Where X Marks the Spot: An Interview with Steve Barnes
Pioneer, Writer, and Philosopher of Sci-Fi and Beyond.
Steve Barnes is a writer, lecturer, personal performance coach and a killer philosopher. He has published more than 25 science fiction, fantasy and horror novels, including New York Times bestsellers. He’s been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Cable Ace Awards. And he wrote the Emmy winning episode, “A Stitch In Time” for Showtime’s the Outer Limits. He’s also written for the New Twilight Zone, StarGate, Andromeda, and Ben 10. I got to sit with Steve to discuss his viewpoints on the state of the field, life, the universe, and everything in-between.
Walk me through it. I've read about you, but I haven't been able to find much on your childhood. Can you give me a recap of your youth?
Steve Barnes: Born and raised in South Central, Los Angeles. I was interested in science fiction, fantasy, films and stories from a very early age. My mother and sister raised me; there wasn't a father in the home. So I was always very interested in macho adventure.
First book that I can remember clearly reading was called Space Cat. I was in second grade, before then, I loved monster movies and stuff like that. It's always been apart of my life. The first real sci-fi novel I've ever read was probably Robert Heinlein's, Have Spacesuit Will Travel, in the fifth grade.
When did you start making attempts at writing?
The first story I remember ever writing, was in like, third grade. It was called, The Yeti. It was about an abominable snowman in a Canadian lumber camp. After that, I wrote a lot of sci-fi action adventure, space ship monster stuff. I was doing that from third to fourth grade, up through college.
So you discovered pretty early on that this whole writing thing is who you are?
I loved it. But I didn't seriously think about doing it professionally. My dad had been a professional singer. He was a backup singer for Nat King Cole. When I was a kid, I would be in the studio, lying on the couch on the day they recorded the back-up track for “Ramblin’ Rose.” Every time I hear that song on the radio, I hallucinate that I can hear my dad's voice. But his career failed. And stuff surrounding that led to my parents getting divorced. I think that my mom was terrified that if I went out for a career in the arts, I would fail in life. So she was very much against it. She would tear up and burn my stories.
So you had a fear of the arts growing up.
Yeah. The trouble is that it's very complex. My mom had also grown up in the South, in Augusta, Georgia, in a time of lynching and clan violence. She was afraid for me on multiple levels. When I was ten years old, she said to me, "Steve, if you let White people know how smart you are, they will kill you.”
In Los Angeles?!
Here in Los Angeles. That's right. Now, I simultaneously had the sense that if I couldn't make something out of myself, then life would just totally crush me.
When did you start shaking those fears and pursuing the arts anyway?
Never shook'em. I just decided in college, Pepperdine University. I tried stepping away from writing. I was taking everything but writing classes. I was taking journalism, radio, speech, all sorts of stuff. Dancing all around the question. Then one day, there was a creative writing contest and the winner would read the story to the alumni association -- and I won. So I’m standing up there, reading for this audience of wealthy donors, watching them laugh and react.
Was it a sci-fi story?
Science fiction and fantasy. Might've been fantasy. And it just really hit me, that, this is who I was. This is closer to who I was than anything else.
You can't run away from who you are.
Right. I couldn't run away from who I was. So I dropped out of college. A couple of my professors, one in particular, good guy, had been working on a book for ten years. I was terrified that I would pick up their failure patterns. That was the worst mistake, took me a long time to get over that. I didn't know myself then. Had I known myself, I would've known that it was okay and I don't have to pick up anyone's negative behavior patterns and it would've been fine. But - I didn't know that.
When did you start going to The Los Angeles Science Fiction & Fantasy Society (LASFS)?
