Rick Wilber’s latest (Could it be his last? Read on to find out!) Moe Berg story, “The Secret City,” is in our current issue [on sale now]. Here he discusses the conception of the series and describes the many other writing and teaching projects that keep him busy.
Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece? How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
RW: The back story of “The Secret City” starts with my friend Ben Bova, the novelist and editor. Ben and I had collaborated some years ago on a screen treatment about a fictionalized version of Moe Berg, a famous baseball player who became a spy during World War II. That ultimately came to nothing, but Ben’s deep baseball knowledge and his familiarity with Moe’s fascinating story got me started on writing about him. I grew up in a baseball family—my father played for the Red Sox and Phillies and Cardinals, and was a coach, a scout, and a minor-league manager until he retired in his 60s—but for some reason I hadn’t heard about Moe. So I read Nicholas Dawidoff’s excellent biography, The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg, and that was it, I was hooked. I started reading everything I could find on Moe, including another excellent book, Heisenberg’s War: The Secret History of the German Bomb by Thomas Powers. That book explores German physicist Werner Heisenberg and his leadership of the German A-bomb program during World War II.
There’s quite a bit in the book about Moe Berg, including passages about the famous Zurich incident where Moe was incognito in the audience at a lecture by Heisenberg in neutral Switzerland, with orders to assassinate Heisenberg if it looked like the German program was close to building a super bomb. The incident has been fictionalized a number of times by some great writers, but I wanted to take my own my crack at it and I did so in the story, “Something Real,” which appeared in Asimov’s in the April/May 2012 issue. I set it in an alternate history and got pretty wild with it. It was a great pleasure to write, and I was absurdly pleased when it won the 2012 Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History—Short Form.
The enjoyment of writing that story and placing it with Asimov’s led me to write another Moe Berg story for the magazine, “At Palomar,” which ran in the July 2013 issue, and then another, “In Dublin, Fair City,” which ran in the November/December 2017 issue, and now “The Secret City,” which is very much a follow-up to the Dublin story and by far the most ambitious of all my Moe Berg stories.
I should add that the novella, “The Wandering Warriors,” co-authored by Alan Smale and myself, might well be another Moe Berg story. Moe isn’t mentioned by name in that story, but Alan and I decided it would be fun—and that story is very much a fun romp—if the character of The Professor was suspiciously similar to Moe Berg. At least one major critic noticed the similarity and, in writing a very nice review of the story, assumed the character was Moe. The story ran in the May/June 2018 issue of Asimov’s.
And now there’s “The Secret City,” which in some ways seems to wrap up my alternate-history take on Moe’s career as a spy. It’s interesting that “The Secret City” has come out just a month or so after the movie version of Moe’s work as a baseball player and OSS spy career hit the theaters and the streaming services. That movie, “The Catcher Was a Spy,” is based on Dawidoff’s biography.
Is this my last Moe Berg story? I’ve been saying that on social media, but lately I’ve gotten interested in the fascinating story of Hedy Lamarr, the Hollywood film star in the 1930s and 1940s who was also an inventor. Along with composer George Antheil, she developed and patented a radio-guidance device that could be used to steer torpedoes toward the ships they were trying to sink. In our reality, that invention wasn’t used in the war effort. But in some alternate history I can see Hedy and Moe having some adventures in the North Atlantic, using this guidance system to sink the ship carrying heavy water to the site of the German bomb program. Sounds like fun, so watch for “Alternating Currents” sometime soon.
AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
RW: In our history, during the Manhattan Project, to develop an atom bomb and end the war, several cities were nicknamed Secret City, including Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Hanford/Richland, Washington; and Los Alamos, New Mexico. All three were purpose-built to house the people and equipment necessary to the building of an atom bomb.
In my alternate history, though, I focus tightly on Los Alamos as my setting, and so I limit The Secret City nickname to that one town.
AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?
RW: Normally, current events don’t have much impact on my writing, but under our current political climate in the United States, that has changed. With these Moe Berg stories, in particular, I’m dealing with the U.S. in one alternate universe or another and the battle against fascism with all its darkness. In our own timeline, America had a serious flirtation with fascism in the years leading up to World War II. The American Bund (details here), Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and many were openly admirers of Adolf Hitler. They all embraced a very destructive demagogue. I see worrisome parallels to that in today’s political arena in America.
The Moe Berg stories are focused on spycraft and baseball, in that order. But it’s important, I think, to not dodge the horrors that fascism in the 1930s and 1940s brought to our timeline, so I have them threaten the world similarly in Moe’s other timelines. In “The Secret City” that anti-fascist thread runs right through the story. It includes an alternate take on famous German general Erwin Rommel, who was skeptical of Hitler’s plans in our reality and is even more so in the alternate past I posit. I also have Moe in conversations with my alternate versions of OSS chief William “Wild Bill” Donovan and U.S. President Eleanor Roosevelt. I even have a character who went through an alternate version of the Spanish Civil War and reminds Moe and his handler of the perils the world faces from fascism. All of this, I hope, adds a little heft to the importance of Moe’s work in the fight against fascism in that alternate universe.
