Interview with Jack Campbell, author of the Lost Fleet Series
“Jack Campbell” is the pseudonym for John G. Hemry, a retired Naval officer (and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis). As Jack Campbell, he writes The Lost Fleet series of military science fiction novels. The newest novel in that series, Guardian, was recently released by Ace books . Jack was kind enough to answer some of my questions about him and his work.
1. What’s the elevator pitch for GUARDIAN?
– Admiral “Black Jack” Geary’s fleet is trying to get home after exploring new regions of space, bringing back with them emissaries from a newly-found alien race and a captured spacecraft from another species that may be the most valuable object in human history. To reach home, they have to get past ambushes and obstacles thrown up by the crumbling Syndicate Worlds empire, while home itself is being wracked by sabotage and the stresses created during the century-long war with the Syndics.
2. The Lost Fleet is your third major series. What’s the appeal in writing long series of books for you? How do you keep it fresh and interesting for you and readers?
– The main appeal for me (and apparently for the readers) is to be able to follow characters through a long series of adventures, trials, and personal challenges. Characters like Black Jack Geary come fully alive as they deal with all of the things they encounter, and have time over the course of the series to develop relationships with other characters that feel real because they aren’t rushed. There are usually also themes that develop over the course of each series. The Stark series was about leadership, the Sinclair (“JAG in space”) series was about right and wrong in a military environment and how one person faced those issues, and the Lost Fleet series has been about confronting unsought responsibilities, living up to what others see in you, and the costs that a long war creates not just in terms of those killed and injured, but also in what that long war does to a society at large and to the military that must lead the fight.
– Keeping it fresh to me means allowing the characters room to grow and develop. My characters don’t just march through a plot. They make decisions, they make mistakes, they face new personal and professional tests. It also means not repeating situations and events. In a series like Lost Fleet that means not just avoiding showing the same battles in space or on planets, but also varying the dangers, the situations, the personal stakes and the potential consequences. I don’t want to get caught in the Lensman trap of constantly escalating situations, so instead I vary the challenges. One of the big things that has worked to keep the Lost Fleet series fresh was creating a spin-off series called Lost Stars. Where Lost Fleet has followed Geary and the Alliance side of the long war with the Syndics, Lost Stars is set in a (former) Syndic-controlled star system where the leaders are dealing with the crumbling of the Syndic empire. By employing viewpoints from former bad guys who want to create something better than they have known (but aren’t sure how to do that) in the same universe as Lost Fleet, and intertwining the story lines in the Lost Fleet Beyond the Frontier books with those in Lost Stars, I can generate tons of new ideas, situations and events. Some events in Guardian overlap with events in the next Lost Stars book (Perilous Shield), while events in Dreadnaught and Invincible are tied in with action in the first Lost Stars book (Tarnished Knight). Each book stands alone as a story, while all are tied together in bigger story arcs.
3. What sort of tools or devices software or otherwise, do you use in keeping the large canvas of the Lost Fleet universe straight?
– I have notes that I attach to my chapters file (sort of an organizational file that goes along with each book). There’s a master file of ships with the names of their commanding officers, and each book has a current fleet list along with ships lost prior to that. I keep a listing of which stars can be reached from other stars that have already been discussed in prior books. And a few sticky notes. Aside from those, just about everything else is in my head. I see the universe in the same way I would see actual history or a movie series, and memorize the important aspects just as I would for those. Some writers use detailed outlines, but that has never worked for me. I find I get the best results when I have a start point, an end point, an idea of what is going to lie between, and then let my characters deal with it. It all stays straight for me just as does my walking mentally through the Battle of the Bulge or the Gettysburg Campaign. Again, that’s what works for me. I know other writers who swear by extensive notes because that’s what works for them.
4. Although you’re best well known for military SF novels, you have written a couple of fantasy stories. Have you ever considered writing a full-fledged fantasy novel?
– I’ve actually completed a series with a strong fantasy component to it. I call it steampunk with dragons, because one of the main characters is a female engineer trained in mostly steam-age technology, while the other main character is a male mage who can make temporary changes to reality (and doesn’t think that “reality” exists). The byplay between the engineer and the mage is a lot of fun, because both see what the other does as impossible. I think it’s an interesting world, where characters with repeating rifles face trolls and dragons and the big struggle is for the freedom of that world. All I have to do is convince a publisher to give the series a shot, which has been a lot harder than writing the books.
5. Where should readers who have never read any of the novels or any of his stories in Analog dive into your work?
The best starting point would probably be Dauntless, the first book in the Lost Fleet series. I think Dauntless represents my writing well, and it’s a complete story even though it’s also the first in the series. No writer wants to look back (we’re always thinking through the plot of the next book and the one after that) but I’m proud of Dauntless.
6. What comes next for you and the Lost Fleet universe?
– After Guardian, you mean? The next book in that universe is Perilous Shield, the second in the Lost Stars series. I’m working on the book after Guardian (which has a working title of Steadfast), and there will be at least one more Lost Fleet book after Steadfast. There will also be more Lost Stars books. I’ll keep doing Lost Fleet books until I run out of good ideas. I’m trying to get the steampunk with dragons series published, and am thinking about turning some novellas I had published into full-length novels. One of those novellas is coming out from Subterranean Press soon. The Last Full Measure is an alternate history novel of an American Civil War which is really alternate, not like any other previously done. The other novella (Swords and Saddles) is in an ebook anthology of my short fiction and involves a company of US Cavalry (from 1870) that finds itself in an alternate North America where history took a vastly different turn thanks to a permanent land bridge between that continent and Asia. Right now I’m very fortunate to have a lot of work to keep me busy.