After I left college, I knew a guy who later offered me a job at Pepperdine University. And I started working there. At first I was working at the bookstore, and I did that for a few years, and then a guy named Richard Polf was managing the audio/visual department, and asked if I would come work for him. What he said was that there was a lot of down time. He was a musician, and knew that I was a writer and said I would be able to get a lot of writing done while I was there. If I would take care of most of the physical work for him, while he took care of the office stuff. Sounded like a good deal to me. So, I started working there. Now, somewhere in there, and I'm not exactly certain where, I asked a friend of mine. I'd been writing stories, and not been selling much. I sold a couple.
I realized that everything I've accomplished in my life, I've accomplished by finding people doing the thing that I want to do and then modeling their behavior, their attitudes and their actions. So I asked a friend of mine, a guy named Otis. I said, "I need to find some real writers, some people who are really doing this, so I can find out what I'm missing, because I'm doing something wrong." And he said, "Well, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle hang out at the Los Angeles, Science Fiction and Fantasy Society in Burbank. So I said, "Larry Niven? I've heard that name."
I went home and took a look in my library and found a book called, All the Myriad Ways. Which is a collection of short stories, and in that collection is a story called, "All the Myriad Ways," and it's a multiple time track story, and I consider it to be genuinely brilliant. I kinda feel like people can read your mind, so I didn't want to lie. Armed with the ability to genuinely walk up to Larry and say, "Hello Mr. Niven, my name is Steven, I'm an admirer of your work, and I'm a writer." I did that.
He was smoking his pipe, out in LASFS on Thursday night, and he looked at me and said, "Okay, tell me a story." And I found out from the way I had come onto him, I had about twenty seconds to prove I wasn't an asshole. Luckily, I had gotten a story off into the mail earlier that day about a compulsive gambler who hocks his pacemaker - and - managed to fumble it out to him and created myself a little opening. And I didn't blow it. So that's how things started there.
Through meeting Larry, you got an “in”? You had a mentor of sorts?
Yeah, he read some of my stories. He gave me a chance to work with him. He had written a story that he hadn't been able to sell, or written to his satisfaction. I forget now if he'd ever actually gotten a rejection from it. It was called "The Locusts." It was about a group of human settlers on an alien planet, whose children begin to devolving into Australopithecines. If the problem of the story had been astrophysics, or even biology, I would've been screwed. But I felt that he didn't understand the psychology of the situation. The way that people would react, given the situation that was going on in a community that small, that far away from Earth. In his story, they were reacting as if they were reading about it in the newspaper. Not as if their neighbors, and their brothers and sisters had all contracted cancer. This would have been unbelievably devastating - and I said, "Ah! If I'm right about this, I see something I can add to this story.” It gave me an opening. And I was able to rewrite it in a way that made it better. And then we rewrote it even more together. And our story was published in Analog, it was my first major publication, and it was nominated for a Hugo award.
So you went from being an obscure writer, to a Hugo nominee, and now you're flying high.
Yeah, we went from there to writing our first book together, which was Dream Park. And it did really well. We created an entire sub-culture. The entire LARP field came out of that book. A guy named Mark Matthew Simmons, a group of gamers in Colorado asked if they could use the rules. We created the International Games Society in that book. They were the first I ever heard of, and there were chapters of that across the country, and in many countries. Dream Park was like the literary anthem of the movement. That was heady stuff.
And were you still cranking short stories around this time?
I stopped writing short stories because I was writing novels. The major value of short stories is for before you break in. That's where you learn your craft. Novels are where you get paid. Now, I actually think it's a very good idea for people to continue writing short stories, because you can experiment and you can do things in short stories that you can't do in long-form. And it can be very satisfying, but you're not going to make any money there. Not directly. My wife did a collection of short stories, nearly two years ago and it was optioned by a major production company. We made a lot of money off of that, but that's not the usual thing that happens. She's kind of charmed.
Are you of any particular faith? Do you believe in a higher being?
I was raised in the Episcopal Church. The “God” concept is tricky, but if you can grasp the Gaia hypothesis, looking at the planet as a living being, you’re half-way there. The “Gaia” definition of “life” is fluid. It's difficult. Things that reproduce, energy exchanges. If you look at the planet as a living thing, it yields a particular perspective on the information you get.
Now take that same perspective, and you can think of the entire universe as a living thing. Now expand your concept of “intelligence.” Don’t limit that by what human intelligence is. An image of an old man sitting on the throne some place is kind of absurd to me, because it’s imagining an infinite being would be sexually dimorphic, have ego problems and fears and jealousies and other human stuff. So we're limited by what we think intelligence is, limited by what we think life is. I find that the universe makes sense to me, , if I consider it to be a living thing. But you have to expand your definition of what life is to do that. I would consider myself a Christian. I would consider myself a believer. Whether someone agrees with my definition of G-d, and my interpretation of the bible, or other sacred texts is none of my concern.
In your experience in the science fiction community, particularly hard SF, do you feel that there's a prejudice against anyone of faith, or spirituality?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I think largely because a lot of them were raised in family and churches that tried to cram stuff down their throat by people who were locked into taking metaphor, literally. It takes intelligence to see metaphors and see that they're teaching through stories. And it takes wisdom to understand why people believe in them. Why people teach them. Why society can be knit together by them.
When you started selling material, did you have a relationship with your father?
Not much of one. I never had a relationship with him in childhood. I had more a relationship after my mother died.
When was that?
My mother died about thirty-five years ago.
Was she around when you sold stuff?
Yeah, a few early short stories. She read about the first ten pages of my first novel, came across the word G-damn and threw it across the room and never read my stuff again. She was much more religious than I realized. It didn't really hit me, that our family was particularly religious. It kinda caught me by surprise.
Tell me about what you're working on now.
I've got a book coming out next month called Twelve Days, which is a semi-sequel to the fourth novel I ever did which was called The Kundalini Equation, which was my first attempt to really answer the question of what did I think of the universe, spiritual disciplines, transformative disciplines. I took everything that I knew, and pushed it to the absolute edge, and I would take a look at what people writing various spiritual texts said, and see if the furthest that I'd ever been able to see or experience matched with the bottom edge of what they were talking about.
And I could see a bunch of different things people were saying, a bunch of very similar things. And I thought, what if they're right -- and if there are some connections here? What if the chakras in yoga are not literal energy wheels but rather sort of like Maslow's hierarchy, ways of looking at the development of human beings and human societies. What if the martial arts are transformative disciplines? What if this thing that people look at called enlightenment was a genuine phenomenon? What kind of pathways might lead to it? Why aren't they more common? Why do all these different disciplines say they'll lead you there, but don't? I wrote it after my mother died, because my mother’s death was part of that book.
For a long time, people considered that book to be the best thing I'd ever done. And I got some very interesting people coming to me and saying, "Excuse me, where did you learn this?" And people started assuming that I knew things that I didn't know. And that book opened doors. And people started offering me opportunities to learn shit that people don't ordinarily get offered.
What kinda shit, man?
Sexual magic. Esoteric aura reading, I can’t tell you if I think auras are something that exist outside our perception. They might be what I call a complex equivalent, an artifact effect, your hindbrain sensing a bunch of different pieces of data, and giving you a visual metaphor so you can act on it quickly. Martial arts experiences, private instructions with masters. A lot of really interesting stuff, that eventually shifted my perspective of these things. There are entire ranges of things, where I was searching for answers. I don't know how to put this, but I'm not searching anymore.
So what's the answer, Steve?
If it could be put into words, don't you think someone would've written it down by now? I can't describe a sandwich closely enough to nourish your body. I can tell you where to go to get a sandwich. I can tell you how to make a sandwich.
Where do I go to get the answer?
Inside yourself. There are two types of questions: The process is the product, in much the same way that the medium is the message. There are two questions that you can relate to everything in your life. One of them is who am I? And the other is, what is true? All fiction is about what are human beings. And what is the world that they see?
Everything that you do can be related to one of those questions. I remember being at a friend's house, and she's got a house filled with esoteric literature. She sent away for this course, and that course. I said, "This is bullshit, you've already got over a hundred times more than what you need.” The spiritual path is like a road. You stop and talk to a teacher, you're not walking the path. You can talk to a teacher long enough to find out what path to be on, but you still have gotta get on the path.
You're avoiding it. You're avoiding the work you need to do, and the reason you're avoiding the work, is that you –hmmm. How can I put this? Let’s say the enlightened state is to the unenlightened state as butterflies are to caterpillars if the following statement was true: caterpillars don't become butterflies. Caterpillars die so that butterflies can be born.
You cannot survive the transition to the enlightened state. Because the "you" that you think you are is not real. It is a construct. The part of you that wants to be enlightened cannot get there, it cannot. It will not survive the process. Buddhism probably comes closest of all the religions to actually deal with the question of enlightenment.
As one guy said, Buddhism gets into the door with enlightenment and steers you in the compassionate aisle. Enlightenment has nothing to do with compassion. It has to do with unraveling all of the illusions that you have gathered up onto yourself since childhood. Which is why -- there is the big boat which is primarily ethics, morality and then there's the small boat, which is the intense practices which could, if you were to practice them, unravel the ego cocoon and get you there.
All religions have the potential for this, but all of them know that if you unravel that, if you actually open that, you're free. You cannot be controlled by morality, what other people think means nothing; I mean Hannibal Lector is a decent fictional depiction of an enlightened serial killer. You got a real problem. So all of them imprint upon you, morality at such a core level, it's like you practice yoga long enough and you change the way you breathe in your sleep. It has to be just what you are. You cannot be controlled by what people think, or what society says or any of that stuff. So no society is going to support you to learn a discipline that frees you from the bounds of what can make it possible to run a society. If you want that level of freedom, you're going to have to read between the lines on these things and find a path.
If you wanted to know -- let's say you say, "I've gotta know, Steve! I've got to do it!"
It costs the complete destruction of the construct of self.
Yes. It is absolutely destructive. It will fuck you up.
So have you destroyed Steve Barnes?
No, I'm not enlightened. There is something I call the consciousness continuum. You go from being a sleeping child, to a sleeping adult. You're living in The Matrix, okay? To being an awakened adult, there are a few awakened children. When you hear about monks searching for children who are the reincarnation of this or that holy man, that’s what you’re talking about. Being awake is useful. Then you have an awakened adult, and then an awakened adult, with intermittent non-dualistic awareness - now we're getting into the yin and the yang and the Tao, and all that good shit.
Intermittent non-dualistic awareness is the last bus stop for anything useful. Go beyond that point and people are just as likely to kill you, as to think you're better than sliced bread. The next step after that is awakened adult, with sustained non-dualistic awareness, and after that, language fails - because language depends on shared reference, synonyms and antonyms.
I bounced around at the top of “intermittent non-dualistic awareness.” Never been able to nail that down.
I heard something once that I really like, it's a Sufi expression. Sufi’s are cool. They're really cool. They're some of my favorite people. Charismatic Islam. They say, "Enlightenment is the door of perception that opens at the moment of death. The seeker attempts to open the door before they get there." In other words, to die before you die.
You want to hear something cool that is useful? You are not the voices in your head. You are the one listening to the voices in your head. Meditate on that one for a year, and you will come to some really interesting conclusions. You can do this while sitting and listening to your heartbeat.
Talk about how these philosophies relates to your own writing.
To write you have to have control of the flow state. It's the doorway, the portal into more esoteric things. It's a really good sign, like finding driftwood showing that you're getting closer to the shore. Flow state is really cool shit. It's one of the last states of consciousness that has a practical value for most people. There are some extremely esoteric waking dream states that have to do with integration of body of mind, different levels of mind that are interesting to play with. One of the reasons I don't talk about this a whole lot, is that you can go crazy. I'm grounded.
The doors of perception are about having access to all that you are. One of my teachers said that you could awaken the Kundalini energy from the heart in, or from the body out, but never from the head down. You can feel your way out of the box, but not think your way out of it. You can feel the death of a parent, or the birth of a child. It will put you in touch with what is real about life. Physically, the body does not lie. Either you can do it or you can't. Gravity doesn't give a shit about what you think about it. So the martial arts, yoga, they're great because you can either do it or you can't. If your theories work on that level, what you know, you know.
Very cool, heady stuff, but let’s switch gears again. To me, you're living the dream because you're making a living as a writer.
Now, I don't want to be a professional writer anymore. I want to be an amateur writer. I want to be able to write for the sheer fun of writing. For all those decades, the writing has been connected to making money. I want to uncouple so I can write just what is in my heart. I think I will do my best and most successful writing if I do that. That's why I teach Afrofuturism and other classes. It's why I'm building my online business. I want the adult part of me to take care of all the bills, so that my kid can just play.
The strange thing is that, that weird thing you have to write, and you don't know why, is usually the thing that producers read and go – “What is this? I need to talk to you.”
The joke is – Question: how many producers does it take to change a light-bulb? – Answer: Does it have to be a light bulb? (Laughs).
These are smart people. The minimum buy-in to be a Hollywood executive is like a law degree. They are very smart. But they are coming down from the money people. And they understand just enough about story to be able to help you, hopefully, when things are best, mesh your creative instincts with what the machine needs.
If you don't want to satisfy the machine's needs, you don't have the right to ask for the machine's money. It's as simple as that. Work a day job, write sci-fi short stories, have fun. Go to conventions, fans will buy you meals, you'll win awards - it can be a fine life. But if you want that house on the hill, you want the movie? You better able to do something that the machine can use. And if you can do that, without hating the machine and without hating yourself, without thinking less of anybody and know that it is a game that you have decided to play - you volunteered to play this game. Let's see if you are good enough, to play this game and get something your care about through the machine.
It is the ultimate game.
YES! It's a GREAT game!
And you've gotten shit through.
Yes, one of my Outer Limits episodes won a fucking Emmy. Okay. I've seen my stuff on the air and it worked. I wrote four episodes of Baywatch and in every episode I did something that I actually cared about. There was a moment that I actually cared about. I have never done anything for television where there was something, where you couldn't go -- "That was Steve. Right there.”
Where are you in the TV game?
Working on a television pilot. I've made a shit-ton of money. I think that's the technical term for it. No, they backed a dump truck up to my house. It's the one based on my wife's collection of short stories, called Ghost Summer. Horror, supernatural suspense. Lee Daniel's production company optioned it, and asked if we could create a television series based on this collection. Several of the stories take place in a little Southern town, called Grace Town, and we cross-pollinated a couple genres. I don't want to be too specific about what it is that we did. And, we just turned in the second draft of the script for the pilot. Will it get on the air? Who knows? But I've had fun at every level. And that wonderful line from Guardians of the Galaxy, "If you shined a black light on it, it'd look like a Jackson Pollack painting." So much of my DNA is in that script.
I hope the pages aren't stuck together … In your experience, the television writing world can be very ageist, huh?
Yeah. After forty, my agent told me there were two things I could do. I could write for movies, or I could create a television show. Both of those are very high-level things. Much more rarefied than just being able to write a television episode.
So your agent was wrong?
No - he was not wrong. He was right. I'm creating a television series, I'm not writing for television. I wouldn't be surprised if at some point I still had a chance to write for a show, but he still isn't wrong. What he was saying is, “You're in trouble Steve. The plan we were doing to make you money before isn't going to work anymore.” The fact is that it's not a business plan to take your college fund and put it in quarter slot machines in Las Vegas. Yeah, from time to time the slot machine pays off, but you better get a fucking job.
