Interview with Sylvia Engdahl - Author of Stewards of the Flame

Sylvia Engdahl is best known as the author of award-winning Young Adult novels, but she is now writing only for adults. Although her fiction is set in the distant future on other worlds, it’s not just for science fiction fans and because it focuses more on the characters than on fast action or strange environments, it is usually enjoyed more by general audiences than by readers with extensive science fiction background. Engdahl is a strong advocate of space colonization and has maintained a widely-read space section of her website for many years. She lives in Eugene, Oregon, and currently works as a freelance editor of nonfiction anthologies.

Q: Welcome to The Writer's Life, Sylvia. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how long you’ve been writing?

A: Back in the 1970s I wrote a number of well-received Young Adult novels, one of which was a Newbery Honor book and a runner-up for 2002 Book Sense Book of the Year in the Rediscovery category. These have all been republished in the 21st century, and they are enjoyed by many adults as well as teens. But I began writing novels specifically for adults only recently, after many years of not writing fiction at all.

Q: Can you please tell us about your book and why you wrote it?

A: Stewards of the Flame began with my strong objection to today’s prevalent attitude toward health care -- the fact that health as defined by medical authorities is given precedence over all other human values, and more and more is viewed as something in which the government should be involved. I don’t mean just in the sense of government paying for care, though that is a timely issue right now.

I mean the constant barrage of propaganda exhorting people to adhere to official views of how they ought to live and what care they ought to receive, as if statistics could tell what’s best for individuals. In my opinion, decisions about health, and about how it relates to other priorities, are personal ones in which freedom of choice is of prime importance.

And so I thought, what if this trend toward government oversight of health were taken to its ultimate logical conclusion? What if a human colony on another world decided that it would be needless duplication to have any government apart from the health authorities? In the world of my novel, all crime is viewed as illness and all illness is considered crime.

There are no police other than the ambulance officers, no government officials other than the Hospital Administration. Medical treatment is compulsory and any activity considered bad for health is illegal. I started work on this story some years ago, and some of the things I thought I was making up have by now become reality -- implanted microchips to keep track of people, for instance.

Although this may sound like the type of novel in which the hero fights to overthrow evil rulers, that’s not what it is. To portray the government in the story as corrupt, as some of my friends thought I should do, would be to miss the point.

The policies of the colony have not been imposed by tyrants; the population voted them in and most citizens support them, which I think is what would happen if current attitudes are any indication. The protagonists aren’t trying to overrule democracy, and they know they have no chance of persuading the majority to reclaim individual liberty.

But they act, at considerable risk, to preserve their own freedom; and they have a vision of what they believe to be a more advanced society -- a further stage of human evolution -- in which bodies aren’t treated like machines and the powers of the mind are developed to a point where individuals can control their own well-being without any interference from self-appointed “authorities.”

Q: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced writing it?

A: The main one was that I knew it would not fit into a mass marketing genre, which is essential now for getting a book accepted by a traditional publisher. Because my Young Adult books had been published and later republished by major publishers, it took me awhile to resign myself to writing a novel that I would probably have to publish myself.

But self-publishing is practical now, and because I have the desktop publishing and editing skills needed to produce my own books, I decided I didn’t want to give up the chance to offer it to the adult fans of my previous novels -- and to new readers -- merely because publishers demand that fiction meet a specific genre’s marketing criteria.

Q: Do you have a press kit and what do you include in it? Does this press kit appear online and, if so, can you provide a link to where we can see it?

A: My website for the book at has many review quotes, a video trailer, a reading group discussion guide, and more, including a lot of background information about the topics dealt with by the story, some of which aren’t science fiction anymore.

Q: Have you either spoken to groups of people about your book or appeared on radio or TV? What are your upcoming plans for doing so?

A: No, because of health problems personal appearances are not possible for me. I’m always happy to communicate with readers by e-mail and on social networking sites.

Q: Do you have an agent and, if so, would you mind sharing who he/is is? If not, have you ever had an agent or do you even feel it’s necessary to have one?

A: I have never had an agent. I didn’t need one when I was writing for young people in the 1970s, and my current adult novels would not interest an agent since they do not fit neatly into any genre.

Q: Did you, your agent or publisher prepare a media blitz before the book came out and would you like to tell us about it?

A: I’m doing a virtual tour, and I try to be as visible on the Web as possible through accounts on many social networking sites. I’m also having a flyer sent to public libraries through the Independent Book Publishers Association.

Q: Do you plan subsequent books?

A: I have just finished the sequel to Stewards of the Flame. It’s now available, but I’m not promoting it to new readers because to read it first -- or even a description of it -- would spoil the suspense of Stewards. It’s an independent story that can be read alone, though, and it doesn’t involve the controversial view of health care issues that Stewards does. Its title is Promise of the Flame.

Q: Thank you for your interview, Sylvia. Would you like to tell my readers where they can find you on the web and how everyone can buy your book?

A: I’ve enjoyed being here. Signed copies of Stewards of the Flame and its sequel can be bought at, and there’s also information about library ordering. is the best place to buy regular copies; be sure you get the 2009 edition, as the 2007 edition is also available there.

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