AE: What is your process?
RW: I seem to write best in the morning, so my process is to get up around 7 a.m., get coffeed up, and then sit in my favorite lounger chair with my laptop literally on my lap, my headphones on (probably listening to Lord Huron, a band I really like) and see how much work I can get done by 11 a.m., when I break for lunch. It’s back to work then after lunch, though the afternoon is often when household chores, from vacuuming (a very necessary thing when the family dog is a Bernese Mountain Dog puppy) to mowing the grass to washing the dishes. My wife and I eat an early supper, around 5 p.m., and then I go for my daily 8-10 mile bike ride around 7:30 pm, when the Florida heat has, maybe, eased off a little.
My wife is a finance professor at a local college, so she’s often in meetings or teaching on campus, leaving me in charge of the seventy-pound Bernese puppy. But my wife also teaches online a lot, so there are hours that pass by with her at one computer, me at another, and the puppy asleep on the cool, kitchen tile.
I prefer working on one project at a time, but somehow that never happens, so I’ll focus on the next novel one day, a new short story the next day, and try and go back and forth successfully. And every day there are other writing projects—like this blog post—that need to be done, and other social media work to get done. And I’m in the middle right now of several fun editing projects—an anthology, a new collection of my short stories—and so I never get as much done as I’d like each day, but I keep plugging away.
With shorter work I like to get a good first draft done in a week or two. Or three. Or four. And then spend a similar amount of time revising before I send it in. With novels, I treat each chapter as if it’s a short story, trying to get it done so I can come back to edit and revise. Usually I’ll revise that chapter and that leads me into writing the next one with the story fresh in my mind.
AE: How did you break into writing?
RW: I grew up in a sports family, so I naturally gravitated toward sportswriting. I was a sports stringer for several papers when I was an undergraduate in college, covering Illinois high-school basketball or other local amateur sports. I was on the college baseball and basketball teams at the time, so I was really steeped in sports.
I loved that and started freelancing sports stories for national magazines a few years later at about the same time I started my teaching career at Southern Illinois University- Edwardsville. But I’d always loved science fiction, too, and had been a heavy reader of SF/F since I was in elementary school. I’d read 100 juvenile SF/F books a summer when I was a kid, so when I wasn’t playing baseball or basketball with my neighborhood pals, I was on the couch in the family living room reading like mad.
In fact, my two close friends in the neighborhood (here’s a shout out to Jim Hargis and Bill Astin!) and I would get together on summer mornings and read together, usually in the basement of Bill’s house, as I recall. We read all the Horatio Hornblower books, and all the James Bonds novels, and Tom Corbett, and Rick Brandt, and the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, and on and on.
By the time I was in my late twenties I was less enamored of sportswriting and came back to my roots in science fiction. I started writing for fanzines, and then summoned up the courage to apply to Clarion (class of 1978) and got accepted, and within a year or so after that I sold my first short story and there you go. I was busy teaching and working at newspapers, but I did my best to sell a short story every year or two to the magazines or anthologies (including my first sales to Analog in 1981 and 1982 and, later, to Asimov’s in 1988). Now I’ve sold more than fifty short stories to the various magazines and anthologies, including about fifteen to Asimov’s, or a few more if you count some poems.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
RW: At the moment, I’ve just sent in my revisions on the novel Alien Day for Tor Books. It’s the sequel to Alien Morning, which was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of 2016.
I’m also editing an alternate-history anthology for New Word City Press. It will come out as an ebook with a print edition and features reprints of some really great stories by Karen Joy Fowler, Sheila Finch, Eileen Gunn and Michael Swanwick, Kathleen Goonan, Harry Turtledove, Lisa Goldstein, Michaela Roessner, Michael Bishop, Gregory Benford, Rich Larson, Walter Jon Williams, Ben Loory, Nisi Shawl, Louise Marley, Maureen McHugh, Alan Smale, and my own “Something Real.” Great writers all, with stories that have won awards and been in top publications, including a number of them in Asimov’s.
I’ve also just turned in the ebook edition of “The Wandering Warriors” novella that Alan Smale and I were lucky enough to have in Asimov’s in the May/June issue. That, too, will be out from New Word City Press, as will a special edition of all four of the Moe Berg stories.
I try to stay busy.
AE: What are you reading right now?
