Back in the 1930s when James Gunn was just a boy, he discovered a stack of dime novels and magazines in the back of his grandma's closet. Scanning the titles, he found that they were a collection of hero pulp fiction by the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Gunn devoured the stories, along with other adventure tales like the Doc Savage and Dark Shadows series, and his search for more books eventually took him to a second-hand Kansas City bookstore where he could trade books on a two-for-one basis.
It was there that he discovered a new type of fiction in a stack of old magazines. The stories were pure science fiction, and for Gunn it was the discovery of a lifetime.
"They had the same adventure of the other stories, but they also had a quantity of ideas," Gunn says. "I found that attractive, and I've been into science fiction ever since."
Gunn's obsession did not end with reading other writers. He became one himself. Then he became an English instructor who specialized in the genre.
Now a Kansas University professor emeritus, Gunn just finished teaching two summer writing courses, while wrapping up his latest book, "The Science of Science Fiction Writing."
The book will be available at area bookstores in October.
This latest tome is a how-to primer for anyone interested in writing sci-fi. It includes essays about science fiction, and it also uses material from his courses. The book's appendix is composed of notes taken by his students during his lectures and later given to him.
The book includes the origins of the genre, Gunn's approach to writing good sci-fi, the characters that appear in most sci-fi novels and profiles on authors, including H.G. Wells and Isaac Asimov.
"Anyone interested in science fiction writing or any writing can get something from this book. They may learn something from the processes I've put together over the last 50 years," Gunn says.
A lifetime of writing
Gunn published his first story, "Communications," in Startling Stories magazine in 1949. Fifty years later in September 1999 Analog magazine ran "The Giftie."
Over five decades, Gunn published 36 books and 100 short stories. He has seven collections of short stories. His novels include "The Immortals," "The Joy Makers" and "The Dreamers."
His biggest tip for successful writing is to write stories in a way that they can be repackaged and sold more than once.
"I got paid $750 for two novels in 1955, and I decided that was no way to make a living," Gunn says with a laugh.
So, Gunn took to serializing his stories, or writing his novels as a series of short novelettes. Each novelette runs in a magazine first, and later becomes a chapter in one of his novels.
Gunn is essentially retired from teaching, which gives him more time to concentrate on a new novel. That book will be a compilation of another series of short novels.
"Now that I'm retired I have more free time to write, but I used to have more energy back when I had less time," he says.
The state of an art form
Gunn is happy with the burgeoning popularity of the genre. The sheer number of new titles that appear each year, along with TV series and movies, prove that people are into tales of astronauts and aliens.
His only concern is that readers and viewers may be turning into mass consumers who spend little time reflecting on the stories' themes.
"There is much more popular interest. That can be seen in the movies and the number of titles printed," he says. "But for some of us, our only concern is that there does not seem to be much indication of deep interest. There used to be fewer readers years ago, but those readers were dedicated. It's a mixed blessing, but I'm not complaining."
Gunn's own stories may soon find their way to the big screen. His "The Immortals" and "The Reluctant Witch" are both under option for potential development with Hollywood moviemakers.
That accounts for two more projects that Gunn is working on during his so-called retirement.
"As they say in science fiction, it keeps things remaining in the 'area of the unexpected,'" Gunn says.