Jonathan Vos Post Interview

Jonathan Vos Post

Scientist and Author
Jonathan Vos Post

Better Storytelling Secrets

Authors discuss their writing techniques.


Hi, I’m Mark O’Bannon.  Welcome to this rare look into the secrets of storytelling from published authors.

Today, I’m joined by scientist Jonathan Vos Post, a professional Science Fiction writer who’s co-authored or co-edited with Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Richard Feynman, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, and many others.  He is the author of nearly 900 publications.


Life as a Writer

How did you get into writing?

My parents were book editors in New York City.  My father was Cum Laude at Harvard in English Literature, slightly interrupted by World War II, where he was the first to enlist in all of Boston, having waited on line all night after Pearl Harbor, and became the Officer Flight Instructor who taught the Free French how to fly fighters and bombers. My mother was Magna Cum Lude in English Lit, Minor in Journalism, from Northwestern University. Hence I met famous authors throughout childhood. Cocktail parties at Normal Miler’s home; living

in the same 1888 building where Arthur Miller had lived until Marilyn made him find another place. One of my usual babysitters was the only non-junkie among Andy Warhol’s actresses.


When did you first realize that you have what it takes to be a writer?

By age three, I was dictating the text to my father, who lettered my text onto my crayon illustrations of what we would now call Graphic Novels.



Where do you get your ideas from?

I spent 2-6 hours every day reading current publications in Mathematics and Science, often the very day that they are e-published.


I run sessions and entire tracks of international science conferences.


How do you develop your ideas into a story?

Sometimes it is the background that grabs me.  What if Asteroid 21 Lutetia, a large main-belt asteroid of an unusual spectral type,  measuring about 100 kilometers in diameter (120 km along its major axis), has been captured eons ago into Earth Orbit, so our world had a Little Moon and a Big Moon? Would that mean that the US/USSR Moon Race would be to the closer body?  And what if the USA had allowed those super-qualified women to be the first astronauts?




“The platinum-coated robotic probe was the first to return intact from a cosmos where life as we know it was impossible.”




On the campus of the California Institute of Thaumaturgy, I found myself at the locked door protecting The Singularity. Signs warned with danger sigils, and official notice from Secretary of Magic:

“Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here… Without Good Data!”

Feynman had warned me: “Magic Spells are not something harmless, like

poems. They are beyond even life or death. Any Magic Spell must be

done correctly, and must be completed.”

“What happens if I make a mistake, or don’t finish the Spell?” I asked. “And does it matter if it’s 1-dimensional magic, 2-dimensional magic, or  3-dimensional magic?”


Sometimes it is a character, who suddenly speaks to me, as my former friend, mentor, and co-author Richard Feynman.


Sometimes the whole story comes to me, complete, in a lucid dream, and I type as fast as I can from memory as soon as I wake up.



What kind of stories do you enjoy working with?



What genres would you like to explore in the future?

I have expertise in several major genres:

* Science Fiction

* Fantasy

* Horror

* Mystery/detective

* Westerns

* Poetry

My web domain, 17 years old, getting over 15,000,000 hits/year includes my encyclopedia of those genres (and of Romance, Film, TV).


Every once in a while I look at my inventory of almost 100 stories and  novels currently making the rounds and ask myself — is there ANY genre that I have not tried? Time to try it…



Do you work from an outline?

Almost never, for the same reason that my friend, co-author, editor, co-broadcaster Isaac Asimov said, when he only wrote ONE of his novels from outline.  “If I can’t surprise myself, how can I surprise my readers?”



How do you build your story?

Plot is an emergent phenomenon, crawling free from chronological list of events.  Plot is NOT Story.



For you, what makes a great hero?

My heroes, outside my own family, were my teachers, and their teachers, and their teachers, back as far as I can uncover.


Although I am something of an autodidact, I have had some significant teachers.

When I began to trace whom the teachers were of my teachers, and who were their teachers before them, quite a number of prominent names emerge.  Albert Einstein,  Ezra Pound, Bertrand Russell…


Going back to the 1600s in Mathematics, the coinventor of Calculus (simultaneously with Newton) Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz. In Astronomy, I can trace back to about 1600, with Christiaan Huygens, who discovered the Rings of Saturn, and his mentor, Descartes. Further back, to the 1400s, come the revolutionary anatomists: Vesalius and Fallopius.  Then, more than 24 generations before me, the Islamic medicine faculty at the University of Montpellier.  Quite a journey in time and imagination!


If one of your characters were to describe you, what would he/she say?

Underachiever.  Professor Jonathan Vos Post talks a good talk, but has not yet created artificial life, nor built a working stardrive.



