Interview: L. Neil Smith on his work, the Prometheus Award and his influences

L. Neil Smith in June 2019. (Photo courtesy L. Neil Smith).

L. Neil Smith is a libertarian activist and pundit, a musician, the founder of the Prometheus Award, a firearms enthusiast and a longtime Colorado resident. (Born in Denver, he grew up all over as an Air Force brat but eventually returned to Colorado for good.)

But he’s perhaps best known as a prolific science fiction writer, who often incorporates libertarian ideas into his novels, which usually have plenty of action and humor. He has written more than 35 books, including many science fiction novels, but also graphic novels, a vampire novel and political/philosophical commentary.

Smith founded the Prometheus Award by awarding it in 1979 to F. Paul Wilson for Wheels Within Wheels.   He did not, however, establish it as a regular award, but the award was continued when Michael Grossberg organized the Libertarian Futurist Society. Since 1982, the Prometheus Award and Prometheus Hall of Fame award have been awarded every year.

Smith himself has won awards from the Libertarian Futurist Society five times. Three times he received the Prometheus Award, for The Probability Broach (probably still his best-known novel), and  Pallas and Forge of the Elders. He also received a Special Award (with Scott Bieser) for The Probability Broach: The Graphic Novel and a Special Lifetime Achievement Award.

Ares, the latest book of his Ngu Family Saga, will be out soon from Smith’s publisher, Arc Manor. His publisher also plans to soon issue another new completed Smith book, Only the Young Die Good, the sequel to his 2011 vampire novel, Sweeter Than Wine. Smith is currently working on a new Ngu novel, Rosalie’s World.

Smith, 73, lives in Fort Collins, Colo., with his wife, Cathy, and roots for the Colorado Rockies baseball team.  The couple have a grown daughter.

Smith immediately agreed when I asked for an email interview. He answered all of my questions and tossed in some additional tidbits. We didn’t get around to asking what he thinks of the designated hitter in major league baseball or query him about his favorite beer, but we did try to cover quite a few of his many interests. [UPDATE: Smith says, “I detest the designated hitter or any ‘pinch’ hitter or runner at all. My favorite beer is Budweiser Chelada.“]

Tom Jackson: You have two new novels about to come out, and you are working on another Ngu Family Saga novel. Can we infer that you still enjoy writing and have no intention of stopping?

L. Neil Smith: You may, indeed. A long life, filled with … shall we say, “events”? … couldn’t stop me. Thanks to a stroke in 2014, I can’t walk or use my left arm. But I can still write. I intend to die just like Bat Masterson, slumped over my keyboard.

Tom Jackson: Can you clear up a bibliographic point? You said that Ares, your about-to-be-published novel, is the fourth installment of the Ngu Family Saga, but I couldn’t figure out what the third book is. Your Wikipedia entry only lists two Ngu Family Saga books,  Pallas and Ceres, and I couldn’t clear up the mystery looking at Goodreads, either. What’s the third book?

L. Neil Smith: Your confusion is entirely my fault. I wrote Pallas. I wrote Ceres. Halfway through the latter, I realized how odd it was that, as one of Heinlein’s “children,’ I had never written a book about Mars. I also realized that for many plot-driven reasons, it had to be set, chronologically, between Pallas and Ceres, before Llyra Ngu and Jasmeen Khalidov were born. It took me an unbelievable sixteen years, but I wrote it and called it  Ares the Greek name for Mars. So those are the three,  Pallas, Ceres and Ares. Now I’m writing a fourth novel, Rosalie’s World, in which Llyra is grown up and married. She has four kids! Jasmeen is married, too, to Llyra’s brother, Wilson, and together they’re raising Wilson’s daughter by Fallon O’Driscoll, Tieve. There may be a fifth Ngu family novel, Beautiful Dreamer, if I stay healthy and live long enough.     I’m looking forward to doing five more MacBear/Lysandra novels, too.

Tom Jackson: You’ve won three Prometheus Awards for your novels. Which of your works is your personal favorite, and which do you think you are likely to be remembered for?

L. Neil Smith: Actually, I’ve won four and a half Prometheus Awards. My favorite is usually the novel I’m writing right now, although I do love working and living with the Ngu family in particular. They almost seem like real folks to me. As far as being remembered, rather than for any individual work (it’ll probably be The Probability Broach, which is more than okay by me), I want to be remembered as a writer who worked very hard — thirty-seven books and counting, so far — and never wavered in his belief in and defense of the free individual. I’ve been a committed libertarian since I was fifteen, some fifty-seven years.