Working in Hollywood really is like playing the penny slots. The best you can do, is play Black Jack, where at the very least you're playing against the house, and if you understand the odds really well, and you count cards and they don't kick you out, you can make some progress. What you really want is to get into a high-stakes poker game, where you aren't playing against the house, because the house always wins. You're playing against the other players. In order to do that, what you're really going to need to do is ally yourself with one of the players at the table. A producer. Someone who has had a track record. Now you are working with this guy. If you can get a seat at the table yourself, that's great, but you're probably not a writer, you're a probably a writer/producer. Trying to understand what the nature of the game is and finding a way that I can play it and be true to myself, and to do things that I find joyful in other arenas is the challenge at this point in my life. Can I do it? I don't know. How far will I get? I don't know. So I have to find ways to be happy with my individual days. I have to ensure that my fate is in my hands, not in the hands of people who don't love me.
But you've done it.
I've done it to a degree. Yeah, there are lots of levels above where I am. I reached a point when -- all right I'm going to say something. The publisher, a major person - who ran a science fiction magazine of great renown passed away. After his death, two of his editors, one current, one former came to me separate from each other and told me that I had been black balled from the magazine on racial grounds.
They thought I needed to know this. It broke my heart. In the field that I loved so much, I'd always thought that I could simply be good enough to get there. That if I was good enough, I could get there.
One pro magazine is enough to dramatically affect a writer’s career, especially in this field with so few.
Yes, especially when it’s a magazine that fans considered so close to its heart. It won the Hugo award year after year. Which means its sensibilities were the sensibilities of the field. I won't say who the person was, or the magazine. I won't smear this person after they are dead. I have no interest in doing that. But that's what I had to deal with. It felt like getting kicked in the heart.
I'm so sorry that happened to you. And I'm glad you told me.
The reason I wrote so many books with Larry is that I figured that the field wasn't ready for me. Chip Delany couldn't make any money in the science fiction field, and had to go into academia. Octavia was as poor as a church mouse, until she won the Macarthur Genius grant. For almost 20 years, I was the only black male science fiction writer in the world. As far as I know, there wasn't anybody else. So I hid behind Larry Niven for years, to ensure that I could make a living. I needed to survive. I figured if I could survive enough, keep getting better, the culture would slowly start changing. And if I could stay relevant and good enough, at some point the culture would change enough so I could make the moves that I could make.
But your name is known. You've created a great body of work and you continue to do so.
Look man. When I was a kid, there were three things I wanted. I wanted love, I wanted to be a martial arts expert and I wanted to be a successful writer. I got everything that I asked for.
What do you want out of all of this? What do you want out of your writing now?
I just want to have fun with my writing. I'm writing for legacy now. I'm going into ideas that I didn't let myself write before, because I was keeping my eye on the clock and bills. I want to create my online business, make it more successful than it’s been. I've done very well at it. I'm building those things up. The writing, the fiction writing, all I ever really wanted was to write good adventure stories. Now, I think I want to write transformative material. Good adventure stories on the surface, but convey the epiphanies that I've had over the course of my life and the journeys that I've had. And all the thousands of hours and trainings of different kinds that have given me that realization that takes me to a place where I'm not looking for teachers anymore. I know where X marks the spot. I'm not trying to find out who I am. Too busy digging.
I no longer have the feeling that I can succeed in this field enough to take care of my retirement. I don't believe that anymore. Is it possible? Sure, it's possible. I used to believe that I could be good enough to get there, but I don't believe that now. I believe that I can leverage who I am in different ways. And I know that what I've done in the field has made it easier for others. I know that for a fact. And I know, that if I was me 30 years ago, and could stand on my shoulders, I know that kid could get there without a shadow of a doubt, because the market has changed. And the world has changed and America has changed. I want to create a foundation doing other things, and really go with my fiction. Really have fun with it. Really do the best, strangest most honest scathing work I'm capable of doing.
Learn more about Steve here: www.lifewrite.com
And here: stevenbarneslife.com