Monday, July 6, 2009

Darrell Schweitzer (Interview by Charles Tan)

Darrell Schweitzer--Living with the Dead

The novella utilizes multiple points of view and has a mosaic-novel feel to it. What made you decide to use such a technique?

The truth of the matter is that it was not planned as a novella. I began with the initial episode, "The Most Beautiful Dead Woman in the World," as a complete story and sold it as such, to INTERZONE. But it demanded a sequel, and then another and ultimately a complete structure emerged. The last episode in particular does not stand alone, and completes the work overall. The technique, I will freely admit, is derived from Zoran Zivkovic's various story-cycles, which he publishes as small books. But it began by simply writing the first couple paragraphs, and following through from there.

What were the challenges in writing Old Corpsenberg? Did you have several cities/towns in mind when you envisioned the location?

I suppose the chief challenge was to maintain the "reality" of the setting without slipping into illogic or absurdity. Outright comedy would have been wrong, but a decidedly ironic edge is required. It would have been a profound misstep to make Corpsenberg some kind of afterlife or purgatory. It can't be that simple. It must remain a mystery. Why does all this happen? Why don't the corpses rot? Where do they came from? The whole point is that even the Observatory Committee, whose job is to understand these things and appreciate how well the place is run, hasn't a clue. People do what they do because they always have, and no one can remember otherwise. You've heard of the "dead hand of the past." This is more like the whole body. The story requires, if you will pardon the expression, a deadpan approach, which one can learn from, among others, Kafka. Once the outrageous central image is taken for granted, all else follows.

What was the inspiration for Living With the Dead?

Hard to say. Besides the influences of Zivkovic and Kafka, I can't deny that of Jason Van Hollander's wonderfully twisted and surreal artwork. I would describe the setting as a Mitteleuropan town out of a Jason Van Hollander illustration.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Tom English (Interview by Charles Tan)

Tom English – Bound for Evil

Bound for Evil is a thick and large tome. What made you decide to go with this particular format, in addition to settling for the "book" theme?

Both the format and theme of the anthology grew out of a consuming passion for books. Although I’d like to believe I’m not a bibliomaniac---that it’s I who am in control, and not the thousands of books smugly regarding me from the overstuffed shelves of my library---Bound for Evil could serve as pretty damning evidence in my insanity case. Originally, the book was to be a thin paperback, perhaps seven supernatural tales exploring the power of books. After producing an 800-page hardcover with 67 stories, one might say I got a little carried away. I wrote a psychological ghost story in 2005, about a tormented bibliomaniac who carries his lifelong obsession to the grave (and perhaps beyond the grave). A few months later Barbara Roden accepted the tale for All Hallows, and that was almost the end of the matter. But while flipping through the notebook in which I jot down ideas for future stories, I realized about half of my ideas involved books and writers. Why was that? Writers tend to write about things they know, things that interest them: among those things are books and the creative process. I also realized I love reading stories about strange and forbidden books, ancient texts and lost knowledge. I thought of Lovecraft’s “Necronomicon” and Chambers’ The King in Yellow and several other classics of weird fiction, and numerous bookish stories by Ramsey Campbell and other contemporary writers. Putting together an anthology consisting entirely of such tales seemed like a fabulous idea and I couldn’t understand why no one had done it before. But I put the whole idea on a back burner until early 2007. During this gestation period, I decided two very important things about the direction the anthology would take. First, all the stories needed to flow naturally from some aspect of books, writing, reading and collecting. The book in each tale had to be integral to the story’s plot, and not simply a prop. And the book featured in each story had to be dangerous or somehow involved in a bit of devilry, because I wanted to lure back people who’ve thrown off books for movies and video games. I’m not sure why, but we’re often drawn to things that are exciting, forbidden, even dangerous. Put a warning label on a pack of cigarettes and you’ve just given it the best advertisement imaginable. Print a blazing skull on the package and change the brand name to “Instant Death” and you won’t be able to stock enough packs. Well, the idea behind Bound for Evil is that books can be hazardous to your health (and your bank account). What, are you reading again? Do you want to lose your mind? Don’t go near that book, you’ll put out your eye! So, in this way, I hoped to remind us all of the glamour and mystique of books. And what’s sobering about my little scheme is that books really do have incredible power, not only to effect good in our society but, as history bears witness, sometimes evil.

What was the research and solicitation process like? What was the most challenging experience?

By the time I started working on Bound for Evil I had researched, edited, and written introductions for close to two dozen chapbooks. At least half of these little books contain 3 to 5 stories united by a common theme. So I felt reasonably comfortable tackling BfE. For the most part, I enjoyed reading the slush pile. The majority of the material I received was well written, much of it by accomplished writers who were excited by the theme of the anthology. I think the most challenging aspect of editing BfE was completing the task while not neglecting a very demanding day job as a chemist. By the time the book was finished I was exhausted both mentally and physically. What got me through the last few weeks of editing was the support and encouragement of my wife, Wilma, whose patience should have been worn quite thin during the whole process but instead proved extremely durable. Thank God she’s a book person!

There's a couple of easter eggs in the anthology. How did you come up with them and what made you decide to include them?

Jeff Ryan submitted a piece of flash fiction that worked splendidly as a … well, that would be telling. I asked him if I could use the piece in an unusual way and without his byline. Being just as mischievous as I am, if not more so, he gleefully assented. Since many of the stories in the anthology deal with ancient books harboring dark and terrible mysteries, it seemed only fitting that, veiled within its pages, Bound for Evil should hold a few secrets of its own.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Laird Barron (Interview by Charles Tan)

Laird Barron – “Lagerstatte”

The title of your story is apt. What made you decide to go with Lagerstatte? When did you first encounter the word?

Lagerst├Ątte is a German word meaning “resting place.” Paleontologists use the term to describe areas that are particularly rich in intact fossil records, such as the Burgess Shale and the Le Brae Tar Pits. Lagerstatte is certainly a reference to dual aspects of the story, literal and metaphorical. And to some extent, it’s a nod to Darren Speegle’s work. European titles are one his trademarks.

What made you decide to go for psychological horror? What makes it effective in contrast to other horror tropes?

I’ve been working on a collection that features psychological horror in a major way. Even when submitting to various themed anthologies, I keep in mind how a piece will fit into a larger whole. The Lagerstatte represents what will be the core of the next book. Psychological horror is attractive to me because among other things, it introduces ambiguity. Where does reality end and the nightmare begin? If I want to unnerve a reader, I leave them to their own devices in a dark room. They’ll take that ambiguity and conjure mental images of terrors far beyond the scope of my ability.

Was the story originally intended to be horrifying or was that an element that evolved as you were writing a story for The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy?

I wrote The Lagerst├Ątte in reaction to tragedies loved ones of mine have endured. Danni’s fugue and her survivor’s guilt are details that revealed themselves once I began researching grief and its manifold incarnations, the damage it inflicts. The horrific aspects seemed integral from the first draft, but I envisioned them to be more remote, more emotionally restrained. In the immortal words of Nathan Ballingrud, “you go where it takes you,” and this one took me to far darker places than I’d bargained for.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

John Kessel (Interview by Charles Tan)

John Kessel – “Pride and Prometheus”

What were some of the challenges in combining Jane Austen with Mary Shelley?

Yes. Though PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and FRANKENSTEIN were published within five years of one another, they are very different types of novels. Austen's book is a novel of manners, a social comedy with serious overtones written from the point of view of a witty omniscient narrator who slyly comments on the action and characters, very unobtrusively. Shelley's is a gothic romance, written by a series of unreliable first-person narrators, indulging all the excesses of emotion and description of romantic literature, but with a critical intelligence and social commentary behind the melodrama.

The two things are hard to fit together. For one thing, no one is wittier than Jane Austen, and though I could attempt her prose style, I am not in her league as a wit. I made some attempts. My story deliberately starts as close to Jane Austen as I could manage, and gradually slips into Mary Shelley style as it goes along and the sf/gothic element comes to center stage. I thought of it as FRANKENSTEIN over PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. But in the end I wanted to pull back from the gothic, too. The climax of the story comes, not with a mortal struggle on an ice floe at the north pole, but with Mary Bennet and the monster sitting at a table talking about marriage. I think of Austen and Shelley as the mothers of the modern novel of manners and of science fiction. As such, it was appropriate for a writer like me, who has been influenced by both, to try to merge them.

In your opinion, what are the strengths of the short story--or in this case, the novelette--especially in light of your writing goals for "Pride and Prometheus"?

I think this kind of pastiche can get out of hand at novel length. The game playing is not enough to sustain a novel. I wanted the story to be more than a joke, more than just a high concept; it had to be a story about real people with serious issues, as much as I could make it. The novelette form works well for me with these situations. I saw the opportunity to insert my story into the narrative of FRANKENSTEIN in the middle of chapter nineteen of that novel. By keeping it to story length, you could imagine all the events of "Pride and Prometheus" occurring between paragraphs of that chapter, after which FRANKENSTEIN moves on to the rest of its plot unaltered. That was one of my goals in writing it. To do as little violence as possible to either PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (my story takes place ten years after it ends, though I tried to make my characters recognizably the same people they were in that book) or to FRANKENSTEIN. This wasn't meant to be PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES.

As an author who's written a lot of material over the decades, does the writing experience become easier or is it more difficult as you become conscious of your own style or attempt something new?

Having written many stories, I guess I have learned a lot of craft that theoretically can help me in writing new ones. But every time I start something new I feel like I am reinventing the wheel. Often with a sense of panic. The one thing I can tell myself is, "you did this before, so the feelings of not knowing how this is going to come out ought to be familiar to you. Stop fretting."

I do try to do new things, so that helps keep me fresh. I don't want to write the same story over and over, though I think it is inevitable that a writer has certain obsessions that come out regardless of his intention. In putting together my recent collection THE BAUM PLAN FOR FINANCIAL INDEPENDENCE, I did notice certain repetitions, and I'm wary now of doing the same things again--time to strike out in a new direction.

But I don't think the writing, for me, has become easier. Or rather, some things have become easier, but different things are still hard.