Tom Jackson: I have not read The Probability Broach yet, but my favorite among the ones I’ve read so far as The Forge of the Elders. How pleased are you with that work when you think about it?

L. Neil Smith: It’s certainly up there; it has depths that I’m proud of, which is why I wrote the prequel, Blade of p’Na and hope I can do a couple more. I’ve become very fond of Sam, and of Eichra Oren’s would-be girlfriend, Lornis.

I confess I like writing Ngu Family novels more. They’re like my
own family, and they are leading the rest of humanity out into space, to the planets, and now, in _Rosalie’s World_, out of the Solar System to the stars. They also have a lot of attractive characters — Gretchen, Rosalie, Ardith, Llyra, Jasmeen, Julie, Tieve — it is great fun to write about.

Tom Jackson: You mentioned you are sorry your 1997 novel, Bretta Martyndid not get more attention. Why is that novel special to you? Does it stand alone well, or do readers need to read the two previous  Coordinated Arm series books books first?

L. Neil Smith: I don’t know if Bretta Martyn stands alone. It’s hard for an author to tell. I do urge people to read Henry Martyn and The Wardove. The former is a real space pirate story that leans a little on Captain Blood, and the latter follows a rock ‘n’ roll band (drawn from Fleetwood Mac) raising money for the free side in an interstellar war. It’s also a swell love story and my most neglected novel. It has lyrics in it I wrote over thirty years.

I do know I have a tendency to “fall in love” with my leading ladies (Jasmeen Khalidov most recently — also, watch for Tieve Ngu), and Robretta Islay was definitely one of those, as was her mother, the
“tiny dancer” Loreanna Daimler-Wilkinson. You can actually _see_ Bretta in a grand graphic novel from BigHead Press called Phoebus Krumm, another swashbuckling space pirate story. One reason I love Bretta is that she got to put a well-deserved crossbow bolt through Chuck Schumer’s eye.

Check out BigHead Press for the graphic The Probability Broach, the magnificent Roswell Texas, and Timepeeper.

Tom Jackson: Aside from your many other novels, you are known to Star Wars fans for your Lando Calrissian novels. Do you keep up with the series? Have you seen the last few movies?

L. Neil Smith: I do not keep up with the series, and I have not seen the last few movies. I was brought in, essentially, by my friend, the late Brian Daly, and an editor at Random House. At the time, I desperately needed the money. In the end, I was treated so unprofessionally, and paid so poorly, I lost all interest.

The movies eventually became a politically correct dog’s breakfast. I detest operatives who destroy great works of art to advance their agendas. With me, you knew I was a snake when you brought me in.

Tom Jackson: Am I correct in thinking that Robert Heinlein and Robert Shea/Robert  Anton Wilson are among your biggest influences? What other writers influenced you when you were starting out?

L. Neil Smith: Heinlein I think of as my mentor, from Sixth Grade on, almost like a second father, although we never communicated until I was published and I discovered that he had known about me for some time and read all my books. Wilson and Shea I met somewhat later in life; they were my friends. I and a handful of others formed sort of an informal little club around their writings.

Poul Anderson was both, mentor and friend, and I have always striven to write as well as Theodore Sturgeon and as funny as Robert Sheckley. Detective author Rex Stout, and his forty-odd Nero Wolfe books, have been a tremendous influence on me. And I wish, above all, that we’d been in time to save H. Beam Piper, after whose most attractive and winsome character I named my daughter Rylla. His novella, Last Enemy is probably my favorite bit of science fiction.

Tom Jackson: How did you find out that Robert Heinlein had read your work? Did you get to talk to him very much? Did you read the William Patterson biographies, and the J. Neil Schulman interview?

L. Neil Smith: Several people told me that Heinlein thought well of my work. One couple  — our midwife and her husband — actually visited him; I gave them my latest, for him, but it turned out he already had it and, in fact, read everything I wrote. He said things about my work to them and others — and to his gardener, believe it or not — that I won’t repeat here because it’ll just seem like bragging. Needless to say, however, I have never paid any attention to critics since then, and they pretty much leave me alone. If I can please the Master, then to what else do I aspire?

I never talked to Heinlein directly (more’s the pity) but I did visit with his widow, Ginny, over the Internet, quite a lot after he died, back when it was simple and easy to do. She had outlived all her family and friends and was nearly blind. It was so sad. I didn’t know what to say, so I just visited.

 I gave up on Heinlein biographies back when Alexei Panshin wrote his. And I confess I never read the Schulman interview (sorry, Neil). Basically, I want my mental picture of the Old Man unsullied.

Tom Jackson: How did you discover Illuminatus! and what did you think of it when you first read it? Did Robert Anton Wilson or Robert Shea give you any writing advice?   

L. Neil Smith: I have been wracking my brain to remember how I first heard of Wilson and Shea, and how I acquired that book. (I read most of Wilson’s follow-ups, as well; I especially like Masks of the Illuminati, about Aleister Crowley.) That’s a major reason why it took me a while to get back to you this time. I consulted my wife, Cathy. Shea seemed particularly fond of her, but she couldn’t remember, either. I loved it from the first page, although I felt lucky I didn’t read it while smoking dope. It would have taken me so far out, I’d still be gone.

 And since you didn’t ask, my favorite part is Hagbard Celine and the self-destructing Mynah birds.

The two Bobs seemed to accept me as a colleague and contemporary, although Wilson was closer to my dad’s age, and never offered me advice.

Tom Jackson: Do you like being known as a “libertarian science fiction writer?” Or would you rather be labeled a “science fiction writer/” Or would you prefer yet another label, on none at all?

L. Neil Smith: “Libertarian science fiction writer” suits me perfectly. I have struggled for that title for decades. I also like being known as a
worthy successor to Robert A, Heinlein.

Tom Jackson: We talked a bit about writers who influenced you, but I think everyone you mentioned is deceased. Who are some of your favorite living writers?

L. Neil Smith: It may surprise you to learn that I don’t read contemporary science fiction. I started writing, among other reasons, because there wasn’t enough decent to read. I have read every one of Rex Stout’s forty-odd Nero Wolfe books aloud, twice, to my wife, partly because they’re such a pleasure to read aloud. Now and again exceptions occur, such as the splendid novels of the great Vin Suprynowicz.

Tom Jackson: I like to buy ebooks when I can (because they are cheap, and cut down on all of the books cluttering up pretty much every room of my house.) Are many of your current sales ebook sales? Do you read ebooks yourself, or do you prefer paper?

L. Neil Smith: My house is the same — I call it “well-insulated.”

Everything I write or have written is available as an e-book. Kindle and its little brothers and sisters have probably tripled my income. I have read a great many e-books, myself, with perfect satisfaction. Not so much for a while; I developed cataracts which I’m right in the middle of getting removed. Also, manipulating dead-tree books has become very difficult since the stroke cost me the use of my left hand. A lot of good people whose books I promised to read must think I’m an asshole.

Tom Jackson: Could you talk about what kind of music you like? Didn’t you play in a band for years?

L. Neil Smith: I started during the folk “revolution” of the 1960s. But nothing moves me quite like genuine bluegrass — Flatt and Scruggs, the Monroe Brothers, the Dillards, most of all the New Lost City Ramblers. The late Pete Seeger once said that every newborn baby should be issued a five-string banjo, so it will always be happy, demonstrating that even a communist (“Ah, but he’s our communist.”) can be right occasionally.

I always thought that my future lay in music. I have performed solo, in duos with an occasional beautiful girl, and led bands, The Roughriders I and II and the Original Beautiful Dreamer Marching Jug Band, doing bluegrass, what’s called “old timey music”: and, of course jug band music. We covered Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band, the Even Dozen Jug Band, and Dave van Ronk and the Jug Band. See a pattern there?

My favorite old-timey songs are “Down With The Old Canoe” (a silly song about the sinking of the Titanic) and “When The War Breaks Out In Mexico (I’m A-headin’ Up To Montreal)”; my favorite jug band song is “The Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me,” my favorite bluegrass is “I’m A-goin’ Down To North Carolina,”;my favorite folk song — bar none — is “Flora/ the Lily of the West.” Check out Joan Baez’s version, or that of Peter, Paul. and Mary — I blended the two together in the arrangement I used.

