Sunday, June 28, 2009

Doug Dorst (Interview by Charles Tan)

Doug Dorst - Alive in Necropolis

What made you decide to use San Francisco as your setting?

Alive in Necropolis started out as a short story that took place in Iowa City, where I was living at the time. I got nowhere with it, though, so I put it away for a year or so, until I had moved back to San Francisco. The local newspaper ran a feature piece about Colma and its cemeteries, and I realized that that was the setting I should use for this story (which starts out with a chance discovery in a graveyard). I had lived nearly all of my adult life in the Bay Area, and I felt like I could write both passionately and confidently about it.

Since Alive in Necropolis is your first novel, what was the most challenging process? How did you overcome it?

The most challenging part of writing the novel was following the advice that many friends had given me: on the first draft, just keep going -- even if you don't know where you're going, even if you think everything you're writing is terrible, even if you'd rather do anything but sit down and face the screen. Just write and write and get to the end, without agonizing over the little stuff, because you're going to have to go back several times to revise, anyway. I have a perfectionist streak, which is useful when I'm revising but deadly when I'm trying to generate new material. I spent a ridiculous amount of time polishing my first 50 pages, and guess what that got me? Fifty shiny-brite pages, and the vast majority of a book still to write (and many people not-so-subtly clearing their throats and tapping their watches).

Another friend of mine taught me the trick of setting a timer for 20 minutes and challenging myself to write a draft of a full scene in that time. No backspacing, no fixing things, no pausing-- not even to think. I'd end up throwing away 95% of the actual text that came out during that stretch, but I'd nearly always end up with a detailed map for a scene that flowed organically, felt alive, and had something surprising in it. It's a great way to get un-stuck.

Character is important in the book. How did you get a handle on the characters and what made you settle on the Point of View you used?

Some of the characters revealed themselves immediately, and I understood them intuitively. Others took me much longer to understand, and I had to keep writing (and, in most cases, throwing out) sketches of scenes with them in order to figure them out-- not just as individuals, but also in terms of their relationships with other characters in the book.

As for point of view, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to work in limited third person. I was at first inclined to use only one viewpoint character (Mercer, the cop), but the story kept getting bigger and bigger, and I needed to be able to write scenes that he wasn't in. So I ended up using a rotating third person, which allowed the narrative to range farther afield and also get deeper into the inner worlds of more characters.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ann/Jeff Vandermeer (Interview by Charles Tan)

Ann VanderMeer/Jeff VanderMeer - Fast Ships, Black Sails

What spurned both of you to work on a pirate anthology? Did you pitch the concept or was it assigned to you?

A - The good folks at Nightshade asked us to do it. It sounded like a lot of fun, an all-original pirate anthology. We were excited to do it.

J - In addition to the fun aspect, I wanted, following on the New Weird antho, to show that we could also deliver a satisfying traditional good-old-adventure-and-excitement kind of anthology. Thing is, we usually focus on the more surreal stuff because no one's really doing that. But we both love more traditional fiction, too. So in a way we got to satisfy another part of our reading experience with this opportunity. I'd like to do more in this vein, in addition to the more cutting edge stuff.

You mentioned in the introduction that there were some stories that surprised you. Did the fact that you were open to submission for the anthology affect that result or is it more due to the diversity of the subject matter?

A - Having an open reading period is what made all the difference. It allowed us to discover other writers we might not have read before. In addition, I have published some of those writers in Weird Tales, too! So the surprises were delightful ones. I understand the appeal of doing anthologies purely by invitation only, but in doing so you run the risk of all anthologies being exactly the same, with the same writers. Pirates is also a broad theme and we were determined to create a book that showed diversity.

J - We picked about half the stories from the open reading period. Kelly Barnhill's story is amazing, for example. We wouldn't have seen that one otherwise. Even writers we rejected, like Jonathan Wood, wound up getting into Weird Tales because of the open reading period. And Jonathan Wood went on to become a good friend, in part because of that. There's a guy who is going to hit the big time soon. So you also keep your finger on the pulse of what's going on out there by reading slush. Whenever possible, we're committed to that process. We make money on anthologies, but we don't edit anthologies to make money, if that makes sense. I mean, we can do a four-hour workshop and make more than you usually get from anthos, so you have to edit for the love. The Conrad Williams story up for a Jackson Award (which cracks us up, since our cat is named Jackson) was, I believe, by invitation, though. We just thought Conrad would create something mysterious and bloody and weird. He's such a great writer--totally underrated no matter how much praise he gets.

What were your criteria in selecting stories for the antho?

A - Well-written, unusual and unique - first. Then we make sure that the stories work well together. We wanted to make sure that each story was completely different from all the rest. That's why you'll see a traditional adventure story next to a horror story next to a humor story.

