Waterville authors’ marriage has stood the test of time – and deadlines
Ray Routhier Staff Writer, Portland Press Herald
August 20 2023
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller have co-authored science fiction novels and stories for more than 35 years. Their 25th Liaden Universe novel came out in July, and they’ve collaborated on 100 works in all.
WATERVILLE — In the days when they were trying to build their careers as science fiction writers, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller had multiple jobs to pay the bills, and a shared typewriter.
Lee remembers going off to work at the paper mill in Skowhegan during the day and leaving whatever she had written in the typewriter for Miller, so he could pick up where she left off when he came home from his overnight shift at a Cumberland Farms.
“We just left the paper in the typewriter for whoever was home to work on the book,” said Lee, 70. “We had a deadline to meet, it was a necessity.”
Some 35 years later, Lee and Miller still write science fiction novels together, but with the luxury of time and space. Both write full-time and each have their own writing office, at opposite ends of their ranch house in Waterville. Nowadays, they sometimes leave finished pages on the dining room table for the other to read over. They’ve collaborated on some 100 stories and books over the years, including 25 novels in the popular Liaden Universe series.
The most recent book in the series, “Salvage Right,” went on sale in July and debuted at No. 2 on book publishing industry data provider BookScan’s science fiction list. It was published by Baen Books and distributed by Simon & Schuster. Their first book came out in 1988, the year they moved to Maine from Baltimore. The couple has been married since 1980.
“They are two very intelligent, creative people playing off each other, and there’s a huge element of trust in the way they work. You can’t tell which ones Sharon took the lead on or which ones Steve did,” said Toni Weisskopf, the publisher at Baen Books. “There have been some husband-and-wife collaborations in science fiction, but for a couple to work together this long and for their marriage to remain successful is probably unique.”
In 2012, the couple won the Edward E. Smith Memorial Award for Imaginative Fiction – also known as the Skylark – given by the New England Science Fiction Association to writers who have “contributed significantly to science fiction” both through their work and through their personality. Previous winners have included George R.R. Martin and Isaac Asimov.
The Liaden Universe books are sometimes referred to as “space operas,” meaning there’s an emphasis on relationships between characters, human or not. Lee and Miller’s “universe” focuses on a family, the Clan Korval, and its members across thousands of years. There are also various artificial intelligence creations that take many forms. Some of the AI entities are evil, some not. Some are space ships, space stations or don’t have a physical form at all, instead appearing to other characters on video screens.
“People have different chassis, but they’re people, nonetheless,” said Lee. “Big message in the Liaden Universe, we say it over and over again.”
In “Salvage Right,” Clan Korval has come into possession of a space station called Tinsori Light, which had been controlled by an evil form of AI, and is old and in need of repair. While some factions work to restore the station for use and for trade, some would like to control it for evil purposes.
“Yes, it’s space opera, but the stories are really grounded in the relationships between people,” said Joni Dashoff, 66, a Liaden Universe fan from Philadelphia who met Miller and Lee at a sci-fi convention. “I fell in love with the characters, and I just keep reading more and more. ”
Weisskopf, the couple’s publisher, says one of the strengths of the Liaden Universe books is that they don’t “feel like make-believe.”
“It feels like a real world, and you’re watching real people, having adventures, but worrying about their kids and careers, against a huge backdrop of this really cool science fiction universe,” Weisskopf said.
FINDING THE WRITE PLACE
Both Miller and Lee are from the Baltimore area and met through their shared love for science fiction and writing. In the 1970s, they traveled in similar circles, which included science fiction groups and writing contests. They had a course together at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, and at one point, Steve was an organizer of a science fiction writing contest that Sharon entered and won.
They both remember as kids being discouraged from reading science fiction – except for classics by Jules Verne or H.G. Wells – because many educators and librarians considered it low-brow and not suitable for good students. But both pushed on with their passion for reading and writing the genre and so found themselves spending more and more time together until at some point, they were a couple.
“I don’t think you could call it dating. Sharon and I wandered into these situations where we were around each other,” said Miller, 73.
The couple moved in together and then married, in 1980, both intending to write science fiction but needing to pay bills. They worked for a while as resident managers of a storage facility, so they could have a place to live while writing. They had other jobs as well and started to realize that paying the bills in Baltimore wasn’t leaving them enough time to write.
So they put out a question to members of science fiction writing groups: Where should we relocate to where it might be cheaper to live? Somebody suggested Maine, and in 1988, they decided to move there. They first came to Skowhegan, because Miller had lined up a job with a local newspaper there, the Somerset Reporter. But the couple says when they got there, Miller’s job had been given to someone else as part of a staff reorganization and the house they thought they’d rent had been rented to someone else.
They lived in a motor court, then found an apartment and took various jobs while trying to finish “Agent of Change,” their first Liaden Universe book. Besides working at Cumberland Farms, Miller over his years in Maine has worked in various tech jobs but has been a full-time writer for about two decades. Lee has worked as a writer, editor and photographer for area publications and as a secretary at Colby College, but has been writing books full time since 2011.
When they’re not writing – they just finished another Liaden Universe book, due out next year – the couple travels to science fiction conventions around the country.
They lived in a few different places around central Maine, including Skowhegan and Winslow, before settling into their current home in Waterville about five years ago.
They share it with four purebred Maine coon cats: Trooper, Belle, Sprite and Firefly. Towels and blankets cover chairs and line boxes and baskets around the house, providing comfy seating for the cats. Besides writing their books and stories, they have also acted as agents for artists who do artwork for science fiction books. Colorful and atmospheric science fiction art hangs in most rooms of their home.
Because they’re married, Miller and Lee’s writing chores are intertwined with household chores. One writer usually takes the lead on a book, and the other handles more responsibilities like grocery shopping, answering mail and proofreading pages.
They say one of the reasons their writing collaboration has worked so well is that neither is concerned with getting credit for a really well-written chapter or particularly imaginative plot twist.
“I think what helps keep our process, and therefore our marriage, relatively peaceful is that we’re each committed to achieving a correct outcome,” said Lee. “The story has to be right. The story isn’t about me, and it isn’t about Steve. It’s about the characters who live in the book.”