How much time do you spend researching the setting for your stories?

My family complains that for every story, I have a dozen papers and magazines of data stacked up.  For every novel, a hundred.


What settings would you like to explore in the future?

I expect to be surprised. For example, among my Historical fictions:


Big Bang (circa 13.6 billion years ago) “Addendum to the Big Bounce”


42,000 years ago “Pelagic Fishing at 42,000 Years Before the Present”, 980 words


41,000 years ago “Denisovian Doom”, 900 words


4th millennium BC  “Sumeria to the Stars”, Draft 8.1, 30 November 2010, 57 pages, 15,650 words


c.1170 – c. 1250 Fibonacci: Super-Spy


12th-17th centuries: origins of European myths and legends of Prester John;  WaterMusic: one of my Paradena = Axiomatic Magic novels, in an alternate Earth where both Science and magic Work; this one centering on the Observatory of Prester John, in Mongolia, fighting an incursion of evil from yet another alternate Earth.  Partly set at historically accurate Uraniborg, a Danish astronomical observatory operated by Tycho Brahe; built circa 1576-1580


1300s Graphic Novel “Doctor Arcane, Hawking, and the Lucasians” – or – “Dr.Arcane Returns to Cambridge” Draft 8.0 of 21 Nov 2010 [18 pp., 6,800 words including notes]


13th Century and 1604 I AM HAMLET’S GHOST


1640s “John Dee, Peter Stuyvesant, and the New York/New Amsterdam Discontinuity” [A story in the “Oh, and Another Thing About the Universe” series] Complete Draft 21.1, 10 July 2011, 130 pp., 35,350 words.


1707-1754 “Henry ‘Golden Glove’ Fielding”, 2650 words [one of at least 4 JVP Baseball Stories, this one on the transition from cricket; “Stingball, Willie, and the Bachelors” being on the transition from amateur to semi-professional;  “Cubs Versus Hypercubes” on modern tactics such as hook-slide, relay assist…; and “Baseball White House” mentions each of the Commissioners of Baseball starting with Kenesaw Mountain Landis (1920–1944)]


1217- 1776 “George Washington and the Magic Snuff Box of Arbroath”, final draft 2.1, 17 pp., 4400 words.


1700s “Bad Shakespeare” screenplay or Treatment plus some scenes


1800 Pirates & Dinosaurs, started 3 Oct 2011, as of 21 Nov 2011: 274 pp. = 70,800 words of story, of 340 pp. total


1850s Slave-California, Complete Draft 8.1 of 4 August 2011, 72 pp., total of 20,000 words, Part of the “Oh, and Another Thing About the Universe” series


1848-1872 Influence to “Lewis Carroll” from Pasteur’s early work as a chemist, when he resolved a problem concerning the nature of tartaric acid (1848). [A solution of this compound derived from living things (specifically, wine lees) rotated the plane of polarization of light

passing through it. The mystery was that tartaric acid derived by chemical synthesis had no such effect, even though its chemical reactions were identical and its elemental composition was the same.  This was the first time anyone had demonstrated chiral molecules.  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 and Through the Looking Glass in 1872


1894-1917 “The Time-traveling Black Monk”, adapted from The Black Monk by Anton Chekhov [The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov, 1894 , translated by Constance Garnett, New York: Macmillan Company, 1917] but brought to the present, and moved from Russia to California


1901 Cubs Versus Hypercubes, 20,000 words [one of at least 4 JVP Baseball Stories, this one on on modern tactics such as hook-slide, relay assist…;  “Henry ‘Golden Glove’ Fielding” on the transition from cricket; “Stingball, Willie, and the Bachelors” being on the transition from amateur to semi-professional; and “Baseball White House” mentions each of the Commissioners of Baseball starting with Kenesaw Mountain Landis (1920–1944)]


1903-1970s Lonelyheart Locusts, started 20 Sep 2011, completed 26 Sep 2011, 190 pp., 52,550 words


1920s-1940s “Qian Xuesen Meets Wernher Von Braun”, Draft 9.0 of 21 Dec 2009, 62 pp. of story, 17,450 words


1920s-1950s “Einstein in Paradena”


1920-Present  “Baseball White House” mentions each of the Commissioners of Baseball starting with Kenesaw Mountain Landis (1920–1944)



1934-present  “Eleanor Rigby Murders”, Some background on murderer Charles Manson (born 1934), and 1966 because “Eleanor Rigby” is a song by The Beatles, simultaneously released on the 1966 album Revolver and on a 45 rpm single.


