Jack McDevitt

Interview by Alyce Wilson   

Jack McDevitt is a former English teacher, naval officer, Philadelphia taxi driver, customs officer, and motivational trainer. With the nominations of Infinity Beach, Ancient Shores, “Time Travelers Never Die,” Moonfall, and “Good Intentions” (cowritten with Stanley Schmidt), “Nothing Ever Happens in Rock City,” and Chindi, his work has been on the final Nebula ballot seven of the last eight years.

His first novel, The Hercules Text, was published in the celebrated Ace Specials series, and won the Philip K. Dick Special Award. In 1991, he won the first $10,000 UPC International Prize for his novella “Ships in the Night.” The Engines of God was a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and his novella “Time Travelers Never Die” was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula.

- biography from Jack McDevitt's official site

Wild Violet editor Alyce Wilson interviewed award-winning science fiction author Jack McDevitt at the science fiction convention Philcon, held in Philadelphia in December.

What's it like coming back to Philadelphia for you? Do you visit here often?

I come back here about once a year. I usually go to Philcon. And I have a lot of friends in the area, a few relatives. And it's exciting, yes. It's nice to be back in my hometown. I don't think I realized how crowded it is, especially the area where I grew up in South Philadelphia. Somehow, it's more -- more compact than I remember.

More compact? More people?

No, it's just the houses are smaller, and they're closer together. And it's the same sort of experience I had: my folks used to take me to Wildwood when I was 4 or 5 years old, and I remember these huge waves that came in. And then the war broke out, and we didn't get back until about 1947. By this time, I was 12 years old. And I remember being startled by the size of the waves, which were now pretty small.

I got the same feeling about the houses in South Philadelphia.

That's what lots of people experience coming back to places where they grew up.

Yes. Well, if you grow up in an urban area, and then you go out, and you live in a place now where you've got a half-acre and everything is larger. You know, we lived in North Dakota for a number of years.

The nearest small town is 35 miles away. Eighty miles to Grand Forks.


You said yesterday [in your keynote address at Philcon] that "the cab got you where it's supposed to go." Did you ever doubt that it would?

Well, yes, I never expected to be -- There were two things I wanted to do when I was a kid. One was to play for the Phillies. That couldn't work out, because I couldn't hit a curve. Well, I've got nowhere close to the talent I needed.

And [the other goal was] to be a science fiction writer.

My freshman year at LaSalle College, I won an annual short story contest up there, a freshman short story contest. And I won that with a science fiction story, which was then published in a literary magazine, a school literary magazine, Four Quarters.

I actually saw it in print, and I thought I was on my way to being a science fiction writer. And then I got caught up -- I was a Charles Dickens fan at the time. I took to reading a lot of Dickens and read a few other things. I tried War and Peace, when I was in, I guess, my sophomore year. And to make a long story short, I realized how good people like Dickens were. And I just thought there was no way I could ever match that. So I took a hiatus and didn't write another word for 25 years.


It happened. I didn't realize I didn't have to be as good as Dickens. Dickens wasn't the competition.

What got you back on the track, then?

I was training customs inspectors in Brunswick, Georgia, at the federal law enforcement training center, and I think I got bored with it. I had been a teacher. I was a teacher for 10 years.

An English teacher?

Yes. To help someone else, I guess. I called one of my old friends who was department chairman at Mount St. Joseph Academy (ph) and was back at Rhode Island. Name was Richard Casavant.

And he said, I will always remember his comment, he said, "You're not happy with what you're doing?"

I go, "Well, you know, I taught. It's a good job; it's a lot of fun; but I don't feel as if I'm really doing anything serious."

And he said, "Well, you know, you used to move ideas and now you move cargo."


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