Interview With Libertarian Author J. Neil Schulman
J. Neil Schulman is one of the giants of the libertarian novelists active today. His 1979 novel, Alongside Night, is a libertarian classic, with endorsements from Milton Friedman, Ron Paul and others. It has helped to almost single-handedly jump-start the Agorist movement, and is currently being turned into a movie starring Kevin Sorbo (Hercules, Andromeda).
Schulman agreed to sit down with AFL and answer some of our questions.
1. Why did you start your film company, Jesulu Productions, and how did you realize there was a market need?
Jesulu Productions is my one-man personal production company. I initially started Jesulu Productions to produce a film adaptation of my 2002 novel, Escape From Heaven, and that production is still in the pipeline for a tentative release toward the end of 2014. But since it was slow getting that production going I first produced Lady Magdalene’s and am now in pre-production on Alongside Night. Additional productions in the pipeline are listed on the website.
2. Describe the company and what you do a little. How do you get the word out? Is it your primary job or do you do other work?
As author of a dozen books, and a columnist at Rational Review, I still have interest in both fiction and non-fiction writing intended to be read; but the bulk of my time these days is focused on writing, producing, and directing movies, again, with Alongside Night as my current film project.
3. I assume you consider yourself a libertarian politically, what inspired you to become one?
I’d say my first major libertarian influence were the books and stories of Robert A. Heinlein, but I was also influenced in that direction by books like 1984 and Brave New World. Later on, by Ayn Rand. By the time I got to college in fall 1971 I was calling myself a libertarian and started a campus libertarian group; soon after that I met up with other libertarians in New York City, primary among them Samuel Edward Konkin III (who took me to meet Murray Rothbard), David Friedman, and in 1972 I met Robert LeFevre at a libertarian conference. Reading Ayn Rand (and a long phone conversation with her in August 1973) during these early years was also important to the development of my thinking. These were my early inspirations and influences.
4. As a writer, how do you get your ideas? Are there any other artists or authors who have influenced/inspired you?
Often enough I get my ideas in the middle of an argument, when I present a thought experiment or counterfactual and realize it would make a good story. Sometimes story ideas come to me, almost fully written, from dreams I’ve had. As Robert Heinlein pointed out to me, a writer’s influences are every single word he’s ever read or seen on stage or on a screen. But I’m happy to acknowledge Robert Heinlein, Ayn Rand, C.S. Lewis, J.D. Salinger, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Anthony Burgess, and Charles Dickens as particularly influential, closely followed by several hundred other writers. Then there are those writers who are roughly my contemporaries and friends, including Brad Linaweaver, L. Neil Smith, Victor Koman, and a narrow generation older than me, Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, Ray Bradbury, Colin Wilson, Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven, Philip K. Dick, Rod Serling, Arthur Hailey, W.P. Kinsella, Ken Grimwood, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, to name a few.
I believe in the dialectic of creating tension then releasing it, whether it’s suspense leading to a gasp, or a set up leading to a laugh. I think the art of storytelling — which is what I do in different media — works best when we enthrall and entertain, first, then inspire and uplift the human spirit, helping those who partake of our stories to become the best version of themselves.
6. Many in the liberty movement seek to promote their philosophy through activism and academia, why do you think art and literature should be included in that mix?
Literature and drama is how abstract ideas are made real in people’s minds and attach themselves to the soul and heart. Because a storyteller needs to make the storytelling convincing storytelling works best when it finds realities people can relate to, and that puts a discipline on the storyteller to ground abstract ideas in human experience. Ideology that can’t find its common humanity makes for dull stories and unconvincing plots, and this acts both as a filter to keep out dogmas that don’t work well in the real world and makes popular ideas that strike universal chords.
7. Do you have any favorite piece of art, literature, film etc. that promotes libertarian ideals?
In classic novels, Atlas Shrugged, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Brave New World, 1984; more contemporary, The Probability Broach by L. Neil Smith, Moon of Ice by Brad Linaweaver, Wilson and Shea’s Illuminatus! trilogy, Linaweaver and Hastings’ Anarquia. TV: The classic 60’s British TV series, The Prisoner, Firefly, Jericho, often episodes of the original Star Trek; in movies: Star Wars, A Clockwork Orange, The Matrix, Roman Holiday, The Patriot, Death Wish, Thank You for Smoking, Joe Somebody, The Manchurian Candidate, Topaz, The Adjustment Bureau, Alien Nation, Protocol, Wag the Dog, Brazil, Duck Soup, Shadow on the Land, Deacons for Defense, The Terminal, Minority Report, Rollerball, National Treasure, Pleasantville, The Truman Show, Demolition Man, The Net, Conspiracy Theory, The Parallax View — to name a few!
8. What would be your advice for aspiring artists who share your love of liberty?
You must be a visionary who can entertain.
9. Could you describe your creative process? How do you go from nothing to one of your excellent stories, for instance?
You work backwards, starting with what point you want to make, where it is you want to end up, then drawing out, logically, what needs to happen to get there and who must do it.
10. Did you have any formal training as a writer?
I learned to read before I have memory of it, because my mother read to me, then there were comic books. Then I learned to write by reading what I loved over and over, then doing my own writing, over and over, until I learned my craft.
Writing requires, diligence, patience, perseverance, meticulous attention to detail, always remembering that you’re trying to communicate so make it as easy as humanly possible on the person you’re trying to communicate with, and one more thing: never take seriously technical suggestions from amateurs, nor advice from professional competitors. But also understand that while you’re still an amateur you do need the advice and judgment of professionals, so finding ones you can trust not to diminish you out of jealousy is a hard job.
11. How can those interested in promoting liberty cultivate and inspire artists and other creatives within the movement?
If you are a person of means and can invest in distributing, producing, and promoting those libertarians who produce the works of art you value, then do so. It will be the best investment you can make.
Check out Schulman’s website, and enjoy some video of Nick Gillespie, from Reason.TV, talking with Neil at Freedom Fest, below: