Author Interview: Anne McCaffrey

[updated November 24th, 2011 – Sorry to hear that Anne passed away today, according to the BBC News website. She struck me as a lovely lady and I’m sorry I didn’t get to see more of her in the last few years.]

I was recently interested to learn that Anne McCaffrey lived quite close to me (a ten minute drive) and so I thought it would be neat to conspire to meet her. That’s one of the nice perks of the job, I have an excuse to meet people who seem interesting, when otherwise accosting people you don’t personally know is just stalking. : )

We actually talked about a lot more than made it into the article, because the piece was for publication to a mainstream audience. I still have the notes and tape recordings, so I may put something together specifically for writers, as she really has a wealth of knowledge, and like all truly successful people, she shares it quite freely.

Anyway, Anne was a delight to meet, a really charming lady and we spent a very pleasant couple of hours chatting at her kitchen table, surrounded by her cats and dogs. Seeing as this is already on the web elsewhere, I thought why not put it here. Enjoy!

The Dragon Queen
Published Sunday, May 01, 2005
– By Alex Meehan

Unless you are a devotee of her genre, the odds are you probably haven’t heard of Anne McCaffrey. McCaffrey has written more than 70 books in her 40 year career, and in 1978 her novel The White Dragon was the first science fiction book to make the New York Times hardcover bestseller list.

This weekend, the 79-year-old author picked up the top accolade, the Grand Master award, at the Nebulas, the science fiction world’s equivalent of the Oscars. Previous winners have included Robert A Heinlein, Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Brian Aldiss.

In short, McCaffrey is sci-fi royalty.

However, this stalwart of the world of speculative fiction chooses to live a distinctly low-key life in Co Wicklow, where she indulges her dual loves of writing and horses.

McCaffrey is best known in the science fiction world for her Dragonriders of Pern series, a collection of 17 books set on a future planet where fire breathing dragons are employed to burn deadly acid-rain type ‘thread’ out of the sky. Despite this, the author is adamant her novels are at least partly rooted in – albeit speculative – reality. “The dragons themselves were biogenetically engineered from an indigenous life form. They are not magical, which makes them science fiction and not fantasy,” she says.

For the uninitiated, the difference between science fiction and fantasy is that fantasy deals with the impossible – magic, elves, wizards and the like – while science fiction deals with the potentially real.

McCaffrey was born in 1926 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She published her first novel, Restoree, in 1967 as a reaction to what she describes as the “absurd and unrealistic’‘ portrayals of women in science fiction novels in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

“Science fiction has evolved from the era of bullet proof bras and all that nonsense into a genre that can pose reflective and intellectual questions,” she says.

“The beauty of the genre is that it is essentially born of metaphor, and you can explore topics you probably couldn’t in mainstream fiction, merely by giving them a fantastic backdrop.

“There are also quite a few good mainstream writers that dabble in science fictional waters. Iain Banks is definitely a science fiction writer who has successfully straddled both sides of the fence. Clive Cussler and Wilbur Smith come close to writing pure science fiction,”

The genres of science fiction and fantasy aren’t always as far fetched as some might think. Many of the high-tech gadgets we take for granted today have their origins in the science fiction of yesterday.

The communications satellite was first mooted by Arthur C Clarke, the flip-top mobile phone by Star Trek. In a world obsessed with the evils of genetic engineering and cloning, it’s interesting to note that McCaffrey has been writing about bio-engineered creatures for more than 30 years.

“Mankind is ever ingenious in finding ways of subverting proper diligence and discretion. When I look at the world today, from the Terri Schiavo case to the debate on euthanasia, I’m disturbed by what I see. There are some choices which really should be left to God,’’ McCaffrey says.

“I try not to state any moral position in my books, I prefer to demonstrate and I rarely come up with a moral tone, unless it suits a character’s position. I don’t know enough myself to start preaching to other people.”

For bookstore owners, science fiction and fantasy novels are strong sellers. Fans are extremely loyal to favourite authors and eagerly snatch up each new title in a series.

Occasionally, this level of fervour reaches the mainstream; for example, when JK Rowling produces a new Harry Potter novel. Despite this, sci-fi and fantasy are still the skeletons in the closet of the literary world.

While it is unusual not to find a fantasy or science fiction title in both the hardback and bestseller lists, it’s even more unusual to see an sci-fi title reviewed by a mainstream publication.

Most science fiction and fantasy novels are considered by non-fans to be little more than juvenile escapist nonsense – a book buying phase intelligent adults grow out of.

Despite this, it would be difficult to find a mainstream bookshop anywhere on the planet that didn’t have a bookcase of the stuff tucked away somewhere. And the odds are it would include a title or two by Anne McCaffrey.

McCaffrey believes the stereotype of the average science fiction fan as a spotty teenage boy is unfair. She says as many women as men read her books, and that the majority are not the nerds they are sometimes made out be.

“Most of them like my books probably partly because I have victims who become survivors, people who also don’t fit in and don’t conform but who find a place where they do fit in and they do conform. This has been a motif that appears in every lead character – I try to focus on someone who will change for the better or find themselves in the course of the book.”

McCaffrey is one of several internationally successful US writers to have made the move to Ireland, attracted initially by the favourable tax breaks offered by the government.

“I was divorcing my husband and wanted somewhere else to live. I was raising three kids and I thought that a move to Ireland might give me the push I needed. So in 1970 I moved the family here and put my kids into school. My mother came too and she felt safe here in the last few years of her life. That was important to me,” she says.

“The move here can allow people to advance their earning power considerably. Not having to pay tax means that writers have an amount of money in their pocket equivalent to earning substantially more. It can make the difference between being able to write as a full time occupation, and not.”

McCaffrey is aware of the contentious nature of the tax breaks. “In the past I worried about being an unwanted guest. But then it occurred to me that I have around 40 to 50 people who come to visit me from all over the world each year who wouldn’t come otherwise and who spend their money here. I probably make the money back for Ireland, so it’s not necessarily a one-way street.”

With dragons, heroes and stories that catch the imagination, McCaffrey’s Pern series seems ripe for a movie adaptation, but book-to-film adaptations are not without risk.

For the studio, because a successful book will deliver a ready-made audience. But for the author, there is significantly more risk: frequently once contracts are signed, they have no control over how their work is depicted on screen. This is a problem McCaffrey knows only too well.

Past attempts to adapt her Pern series have collapsed amid creative differences, but not at McCaffrey’s behest.

“The studio took the original scriptwriter’s work and gave it to a script doctor who dumbed it down to the point where, when it came time to shoot, both the director and the main lead actor refused to do it as it was not what they had signed on for.

“I had no opt-out clause and couldn’t have stopped it, so their integrity was much appreciated.

“Authors have little to do with films made of their books; I understand JK Rowling is an exception to this,” she says.

McCaffrey is still writing Pern novels, but has also passed the torch of the series to her son Todd, who has a keen interest in science fiction. The most recent Pern novel, Dragon’s Kin, was a collaboration between mother and son. Todd McCaffrey has also recently published his own solo Pern novel, Dragon’s Blood.

For McCaffrey, the pleasure in the writing process comes from telling the story. “Todd plans his books but I have never planned mine. I have written exactly two synopses in my career and I wrote neither of the books they describe. Once the story is told, I lose interest in it. I’m lucky my publishers don’t require me to write synopses.

“Writing takes a lot of discipline, and as I had to support both myself and my children, I just sat down and did it.”


ITV gets wrist slapped and rightly so.

On a personal level I happen to think that faith in God is pretty silly. This is a growing belief shared by many atheists and can broadly be said to be a belief consistent with The Liberal Agenda ™ as expressed by much of the media in the western world. However, another part of the TLM ™ is the logical fallacy that all people that do believe in god are inherently stupid (and conservative in their political leanings). On a personal level, I do believe that believers in god are more dangerous than atheists – as Richard Dawkins has pointed out they have the ultimate fall back of an irrational justification for pretty much anything you can care to think of – but I don’t think theists are stupid. Not by a long shot.

I don’t believe in patronising them and I don’t believe in creating an unhelpfully elitist “us and them” attitude to them. I think that faith in a monotheistic god will gradually drop away from mankind, like a vestigial tail, over the course of several hundred years. I think this started in the last century and will continue into the next. As a result, I’m not all that bothered by theists and don’t feel the need to berate them for their faith, as long as they understand that they have no right to impose their doctrines on the rest of society.