RW: I’ve just finished reading advance copies of two great books. The first is Steven Erikson’s Rejoice, a Knife to the Heart, which is a deeply thoughtful masterpiece of a first-contact novel that will be out in October, and the other is Gregory Benford’s Rewrite, which is an action-packed look at multiverse theory that features a cast of significant historical figures and an important young man who is trying to save them. In both books you can look for appearances by some of your favorite writers, who are built into the plot in ways that show how science fiction writers can save the world! Terrific stuff, really, in both cases.
At the moment, I’m also reading recent ebook editions of Karen Joy Fowler’s wonderful collection, “Black Glass,” and Eileen Gunn’s ebook edition of “Stable Strategies.” Both collections are amazingly good.
AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
RW: Along with my forty-plus years of college teaching, my long career in journalism as a sportswriter, feature writer, reviewer, wire editor, and copy editor for a number of different newspapers taught me a great deal about the basics of writing, and about the potential for effective storytelling. During much of my teaching career I was also working at the local newspaper, and I loved every minute of that work. Newspaper people were and are interesting, very well-informed, deadline-oriented people who care deeply about their work and its importance to a free and informed electorate. I’m very proud of my journalism past.
Oh, and I drove an ice-cream truck as my high-school job. It was summertime in St. Louis and not only was I hot and sweaty, but so were the kids as I drove through the neighborhoods. It’s possible I may have consumed some of my profits, and that bothered my conscience so much that I gave the ice cream away when kids said they didn’t have enough money. I ended up that summer barely breaking even when I settled up with the distributor. Fun summer though.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
RW: Absolutely! The first thing is to learn what’s been done in the past and what’s being done now, so be a regular reader of high-quality fiction like the stories in Asimov’s and the other major magazines and anthologies. The second thing is to start writing and submitting. My philosophy is aim high, so start by submitting to Asimov’s, though the odds are challenging. The third thing is when you decide you’re dead serious about becoming a science fiction writer, consider applying to one of the great workshops that help early-career writers learn the craft. There are a number of them, including Alpha, Clarion and Clarion West, Taos Toolbox, Odyssey, and others. Ambitious early-career writers should look them up and consider applying to one that’s appropriate for their interests.
And then, if you have your bachelor’s degree and you’re ready for some real immersion, there are a number of excellent genre-fiction MFA programs out there, and several great low-residency programs in genre fiction.
I teach in the genre fiction low-res MFA program at Western State Colorado University, along with Kevin J. Anderson, Michaela Roessner-Herman, Program Director Russell Davis, and Candace Nadon. I think it’s an outstanding program, and I’m in Gunnison, Colorado, teaching a two-week residency as I write this.
Another excellent low-res MFA that caters to science fiction and fantasy writers is the Stonecoast MFA at the University of Southern Maine, where students might get the chance to work with writers like Elizabeth Hand, Theodora Goss, James Patrick Kelly (who’s a regular presence in Asimov’s), and Nancy Holder, among others.
These low-residency programs have you learning the craft with online courses from top instructors who are also well-published professionals, and then meeting those instructors once or twice a year face to face in one-week or two-week residencies.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
RW: I try to have an active presence on a few social media sites, though it’s always hard balancing social media time with real-world writing time. But I’d be delighted to see some readers follow or friend me on Facebook, or Twitter, and I do a decent job of keeping my own website up to date. So here’s that short list:
Rick Wilber has published some fifty short stories, fifteen of them in Asimov’s. “The Secret City” continues his alternate-history exploration of the dangerous lure of American fascism during World War II, seen through the eyes of a fictional version of the famous baseball player turned spy, Moe Berg. An earlier Moe Berg story, “Something Real,” won the Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History – Short Form in 2012, and Locus Magazine reviewer Lois Tilton called Rick “a master of historical fantasy set in this era.” Most recently his co-authored alternate-history novella, “The Wandering Warriors,” was the cover story for Asimov’s May/June 2018 issue, and the novelette, “In Dublin, Fair City,” appeared in the November/December 2017 issue.
Rick is the editor of the anthology, “Making History: Classic Alternate History Stories” (New Word City, 2018), which features reprinted classic stories from Karen Joy Fowler, Kathleen Goonan, Lisa Goldstein, Harry Turtledove, Walter Jon Williams, Gregory Benford, Eileen Gunn, and Michael Swanwick, and many more. A number of the stories first appeared in Asimov’s.
Rick’s most recent novel Alien Morning (Tor, 2016) was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year. The sequel, Alien Day, will be out in 2019. Rick is an assistant visiting professor of creative writing at Western State Colorado University’s low-residency MFA program in genre writing. Rick is the administrator, co-founder, and co-judge with Asimov’s Editor Sheila Williams of the Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing. He lives in St. Petersburg, Florida.