Stephen R. Donaldson at Kent State University

Stephen R. Donaldson, the well-known SF and fantasy author of the Thomas Covenant series, visited his alma mater today, Kent State University.  Before the glitz and glamour of professional writing, he was a graduate student at Kent State.  He earned his MA in English Literature here, and he began his PhD in which he was studying the works of Joseph Conrad.  Now, he’s an award winning author, and Kent State library curates his manuscripts and papers.  

This afternoon, Mr. Donaldson met with about 10 to 15 students and faculty in the NEOMFA office in Satterfield Hall.  I made a point of driving into campus today just for his visit, and I was very happy that I did after listening and taking part in the enjoyable conversation.

During the conversation, Mr. Donaldson talked about how he made a point of studying authors whose works he liked and respected in order to figure out how they did things rather than going into a creative writing program to hone his writing skills.  In particular, he commented on his studies of Joseph Conrad and Henry James.  When asked about The Mirror of Her Needs (1986), he mentioned some of his influences in the writing of that novel were Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which has a great respect and love for but not Arthurian legends in general, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions.  

When asked if any of his books might be made into movies, he didn’t think that would happen.  He said that he would get an ego boost if it did, but then feel let down when the film didn’t replicate his work honesty.  He went on to say that movie adaptations of books are reinventions or recreations of the works that they take as their object.  In his case, a director that makes one of his books into a movie would be creating something that was theirs, and that’s okay.  As an example, he talked about Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Essentially, Peter Jackson created something new that isn’t the same thing as Tolkien’s novels–that if you read the novels you will feel something different than what you feel when you see the movies.  Why is that so?  It has to do with the differences in media.  In books, you can get into the head of a character, which you cannot do in a movie.  On the other hand, movies are able to combine sound effects, special effects, visuals, cinematography, and music–all overlaid one another–to create something different than what you get in the linear word-by-word world of books.  It’s not to say that one is better than the other, but rather they have different strengths and weaknesses.

When asked about completing a book, he remarked that, “It’s a lonely place at the end of a book.”  I knew that there was a lot of housekeeping tasks including copyediting, proofreading, etc. that take place after the manuscript is finished, but Mr. Donaldson said that there was a real “so, what have you done for us lately” attitude by publishers to authors when I book is done–meaning, when’s your next book going to be ready?

I asked him what his thoughts were on the recent court case between a Harry Potter lexicon writer and J. K. Rowling and her publisher.  Mr. Donaldson said that he wouldn’t take the time to deal with something like that if it came up in regard to his own work, but he talked about why Rowling and her publisher got pissed off in the first place.  Had the lexicon author, Steve Vander Ark, approached Rowling’s publisher with the idea rather than skirting them and approaching another publisher then there would have been the possibility of his lexicon coming out.  As it was, there was a broach of professional courtesy and the attempt at circumvention of the rights of the author and publisher.  Also, the money issue, which is a non-issue for Rowling and her Scrooge McDuck swimming pool of money, but it would have been a more real issue for her publisher.  So, had Ark made the proposal to the publisher with a stipulation that the author could give final approval of the factuality of the lexicon entries then he would have been on much stronger ground than putting it out through another publisher, RDR Books.

His last thought before leaving for his next scheduled stop around campus was that, “storytelling is our number one survival skill.”  Stories take on many different aspects of our lives from the mundane to the more fantastic.  I think this is even more poignantly made clear in the documentary that I recently saw called Darkon, which is about live action roleplayers, or LARPers, in their game and “real” lives.  I agree with Mr. Donaldson’s idea, because it’s the stories that we tell that make meaning for and about our lives.  And, it’s for that reason that I feel that I’m drawn to the study of SF and the stories that we tell about the only literature that, as Mr. Donaldson pointed out, “presupposes the future.”

I didn’t have an opportunity before his alloted time was over to mention this, but his elucidation of the decline in book sales across the board reminded me of a conversation I had a couple of weeks ago with Mack Hassler.  I am definitely integrated in a technological circuit, but I turn back to books to find the stories that I’m interested in.  Furthermore, the stories about technology are in books–pulp–paper.  Mr. Donaldson didn’t have an answer about the future of narrative forms and media (who could?), but the fact is that it appears, particularly with Border’s recent announcement to decrease SF and Fantasy stock in its brick-and-mortar stores, the current SF/Fantasy boom-bust cycle is on the bust side of things.  I don’t know how much this has to do with changing reading habits, non-reading habits, online and gaming culture, or the economy’s continuing nosedive trend.  I guess we’ll have to wait and see, or if I’m feeling entrepenureal, perhaps I’ll take it in the next big direction.

Many thanks to Mr. Donaldson for taking the time to speak with us today, and thanks to the folks that made his visit possible.  We sorely need more author visits to Kent.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.