JMW: Hello. This is Jean Marie Ward for BuzzyMag.com. With me today is best-selling author Todd McCaffrey. Welcome.
Todd, you started writing when you were 12. You finished your first story then. Your mom was one of the most important science fiction authors of the 20th century, so you’d think you’d start with a leg up on this crazy writing business. Yet you started your writing career by attending workshops like Clarion. What prompted that decision?
Todd McCaffrey: Well, a couple things. My mother always said that she was a terrible editor and that she wouldn’t critique any one of my stories. And when I finally whined and wheedled enough to get her to do it, and she did critique it, the poor thing came back mostly red. If you think of a piece of raw beef, then you’re not red enough. So having Anne McCaffrey as a mother is great for growing up around science fiction, but not so great for being critiqued within science fiction.
It was actually Arthur Coburn who recommended that I go to Clarion. And I went to Clarion West because I wanted to avoid Harlan at Clarion East. And the thing I liked about Clarion was it was a six-week intense boot camp, and I recommend it for anyone who can afford it and can take the time. So it really helped hone the craft of writing, and also verify that, yeah, I can actually sling a word together and make it kind of work from time to time.
City of Angles
JMW: And you quickly started flinging words around under the name Todd Johnson, who wrote military sci-fi. What had you trending in that direction?
Todd McCaffrey: Well, first, I was born as Todd Johnson. What trended me in that direction was really some more nepotism, but behind the scenes. Back in 1984, Mayfair Games approached mom to make a board game, the Dragonriders of Pern board game, based on “Dragonflight,” “Dragonquest,” and “The White Dragon.” I had been an avid gamer, and so I was asked to take over all the mundane little things like naming all the additional holds and helping playtest everything.
That introduced me to the famous Bill Fawcett. And Bill, at one point, said, “Well, you know, we’re doing an advanced rule set. Why don’t you write a little something that we can put in there?” Which became the Thread fighting on Pern section in “The Dragon Lover’s Guide to Pern” later.
After that, of course, Bill Fawcett immediately said, “Well, hey, we’re doing this thing with David Drake’s Hammer Slammers. Would you like to do it?” And I said, “Of course.” And we did a Choose Your Own . . . or a . . . what was it . . . a Combat Command, which is now being republished as an ebook, I understand. And it was a lot of fun. Very different from writing a regular novel, because you have multiple chosen paths that you have to work through, but a very interesting writing problem.
After that, Bill threw a couple of short story anthology works my way, and I continued on that way. It was only when I met a very nice lady who became my wife, and she decided she really didn’t want to be Jenna Johnson, that I ever thought of changing to the last name and using McCaffrey. And that’s how it happened.
JMW: Do you still keep the two brands for the two different types of fiction you write?
Todd McCaffrey: I try and keep McCaffrey as something that McCaffrey fans, Pern fans, would be willing to go to. It turns out that Todd Johnson is unfortunately a very common name that’s already got a number of writers associated with it, so I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen. I haven’t written much mil SF directly since. So really, pretty much since I got married, it’s all been Todd McCaffrey.
JMW: Mm-hmm. But I don’t know if it actually connects to the military SF, but you’re also a flier, which sort of gets into my next question. How did you get into the dragon business?
Todd McCaffrey: Really, I got into the dragon business because . . . well, it was a great story. Back in . . . I think it was ’96 at LA Con 2, mom’s editor at Del Rey suggested that . . . she said, “Your mother’s not going to live forever.” Well, she went on a good almost 20 years, 15 years. But at the time, we were worried. And she wanted somebody to continue the legacy. And I thought, well, that might not work. And she said, “Well, if you’re not interested in that, then at least do some sort of biographical scrapbook about your mother, so we can keep her writing more Pern books.” And I agreed to do that. That became “Dragonholder.”
And while I was working on “Dragonholder,” I said to mom that it’d be really cool if we did a collaboration together. Now, she said, “Yes, we’d like to do that.” And things got on hold. I came up for an idea for something that became “Dragon’s Blood and Red Iron.” And that’s really where the story writing started.
JMW: Has it ever been a burden to you, carrying such a large legacy?
Todd McCaffrey: It’s not so much a burden as there’s an awfully high bar. People grew up with Anne McCaffrey. They really would like to have more Anne McCaffrey to read. So would I. And so they tend to judge me by the same standard that they judged “Dragonflight” when they’d finished it. Which makes it really difficult, because nobody can rewrite “Dragonflight,” even Anne McCaffrey. All she can do, or all she could do, is write sequels.
On the other hand, it’s a beautiful, rich universe which has a lot of room in it. And so it’s a nice reward in its own right.
JMW: And you tend to take a different point in the universe, don’t you? The Third Wave, I believe it’s called?
Todd McCaffrey: Third Path.
JMW: Third Path.
Todd McCaffrey: Well, what I discovered when . . . actually, there’s another story here. When we first talked about collaborating at one point, we talked about what we would like to see after “All the Weyrs of Pern.” And I said, “You know, it would be really cool if we could come up with some way where we had two riders riding one dragon, where, say, one dragon had to lose its life to save the other, and there was a bomb that happened, and that would be interesting.” And mom wanted to see what would happen if we had some meteors fall on Pern.
And things went on. I was a little bit late getting “Dragonholder” done. And in the middle of the night, I get this call from my mother saying, “I can’t kill the dragon!” And I’m going, “What?” “I can’t kill the dragon!” I said, “Well, dear, if you don’t want to kill the dragon, you don’t have to kill the dragon.” And that was the first I knew that she started writing “The Skies of Pern” all by herself.
So the lesson from that was don’t play with mom’s characters. She’s still very attached to them. We managed to get around that when it came time for “Sky Dragons” and “Dragon’s Time,” where I let her play with my characters a bit. And so she’s gotten . . . well, she’s now unfortunately in no position to object to anything being done to her characters, but she was willing to let me play with them after that.
JMW: She’s Irish. You never know.
Todd McCaffrey: Well, actually, we just did a tribute. It just came out with Ben Bella Smart Pop books.
Todd McCaffrey: Called “Dragonwriter: A Tribute to Anne McCaffrey and Pern.” And in it, we talk a little bit about the “you never know” part of things. There’s been some very interesting signs after mom passed on, and certainly during the day of the funeral service. It was quite a lot of fun. So I’ve got an interesting view on the afterlife.
Also, you bring it up, mom’s opinion about the afterlife started changing as she got older, and also as she lost her — to put a strange twist on it — her ex-sister-in-law, who had come to live with her in Ireland for so many years. So she wrote two stories that were sort of related to this. One most closely, we’ll call “Beyond the Tween,” which many Pern fans are not happy with, because it sort of looks at spirituality and other things. Now, mom said there was no religion on Pern, but she never said there was no spirituality. And it is a rather interesting look, and I think it has a lot to do with somebody who’s getting near the end of their life, asking themselves what really is going to happen.
As far as I can tell, based on the evidence that we had on the day at the funeral, there certainly is some form of life after death, and mom demonstrated it quite marvelously.
And the other story in that would be “Ever the Twain,” where we have twins, and one of them impressed and one of them didn’t. Which is kind of a reverse on what we had with the idea behind “The Skies of Pern.” So yeah, spirituality kind of walked on Pern a little bit.
JMW: You’ve been praised . . . you were talking about what a high bar had been set. Yet, ironically enough, you have been praised for your female characters. Speaking . . . it’s always considered tough for one gender to write the other. How do you work it? How do you make your female characters rich and vibrant and true to themselves?
Todd McCaffrey: That’s sort of an overall character question. I mean, how do you make a real character? Some of the characters that you see in Third Path Pern are actually based on real-life people. They’ve asked me. They’ve said, “Well, can I get on Pern?” And I said, “Well, sure, if you don’t mind the results.” Because if you take a person and you put them in the Pern universe, they’re not going to be exactly the same. One of them is Seska Small, who’s, I think, now Seksa Duke, who is Weyrwoman Seska in Fort Weyr.
Todd McCaffrey: And another is my good friend Sonia Lehres, who is now Weyrwoman Sonia up in High Reaches Weyr.
Todd McCaffrey: Seska said that I captured parts of her that she didn’t know about herself. So I guess I observe people. I had a little sister, and I had a very, very interesting mother, and when we were growing up, we had lots of friends around. Most of them were horsey girls, who have grown up now to be major horse women, or moved on to other areas. But it started with that love of horses. So I’ve had a lot of interesting characters on which to draw.
And at the end of the day, when your characters are working, they just do what they do. So I don’t actually think about why I’m writing a female character.
Although, having said that, mom famously said, “No man can ever write a good female.” And I said, “Okay. Challenge accepted.” And I’m glad to hear that some people think I managed to meet the challenge.
JMW: That’s great. Sometimes you do have to do that with your parents. What are you working on now?
Todd McCaffrey: Right now, I’ve just finished something . . . a rewrite of a marvelous romp. My heroine is a red-haired Scots girl . . .
Todd McCaffrey: . . . in Edinburough in the year 1744. And this is not a good time to be a young girl.
Todd McCaffrey: She’s 13 at the start. The times were very rough. And Bonny Prince Charlie was just about to walk in the next year, into and Edinburough liberate it. She, however, happens to be a master of steam and steel.
Todd McCaffrey: And she convinces people to let her develop a walking platform, which is completed and wins a race just as Bonny Prince Charlie enters Edinburough. And from there on, we’re going to have a very different history of the world.
Todd McCaffrey: Yeah.
JMW: That’ll be great. When is it coming out?
Todd McCaffrey: We’re still looking for a publisher. It’s just gone off to my agent.
JMW: Very cool. Is there anything you’d like to add to our viewers?
Todd McCaffrey: Well, I’d like to thank everyone who has spent time on Pern, or with Helva, or with any of mom’s characters, and tell them that, as with them, I’m sorry she’s gone. And I hope that between myself and my sister, as the other person allowed to write on Pern, that we will be able to continue and perhaps even enhance the legacy that’s been left behind with Pern and all the other works.
Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.