The Write Stuff – Monday, June 19 – Interview With Gray Rinehart

This week’s guest, Gray Rinehart, is the only person to have commanded an Air Force satellite tracking station, written speeches for Presidential appointees, and had music on The Dr. Demento Show. His fiction has appeared in Analog Science Fiction & Fact, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies, and his first novel is forthcoming from WordFire Press. His nonfiction includes applications of quality improvement principles to education and the military. He is a contributing editor (the “Slushmaster General”) for Baen Books and a singer/songwriter with two albums of mostly science-fiction-and-fantasy-inspired music. He fought rocket propellant fires, refurbished space launch facilities, “flew” Milstar satellites, drove trucks, processed nuclear command and control orders, commanded the largest remote tracking station in the Air Force Satellite Control Network, and did other interesting things during his rather odd USAF career. His alter ego is the Gray Man, one of several famed ghosts of South Carolina’s Grand Strand.

He describes his forthcoming novel, Walking on the Sea of Clouds, scheduled to be published this month by WordFire Press, as follows:

Every frontier, every new world, tempts and tests the settlers who try to eke out an existence there. In Walking on the Sea of Clouds, a few pioneering colonists struggle to overcome the unforgiving lunar environment as they work to establish the first independent, commercial colony on the “shore” of Mare Nubium, the “Sea of Clouds.” What will they sacrifice to succeed—and survive?

What can you tell us about Clouds?

Most science fiction fans are familiar with lunar colonies of one type or another: the scientific outpost in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the penal colony in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the helium-3 mining outpost in the film Moon, and so forth. Often lunar colonies are established locales, whereas the colony in my story is just getting started; the characters have to build a lot of the infrastructure and deal with problems inherent in setting things up for the first time.

To a degree the colonists feel like unwanted stepchildren in the whole effort because the colony is only meant to support asteroid mining operations. It’s not like a city growing up along a waterway or a main road; it’s more like a mining camp, a company shanty town, or a village that just happens to be a convenient overnight stop between two more important places. But without that mining camp, without the workers in that company town, without that village, things get much more difficult and expensive (if they’re even possible). So the colonists know they’re important to the overall venture, but they sometimes have trouble convincing other people of that.

What was the inspiration behind it?

In many respects this story grew out of my experience as the Chief of Bioenvironmental Engineering at the Air Force Rocket Propulsion Laboratory at Edwards Air Force Base. That was my first assignment, and I was responsible for industrial hygiene and environmental compliance for every test program at the lab from small satellite thruster firings to open-air test firings of full-scale Titan solid rocket motors. I learned a great deal about propellants and rocket systems, and as the Chief of the Disaster Response Force I also led real-life emergency responses and cleanup of two rocket propellant fires. So, a lot of things in the book were inspired by things I learned or experienced in that assignment. There are tidbits from other assignments as well, including the year I spent at Thule Air Base, Greenland.

Throughout my career, I was constantly impressed by the technical competence and professionalism of the people who built and maintained and operated the space and missile and communication systems I came in contact with, whether that was as part of the Titan launch business at Vandenberg AFB or doing mobile command and control at Offutt AFB or whatever. I wanted my characters to portray those qualities, but more than that I wanted to explore the stories of people involved in the day-to-day work, the daily struggle. So many stories focus on the people running the show, the commanders and directors making big decisions, but these ventures are so complex that multitudes of people work on them and make them successful. They all have their own parts to play, their own stories to tell, and I wanted to tell them.

What was the biggest challenge you faced writing this book and how did you overcome it?

Probably the challenge that pervaded the whole book was trying to portray the scope of the project—it’s a huge undertaking—without getting so bogged down in the details that the story ground to a halt. That may be why stories and histories of other big projects focus on the big personalities that drove them: Oppenheimer and the big-name scientists in the Manhattan Project, von Braun and the astronauts in the Apollo program, and so forth. Each of those programs—every big program—had thousands of people who worked “in the trenches” whose stories have rarely been told. That was one reason I enjoyed Hidden Figures so much: here were ladies who made such an impact on the Mercury program that it would not have succeeded without them, whose stories were previously known to very few. Unsung heroes—why not sing their praises, too?

Establishing a lunar colony would also be a monumental task, and would take a tremendous amount of time and require a huge team of people. I managed some big projects in the Air Force, including the early stages of an eighty-five million dollar construction project, and the sheer number of highly trained, highly motivated, very specialized people who had to work simultaneously doing different tasks in many different parts of the country was mind-boggling. A whole lunar colony would put my measly solid rocket handling facility to shame.

Add in the layers of bureaucracy and oversight, some of it necessary and some of it not, and that would make for pretty tedious reading if we went too deep into it. Nobody wants to read the minutes, let alone the transcript, of a preliminary design review! So the challenge was to include just a few small details here and there, and to mention other details but keep them in the background in order to concentrate on more interesting things. And, for me, since I have some experience in emergency response, the “more interesting” usually had to do with some emergency or other.

What else are you working on?

I recently started writing a fantasy novel that I outlined earlier this Spring. I sent the outline to some friends in the industry to see if they think it tells a story worth pursuing, but even though they haven’t gotten back to me I was interested enough to start organizing electrons into language-like patterns for it. I confess that it’s more epic in scope than I originally thought it was going to be, so I’m not sure what to expect from the effort; I hope my friends agree that it’s a worthwhile project, and I’ll probably work on it for the rest of the year (at least).

Tell us about your path to publication.

How far back do you want to go? Instead of going all the way back to when I first tried (and failed) to write fiction that would sell, let’s concentrate on this novel.

I actually wrote the bulk of this novel not quite a decade ago, after I attended Dave Wolverton’s novel writing workshop. I had already written one novel, way back in 2001, and turned down an abysmal publishing contract on it before eventually trunking it and turning my attention to short fiction.

About the time I started making professional short fiction sales, in 2010, I was ready to shop the novel around. A couple of publishers and agents had nice things to say but didn’t pick it up because the novel doesn’t fit into any convenient categories: it’s a near-future story with no aliens and no threat to all of humanity, not a far-flung space opera in which the fate of millions hangs in the balance; it’s very much a story about people, their motivations and relationships, but it’s not a romance; that sort of thing. So after I made the rounds of the major publishers, I started sending it to small presses.

The story garnered more interest at the small presses—plural, because I’d send it to one, and after a while if they didn’t say “no” I’d send it to another, until at one point it was at two other places besides WordFire Press and all three of them were still considering it. Then a fourth, much newer, press offered me a contract. I told them a few other places had been looking at the novel, and I contacted each of the others and let them know I had a contract in hand. And that was when WordFire said (effectively) hey, wait a minute, we’ve got dibs. Which made for a bit of an awkward conversation with the house that first offered me a contract, but everything was out in the open and we were all professional about it.

So, something of a “long and winding road” in terms of getting this novel out.

I find that process interesting. Every now and then an author shows me a slightly different approach—in this case multiple, simultaneous submissions—with a differing outcome.

Stepping back onto more familiar ground, I’ll ask what compels you to write?

I wish I knew. I’ve always enjoyed reading, but that doesn’t necessarily excuse trying to write!

Seriously, I don’t have a good answer for this because in some respects I think I enjoy the product more than the process of creation.

I do, however, enjoy the challenge of finding ways to describe or articulate things so they’re understandable, so they make sense. From that aspect I think I’m better at the craftsmanship side of writing than I am at what I think of as the “design” side. I’m more of a wordsmith than a storyteller, and since I was a carpenter in my youth I use that as a metaphor: when it comes to my writing, I’m a much better carpenter than I am an architect. I think that’s part of what made me a pretty fair speechwriter: I loved the challenge of taking a speaker’s message and finding a way to fit it to an audience and an occasion so it would resonate with the listeners.

Maybe the question I really find hard to answer is why I write fiction in particular. I do like writing various kinds of things, but I find creating a story from scratch to be very trying. But when it works, it’s worth the effort.

Tell us about your job at Baen Books.

I’m a contributing editor (unofficially, the “Slushmaster General”) for Baen Books. I evaluate the vast majority of our unsolicited manuscripts, and recommend those I think are good candidates for the Baen line to the publisher for her consideration.

Do you have any pet projects?

I don’t know if they qualify as “pet projects,” but I have a lot of interests outside of the usual writing and editing.

My music is probably my best-known creative pursuit outside of writing prose. I have a couple of CDs out, two of my songs were played on The Dr. Demento Show, and a few conventions have even let me do concerts. At one point I thought I’d be recording a third CD this year—which would’ve been pretty cool, to have a novel and a new album in the same year—but it didn’t work out. I’m still writing new songs, but a new CD will wait a little longer. Instead, I’ve been cobbling together some music videos of songs from my existing albums.

Speaking of video, I started another new project this year: a video series I call “Between the Black and the White.” The episodes are only a few minutes long, and most so far have been education-related: kind of companion pieces to the new version of my nonfiction book on education. I’ll keep that going as long as I’m having fun with it—and I’m always looking for ideas for new episodes!

Thank you, Gray, for spending time with us. Before I share your social links and provide an excerpt from Walking on the Sea of Clouds, I’d like to try a Lightning Round. In as few words as possible, please answer the following:

My best friend would tell you I’m a… Renaissance Man. Seriously, he tells people that pretty frequently. It’s a great compliment, but a shade embarrassing.

