When the books take over Walls of shelves dominate sci-fi writer Allen Steele's Whately workspace



Last modified: Friday, January 15, 2016

A lot of authors have written about Mars. There’s only a short list of writers, however, whose stories are actually on Mars.

Whately science fiction writer Allen Steele is among them. The first SF story he published in the late ’80s, “Live from the Mars Hotel,” arrived there aboard NASA’s Phoenix lander in 2008. The nonprofit space exploration advocacy group the Planetary Society put Steele’s story on a disk along with 79 more, and that disk now awaits future Martian readers.

Steele, 57, is a Tennessee native and former journalist who gave up his full-time day job around the same time “Mars Hotel” hit the stands. Since then, he’s published 31 books, not counting future releases “Arkwright,” about a multi-generational effort to build a spaceship, and “Avengers of the Moon,” a reboot of the Captain Future character popular in science fiction magazines in the 1940s.

“I’ve been reading science fiction since I was a kid. In fact, I’ve been reading it since I could read by myself,” Steele said in a recent interview.

And apparently, he’s also been saving every SF book he’s read.

In his West Whately redoubt, near a middle-of-nowhere crossroads, Steele and his wife, Linda, have turned the upstairs of their rustic 1973 house, a style called American Barn, into a combination workspace and living area that would make any science-fiction reader alien-green with envy.

A readers’ fantasyland

The space is full of rough-hewn beams and wide-plank wood floors, and the rooms huddle close, forming a library-like warren. Books line nearly every wall. One room serves as a library, the other as Steele’s office and writing space, but still with lots of room for books, the most frequently used ones close at hand.

Steele’s desk rests below a wide window looking out on foliage, and, says Steele, he’s had the well-worn wooden Art Deco desk beside it since he was a kid.

Steele got the help of Valley Bookshelves in Whately to craft the shelves, but even with plenty of places to line his SF books, he says he still needed to sell a lot of them to create space for reference works.

“It’s the office I always wanted,” Steele said.

In the writing room, the ceiling is high, and a half-hidden loft awaits the adventurous ladder-climber.

“That loft,” he said, “was one of the main reasons we decided to buy the house.”

And in that loft? Yet more science fiction.

Old books, old magazines, all residing on metal shelving make it feel like a long-forgotten corner of a space-centric library. The spines of the books upstairs and down are so innumerable that Steele’s collection must, by virtue of size alone, represent a good portion of the science fiction published in recent decades.

Hanging from the railing of the upstairs loft is an enormous yellow banner with black and red lettering spelling out “Robert A. Heinlein Centennial” and bearing the date 2007 beside a black-and-white photo of Heinlein. It’s from a science fiction convention, but it’s a declaration of sorts. There are lots of branches of science fiction these days, with subgenres that include things like steampunk, urban fantasy, soft science fiction, space opera and many more. But Heinlein represents old-school science fiction, often called “hard SF,” the kind that filled Astounding and Galaxy and other seminal magazines and was focused on future events that were mostly plausible and based on real science.

Steele’s work manages a deft trick: It reads, in many ways, like that brand of old-school SF, but it feels quite current, too. The interstellar voyage he portrays in one of his best-known works, “Coyote,” seems as if, given sufficient financial backing, it could well happen in a few decades.

Mind-feeding space

Some writers prefer a minimalist room in which to write, perhaps in order to project their imaginations onto a blank canvas. Others, like Steele, prefer to be surrounded with things that might propel flights of literary fancy.

“When I get an idea,” he said, “the first step is to go to the shelves, look up that section and read up.”

Though there are plenty of science reference books on hand, from enormous National Geographic tomes to non-fiction works about the atomic bomb, Steele’s launching points for fiction might be taken more literally than most — his near-endless shelves also hold a fleet of launch-ready space vessels.

Steele’s hobbies include something called “kit-bashing,” improvising with parts from model kits to create entirely new vessels. But some of these aren’t mere decoration or novel construction. He shows off a large one — maybe two feet long — and holds it up. “This is the Alabama.”

The Alabama, from “Coyote,” is the enormous starship that takes the first colonists to a world — called Coyote, after the Native American trickster god — 46 light years from Earth. Steele says that he finds it useful to have a 3-D object from the world of his book for reference when he’s writing.

On one shelf, there’s another piece of the Coyote world: a globe of Coyote itself, held up by one of the carnivorous flightless birds that live there, creatures the colonists dub “boids.”

“There’s a fan who comes to conventions who makes globes of worlds in science fiction books,” Steele said. When he went to one of those conventions, he saw the Coyote globe among others of the worlds of well-known science fiction writers.

“When I saw that, I knew I’d arrived.”

Room for the toys

In some respects, that arrival happened quickly for Steele, who’d worked for years as a journalist in Tennessee, New Hampshire, and finally at Worcester Magazine.

“I’d been writing my first novel as a serious hobby,” he said. “I still don’t know how I did it. I’d work 10 or 12 hours, then come home and sit down at the typewriter and write three to five pages.”

He sent that first novel to some editors, and one asked to see the rest. When it was purchased for $3,000, Steele said, “I pulled the plug on my journalism career. I haven’t looked back.” In 1989, that book, “Orbital Decay,” came out.

Things have gone fairly well for him since — when “Arkwright” hits shelves in 2016, it will be Steele’s 21st novel and 32nd book. Along the way, he’s picked up a long list of the genre’s honors.

As he passes a shelf en route to his writing space, Steele points out three gleaming, retro-style silver rockets a foot or so high. They’re Hugo Awards, one of the highest honors an SF writer can win.

Steele studied writing, but not science fiction. “I went to school at New England College in New Hampshire, and I studied with Russell Banks,” he said. “He hated science fiction. He took me under his wing, but he’d only do it if I agreed not to write science fiction.”

Steele says he learned a great deal about writing, particularly without the “convenient toy box” of science fiction. After he left New England College, he went back to writing SF. “I felt like I was doing what I was meant to do.”

“Toy box” is an apt term for Steele. As he walks around his place, beset by two friendly dogs, Iko the chocolate lab mix and Jack the Jack Russell mix, he points out parts of his more literal toy box: books, ships and eventually what he calls his “Wall of Fame.” It’s a collection of framed photos, showing Steele at various conventions, surrounded by a very long list of SF writers. Thanks to SF’s sometimes second-class status as “genre literature” alongside more mainstream, or “literary” fiction, most of those writers aren’t necessarily household names. Still, authors like Vernor Vinge (pronounced “Vin-gee”) and Michael Swanwick are widely known in their field.

After Steele found success as an SF writer, he and his wife found themselves in the Valley to attend a convention at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst dubbed “Not Just Another Con” in 1997. They liked the looks of the area enough to settle here, but after they settled in, Steele says, he realized something: “Man, there are writers all around me!”

“What I really like about western Mass,” he added, “ is that nobody looks at you bug-eyed when you say ‘I’m a writer.’ People here think of it as just another profession. And that’s really very cool.”

James Heflin can be reached at jheflin@gazettenet.com.


 


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