J - Yeah, but we also did want to work off of a more traditional model, and some of our favorite writers who are known for being more off-beat delivered in that sense--like Rhys Hughes, whose story is hilarious. We must have done something right, since stories were taken for several year's bests and they continue to be up for various awards. It's very satisfying.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Daryl Gregory (Inteview by Charles Tan)

Daryl Gregory - Pandemonium

You're highly-praised for your short fiction. Was it a difficult transition, progressing from writing short stories to a novel? What was the most challenging aspect?

I don't think I've "progressed" from one form to the next, because I'm still trying to figure out how to write short stories, and I'm certainly still struggling with novels! Also, my messy chronology doesn't follow an ascent-to-novels arc. I first published a few short stories in the early 90's, disappeared for ten years while I worked full time, helped raise babies, and slowly pecked out a sprawling, unsellable SF novel. Then I went back to short stories, and realized that the novel-writing process -- and ten years of life, I suppose -- had helped me figure out some things about how to write short fiction. Only then did I start on Pandemonium.

One of the things I had to learn about novels was that even though they gave me so many more pages to play with, they still had to be focused, and I was going to have to leave out much more than I put in. I know that sounds dead obvious, but I went into my first novel with the naive idea that I'd have room to dump every interesting thought I'd have during the course of the writing. That went about as well as you'd expect it to.

I can be a little looser than I am in a short story -- there's room, for example, to tell several characters' stories and show how they intersect -- but everything has to serve the aims of the book. Still, at the end of a first draft of a book, I'm always disappointed by how many ideas didn't make it from my notebooks to the final page.

What is it about the novel format that you couldn't accomplish with the short story, especially in light of the "dark fantastic"?

Even though I learned that I couldn't put everything into a novel, I did enjoy the broader range of effects that are possible. One of the things I particularly enjoyed was being able to shift tone and voice over the course of the work. In the limited space of a short story, I usually take a very Poe-ish policy about unity of effect. I can shift mood at the end if I bring the readers with me, but that's about it.

In Pandemonium, however, I could skate back and forth across that line between light and dark, especially in regard to the horror elements. My first person narrator helped me out here. His first response to terrible events is irony, banter, emotional distance -- but then the irony becomes untenable, banter fails, and he can't keep his distance. I wanted to have that same effect on the readers. My, isn't this amusing! Then hit them with a blind-side tackle.

In your novel, you draw inspiration from various sources. What is it about mash-ups that appeal to you as a writer and as a reader?

Mash-ups are a form of play. When they're done well, by writers such as Kim Newman and Philip José Farmer, and Alan Moore, they're just fun in a way that's hard to define. Maybe it's because mash-ups are an expression of how our minds work. Each of us has a personal collection of pop-cultural fragments floating loose in the brain, and when they slam together in the right way, old familiar things seem fresh and strange. So, one way to consider this book is as a graph of Daryl's Head. Captain America occupies a point just north of Casey Jones, and Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick are next door neighbors. I gave myself permission to include all these references because the idea of the mash-up is one of the themes of the book -- Pandemonium is about a man literally constructing an identity out of all the stories he's read and heard from his family.

That said, pop cultural references or literary allusions are no substitute for character, or story. My rule was that the book had to pass the Thelma test, named after my mom, who's never read a superhero comic or an SF book (except mine, of course). If the reader catches the allusion, then that's a nice Easter egg, but the story has to make sense, and be engaging, on its own terms.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Ra Page (Inteview with Charles Tan)

Ra Page – The New Uncanny

What made you decide to collaborate on this anthology together and what was it like working with each other?

As an editor, I've always been interested in crossovers been scientific thinking and literature; my own background is in physics, and my father is a psychologist. Sarah, on the other hand is an artist and photographer, whose work has often delved into uncanny subjects and processes: unnatural interventions, dislocated spaces, foreign bodies. When it comes to re-evaluating Freud and the uncanny, the visual arts have been ahead of the curve for a while now: so when Sarah first showed me Freud's original essay, it was like a discovering Constantinople, a meeting point between two different continents of thought, a bridge for science to enter art, and vice versa.

As such, the editorial collaboration was perfect - an artist and a scientifically minded editor working together - it reflected the interchange going on in the essay itself.

My job was to champion the essay and break it down (if necessary) for the less science-friendly writers. Sarah's was to use her instincts in culling, cutting and tweaking those responses that didn't pass muster, as soon as any they came in. She can tell instantly if a story isn't working, while I have to work out why it isn't, before I can even decide that it isn't. So she works a bit quicker than me!

What is it about the short story medium that appeals to you and to Comma Press?

Oh everything. How long have we got?

