For Maine writers Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, all it took to launch a brand-new universe was a single sentence.

The opening line for what would become “Agent of Change,” the inaugural volume of their Liaden Universe space opera series, was “The man who was not Terrence O’Grady had come quietly.”

It’s not quite “Call me Ishmael,” but something about typing those 10 words back in 1984 made Lee say to her husband, “I have a novel here.” And there was sufficient inspiration on the page for Miller to say, “I’m sorry, but I think you have a series.”

Both were right. Reached by phone at their Maine coon cat-friendly home in Winslow, surrounded by oil paintings, prints, book cover and other science fiction and fantasy artwork, Miller remembered, “We sat down that night and fleshed out the basic idea for the first seven books.” Four years later, in 1988, their collaborative debut was published in paperback by DelRey.

Since then, Lee, 64, and Miller, 66, have published 20 Liaden Universe novels and nearly five dozen related short stories. Baen Books published their latest hardcover novel, “The Gathering Edge,” in May.

Space opera is Lee and Miller’s specialty, wide-canvas sagas of intergalactic trade and warfare, faster-than-light travel and non-human aliens who look like bipedal turtles.

Tom Easton, book critic and professor emeritus at Thomas College in Waterville, wrote in an e-mail that Lee and Miller’s novels are not merely set in a particular vision of the future, but build “piece by piece a single massive tale marked by complex characters with attitude, powerful romances and politics the Borgias would have found familiar.”

Husband and wife authors Steve Miller and Sharon Lee. Photo courtesy of Baen

Their fictional universe takes its name from the survivors of another universe that collapsed and who now come from the planet Liad. Among the human races – which include Terrans and the super-soldier Yxtrang – Liadens consider themselves the cultural elite.

The sprawl of the Liaden Universe allows stories of all sorts, presented in a non-chronological fashion. “The Gathering Edge,” for example, continues the adventures of Theo Waitley as she, her crew and the self-aware starship Bechimo deal with the arrival of flotsam from that previously mentioned collapsing universe. Everything from tea cups to whole spaceships are leaking through, and Theo must decide whether to help the survivors.

Some narrative arcs in the Liaden Universe are more accessible to new readers than others, but Lee and Miller take care to provide jumping-on points. An electronic edition of the first Theo Waitley novel, “Fledgling,” is available for free from baen.com or from Amazon.

“What we had going for us was that we had read a lot of science fiction,” Miller said. “We had a lot of story concepts to work from.”

In 2012, Lee and Miller received the Edward E. Smith Memorial Award for Imaginative Fiction, presented by the New England Science Fiction Association.

“They may have begun by writing space opera,” Easton said, “but it did not take them long to exceed the rather limited reach of that term.”

Both Miller and Lee grew up in Baltimore and moved to Skowhegan in 1988.

Why move to Maine?

“Because we wanted to be writers,” Lee said. “I’m a secretary by trade. Steve is a retail worker and editor.” To afford Baltimore expenses, she said, “We both would have had to work three jobs, and we wouldn’t have been able to write.”

Both Miller and Lee also have journalism backgrounds. Him: a rock band reviewer and a reporter and editor at a string of community newspapers. Her a copy editor (in Waterville at the Morning Sentinel) and a reporter and photographer. Their collaborative process has been shaped by newspapering, Lee said: “It helps immensely with the voice of the book.”

“The issue at hand is not ‘my words’ or ‘your words.'” Miller agreed. “The issue is the story. Are we covering it properly?’

Even though the Liaden Universe is far away, Lee and Miller are sometimes inspired by Maine locations. They say astute readers will spot Madison, Maine in one book. In another novel, a planet called “Surebleak” endures harsh winters and short summers. Lee said it is a place “where those from off-world (let’s call it ‘away’) are often chilly and bemused by the frontier feel.”

On her own, Lee has published five books set in Maine, two cozy mysteries – “Barnburner” and “Gunshy” – and a fantasy trilogy – “Carousel Tides,” “Carousel Sun” and “Carousel Seas.”

Their Liaden books were anything but an overnight success.

“Emotionally, it was a little bit rough when our editor at DelRey told us we didn’t have a career,” Lee said. For a while – somewhere between seven and 10 years, depending on whether you ask Miller or Lee – it looked as if the editor were right. During those lean times, the couple focused on their freelance day jobs.

Miller said, “We’ve learned to get by on brown rice and how to make three days’ worth of food last five.”

Taking encouragement from colleagues such as Anne (“The Dragonriders of Pern”) McCaffrey, who told them it might take years for a book to catch on, they never gave up writing fiction. They persisted even though, Miller said, “sometimes it was physically dangerous to us because we didn’t have any health insurance.”

Health care is a continuing concern. Recently, they were able to raise money for Miller’s dental expenses through a crowd-funding site and by providing exclusive material for paying subscribers. The contributions testify to the solidity of their fan base.

Indeed, it was online that Lee and Miller found a sense of community. Miller’s early work with computer bulletin boards brought him e-mail from fans who were passing around used copies of the couple’s books and eager for more installments. Booksellers were also hand-selling used copies of their work.

Eventually, between 1999 and 2006, Meisha Merlin Publications published 10 Lee and Miller titles. When the company ceased operations, the rights reverted to the authors, and since then, their books have been published by Baen Books.

Asked about the community of Maine writers, Miller took a moment to find the precise descriptor. He said he finds other Maine writers “very introspective.”

“Other than Stephen King or Tess Gerritsen, generally they don’t have much to do with science fiction or fantasy,” he said.

However, Lee and Miller continue to attend science fiction conventions across the country. In early August, they will be “Guests of Honor” at Confluence in Pittsburgh. Confluence is billed as the city’s longest-running literary conference, with a strong focus on science fiction, fantasy and horror. It gives Lee and Miller a chance to meet fans, discuss the craft of fiction and host a “Teddybear Tea” for attendees and their stuffed animals (not kidding). Confluence programming chair Jeff Mierzejewski said of their work, “Some these days would argue that any adventure story has to be political. The Liaden tales are something better: They’re thoughtful, optimistic, and full of reverence for a life well-lived.”

As rocky as the path to literary success has sometimes been, Lee and Miller are now in the enviable position of being able to secure a contract for a new book with little more than the promise that it will be set in the Liaden Universe. They are under contract to write six more books between now and 2023.

“We’re in an unusual position,” Miller said. “Our two prime publishers have trusted us tremendously.”

And that’s how a universe keeps expanding.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

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