1940s-1960s Fermi’s Oracle, mostly Manhattan Project


1950s-1960s stories loosely based on TV series of that era include: “Love is a Fallacy” [Dobie Gillis] “Sitcom Hell and Social Darwinism” [Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s island]


1969 “I Was a Teen-Aged Grave-robber”, Stephen King’s take on that year, and mine, specific to background music and events


2006-2011 “Garrett Lisi’s Exceptionally Simple Theory of E8 Stardrive” recounts Lisi’s publications, first in 2006, then  online, then In December 2010 and May 2011 Lisi wrote in the popular magazine Scientific American a feature article on the E8 Theory of Everything; then I extrapolate to a future star-drive


Present  “Luck Be an LHC Tonight” contemporary description of CERN, with recent past details


2010-2017  “Exotic Smooth Manifolds and a Better World” starting with actual Mathematical Physics, discussing the real researchers



Do you like to know the purpose of your story before you sit down to write it?

Sometimes.  The ultimate purpose is always Enlightenment. I discover things about the world, other people, and myself in every work.  If I find myself laughing or weeping as I type, I know that I struck gold.



Do you have any favorite lines from your stories?

On one hand, Hemingway said that there is always a sentence that you love most on any page.  He says that you must remove it.


On the other hand, this week my favorite lines include:


The others did not notice that I followed Kentigern as he hiked uphill and into the woods. He went out to the hazel wood, because a fire was in his head, and cut and peeled a hazel wand, and hooked a berry to a thread. And when white moths were on the wing, and moth-like stars were flickering out, he dropped the berry in a stream, and caught a little silver trout. [obviously from Yeats, as I use that in “Murther by Lanthorn”]




Sirens howled.  “Code Violet, Code Violet” screamed the announcement, in a calm pre-recorded BBC-ish voice. In hospitals, “Code Blue” is generally used to indicate a patient requiring resuscitation or otherwise in need of immediate medical attention, most often as the result of a respiratory arrest or cardiac arrest. When called overhead, the page takes the form of  “Code Blue, (floor), (room)” to alert the resuscitation team where to respond.


A med team rushed to Ostro Nedgaard. But the problem was more widespread.  “Code Grey” meant Combative Person with no weapon, according to what began as HASC (Hospital Association of Southern California ), and “Code Silver” meant Combative Person with a weapon. “Code Black” was the Standard government reporting code for a bomb threat. But “Code Violet” sent chills along the spine.  It meant a breach of Interuniversal Protection Protocol.  It meant that there was an alien on the loose. [from “Gin & Atomic”]



Do you have a routine?  A certain place to write?  Do you listen to music?

I usually deny myself breakfast until I’ve written 2,000 words of fiction.  I sit at my custom-built (by my son) PC, in Open Office, with web pages of references available (Scots dictionary for “Murther by Lanthorn” for example) or a page listing curses in Somali. I drink fresh-ground coffee. If nobody else is yet awake, I have the TV in next room cranked up on a music channel, classic rock, or baroque, or Jazz, or whatever fits the mood I want in the story at hand.


How do you deal with writer’s block?

I only had that once.  Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome, after I was jailed for a few hours for uncovering major graft and corruption between local narcotics gangs and the county sheriffs.  My notes went to the FBI, who dug up the lawn of the former Town Council Chair, whose son was a Sheriffs deputy, and they found a quarter million bucks, including the marked bills from the narco sting.


It was extremely painful to be handcuffed while on live TV, asking questions at a Town Council meeting to which I’d been elected. And violative of the California and Federal Constituions’ First



They flipped one dirty cop, for reduced sentence, and put the other 4 away for a long time.


After that, lesser traumas, such as emergency intestinal surgery when I was 24 hours from death, or having my car, repainted, tuned, and detailed less than 24 hours earlier, totaled by the City

Attorney/City Manager of Temple City, who’d been weaving and running red lights, barely slowed me down. The cops, who followed someone who followed him to his mansion, let him go without even breath-testing.  But prosecutors jailed two ex-mayors of his town, whose graft and

corruption he masterminded.


Story Development

How do you go about fixing a story?

As Stephen King said, though I didn’t meet him face-to-face until doing him a favor in 1979:

* when you write, you tell yourself a story.

* when you edit, you take out everything which is not the story.


How do you know when to stop?

POST is an anagram for STOP.  But also for OPTS.  They story usually tells me when it’s done.  Sometimes the story lies.  “Honest, I’ll only be a short story”  Then 120,000 words later I realize it was a trilogy in disguise.


Words of Advice

What words of advice would you give to new writers?