In the early 60s, in my humble attic bedroom in college, I started watching a PBS TV show, “The Turn of The Century” with pianist/scholar Max Morath, that was mostly about the unutterably brilliant Scott Joplin. My favorite composition of his is “Ragtime Dance,” which sounds to me like a 1920s Disney cartoon sound-track. I do like some later music: Dire Straits, Fleetwood Mac, and the astonishing genius of the Beatles, which I believe will last for 500 years; I go to the 1964 The Tribute concert every August at Red Rocks. I also like Barenaked Ladies.

Lately, doing karaoke with my lovely and talented wife and daughter, I find myself gravitating toward country-western. I sang Jim Reeves’ “He’ll Have To Go” the other night.

Is that enough about music?

Tom Jackson: You gave out the first Prometheus Award, in 1979, for F. Paul Wilson’s Wheels Within Wheels. What possessed you to originate the award? How did that first awards process go?

L. Neil Smith: Well, I realized that, given my convictions, I would never win a conventional literary award — “social justice warriors” are not a new phenomenon by any means; the current specimens are just the older generation’s pathetic spawn. Later, I sold the idea — an award, in
gold, for the best libertarian science fiction novel of the year — as a way to persuade new writers to come out of the libertarian closet. I didn’t need any such persuasion myself, so I was surprised when years later, I won. But very happy.

Tom Jackson: After you awarded the first Prometheus Award, Michael Grossberg organized the Libertarian Futurist Society, and with the help of others, has kept the Prometheus Award going for about four decades now. How have we done? And have you ever played an active role in the LFS, or have you chosen to stay out of it?

L. Neil Smith: The latter. Having handed off to someone else, I’ve stayed out of it. It’s only courtesy. Michael has done a splendid job and I only hope he will continue. He makes libertarians everywhere feel proud. There are, as you would imagine, a couple of things I would have done differently, but I understand Michael’s slant on them, I think, and it isn’t easy to write the following ….

First, in designating an award in gold, I had in mind something equal to the miserable pittance paid as an advance to the average beginning author — four thousand dollars was what I got for The  Probability Broach. For a long, long time, it was all I got. But the organization couldn’t afford that — believe me, I understand — so a smaller amount was awarded. If I were running things (which I am not, thank Somebody), I would hire a professional fund-raiser to scratch up the money throughout the year. I wonder what advances are like now. Still the same pittance, I’d wager.

Second, there has been an annoying tendency to give the award to collectivists if they have just inserted the word “freedom” at the bottom of Page 75. The Ursula LeGuin debacle was an instance of that, and a stain on the award. I’m told that even she was bemused by having won it. LeGuin is an avowed socialist; I meant for the award to go to libertarians or proto-libertarians. I have not followed events closely enough to know if this travesty has been repeated, but it shouldn’t be.

Tom Jackson: Isn’t the controversy over the decision to give an award to The Dispossessed the sort of thing that’s always going to occur with awards? I’ve been a judge on the nominating committee several years, and while I can’t discuss specific arguments (deliberations are supposed to be confidential), I know that sharp disagreements are part of the process. Also, isn’t this an argument among friends? Robert Shea is one of the LFS members who argued LeGuin should get the award.

L. Neil Smith: This is easy. I created the award. I never intended that it be given to enemies of individual liberty and Western Civilization, like those who call themselves “socialists”. It would be like giving it to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Bob Shea was a wonderful fellow, but in this case he was wrong. However, I had passed the torch to somebody else, and it became their decision to make.

Tom Jackson: You originally established the Prometheus Award, and since then you’ve received the award five times, and it seems to me those two facts taken together could be misunderstood. (I’ve been heavily involved in the award for 10 years, and I know you have not “lobbied” us.) Is one of the reasons you stayed away was to avoid “conflict of interest” complaints?

L. Neil Smith: Exactly. For a number of reasons, mostly personal, I was unable to follow through with administering the award — I am most definitely not a “leader of men” — and I was extremely fortunate and grateful that Michael Grossberg was willing to take over. I never expected to win the award myself, several years later; I never needed any encouragement to write libertarian novels. But I was very pleased and flattered when it happened.

Tom Jackson: Do you enjoy going to science fiction conventions? And have you continued to be accessible to your fans, writing back when they contact you?

L. Neil Smith: I hardly ever attend conventions, but when I do, I generally enjoy it very much. I especially like pontificating on a panel. I don’t like all this “social justice warrior” crap. They’re little bullies, no different from Chinese communist thugs running “self criticism” sessions.

I have always made a point of being, as you say, “accessible” (although it is my preference to have friends, instead of fans). Hey, these folks pay me the enormous compliment of taking my work, my ideas, into their minds. And, of course, they feed my family and keep a roof over our heads. I do wish there were a couple million more of them.

As to writing back, I love the Internet. It has made communicating with people who read my books and essays so much easier than it was when I started in the early 80s. Guess I should add that I greatly prefer plain “old-fashioned” e-mail to abominations like Twitter, Facebook, and Messenger.

Tom Jackson: I have fantasized about living in Colorado. This seems unlikely, although I did often visit when I lived in Oklahoma. Why do you choose to live in Colorado, and what do you like about it?

L. Neil Smith: When I was in college, and I got off the plane from Colorado to northern Florida, it was like walking into a hot, wet sponge. The air in Colorado is cool and dry and I love it. Also, Colorado was a relatively free state back then. It’s a blue state now, but it may turn in 2020. We work and we have hope.

Tom Jackson: What libertarian blogs or websites do you like to read? Who are your favorite libertarian philosophers?

L. Neil Smith. I don’t really read much on the Internet. When I sit down at my computer, I’m there to write. Some exceptions: The Libertarian  Enterprise (of course), Sarah Hoyt’s excellent columns, Marc Morano’s Climate Depot, and I look at Breitbart and Drudge every morning, just like my dad read his newspaper.

I have a lot of favorite “philosophers,” which I’ll define as individuals who have taught me how to think about ethics: Robert A. Heinlein, Ayn Rand, and Robert LeFevre foremost, Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea (that’s a hell of a lot of Roberts), H. Beam Piper and Poul Anderson. I would be an absolute ingrate to exclude Jeff Cooper (look him up), John Wayne, and Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

Tom Jackson: When you write, do you outline a complete plot first? Or do you just start with a premise and let your instincts guide you?

L. Neil Smith: I have written over 35 books so far (at this moment, I don’t know exactly how many), every single one of which was different. I’ve never written a formal outline, as they taught us to do in school, but I have written synopses as long as 10,000 words, not only as writing guides, but as tools for selling book ideas to publishers. A colleague once called it “the unknown art”. Sometimes I write synopses as I go along, anticipating the next few chapters. Sometimes I just write “by the seat of my pants”. Mostly I have learned to trust my unconscious mind implicitly; it’s a much cleverer writer than my conscious mind. I reward it with chocolate and lots of naps.

Tom Jackson: Who is the best editor you ever worked with? We’ll keep this on a positive plane and avoid asking about the worst, unless you want to volunteer something.

L. Neil Smith: I always enjoyed working with James R. Frenkel at Tor, although we  differed philosophically and we had our occasional ups and downs. My best editor is the one I have now, a charming lady who works for Arc Manor/Phoenix Pick named Lezli Robyn. She clearly understands what I am trying to do, literarily, and whether she agrees with me or not (I don’t know), honestly helps me to do it. She also gets my jokes and cares about my characters. I am endlessly grateful to my publisher, Shahid Mahmud, for assigning her to me.

The worst editor is one I never had, who retired from one of my several earlier publishers, lamenting that she and her husband could no longer act as “gatekeepers.” She actually used that word, which I would be deeply ashamed to do. These days, we all know what it means: it’s Social Justice Warriorese for “concentration camp guard.”

Actually, I’ve had far worse difficulties with agents, of which I’ve had — and fired — two. They were both from shockingly famous and “prestigious” agencies. One of them lied to me and wouldn’t answer my phone calls. The other helped his crooked boss steal from me. Neither of them ever did me a bit of good and one of them set me back considerably. I do not have an agent any more.

Tom Jackson: I’m sure you get asked this a lot, but it’s an obligatory question: What is your advice for people who want to become writers?  

L. Neil Smith:  Lie down until the symptoms go away — I’m kidding. My serious advice is to read a lot, write what you are moved to write, and put not thy trust in agents, editors, or publishers. Their interests do not run parallel with yours. Today’s technology allows you to write and publish on your own terms. The Internet will let you advertise and distribute.

  • See related LFS interview with LFS founder Michael Grossberg on how he became a writer, critic, sf fan, & how he met L. Neil Smith and helped save the Prometheus award

    * Join us
    ! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
    Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as vital as political change (and often more fun!) in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

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