Sunday, May 31, 2009

Stephen Graham Jones (Interview by Charles Tan)

Stephen Graham Jones - "The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti"

How did you come up with the structure for "The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti?"

It was complete and total luck, all documented here. I was planning on writing something completely different, set in a nursing home, but then the first line of Nolan Dugatti just came at me out of nowhere, and it's the kind of line that has a back-and-forth structure just built right into it. And, if you're going to jam a novel onto paper in seventy-two hours like I did with Nolan Dugatti, you need that back-and-forth kind of thing happening, because you don't really have time to stop and wonder what comes next. That next thing needs to be already happening. So, with the 'investigation' monologue and the suicide letters handing the story off to each other constantly, I never had to stop and get all second-guessy, could just roll. And that's the best kind of writing. Doctorow (E.L., not Cory) compares writing like that to taking dictation, and that's it exactly. Some days your fingers can hardly type fast enough.

What was the most difficult aspect when it came to writing the story?

Not letting the father's voice just dominate. Because I knew early on that it wasn't his ('my,' yes) story, really, but Nolan's. But the father, the dad, always trying to kill himself in stupider and stupider ways, he kind of draws the spotlight. Then too, though, he has no camopede in his parts of the story either, and no ninjas either, an no shrimp floating across the page. So maybe I was nervous for no reason.

Another difficult part -- but it wouldn't be writing if it weren't difficult -- would be the ending, I suppose. Even ninety-percent through the thing, probably even ninety-five, I had zero clue how this was all going to come together. Which is to say I was setting myself up for one of those stupid 'literary' guess-the-ending final paragraphs, where the idea's that the reader's supposed to have read close enough to now be able to project what's going to happen, making it unnecessary for me to actually stoop to write it. Except those kinds of endings are really just the writer not having nerve, not having confidence, so he or she takes the easy way out, foists it all off onto the reader then calls them stupid if they don't get it. But we all know where the stupidity lies there, yeah?

"The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti" combines science fiction, horror, and speculative fiction. In your opinion, how do these elements--when used properly--can strengthen a work of fiction, horror or otherwise?

I think an answer here starts with what I think each of those three does, just in general. So. Horror, what it does is remind us that we're human. It engages that animal part of our brain that still remembers that there's stuff around every corner, just waiting to chomp down on us. Except, in today's world, we've got the place so lit that the dark corners aren't so dark. Horror gives that darkness back, lets us be what we are, instead of some cleaned-up version. And it's good to feel human in that most basic way. As for science fiction, it lets us feel wonder, that pure, unadulterated kind. I mean, sure, you can read it all as cautionary tales, dystopias, critiques of whatever's going on now, but I choose not to. I read science fiction like a kid, just going so slow through those sentences where some character looks out the window, sees galaxies spread out that we can't even see now with telescopes. Fiction's a much better lens, finally, allows us to see so much deeper into reality. The only reality that matters, anyway. And, speculative fiction, which kind of takes from horror and science fiction both -- fantasy as well, I'd say -- it's usually more just our everyday world, but with a little bit of that magic reintroduced, to perturb (fix?) everything. And that's a very, very important thing to do. It makes us look at the world outside the story in a different way, I think. A way in which things are possible, in which small things matter -- or, this gets as what I think art in general does, really: say you've just hit a stageplay, and what you've seen up there for the last couple of hours is this narrative efficiency, this economy of characters and events, where every word said aloud matters, where every pistol on the mantle has big meaning. Now, when you leave that theatre, don't your eyes kind of stick like that for a while, such that the next newspaper to blow up against your leg, you look down at it wonder what column's there unaccidentally, specifically for you? What's the world, efficient itself, trying to tell you here, with this? We're all in stories, after all. What good fiction can do is teach us better how to navigate within them, maybe even rise above every once in a while, see through the page to the bigger page, and on and on.

But that maybe wasn't exactly the question. As for how these -- horror, science fiction, speculative fiction - can strengthen a work: how can they not? Given the choice (and we all are given that choice), I'd much rather read a werewolf novel than a non-werewolf novel. Just because, at the end of the book, even if the werewolf story's failed in some grand, obvious fashion, still, I've maybe seen a werewolf, and am now maybe a little more afraid to step out into the alley with my trashbag. Give me the werewolves any day. Please. I can keep stacking the trash up by the back door for as long as necessary.

And, this is maybe the same answer all over, but finally there's just the boredom factor. I have zero interest in reading kitchen sink drama, just for the obvious reason: I've got plenty of that particular kind of drama in my everyday life. No, if I'm going to stay interested in something, sure, I need real people in that story, just because I need to identify, to engage, to be lured into investing myself, but I also need a cyborg bear standing on the sidewalk every now and again, just reading today's newspaper, waiting for a certain blue Chevrolet to crawl by, its limo-tint windows at half-mast, at which point the game's on, the newspaper's floating behind him, he's down on all fours giving chase, and I'm right there behind him, smiling, thrilled again to be part of a world like that, even if just for a little while.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Melanie and Steve Rasnic Tem (Interview by Charles Tan)

Melanie and Steve Rasnic Tem – The Man on the Ceiling

What were some of the difficulties in combining real life with fiction?


The underlying creative reason for using that combination technique was to say more about the themes and events (factual and imaginary) than either straight-ahead non-fiction or pure fiction could have done. So the ongoing requirement was to find the right balance, the most illuminating angle, so we could tell the most truthful truth. We also had to grapple with the question of when we were being self-indulgent and when we were being creatively honest, and the converse: when were we withholding something out of timidity, and when did the story demand a less direct approach?


I’d say giving up one’s natural urge to self-protect, or at least severely compromising it, was the most difficult part for me. I’m generally willing to do anything a piece demands. In this case the piece demanded that I not worry about how I, personally, was coming across to the reader—that was difficult to swallow sometimes. I had to just grit my teeth and push through.

One of the stranger aspects of this writing experience, and it’s in keeping with the goal of the book itself, was that throughout the writing of THE MAN ON THE CEILING I never felt as if I were writing fiction. The childhood and young adult delusions and fantasies were the very ones I had experienced at the time. They were an important part of my reality. I grew up fairly isolated in a town of 600. I wasn’t allowed to go out much, even within that small community, and because of my father’s alcoholism people rarely visited. So much of my experience was inside my head. To call that experience fiction would have been to call a large segment of my life fiction.

As much as anything else, TMOC is also about spiritual experience and the spiritual aspect to fiction. Is spiritual experience fiction? I would tend to say yes, but with the caveat that it’s fiction of a peculiar sort, in that it’s fiction created because no other narrative tools are adequate to capturing the experience you’re trying to illuminate. I’d say that spiritual fiction is as valid and as important as everyday reality. But that its validity is most sound within a personal context. Once you have a number of people authoring that spiritual fiction as a group collaboration and proselytizing it to others as something that should be their fiction as well, things become a bit dicey. I get antsy inside churches, or around large groups of people who all seem to believe the same things.

There's a lot of things you end up doing with Point of View in the novel. How did you decide who'll write each scene and what does it feel when the other person is writing from "your" POV?


Seeing how far we could go with point of view was one of the most exciting aspects of writing this book for me. Writing from each other's point of view had the interesting effect of showing me aspects of my own experience that I hadn't considered before.


POV changes everything, really. If you change a story’s POV you’re writing a completely different story, assuming that POV is adequately realized. That became so obvious when writing this particular book it was actually a bit intimidating. There could have been potentially a dozen or more very different versions of the book. I think finally aspects of the story were divided up according to who felt the strongest about a particular area of content. Some chapters are practically “life testimonies” for one or the other of us. And some sections were a kind of indirect answer to what the other had written. Some of the more unexpected uses of POV were an attempt to break things open, to help us find out things we had forgotten, or never knew.

How did you decide which elements to fictionalize and which to maintain? How do you think your novel interacts with the reader-writer relationship?

We ask a lot of the reader in this book. We ask a particular kind of suspension of disbelief--really, we ask the reader to set aside the belief/disbelief paradigm, to put on hold the impulse to figure out what "really" happened and look at what's "true" in a different way. It seems to have worked for some readers. No doubt others are still annoyed by it, or just stopped reading when they realized what we wanted from them.

Bottom line, The Man On The Ceiling was an attempt to use the tools of fiction because no other tools seemed adequate to the task of trying to capture the breadth of everyday lives which have both an exterior and an interior, an observable shape and an invisible shape, a forward progress not only in consensus reality, but in the imagination as well.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Nadia Bulkin (Interview by Charles Tan)

Nadia Bulkin – "Intertropical Convergence Zone

Your story references various cultures and myths. Did you have to do a lot
of research for these? What made you decide to mash them up?

I grew up in Indonesia, and in writing my story I used a combination of urban and local legends that I knew from childhood. I like sewing together bits and pieces of magic folklore to make my own "laws of magic," so to speak - in Indonesia, myth and spirituality are usually what you make them, and its sources are almost always diverse. As far as I know, however, I invented the specific rituals used in the story.

What was the most difficult part in writing the story?

I would say getting the right events in place and setting the right tone.

How does your political science background influence your writing?

Political science plays a huge role in my writing, although I don't always write explicitly about politics. Political science is really just the interaction of a whole lot of powerful plots and characters, which is why I love it. "Intertropical Convergence Zone" was a way for me to write about a political period (the Suharto era) that had a lot of impact on me personally with the freedom, texture, and emotional punch of fiction.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Conrad Williams Interview (by Charles Tan)

Conrad Williams--"68° 07’ 15"N, 31° 36’ 44"W"

"68° 07’ 15"N, 31° 36’ 44"W" has a certain tone. Was it easy or difficult for you sustaining that particular tone?

I found it fairly easy, once I'd played around with the voice of the story for a while. But maybe that had something to do with its relatively short length. I was trying for a kind of vile elegance. I felt the story needed some unusual textures, something skewed and knotty. I wanted readers to sense insanity trembling at the edges of the page. I'm not sure how successful I was in capturing that, but I had enormous fun writing it.

What was the inspiration for the story and what made you finally settle on the coordinates as the title?

I've always been in thrall to the kind of character that possesses a supernatural elusiveness. He's always a few steps ahead, flitting out of view at the moment you think you have him. Dracula is the obvious example. I'm also attracted to the idea of the enemy within. I thought about someone driven to the edge of madness by a foe who has killed off his crew and goes in pursuit no matter what it takes. I love maps and I was spending some time looking at Google Earth, trying to find a dramatic location where I could end the story. I found a great ice mass in the Arctic and it was really only as I was shutting down the application that I noticed the coordinates in the bottom corner of the screen. Written down they look evocative, mysterious. You know they refer to a tangible spot on the planet, but without a map, it's all just so much alien code. Although there is a drawback. I was asked at the World Horror Convention what my pirate story was called and I couldn't remember... In future I think I'll refer to it as '68'.

Ending a story can sometimes be tricky but you succeed with this one. Was this originally the ending that you envisioned and for you, how does endings play a role in scaring the reader?

SPOILER ALERT - Don't read this if you intend to check out the story...

You can either go for the big payoff in which you tie off all the strands and leave it neat, or choose something a little more ambiguous. I think ambiguity, especially in horror fiction, is an underrated element. You can draw out enormous power by leaving things a little vague; leaving things to the reader to decide in other words, because what is going on in the little cinema behind their eyes is much more intense and frightening that anything you, as a writer, can confront them with on the page. I liked the idea of Captain Low finally cornering Greenhalgh – who he has suspected is Fetter throughout the story – in the icy wastes. The ship, his crew... they're no longer important to Low. He has found what he was looking for. His quest – he believes – is over. Now he wants to simply walk his quarry into the wilderness. He's forcing the pace, he's waiting for something to happen. What comes next is up to the reader...

Monday, May 4, 2009

Jeff Vandermeer (Charles Tan interview)

Jeff VanderMeer - The Situation

What is it about insects, mollusks, and Cthulhu-esque creatures that fascinate you and make them effective in producing the desired effect on the reader?

Heh. No disrespect to Lovecraft, but these creatures have existed for millions of years. I first encountered them in nature, and in nature books. Looking at them, they seemed like alien life forms on Earth. I'm fascinated by them because I find them beautiful in both their forms and their complexity, but I also know that in fiction they tend to enhance the sense of other or the alien. So they seem like effective delivery systems for making the familiar strange. So, in "The Situation" you have a typical office situation rendered up with bugs and giant fish, among other things, so that the reader will come to see that our modern "typical office" situations aren't, er, actually all that normal. But to get to that point, or the reader to get to that point, you have to add an element of disorientation. Personally, though, having grown up in a family with a father who studied rhinoceros beetles, moths, and fire ants, it's really the odd beauty of these creatures that drives me. Besides, I always seem to need to have a totem animal in my fiction. In "The Situation" that totem is actually fairly conventional: a giant bear-like creature. But, in the context of the other stuff, he seems normal even when he floats.

What made you tackle the corporate workplace in The Situation? Personal experience, catharsis, or simply another creative outlet?

In some ways, it's a fictionalization of certain events that happened to me. To get it out of my system, I wrote out the circumstances of my own "situation" and then one night woke up with the image of a giant fish and a giant bear in my head, sat down and typed the full rough draft of "The Situation." By that point, of course, only the bare bones of reality were left--just the basic situation at the core. Now, of course, it's being turned into a graphic novel for, with the art of Eric Orchard, and thus undergoing a totally new transformation through Eric's imagination.

As one of the editors of The New Weird anthology, do you think your novelette fits that category? (Why or why not?)

That's a good question. Not to dance around an answer, but one reason to edit but not be in a New Weird anthology is to stand a little apart from it, to have some distance from it. I don't consider myself a New Weird writer, but someone who writes some fiction that can be considered New Weird every once in awhile. I don't know if "The Situation" is New Weird or not, and I'm not sure it matters. This is what I mean about editing an anthology. As a reader, as an editor, perhaps as a critic or reviewer, I have interest in the term "New Weird." But as a writer, I'm not that interested in labels. What I'm most interested in is trying new things and pushing myself.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Charles Tan to interview the 2008 Shirley Jackson Award Nominees

As Charles did last year, he is interviewing many of our Shirley Jackson Awards nominees. Keep an eye on this blog in the coming weeks!

Charles A. Tan is the co-editor of the Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler and his fiction has appeared in publications such as The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories and Philippine Speculative Fiction. He has conducted interviews for The Nebula Awards and The Shirley Jackson Awards, as well as for online magazines such as SF Crowsnest and SFScope. He is a regular contributor to sites like SFF Audio and Game Cryer. He used to contribute reviews at Comics Village. You can visit his blog, Bibliophile Stalker, where he posts book reviews, interviews, and essays.