Write EVERY day.  That habit, once set, frees you from being in the mood, or being inspired.  It is not will power that puts your fingers on the keyboard.  It is simply what you do.


What would you say are the three biggest mistakes made by writers?

  1. They have nothing to say.
  2. They don’t rewrite enough.
  3. They don’t have an interesting life (i.e. interesting enough to have a large well of experiences to draw from).


Zombie Apocalypse

So, what is YOUR plan for the zombie apocalypse?

I already have taught Population Genetics.  I will thus have predicted

the event, and my equations will have helped to snuff it out.


Final Thoughts

What’s the best thing you’ve ever written?

Whatever I’m writing today.


What are you working on now?

I am trying to complete the novel Batshit Crazy

Incomplete Draft of 28 July 2012,  84,700 words, adds 6,200 word Ch. 49 “Every Child Above Average”


…and the trilogy Alzheimer’s War

Ch. 371: “Subterranean Rodent” of the novel/trilogy Alzheimer’s War [draft of 8:30-8:50, Tuesday 27 June 2012, 3 pages double-spaced; 650 words]


“How old are you?” Sokol asked Jesus Mohammed Chang.

The Big Enchilada laughed. “Compared to the average three year life span of a common rat,” he said, “the 10 to 30 year life of the naked mole rat, a subterranean rodent native to East Africa, is impressive.  And compared to the human body, the body of this rodent shows little decline due to aging, maintaining high activity, bone health, reproductive capacity, and cognitive ability throughout its lifetime.  About eight years ago a collaborative of researchers in Israel and the United States began to uncover the secret to the small mammal’s long – and active – lifespan.”

“Is there such a thing as a clothed mole rat?” said the Indian Billionaire, in whose suborbital they raced for UNAnTerr {United Nations Antiterrorism}.


… and Gin & Atomic, currently 10,750 words.


I’d like to thank today’s author, Jonathan Vos Post for being with us today.

I’d like to thank you as well.  Please check out the other great interviews in this series with authors, and remember to keep writing!  The next published book could be yours.

– Mark O’Bannon


About the Author

In 2011, Jonathan Vos Post  sold 5 short works of fiction including:

* “Sumeria to the Stars”, Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations anthology;

* “Semi-Satyr”, Anthology: Songs of the Satyrs;

* “Zig-Zag Strikes Again”, Flash Fiction Online.

More generally, I am a scientist and author, who has appeared several times in Analog, Amazing Stories, Scientific American, Science, and hundreds of other venues, married to a scientist and author.  I have degrees in Mathematics, English Literature, and Computer Science.  I worked many years in the Space Program, was a Professor of Astronomy, Professor of Mathematics, then taught middle school and high school. I post original science fiction, fantasy or poetry on my Facebook Wall every day.  My nonfiction book on “Science Fiction and Complex Systems” was requested from me by Springer USA, a complete manuscript has been submitted, but final contract negotiations continue.

As of this morning, my 2,000 words/day fiction quota since 6 July 2010 has produced 1,623,000 words.  Last week I finished serializing “Africa 2030.” last month I began serializing my 14-th Facebook-serialized novel. I’d promised not to write the 14th such novel until I sold at least one of the first 13, but this one snuck up on me, as I thought it would only be a novelette.  I also write Math and Science research nonfiction every day, having developed that habit at Boeing, Burroughs, European Space Agency, Federal Aviation Administration, Ford, General Motors,  Hughes, JPL, Lear Astronics, NASA, Systems Development Corporation,  U.S. Army,  U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, Venture Technologies, Yamaha, and my various professorships.


Jonathan Vos Post is  also:

* Co-author with Ray Bradbury (who just died last month).

* Co-author with Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate physicist

* Co-editor with David Brin and Arthur C. Clarke

* Co-broadcaster with Isaac Asimov

* Quoted by name in Robert Heinlein’s “Expanded Universe”

* Winner of 1987 Rhysling Award for Best Science Fiction Poem of Year

* Published in Nebula Awards Anthology #23, 1989

His photo on Facebook was taken by the former U.S. Women’s Chess Champion.


Visit Jonathan Vos Post online:


Facebook:  Jonathan Vos Post


Written by Mark O’Bannon
Mark O’Bannon is the CEO of MEOw Publishing and is the author of “The Dream War Saga.”  His books include: “The Dream Crystal”, “The Dark Mirrors of Heaven”, and “Aia the Barbarian.”

You can find Mark on Google+ and Twitter.  Over the past 15 years, Mark has taught Writing, Self-Publishing and Internet Marketing for authors.  Visit his blog, “Better Storytelling” or his website,


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