First and foremost I think the short story is playful as a form. It encourages the writer to experiment and make something new of the story-shape, and it kind of winks and nods at the reader, too, allowing us to enjoy the fact that we're being, or we're about to be, messed with. It's a teasing form, and it's capable of projecting patterns outwards that are revelatory and wondrous, patterns and epiphanies that are almost impossibly clear. With a novel, it's different ball game - novels are all about detail, context and the wider texture of the characters' histories and backstories, interlocking and moving ever-forwards. With short stories, the image you get is only there for a split-second, but like a flash it burns its shape on the retina in the darkness left after the last line.

Nadine Gordimer has this great argument about the short story. She says, in life truth doesn't come with a capital T, and it doesn't accumulate and build up and up towards a singular monumental viewpoint at the end. Instead it's fragmentary, it's discrete, it hits us in flashes and leaves us ignorant as quickly it arrives, ignorant until our next, contradictory moment of insight. The short story, she says, is better equipped for this fragmented reality (unlike the novel which builds and builds over time), the short story's insights are clear and singular, and only last as long as they do because they're incompatible with any other story, or any other wider 'Truth'. It's like the particle theory of truth vs. the wave theory. We, at Comma, think it's a particle; we're all about the particle.

What was your criteria in selecting the contributors and the stories for the anthology?

Firstly, we wanted to get a spread of authors from different backgrounds; there's filmwriters and TV comedy writers in there, as well as masters of dark fiction and 'literary' big hitters. We wanted to show Ramsey Campbell, for instance, can easily hold his own against some of the best literary writers on the block - as there's a lot of snobbery out there towards 'dark fiction'. A S Byatt was the first author to get on board and, to be honest, her support for Comma has kept us going, one way or another, over the last couple of years. She's been like a fairy godmother to us. Once she was on board with this book it was all systems go.

Our main criteria in selecting stories was to only go for those that freshened things up. The task was to update the examples of uncanny archetypes that Freud talks about, to come up with genuinely new manifestations of them, and thus extend the canon. So we were looking for stories that would both slot into place and push the envelop, stories that respected the greats of the horror tradition and, at the same time, cleared the decks for something new. As a result it's quite interesting to see AS Byatt's 'Dolls Eyes' (which is classic Freud sprinkled with Rilke), alongside Adam Marek's 'Tamagotchi' and Frank Cottrell Boyce's 'Continuous Manipulation' (about the computer game, The Sims). They're all about essentially the same thing: life-imitating playthings. It's Michael Redgrave and the ventriloquist's dummy from Dead of Night all over again... but as you'd least expect it.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Julia Leigh (Interview with Charles Tan)

Julia Leigh - "Disquiet"

How did you decide on the length of "Disquiet?" What is it about the novella format that makes it apt for this particular story?

My sense is that the length of a work is more or less determined by an author's stylistic choices. DISQUIET is very controlled - in keeping with the control of the characters, characters who cannot bring themselves to discuss their great losses, who try to hold themselves together as they bear towards breaking. There is more silence than there is consolation.

"Disquiet" explores several uncomfortable subjects. Did you have any difficulty with these scenes, or is that what you particularly enjoy when it comes to writing fiction?

The book comes from a place of intense feeling....I can't say it was particularly easy or enjoyable to write. Maybe there's such a thing as a difficult pleasure.

You're a lauded writer. In what way has your writing improved or altered since The Hunter, and how has your experience helped you in writing this book?

I almost feel as if I had to shuck off the first book in order to write the second. And I expect it will be the same with the next book: 'don't look back'. I have a great admiration for authors who have created a strong body of work, from book to book.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Danel Olson (Interview by Charles Tan)

Danel Olson, editor of Exotic Gothic 2: New Tales of Taboo

In both Exotic Gothic anthologies, there's a focus on stories not just by Western authors but by international authors as well. What made you decide to implement this?

On the one hand, British and Irish DNA must have a strand for writing great Gothic stories. Encouraging this genetic tendency are those countries' histories of royal sexual excess and decapitated queens, disputed estates, curses, revenge cycles, old graveyards, dark streets, thousands of castles, and dependable rain. So, know I love to work with their authors! They certainly do have a home-field advantage, as the Gothic was born there. Don’t you think their peoples' influence on Gothic literature, music, and film is unmatched?

But I'm not from those islands, and my curiosity to hear other voices from the back of beyond is keen. Discussing Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea or teaching Carlos Fuentes's Aura at Lone Star College, I realized how startling a Gothic frame appears outside its traditional home. How alluring but deceptive is the familiar in an exotic place, and how suggestive it is that the observer is wishing alive a reality. Why not then make a collection of out-sourced Gothika? Why not find storytellers from the farthest lands to take us to new castles & new dungeons?

Fortunately there was a publisher given to adventure (Barbara and Christopher Roden's Ash-Tee Press). There were also international artists who loved a challenge, and they smuggled the old Gothic impulse to seven continents. It worked a lot of mayhem, turns out. What Dean Francis Alfar, Edward P. Crandall, Steve Duffy, Milorad Pavić, and John Whitbourn showed happen in Asia shocked and captivated me. Astonishing, too, was a Cambodian retelling of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" by Genni Gunn. What George Makana Clark and Nicholas Royle let loose in Africa moved me. Three astonishing artists of Australia--Stephen Dedman, Terry Dowling, and Robert Hood--unfolded the mystifying in their homeland, and something heart-stopping there. Even stranger discoveries from my home continent awaited when I read of John Bushore's, Elizabeth Massie's, and Tia V. Travis's North American journeys. An uncanny wandering through one of South America's most desolate landscapes in Adam Golaski's tale--the salt flats of Bolivia-- gave new meaning to the idea of a brief encounter. And in Europe, but still outside of the traditional Gothic settings (of Ireland, UK, Germany, France, & Italy), many dark secrets were illuminated from Peter Bell, Nancy A. Collins, Christopher Fowler, Taylor Kincaid, Kenneth McKenney, Reggie Oliver, Steve Rasnic Tem, and David Wellington. Capping it on ice, an elusive Gothic blood tale of Antarctica was dreamt by Canadian Barbara Roden.

I'm proud that the next book in the original story/novel excerpt series, Exotic Gothic 3 (to be released September 2009) will feature writers of The Czech Republic, Serbia, Australia, Fiji, Malaysia, and Russia, and points beyond.

What was your criteria in selecting the stories? What for you makes a "good, Exotic Gothic" story?

Ever read a story that makes your body so cold no fire can ever warm you? Ever felt physically as if the top of your head were taken off? That story's perfect! That's the only way I know an exceptional Gothic tale. Emily Dickinson said the same when she was asked about how she knew what she read was poetry. I would add that a Gothic work stays with us when it shows a heart, mind, and spirit divided till the very end. All along the tale is mired in ambiguity--this could be Heaven or this could be Hell—even to the last sentence, even unto the character’s last breath.

What's the appeal of gothic fiction for you?

Its appeal is to revisit the delicious dread I felt at another time. My soul caught afire on first reading "Adventures of a German Student" by Washington Irving (when I was six years old), hearing "Hotel California" by the Eagles when it first came out in 1976 (when I was eleven), and writing on Wuthering Heights (at nineteen). So much wildness lives in all three of those! So much death-in-life! Doesn't their attention to physical longing and sudden loss, illusion and desire, remind us that we are merely lanterns carried in blood and skin? The intimate discoveries they share even sometimes encroaches on our real lives: that the one we love we might not really know, that she or he wears a masquerade or may damn us, that we are "prisoners of our own device"--victims partaking in her own victimization, that we shall never run fast enough to get out the door, that we can hate and love with a shameless intensity the same person. And that when she is gone, even gone behind the veil, we will go looking for her. Lovely morbidities, no?

Maybe the Gothic love is a strange nostalgia, too, for when I was little. My mother worked in a mental hospital with twenty-one identical red brick buildings, back in the time when you could still commit your relatives without so many irksome restrictions, and when small magic pills seemed the answer to every quirk. Starting when I was four years old, I would be toted along, as there was no one to care for me at home. I suppose it could be viewed as a slightly-off form of Headstart or Daycare. I spent my days playing in the halls and the dining rooms, and the asylum became a kind of kinder-home. It was very clean, and there were books, too, though mostly on mental diseases. But children generally adjust to abnormalities around them. Well, one lemony morning I saw a softly feminine woman staring out the window as we came in to the hospital; she was there staring off again when we left at 3:00. She would be there many mornings and afternoons after that, looking out the western window of Building 20. She had long hair that was dark and shiny, freckled skin, and blue and vacant eyes. I thought her odd, old (she was probably 20), and lovely. Naturally, I fell in love with all my sincere and bursting boy’s heart.

So here we had a mysteriously imprisoned woman, longing to be free (I thought anyway), but controlled, fed medication, and held within by An Authority Who Knows Best. She was not a figure of fiction that I picked up in college by reading Hardy's heart-breaking "Barbara of the House of Grebe" or Ray Russell's cold "Sardonicus", though she would in time remind me of them. No, this trapped woman--the central feature of the Gothic novel--was a breathing one. I never heard her to have visitors. What could she have done to be stashed there and forgotten? I learned her name was Kimberley, but that was all. And I remember to this day, very gothically, a woman who was made a ghost of the State, and who said nothing to me at all.