Anyway, with that as a backdrop, it was with some disgust that I read a story on the BBC news website this morning concerning a complaint made against the TV station ITV in the UK. Thankfully, ITV has had its wrist’s slapped. I’ve partly paraphrased the gist of this story below:

An ITV News report that Tony Blair was guided by God ahead of the Iraq war breached rules over accuracy, regulator Ofcom has said.

An interview on the Parkinson chat show in 2006 carried an exchange asking if Mr Blair prayed before sending troops.

In the interview, host Michael Parkinson asked: “So you would pray to God whenever you make a decision like that?”

Mr Blair replied: “Well I don’t want to go into – this side of this but it’s – yeah I… but you of course, it’s… you struggle with your own conscience about it because people’s lives are affected.”

ITV said the answer justified the report that faith in God had played a part in the decision to go to war.

Clearly, Tony Blair did not state that god told him to invade Iraq – but to the news editors working in ITV the day this story broke, the temptation was too create to resist. The really interesting thing here is the degree to which personal bias can effect what gets reported and how.

You can read the entire BBC report at

Egypt blogger jailed for ‘insult’

Hmm, worring stuff. Taken from

An Egyptian court has sentenced an internet blogger to four years’ prison for insulting Islam and the president.

Abdul Karim Nabil’s trial was the first time that a blogger had been prosecuted in Egypt.

He had used his weblog to criticise the country’s top Islamic institution, the al-Azhar university and President Hosni Mubarak, whom he called a dictator.

A human rights group called the verdict “very tough” and a “strong message” to Egypt’s many thousands of bloggers.

Book review: Fatso, by Lars Ramslie

By Lars Ramslie, New Island, €14.95
Reviewed by Alex Meehan, January 7th, 2007, The Sunday Business Post

Rarely has an author set out to create a ‘hero’ so objectionable as the protagonist in Lars Ramslie’s Fatso. Rino Hanssen is an obese, sweaty, ambitionless thirty four year old virgin who is obsessed with sex. He lives in an Oslo apartment owned by his father and spends his time watching hard core pornography and engaging in what can best be described as deviant behaviour.

He masturbates in phone boxes while watching a local girls’ soccer team, makes nuisance heavy breathing phone calls and engages in obsessive sexual fantasies about the women he sees around him. He’s a tragic figure, convinced that his physical appearance means he will never find true love, and his resultant behaviour virtually assures that he won’t.

He has one friend, the mysterious and dysfunctional Fillip, a hard drinking low life entrepreneur with a penchant for the strip clubs and prostitutes Rino is too much of a coward to frequent himself.

In short, Rino hates himself and is resigned to a world of loneliness, until his father decides to let out one of the rooms in his apartment to Maria, a sexy young liberated woman. Maria brings the outside world and a semblance of normality into Rino’s life.

She has sexy self confident friends and a boyfriend, Hakon, who intimidates Rino and seemingly never leaves his apartment. However, following Maria’s break-up with Hakon, Rino starts to fall in love. Don’t worry though, just in case you thought he might become a nice person, Rino promptly starts stealing her underwear and stalking one of Maria’s friends.

Fatso is written in the present tense and in the first person – something that gives it a sense of immediacy and vibrancy. It also sadly means that the reader spends more time than they would probably want to inside Rino’s head, seeing the world as he sees it.

In particular the opening pages are well past the point of being pornographic as we get to find out what exactly Rino would love to do to the women around him. Do to, not with.

This book was originally published in Norwegian and is author Lars Ramslie’s fourth novel. Ramslie is one of the leading lights of a new wave of young Norwegian authors, writing gritty modern stories that show the ugly underbelly of modern Europe.

Gritty is certainly a word that could be used to describe Fatso, and certainly if your easily offended, this is probably a book to avoid. The sexual references are extremely graphic and while Fatso is very well written, it’s ultimately hard to figure out why Ramslie bothered.

The motif of the self-loathing loser redeemed through the love of a good woman is a familiar one, but in Fatso that’s not really what we get. Because Rino isn’t redeemed, his repulsive behaviour is essentially rewarded and the end of the book sees him essentially unchanged and certainly no more worthy a character.

In one sense, it’s possible to feel sorry for this pathetic person, after all, it can’t be easy to be extremely fat in a world which values superficial ideals of beauty. However, in this case any such sympathy is short lived, because Rino is ugly on the inside as well as on the outside.

Powerscourt waterfall

Having spent most of Saturday being lazy, the family unit decided to get out walking on Sunday, so we took a trip up to Powerscourt Waterfall in the hills behind the area i live in. It’s the largest waterfall in Ireland, and while it may be no niagara, it’s incredibly impressive.


As always, when I do things like this I wonder why I don’t do things like this more often.


Author Interview: Ian Rankin on Rebus and making crime pay

This is a reprint of a feature I did last year for the Sunday Business Post Agenda section – it’s the first of the blog posts from the old blog I’ll be importing here – laboriously by hand. Anyway, enjoy . . .

Rankin, Rebus and making crime pay

(Published Sunday, November 06, 2005. By Alex Meehan)

Described by the legendary detective writer James Ellroy as the “King of Tartan Noir”, Ian Rankin is about as well-known as modern fiction writers get. His first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, was published in 1987 and the Rebus books have now been translated into 22 languages. His books adorn the shelves of almost every bookshop in the western world, and when it comes to crime fiction, only a handful of writers have matched his success.

This, however, comes as something of a surprise to Rankin himself. “I didn’t start out trying to be a crime writer – I got good at it by accident’‘, he says.

We are discussing Rankin’s first novel, The Flood, which has just been re-released almost 20 years after its first appearance. He’s nervous about it, as the novel is a far cry from the Inspector Rebus series for which he is primarily known.

“I’m waiting for the backlash to come; this book is a great chance for reviewers who don’t like my work to give me a good kicking.

“It’s a young man’s book – I wrote it when I was 23. I was still at university and I was in love with words. I was using as many words as I possibly could,” he says. The Flood is being republished in response to requests from fans.

Originally released with a print run of just 800 copies, it’s a dark coming of age tale set in a small Scottish mining community similar to the one in which Rankin grew up. It is gothic in its outlook, atmospheric, and it taught its author more than a few lessons about the craft of writing.

Rankin admits he would like to rewrite certain parts of The Flood, but has resisted the temptation because “once you start, where do you finish? No book is ever quite finished, you just hand it over when it’s good enough.

“With The Flood, almost as soon as it was published back in 1986 I thought of a better ending.

“It will be interesting to see what people think of it because it’s not Rebus, but one reviewer has already said that they could see the seeds of the Rebus novels in there.” This isn’t too much of a leap. The Rebus novels are dark and gritty, set in the world of a middle-aged Scottish detective.

Rebus himself works in the underbelly of society and it’s not a shiny happy place. The Flood is not a shiny happy novel, and is the more interesting for it.

“I got into a lot of trouble for The Flood, because it was basically set in my home town and some of the residents didn’t like some of the stuff I said about it,” says Rankin.

Rankin grew up in the coal mining town of Cardenden in the Kingdom of Fife, and in The Flood refers to the fictional town of Carsden – a close-minded and suspicious place. His neighbours were not fooled, and it was this experience which prompted him to invent a character and a world he could write about without fear of a backlash. The result was Inspector Rebus and the first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses.

“The idea for the first Rebus book came to me while I was sitting in my bedsit. The plot almost wrote itself and Rebus was born almost fully formed,” he says. Rebus – the word means picture puzzle – is an icon of the crime fiction genre, with some 20 novels devoted to him.

Far from being concerned about being pigeonholed as a crime writer, Rankin is enthusiastic about the genre.

“I don’t mind being known as a crime writer, because I think crime writers are doing some of the most interesting work on the novel just now. I would much rather read a crime writer writing about contemporary life than I would one of the Booker prize nominees, for example,” he says.

“If you want to engage with the world, if you want to talk about the problems we have in society, you go to the crime novel and that’s always been the case, from Dostoevsky to Dickens to Raymond Chandler. Crime writing has its own rules and conventions, but they are there to be broken. The mystery element of my books is probably the thing that interests me least. What I like about crime fiction is what it tells you about the world you live in.”

As well as re-releasing The Flood, Rankin has branched out with the publication of the coffee-table-style book, Rebus’ Scotland.

“It started out as a picture book with some captions, but the captions got bigger and it seemed like a good chance to tell some of the story behind Rebus and his world, explain some of the in-jokes and show how the characters in the book were formed,” he says.

