Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Stephen Leigh Interview - Amid the Crowd of Stars

Photo Credit: Kyle Cassidy

Stephen Leigh has been writing science fiction since he was in grade school. His first professional sale was in 1975 (to Ben Bova, then the editor of Analog Science Fiction Magazine) and has been publishing regularly ever since then, both with short fiction and novels. His first novel, SLOW FALL TO DAWN, was published in 1981.

He has been nominated for and won several awards for his fiction over the years. He's written several stories for the WIILD CARDS shared world universe (edited by George RR Martin). He has written and published the occasional poems and non-fiction pieces, as well.

What is your favorite book outside of your genre?
In fiction, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE. I don’t really consider ‘magical realism’ to be exactly outside my genre. Really, to me, magical realism falls under the wider umbrella category of ‘fantasy’ but most academics would disagree with me.

In nonfiction, I recently read SAPIENS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND by Yuval Noah Harari, and found it generated lots of story ideas—which is why I enjoy reading nonfiction. I’d recommend that as an eye-opening read.

Has reading a book ever changed your life? Which one and why, if yes? When/how did you realize you had a creative dream or calling to fulfill?
I’ve mentioned this in other interviews, but… It wasn’t any one book that changed my life, but a whole genre. SF/fantasy has always been my favorite genre. I haunted that section of the local library, devouring the stories and books sitting there. I went through the 19th century Verne and Wells novels, the “Golden Age” era writers like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and (my favorite) Ray Bradbury as well as others who were publishing at the time—which was the late 50s through the mid-60s. But the local library’s genre section was finite, sadly, and I eventually read them all and found myself still hungry for more stories to feed the imagination.

So, in 7th and 8th grade and maybe even a little before, I began making up my own (terrifyingly awful) stories and writing them down. I continued doing that through high school and into college, where Denise (who is now my spouse) and my friend Earl, who was also an aspiring writer, convinced me to start sending out my stories. Still in college, I sold a couple of my stories to semiprozines paying a penny a word or less, and eventually my stories started selling in the ‘pro’ markets for what was for me an incredible 5¢/word.

I was hooked. Still am, decades on.

Why is storytelling so important for all of us?
I would argue that we’re story-telling animals at the core. We’ve always made up stories and legends. To try to make sense of the world around us, we’ve created gods and demons, and we’ve created purely human heroes and villains to entertain us with their conflicts. We use fiction to explain things we don’t understand. We’ve used Story to entertain, to examine the world around us, to both inspire and terrify ourselves.

I can’t imagine not telling stories. I think that ability is one of the defining qualities of being human.

Can you tell us when you started AMID THE CROWD OF STARS, how that came about?
The initial spark for the book came from a trip to Ireland a few years back when we visited the beautiful Dingle Peninsula (one of my favorite locations in Ireland). At the end of the peninsula you’ll find the Blasket Islands, which have a fascinating history of their own. The Blaskets were once home to fisherfolk who spoke Irish and kept largely to themselves, holding the more ‘modern’ culture on the mainland of the island at arm’s length. The culture clash there fascinated me, especially since the Blaskets had a strong literary tradition of their own; writing in Irish, not English. The Blaskets, in the 19th century were the place to go if you wanted to learn the old Irish language and traditions—and many people did exactly that.

But the culture clash along with the lure of the cities and the Americas, compounded by new technological advances in fishing, gradually led to a population decline in the Blaskets, especially among the young. By 1953, there were only 22 people left on the Great Blasket, the largest island, who were evacuated to the mainland.

But the tale of the Blaskets started me thinking about this type of culture clash between Old Way and New Ways. I picked up several of the translations of the books written by the people of the Blaskets while we were in the area. And the idea of the isolated and insular Blaskets (transplanted into a fictional future) forms one of the threads of AMID THE CROWD OF STARS.

Meet the Characters
The two protagonists of the story are:

1) Ichiko Aguilar, a Terran who has come to Canis Lupus on what they hope is a rescue mission to evacuate the humans who have been marooned there for three centuries now. Ichiko is Japanese on her other’s side and French on her father’s.

2) Saoirse Mullin, a local who lives on an island archipelago off the mainland where most of the Canis Lupus humans have settled (the Canis Lupus equivalent of the Blaskets.) The islander society is dependent on the sea and fishing.

There’s also two other characters who occasionally have POV. One is Ichiko’s implanted AI, based on her mother, who serves as Ichiko’s interface with the ship. The other is a local intelligence, about whom only the islanders are aware...

What was the most surprising thing you learned in creating your characters?
Characters always surprise me as they start to come alive in a book. They develop distinct personalities, and sometimes they stubbornly resist being moved around by the author. I didn’t know that, for instance, the Ichiko was bisexual until I started writing. There’d been no thought in my head of that in the beginning -- though I knew from the start that Saoirse (the other protagonist) was gay.

Your Favorite Quotes/Scenes from AMID THE CROWD OF STARS.
As I said above, the initial ‘spark’ for AMID was from a trip to Ireland. I’ve made two additional trips there since that trip to Dingle: once to take over a group of students for a creative writing Study Abroad trip, and again when the World Science Fiction Convention was in Dublin. For the students, we also studied Yeats and his collections of Irish mythological tales. Yeats is also my favorite Irish poet. I ‘borrowed’ several Yeats quotes for the chapter titles in AMID, so let me give you a few of those: “A World Full of Magic Things”; “There Is Another World, But It Is In This One”; “All That's Beautiful Drifts Away Like The Waters”; “The Seeds Of Unspoken Secrets”; “Tread Softly Because You Tread On My Dreams”; “Till The Stars Run Away And The Shadows Eat The Moon”.

I modified a few of the quotes for the purposes of the book, and composed some of my own “Yeats-ish” chapter titles as well.

  • 1) The first proposal I sent to my editor, Sheila Gilbert, at DAW Books for AMID (then titled THE COLOR OF THE SEA) was a fantasy, not science fiction. I’d actually drafted about 7,000 words of that novel. Then I changed my mind and sent her a new proposal that was science fiction.
  • 2) Since 2000 up until AMID, all my novels had been fantasy even though I’d written a fair amount of straight SF up until that point, and all (like AMID) were published by DAW Books.
  • 3) I set down for AMID THE CROWD OF STARS (the SF version) in April of 2018. I submitted the final draft to Sheila in October, 2020 -- so writing the book took approximately 2.5 years
  • 4) In total there, were four complete drafts: a first draft that only Denise saw; a second draft that I sent to Sheila for her input; a third draft incorporating Sheila’s notes on the manuscript, a fourth ‘polishing’ draft that would be the final submission frat
  • 5) Sheila and I went through several cover concepts, with Penguin’s marketing department adding their thoughts. I’ll admit I wasn’t entirely sold on the cover we eventually settled on, but the more I see look at it, the more I like it. Now I think it’s excellent (and I hope the readers do as well). Sometimes that’s just the way it works.
  • 6) Despite being male, this now makes a dozen books in row where the protagonist (or one of the main protagonists, at least, since I sometimes have more than one) is female. Which is why I always give my drafts to Denise with the instruction that if I’m doing something stupid with any of the characters because of my own gender, please hit me over the head and tell me to correct that. For some reason, I seem to gravitate toward female protagonists.
Your Journey to Publication
My favorite ‘family’ story about publication involves my grandmother. My first ‘pro’ sale was to Analog, then edited by Ben Bova: “Answer In Cold Stone.” The first line of that story is “It is in my family to hate.” So when the magazine came out with that first pro sale of mine, I bought up every copy I could find locally and distributed them to family and a few friends. I handed a copy to my grandmother; she looked at the table of contents, saw my name and nodded proudly, then turned to the story itself… and I saw her face collapse and her mouth open in horror. She looked at me and said “We don’t hate in our family.”

At which point I had to explain to her that it wasn’t me that said that, but the first person narrator and it was his family that carried the hate. I’m not sure she ever really understood that characters can say things that aren’t necessarily true for the writer.

Writing Behind the Scenes
I believe strongly that a writer should make writing a dirty habit, because the writing muscles need exercise just like our physical ones if they’re to remain strong and healthy. So I try to write each and every day—and mostly I succeed at that. The late Mike Resnick told me early in my career that if a write can write 250 words a day, the equivalent of one double-spaced page, by the end of the year, he or she will have drafted a novel. So I shoot for 500 words a day. If things are flowing and I get more, that’s great. If things aren’t flowing and I only get a hundred or two hundred or the occasional none, then I figure things will average out.

Mind you, those daily words are draft—they need revision and polishing, and more revision, and more revisions before they’re done.

What is the first job you have had?
In high school, I was a busboy in the restaurant of the local Holiday Inn. But through college and for several years afterward, I was a full-time singer and bassist in a local rock band. Other than playing music and writing, the job I most enjoyed was teaching creative writing, which I did at a local university from 2000 - 2020

What is the first thing you think of when you wake up in the morning?
That’s easy now that I’ve retired from teaching: “Umm… What day is it?”

What is your most memorable travel experience?
As you might have surmised from some of the above: trips abroad. We’ve been to Ireland (several times for me; I have relatives there and love that country); France (twice now ); England (several times for me taking students to London and environs for Study Abroad classes); Wales (once). Denise and I would like to get to Scotland, and perhaps other places as well, but we’ll see...

When you looked in the mirror first thing this morning, what was the first thing you thought?
“OMG, who’s that old guy?”

If you could be born into history as any famous person who would it be and why?
Ben Franklin. I’ve always admired the old codger for his brilliance, his wit, and his accomplishment.

This innovative sci-fi novel explores the potential impact of alien infection on humankind as they traverse the stars and find themselves stranded on new and strange planets.

Amid the Crowd of Stars is a grand scale science fiction novel examining the ethical implications of interstellar travel, a topic rarely addressed in science fiction novels. What responsibilities do we have to isolate ourselves from the bacteria, viruses, and other life of another world, and to prevent any of that alien biome from being brought back to Earth?

What happens when a group of humans are stranded for centuries on another world with no choice but to expose themselves to that world? After such long exposure, are they still Homo sapiens or have they become another species entirely?

These questions are at the heart of this intriguing novel, explored through the complicated lives and the viewpoints of the people who have come to rescue the stranded colony, the members of that colony, and the sentient alien life that dwells on the planet. Difficult life and death choices will be made by all involved.

You can purchase Amid the Crowd of Stars at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you STEPHEN LEIGH for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of Amid the Crowd of Stars by Stephen Leigh.


  1. The best place I have been is San Diego, Calif.

  2. "Where is the best place in the world you’ve been?" Hmm. The Magic Pan in the 1970s was very nice.