The life and times (so far) of Anne McCaffrey
Biography written by Todd McCaffrey
By now, hopefully everyone knows that Todd has written a
biography of his mother, which is due in hardcover from DelRey in December 1999 (just in
time for Christmas!). Todd discussed his book in an hour-long panel, with the aim of
(as he put it) giving us just enough details to get us excited about reading it, without
giving so much away that we won't need to bother!
This summary may not flow very smoothly, as I'm finding it
hard to link together all of the little details I learned. But I thought most people
would rather I included everything, rather than leaving out pieces for smoother
transitions. And the panel itself rambled all over as the audience occasionally
asked questions, so it's not as if it was a smooth discussion to begin with...
The biography project was born back in 1993, at the L.A.Con
where Todd met Shelly Shapiro, a senior editor at DelRey. (Shelly has always been
Anne's editor, since she got the sr. editor position with DelRey.) Their
conversation went something like this:
S: "People have been asking for a bio of Anne."
T: semi-suspicious "Yeah..."
S: "If your mother takes the time to write it, that's time away from fiction writing,
perhaps another Pern book..."
S: "Someone's going to have to write it..."
S: "And who better than someone close to her, with firsthand knowledge..."
And so she twisted Todd's arm and got him to agree to write
his Mum's bio.
The book is a year overdue now, and is about 25,000 words
long. However, Todd wrote about 75,000 words to get there. He had an
incredibly hard time with the format for the book. With most of a first draft
complete, he knew it wasn't working, but was at an impasse as to how to fix it. So
he asked his wife Jenna to read it--and she said it was completely unreadable.
Luckily, this was what he thought, so he didn't take offense!
Todd has since completely re-written the book.
Originally it was sort of a dry catalog of events; now it's more anecdotal from
Todd's point of view. Of course the danger from writing from his own point of view
was that he'd end up with a book of stories about Todd, and not Anne. But Todd
worked hard to not do this. Some Todd stories will inevitably appear, but the book
really does focus on Anne, and tries to show what happened to make Anne who she is.
The book is beautifully put together; the art editor did a
wonderful job with the
design, and the interior is full of old photos.
I did get to see the cover mock-up Todd brought with, and I agree that it's
gorgeous and shows a lot of attention to detail! The cover art is by Rowena (who did
covers for the U.S. paperback editions of the individual Harper Hall novels, and for Dolphins
of Pern). Todd knows just how important getting a good cover artist is for the
success of a book. The White Dragon was the first novel of Anne's to feature
artwork by Michael Whelan, and she knows that much of the book's success was due to the
attention-grabbing cover art.
Although the biography is subtitled "The life and times
(so far) of Anne McCaffrey," it does not in fact cover her whole life. Instead
it takes her life only up until the turning point in her career as an author, when The
White Dragon hit the New York Times Bestseller list and smooth sailing began.
This is before Anne met Harry & Marilyn Alm, the duo that made Threadfall
charts from her writing and found that her described Falls fit into a real pattern
perfectly! (Aside: Anne was the first science-fiction writer
to make the NYTimes list--beating Asimov and Clark!)
Anne is not the first McCaffrey to have her life preserved in
a book. Her father and grandfather were both notable men in the U.S. army, and her
father, Colonel(?) George Hubert, once countermanded Patton, and is written about in a
famous book (though I can't recall the title at the moment...). That particular story is not
retold in Anne's bio. Anne grew up surrounded by famous people; she went to school
with John F. Kennedy Sr. and has been to parties at the Kennedy compound.
Anne was rather difficult as a child (Anne actually describes
her young self with a long string of invectives), and her mother wished on her a child as
bad as she was. Todd said "she got three!"
After her divorce but before her success, Anne struggled
mightily to support herself and her two youngest children (Alec was starting college at
the time). And she decided to try and make a go of it as a writer in Ireland, a
country twenty years behind the U.S. in women's lib!
Having learned much more about the details of his mother's life, and all she had to
overcome before success struck, Todd speaks of Anne's life with awe. Growing up, she
was just Mom; looking back, he's truly impressed with her perseverance and drive.
Todd was lucky enough to get to read the first draft of The
White Dragon as soon as the pages came out of the typewriter (sometimes helping to
pull them out...). He is also the main person responsible for getting her to switch
to writing on a computer, and to a better computer, and to another... She still
calls him up from time to time to complain: "The computer won't work." One
time when the computer froze up, they figured out it was because one of her cats was
sitting on the mouse, pushing down one of the buttons! While her arthritis make it difficult for her to sign autographs, it
does not affect her typing at all. (Hooray! Pain-free typing means more books
Todd "discovered" science-fiction at age nine, and
had a favorite author. Anne encouraged him to write a fan letter, which he finally
did. The author never wrote back, and young Todd was crushed. Anne couldn't do
much to ease Todd's disappointment, but she avowed to always reply to her fans no matter
what. Countless fans have been impressed by receiving a personal response from her
throughout the years.
Anne didn't really talk to Todd about her writing until he
was older--in his twenties. Then he had the background to be able to answer
scientific questions for her. Todd did show his mother something he wrote once at
age 16; it was fairly long--about 19,000 years. She didn't really give him any
feedback at the time, and he was unable to get the story back from her for three years, at
which time the story magically reappeared. It turned out that Anne was so impressed,
that she'd sent it off to a literary agency!
The normal book-writing process consists of three steps:
1. Author submits outline of story. If it's approved, then
2. Author submits first three chapters of book. Again, after approval, then
3. Author submits full draft to agent and publisher.
Bigger name authors often get to skip step two. Anne McCaffrey can get away with
skipping steps one and two; she'll just mention to her publisher "I have this
idea for a story..." and she'll get the advance $$. (The way authors are
normally paid is that they get an advance of 1/2 of the project book earnings when the
project is accepted by a publisher, and the other 1/2 when it's actually published.
Or 1/3 when accepted, 1/3 when first draft done, and 1/3 when published.)
Once a first draft is completed, an editor will make
suggestions and send it back to the author to be re-worked. Between this step and
publication there's usually 12-18 months. For a prolific writer like Anne, this can
lead to confusion when a fan says "I just read your latest book," because she's
probably written three more novels since that one!
As mentioned earlier, getting the right cover artist is an
important step taken during the publishing process. Sometimes artists get a chance
to read the full book, sometimes they only have time to skim it, and sometimes they're
just told a summary! Usually an artist gets commissioned to do the art long before
the book is ready for publication, so that the art will be ready when the text is.
Author's often don't get much say about the cover art for a book, but because of a
past cover for Dragonflight which Anne abhorred, she now has cover approval written into
all her UK book contracts and most other foreign contracts (the cover in question showed a
naked lady on a Chinese pug!). She doesn't have cover approval with her US
publishers--it's apparently very unusual to grant this to a writer, and as she's generally
had good luck with the US covers, it hasn't been necessary for her to throw a fit about it
yet... She was unhappy with the cover choice of All the Weyrs of Pern,
however. It's not that she particularly dislikes the cover by Michael Whelan, just
that she really, really a different sketch he'd done for the cover used--they one showing
Ruth up in the Yokohama, looking down on Pern (a black and white version of it can be seen
in The Girl Who Heard Dragons). Although I love the cover of AtWoP (I use it
as my desktop background), I agree that a full color version of
sketch would look awesome and be much more fitting as the cover art to AtWoP.