“It’s partly an autobiography, but it is also an opportunity for me to say that, although I paint a fairly bleak picture of contemporary Scotland in the books, that’s because I’m writing crime fiction; I don’t necessarily think it’s as dark as it seems. I sometimes get e-mails from people in Glasgow and Aberdeen saying ‘Why do you hate our city?’, and I have to write back saying I don’t – Rebus hates your city, it’s a different thing.”

To keep the Rebus books fresh and engaging for himself, Rankin also makes a point of using them to explore aspects of modern life. “Usually the books begin with some big question I am asking myself. In Fleshmarket Close, I was thinking of Scottish identity – who are the Scots? We primarily define ourselves by the fact that we are not English, but then what are we and what makes us different exactly?

“While I was thinking about these questions, an asylum seeker was murdered in Glasgow in a race crime. I thought, if I move that murder to Edinburgh, I can investigate that whole question through a book,” he says.

By necessity, crime writers must routinely place themselves in the minds of murderers, rapists and psychotics; for most people this would present something of a challenge, but not for Rankin.

“All writers write as a form of therapy and I think crime writers specifically would be dangerous individuals if we didn’t have this outlet,” he jokes. “Because we get it all out, we are all actually well balanced and fun to be around. I think the ones you have to watch out for are the writers who do romantic fiction – they can’t get any of their dark stuff down on paper and have to bottle it up. I’ve definitely used Rebus as a punch bag though, where I have given my personal problems directly to him.”

The next Rebus novel hasn’t been written, but Rankin already knows what it will be about. “The G8 was such a big thing in Scotland and especially so in Edinburgh, where the population is just 400,000, but 250,000 people marched through the streets. It affected every policeman in Edinburgh. I thought there’s no way I can write a contemporary crime thriller set in Edinburgh and not mention it, so that’s where we are going next.”

After this, the future is less certain. The Inspector Rebus novels are written in real time and with the eponymous main character now aged 58, the end is in sight. Police officers retire at 60 in Scotland, so he has just two years left.

“He has two more books and then that’s it; either he dies or he has a happy retirement, we’ll have to wait and see’‘, says Rankin.

Where does this leave Rankin as a writer, and is he looking forward to being free of the series, to being able to write about other things in other genres?

“I’m not looking forward to killing him off in that sense at all. He has a younger sidekick, Siobhan, who might continue the series.

“From time to time, Rebus could be a consulting detective like Sherlock Holmes.

“Outside the series, I don’t know. I recently heard JK Rowling say that when she finishes the Harry Potter series, she’s going to write a crime novel, so perhaps we could swap? I could write Harry Potter and she could write a Rebus novel.”

Closure . . .

Anyone following my blog will be familar with my troubles with google/blogger and how I couldn’t access my account there.

Well, i finally got a communication back from Google this morning, to say:

Thanks for your report.
We have investigated this issue, but because the results were inconclusive, we’re not able to provide further assistance.
Gmail takes the privacy and security of our users very seriously. For this reason, we can’t reveal any further information about this account.
We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused, and thank you for your cooperation.

The Google Team

Well, I suppose if they”sincerely apologise” for the inconvenience, that makes it all okay. Anyway, this obviously means that I won’t be able to get access to the old blog again. This is a shame – I was hoping at some point to be let back in because there is a feature that allows you to import your archives from Blogger to WordPress. There’s a lot of neat stuff on the old blog, which I would like to have available here.

So, I’m going to start reposting some of the stuff that’s on the old blog. WordPress has a nice “tags” system which you can use to catagorise your posts and have them easlily accesible, grouped together under tags – see the headings in the column to the right. A lot of the work on the old blog was taken from my personal archives of journalism I’ve done and which I see no immediate liklihood of reselling. I would like to make this available, so apologies to anyone who has read it before, but over the next week or so, I will be moving stuff over.

Take the blue pill . . .

There’s a guy up the road from me who called his house Rivendell, which I guess is kind of okay seeing as it’s been called that for about 15 years and predates the movies, but this takes the biscuit.


I snapped this on my camera phone yesterday while stopped at some traffic lights in Dublin. Cheesy or what?

What’s with all the Japanese spam?

As the title says, in the last two weeks, I’ve started getting epic quantities of Japanese spam in kanji and kana – I’m half tempted to start translating it as part of my ongoing efforts to learn Japanese, but mostly I’m just intrigued as to how my e-mail address ended up on a Japanese spammer’s distribution list?