The one thing I cannot do without is: Oxygen.

The one thing I would change about my life: Only one thing? I have so many… Here’s a big one: I would like to have been more forgiving of myself.

My biggest peeve is: Rudeness.

The person/thing I’m most satisfied with is: My wife. We’ve been married 32 years as of June 1st.


Walking on the Sea of Clouds excerpt:

The only warm color in the room was the red-brown ribbon of blood that flowed through translucent plastic tubing from Stormie’s right arm to the scanner and back again.

The rest of the antiseptic room blazed cold under the fluorescent lights: the row of cabinets labeled with machine-like precision, the stainless steel table with its orderly array of implements, the ubiquitous anatomy poster. The IV drip into her left arm was clear as ice water. Even the scanning and filtration unit itself, squat and boxy in its cream-colored housing with sky blue faceplate, seemed unwarmed though her blood flowed through it.

Over-conditioned air bit through the hospital gown, and Stormie wished she had taken the thin blanket the nurse offered. At least the gown was a tri-fold—a wrap-around with three arm holes—even if it had to be the standard putrid green.

Nothing to be afraid of, she told herself. Nothing but a million microscopic hunter-killers coursing through your blood.

Stormie squirmed a little on the padded table, and the paper covering crackled loud as thunder. The tubing pulled against the tape that secured it to her arm. In places where the light hit the tubing just right, her blood looked as dark as her skin.

Dr. Nguyen’s smiling face appeared in the wire-crossed glass set in the door. He waved, then came in carrying the brushed aluminum clipboard with all the release forms she’d signed. She hadn’t read them, of course; she supposed no one did. Written in the most obscure dialect of legalese, their clauses and codicils were inaccessible to those uninitiated in the lawyerly arts, even people who were otherwise smart; if system administrators could erect electronic barriers as formidable as lawyers’ linguistic barriers, no computer firewall would ever be breached. The papers all boiled down to I-understand-the-risks-associated-with-this-procedure-and-accept-the-improbable-but-very-real-possibility-that-it-may-result-in-my-death-or-permanent-disability. She had signed them with barely a first thought.

Dr. Nguyen’s black, greasy hair stuck out above one ear, as if he’d just gotten up from a nap at his desk. “How are you doing?” he asked. He reached out his slender hand and Stormie shook it for the third time this morning. “Everything still okay? No irritation?” He bent toward her arm and examined the needle site.

“Seems okay,” Stormie said. “I’m cold, though.”

The door opened again and the same stout, blonde nurse who had witnessed the paperwork—Nurse Myracek—carried in a plastic transit case about the size of a six-pack cooler. The dark, almost hunter-green case contrasted with the room’s stark brightness. She set the case next to the equipment on the steel table as Dr. Nguyen asked her to bring Stormie a blanket. She gave Stormie an “I told you so” look, but smiled and nodded to make it a friendly comeuppance.

“You’ll want to lie back now,” Dr. Nguyen said.

Stormie complied, and the clean paper sheet scrunched against her back. Her empty stomach complained about the preparatory fast. In a moment, Nurse Myracek had her expertly swaddled under a soft, robin’s-egg-blue blanket and put a small pillow under her head.

Stormie remembered something in a poem about the night, lying on the table … something about anesthesia … she tried and failed to recall the line. It might be appropriate, somehow.

Dr. Nguyen snapped opened the clasps on the transit case. They clattered down one by one, then he took off the lid and lifted out a syringe about the size of a cigar. He started making notes on his clipboard.

“Just think,” Nurse Myracek said. “That came from outer space.”

Stormie smiled a little. The nurse made it sound as if the picophages in the syringe were alien creatures brought back to Earth by some survey team. They didn’t come from outer space per se, they were grown and processed in the high-vacuum, medium-orbit foundry that the Low-Gee Corporation developed from the space station nanocrystalline laboratory. “Pico-” was marketing hype: they were smaller than almost any other nanomachines, but not three orders of magnitude smaller. So far they were one of only two commercial products that seemed to require low-gravity manufacture, but on that shallow foundation Low-Gee had built a small technical empire. A greater hurdle than making the things in the first place had been figuring out how to prepare them for descent into the Earth’s gravity well; the shock-and-vibration-damping packaging was expensive, but still cheaper than sending people into orbit for treatment.

Stormie nodded. They came from outer space. And you’re going to put them in me.


Visitors can follow Gray Rinehart at the following links:




Twitter:          @grayrinehart

 His author page on Amazon, where you can purchase his non-fiction work “Quality Education: Why It Matters, and How to Structure the System to Sustain It” while you’re waiting for Walking on the Sea of Clouds’ forthcoming release is: