with no free time. I hadn't written anything for over a year, and it didn't look like I was going to unless something changed. I read an article in "Publishers Weekly" about an editor retiring at age 62. He said, 'Now I'll finally be able to write that novel I've always wanted to.' My own life flashed before my eyes, and I did not want to be that editor at age 62."

A secondary reason for Cavelos leaving editing was that she'd come to hate living in New York City. She was "just not a city person, and eight years of it was plenty." She got a job teaching English at a college in New Hampshire, hoping her writing career would finally happen. She also established Odyssey, an intensive six-week workshop for writers of horror, fantasy, and science fiction held each summer on the campus of New Hampshire College. "I had loved working with writers as an editor, helping them make their work the best it could be, and I didn't want to lose that," she explains. Cavelos is the primary instructor and director for Odyssey. This summer, the fourth year, the workshop runs from June 14-July 23 with Ben Bova as a special writer-in-residence, and guest lecturers Terry Bisson, Jeffrey A. Carver, Scott Edelman, R. Patrick Gates, and Elizabeth Hand.

Cavelos' love of working with writers also kept her in editing as a freelancer, through her company Jeanne Cavelos Editorial Services. "Basically what I give to authors is a very thorough edit, the same type of edit I used to give to manuscripts I acquired at Dell. Some established, best-selling writers use me as an editor before turning their work in to their publisher, perhaps because their in-house editor is someone they haven't worked with before, or someone who doesn't have time to do a very thorough job, or they want to turn in something really polished and perfect." Cavelos also works with some unpublished writers who want a professional's opinion on their work and want to know "what they need to do to make the book so good that a publisher can't turn it down."

cover Turning to writing after being an editor has given Cavelos a new perspective: "I sometimes think that being a writer is the penance I have to do to make up for being an editor. As an editor, I would sometimes be directed by my boss to insist on very tight deadlines for manuscripts that were on a time-sensitive subject. So I would make an author write a book in 6 or 8 weeks. Now I'm on the other side of that coin. I had to write my Babylon 5 novel, THE SHADOW WITHIN, in eight weeks. My current book (a science book involving a lot of research) has to be done in only five months.

"I also find that, as far as publishing goes, a writer is quite powerless and often has no information about what is going on. While as an editor I was hardly omnipotent, I did have access to information, and I was able to influence to varying degrees how a book was published and how much effort the company put into it."

With her latest book (and first foray into nonfiction), THE SCIENCE OF THE X-FILES, Cavelos finally got to apply her knowledge of science to all the weird science-fictional ideas she'd always wanted to consider. She says, "It felt like I was finally integrating my two personalities."

The book (see review) looks into the scientific theories behind the weird science of the popular TV series asking questions like "How could a salamander hand grow on a man's body?" -- then provides scientifically sound and entertainingly accessible answers.

She quickly discovered that covering everyscientific issue raised in every episode would be impossible and, instead, focused on what she thought were the most interesting scientific issues raised on the show, as well as episodes that were the "most memorable and most beloved."

Research for the book including watching all the episodes four or five times -- not exactly "torture" for the writer, a true X-Files fan. She then took detailed notes about scientific issues raised, test results Scully reported, and unusual phenomena. For each episode she wrote up a page of questions she needed to find the answers to in order to write about it. "These questions," she says, "would range from reasonable ones to crazy ones. For example, for 'The Erlenmeyer Flask,' in which gene therapy is used to introduce alien DNA into a human and it turns his blood green, one question was 'What's the current state of gene therapy techniques?' and another was 'Could we, through some genetic alteration, make a human's blood green?'"

Jcover Two research assistants then researched the questions, providing Cavelos with "armloads" of books, journal articles, and Internet printouts. The writer would often send them back for more. She ended up with over 100 books from libraries all over the northeast US and over 1,000 articles. After she felt she had a good understanding of the issues involved, she would first write up a rough draft of the section then call an expert involved in research relating to the discussion for an interview. She'd then incorporate some of the comments into the section and send the expert the section for review.

"It was a huge amount of work." she says. "I wish I'd had more time so I could have gotten more sleep, but it was a lot of fun. Where else can you get paid to investigate whether a man made entirely of cancer cells might be able to regenerate his decapitated head?"

What does scientist/writer Cavelos think of the level of science incorporated into sf and horror these days? "There are still authors who pay a lot of attention to science; many of them have science backgrounds. Yet I would say out of all the sf and horror being published today, the percentage of those that make a serious attempt to incorporate science is small and has grown steadily smaller over the last 40 years. The last 10 years have shown a resurgence of hard sf, but those books are a small proportion of all the SF and horror books being published."

Cavelos is now writing THE SCIENCE OF STAR WARS, which will be out from St. Martin's Press in April. "After that," she says, "I'd like to write a dark science thriller that I'm plotting out right now, which was inspired by my research for the X-Files book. It's a cross between FRANKENSTEIN and GEEK LOVE."


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Copyright © 1998 by Paula Guran All Rights Reserved.