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Fanbase Press Interviews Author John Hemry (a.k.a. Jack Campbell)

The following is an interview with author John Hemry (a.k.a. Jack Campbell), known for his work on The Lost Fleet, The Lost Stars, and The Genesis Fleet series. In this interview, Fanbase Press Contributor Madeleine Holly-Rosing chats with Hemry about the inspiration behind his novels, his creative process and approach to writing, and more!

For those of you who have been following my reviews, you know that I reviewed John Hemry’s (a.k.a. Jack Campbell) The Lost Fleet: Corsair comic book series. Being a fan of military science fiction (John Scalzi, Elizabeth Moon, and Gordon R. Dickson), years ago I was happy to find someone new to read in this genre, especially someone who depicts space battles as accurately as one can.

Flash forward too many years to mention, I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Hemry at WorldCon 76 in San Jose. My husband and I were vending and through the wonder of Facebook, he agreed to stop by our table and say hi. Gracious and extremely nice, he signed three of his books for me and talked Navy and tech stuff with my rocket scientist husband. A good time was had by all.

A retired U.S. Navy officer and 1978 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Mr. Hemry is a science fiction author who writes The Lost Fleet, The Lost Stars, and The Genesis Fleet Series under the name of Jack Campbell. He has two other science fiction series, Stark’s War and the Jag in Space Series, which are written under John Hemry.  He’s also dived into fantasy with The Legacy of Dragons series.

Madeleine Holly-Rosing, Fanbase Press Contributor: The first book I read of yours was The Lost Fleet: Dauntless where we are first introduced to the character of Captain John “Black Jack” Geary.  Did you model his character after someone you knew in the Navy? Or was he the character who needed to be there to throw a wrench into the Alliance’s military?

Jack Hemry: Black Jack is made up of the best characteristics of the best officers I served with or under in the Navy.  I didn’t want him to be perfect, because perfect people never question their own perfect decisions.  Instead, I wanted him to be fully aware of his responsibilities, and the impact of his decisions on others.  So, he’s mostly composite, to keep him human, but with a bit of idealism in there.
Of course, he also had to be someone who would issue a wake-up call to the fleet.  When I was writing Dauntless and setting the stage for the Lost Fleet, it was soon after 9/11 and people were talking about a future “long war” against terrorism.  I wanted to address what can happen to militaries and the societies they serve during long wars.  History tells us it isn’t good.  The idea that the past is inherently better is deeply flawed, but when that past is what society was like before a century of war warped it, then a voice from that past could be a reminder of what had been lost during the fight to survive.  And there’s an odd truth about militaries, that while deeply conservative in terms of traditions and their ways of action, they will quickly jettison hard-learned lessons in favor of new concepts that often don’t really make sense (such as the French offensive à outrance that ignored all experience and resulted in massive losses at the start of World War One).   Facing that, Black Jack has to remind those imbued with his “legend” that discipline and brains can usually beat raw courage and blind enthusiasm.
All of which means Black Jack had to be someone who understood who we was and his own limitations, but also someone who would do his best to live up to the expectations of others.  I had some commanding officers who were like that, and pieces of them are in Black Jack.  (I guess in that sense writers are like Dr. Frankenstein, sewing together new characters out of parts of the people we’ve known.)
MHR: I enjoyed The Lost Stars series quite a bit. It was terrific to see this universe you created from the Alliance’s enemies (The Syndics) point of view.  Betrayal was a big theme in these books. Can you talk a bit about what made you go in that direction? And how much fun did you have writing from someone other than “Black Jack’s” POV?

JH: When the original Lost Fleet was ending, there was a lot of demand for new books.  I knew I had plenty of story possibilities, but I was worried about the writing becoming stale since I was following the same characters for so long.  At the same time, I’d received quite a few requests for more about the Syndics.  I decided to create a Syndic-set series to run in parallel with the follow-on Lost Fleet series (Beyond the Frontier) to give me fresh perspectives and new things to play with, hoping that would benefit both series.
I think it worked.  The Syndics were so very different from the Alliance characters, with different ways of viewing everything.  In particular, I liked showing their attempts to understand Black Jack in their own terms.  There was so much contrast between the cynical, conspiratorial mindset of the Syndics against that of the Alliance.  It’s not that the Alliance was perfect by any means (one of the things the subplot with Bradamont and Rogero highlighted) but they hadn’t been warped by the same system that produced wounded souls like Morgan and Malin.
From a writer’s point of view, it was also fun to contrast the problems of Drakon and Iceni (who were trying to salvage something from the crumbling of the Syndic empire) with that of Black Jack (who was trying to keep the Alliance from crumbling).  Overall, using both series let me show that just because “the war” had ended it didn’t mean everything was fine.  From an Alliance trying to figure out what “peace” means when there is still a lot of shooting going on, to the former Syndics trying to figure out different ways to run things that don’t involve assassination and coercion, there’s still a lot happening.
So, yes, it was fun to get inside the head of someone such as the dangerous Morgan, or the stubborn and steadfast Drakon, or the conniving and clever Iceni.  
MHR: Let’s talk about the two other themes that seem to resonate in your writing: blind obedience to tradition or bureaucracy can get you killed, but yet, not following a clear chain-of-command can get you killed, as well.  My favorite example of this was in the first chapter of Ascendant (SPOILER ALERT) when an ex-earth officer wastes time reviewing his list of approved solutions to a problem (which was really funny and sad, I have to say).  Are these a reflection on what is currently happening in our military?  Or is it just a fictional worst case scenario?

John 183

JH: There’s a constant tension in the military between the need to have orders carried out quickly and without question, and the need for initiative and independent thinking.  All too often, what wins is an insistence on blind obedience to orders (or, as the old joke goes “when I want you to use initiative, I’ll tell you”).  Countless disasters have occurred because officers obeyed orders that they knew were wrong.  And when an officer disobeys an order to save the day as best he or she can, they usually aren’t hailed as heroes to be emulated, even (especially) when they’re right.    
So, on the one hand you, have a system which demands absolute obedience, and on the other hand that system has to deal with war, in which uncertainty and unexpected events are frequent.  That in turn produces a planning process which tries to eliminate uncertainty by always producing the desired outcomes and proving the Admiral/General was right.  Then the enemy shows up and refuses to use the authorized playbook, instead doing the unexpected.  That’s the point at which you hope your side has enough officers who’ve retained enough ability to improvise that they can overcome a rigid system and win.  (There’s a saying attributed to a German general speaking about the World War Two US Army filled with ‘amateur’ soldiers and officers –  “The reason the American Army does so well in wartime, is that war is chaos, and the American Army practices it on a daily basis.”)
Complicating all that is the need for precise following of orders in many circumstances.  For example, if a group of ships are maneuvering together and one of them doesn’t turn when it’s supposed to, the result can be a collision.  Failure to be where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be can be disastrous.  Failure to follow procedures when handling ammunition or preparing for flight or leaving port can also result in disaster.  So there is no simple solution, no easy way to foster initiative when it’s needed and obedience the rest of the time.  You have to try to produce leaders who can do both, though in practice such leaders more often survive the system than benefit from it.
MHR: You know I reviewed your comic book series, The Lost Fleet: Corsair, which is a side story set in the “Black Jack” universe.  Writing a comic is very different than writing a novel. How did you go about learning how to write a comic (a.k.a. sequential art)?  What was your reaction to dealing with a finite page count? How collaborative was your relationship with your artists? And what was your best takeaway from this endeavor?

JH: Graphic novels make their own demands.  To learn how to write them, I got scripts from other comics as examples, and I made use of my once-extensive experience with reading comics.  And I had good, experienced editors supporting me to cover up/fix/improve my work!  To me, writing has a rhythm to the way the words flow, speeding up for action scenes and slowing down for contemplative moments.  But then there’s the graphic novel, which tells its story in illustrated freeze frame moments that jump from view to view.  Getting that story rhythm is, I think, the biggest challenge for me in a medium that can easily create a series of jerky, abrupt transitions.  Everything has to flow from panel to panel, so that following the story feels as natural as watching a leaf glide by on the waters of a river.  The leaf may go in a sudden, unexpected direction, speed up or slow down, but it all feels natural and your eyes have no trouble following it.

So, I had to think not just of what’s in each panel, but also what is/will be in the panels before and after it.  And the total picture formed by all the panels on the page.   As well as the transitions from the previous page and on to the next one.  That may seem obvious.  When you write a story each sentence doesn’t stand on its own.  But it can be hard to visualize how the graphic novel will look before the art is done.  Focusing on the flow of the story helped me figure out what should be shown in each panel, and from panel to panel.  Each panel will point the reader’s eyes somewhere, without the reader even realizing it.  So getting each panel right is important, but the entire story has to always be visualized as well.  

Which means I needed the story arc to tell where I’m going and how I’ll get there.  The story arc, I think, should both guide and support the art and dialogue.  Like the keystone that holds up an arch, the story drives everything else.  I didn’t depend on the art or the artist to get the story past weak places.  That’s unfair to both the artist and the reader.  And by playing with the story arc I could adjust the page count to what was needed, hopefully without losing anything important.

Dialogue is much different in a graphic format.  A few lines of dialogue, the sort of thing that flows well in a written story, can form a big, distracting balloon in a graphic novel panel.  Every single word has to be needed.  But that very limited dialogue has to convey not just information but also emotion, personality, motivation, and all of the other things that make readers care about the characters in the story.  You have to shave down the dialogue to the absolute minimum needed, but you also have to include all the dialogue that is needed.  

Art collaboration requires good support to the artists from the writer.   The artists need good guidance if they’re going to produce good art.  Sometimes the artist will see something in the story, in a character or an event, that I hadn’t seen.  I couldn’t just reject that, because what I wrote inspired what the artist did.  So I needed to evaluate the art with an eye to whether it brought out unexpected elements as well as to whether or not it reflected what I asked for.  The artist, after all, is an artist.  That’s what they do.  If you’re asking for the work and advice of an expert in something, you should pay attention to what they show you.  But the artists are also used to producing what is usually asked of them.  When I specified three dimensional fleet formations, the artists had trouble with the idea, since they were used to drawing it all flat as if the space fleets were operating on the surface of an ocean.  I was also surprised when the initial working uniform visualization for the women was a miniskirt.  Seriously?  Put pants on them!  Thank you.

Overall, it was a great learning experience.  And a tough one.  

MHR: For writers who are starting out, can you tell us about your daily process? How do you get things done?

JH: I’m not sure I can dignify my daily schedule as a process.  It’s more of an ad hoc thing, reflecting my particular circumstances.  When I retired from the Navy, I became the full-time caregiver for our kids.  The older two were already developing autism.  Therefore, my writing schedule each day has usually been an erratic series of writing periods interspersed by necessary errands or dealing with the kids.  (The older two are young adults now, but still require 24/7 oversight because of their condition.)  
Ironically, that may have helped my writing in some ways.  There are times when I can write quickly for long periods, but those are unusual.  I run into something that needs done, and am not sure how to do it or how to get there in the story.  A distraction, a period of not-writing such as driving or taking a shower or making a meal, can free up my inner mind to think about that while my outer mind and hands are taking care of the other things.  So the frequent distractions may have been an aid to keeping ideas flowing.  (Then again, as any parent knows, there are times when escaping to another world seems like a great idea.  And writing offers exactly that chance to escape.)
When I get the chance, I enjoy reading history or science, because they are such wonderful sources of inspiration (which is another way of saying you can steal a lot of ideas from them).  There are always more things to learn.  And I admit to enjoying anime, because Japanese creators have a way of throwing together ideas in ways Western writers never would, which sometimes creates unexpectedly inventive and fun stories (such as a classic underdog sports team story, only it involves teenage girls in tanks) which I think helps free up my own imagination.  So, those things are also part of my process.  I can take a break with them and not feel guilty because they really do help me with new ideas.
The most important thing about the process, I think, is never to stop actually writing, and to keep looking for and trying new ideas.  Anything else (how many hours a day, rituals, etc.) should serve those two things.

MHR: What are your future writing plans? What’s coming up next? Plug!!!

JH: The very next thing up is Triumphant, the third and final book in the Genesis Fleet trilogy.  That comes out in May.  It sets the stage for the Lost Fleet centuries later by showing how the Alliance itself first formed under pressure, and how there was always tension between the need for security against aggressors and the need to protect the freedom of the star systems making up the Alliance.  The series was fun to write because of the way the ancestors of some prominent Lost Fleet characters play major roles.  It’s already gotten some good reviews.

In addition to that, I’ve sold another trilogy set on the science fantasy world of Dematr from The Pillars of Reality.  This one is called The Empress of the Endless Sea, and is the story of the pirate/explorer/fighter Jules, taking place a long time before the events that begin in The Dragons of Dorcastle.  When a Mage prophesizes that a daughter of Jules’ line will someday overthrow the Great Guilds and free her world, Jules’ life and freedom are threatened by the most powerful forces in her world.  Regaining control of her life, staying alive, and trying to set the stage for what that daughter will someday do requires every trick and effort that Jules can bring to bear. That should come out from Audible before the end of the year.
MHR: Last, but not least, what’s your favorite dinosaur and why?
JC: The stegosaurus, because it’s my youngest son’s favorite dinosaur and because the spikes on its tail are officially called a Thagomizer after a joke in one of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons.


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Madeleine Holly-Rosing, Fanbase Press Contributor



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